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How to Start an Urban Farm

HOW TO START AN URBAN FARM

Like any new venture, starting an urban farm is a daunting and difficult task. Not only do you have to find land to farm, but that land also must be suitable for growing food. Not only do you have to know how to grow food, but you also have to know what to do with your bounty when harvest time comes around. What has often been referred to as “the simple life” is actually extremely complex and intensive.

And yet many people around the world are choosing to start urban farming ventures of their own to strengthen the bonds of communities and teach people that real food comes from the ground — not from supermarkets. It sounds like an obvious statement, but our food system makes it quite easy to hide all the sweat, work, and dirt that goes into food production and only focus on the finished, packaged products that line the grocery store shelves.

Why Start an Urban Farm?

It’s an unfortunate but true fact that threats to public health are everywhere in today’s modern world. Our food system, one that contributes to the greater problem of climate change, is a huge part of this issue.

How often do we visit the grocery store and buy fruits and vegetables with stickers that mark them as world travelers without ever thinking of how long their journey to our plate might have been? This is even easier to do when the food we buy is so processed that it doesn’t look like real food at all.

In a world where 36 percent of American adults are obese, the state of the food system in the U.S. is a crisis we must address. And what better way to take action against it than to start an urban farm to better feed yourself, your friends and family, and your community?

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Fixes for Nutrient Deficient Soil

FIXES FOR NUTRIENT DEFICIENT SOIL

Basic understanding of plant health comes from the soil they grow in. Their nutrition is vital to their health and overall sustainability, so it’s essential for plants to get all of the macronutrients necessary to thrive.

However, there are times we still struggle with a plant mysteriously dying off long before its time. It happens, but this is often indicative of a bigger problem with the nutrients in the soil. If one plant is struggling, others nearby may be too.

One method that has worked for me is specifying what nutrients appear to be lacking and why. It’s obvious that plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (commonly known as NPK), but plant health is complex and nutrient deficiencies can stem from many places.

1.  NITROGEN

Pale yellow, stunted leaves are a sure sign of nitrogen deficiency. Nitrogen is essential in photosynthesis, cell health, and chlorophyll development. Nitrogen depletion in soil happens when large amounts of carbon are added to the soil, typically after nearby plants decay and die. Microorganisms will use available nitrogen to break down the new carbon source and quickly deplete the nitrogen available to the plant. This stunts the plant’s growth.

To correct a nitrogen deficiency, consider planting nitrogen-rich plants like beans and peas nearby. Adding used and rinsed coffee grounds to the soil to promote nitrogen production. Rinsing the grounds will not affect acid levels of the soil. A plant with plenty of nitrogen available to it will appear leafy green.

2.  PHOSPHORUS

Phosphorous ensures healthy cell division, fruiting, and root growth. Similar to nitrogen deficiencies, plants with a lack of phosphorus will struggle to grow. The edges of their leaves may darken to a brown or reddish-purple. Flowers or fruits will not grow. Some contributors to phosphorus deficient soil include cold temperatures, heavy rainfall and acidic soil.

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Greening the Desert with Permaculture

GREENING THE DESERT WITH PERMACULTURE

“I have never seen soil like this before” was the comment that Bill Mollison made during a visit to the Greening the Desert Project in 2011. At the time, he was referring to the poor state of the soil in the small village of Jawasari, Jordan. An area of the world where the landscape has been damaged by not only extreme pollution and the overuse of recycling nutrients but also by the climatic conditions of the location. At 31° North of the equator, 400-meters below sea level, in an area that receives less than 50-millimeters (2-inches) in annual rainfall, and Summer temperatures reaching over 50°C (122°F), the Dead Sea Valley is considered one of the world’s worst agricultural scenarios.

So, when I and thousands like me first saw the Greening the Desert video, we thought, if this is possible in one of the lowest, driest, and harshest environments in the world then we can do this—grow food, harvest water, repair soil, enhance the ecosystem and build community—anywhere in the world. The solution has been found, and it’s merely adopting the same design methods, the persistence, and the passion.

Growing up in Jordan I have seen agricultural land being encroached on. The neighborhood I grew up in slowly turned from fertile farming land, growing grains and vegetables, into a residential apartment block that was everything you would expect from a concrete forest. I witnessed small farmers struggling to stay profitable, and confessing to losing their land to salt due to commercial planting methods, the advice they get from agriculture departments, chemical fertilizer salesmen and the lack of long-sightedness in the agriculture policy in Jordan overall.

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Permaculture Chickens–6 Practical Lessons From the Evolution of Chickens

PERMACULTURE CHICKENS – 6 PRACTICAL LESSONS FROM THE EVOLUTION OF CHICKENS

One of the fundamentals of permaculture design is to observe, understand and work with natural ecosystems. 

It sounds simple enough to apply permaculture principles to chicken keeping. Can’t we just observe wild chickens in their natural environment? The problem is, modern domesticated chickens don’t exist in the wild. Junglefowl are the immediate ancestor of chickens, however it’s not that simple.

Modern chickens were domesticated more than 8,000 years ago and have changed a lot as a result of selective breeding. To get a more complete picture, that accounts for the differences between modern chickens and Junglefowl, I’ve studied the evolution of chickens from the Asian jungle, to modern factory farming and chicken nuggets. 

I have distilled this research into 6 lessons for a permaculture approach to happy, healthy, backyard chickens. 

Evolution of Chickens 

Before I jump into the 6 lessons for permaculture chickens, I’ll start by setting the scene with a brief history and evolution of the modern domestic chicken.

 

Junglefowl – The chicken’s immediate ancestor:

Jason Thompson – Flickr: Red Junglefowl

Domestic chickens can be traced back to  Red Junglefowl, from South East Asia and India. Jungle fowl have small lean bodies and they only lay about 20 eggs each year.  

 If we trace chickens back even further, chickens are the closest living relative of the T-Rex. This makes a lot of sense because chickens go crazy for meat, hunt down insects and even small rodents. And check out this incredible video of a chicken grabbing (stealing) a mouse that was being hunted down by a cat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwtuoHyLEiw .

Domestication and family farming (1900s to 1950):

 

Junglefowl were domesticated around 8,000 years ago. Despite domesticated chickens being very different ‘physically’ to jungle fowl, studies show that genetic differences are actually pretty small. This study of the genetic evolution of chickens shows there are two important mutations:  

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Ornamental Plants That are Edible and/or Edible Plants That are Ornamental

ORNAMENTAL PLANTS THAT ARE EDIBLE AND/OR EDIBLE PLANTS THAT ARE ORNAMENTAL

When I first began growing food and working with ideas of permaculture, I lived in the tropics where many edible plants leaf out large and are exceptionally stunning. Moreover, the places I found myself building gardens tended to be free-for-alls, where anything goes and HOAs didn’t interfere with what people planted on their property.

Last year however, after twelve years abroad, I moved back to the US. Where often people aren’t allowed to grow food at home. Because I’m more into rural areas, I don’t foresee much issue in this regard to me personally. However, I’m often asked for advice and eventually, I may do some consulting work.

Suddenly, the idea of having to gett around these committees and associations seems an important avenue for getting people into home food production. I already knew that it was possible to create an “ornamental” garden entirely with plants that are edible. However, now in the temperate climate, it was time to learn some of the plants with which to work.

(Please follow links, if necessary, for Latin names and more information.)

Perennials

Sticking with the principle that perennial plants are always a plus, I would want to recommend several to go into the garden. The selling points – there are many. Perennial plants put fixed roots into the soil, which take nutrients less intensively than annuals. In terms of appearance, they often appear earlier and provide earlier blooms as well, and in many cases, they hang on a bit longer. Ultimately, they are lower maintenance, often spreading out on their own, which makes for easy gardening.

Hosta

Perennial Edible Ornamentals

There are several ornamental plants that grow perennially, some of which are noted for being delicious as well as attractive.

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What to do With Bad Soil

WHAT TO DO WITH BAD SOIL

After watching the sun set and the full moon rise atop my neighbour Sergey’s hill which overlooks the entire eco-village, he walks me back to my tent hidden in the midst of young pine trees upon the insistence of his mother (“You need to walk the young lady all the way to the door of her tent, you hear me?”). His cat Murka (Moor-kah, meaning purr-cat) follows her human grandma’s instructions too, inspecting my tent before heading back home. She spends her summers in the village roaming free and overwinters in a Kiev apartment. When it’s time for her to ride to the village every spring, she stands on the car seat and looks out the window, getting extremely animated for the last 30 minutes of the trip.

Sergey and I walk in the moonlight trying to find where I pitched my tent on my newly purchased 5-acre (2-hectare) plot located about an hour-and-a-half ride west of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Our feet sink into the soft sand, dry plant stalks crunch under our feet. Sergey sighs: “There’s so much work that needs to be done here”. I cringe at the sound of that, but I don’t know yet why. It takes me another day to understand why I don’t agree with him.

Before our cabin arrived, I slept in a tent, hidden in the emerging pine forest. None of these trees were here 9 years ago.

 

The abundance of herbs and insects in the midst of pine trees

 

The phrase “green thumb” doesn’t even begin to describe Sergey’s talent when it comes to plants.

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Battery Technologies for Off-Grid Living

BATTERY TECHNOLOGIES FOR OFF-GRID LIVING

There are so many battery technologies out in the marketplace, and it is highly likely between me writing this and you reading it there will be another new fandangled world’s best battery that has hit the market.

What Elon Musk has done with Tesla is to create a market awareness of wanting to install home battery storage and reduce our impact on the environment from burning fossil fuels. This has been fantastic for raising the level of awareness.

Is installing home battery storage actually the best thing for the environment though?

As any good permaculture teacher will tell you “It all depends on the situation.”

My experience with batteries is that all the technologies have a place and purpose; it’s about choosing what’s right for you and your situation.

It’s about choosing the right tool for the job and understanding the capabilities of that device. Not choosing the correct tool for the job can end up with a broken machine!

This week I got the inside on the Tesla power wall training I attended about installing home battery storage from the distributor of Tesla powerwall in Australia. It was a fascinating look on what can be done with the technology and it’s limitations.

The three top batteries sold around the world for battery storage are Lithium, Lead Acid, and Nickel-Iron Cells. Australia is currently the largest installer of nickel-iron cells around the world for stand alone solar applications.

Let’s start with the number one selling battery worldwide the Lead Acid Battery.

Lead Acid Batteries

Lead Acid cells have been the biggest selling batteries for home energy storage as they have been the most cost efficient and simple cell to use. Being the battery of choice for cars has helped bring down the cost of production.

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Understanding Biological Farming: A Simplified Understanding of ‘Compost Tea’ a Plant and Soil Probiotic

UNDERSTANDING BIOLOGICAL FARMING: A SIMPLIFIED UNDERSTANDING OF ‘COMPOST TEA’ A PLANT AND SOIL PROBIOTIC 

In ideal soil ecosystems, we would have dramatically different soil and certainly a dramatically different level of ‘made made’ toxins. In an ideal soil environment, we would expect our topsoil to contain 10% organic matter, and would also expect to have literally thousands of species of bacteria and hundreds of species of fungi. In most soils today, we often have a humus content of less than 1% with just a few hundred species of bacteria (including plant pathogens) and less than 100 species of fungi (including plant pathogens) this is often due to poor soil management including the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Poor soil management is simply a matter of misunderstanding the importance of building living soils.

The lack of a large diversity of bacteria and fungi in our soils affects plant health and production dramatically because plants naturally have a very close symbiotic relationship with the soil biology. Plants depend on bacteria, fungi, worms, bugs, and beetles, and larger animals to help provide and digest their food for them. Plants don’t digest minerals by themselves; they either depend on a complex relationship of soil biology to provide their nutritional and health needs or they depend on often toxic ‘artificial’ soluble fertilizers and pesticides to provide for their food and health needs. The first is natural and depends on natural processes, the second is increasingly expensive, more difficult to manage and defeats natural soil fertility processes.

In healthy soil with good organic matter and a healthy biology, a soil food web is created. How this works is that the plants exude ‘exudates’ from their roots, these are simple sugars, proteins and carbohydrates in many different forms, which then trigger responses from the soil biology. The bacteria, protozoa, beneficial nematodes and fungi respond to these triggers to provide the plants with nutrition and to protect plants from disease.

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Raised Garden Beds in the Bush–Growing Your Own Food in Poor Soil Conditions

A simple aluminum raised garden bed

RAISED GARDEN BEDS IN THE BUSH – GROWING YOUR OWN FOOD IN POOR SOIL CONDITIONS

When we moved to our bush property two years ago self-sufficiency was high on the agenda. We wanted to produce our own electricity, collect rainwater and we certainly wanted to grow some or if possible most of our own food. This included an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables and we both envisaged a fairly large space for vegetables, berries and flowers intermingled in a lush, productive garden. But for the time being, while we were building a house and joinery workshop, we had to be content with a single ‘temporary’ garden bed so we could start growing some fresh greens. The bed was constructed with two curved, 5m long zincalume sheets that were left over from our roof installation. We screwed the two sheets together at the ends to form an elliptical shaped bed 0.9m high. Working the bed at this height – sowing, planting, mulching, harvesting and pest control – has been extremely convenient and the ‘temporary’ bed turned out to be a great success and supplied us with an abundance of food.

Garden veggies from a simple DIY garden bed, including kale and frogs.
Our first raised bed produced an abundance of vegetables and attracted beneficial wildlife.

The following spring we added a second, rectangular bed made of other scavenged sheets to accommodate some tomato and zucchini plants. Once you have started to grow your own food you never really grow enough or have enough space. There is always another variety that should be added to the mix. The second raised bed planted with zucchini and tomato plants is pictured in the image at the beginning of the article. The long sheets were not supported and the beds started to budge when they were filled with compost.

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Common Composting Problems and Solutions for the Beginning Composter

COMMON COMPOSTING PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS FOR THE BEGINNING COMPOSTER

Composting is standard practice on any permaculture site. This is the case for several reasons. It creates a closed waste cycle between vegetable scraps and vegetable production, often with the added bonus (an in-between stop) of animal fodder. It helps to rebuild or maintain healthy, balanced soil by feeding the soil life and creating a steady replenishment of nutrients, and nutrient-rich soil makes for nutrient-rich food. In simple terms, composting is a most useful natural process that any human-supporting, sustainable system needs.

While it is standard practice to compost, that isn’t to say that doing so is always foolproof or works out exactly the way folks are aiming. There are many methods to make compost. Some sped up the process into 18-day creations. Others, such as with composting toilets, go through a year-plus of maturation before they are considered user-friendly. There are even composting systems that gurgle and burp out methane gas that can be used for cooking. In all these incarnations, at some point, something is bound to go wrong.

However, what most people do with compost bins is somewhat in between, something in which the peels of potatoes or bananas, the remnants of breakfast or garden pruning, are meant to decompose into rich earth with minimum effort. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to make compost as well, but it’s also the one from which people are often turned off with composting altogether. These bins turn into sludgy messes or stagnant piles of organic garbage, causing would-be composters to throw up their hands and call it quits.

But, the solution might be something really simple.

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The Benefits of a Natural Pool

THE BENEFITS OF A NATURAL POOL

Nothing is better than having a pool in the backyard, they’re great during the summer, make your backyard look better, and raise the value of your property. On the other hand, they require quite a bit of maintenance to care for. The pH levels have to be carefully monitored, expensive and dangerous chemicals needed to be added, and their filtration systems need to be regularly cleaned out. There is a much easier way to have a pool in your backyard that doesn’t require all of the maintenance or cost that a normal pool involves.

A natural pool is a beautiful extension of your backyard that regulates itself without the need for expensive systems or chemicals. A natural pool uses plants and a simple water pump to keep the water clear and bacteria-free. A natural pool consists of two pools, one pool is just like a traditional pool, it has a cement or plastic liner that can be as shallow or as deep as you would like. The other pool is much more shallow and is host to a bunch of water plants, like cattails or water lilies. A pump cycles the water from the large swimming pool to the plant-filled pool removing bacteria and any contaminants.

Houses beside a pond used for swimming

A natural pool costs about as much to install as a traditional pool but because you do not have to have to add chemicals yearly it will save you hundreds of dollars every year. The most you will have to do is skim leafs of off the surface. Where a normal pool requires you to not only regularly add chemicals, like chlorine, it also uses quite a bit of electricity to run. With a natural pool, you will start saving money from the day you install it.

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Amazing Apples

AMAZING APPLES

These days when we hear the term apple we sometimes have thoughts of the latest iPhone or what the hottest album on iTunes is. Perhaps if you’re a 90’s fan, the line Matt Damon delivers in Good Will Hunting “How do you like them apples?” is what pops into your head. However, at the core of it all (pun intended) is the delicious, bright, crunchy, crisp fruit that hails from the Rosaceae (Rose) family we call the apple. Along with the wonderful apple (Malus domestica) this family produces beautiful roses, strawberries, cherries, and almonds.

History of the apple is long, and full of some very true stories and some very well-known fairytales. We couldn’t have the story of Snow White without it! Apples have been around since prehistoric times, with remains even found in dwellings in Switzerland. The apple tree is thought to have originated in Central Asia from the wild ancestor, Malus sieversii. From there, thousands of species have spread through Asia and Europe, and eventually brought to North America by European colonists. Although Native Americans did have a version of crab apples growing before the introduction by colonists.

If you would like to grow your own apples you will need a minimum of these four things: space, patience, chill time, and two trees of differing cultivars. Apple trees can grow over 20’ tall; although there are dwarf varieties that only reach a maximum of 10’. Apple trees take a minimum of 3 years to produce fruit and some take up to 8 years. Because apples require cross-pollinationyou will need at least two apple trees that are different cultivars. However, if your neighbor has an apple tree close by this usually works. Apples also need a chill period when temperatures are below 45°F, but above freezing, in order to set fruit. The amount of time needed is variety dependent.

As the spring season rolls around in your area this is the time to plant apple trees. Be sure to plant your trees in full sun and 20’ apart from one another, unless you are using a dwarf variety, which can go as close as 10’. Keep your trees out of low lying areas where cold air settles. Your soil should be loamy and at a pH between 6-7.

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Remarkable Rhubarb

REMARKABLE RHUBARB

Eat the stalks, not the leaves! Wise words to adhere to when you’re going for the over-the-top tart perennial known as rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum). This member of the Polygonaceae family has perfectly edible stalks that look similar to celery, but has leaves that are quite poisonous. Rhubarb leaves contain some seriously high levels of oxalic acid, which is a nephrotoxin and can lead to kidney damage, and even potentially death if enough of it is consumed.

This striking vegetable, although often considered a fruit by many, is thought to have originated in China, as far back as 2700 B.C.E as an ingredient in many healing remedies. Around the 1st century the Romans and Greeks were also using rhubarb to treat various illnesses. In the 13th century Marco Polo was noted to have uncovered the rhubarb in his travels. As the centuries passed, the bitter rhubarb was brought to Europe via the East Indian trade as an important ingredient in medicinal tonics. By the 18th century, rhubarb had made its way to North America and was grown and used mainly for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that rhubarb was utilized as a culinary item.

Generally we think of rhubarb as red in color, and think color is indicative of sweetness. However, rhubarb can be freckled pink and even come in green. Often the green rhubarb produces higher yields and sweetness is variety (not color) dependent. It just seems the red varieties are more popular with people and so that’s what we see in the stores more often than not. I do agree that the crimson hues add some nice color to the dishes rhubarb is added to.

Whether you like your rhubarb red, green, or with a few pink freckles, growing it is easy peasy. However, there are few things you should consider before planting. It is a perennial and will come back each year (some live to 20), so make sure you have a dedicated space for it in your garden. Also, don’t harvest any stalks during the first year of growing so the rhubarb can become established. This will help you have better success in years to come. Rhubarb does best in locations that have winters with temperatures that go below 40°F and where summer temperatures aren’t excessive.

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15 Productive Plants That Are Evergreen and Suited for the Temperate Climate

15 PRODUCTIVE PLANTS THAT ARE EVERGREEN AND SUITED FOR THE TEMPERATE CLIMATE

For me, this year has been full of exciting information about the temperate climate. Having spent most of my permaculture life in Central America, moving to North Carolina has had me say goodbye to many old favorites and marvel at a host of new possibilities. It wasn’t until November, however, that I realized just how naked the forest and garden would be due to the cold.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about cold weather crops and cold frames for year round production, but until recently, I’d thought more along the lines of food in the winter rather than appearance. While the revealed vistas are often incredible, the collection of bare branches—kind of like a skeleton forest—really made me recognize the need to include evergreen plants in temperate designs.

So, I’ve done a bit of research and built myself a starter list for what might work where I am now: USDA Zone 7a or Köppen Classification Cfb. To my delight, there is a lot to choose from, plants that are both productive and evergreen.

Photo: Courtesy of Denise Allen

CULINARY HERBS

Culinary herbs are great on so many levels. They have huge health benefits, with lots of anti-oxidant and medicinal qualities, and they usually smell and taste great. Many are also perennial, which means they provide stability in the garden. And, just about all of them are great for repelling and/or distracting pests and attracting beneficial butterflies and bees. It turns out that a good lot of them are evergreen as well.

Turn Your Sink and Shower Water Into An Abundant Oasis

TURN YOUR SINK AND SHOWER WATER INTO AN ABUNDANT OASIS

Chances are that you have probably heard of the importance of conserving water. Dozens of governmental and non-governmental organizations have orchestrated campaigns trying to convince the average person to reduce the amount of water that they use. From high-efficiency laundry machines to shower heads that are in line with the current national energy policy act standard, most advocacy for conserving household water use focuses on having us use less water.

While reducing the amount of water we use is undoubtedly important, re-utilizing water is a strategy and approach that is very rarely considered. Greywater recycling constitutes a way to reuse the water that goes down our drains. When done correctly, it comprises no danger to human health while also leading to greater ecological resiliency.

WHAT IS GREYWATER AND HOW MUCH OF IT DO WE USE EVERY DAY?

Every day most people send hundreds of gallons of greywater into sewer and septic systems. Greywater, or the water from our sinks, showers, dishwasher and laundry machines, differs from black water (from toilets) and contains mostly soap residues. This water can easily be recycled into the landscape allowing for an extra water source and source of fertility. Even in the driest regions, greywater recycling can allow you to create an oasis from the water you normally waste.

In places like California and the desert southwest, we read headlines almost on a monthly basis of how severe drought is causing problems for households. People are advised to take shorter showers and stop watering their lawn, but virtually no attention is given to what to do with the water that does go down our drains. It is estimated that between 60% and 80% of residential waste water is wash water that comes from our dish washer, sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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