The Druid's Garden

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

Responding to the Predicament We Face: Planting Seeds and Cultivating Polycultures April 2, 2017

Planting seeds and seeing what grows--part of our own response to the predicament

Planting seeds and seeing what grows–part of our own response to the predicament

On Problems, Predicaments, and Responses

To say that the present post-industrial age has its share of problems is perhaps, at best, an understatement. I think the urgency of the challenges we face been exasperated here in the US by a radically shifting political climate where even basic human decency, access to clean environment, and former structures are breaking down around us at an alarming rate. When looking at these challenges, particularly large-scale environmental ones, we begin to ask “What can we do?” What should we do? How do we solve this problem?” And while some of the issues facing us may well be problems, the larger issue is a much more complex predicament, and that changes the nature of how we respond and what we do. A problem, as John Michael Greer has so cautioned us over a decade ago, has a clear solution. With the threats to human survival and the survival of many other species on this planet, the term “problem” doesn’t quite do it justice. A problem is something like a flat tire: there are a few solutions to fix it (patch it, put on a spare, buy a new tire) and they are fairly limited. Predicaments, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. Predicaments, unlike problems, don’t have clear solutions. They are issues so multifaceted, so interconnected, so complex, that any “solution” fails to address the scope and enormity of it and instead require a large range of responses. John Michael argues that the issues we face in our current age–of the limits of a finite planet, of climate change, of environmental turmoil are predicaments. To respond, we must find our own ways forward, ways of responding, and that a plurality of ways is often necessary. But how do we even begin to respond to that?

 

This is the question that many open-eyed, connected, nature-honoring folks are asking at present: what the heck are we going to do about what is going on? What exactly is going on? What can we do? How can we do it while still providing for our basic needs? How can we thrive in a world that seems to be socially, politically, environmentally and emotionally crumbling?  In fact, almost everyone out there who has any connection at all to the living earth struggles with the disconnection between what it takes to survive in this current world and where their value systems lie and leveraging a response. It is a fact that stares each of us squarely in the face often and powerfully. As I’ve worked my way deeper into my to the problem we face as a species and civilization over the better part of my adult life, I’ve certainly tried my own range of responses.

 

While I believe the most important thing in the end is to respond (rather than ignore the issue) it takes nearly all of us a while to get to the point of having a response we feel good about. I meet druids all the time who are distraught about what is happening and want to do something but don’t have the skills or tools to actually do it, or aren’t sure what to do, or are working through their emotions about it–and feeling guilty all the less for not doing anything. And to them I say, we are not trying to climb Mount Davis (the tallest mountain here in the Laurel Highlands of PA) in one day.  But we can make steps there with each thought and action, and that’s an important part of responding, and working through those steps, and addressing the time that they take, is a big part of what we’ll explore in the remainder of this post today.

 

Polycultures and a Multitude of Responses

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Any healthy ecosystem is not made up of a single species of plant (monoculture), but a multitude of plants (a polyculture).  We see this in any forest or wild area–you can see thousands of species interacting within a single space and thriving together, often working together to benefit the larger system. Polycultures outperform monocultures in every way: they outproduce them, they offer many different kinds of yields, they offer resiliency, they offer redundancy in the case of a single plant or plant species failing.  Nature loves, and creates, polycultures (and gardeners practicing permaculture do as well!)

 

I think the polyculture metaphor is a great one to help us understand the multitude of responses we need for the predicament we face. My response, my life choices, aren’t yours, and shouldn’t be. Each of us, given our unique circumstances, our sets of skills, or commitments to others, our work lives, and so on, must work to find our own response to add to the larger polyculture of responses.  For some people, their response is retiring to a little piece of land in the country and “pulling out” of broader affairs to live a more simple life. For others, it is activism on the front lines, marching, meeting, demonstrating. For some of us, it is coming together to build something anew. The thing is–there is no right or wrong way to respond.  There are responses.  Some may be more effective than others in the long run. It is with a polyculture of responses that we have a chance at success–for even if one or multiple responses fail, some will succeed and thrive, as we see in an ecosystem.

 

Towards Responding through Thought and Action: Composting and Soil Preparation

In druidry, we understand that the inner realms reflect the outer, and that the outer realms reflect inward.  I believe responses begin within, in the realm of thought, contemplation, and meditation. My first piece of hard-earned advice is this: recognize that this larger predicament is a tremendous amount for a human to process and many of us need a good amount of processing time before finding our own response. This is an important step: our responses will take years, decades, a lifetime to engage with and understand. Part of this thinking process is just working on acceptance of what is happening so that you can respond.  It takes a lot to pull our heads out of this culture, look at the evidence, emotionally and intellectually process it, and decide what to do.  That is critically important work and we need to be kind to ourselves while we are doing it. Sometimes, it is also ok to pause and regroup before barreling forward with what we feel is a correct response. Otherwise, we end up in a place where we’ve thought we’ve made good choices–radically so–and then they turn out to be not as good (or as sustainable or sustaining) as we thought!  Of course, the nature of the predicament and the continued speed at which things are declining makes it hard to give us the time to process and to allow the seed to incubate, leading to guilt, frustration, and more.

 

Like many living in the Northern Hemisphere in the spring months, I have been (physically) planting my seeds for the coming year. Small seeds of St. John’s wort, sacred tobacco, catnip, many veggies, and so many other herbs.  Seeds are so magical: they have so much potential stored up in a little hard shell. As I carefully prepare the soil and push each one in, I am struck by the cycle of life within a seed. I see our own responses to this predicament just like a seed I plant: it needs time for incubation, dormancy, sprouting, and growth–growing seeds are a process, and I think growing responses are too.

 

And so, before we begin to plant the seeds of a response, we must tend to our soil, compost the old, and prepare the ground for new beginnings. I have been in this exact situation for the last two years, and it has at points been very frustrating. Long term blog readers know that I’ve struggled tremendously with my own response to the predicament, and that response has changed over time.  Since I became a druid over a decade ago, it was really important that I *do something* but I wasn’t always sure what that something was. My first “doing something” altered permanently my major long-term relationship at the time (as we were going in different directions with different worldviews).  It led me to owning a homestead in the country and doing everything myself (and eventually burning out, leaving to regroup).  It has taken me down the road of exploring a host of issues surrounding “everyday life”: work-life balance, waste, consumerism, food, family, friendships, and more.  It led me to temporarily “regroup” and explore urban homesteading options and a walkable lifestyle in a small town where I had to reflect, regroup, and work on my next response.

 

And as hard as it has been to feel like I’m doing less than living my full truth as I’ve been in this composting and preparation phase,  I now realize that it has been time well spent. I haven’t done anything radical or big with my life (or finances) that would be hard to undo, but rather, found niches and small things I could do while I was in this “dormant” period with my larger life goals. I’ve lived simply, walked to work, did a lot of wildtending, weed walking, spent a ton of time studying and building my oak knowledge and reskilling, reconnected with my ancestral land, engaged my community in plant walks, herbalism, worked on a lot of my own writing and artistic projects, did a lot of small-scale urban homesteading that I could do…all while really contemplating my choices. I learned a lot, a grew a lot, but I also felt very “unsettled” as I was focused only on the small things and on not doing the things I felt I really needed to do. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough.  Now, I realize that A) I was doing a lot more good work than I thought I was and B) this time to regroup and contemplate was necessary.  Making a choice too soon would have actually hampered my long-term goals (although I couldn’t have possibly known that a year ago!)

 

Time to do some composting!

Time to do some composting!

I think a lot of us find ourselves in this place, and it can be a frustrating place to be.  Its a mix of things: wanting to do something, but not being sure what we can or should do, and feeling increasing pressure to do something quickly given all that is happening in the broader world.  It kind of makes you feel like you want to explode! If you find yourself here, waiting and dormant, remember that this is part of your response, part of your work, and it is a very important part.

 

I think this “incubation” time has been a very difficult time for me in many ways: not being on land, and being rooted in a specific piece of property where I could explore has left me feeling really disconnected, unsure of my path forward, and yet, it has also allowed me to be in a space of new possibilities. And that’s what’s so powerful about these transitory times: they are unsettling, and net, incredibly powerful. Anything can happen, anything that you can dream up might occur. You don’t have a clear path forward, but you have an ample amount of hope and possibility.  In the Tarot, the “tower” is an incredibly difficult place to be: the structures we have aren’t working (societally and personally) and given that, they must come down, and the dust must settle before we are to see the way forward.

 

Planting the Seeds of a Response

The next phase in the journey of a seed and the journey of our own responses to the larger predicament is that period of planting. This is a huge transition: the period between thinking about responding and beginning to respond (even if the efforts themselves haven’t yet been seen).  The move towards some action, however, small, is incredible. We have already tended the soil and done our composting work–and now, we plant the seeds and wait for them to sprout. Incubation can also be a difficult period of time. I know after I’ve planted seeds, the hardest thing is waiting–seeing if they will germinate. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have to plant again, or plant different seeds, or change something about the conditions under which we plant them (heat mat, light exposure, cold stratification, scarification, etc.).  Sometimes seeds require fire to sprout–burning away the old and creating fertile soil.  Some seeds are simply harder to start than others–but well worth the extra effort and cultivation.

 

Planting the seeds is the critical difference between thought and action.  In the end, as I’ve argued on this blog, it is our actions that count–it is our actions that help us enact change, live in harmony, and come up with an effective range of responses.

 

Germination, Growth and Change

And then, the magic happens.  After an indefinate period of incubation, the seed we have planted comes out of dormancy and the spark of life, nwyfre, flows. The seed sprouts, and life is born. The beautiful, tender sprout emerges from the soil and you can continue the careful work of cultivating this seed into an incredible healing and nourishing plant. And yet, seeds are so fragile–once that sprout emerges, it can so quickly dry up, or rot, or not have enough life.  Part of what we must do is ensure that we tend the seed as carefully as possible during the early stages of any response.

 

Today, as this post is scheduled to be released at my normal Sunday morning posting time, the seed is sprouting for what could possibly be my greatest life’s work. After my two year period of composting and dormancy while I regrouped, I have made some very powerful and empowering decisions and had a series of things occur to set me on the path towards intentional community. I’ve decided to transition away from solo living and trying to do things on my own and move towards living in community, with the larger goal of co-ownership of a large piece of land where we build an intentional community based on regeneration, nature spirituality, and permaculture principles. This is a big vision, and yet, the first seed of that vision is sprouting today. Today, I am moving to a new place to live in our small town, and in that move, the seeds of this very community are being planted and sprouting. The first phase of our larger project is a three-pronged effort (because druids always do it in threes) to establish a community, permaculture center, and farm a small piece of land together while we work on acquiring our larger piece of land and figuring out what the nature of our larger community will be.

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

Yes! Seeds have sprouted!

 

And so, we’ll be working in three directions.  We will be:

  • Reducing our ecological footprint and pursuing earth-honoring practices: this includes downsizing our own stuff and space requirements to live in a community of people in a smaller space, practicing various kinds of earth-honoring living, thus reducing consumption in many ways
  • Expanding community outreach and education through establishing a permaculture center in downtown Indiana, PA, that hosts classes, activities, and community events (like our first permaculture meetup that happened two weeks ago!)
  • Learning to live and grow together, both in our space in the downtown area, but also through a collaborative project growing a food forest on a small plot of land outside of town (we see this like our “sandbox” before we acquire the larger piece of land).

It is in this move today that we can start to explore things like consensus decision making, governance structures, co-ownership, and learn how to live in a smaller space with less stuff and more joy. For me, in the coming months and years, we’ll see if the seeds sprouted today is the one that will grow into an incredible food forest or if they will be learning experiences that will continue to guide my path. In between posts on all things permaculture and druidry, I’ll be sharing the story of our own growth of this community and some of the things we are doing.

 

Seeing those first seeds spring forth is a joyous occasion–but also a terrifying one.  As I have worked to see this come about, I have had to counter my own fear and rethink my own assumptions along every step of the way.   Of course, there is a part of me that is afraid, that fears change, that just wants to keep things the same as they are.  But ethical, sacred responses require us to set aside our fears and let the awen flow from within.  Remember, the problem is the solution!  I wish you each well upon your journeys of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, cultivating the sprouts, and eventually, tending those wild food forests!

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Embracing the Bucket: A Colorful Compost Toilet for Small Space Living January 1, 2017

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

My beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

A few months ago, I posted on humanure and liquid gold as ecological resources. Many are once again realizing that our own waste is a precious resource, not something deserving of a flush. As a quick review, humanure refers to human feces that has been composted down (usually over a two-year period). Liquid gold refers to human urine which can be used immediately (diluted to 10%) as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  This waste-cycling practice allows us to reconnect our own elimination cycle with the cycles of nature and bring nutrients back into our landscape rather into toxic municipal septic systems.  Working with our own waste is a very powerful practice for rejoining the cycles of nutrients and flows in the living landscape.

 

And so, as a follow-up to that post, I’d like to share the creation of a compost toilet for my small rental house (as part of my own experiments in rental house permaculture practice).  This post will cover overcoming challenges, basic plans for construction, decoration, and use. I also think this is a wonderful post for the civil new year, and the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” very much comes to mind!

 

Overcoming Mental, Collecting, and Composting Challenges

The idea of collecting and composting humanure includes several challenges we have to overcome: mental challenge and the physical challenge of collecting and composting your waste. I’ll explore each of these first before getting to the specific compost toilet construction and design.

 

When I mentioned that I was thinking about building a compost toilet to my family and certain friends, a number of them expressed a great deal skepticism and doubt, refusing to use it even before it was in place. Elimination is a very taboo topic. The idea of handling a bucket of your own waste, and doing anything with it, beyond flushing it “away” is mentally challenging.  For one, we have to overcome years and years of social conditioning about what “appropriate bathroom behavior” is–and that social conditioning suggests that the best thing we can do is to quietly do our business, to flush it, and move about your day.  There’s also the assumption that it will smell bad or be gross to do anything else.

 

Even if we can wrap our intellectual minds around embracing the bucket (as it makes a lot of sense, as I detailed in my earlier post), we still have to emotionally accept it and overcome that conditioning. After visiting various ecovillages, homesteads, and sustainable living centers, I had already had first-hand experience in using composting toilets, and with that experience, I decided they were pretty cool and worth pursuing.  But more than that, I knew that getting a handle on my own waste streams would allow me to deepen my own nature-based spiritual practice and directly work to regenerate the land by returning nutrients rather than discarding them. So the compost toilet was in line not only with my desire to honor and regenerate the land, but in line with my spiritual ethics.  So these things, along with some positive direct experience helped me to overcome some of the mental barriers, especially emotional ones.

 

Yep, that's a bit hard to avoid....

Yep, that’s a bit hard to avoid….

But what about the emotional and intellectual barriers folks coming to my house who have never used one before?  How could I get them to embrace the bucket? The truth is, based on where I was putting it, even if they didn’t use it, they were going to come face to face with it in my bathroom (see photo). Perhaps pooping in a “fun” toilet would make the difference. I decided that I would create the most beautiful, inviting, whimsical and incredible toilet they had ever seen.  I wanted to create something that people would be excited and overjoyed to poop in.  Heck, I wanted to create something that I wanted to be excited and overjoyed to use! In other words, I would create an artful toilet that was inviting and fun to use, not a plain old seat with a bucket!

 

With the mental challenges considered, there is, of course, the physical reality. Most of us hopefully don’t have a problem with the elimination of waste, but rather the collection of waste and the composting of the waste. The collection is, for a renter, the much more simple of the two. Simple compost toilet boxes, which are a wooden box, lid, and bucket with cover material, are really quite elegant to use. In fact, in my bathroom,  I had a tiny bit of room for a simple compost toilet collection bucket (inspired by the “lovable loo” and the Humanure Handbook).

 

My friend's composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

My friend’s composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

The composting itself was my final main hurdle. I live in a small house with a tiny yard that is rented; I can’t be composting my own humanure on land I don’t own (especially less than 10 feet from my neighbors). And so, I don’t have the option of storing it outside.  And I certainly don’t want to store it in my scary and often-flooded basement.  I seemed stuck–how to proceed? Then, a friend of mine told me she was building a humanure composting system just outside of town on a small piece of land she is working. She invited me to make contributions, both because more nutrients is a good thing and because she was having difficulty getting her pile up to the desired temperature. This is community building and teamwork at its best. Since her location is only a few miles outside of town and I got that way often to visit the woods or my family, I realized that it was time to embrace the bucket!

 

Constructing the Toilet (Collection)

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

My very first attempt at a composting toilet was going to be very simple: a bucket with an attachable lid designed for 5 gallon buckets. The fact that I had a tiny bathroom contributed to this early choice–there wasn’t really anywhere for the compost toilet to go if it were bulky (as the photo above shows). Some time ago, I had ordered a small lid/seat that would fit a five gallon bucket and was excited to try it out. My excitement immediately dwindled upon attaching it to the bucket.  Sitting on it reinforced my dread: it was small, uncomfortable, and not user-friendly.  Nobody would want to poop on that little seat; heck, even I didn’t want to poop using that little seat. So with this plan scrapped, it became obvious that building a more functional composting toilet was in order.

 

It turns out, building a more functional and comfortable basic compost toilet is a really simple thing: it usually has some kind of outer box that holds the bucket in place, offers a lid, and has a regular toilet seat that is reasonable to sit on to use. Lucky for me, a wonderful man, who I’ll call the Philosopher, has recently come into my life and he has some impressive construction skills (skills that I am sorely lacking).  Witnessing my concerns about the bucket seat I had purchased, the Philosopher offered to build the compost toilet.  The following few paragraphs include his instructions and measurements (although note that this toilet was built specifically for my small bathroom, so you might want to change the measurements).

 

Here is a list of the supplies:

  • 1/2 sheet of plywood (if you are painting it, you can get a sheet that is finished nicely on one side and not as nice on the other); if you are staining it and you want the grain all the same you’ll need more than 1/2 a sheet.
  • 3 five-gallon buckets (assuming off-site storage).  Two of these are collection buckets (so you have a spare) and one is for storing your cover material. Sometimes, Asian restaurants may have these available for free as they often purchase soy sauce in 5 gallon buckets.
  • Toilet seat (the one pictured was less than $10; you can also get this used)
  • Two hinges, wood screws, wood glue, clamps, and basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, table saw)

The following is the cut sheet for the compost toilet based on the height of the bucket and the space I had available in the bathroom.  This assumes one standard half-sheet of plywood.

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

The box was constructed by having the four sides rest on the floor and adding the bottom of the box inside the four sides. This is to prevent screws from digging into the floor.  The top of the seat, since it has to lift off and bear weight, sits on all four sides.

Box and bucket before painting

Box and bucket before painting

To get the hole for the bucket, the Philosopher simply traced the outside of the bucket onto the lid and cut it open with a jigsaw. He assembled it all and brought it back to my house for cat inspection. The felines approved.

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of painting process

Cat inspection of painting process

Painting the Toilet

After the basic construction of the toilet was complete, it was time to paint–I knew these artistic skills would come in handy! Part of it was that I wanted it fun, colorful and inviting. The second part of it was that I wanted the toilet to be educational–so when you used it, you understood the nature of what your contributions.  After working on some sketches, I was ready to begin.

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

The toilet seat I decorated was a wooden one the Philosopher purchased at the hardware store for less than $10. It had a seal coating on it that I had to sand off (do this work outside with good ventilation and use a mask). Once I had the toilet seat sanded, I began painting the seat, the box, and the rest!  I wanted messages that were inspirational but not overtly intense, so I wove them into the box throughout, making it fun, whimsical, and inviting.

Painting Process

Painting Process

I used regular acrylic paints to paint the seat. I knew that a good seal was critically important for protection and cleaning, so I used three coats of clear acrylic sealer (which also needs to be done outside). This would allow me to clean the seat and protect my paint.

 

I wanted whimsical designs and messaging, things that allowed people to understand more the cycle of waste and nutrients as well as invite them to try it out.

Finished lid and seat!

Finished lid and seat!

After painting and sealing, we put the toilet together and admired our work. What began as a simple idea in our minds turned into a masterpiece both of us could be proud of!

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Close up of lid and seat!

Close up of lid and seat!

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Top of toilet inviting you inside....

Top of toilet inviting you inside….

 

The toilet was now ready to use–but first, I’m going to cover a few considerations for compost toilets as I generally understand them.

 

Preparing to Use the Toilet: Some Considerations

You’ll need to gather a few materials and make a few considerations for your compost toilet, specifically, how much of your business you are going to be doing in the compost toilet and what your cover material will be.  These are two related considerations: cover materials vary in absorbancy, and that will determine how much urine you can add to your toilet.

 

The first is finding a carbon-based cover material. Currently, I am using sawdust from the Philosopher’s father’s woodshop (free resource, and he doesn’t use treated wood) as well as partially composted wood chips from my parents’ house (free resource from local tree work).  In the future I’d also like to experiment with shredded fall leaves.

 

Now, absorbency is also important.  From a good friend who was living in a camper and moving around the country, and using her compost toilet full time, I learned the following: sawdust, woodchips, and the like aren’t very absorbent.  If you are going to be doing all of your business in your compost toilet, something more absorbent is necessary.  Peat moss or sphagnum moss was her choice, although she acknowledged that that’s the best she could get on the road consistently, and she didn’t prefer it for environmental reasons but didn’t always have access to anything better.  She said if you only use sawdust, you are likely to end up with a bucket of soup, especially if you aren’t able to dump it very often.  (I’m interested in hearing from other readers if they have experiences using other more sustainable-yet-absorbent possibilities–I’m also going to try shredded newspapers/office paper combined with some other available materials and see what that does).

 

Cover material for the toilet

Cover material for the toilet

I am currently solving this absorbancy problem but collecting urine separately and using it for plants and offerings back to the land (as I described earlier in my first post on the subject).  I have also seen this design: a separate urinal (for liquid gold) and toilet (for humanure) in many of the more elaborate compost toilet setups (like at Sirius Ecolvillage where I did my Permaculture Design Certificate). These two human wastes have very different uses and necessary treatments.

 

Further, if you are changing your bucket out at least once a week, the solid droppings don’t stink once covered up at all–its really quite amazing. However, urine will go to ammonia the longer it sits, exposed to air, if its not properly absorbed.  So I have found that using my compost toilet with the sawdust mainly for solid deposits (allowing for some liquid during making a solid deposit) doesn’t’ lead to any smell and the sawdust works well.

 

Another consideration is what happens to the toilet paper.  From a report from friends, toilet paper takes a lot longer to break down than humanure and you are sometimes left with only bits of TP with otherwise well composted material. Given this, many people don’t include theirs in the bucket.  But to me, this makes more waste, and helps with the absorbancy issue. Also, its possible to get recycled and undyed toilet paper, and that makes even little bit better. Volume here also matters: I am living alone with occasional visitors, and having a family of four would require much more buckets and volume (but also faster turnaround time as the buckets fill up).

 

In the end, a number of factors will impact how you use your compost toilet.  I’m in some ways making it out to be rather complicated, and it really isn’t.  What it ultimately comes down to is this: have some cover material, do your business, cover it up, and go about your day!

 

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

Using the Compost Toilet

Using the toilet is really easy.  You’ll need to do the following:

  1. Start with a layer of cover material on the very bottom of the bucket. I add about 1″ of sawdust to mine when starting a new bucket.
  2. Do your business. 
  3. Add a layer of cover material, covering your deposit. Fully covering the deposit ensures that you can reduce odor. But not all the TP needs covered; people often use way too much cover material, so keep this in mind.
  4. When the bucket is full, transport to the compost facility (backyard, friend’s land, wherever). Make your deposit at the compost pile (see below) and then clean your bucket.
  5. Repeat the above steps!

Composting and Storage

Here are some good instructions for how to build a composting facility for your humanure (this comes from the Humanure Handbook folks, which I would highly recommend for more details and information).

 

For my friend’s facility, the process is really simple. She built two potential piles that are both enclosed (to avoid having vermin or her pet goats in the pile). One pile is “active” meaning we are adding to it, and one pile is “composting” meaning that we are waiting while it composts down. She is using a piece of wire square of fencing (rigid) to keep critters out that covers the pile, then a thick one foot layer of hay to help keep the pile insulated during the cold winter months.  She also is using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the pile.

 

To add deposits, we simply remove the wire square of fencing and then remove hay/insulating material from the pile, add the bucket to the pile, cover the pile back up with hay. Then we rinse the bucket with Castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s works well) and use a small toilet brush–adding all the liquid back into the pile. In the summer months, she has a water barrel there for that purpose, but in the winter months, we bring a gallon of warm water with us from home to rinse.  Then, the bucket simply goes back to your compost toilet to collect another 5 gallons of resources!  The Humanure will be very occasionally turned, and then added to perennial trees, bushes, and shrubs after composting down for two years.

 

I hope this post was inspirational and informative, and I believe it is a great way to start this new civil year. I know that 2016 was a hard year for many people, but I think its important to focus on what we are able to do, here and now, and find our way forward in harmony with the land. The problems we face ask us to creatively engage with our world, to embrace it with consideration and care, and I know that all of us, in our own ways, will continue to do that into the future.

 

Sustainable Living in a Rental House: Options, Ideas, and More July 3, 2016

As a follow-up post to last week’s discussion of how anyone, anywhere can live a sustainable life , I wanted to share some of the sustainable living things that I am doing here while I’m renting a small house (with terrible solar gain, lol) in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. Through this, I hope to demonstrate that even if you aren’t living the free range fantasy, there is a lot you can do, both in your own life, and for the greater good in your community. I hope that this post inspires you to share your own ideas!

 

1.  The Walking Lifestyle.

Some friends along the streets of my town :)

Some friends along the streets of my town 🙂

One of the primary lifestyle shifts I made was moving to a place where I could walk to work (hopefully permanently, but we’ll see where life takes me). I think this one shift is so huge, for so many reasons, that it probably offsets everything I’m not able to do in my rental that I was doing at my homestead.

 

I decided to see how much carbon emissions I saved by walking to campus rather than driving the 36 miles round trip in Michigan. Assuming I go to campus four days a week, 48 weeks of the year, that comes to just under 7000 miles driven per year to get to and fro from work. And there is also my walking to the post office, bank, to pick up food, and more–and the need to drive much less because everything is located conveniently in town. Assuming the lowest estimate, just the work miles, I have saved 2.87 metric tons of carbon this first year in walking rather than driving (you can get your own carbon estimates from Carbon Footprint Calculator). Now maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider that there are severe costs not just to the carbon going in the atmosphere, but also extraction, refining, and transport of fuel that are harder to use an online calculator to figure out, that’s quite a bit. We’ll add to this that I get daily exercise, I no longer have the horrible stress of Detroit Metro area traffic, and I can get a lot more out of my car by not using it as much (reducing the demand for new automobiles!).

 

And from a spiritual perspective, the walking is amazing.  I have tree friends that I visit every day; I use it as a time to do some walking meditation, speak with the spirits, even a bit of energetic work.  I am observing the changing of te seasons in the cracks of the sidewalks and the edges of people’s lawns, each day in the trees.  I would be flying by these in a car; and instead, I am slowing down, building in extra time on my walk to take it all in fully, to smell the flowers.  It has become something that I look forward to each day rather than dread, and it is now interwoven with my inner spiritual life.

 

2.  Growing Things: Container Gardening, Community Gardening, and Sprouting.

I have been exploring a number of ways to still grow things, which was one of my primary focuses at my old homestead.

Some perennials in containers (strawberry and rosemary)

Some perennials in containers (strawberry and rosemary)

Solar gain and container gardening.  Each rental or apartment is different, and the main issue to contend with is light. How much full sun do you have? How much space in the sun do you have? This really determines to a large extent what you can grow, especially, what will thrive.

 

That is my big challenge here, certainly. The rental house I am living in has real challenges with solar gain; no place in the yard gets full sun.  I have no south facing windows! So I have had some challenges with growing things. And yet, I have really embraced container gardening this year. Last year, I discovered that the light is simply not enough to grow most veggies I like (like Kale) so I rented a community garden plot in addition to the containers and am growing veggies I really want to eat there. But, as a permaculture designer, I am focusing instead on how to turn this lack of light into a productive thing. Herbs are doing fine in their pots with morning sun, so I have rosemary, scented geranium, dill,  and a few other herbs in pots; I’ve tucked some herbs also into the “landscaping” on the front of the property (mint, chamomile, new England aster).  I have also grown several successive rounds of lettuce and spinach in pots, and am going for a 3rd round now–the part sun is a benefit to the spring/fall crops and keeps them from bolting.

 

Community Garden plots!

Community Garden plots!

Community Garden. The community garden has been a great place to go when I’m feeling the need to get my hands in the dirt.  The way ours is setup here is that in addition to individual plots that anyone can rent for the season (for $25, I believe), there are also many community plots that are shared and that anyone can harvest from. So there is always gardening work to do for people like me who enjoy it! Also, I don’t think you how much you know till you start gardening around other people, lol! I have been having a lot of fun out in the community garden and have a lot of chances to learn and to share. I would recommend it to any renters!

 

Indoor Growing and Sprouting.  I’ve tried a few kinds of indoor growing, but they all required light (for example, growing microgreens over the winter).  Since I want to use less, I’m not sure that kind of growing is worth it right now for me.  But one carbon-free/energy free kind of growing I am really enjoying is sprouting.  Sprouting doesn’t require much light; it can be done on a counter.  It doesn’t take long, and the sprouts are highly nutritious and delightful!  I like the alfalfa sprouts the best. You can source seeds that are organic and GMO free, and support good companies while doing so :).

 

I'm proud of these sprouts!

I’m proud of these sprouts!

3.  Curbing Consumption and “Stuff ” Creep

I’ve written pretty extensively on this topic before, in my disposing of the disposable mindset posts, vermicomposting post, and more. But I want to say a few words here today, especially about consumption and waste, especially in terms of renting and small space living.

 

Stuff. Knowing that I gave away so much stuff in my life prior to moving has motivated me to keep “stuff creep” (the acquisition of useless stuff you don’t need and clutter) from happening.  This is really important in small spaces where you don’t have a lot of spare room! There are a few strategies to do this: One of the ways that I’m managing that is by keeping a box in my living room that is the “give away” box. When it is full, I take it to a local thrift store. The second is that I am never, ever buying anything on impulse. If I am interested in something, I wait a full week before making a decision, and that gives me time to decide if my decision was the correct one. Only then will I purchase it, and only then if I can use it.

 

Waste. I’ve been, as ever, monitoring plastics and packaging, working to recycle waste, recycle materials, and so on. People know about that and so I don’t have to spell it out here :).

 

4. Verimcomposting, Outdoor Composting, and Liquid Gold

For renting and small space living, there are actually several good options for composting and reycling of certain kinds of waste.

 

Vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is something that anyone, regardless of their living circumstances can do. Since I have limited space here, I opted for a smaller model vermicomposter consisting of a few old food grade buckets that had seen better days. You can read all about how to build a verimcomposter on my blog post.

 

Vermicomposter made from two buckets (still testing this out as an effective model, but so far, so good!)

Vermicomposter made from two buckets (still testing this out as an effective model, but so far, so good!)

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost Tumbling.  I brought my compost tumbler from my homestead with me to my rental, and boy am I glad that I did!  It has really allowed me to make a lot of great compost without any kinds of rodents or large compost piles in the yard that might upset neighbors.  The compost tumbler that I have (and that I really like) has two chambers for composting.  It claims to be insulated, which I don’t really think matters, lol, but the two chambers of large capacity are super helpful.  I switch chambers about every six months, so I just emptied the first chamber and am getting ready to refill it.

 

Liquid Gold. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the effectiveness of liquid gold for watering my plants, which I covered in more detail in this post.  My plants are happy and so am I!

 

5.  Life by Candlelight.

I wrote about this a bit in my Winter Solstice post (and you can read that for more depth); I have decided to forgo electric lighting at night and instead live by candlelight. This has profoundly changed my own rhythms, encouraging me to slow down, breathe deeply, and reconnect with the quietude of the dark.  I’ve been experimenting with a number of different kinds of lighting and candles to get the most efficiency possible.  I gave a lot of clear instructions for sourcing candles, lighting, etc, in my linked post, so I’ll encourage you to read.

 

One thing I’ll add is that I’ve now been doing this lifestyle about 8 months. It is truly amazing. I love living by candlelight at night; I sleep better, I feel less stressed and frantic, and I just feel more stable overall. It is amazing how such a small shift makes such a big difference, but it really does.

 

6. Haybox Cooking

Good friends of mine (two different sets) taught me about the haybox.  It is a very simple contraption–you heat something up, and then rather than continuing to use heat (like the oven or stovetop) to cook it, you instead pull it out of the oven and put it in a well-insulated box. This saves on fuel.  Here’s a nice introduction to how to build one. A few weeks ago, after finally getting my new dutch oven (!!!!) I started experimenting with the haybox and I really like it!  I have a very rudimentary one that is not nearly as nice as the one in the article I linked above, lol, and it is made of cardboard box with an old blanket as insulation (the hay would obviously be messy).  I have found that for cooking simple things, like a vegetable soup, works well.  My first attempt didn’t have everything cooked the whole way through cause I started it in the afternoon (and I should have started it in the morning). I’m still very much experimenting!

 

7.  Thermostat Changes and Air Conditioning

This is a pretty standard thing, but its important to mention.  Even when renting, you have control over your thermostat and your decisions about whether or not to crank up the AC in the summer or heat in the winter.  I have spent a lot of time figuring out how to move air through the house effectively to avoid the AC using fans in windows–this has been great!  I also invested in some great wool socks and sweaters  and can keep my house a much lower temperature in the winter.  Simple things add up :).

 

8.  Supporting Local Farmers with Chemical-Free Growing Practices

So obviously while renting in my solar-gain challenged circumstances, I’m not growing much of my own food these days.  However, this has been a wonderful opportunity to get to know my farmers at the farmer’s market and support them!  I have found several organic growers that I really like; additionally, I found several offering local pasture-raised meats, cheeses, dairy, and more.  Even in a quiet town in the mountains, there are good options available.  They aren’t as bountiful or divere as the Detroit Metro Area by any means (which is really like a local food Mecca!) but they are there if you know where to look.

 

9.  Plant Education in the Community

Harvesting a bit of burdock stem for folks to try on my first plant walk :)

Harvesting a bit of burdock stem for folks to try on my first plant walk 🙂

So this is one of the things I am most excited to share.  When I got here, I found some people doing some good work with conservation and standard gardening, but not too much else.  I decided to go for it, offering my knowledge as a permaculture designer, herbalist, and wild food forager to the community.  The response has been really great!  I’ll share one story: I began offering plant walks this summer to people who wanted to learn more about the edible and medicinal uses of plants.  I see this as part of my work in the world as a druid–helping reconnect people and nature.  I decided I didn’t want to earn money for them (it is sacred work, part of my spiritual path) so instead I took a donation for a good cause (and each walk is for a different cause). My first walk was a few weeks ago  (my second one is this week) and I had 25 people show up and raised $350 for charity!  They were a great bunch and since then, many are posting about their garlic mustard pesto and dandelion greens!  I opened the walk with a discussion of dandelion, and closed the walk with some tasty treats and a delicious bottle of dandelion wine. It was super exciting!

 

10. Land Healing, Scattering Seeds, Wildtending

Long-term readers of my blog will have noticed my shift in energy and focus: In moving, since I didn’t have land of my own, I shifted my focus instead on tending the broader land around me. This has been really productive for my own thinking, as well as for the land here, I believe. I have written a lot of posts on this subject in more depth: my post on healing hands, my series on wildtending and refugia and seed balls,  my extended series on land healing. Its interesting because I never realized how intently focused my gaze was on that one piece of land till I no longer had it, and it was almost like waking up, looking around, and saying, “ok, now what?!?” I think good things have come of it!

 

11. The Disposables Problem

I have also worked to tackle the disposables problem by starting to carry with me my own take out containers, buying in bulk when possible, and eliminating plastics from my life as much as possible. One of the small, yet important, shifts I made was investing in some stainless steel silverware (a spork and pair of chopsticks) that I keep in my purse.  Now, if I’m at the Chinese buffet, I don’t need to consume another pair of chopsticks. If I’m at tge campus function and there is disposable silverware, I get my spork out instead. This has equal value as an educational tool as it does to reduce waste :). I have a acquaintance who sells them.

 

12.  Slowing Down

A few of these (walking, candlelight, haybox cooking, local foods) have a united theme: the theme of slowing down.  I have been reading a lot more about the slow movements–slow food, slow money, etc.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that these things are “slow” in the sense that nothing ever gets accomplished.  But they are slowing down to the right speed so that we can more fully and meaningfully live!  And that’s good by me!

 

Other Stuff I’m Excited to Try: I have been looking diligently for a large, used fish tank with the hopes of getting an indoor aquaponics system setup.  The fish tank hasn’t yet manifested itself, but I suspect it will when the time is right. I’m quite excited to try this approach!  I’m also working on building a solar cooker and experimenting with a lot of different kinds of gas-free cooking, like dutch oven cooking.  I’m also, obviously, in search of my next property so the real fun can begin again!

 

What are you doing in your spaces, great or small! I would love to hear from you :).

 

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!

 

Soil Regeneration & Lawn Reclamation: Creating a Sheet Mulch Bed from Seedy Garden Weeds September 16, 2015

As I’ve discussed recently on this blog, one way of rebuilding and deepening our relationship with the land is through the intentional act of regeneration. This regeneration work, in many cases, starts with the soil. The soil is the web of all life, and without soil, we cannot traditionally grow anything (I say “traditionally” because aquaponics and other systems do have soil-less approaches, but those aren’t really useful to say, converting your front yard into vegetables). Our soils globally are degraded, and most estimates suggest that if things keep going the way they are going, we have only 60 years of topsoil left.  Topsoil takes an extremely long time to recover naturally–about 2″ every 1000 years.  What is happening in the case of industrial farming, growing of lawns, and so on is that material that should be cycled back into the soil them now ends up blown away, in rivers or in landfills. Ninety percent of our food depends on soil (even animals we eat depend on soil, as they eat grains). Healthy ecosystems cannot thrive without soil.  And so, from my perspective, if we want to begin the work of regeneration, we begin that work with soil.

 

Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Even if you grow nothing in your soil, sinking carbon and nutrients into the soil is a practice worth engaging in. One soil building technique favored by permaculturists is sheet mulching.

 

Sheet mulching allows us to recycle otherwise “waste” products (cardboard, newspaper, yard waste, grass clippings, wood chippings from tree work in the neighborhood, etc). It allows us to quickly build soil fertility (speeding up that 1000 year process to maybe 5 or 10 years!). Sheet mulching mimics the natural process of continual layering of organic matter on the top of the soil, and not doing much to disturb the lower soil horizons. And of course, sheet mulching rebuilds our soil, adding vital nutrients and organic matter.

 

Therefore, sheet mulching has a few benefits over other kinds of garden bed prep:

  1. It allows you to mimic nature and use a variety of plant matter and other “waste” ingredients
  2. It allows you to suppress weedy material or grass to have relatively weed-free beds
  3. It allows you to quickly build soil mass
  4. It does not disrupt the existing soil web of life, but adds to it
  5. It allows us to quickly sequester carbon

 

Fall is the perfect time to begin planning your garden beds for next year and for doing any large-scale lawn conversions–and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, fall is just about here.  Fall is the best time to work because  its much more enjoyable to work in the cool autumn air compared to the hot July air; for existing gardens, this is when things die off; and when the fall leaves drop, a lot of free and available nutrients for gardening activities!

 

When I was doing my PDC this summer, we visited Ryan Harb’s front-yard garden in Amherst, MA and did a permablitz including a sheet mulch (I will also do a post on Ryan’s front-yard garden sometime this winter after my “harvest” posts are concluded for the year!) I’m going to share his sheet mulching technique, which was a little different from the sheet mulching I used on my Michigan Homestead that I used this in conjunction with other composting techniques. The method I presented on this blog several years ago requires that you have a lot of weed free organic matter (like fall leaves) which may not always be the case.

 

Ryan’s sheet mulch technique presented in this post is really good when you have weedy/seedy material (like say, from weeds in a garden bed) and you want to use that plant material but not have weed seeds popping up.  This technique is also good if you have some woody material, like say some small vines or something.  When I began all of my garden beds in my Michigan homestead, I used a very as my primary technique which involved loosening the soil, adding a suppression layer of cardboard, then layering organic matter (mostly weed free) several feet high in the fall and planting in it in the spring.

 

Materials needed for this technique needed are:

 

  1. A huge pile of weedy or non-weedy material (woody material ok), so material you pulled from your existing garden; even things like manures often contain weedy material (I learned this hard way the year after my first sheet mulching); fall leaves (preferably shredded) or other organic matter. You’ll need a good deal of this to build soil.
  2. Access to a hose/water source
  3. A lot of cardboard or newspaper or both; enough to cover the pile fully with overlaps.
  4. Access to finished compost; enough to cover the pile to a depth of 3-4″.
  5. Some friends to help. Sheet mulching can be a lot of fun with a bunch of people, and not as much fun without them!

Sheet Mulching

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheet mulching to cover up lawn–it feels very subversive (to the status quo) and empowering (hey, let’s get some veg in here!).  So let’s get started!

 

After a good 2 hour harvesting and weeding session, the PDC group had a large pile of weeds.

Some of the weedy material!

Some of the weedy material!

And so, to make use of this material, we converted another 4′ x 20′ part of Ryan’s lawn to a productive growing space. We began by laying down the layer of weedy material–the layer was probably about 1.5 feet thick when we started.

Laying down the material in a pile

Laying down the material in a pile

After each step you water the pile. The water helps the material break down faster. After reading the Liquid Gold book, I would probably, at this step, also encourage everyone to pee on the pile to add additional nitrogen or add some saved urine for the pile….but we unfortunately skipped that step during the permablitz :). After wetting the pile, we began adding compost. We added 3-4″ of compost the whole way over the pile.

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile - wise placement!)

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile – wise placement!)

Adding compost to the pile

Adding compost to the pile

As we added compost, we used the back of the rake to evenly distribute the compost.

Ryan smooths the pile

Ryan smooths the pile

After that, we worked to flatten the pile by dancing on it. The dancing is critical–I’m not sure this method will work without dancing at some point.  Get in there in your bare feet and go to it!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

After this step, we add the cardboard and newspaper.  This functions as a weed suppression layer–we need to suppress any weeds that may want to poke up through that rich compost!  So while some of us prepped cardboard, others laid it down.

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first....

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first….

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

You can get cardboard and newspaper readily–most big stores will have so much cardboard every day that they are generating from materials coming in. Furniture stores or Appliance/TV stores have really large boxes that work well for this. Last week’s newspapers, also, can be readily available. Or if your neighborhood has paper recycling, just go pick boxes up on the curb.  Regardless of how you procure your newspaper and cardboard, lay down a good amount. We laid down a full layer of newspaper, paying close attention to the edges.

Newspaper on edges

Newspaper on edges

Then we watered the whole pile quite well, again.

Wetting down the pile

Wetting down the pile

The next step is to add the wood chips–this will provide the plants to be planted in this pile next year some mulch, which retains water.  Bare soil is not typically found in nature and so we want to mimic nature by using mulching materials.  The wood in the chips will eventually break down as well, further adding humus and nutrients to the soil.

Adding wood chips as mulch

Adding wood chips as mulch

Wetting down the pile – we’ve finished!

Completed sheet mulch!

Completed sheet mulch!

This sheet mulch area won’t be planted in right away–we made this pile in July, and Ryan planned on planting in it in the spring.  That’s usually how it works: prepare the piles prior to planting.  The reason for this is that the sheet mulch pile can get pretty hot as the green plant material is breaking down and that can be too hot for plant roots to survive.  By letting the pile sit, the pile will break down naturally and create an awesome growing medium.

 

In my own garden at my homestead, in early spring, some of the material from my fresh sheet mulch piles still hadn’t broken down when I went to plant the spring. I added additional compost for around the plant, and the plants did just fine.  By the end of that first summer, there was no more cardboard or material–all was beautiful, rich, black soil.  Nature does try to slowly reclaim your soil and piles–if you find yourself in a thicket of plants you no longer want, sometimes its easier just sheet mulch over them again. So you sheet mulch, grow a few years, get a bunch of creeping weeds, and then just sheet mulch over it again; this doesn’t harm the soil, and continues to add organic material.  Yay for soil regeneration!
PS: If any Druid Garden blog readers are planning on attending the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA this weekend, do comment and let me know so we can meet up! 🙂

 

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!