The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Holy Shit! Humanure and Liquid Gold as Ecological Resources May 7, 2016

An outdoor compost toilet

An outdoor compost toilet

When I spent two weeks living in an ecovillage last summer, I proudly talked to friends and family about the fact that I hadn’t flushed a toilet in two weeks. This led to a wide assortment of responses, including “gross, ew” and others who were intrigued. My experience in living at the ecovillage helped better align me with my own waste streams. Each time I made any kind of deposit in the composting system at the ecovillage, I knew the waste my body no longer needed wasn’t going into some toxic sewage plant, but rather, back into the living landscape. And for that, I was grateful—I felt realigned with the land in a new and exciting way. And so, I worked to take that lesson back home with me in a few different ways since that time.  For one, I’ve been doing experiments with small applications of urine as a fertilizer for my seedlings that I’m growing for my Refugia garden this year.  After the application of “Liquid Gold” my seedlings are twice as big as they would otherwise typically be!  So today, in the spirit of “spring cleaning” and for those looking to start new projects with spring energy swirling around us, I wanted to tackle this crappy topic!  That topic is our own waste–and what to do with it. So today, we’ll explore humanure and liquid gold as useful resources for growing things.

 

Waste Not!

Humanity is literally drowning in its own waste, a topic not new to anyone who is paying attention. Even if we work to eliminate waste in other ways of our lives (as some of my earlier posts on disposing of the disposable mindset and dealing with materialism suggest), any “resources” our bodies produce is rarely discussed.  The underlying problem is, modern industrialized society treats human waste like a toxic substance–but they are not.  They are resources. I use the word bodily resources, rather than bodily waste, because even thew way that we frame these things in our speech matters.  Our bodily resources are flushed into septic systems that are full of poison and require heavy amounts of fossil fuels and chemicals to process and address.   But with a little rethinking and openness, we can get past the “gross” factor and start to see our own waste as a resource.  And to help in that rethinking, I’ll point to two key permaculture principles: the problem is the solution and produce no waste.

 

So let’s follow the path that one flush takes to see the problem with human bodily resources–and where we might intervene and divert those waste streams to more productive uses. First, obviously, you begin by doing your business.  If you are in the Western world or other industrialized places, you are doing your business often into gallons of perfectly acceptable drinking water (which is obviously also wasted).

 

After flushing, your waste can take two routes: a typical city or town dweller sends their flush directly into a municipal sewer system. If you live in a more rural area, it likely enters your private septic system, a type of holding tank, where it can partially break down, but eventually, the tank fills us.  Then you call someone with a big truck that pumps it, and it ends up in the municipal septic system.  So in both cases, let’s take a look at that municipal septic system.

 

Municipal septic systems are not just carrying human bodily resources.  They take human” waste” and combine it with many other kinds of liquid (and sometimes solid) material “wastes” including: stormwater runoff (more of that perfectly good and clean water running into the septic system, often mixed with oil from roadways, etc); industrial waste from various factories and processing plants (much of which can contain poisons, heavy metals, chemicals, etc), hospital waste (which can contain disease, toxins, caustic cleaning agents, etc).  Often present in this combined waste, from the many non-human waste streams, is something called “dioxins”, which are one of the most toxic chemicals on the earth.  Dioxins are currently not regulated or tested by the EPA for sewage sludge that is applied to farmlands–and that’s a typical end result of these combined wastes after heavy processing.  In fact, the information I linked above is the EPA’s argument for non-regulation of dioxins.  And radiation somehow ends up in there as well. Regulatory issues with dioxin and radiation aside, on the basic level, we take perfectly good material (human, stormwater, water from flushing) and mix it with really toxic waste, and then process the heck out of it (with more waste, chemicals, etc) to try to salvage something that is really not good at all that we spread on the fields that grow our food.  Ew, ick.  And you thought human poo was bad?

 

Urinal at Sirius Ecovillage

Urinal at Sirius Ecovillage, where I lived for two weeks

A Closed Loop System Humanure and Liquid Gold

We can work to keep our human bodily resources out of the municipal septic system, and cycle it back into the ecosystem in careful and mindful ways–and now we’ll explore ways of doing so. In fact, the idea that human waste is a resource is not a new concept.  For millennia, humans collected and used their own feces and urine effectively.

 

The underlying principle here is simple: if at all possible, we want to create a closed loop system in our living. This means that rather than nutrients and resources being in a line, like this: natural resource–> factory/farm–>store–>consumer–>garbage; we want to have  system that instead functions like a circle, cycling nutrients, like this:  garden plot –> you–> feces/urine –> compost –> garden plot.  This closed loop system is infinitely recycling and sustaining if all resources are harnessed. The truth is that human bodily resources are actually quite good for fertilizer, when treated properly.  The nutrients that your body doesn’t need, and the waste your body produces, can be cycled back into the nutrient cycle of life–meaning, its not waste at all, but a resource!  Human pee is the same–it is liquid gold for good reason!  So let’s explore these resources and how they can be harnessed and used.

 

Liquid Gold

Happy seedlings get fertilized often!

Happy seedlings get fertilized once every week to two weeks with human urine – look at them growing!

Liquid gold is the much easier of the two to collect and use for the direct benefit of green, growing things, and so we’ll start with that process (and this is the one I have the most experience with).  Urine had (and in some places, has) a whole industry built up around it in many parts of the world: from being used as a fertilizer, to a medicine, to a teeth whitener, to an ingredient in gunpowder! I’m not going to go into such detail here with the many uses of urine, but I do think it is worth exploring some options for recycling our nutrients.

 

Human urine has incredible amounts of nitrogen–so much that if you pee directly on plants (or pour urine on them) it will burn them due to the high nitrogen content. It also has potassium, phosphorous, sulfur, magnesium, and calcium (see the Permaculture News article here for more info). Nitrogen is one of the key elements of plant growth; and I’ll take a moment here to again point out how humans and plants co-exist in such a complex web of interactions. We pee the plants’ most important nutrient–nitrogen; and we exhale carbon dioxide–both of these they take in and transform back for us.  This incredible cycle only works when we let it.

 

Our urine is sterile, and it is therefore safe to use as a direct foliar spray on plants and trees with a 10% dilution (10% urine, 90% water). If you have a vegetable garden, you can add liquid gold, at the 10%/90% water ratio, in a backpack sprayer and simply spray your plants every few weeks. The alternative, that seems to work just as well for seedlings, is to use it just like any fertilizer you add to the water for watering the plants (again, 10% dilution, and I kind of eyeball this and don’t measure it exactly.)  Add this in your garden how  you would other compost teas–usually as a side dressing.

 

You can collect urine in any way you like–in an elaborate system, like at the ecovillage, every guest’s urine is diverted and used on extensive gardening systems each time they visit the urinal. But you can also collect urine in the most simple system, like a wide-mouth canning jar.  It doesn’t necessarily take a long time to collect enough to be used for plants (indoor, outdoor, or seedlings)–think a few hours of collection for weekly watering of indoor plants.  And you don’t need to use the liquid gold every week–I usually use it every 2 weeks and my plants are very happy.  You do want to use the liquid gold fairly quickly, as it starts to turn to ammonia and develops a stronger smell.

 

After returning home from the Ecovillage, and especially with my seed starting this year, I started using liquid gold even with my small potted plants and house plants. It was incredible to see the difference—urine is almost pure nitrogen, and that is a resource indeed!  My bay plant, which was suffering some aphid damage, quickly sprouted a ton of new growth.  My baby tomato and pepper plants for my garden plot and assortment of herbs are twice as big as they should be at this point in their growth!  Its really amazing stuff (and I am going to do some scientific experimentation on it in my community garden plot this summer and report back).  You can read more about urine and how to use it as fertilizer in a book called Liquid Gold.

 

Humanure and Composting Toilets

Composting Toilet System

Composting Toilet System that Produces Humanure – just do your business and turn the system every week or so!

The modern term for human feces that is properly composted is called “humanure” (coined by Jenkins in the Humanure Hanbook).  Humanure, once finished, is a lot like other kinds of organic compost–it contains microorganisms, a lot of dark, rich, organic matter, and a lot of carbon for the use of plants.  It can be created and used no differently than other fertilizers if composted properly (two years, minimum).  Most people who make humaure that I know only use it on perennial trees and/or simply return it to the forest since people would get weird about eating veggies grown in humanure.  I think as long as you are taking it back into the ecosystem, sharing it with any plants is a good idea, and your comfort level determines the rest.  The process of composting is really simple, and not much different than other forms of composting.  Compost piles really stink when human pee and poop are added together, so most of the advanced systems separate the two (such as the photo of the urinal above).

 

Most systems begin with a composting toilet. There are many models of composting toilet—and seeing which kind you can use depends a great deal on the codes and regulations where you live. Sometimes, the easiest way to do this is to keep the regular toilet and septic tank there in your house (legally required), but to have a simple alternative system. Most alternative systems are not complicated or expensive – a 5 gallon bucket with a lid (you can get both for about $25) and a second bucket full of wood chips or other absorbent woody/carbon rich material (some people use peat moss, but I don’t recommend it due to its unsustainable harvest; find a local resource instead if possible).  And then, the management is simple enough. You use the bucket, and each time you do, you add 1 scoop for yellow and two scoops for brown. This is composted outside or in an enclosed place that is turned occasionally.  It is generally composted for a minimum of two years before being added to fruit trees or other woody perennials.

 

Composting Toilet System

Composting Toilet System

Much more elaborate, permanent systems can be built or purchased—the most expensive I saw during my PDC was a self-contained unit that was put in a basement right above the toilet (photos in this section)—this system was about $8000; it was self contained, odor free, and literally had a spot where you came in and shoveled out rich compost (see the photos). It was that simple!

 

A more elaborate self-built system, like what was at Sirius Ecovillage, diverts urine and feces into separate places. Feces is composted as usual, often in large pits beneath the bathrooms that are dug out very occasionally; a solar powered fan moves any odor out and away.  Their system was great because it used mostly time to do the work.  They had double toilets in each stall, and one would be “composting” and be closed to new deposits, and one would be active.  The active one would eventually fill up, and then they would switch to the other side.  The one that is full was given a year or so to break down, and then it was scooped out and the process began again.  It was very elegant, not at all smelly, and really effective.

 

The Humanure Handbook, in its full form, can be downloaded in PDF format. It gives many more options for you if you are interested in pursuing this path!

 

Humanure and Liquid Gold as Offerings

I’m going to propose an even more radical idea here—our human bodily resources can be seen as an offering and resource to the land. Humans in ages past knew our waste wasn’t waste at all, but was a valuable resource. Think about it—when we make an offering as part of ritual, say, a shiny penny as some traditions may use, what good does that offering do? It’s symbolic, yes, but our lands are in such duress.  Around here, logging abounds, and resources are always being taken away, never added to our forests and wild areas.  So, wouldn’t a direct offering of nitrogen be a better choice? Given this, I have begun making offerings when I go into the forest. For solid offerings, I bring a small trowel and make a hole six inches down, working hard not to disrupt the soil web more than necessary (See the book How to Take a Shit in the Woods for detailed instructions). For liquid offerings, I make sure not to pee directly on any plants, but I do pee near the base of trees or directly on the ground, as they can take a direct application of rich nitrogen. I know this seems radical, but from a plant’s perspective, its just more nutrients to be gained!  And since I do wild food foraging, I do think that “giving back” a little is an important part of this.  I want to give back more than I take, in all things.  And this approach allows me to continue to cultivate that balance.

 

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this week’s post–its certainly something to consider, moving forward, into paths of deeper sustainability and awareness. Using “liquid gold” instead of regular plant fertilizer can, certainly, reduce your dependence on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizer, and bring you in closer connection with your own plants.  I would encourage you, if nothing else, to try using liquid gold for a month or two on plants and see how it goes! (As a fun note, I’ll link here to my very first blog post ever, which had a similar title, and talked about how I was using local horse manure for my garden and how sacred that substance was!)

 

Disposing of the Disposable Mindset, or Dealing with “Waste” November 6, 2015

In my hometown of Johnstown, PA, a famous spring ritual takes place. Its known as “spring cleanup” week. This is one week a year where the garbage company allows you to put out anything and everything on the curb to get rid of it. People end up with mounds and heaps of crap on the side of the road: TVs, appliances, furniture, boxes of junk, more and more boxes and bags, piles and piles of stuff. Part of the problem with this practice surrounds the consumption of stuff (a topic I addressed last year in this blog here) but another problem is the waste mindset.

 

Forest near my home in the process of composting. No waste!

Forest near my home in the process of recycling nutrients at Samhain. No waste!

In permaculture design, a number of design principles help us design and enact better living spaces of all kinds. Many who practice permaculture also see these as mantras for living. From Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability the mantra about waste is simple: “produce no waste.” As with the other permaculture principles, I’ve used this as a theme for my AODA discursive meditations, and I have worked at various points to bring this to the center of mindful and conscious living and enact permanent change within my own life.  So today we are going to talk through the issue of “waste” and the work towards disposing of the disposable mindset!  This blog will examine the waste mindset both from the outer and inner perspectives and conclude with some suggestions for reducing or entirely eliminating waste.

 

I’d like to talk about waste using the framing of the hermetic magical adage as above, so below, as within, so without (or, more directly, “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing”).  It is through this principle that we can not only deeply understand the effects of waste in our lives and also recognize some solutions for eliminating waste with the goal of living more earth-based, regenerative lives.

 

The Outer Problem of “Waste”

We’ll start exploring the “outer” problem of waste, that is, waste in our landscapes and lives. Waste streams, completely non-existent in nature, are ever-present in modern America (and truthfully, the consumerist model depends on waste streams to encourage everlasting consumption of new products and goods and a “waste industry” based on these systems).  Yes, waste today is intentional; it is a matter of design. We think of it as a bi-product of living, but that’s not really the case. Consumerism was designed so that everything is disposable and designed with “planned obsolescence” or the idea that a produce is planned to automatically fail after a certain period of time. Other kinds of waste are simply “generated” as part of doing business or living, and there is no impetus to change this at present. The billions of plastic cups that are waste generated by the airline industry daily, for example, or businesses that serve food in disposable containers. And since waste collection and processing itself is an industry, there is little impetus to change it from a larger collective standpoint.

 

The world is currently drowning in waste. From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to Kerug K-Kup that is non-recyclable and consumed in almost every office and one in three homes in the USA, to food waste (on the order of millions per year –up to 40% of the total food produced here in the USA), to waste water from fracking, who farmers now are putting on their crops (the problem is such that California is considering labeling crops grown with fracking wastewater). The list goes on and on. And its not just America–we have a waste problem most industrialized societies globally. Waste accumulates in the ocean, micro-beads from face scrubbers end up inside fish and then back on your plate, the waterways are full of toxins and pesticides.  Waste in the form of agricultural runoff ends up creating algae blooms and dead zones thousands of miles across.  Waste and debris is even up in orbit surrounding our planet–this is how bad our waste problem has become.  We have waste streams that are invisible to us–the waste in manufacturing processes are unknown because they are proprietary–but when you buy that product, you buy the waste stream of that product. I’m a fan of science fiction, and when you really think about it, this paragraph reads like the start to some dystopian novel.  But its not, its here, right now, and present.

 

Outer waste goes well beyond just stuff.  We have wasted energy–everything from heat leaking from our houses in winter to wasted clean water running down our drains and into our municipal sewage systems.  We have wasted time in front of the various screens of our lives and wasted potential while housed within the boxes that we inhabit.  We have so much waste in our lives that its difficult to wrap one’s head around it.

 

You might say, more than anything else, this culture produces waste.

 

If we return to the hermetical principle that is helping frame this blog post–we can see a very serious problem here. Not only are we destroying our planet with pollution and waste, but we are in essence destroying our inner worlds as well. Since what is reflected on one level of reality (the physical) happens on other levels (the mental, the emotional), the garbage we have in our lives is not just staying there–its working on us both within and without.

 

For a simple example of this many of us have probably experienced, let’s take a look at cooking. Consider the difference in trying to cook dinner in a messy kitchen with excess garbage, grime, and stinky dishes piled up in the sink vs. a clean kitchen where everything is in order.  Which leads to a healthy state of mind? Which leads to the better meal?  The same example works when thinking about relaxing for a nice cup of tea and a good book at the end of a long day–can you fully relax when your house is trashed with garbage piled up around you, or do you feel better when its clean?  Could you take a vacation and stay next to a factory polluting a river or would you prefer to be in a cabin somewhere in the woods?

 

These simple examples illustrate this point nicely–what is in our environments becomes part of what is reflected within. What is reflected in our inner realities when we living in a world piling up with garbage, pollution and waste?  These certainly aren’t the questions you’ll see on mainstream discussions of waste, but this magical perspective is, I think, important to consider.

 

The Inner Problem of Waste

There is no such thing as away!

Just as our outer world impacts our inner world, what is within us also reflects outward. It is in our inner world where the unconscious behaviors of waste generation lie and are generated. And it is within that we can raise our awareness, be mindful of our actions, and begin to shift towards producing less or no waste.

 

Throwing “away” is a mindset and a set of parallel behaviors so ingrained, at least in the US, that they are at first quite difficult to even recognize, much less overcome.  I recently had to travel by plane for my work (a wasteful activity), and, since I am ever mindful of waste streams,  I carefully observed the endless waste streams on the airplane and airport–plastic cups come out, drinks are consumed, plastic cups and paper and various other “waste” is collected and whisked off so quickly. These actions of disposal are so embedded, so thoughtless, that they happen automatically. Most people hardly realized they were throwing things away.

 

As a learning researcher, I understand social conditioning quite well–and automatic behaviors are the strongest kind, they are the kind that you repeat in over and over again and are extremely difficult to recondition. You devote very little to no mental resources to engage in these behaviors. Social conditioning for waste in a throw-away society is so pervasive that a few things happen.  On the extreme end, we simply buy and throw things away without thinking about it (in the same way people mow their lawns without thinking about it, or turn on the TV without thinking about it, etc.) Even if someone has conscious awareness, however, social conditioning still functions via Freud’s “herd instinct.” People will often “follow the herd” rather than be ostracized from it by deviating in their behavior. Its not just simple peer pressure, but the idea that deviance in behavior leads to isolation. And since we are social creatures, this can be a real issue for making change (I’ll also mention there is great value in deviance, but that’s a subject for another post).

 

How is this automatic behavior triggered with regards to waste? Let’s take a few quick examples. If you have a problem, what is typically the first thing you do? Buy something to fix that problem. The nature of the problem is hardly important: too much stuff = purchasing home organizers rather than avoid the clutter to begin with; something breaks = purchase something new and throw away the old; mental problem = buy some drugs or therapy; the list goes on and on. Its automatically ingrained within each of us to do these things, because, well, that’s just how things are done here.  If you want a drink, you don’t even think about the waste generated with that drink.  You just drink it, throw away the cup, and go along your way–no big deal.  And because there is so much waste being generated all around us at every given moment with these consumptive behaviors, to think about it requires a great deal of mental energy that most people simply don’t have.

 

Again returning to our hermetic magical adage, we might think about the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.”  Many minds are drowning in detritus at the moment (from television, advertising, politics, smartphones, etc.).  If this is the state of our minds, why wouldn’t we be filling the world with the same detritus? If our inner world is trashed, it becomes so much easier, I believe, to accept waste and trash in our outer world.

 

(I do realize that some readers may point out the “chicken and egg” issue happening here with regrades to my discussion of magic–but I think wanting to assign causality in either direction is a mistake–and the causality assumption is not present in the adage.  Our inner and outer worlds are always informing and influencing each other; the relationship goes both ways).

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

A final inner issue with waste within is the terminology we hold in our minds. My town tells me its picking up my yard waste and I should leave it on the corner like any other trash.  Even the bags you can get to put your leaves in are labeled yard waste or leaf litter. But what they are actually referring to are the nutrients and carbon the trees are dropping to create a rich layer of hummus for more life to grow. That stuff isn’t waste, its part of nature’s perfect system–I call it a resource, and eagerly seek it out each fall for my garden. But when it is framed as waste, we see it only as thus. What about our own urine and feces, which is considered human waste and treated as such (we flush it away).  For thousands of years, urine and feces were considered resources–if treated properly feces becomes rich soil and urine can be used to provide nitrogen for our plants to grow (see the Humanure Handbook and Liquid Gold books). The term disposable implies that we can get rid of it, to send it away–but as my experiences worm composting several years ago illustrates, this is simply not true. The problem with language like garbage, waste, dispose, and throw away is that in our minds we hold these words to be true–we believe the meanings that have been constructed around them. When something is labeled with these words, its easy to engage in the associated behavior. These concepts are given to us by consumerist society–and its in all of our best interest, and in the best interest of all life, to question them and to come up with new terms.

 

Shifting away from the “waste” mindset.

The problem of waste is a problem both within and without–in our minds, in our language, and in our the design of the systems in which we live. Because everything is designed as disposable, it takes considerable effort to dispose of what really needs thrown out, that is, the disposable mindset. So a great part of this shift must take place in the mind: how can I reuse this? How can I not participate in this waste stream system?  How can I, at minimum, recycle this? Now I’m going to talk about some ways of breaking these patterns and helping us shift out of the disposable mindset.

 

Mental Decluttering. As waste is a product of both inner and outer worlds, I want to start by suggesting that decluttering and sharpening the mind is a great way of manifesting less waste in your life externally. Meditation is the best kind of decluttering practice I know, although regular daily magical practices (like the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual or OBOD’s Light Body exercise) also pack a nice punch. The idea here is that if your life is full of wasteful patterns, eliminating some of those wasteful patterns internally will help you get the rest of the waste in order.

 

The other piece to mental decluttering is also monitoring what comes in–eliminating the wasteful chatter of various screens, in particular, is an exceedingly useful practice.  This has the added benefit of reducing wasted time and bringing creativity back into one’s life–and yes, I speak from firsthand experience!

 

Waste Monitoring. To begin working on the outer world, I would suggest some waste monitoring activities. A good one to start with is one I assigned my students when I was teaching an interdisciplinary research methods class with a sustainability theme: for one week, try to track all of your waste. Track every time you get a throw-away cup, a take-out box, a pen that’s out of ink. What are you putting on the curb? Look at every item you throw away in the trash. Look at any waste produced by your family or workplace (the left-over food that gets thrown away; the waste of office paper, boxes, handouts that don’t get used, pens and pencils, packaging from shipped items, plastic in the trash bins, etc). Look in the trash bins–see what other people are throwing out. Pay special attention to if someone is moving out or retiring and how much stuff they want to unload. You will be appalled–even if you thought you were managing your waste streams effectively. Write every bit of it down (one of the things we know from behavioral research is the act of writing something down helps shift behavior because it makes us more conscious). I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the transformative aspects of this–just doing this practice raises your awareness about waste.

 

Repurposing other people’s waste. To return to the “spring cleanup” ritual I began with, I want to talk about the trash-picking counter culture. On the positive side to this yearly ritual, a whole counter-culture arises with regards to this waste stream: people, often in old pickup trucks and rusty vans–go out “junking” or “trash picking” through the piles.  I, too, go out when I have the opportunity as I hate to see so much waste. So while some of the stuff on the curb ends up in the landfill, much is also reused. One should, after all, never be embarrassed to dig through someone’ else’s trash–its the person who is throwing good things away that should be ashamed of their behavior. I have salvaged rakes, pots, spades, canning jars, beads, paint brushes, tools, solid wood end tables, yard furniture, cardboard boxes for sheet mulching, lamps, rugs, grills, windows for cold frames, a small boat (yes, for real), and a working refrigerator–all from the side of the road.  At first, I was nervous to dig in other people’s garbage, but I realized that that, too, was something my culture had given me that wasn’t my own feeling–so now, I freely do so!

 

Avoiding Excess Waste in Your Own Life. I have found that excess waste comes from a few sources–buying crappy stuff that quickly wears out (solved by learninghttps://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/soil-regeneration-lawn-reclamation-creating-a-sheet-mulch-bed-from-seedy-garden-weeds/ how to mend, also by purchasing better products), take-out containers (easily solved by bringing your own), and excess gifts. I wrote a post a while back about how to deal with excess stuff, and I have some good suggestions there!  In a nutshell, its worth trying to train friends and family not to bring any excess stuff into your life that is unwelcome.

 

Composting. If you aren’t already doing so, composting is a great way to begin to address that 40% food waste (and fallen leaves, etc) that we have in our culture. I have information on indoor (vermicomposting) and outdoor composting. And if you have gerbils, I have a post on using gerbils for composting; and a post on chickens and composting. And you can compost using sheet mulching techniques to setup new garden beds! Something for everyone!

 

The Closed Loop System. With the addition of other sustainable living strategies, I think the ultimate goal is to work towards a closed-loop system, that is a system that is truly sustainable.  Closed loop systems mean that everything cycles through perfectly without any waste–a forest is such an example.  Everything that in inside the forest is reused and recycled continuously.  Indigenous cultures are well worth studying here for they provide the best examples.  Every step we take towards cycling nutrients and materials, however, is a good one.

 

Larger Action. We only have a small amount of individual control over waste streams, so this is where awareness raising, information gathering, and community action come in. By learning about what waste steams flow through (and into) one’s community or workplace, we can take action, raise awareness, repurpose waste, and generally make our communities better places to inhabit. Its surprising how small initiatives make big differences, both for people’s consciousness and in actual action.

 

 

When you begin to shift your mindset, you will see how trash picking, upcycling, composting, closed-loop systems, mental decluttering, and other forms of creative repurposing require just that–creative, out of the box thinking. It becomes a game you can play with yourself and your surroundings: how can you put X item to another use? What’s in your neighbor’s trash heap this week, and how can you put it to use? And how can you reduce the size of your own waste pile? How can the various waste streams in your life become resources that reused and adapted?  So by all means, let the awen flow!

 

Other Sites: The Hotel Belmar Garden (Organic, Biointensive, Incredible) April 11, 2015

Once in a while, you encounter something that is truly extraordinary. Something created by a unity of human effort and ingenuity and natural processes that is a sacred and inspirational place. I want to share one of those places with you today–both because its a wonderful opportunity to learn, but also to see so many sustainable living activities in action.  I’ve written about sacred gardens before–and this is truly such a place.

 

While I was in Costa Rica, my friend and I literally stumbled across this amazing organic vegetable garden behind the Hotel Belmar in Monteverde, Costa Rica.  Roberto Mairena is the sole farmer of this land, and he works with joy in his heart and s smile always on his face. Although he spoke little English and we spoke little Spanish, we learned a great deal from him, seeing so many of the principles that we were working to learn and enact in the USA at play in his garden–all in one place. Truthfully, this was the most inspirational and incredible garden I have ever visited (and I have certainly visited my fair share!)  What was so inspirational is that Roberto was literally doing everything himself and doing everything right and was, with the exception of imported chicken manure and a few bioferment ingredients, a closed loop system (that is, the garden largely sustains itself rather than taking nutrients and materials from other places).

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

Sacred and nutrient rich soil

You read about this kind of garden in books, and a lot of people are “working toward” this kind of thing–but here it is, all in one place, with so many things going on and so many little features that add up to an incredible whole. My friend Linda, a 30+ year experienced organic farmer and agricultural educator herself, was blown away with this place.  She and I spent over an hour exploring and photographing and documenting everything (so that we could learn), and then we spent almost an hour talking with Roberto and communicating in the language of plants with lots of excited pointing.

 

Robertos garden was also fully integrated into the hotel, which also is important to recognize (I have never seen a hotel in the US that had such a practice–much of the food served at the hotel came from the garden, less than 100 feet away). I am going to give you a virtual tour of his garden, and talk about some of the exciting features and what we can learn from his approach. I will say that this blog post is going to be a bit long and full of photos–but if you want to learn how to garden in a really sustainable, sacred way, its worth following along!

 

Size and Shape of the plot

We estimated that Roberto was farming about 5000-6000 square feet, and had over a 1/4 acre plot in cultivation in total–and he was able to grow amazing amounts of food and cultivate an amazing amount of diversity in that small space. Our Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask Roberto how many hours he worked in the garden each week, but from the love and care and attention to detail, we think that its likely a full time position (or close to it). We know this approach could be replicated on a smaller scale with effect.

The whole garden from the entrance!

The whole garden from the entrance!

One of the key features of this garden is how it uses the landscape, and the slope of the landscape, to effect. You can see the paths winding upwards, the slope catching the southern sun. The garden also has this wonderful, whimsical quality that is hard to put into words. There is a lot of joy growing here!

 

All Organic and Biointensive

Roberto was growing using only organic methods. This means no chemicals, no synthetic fertilizers, nothing that would harm the ecosystem or ourselves. He’s also employing nearly all of the methods used for biointensive farming, so we would classify his approach as organic and biointensive.

Another shot of the garden

Another shot of the garden

Double Dug Beds

There’s always discussion among permies, gardeners, and farmers about how to best prep your beds for planting annual veggies (perennials are another matter). Do you double dig it (using a biointensive method) or sheet mulch it?  Roberto favors the double dig method, and let’s just say his soil is the most beautiful, spongy, amazing thing, so that’s winning some points in my book!

Double dug beds

Double dug beds

Using Local Materials for Garden Construction

The garden was refreshing, in part, because so much of it was using local materials in its construction and maintenance. You may have noticed the old tree posts used to hold up the frame in the above pictures. All of the terraces were also made using locally milled boards (this is done when any tree is cut or falls down; we also saw this at work on the farm we stayed at) and using sticks to hold them in place.  Here’s an example:

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Natural, Locally source materials for terracing

Trellises were also made largely from repurposed materials.  Here’s one such example:

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

Trellis for ground cherry from scrap lumber

An old washing machine hides a trash bin.

Trash bin

Trash bin

Increasing Soil Fertility with Manure, Compost, Biofermentation, and more

Because Roberto isn’t using any chemical fertilizers, he instead uses a balanced series of soil amendments, most of which he makes on site:

1) Chicken manure from a local farm (one of few imports into the garden)

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

Composted chicken manure, produced locally

2) Additions of Eggshells and Ash. The soil of Costa Rica is quite acidic (as evidenced from the stunning blue hydrangeas growing all over the countryside). To counter this, Roberto uses substantial amounts of wood ash (which adds potash and trace nutrients and is highly alkali). Crushed eggshells add long-term calcium back into the soil.

Eggshells and ash in soil

Eggshells and ash in soil

3) Worm castings (red wiggler worms eating compost from the hotel; break down mangoes and some limited veggies). Roberto used some repurposed plastic trays and had stacks and stacks of the worms in the trays.  They made short work of the mangoes; the pits went back into the regular compost.

Red Wigglers

Red Wigglers eating mangoes

4) Rich compost from the hotel (more about this below)

5) Bioferments of various kinds (again, more below).

Compost

Roberto has a few tricks up his sleeve to make really amazing compost.  First, he uses four different bins, plus worm composting, to break down material as fast as he can.  After the worms have eaten the flesh of some fruits and veggies, he throws the harder bits right into the main compost bin.  Then, as it fills, he uses a series of repurposed PVC tubes with many holes drilled in them to provide aeration without having to turn it (this is just brilliant!).  Finally, he makes compost removal easy with a series of removable flat boards, so once the compost is ready, he can simply remove the boards and rake it into the middle of his work area (you can see this in the photo below).  Frankly, learning about these methods alone were enough to make the entire trip to Costa Rica worthwhile!

Compost Bins in various stages

Compost Bins in various stages

Roberto's aeration tube

Roberto’s aeration tube

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Beautiful pile of finished compost!

Bin setup with removable boards

Bin setup with removable boards

 

Biofermentation

I’ve made bioferments with just comfrey, but Roberto was taking this to an entirely new level.  He’s using bioferments to add substantial trace minerals and microbial activity to his already beautiful, living soil.

Bioferment Barrels

Bioferment Barrels

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure

Another ferment, this one using chicken manure.  We didn’t figure out how he made it.

We asked Roberto for his Bioferment recipe, which he was happy to give us, and we translated the last bits with help from blog readers!  I plan on making some of this quite soon.

Biofermento (for 50 gallon barrel)

  • Water – 200 liters
  • Molasses – 5 liters
  • Whey – 20 liters
  • Ash – 4 kilos
  • Cow Manure 50 kilos
  • Mineral salt – 1/2 kilo
  • Calcium Carbonate – 1 kilo
  • Rock Phosphate – 1 kilo
  • Mountain Microorganisms (inoculum fermented for compost and other organic fertilizers; prevents odors and prevents disease) – 5 liters
  • Yeast – 500 grams
  • Yogurt – 500 grams

Ferment for one month.

 

Trap Cropping and Pollinator Support

Roberto also uses his edges and margins wisely (a principle from Permaculture Design).  On each edge of the garden bed, he has herbs to encourage certain kinds of beneficial insects and keep away pests and problematic insects.  He also uses trap cropping throughout the garden (where one plant will be grown as essentially the sacrifice for the pests so that the other crops are left alone).

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Some trap crops along a stone fence

Border herbs

Border herbs and more trap crops – lavender, parsley, chives.  Hardware cloth keeps out small critters but doesn’t take away from the look of the garden.

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Pond for Pollenator Water Needs

Companion Planting & Making Use of All Space

Roberto favored smaller, shorter rows with lots of companion planting.  Strawberries were planted in many rows (also in white bags, you can see this in the photo above, to reflect the heat and keep them from spreading).

Companion Planting

Companion Planting

Effective use of edges

Effective use of edge

Rainwater catchment

He also used the metal roof of his shed to catch rainwater and send it into a cistern for watering.  Drip irrigation lines and a simple pump moved the water where it needed to go up or down the hillside and into the beds.

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Rainwater harvesting and seedling trays ready to go into the soil!

Crop Rotations, Planning, and Succession Planting

Part of the biointensive method is cultivating less area but always having something growing in that area.  Roberto is doing this quite effectively–when we arrived, he was clearing out beds of old and dying tomato plants, prepping the soil, and immediately putting in lettuce and spinach seedlings.  This continual crop rotation (much easier in a climate like his, but still do-able anywhere!) means that there is always something growing (often more than one something using companion planting methods) and the harvest is staggered over the season.

New seedlings

New seedlings

Integrating Perennials and Annuals

Another key aspect of Roberto’s approach was to integrate annuals and perennials, especially on the edges of the bed.  Although many of the plants we grow as “annual” are perennial in Costa Rica, he also integrated treecrops and agroforestry along the edges of the garden for even more growing power.

Banana tree seedlings

Banana tree seedlings

Growing so many herbs

Growing so many different herbs–here is lemongrass!

Whole Systems Thinking

To conclude, every part of this garden, from its use of the natural features of the landscape to the use of the energy flows and “waste streams”, is carefully thought out and beautifully executed. I know there is a lot more going on here than I can share, but as you can see, its really a sacred space. I can only hope that one day, my gardens will be half as sustainable as Roberto’s were!  It was truly a delight to stumble upon this gem in the heart of Monteverde–I am inspired and amazed!

Parsley worth eating!

Parsley worth eating!