Simple Living Archive


6 Reasons Why You Need to Plant Perennials…Like Now

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

If you’ve ever debated about whether perennial plants are right for your landscape, author Ben Falk is here to help. And, as a recent winner of an American Horticultural Society 2014 Book Award, you can be sure to trust his expert advice.

Falk’s award winning book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead, offers readers the lessons he’s learned about perennials on his Whole Systems Research Farm and explains the six reasons why gardeners and farmers should not overlook these permanent producers. One advantage, according to Falk, is their resilience to climate change. Perennial plants are able to both avoid and bounce back from climate stress like drought and flood. Want to know more? Read Falk’s entire list of perennial plant benefits in the excerpt below.

For more guidance on growing perennials, take a behind-the-scenes look at how Paradise Lot authors, Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates, transformed a desolate urban backyard into a permaculture paradise and go on a virtual tour of their garden to learn about four perennial vegetables that thrive in the shade.

 

No Space? No Problem. Gardening Tips for the Urban Dweller

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Interested in growing fresh food, but worried about lack of space? Not a problem, according to author R. J. Ruppenthal.

In his book, Fresh Food From Small Spaces, Ruppenthal shows readers how to transform their balconies and windowsills into productive vegetable gardens, their countertops and storage lockers into commercial-quality sprout and mushroom farms, and their outside nooks and crannies into sustainable nurseries for honey bees, chickens, and more.

In this excerpt, Ruppenthal explains how choosing the right crops based on climate and light conditions, along with creating a companion planting strategy to prevent pests and attract pollinators, can help maximize food production with limited space.

For more information on proper seed selection, garden planning, and do-it-yourself tricks to help you grow your own food, check out these related posts:
The Seed Series: Choosing the Right Seed Crop
How to Plan the Best Garden Ever
DIY: Make a Self-Watering Planter


 

DECIDING WHAT TO GROW IN YOUR GARDEN SPACE

Those of us with limited space are forced to make decisions. How can I use my small space most productively? If I want to put in a small garden, what should I grow? You can experiment by growing a variety of different plants, or you may decide to focus on just one or two items that perform well in your conditions. There are good arguments for each strategy.

Growing a variety of crops is fun, and although it won’t provide you with huge amounts of any particular food crop, you’ll get some of many. This approach offers more balanced nutrition to complement your overall diet and the likelihood of a rolling harvest (with your plants producing food at different times, not all at once). However, you should also consider the benefits of focusing on a crop or two that grow well in your space. Why focus? Because some crops will do well in your area, while others will not. You may find it very easy, for example, to grow prodigious quantities of fresh herbs or leafy greens, but not have enough light to grow fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers effectively. Or you might decide not to garden at all, and instead perhaps cover your whole available space with a chicken coop. This is fine; specializing has its benefits too. With this focus on just one or two food crops, you may be able to meet all your family’s needs for fresh herbs or leafy greens or chicken eggs. And, if you have extra, you might sell or barter the surplus for something else that you can’t produce. This is free trade in its simplest, most elegant form.

When I started my first balcony garden, I tried to grow a little bit of everything. In a 10-foot-square area over a two-year period, I grew (or tried to grow) tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, cabbage, chard, beets, herbs, strawberries, cucumbers, and summer squash. I even had a scraggly little blueberry bush that gave me a few berries in its second summer. Experimenting with different crops was fun, and it helped me learn what grew best in my small space. Through this experience, I learned to focus on certain crops that I could depend on, thus making the best use of my space.

Due to differences in climate and the amount of light and heat that your urban garden area receives, you will be able to grow some crops more effectively than others. Through trial and error, I learned that my little garden could produce prodigious amounts of cherry tomatoes, green beans, peas, and chard. Unfortunately, I also learned that other things did not grow well in my space: strawberries and cucumbers were the worst performers, for various reasons.

Try to grow what your family likes to eat, but also be realistic in terms of the plants’ requirements. Peppers, eggplant, and cucumbers are basically subtropical plants that we try to coax into producing fruit in cooler climates. They need a lot of light, warmth, and long days. Squash is much easier to grow, but the plants take up too much space for small-scale container growing; they are great additions to a larger garden if you have a backyard. However, even container gardeners can grow compact varieties of summer squash (zucchini). An added urban challenge for squash, cucumbers, and melons is that they require bees or other insects for pollination of their flowers in order to be fully productive, and it’s not a given that your small space will attract the notice of neighborhood bees (though you will, almost inevitably, attract neighborhood pests). Although it is possible to hand-pollinate squash, cucumber, and melons, this requires the extra effort of waking up at dawn and transferring pollen from male to female blossoms with a paintbrush.

If you have the full day’s light and warmth that is necessary for squash, cucumber, and melons, and can attract pollinating insects (perhaps with some additional flowering plants or herbs), then you can try to grow them vertically by building a trellis and training their vines upward. Vertical gardening (described at more length in Chapter 4) saves you precious horizontal space and gives your plants the chance to be quite productive. A trellis can be made from wood, wire, string, or even fishing line; the point is to give the plant something to hang on to as it climbs. My balcony has a metal railing that I use as a trellis base for my tomatoes and pole beans; I extend it with string and bamboo poles, and affix the growing plants to this frame using twist-ties from the supermarket or small pieces of string. When plants begin producing heavy fruit, you also need to tie up or somehow support the fruiting branches to keep them from falling.

Some people find strawberries very easy to grow, and I encourage you to try them. Strawberries can be squeezed into very small spaces and even window boxes. A European species, Fragaria vesca, commonly called Alpine strawberry, is a hardy perennial and bears continuously from around midsummer to the end of the growing season. It is often advertised as a shade crop and has a truly magnificent flavor. If you enjoy eating strawberries, then they may be worth a try where you live, particularly because of the many different varieties that have been developed in recent years to suit different conditions. In terms of other berries, blueberries can grow in containers and produce well in certain climates, though most require specific soil conditions. You also could investigate blackberries and raspberries, which can be trained vertically to increase production and maximize your use of space. Currants and gooseberries grow well in some northern climates, and can fruit well even in partial shade conditions.

Beans and peas are wonderful additions to the small urban garden. I grow beans in the warm summer and peas in cooler weather. Both plants can produce high-protein shelled beans and peas, or they can be eaten in the young pod stage as a nutritional supervegetable. Both can be grown vertically and in crowded garden conditions, saving you space. Both plants are legumes, so they fix nitrogen in their root systems, making them a great companion plant next to other crops. Beans and peas (especially bush varieties) also can produce quite well in lower light conditions.

VEGETABLES FOR LOW-LIGHT CONDITIONS

For many people living in urban apartments and condos, lack of sunlight is a big issue. Your unit may face away from the sun or get only morning or afternoon exposure. Oftentimes, other buildings surround you and block much of the light. But do not despair; you still have space to work with. The good news is that cities are rarely dark; there is a lot of diffuse sunlight, reflected light off walls and windows, and warmth collected in the concrete and building materials. In the vertical gardening chapter, I cover some strategies for making the most of your light. Here, I’d like to recommend some different vegetable crops for areas with low light.

First, you should know that fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, squash) need plenty of light to set and ripen their fruit. Ideally, we are talking about 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight for these, though, as you will see in the vertical gardening chapter, there are ways to succeed with less light than this. Next among vegetables come those that will flourish in full sunlight, but also can set productive crops with partial sun. These include peas, beans, and root/tuber crops such as beets, turnips, carrots, and even potatoes. I have grown bush peas and bush beans in full shade with only 3 to 4 hours of indirect, reflected light. These plants grew more slowly than their counterparts in the full sun, but they had no trouble setting a crop eventually and the output (though a few weeks later) was nearly as good as that from plants grown in full sun.

If you like to eat peas and beans, they are some of the most rewarding plants to grow, even in partial shade or indirect light. When picked tender and eaten in the pod as green beans or snap peas, both are classified as nutritional supervegetables. Alternately, the same plant also can provide some amazing protein if you let the pods grow to maturity. You can then shell the beans or peas and cook them fresh or dry them for later use. Peas and beans make great complementary crops, as each one grows in a different season: Beans like the warmth of summer, while peas thrive in cooler temperatures and can make a great short-season crop in spring, fall, or even in winter in milder climates.

You will be more successful in low-light conditions if you select the right pea and bean seeds for growing. Do not buy nursery seedlings or use transplants for either one, since they grow far better when direct-seeded. When you buy seeds, you will notice that each variety of pea and bean is labeled as either “pole” or “bush.” Pole beans produce heavier crops over a longer period and are ultimately more productive over the same amount of space. So, if you have plenty of sunlight and a nice vertical space, then pole beans and tall-growing varieties of peas might work well for you. However, for low-light or short-season gardens, I recommend bush peas and bush beans. These plants are shorter, stockier, and essentially dwarf versions of the traditional pole beans and peas; they need very little trellising support and can be grown close together for maximum yields. They will produce a single crop (and sometimes a bit more) in short time frame, using less overall light energy than pole beans require. Depending on the variety of bush bean, it is not impossible to have a full crop of delicious green beans or snap peas ready to pick within 35 to 40 days after seeding. These plants also add some nitrogen to the soil, which means that they are a great rotation crop that will help build the soil for your next round of veggies. (This is particularly useful with peas, since they can grow in cooler temperatures.) When choosing seeds, also consider whether you would like to shell them or eat them in the pod, as some varieties are optimal for one or the other use. The best peas for eating in the pod are the sugar snap peas, which have peas surrounded by thick, edible pods, or the flat-podded snow peas so common to Asian cuisines, which can be eaten raw (some are as sweet as candy) or added to a stir-fry for a quick, delicious nutritional boost.

With root and tuber crops, you can do almost as well in low-light conditions, but you will need to experiment. In my opinion, the key to growing these crops is to realize that the beet, carrot, turnip, or potato we eat is actually the plant’s way of storing its energy underground. Therefore, the more light energy it receives, the better your chances of getting a nice big, sweet carrot or turnip. Luckily for urban gardeners, the amount of light per day is sometimes less important for these crops than the total amount of light that the plants receive during the entire season they are growing their roots or tubers. So you may be able to get a nearly full crop in partial shade if you wait a little longer to harvest. In fact, full direct sunlight may be too strong for beets and turnips anyway, so a little shade can even help. Also, each of these vegetables can be picked and eaten when small, so a row of plants that never reach their full height may still yield a bountiful crop of petite carrots or beets. For a potato crop grown in partial shade, the plant may only get around to flowering fairly late in the season, but this is a great time to pick the tender new potatoes that are prized as a gourmet treat.

Finally, leafy greens have lower light requirements than other vegetables because you eat the actual plant and do not need to wait for it to set seeds or fruit. This list includes chard, beet greens, turnip greens, spinach, lettuce, kale, cabbage, arugula/roquette, and other edible greens with similar characteristics. Some of these plants actually will wilt or burn in full sunlight and so they prefer some partial shade or reflected light. You can get a productive crop of delicious, nutritious greens without any direct sunlight, provided you have some indirect, reflected light for a few hours per day. Any of these greens are great plants to use in a small garden because you can choose to harvest them “cut and come again” style (a leaf or two at a time, which the plant will regrow) or else eat the whole plant at once, take it out, and replace it with something else.

One note on leafy greens, including beet greens and turnip greens: Try growing them almost any time of the year, provided the ground is not frozen. The cost of a handful of seeds is no more than a few pennies, and you will be amazed at the vigor of these plants. Although other books you read may discourage you from trying to plant a new crop in the fall or over a mild winter, many greens are pretty hardy, and can be given a few extra degrees of frost protection by growing them in a cold frame or under a heat-retaining fabric blanket, or “floating row cover.” (See “Growing in Cold Climates,” below.) At the very least, you may end up with a very short-season crop of baby greens for salad, soup, or stir-fry.

ADDING SMALL FRUITS AND BERRIES TO YOUR GARDEN

Many berry plants and small fruit trees can be raised in container gardens or in small patches of open ground. There are dwarf fruit trees and various kinds of berries that will grow in almost any climate and can be a nice complement to your vegetable garden. Most importantly for many urban gardeners, small fruit trees and berry shrubs can make the best use of your vertical growing space. Please see Chapter 6 for a more in-depth exploration of which types of fruits and berries to consider growing in your space.

COMPANION PLANTS FOR YOUR VEGGIES

Companion plants, many of which fall in the herb and flower categories, add beauty and diversity to a vegetable garden. From a functional perspective, these plants are important in preventing pests and attracting pollinators like bees to your vegetables. For both of these reasons, you need to incorporate some companion plants into your containers or ground-based beds. Most companion plants can be grown in compact form alongside your vegetables. Planting them can increase your garden’s productivity through better pollination and pest deterrence.

Some members of the mint family (Lamiaceae) serve both purposes, attracting bees and discouraging common pests such as aphids, whiteflies, and cabbage moths. Rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage are examples of plants that can improve your vegetables’ resistance while providing you with some tasty herbal additions to your culinary dishes. Try bee balm and hyssop as well. Nasturtiums, marigolds, tansy, and cosmos add beauty to your garden while discouraging harmful pests. Marigolds deter beetles and some soil-based nematodes. Nasturtium flowers and leaves provide a colorful, peppery accent to any salad and, like marigolds, their aromatic foliage can deter some potential pests. Although nasturtiums are frequently mentioned as a pest deterrent, I have found that black aphids in my garden really like them. This worried me at first until I noticed that all the black aphids gravitated to my nasturtium plants, and they left everything else alone. My nasturtiums were acting as a trap crop, and some gardeners plant such crops at a distance away from food crops, though if black aphids do not bother your garden, then nasturtiums would fit well on the edge of containers and tumble gracefully over the edges.

Garlic, onions, leeks, scallions, and chives are wonderful additions to any garden, whether grown for their bulbs or for their green stalks. Also, these plants deter aphids and other harmful insects. Interplanting them with other vegetables may confuse pests or throw them off from the scent of your sweeter-smelling crops. For example, two good companion plants are carrots and leeks: Leeks repel carrot flies, while the smell of carrot plants is strong enough to confuse the onion fly and leek moth, two common pests. However, members of the onion family (Alliaceae) should not be planted in the same container or bed with peas or beans, as they tend to stunt these vegetables’ growth.

The topic of companion crops is a larger one than can be fully addressed here. Although I have focused on a few useful pest-deterrent plants, there are also many useful planting combinations for vegetables themselves. The most famous of these is the Native American and Mesoamerican “Three Sisters” combination of corn, beans, and squash. Corn is a nitrogen-heavy crop, while beans fix nitrogen in the soil. The stalks of corn, in turn, provide support for the climbing beans, while the squash plants provide a thick groundcover of living mulch, preserving moisture in the soil. These plants also come from different families and have different root structures, so they do not compete heavily with one another for nutrients, and their combination in a garden can throw off potential pests of any one crop. To learn more about which vegetables complement each others’ growing habits (as well as the few combinations you should avoid), try doing an Internet search for “companion crops.” For more in-depth reading, Louise Riotte’s Carrots Love Tomatoes provides a nice overview of companion vegetable and fruit plantings.17 Although some companion plantings have proven themselves over many generations, others are more controversial, and there are ongoing debates within the gardening community about the success of certain combinations. It seems that what works for a gardener in one region and with a particular soil type will not necessarily produce the same success elsewhere. If you are interested in this subject, research it, learn what you can, and try some combination plantings that have been recommended by others to see what gives you the most success.

How to Plan the Best Garden Ever

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Growing your own food is hard work, but with a few easy tips you can make it a lot easier.

Carol Deppe grows almost all of the food she eats, but with a cranky back and complaining knees, she has been forced to figure out labor-saving techniques and tricks, and she shares them in her book The Resilient Gardener, along with detailed guides for growing the five crops you need to survive: bean, corn, squash, potatoes, and eggs.

An easy-to-use garden starts with a good plan. This excerpt, adapted from Carol Deppe award-winning book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, explains the difference between planting in long straight rows and planting in smaller beds.

Rows might be great for tractors, but beds can be easier to water, and can help you to space your plantings throughout the growing season.

* * * * *

How many gardens start thus? First, we haul out the rototiller (or hire the tractor guy) and till up the entire garden. We let the buried thatch decompose for three weeks and hire the tractor guy or rototill again. Then we try to plant the whole thing all at once, preferably before it rains. Rain will compact the soil and make it harder to create furrows for planting. In addition, if a couple of weeks go by before we plant, weeds will have such a head start that we really should rototill again or hoe the entire area before planting. So after the second plowing or tilling, we tend to want to plant everything all at once. Planting becomes a bottleneck. Needing to plant everything all at once creates an emergency.

Once we have successfully planted everything all at once, it will all need to be weeded all at once. And the entire garden is in seedlings needing maximum watering care all at once. Many a garden fails because, once planting has been turned into an all-at-once emergency, the gardener collapses (exhausted but happy) and forgets the garden for a while, during which time the seedlings fail to germinate or die from lack of water, or weeds get too far ahead.

For small gardens, there is much to be said for beds. In many situations they are the only option. A garden bed is a soft place where you don’t walk. You don’t walk on beds even when weeding, harvesting, or digging to renovate them. This means the width must be limited to what you can comfortably reach across from the sides—a maximum of about 5 feet, generally. Beds may be any length, however.

We usually create or rejuvenate beds by digging. Someone, of course, has to do the digging. But you don’t have to dig all the beds at once. Gardening in beds particularly lends itself to areas with long growing seasons, mild winters, and year-round gardening, with different beds being planted at various times throughout the year. Gardening in beds is also typical for perennial or ornamental plantings. I had no choice about gardening in beds when vegetable gardening in my backyard. Various concrete walls and fences and property lines made it impossible to drive a tractor into the yard. So there was no option of hiring the tractor guy. Also, there were so many septic easements and shady areas that the space available for gardening was limited to small areas here and there. Even rototilling with a walk-behind tiller isn’t practical with tiny dispersed beds.

When we garden in beds in the backyard, it is often automatically in raised beds. When we start with poor soil or the subsoil typical of many backyards, we usually add bulky organic materials (leaves, compost, etc.) to help create a decent garden soil. These added materials plus any dug soil translate into a raised bed. Raised beds have special advantages and liabilities. They dry out and warm up faster in the spring than planting areas that are level with the ground around them. This is a big advantage for early plantings in areas that experience cold, wet springs (such as Oregon). In addition, if the water table is high or the soil is shallow you may need raised beds to provide deep enough soil for plant roots. However, when there is little or no rain (such as in Oregon in summer), the fact that raised beds dry out faster means they need more frequent watering.

Beds don’t need to be raised, though. They can be level with the rest of the ground. You can, for example, start by tilling a garden area, then just designate certain areas as beds and others as paths. Beds also do not have to be permanent. Temporary beds are not walked on throughout the growing season but are tilled up at the end of the season; and next year’s beds may not be in the exact same places. Even raised beds need not be permanent. You can till up the entire garden area first, then hoe or till the soil up into beds. Then you plant and tend the beds as beds (and avoid walking on them) for just the one growing season. Several large organic farms around here operate largely or completely with a style of temporary raised beds. They till a field, then shape it into raised beds with a tractor-drawn bed-forming implement. Then they treat the beds as beds (and don’t walk on them) for a season before tilling the entire field again.

For many years, I used a mixed strategy. I grew the crops that needed to be harvested almost daily for summer meals in permanent raised beds in the backyard. Then I had a larger tilled garden elsewhere for field corn, dry beans, and winter squash. In my backyard I planted about one bed every three weeks as the breaks in the weather permitted. I planted the bed for first-early peas in February; greens in March and April; tomatoes, summer squash, and green beans in May and June; overwintering brassicas in July and August; and garlic, fava beans, and overwintering peas in October. My plantings of corn, dry beans, and winter squash were too large for me to be able to deal with as hand-dug beds. They also needed to be planted approximately all at once in May, fitting perfectly with the pattern of just calling the tractor guy to till up a field. These crops also did not require tending or harvesting daily. So these are the crops I grew in the tilled field away from home.

Gardening in intensively planted beds is the way to get the most yield from small spaces. In order to obtain those high yields, however, you must have very fertile soil, must water regularly, and must plant intensively. You really crowd the plants compared to traditional plantings in rows. I found that such intensive plantings did not work for me. The crowded plantings must be watered almost every day it doesn’t rain. Here in maritime Oregon, that is every day starting in June and going right through the entire summer.

I am not the sort of person who, given my druthers, wants to water or do any other chore every single day, even in the best of times. During the period I was caring for my mother, absolutely all of my ability to do those kinds of tasks was taken up with the caregiving situation. Garden beds do not have to be planted intensively, however. If I planted my beds with about 50 percent more space than typical for intensive beds, I didn’t have quite the watering pressure. I found I could water every other day or even skip two days without much problem. Nevertheless, I still lost entire beds here and there whenever an emergency in my mother’s medical situation took me totally out of the garden for a while. I learned to minimize the impact of these emergencies on my gardening by not planting more than one bed every three weeks. That way I had only one bed at a time at its most vulnerable stage with respect to either watering or weeding. Whenever the unforeseen deprived the garden of my labor for a while, if I lost something, it was usually only one bed, not all of them.

These days Nate and I garden entirely in a tilled garden arranged in traditional rows, and our spacings within the rows are on the generous side. We space things so as to allow ourselves to water only the most moisture-dependent plants (tomatoes, full-season sweet corn, melons, and kale) once per week and the least water-needy plants (potatoes) not at all. This cuts down on the total amount of water needed as well as watering labor. This garden can survive and thrive when left completely alone for a week, even during the worst heat waves in summer, and considerably longer the rest of the time. Nate doesn’t like must-do-every-day chores any more than I do. Until I had expanded to a much bigger leased garden elsewhere (and a collaborator), however, garden beds in the backyard were an essential part of my strategy. And I simply did not have the room to give the plants as much space as they needed for once-per-week watering and greater water resilience. Gardening, like the rest of life, is full of trade-offs.

Living the Simple Life: William Coperthwaite

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Late last year architect, maker, visionary, homesteader, and Chelsea Green author William Coperthwaite died in a car accident just miles from his Machiasport home in Maine.

The entire Chelsea Green family was saddened by his death, and perhaps none moreso than Peter Forbes who had been inspired by Coperthwaite’s work and contributed the foreword and photographs to Coperthwaite’s award-winning book A Handmade Life.

Friends have set up a remembrance page honoring Coperthwaite’s life and inspiring work, which includes this moving passage from Forbes after he and his wife Helen Whybrow returned from burying Coperthwaite.

“My wife, Helen, and I got back from Dickinson’s Reach late last night after a very powerful and important three days. On Saturday, a group of us dug a six-foot-deep grave at the spot where Bill wanted to be buried. Another group made his casket and yet another group planned how to get his body from the mortuary back to his home. Bill wanted his body left however he died, untouched by doctors or undertakers. On Saturday morning, which was cold and stormy, six of us paddled out in two of Bill’s canoes across Little Kennebec Bay to Duck Cove where we were met by a hearse. We took his body out of the black plastic bag, wrapped him in his favorite blanket, and placed him gently into his pine box. We lashed the canoes together with four posts and tied the casket to the posts creating a catamaran to bring him home. The return was calm except for when we made the turn into his bay when a great wind picked up and blew us all the way into Mill Pond. We were met there by about 30 others who carried Bill in silence up from the beach past each one of his yurts. We paused at the most recent one as this was the place where Bill expected to die. We then brought him to his grave site, had an hour of reminiscences, and then buried him. And now we’re home trying to figure out what life means.”

Coperthwaite

Coperthwaite “embodied a philosophy that he called ‘democratic living’ which was about enabling every human being to have agency and control over their lives in order to create together a better community,” noted Forbes after Coperthwaite’s death. “The central question of Mr. Coperthwaite’s life and experiment has been ‘How can I live according to what I believe?’”

Over the years, thousands of people made the 1.5 mile walk to see his homestead, to be inspired and to learn from his approach to simple living by working alongside him [See the project below, "How to Make Your Own Democratic Chair"]. Intentionally avoiding electricity from the grid, plumbing and motors, he showed that it was possible to live a simple life that is good for themselves and the planet.

Born in Aroostook County Maine, Coperthwaite received a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College and after graduation he turned down another scholarship to Annapolis Naval Academy to claim conscientious objector status in the Korean War. Bill did alternative service with the American Friend Service Committee where he connected with the teachings of American pacifism. Bill would become close friends with Richard Gregg, a central figure in that movement. Though they had 50 years difference in age, Coperthwaite and Gregg found a strong bond and Gregg introduced Coperthwaite to the work of Mahatma Gandhi and to Helen and Scott Nearing, legendary social radicals who had pioneered their own experiment in self-reliant living in Vermont and later in Maine. The influence of pacifism, nonviolence and simple living would lead Coperthwaite far out in to the world to learn from other ways of living, particularly handcraft traditions.

As Forbes noted, “Bill will be remembered by his friends for his commitment to his principles, his deep love of life and people, and his great intellect, humility and humor. Our nation has lost one of the links in the chain of great people working quietly with all their unique powers to foster a better world.”

Peace.


 

Project: Make Your Own Democratic Chair

The following project is from A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity by Wm. S. Coperthwaite.

Is there such a thing as democratic furniture? If so, what would a democratic chair look like?

Most of the fine chairs we see today, if handmade, take nearly as much skill as boat building and, if made with power tools, require much investment in equipment and acquiring the skills needed. I would like to see what those who are reading this might come up with for ideas for a handmade chair that is light, comfortable, strong, beautiful, simple to make from easily found materials. (All we seek is perfection.)

Utopian? Or impossible, to create an egalitarian chair? Not at all. As a society we have simply not yet focused on this problem. When we do, there will be some elegant chairs as a result (or boats . . . or houses . . . or wheelbarrows . . . (not necessarily in combination—although, come to think of it, there have been some very comfortable wheelbarrows, some very fine houseboats, and several wheelbarrow boats. . . .)

My suggestion for the most democratic chair follows. This is not provided to represent an ideal but in hopes of stimulating even better designs from you, the readers.

To Make the Democratic Chair:

    1. Saw and whittle out the four pieces shown in diagram, using white pine 7/8-inch thick.


(Click for larger version.)

  1. Bevel the front edges of the two base pieces to meet at the angle shown, then nail together.
  2. Fit seat in place, and screw to the base with four screws.
  3. Place the back piece in the notches in the base, and screw to the base and the seat.

Slow Democracy: Online Book Club

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Join co-author Susan Clark for a free online book club!

Ask her your questions, and discover ways to improve the decision-making initiatives in your own community.

Wednesday, March 5th, 2pm (EST)
It’s free and open to all!
RSVP here » »

To purchase your own copy of Slow Democracy, get 35% off using the discount code READCG.

What is slow democracy?

Just as slow food encourages chefs and eaters to become more intimately involved with the production of local food, and slow money helps us become more engaged with our local economy, slow democracy encourages us to govern ourselves locally with processes that are inclusive, deliberative, and citizen powered.

This event is presented in partnership with the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, Joan Blades’ Living Room Conversations, and Transition U.S.

Hope to see you there!


Susan ClarkSusan Clark is a writer and facilitator focusing on community sustainability and citizen participation. She is an award-winning radio commentator and former talk show co-host. Her democratic activism has earned her broad recognition, including the 2010 Vermont Secretary of State’s Enduring Democracy Award. Clark is the coauthor of All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community (RavenMark, 2005).

Her work strengthening communities has included directing a community activists’ network and facilitating town visioning forums. She served as communication and education director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Coordinator of the University of Vermont’s Environmental Programs In Communities (EPIC) project. Clark lives in Middlesex, Vermont, where she chairs a committee that encourages citizen involvement, and serves as town-meeting moderator.

Thank you to our co-sponsors!
NCDD Transition U.S. Living Room Conversations

Does it Pay to Keep a Cow?

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Originally published as The Cow Economy in the 1970s, Keeping a Family Cow is the revised and updated Chelsea Green edition of Joann Grohman’s classic homesteader guide to owning a family cow.

In this adapted article below, Grohman – who, at 85, still milks her cow daily – walks newcomers through the economics, and the emotions, of owning a family cow, or two. So, if you’re ruminating this winter about getting a cow this year – read on. Or, start your daydreaming.

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Your Cow Economy

Does it pay to keep a cow? For the last fifteen thousand years and more the answer was too obvious to bother asking. Cattle, more than anything else, were synonymous with wealth. Is the world so different now? We certainly do our cost accounting differently today. Once you have your own cow you will modify the following numbers to fit your circumstances.

The chart here can help you get started. In the following example I am assuming 165 days of grazing and 200 days of hay feeding.

Keeping Family Cow Chart

Additional costs for trucking, fencing, housing, veterinary expenses, pitchforks, and so on are important to keep track of, but you will get a clearer sense of your cow economy if you log them separately.

If the cow is on a no-grain regimen you can deduct the cost of the grain, but you will then need to deduct 20 percent of the milk production.

If the cow freshens at five gallons a day, you dry her off after 290 days, at which point she was giving two gallons a day, that’s an average of about 3.5 gallons per day or 1,015 gallons per year. Cows in commercial herds do a lot better than this and yours may too. But at $4 a gallon that’s $4,060 worth of milk. Deducting the costs of the cow and her feed, you are, in theory, $1,035 ahead. In the second year, when the cow is already paid for, your costs are only $2,025. If you have a $600 heifer calf to sell, you may consider yourself $2,635 ahead.

If you are raising a steer you won’t want to butcher before eighteen months. Both butchering costs and what he may bring at auction vary greatly, but you ought to be able to count on 450 pounds of meat if you choose to butcher.

If a family of four uses a gallon of milk a day, there is an average of two and a half gallons a day to sell, make into value-added products, or feed to other livestock. At this point, if you consider value-added products, the cost accounting can get quite interesting.

If raw milk sales are legal in your area, the two and a half gallons can be sold at the farm gate for at least $6 a gallon. Or you can skim the cream and sell it either as cream or as butter, making from $10 to $20. You can make cheese from either skim or whole milk. Skim milk or excess whole milk can be used as a significant part of the diet of chickens, pigs, or calves, or as fertilizer. Clearly butter is what you do with cream that doesn’t sell. But I would never sell much butter. It is too valuable in the family diet. I like to know what my dairy products are worth, but I keep a cow so that we can have all the high-quality dairy products we want.

Don’t forget that the cow’s manure is also valuable, either as fertilizer on your fields or to sell. Where I live, dried cow manure sells for $7 for a twenty-five-pound bag. But as with butter, I consider the manure to be too valuable to sell.

Ruminants make milk and meat on a diet of plant products. On a similar diet, other animals only fatten and make poor growth; they need a true protein source such as milk before they can build muscle and reproduce. The cow is thus an engine capable of driving the entire nutritional economy of a household. She is the ultimate sustainable-energy vehicle.

The cow does not just provide protein for the other critters on the place. The effect of cow manure on the garden is magical. I go to very little trouble with composting, just starting a new pile occasionally and using up the old one. My garden soil is dark and friable and grows strong, healthy plants with a minimum of effort.

Can you put a price on all this?

Maybe. I often read articles, books, and newsletters with suggestions on how to spend less on “lifestyle” so couples can get along on one income. Would home production of virtually all of your food make this possible for you? It will certainly keep you all radiantly healthy.

Feeding CowAnd another thing. Thrift is my middle name, but those suggestions for feeding the family on day-old bread and making bulk purchases of dry cereal I find depressing. Keeping a cow is more satisfying. One popular writer encourages frugality so that there can be savings in readiness for the children’s orthodontia. I do not find this to be an incentive. If your children are young when you get a cow and they grow up with fresh milk, their teeth will be straight, just as all teeth were meant to be. How much we personally have saved on dental or medical bills would be difficult to state because health insurance costs vary. My emphasis has always been on prevention, not cure. Consequently cure has seldom come into it, but when it does it has a better chance in an already strong constitution built on real food.

I cannot discuss the cost and work of keeping a cow without also considering the true long-term investment in the health and appearance of my family. The cost of my labor cannot be counted in this domestic economy. Nothing else I might have done with my time could have matched the rewards I see.

Cows and grass are recession-proof and inflation-proof. In difficult times, the family with a cow is not poor.

Author Honored for Social and Food Justice

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Longtime sustainable agtivist and Chelsea Green author Elizabeth Henderson was honored at the 2014 EcoFarm conference in California, receiving the organization’s annual “Justie” award.

Henderson, author, along with Robyn Van En, of Sharing the Harvest, the book that helped inspire and inform the CSA movement, was honored for “advocating for social justice as a critical aspect of sustainable agriculture and food systems.” That work is currently ongoing through The Agricultural Justice Project (Elizabeth is pictured below (r) with AJC director Leah Cohen (l).

Congratulations, Elizabeth! It was an award immediately recognized and cheered by her peers — such as the folks over at Greenhorns — who understand this is a well-deserved honor for someone who has been an inspiration to many in the sustainable ag movement.

Below is Elizabeth’s speech to the attendees at the awards ceremony, and she has given us permission to share it with you. Enjoy and get inspired!


Thank you.  This is a great honor. Not just for me, but for the Agricultural Justice Project team – working together since 1999 to give new energy to fairness in organic and sustainable agriculture. Leah Cohen, our director, and Michael Sligh of RAFI are here with me this evening, Marty Mesh of FOG and Nelson Carrasquillo of CATA, the other founding parents, are busy elsewhere.

While some people come to a commitment to social justice through some crisis or transformative experience, I drank social justice with my mother’s milk.  My parents, Laura and Sydney Berliner, had a life-long commitment to peace and justice – and they were already the second generation in our family – my mother’s uncles fought for freedom from oppression in the Revolution of 1905 in Poland, then fled to the US to avoid conscription into the tsarist army, and spent their lives as union activists.  It gives me great satisfaction that the 4th generation carries on this work – my son Andy Henderson devotes his talents and energies to teaching youngsters here in CA in a double-emersion Spanish-English program, helping children grow up to be literate active citizens.

Sharing the HarvestThe meaning of food justice is complex.  The most widespread understanding is access to healthy food for low paid or unemployed people, and I have made a tiny contribution in this area working with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) to provide subsidies to CSA shares in the inner cities of Rochester and Buffalo, New York.  But there are two other equally important aspects of food justice. There is the struggle for living wage, fairly remunerated work for everyone who labors in the food system. CSAs like mine (Peacework Organic CSA) can play a role.  The direct relationship with our members gives us the opportunity to negotiate with them for better prices and to ask them to share with us the risks of growing their food. And this is where AJP comes in – our standards require that buyers pay farmers prices that cover the full costs of production and that all food system employers pay living wages, guarantee safe working conditions and recognize the right of working people to freedom of association.  And finally, for food justice to become a long-lasting reality,  there must be local, community control.

If we hope to build a movement that will have the strength to replace the industrial food system, we farmers need to work as allies with all the other food workers from seed to table.  Despite owning significant amounts of land and equipment, the earnings of farmers like me and many of you are more like those of industrial workers than captains of industry. The profits in the food system go to the other sectors – “… the agricultural family unit is only a subcontractor caught in the vise between upstream agroindustry… and finance… and downstream … the traders, processors and commercial supermarkets.” (p. xii, Food Movements Unite!) Family scale “sustainable” farmers will only break this vise by taking our place alongside other working people in the food system in solidarity with their struggles which are really our struggles as well.

ecofarm14 037Since I was a child, these words of Eugene v. Debs have had a special resonance for me.  When he was sentenced on November 18, 1918, to ten years in prison, he said: “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

If we at least begin demanding that farmers, farm workers and all food workers make living wages with full benefits, (health care, compensation for injuries and unemployment, and retirement) from a 40 hour week, we may start moving towards an agriculture that will sustain us into a future worth living. And that is what the Agricultural Justice Project is all about – a set of tools to help build value chains, changing relationships to bring alive the Principle of Fairness that is basic to organic agriculture all over the world.

Holiday Bread Favorite: Learn to Make Pain d’Epices

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

This is an old-fashioned gingerbread-like quick bread—the name means “spice bread” — that is a holiday favorite among bread bakers. I’ve sold it, given it away as gifts, and eaten it at Christmastime for years.

The main leavener is baking soda, which creates carbon dioxide when it comes into contact with the acidic honey. Unlike baking powder, which makes carbon dioxide when it becomes wet and again when it meets the heat of the oven, baking soda creates carbon dioxide only once. Make sure your oven is ready to go once you start mixing this one. Unbaked batter that sits around will lose its carbon dioxide and become heavy.

Like other dense rye breads, this bread has an impressive shelf life. It will become a bit chewier after several days, but I find it delicious toasted and served warm with butter.

Pain d'Epices bread ingredientsYield: 2 loaf pans, 1 Pullman pan, or numerous mini loaves
Prefermented flour: 0%
Wood-fired oven temperature window: 350°F (177°C) and falling
Home oven: Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C).

Sift together the rye flour, baking soda, and spices into a large bowl and set aside. Whisk the milk and honey together over medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the orange and lemon peel and remove from the heat. Before you add the yolks, you must first temper them so they don’t cook in the hot mixture. To do this, slowly drizzle a little of the hot mixture into the yolks while whisking. Now add the tempered yolks back into the liquids.

Add the liquids to the dry ingredients and mix gently just until smooth. Divide evenly between two greased loaf pans. Arrange the almonds in a decorative pattern on top of the unbaked batter.

Place the pans directly on the hearth in the 350°F (177°C) zone, and bake for 15 minutes. Then move the pans into a 325°F (163°C) zone in the oven and bake for approximately 25 minutes more, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The loaves may need to be tented with foil to prevent excessive darkening.

If you’re using a home oven, bake at 350°F for 15 minutes. Reduce the temp to 325°F and bake for approximately 25 minutes more, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The loaves may need to be tented with foil to prevent excessive darkening.

Let the loaves cool for 10 minutes, then unmold them and cool them completely before slicing.
Richard Miscovich

This recipe was inspired by a recipe in Saveur magazine, issue 30, and appears in Richard’s book, From the Wood-Fired Oven.

Zero Waste: A concrete step towards sustainability

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

By Dr. Paul Connett

I can’t remember exactly when I concluded that we were living on this planet “as if we had another one to go.”

We would need at least four planets if the whole world’s population consumed like the average American and two if everyone consumed like the average European. Meanwhile India and China are copying our massive consumption patterns. If we want to move in a sustainable direction then something has to change. In my view, the best place to start that change is with waste. Because every day every human being on this planet makes waste. All the time that we do that we are living in a non-sustainable fashion, but with good political leadership – especially at the local level – we could be part of a movement towards sustainability. A sustainable society has to be a zero waste society.

The zero waste approach is better for the local economy (more jobs), better for our health (less toxics), better for our planet (more sustainable), and better for our children (more hope for the future).

How do we get there?

Zero Waste a New DirectionIn The Zero Waste Solution I outline “Ten Steps to Zero Waste,” which are essentially common sense. Most people would have little trouble dealing with the first seven steps:

• source separation
• door-to-door collection
• composting
• recycling
• reuse and repair
• pay-as-you-throw systems for the residuals, and,
• waste reduction initiatives at both the community and corporate level.

However, it is Step Eight where some people are going to have trouble and where, if we are not careful, the waste industry could easily co-opt all our good work.

The incineration industry has discovered that by introducing two words it can continue to insert its poisonous, polluting activities into the mix. The phrase “Zero Waste to Landfill” cynically takes the good intentions of the Zero Waste movement and moves it back in a non-sustainable direction.

Instead, step eight calls on communities to build a residual separation and research facility in front of the landfill. The point of this step is to make the residual fraction very visible as opposed to landfills and incinerators that attempt to make the residuals disappear.

It is at this facility that we have to introduce a new discipline on waste. The community has to say to industry “if we can’t reuse it, recycle it or compost it, you shouldn’t be making it.” In other words waste is a design problem, and that is Step Nine: We need better design of both products and packaging if we are going to rid ourselves of the wretched “throwaway ethic” which has dominated both manufacture and our daily lives since WW II. We need to turn off the tap on disposable objects.

The final step is to create interim landfills — and I use interim because the goal of zero waste initiatives is to eliminate the need for traditional landfills. These interim landfills should be seen as temporary holding facilities until we can better figure out how to recycle, reuse, or better dispose of these materials than just tossing them in the ground, and capping them.

Summing it up with the Four Rs

Zero Waste four RsThe simplest way to explain Zero Waste is that it involves four Rs. The three familiar R’s of community responsibility—Reduce, Reuse and Recycle (including composting)—are joined by the less familiar “R” of industrial responsibility: Re-design.

In fact, the first person that talked about zero waste was one of the greatest designers of all time: Leonardo da Vinci. Somewhere in his writing he said that there is no such thing as waste: one industry’s waste should be another industry’s starting material. No doubt he was copying nature’s approach to materials. Nature makes no waste; she recycles everything. Waste is a human invention. Now we need to spend some effort to “de-invent” it.

Dr. Paul Connett is the author of The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time.

How to Grow Oyster Mushrooms Indoors

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Is frost setting in? Dipping temperatures terminating your backyard projects?

The growing season for temperate climate gardeners is pretty much over by this time of year. But we know locavores are hungry all-year-round, and that’s why we love to publish books to help you take control over your food supply even in the dead of winter. From Eliot Coleman’s easy methods of gardening under cold frames, to Sandor Katz’s techniques for turning your kitchen into a bubbly fermentation factory, our authors keep the homegrown fun going.

One of our favorite resources for off-season growing or simply growing food year-round in your urban “homestead” is Fresh Food from Small Spaces: The Square-Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting, and Sprouting by R. J. Ruppenthal. The book shows you how to grow vegetables on balconies and patios, but also how to grow some simple and nutritious foods indoors such as sprouts and mushrooms.

This excerpt explains how to start your very own oyster mushroom farm. Give it a try!

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Oyster mushrooms are probably the easiest kind of mushrooms to grow. Though they are accustomed naturally to growing in wood, you also can raise oyster mushrooms in a variety of other growing media, including straw or sawdust. The easiest way to begin is with a kit. If you want to experiment on your own, then oysters give you a greater chance of success than other mushrooms. There are dozens of varieties of oyster mushrooms, from pin-sized to trumpet-sized, so check with your kit or spore supplier to see which kinds are available and recommended for your climate. Most grow in an ideal temperature range of about 55 to 65 degrees F.

Most oyster mushroom growing kits consist of either a small inoculated log or a holey plastic bag filled with sterilized, inoculated straw or sawdust. You can make your own kit using any of these materials, but I will recommend one other method that has worked well for many indoor mushroom growers. For this you will need two milk cartons or small waxed-cardboard boxes, enough sawdust to fill them, 2 cups of whole grain flour or coffee grounds, and some oyster mushroom spawn. The basic steps are as follows, but feel free to improvise. If sawdust is unavailable, you could also use straw for this.

  1. Cut out the top of the milk cartons so that their edges are of even height. Punch several small holes in each side of both cartons.
  2. Sterilizing (optional): If you are using sawdust that has already been inoculated with spawn, then do not try to sterilize it or you will kill the fungi. If you are using additional sawdust that has not been inoculated yet, then you may want to sterilize it. The easiest ways to do this are by boiling, steaming, or microwaving it. If anyone else in your household might object to cooking sawdust in the kitchen, then you might want to try this step when no one else is home. To sterilize with a microwave oven, fill a microwave-safe bowl with sawdust, plus the flour or coffee grounds, and wet down this mass with enough water so that it is the consistency of a wet sponge. You may need to do several successive batches to sterilize all of your sawdust. Nuking the sawdust on high for two minutes or until the water begins to boil off will kill any unwanted organisms and leave your kitchen smelling like either a wood shop or coffee shop. You also can boil or steam the growing medium in a pot of water in the kitchen or over a campfire, with or without a steamer basket. After it has boiled for a few minutes, turn off the heat, keep the sawdust covered, and let it return to room temperature.
  3. Using non-chlorinated water, wet the sawdust until it’s thoroughly damp. Then mix in your spores or inoculated material.
  4. Tightly pack this damp growing medium into your milk cartons and leave them in a cellar, garage, storage locker, or dark cabinet. You can put some plastic underneath the cartons and cover them loosely with plastic if desired. If insects are a problem, then spray cooking oil around the plastic to trap them. Keep the sawdust mix moistened regularly with nonchlorinated water, and in a few months your fungi should fruit repeatedly. To harvest mushrooms, twist them out gently so that their stems do not break.

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