Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sun Tea, Solar Brew, Sol Highball, Photon ____ ?

Making sun brewed tea with mojito mint. Note that where some people see skids, permaculturalists see potential

I couldn’t think up a word meaning drink that started with f (or ph) to put after photon. Oh well, whatever you want to call it, it sure is TASTAY! It can turn a regular summer day into a PARTAY! Sun tea is also easy to make:

1) Fill a large jar (in my case an empty pickle jar) full of water,  preferably distilled
2) Add some tea bags
3) Place in sunny location for 3-5 hours (capturing onsite energy is a permaculture principle)
4) Chill and serve

Of course you can also experiment a bit. You can see that I have added some home-grown mojito mint to the jar. Ah yes, what a great way to recycle a tire and prevent mint from overtaking your garden (there’s gotta be some permaculture in that). That tire, mint, soil and all, was rolled over to its current location after… That’s a story I am not currently at liberty to talk about, but with enough positive interest might be able to convince my better half to let me. It's a good one!

Now an evil disclaimer (you can tell because the print is smaller).  Apparently there is a bacteria, often found in tap water, called Alcaligenes viscolactis. There are some reports on the internet saying that it can propagate in sun tea. That being said I have never been sick after drinking it or heard of anyone being sick either. In the comment sections of the sites I looked at there were no cases of anyone being sick either. As with any food or drink preparations, use common sense. If you choose to make it then don’t let it steep in the sun too long and make sure to drink it right away. More on this matter can be found at:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


In this action-packed martial arts, permaculture, gardening thriller a small-time city farmer says “enough’s enough!” and makes the conscious design decision to take on the problems associated with water shortages and weeds brought on by climate change inconsiderate soil digging practices. After enlisting the help of a friendly local arborist who dumps 3 or 4 yards of free chipped wood mulch in his driveway, the gardening hero, along with his favourite hoe, shovel, and wheelbarrow, fearlessly covers his front beds, side beds, potato and bean patch, blueberry hedge row, hosta haven sitting area, and cherry tree dripline with a good 10-15 cm of water retaining, weed suppressing lignaceous goodness. Tension arises when he notices that there is only about half a wheelborrow full of chips left and the rose garden is still in need. Will there be enough? Watch Enter the Mulch and find out!

Will the roses get their fair share of mulch?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Coffee Permaculture Style vs. the Typical Morning Madness

Le Café - Also a great place for a beer!

You know you're getting old when you start making, or at least thinking, “when I was young, we used to ____” statements. While being the singer and guitarist in a heavy, primal sounding rock duo keeps the old feelings at bay, I must admit that these types of statements are becoming more common for me. For example, when I was young we used to make our own coffee. Yup, it's true, we used to make it ourselves. I started drinking coffee in second year university when I had a co-op job at the Ministry of the Environment and our department had a regular, household coffee maker situated on the wall outside my open concept cubicle. The payment system consisted of putting down a tally mark when you took a cup. The coffee making protocol dictated that if you finished the pot you made another. Way back then we even made (and still do make) our coffee at home. No cartridges were used and the percolator did not look like R2D2.  Now it's an everyday occurrence to instead see a 20 car traffic jam outside the Tim Hortons before work. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic (and it is currently hard to be patriotic when being led by the Harper government), I ask the question: is a “Timmie’s coffee really that good that you feel the need to rush and wait in line to get one? And for those that feel the need to answer this question, please don't, as it is rhetorical. I certainly don't want to get up early just to line up to buy a product that I can better make at home at a much lower cost. And I don't think coffee makers are pertinent anymore in government departments or companies –coffee making has been taken over by commercial corporate interests. The days of gossiping around the floor coffee pots are long gone.

I have some good coffee memories from when I did my PhD in Québec. In the mornings, we made super-strong coffee in the lab coffee pot and our supervisor could sometimes hear us laughing over our morning brew as he came up in the elevator, despite it being located at the far side of the hall. I remember my next-door neighbor enjoying a tiny cup of espresso while leisurely standing in his front yard doing nothing but soaking in the sights and sounds of the neighbourhood. When I did go out for coffee the atmosphere was much different than here. At one local café it would take about 20 minutes for your cappuccino to be made and when the owner brought to you he would serve it with pride, as if it were a great masterpiece. And it was. I made the mistake one day of asking him for a decaf and was sternly lectured on the merits of “real coffee”. That was the first and last time that I made that mistake. Coffee at his shop was an experience and not just a robotic routine.

With these thoughts in mind, I humbly present to you “Le Café”.  I constructed it in my backyard between nectarine and peach trees that I planted with my kids a couple summers ago. The bricks were picked up free from the side of the road following a tip from a friend who saw them and knew that I like to scavenge and reuse building materials. They only took about an hour to lay. While they are not entirely level, I think that only adds to their old world charm. The soil I dug while laying the bricks became the raised beds that encircle Le Café. The beds are planted with Shasta daisies, Echinacea, sage, and chives. I also added some night scented tobacco, as I thought that their evening perfume would add to the atmosphere while enjoying a glass of wine on the café on a moonlit night (and that maybe I could use their nicotine containing leaves in an organic bug spray...).  And that brings me to the aspect of design that was the driving force behind building the café.  It wasn't so much about typical landscaping elements such as plants or colors, or even standard Permaculture design concepts such of us multiple functions, or stacking of elements. Instead it was based on how I wanted to feel - I wanted to create an experience, a place to slowly drink my home brewed coffee and just enjoy the beauty of the gardens around me. Designing in this manner is perhaps best conducted by asking yourself a couple of questions: What kind of life do I want to live? What do I want to see myself doing?  Waiting by myself idling in a car to go through a coffee shop drive-through is not one of my answers to these questions. Judging by the typical expressions on the faces of the people in said lines I can’t see that is high on their list either, they just have never really thought about it.

In contrast, let me share today's morning coffee experience with you. I am sitting in the café writing this entry and so far have been visited by a robin that sat on the top of the Mulberry tree, a cat that was peaking out from underneath said tree, albeit not at the same time as the robin, in the play area that my daughter has constructed that we refer to as “the restaurant”, a squirrel that was climbing over the clay oven’s woodpile, as well as several chickadees, sparrows, cardinals, and goldfinches that have flown over in their morning travels. The kitchen window behind me also opened up and I was treated to a sweet good morning hello from my daughter. Now this is how you have your morning coffee! Permaculture is about designing a sustainable lifestyles and I will argue that my manner of having morning coffee is more in line with this than the typical morning madness.

Please feel free to share how you are designing the experiences that you want to have into your permaculture and life plans! 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Incarcerated for the unlawful containment of decaying organic matter?

Incarcerated for the unlawful containment of decaying organic matter? Don’t laugh! It could happen. Recently councilors in London, Ontario, Canada discussed a staff recommendation to that would limit home composting to a one meter square area at the rear of yard with a maximum of 4 covered bins. What the ferment is up with that?  Orest Katolyk, manager of bylaw enforcement, stated, “There is an issue with compost piles. We have looked at composting since the mid-90s. Some homeowners take composting very seriously. We are looking at very reasonable regulations on composting, probably the most user-friendly composting regulations in Ontario, based on the research we did.”  Sorry Katolyk, you are wrong. Thankfully London Mayor Joe Fontana had a more enlightened view and questioned the need to create a new bylaw when, as Katolyk admitted, there have been VERY FEW COMPLAINTS!!!!!  Once again, what the ferment? While no changes were made, the City will be further discussing the matter.

There is just so much wrong with this story that I don’t even know where to start. How about with the fact that there have been hardly any complaints concerning composting. This falls under the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule. Hey Londoners, your tax money is being used to pay salaries and expenses to research and find solutions for a problem that doesn’t exist!

In terms of permaculture and ecological design it makes no sense. We want to mimic nature, after all, nature’s systems have been able to maintain themselves for quite some length of time. Nature is the ultimate recycler, the supreme composter. In a forest leaves grow on the trees, die, fall to the ground, decompose, and release their nutrients to be once again used by the tree. Am I the only one that sees beauty in this? Confining composting to a one meter area hidden both in bins and at the rear of the yard makes the process seem dirty and shameful. NIMBY! Not In My Back Yard! I will celebrate nature’s recycling process in all of its glory! I will use bins, I will use piles, I will sheet mulch, I will dig it in. I will even step out my side door and just throw something decayable in a general backward direction with full confidence that nature will take care of it using the same techniques that it has used over the last several billennia. If I want, I will put a composter near my back window so that I can add organic material directly from the kitchen (this is using the permaculture relative location principle. I will sleep soundly knowing that my home composing is not wasting tax dollars on a green bin system that burns fossil fuels and emits carbon to collect and carry resources that I can use at home to a distant location to be composted and then once again collected and transported burning more money and fossil fuel in the process. Think deeply on this, green bin programs will not last.

To finish I want to quote Canada’s former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who summed up my feelings when he stated that, “There’s no place for the state in the backyards of the nation”. Or something like that.

A garden bed that I started rehabilitating with sheet mulch last fall.  Winter compost has been thrown on the bed periodically. Would each incidence count as an infraction under the recommendations that were proposed in London? Am I a bad apple? Is bad apple bad if it can be composted to recycle its nutrients and help new apples grow?

More information on London’s compost controversy can be found at:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Problem is the Solution: We Must do it for the Children!

One often repeated, and somewhat puzzling, permaculture principle is that of “The Problem is the Solution”. What this means, or at least what I think it means, is that problems are challenges that provide unique opportunities to change. For example, the cartoon shows the “problem” of rising gas prices. One of the solutions to rising gas prices would be to use alternative modes of transportation including bikes. Now think of the advantages of riding a bike. They are cheaper than cars, do not pollute, do not have to be insured, don't take gas, and provide you with (perhaps well-needed), exercise.  Of course there are problems with riding a bike as well, but these once again are opportunities to find unique solutions for.

One of the biggest problems facing the world is that of overpopulation. The problems associated with increasing populations are nothing new; Thomas Malthus wrote about them some 200 years ago. He basically stated that if a population exceeds the resources available then it will be reduced through “misery and vice”. In biological terms, this is related to the concept of the carrying capacity of a given area of land, i.e., the number of organisms the resources of a given area of land (or water) can support. Populations crash, and by crash I mean large numbers of individuals in the population die, when the carrying capacity is exceeded.

Discussions on the growing world population and the dangers it poses can be somewhat numbing with all the facts and figures that you can find on the Internet. For example, the world's population is at, or is fast approaching, 7 billion people. A billion is a number that I find hard to comprehend (is nothing compared to a trillion, which is a number that is commonly thrown around when discussing the debts of countries…). To better perceive the immensity of a billion, David Schwartz in his book “How much is a million?” writes: "How big is a billion? If a billion kids made a human tower, they would stand up past the moon. If you sat down to count from one to one billion, you would be counting for 95 years. If you found a goldfish bowl large enough hold a billion goldfish, it would be as big as a stadium."

Comparison such as these put the large size of these numbers in perspective. You can also put things in perspective by looking at how things change through time (my background in paleoecology, the study of past ecosystems, makes me particularly sensitive to historical changes). For example, my grandfather on my Dad’s side was born in 1898, at the time when the world population was at approximately only 1.6 billion people. This means that in only 100 years, in the lifetime of someone that I knew, the world population has more than quadrupled! There will come a time when our population will exceed the Earth's carrying capacity. It is very possible that we already have and are only surviving thanks to one time infusion of stored solar energy commonly referred to as fossil fuels. In any case, no one can argue with the fact that you cannot have unlimited growth on finite resources.

So, how does this all relate to the permaculture principle that the problem is the solution? Well, one way of looking at it is to see that children are the problem. After all, if the population is growing them they are the ones that are increasing in number. If humans are to continue living on Earth then our children (and their children, and so on) will have to be able to live on it in a manner that is within the Earth's carrying capacity. What better way to do that than by teaching them the knowledge needed to design sustainable human habitats based on ecological principles and observations? In a word, Permaculture!

With this in mind, last week I started designing permaculture lessons that I could teach my two kids. While they have been subject to many informal lessons while we garden or talk about world issues, they have not been taught permaculture in a formal manner. To help develop the lessons, I took a lesson plan template that I had from teachers college and modified it so that I could create permaculture lessons in an organized manner. The original template had a box where one listed the Ontario curriculum expectations that would be covered in any given lesson. I left this box in so that I could match my permaculture lessons with the Ontario curriculum so that when I eventually, hopefully, someday, have a teaching position, I can easily bring permaculture to a wider audience in the classroom.

Teaching my own kids permaculture is directly aligned with permaculture's prime directive, “The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children. Make it now". It also follows several permaculture principles in addition to the previously mentioned The Problem is the Solution. It has a Local Focus that follows the concept of “think globally, act locally”.  It makes use of Onsite Resources, namely, my kids. With only two students, it starts at a Small Scale, but can be scaled upwards by teaching the lessons in the classroom and sharing the lesson plans with others. I would also like to state that it follows another permaculture principle that I have humbly coined, which is a call for action: Positive Steps Despite Pessimistic Predictions. This neologism reminds us that the race isn’t over yet and to keep going despite the odds.

In my next blog I will write about the outcomes of my first lesson with the kids. Will a third student be added? Stay tuned to find out...

My kids in the garden a few years back

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Propagate Good Times!

Propagate good times! Come on! Were going to propagate and have a good time! I am sure that I'm not the only person that sings this tune while taking stem cuttings to propagate new plants. There are a wealth of books and Internet sites that concern the proper way of cloning plants through stem cuttings and I do encourage you to peruse them. You will learn about soft cuttings (current year stems), hard cuttings (previous years’ growth), rooting hormones, rooting mediums, etc. Knowledge is power and these techniques will help you ensure a high degree of success. However, an over-abundance of information can lead to paralysis through analysis, where you don't take any actions because you are stuck trying to find the correct or best method of doing something. Sometimes you should just do it! In its simplest, propagating is cutting a bit off a branch or stem, stripping the leaves except for a few at the top, and placing it in container of soil or bottled water. Many plants and shrubs will give good results with this technique regardless of whether or not you are using soft or hard cuttings. If it doesn't work, you have only lost a cutting…

The pictures below show some red currant and black elderberry plants that I propagated by simply sticking stem cuttings into containers filled with either sand or potting soil. I save the containers that plants come in to propagate plants, but have also used empty Pringles cans. In my backyard or on top of my fridge there are always a few containers with cuttings rooting in them. It is a great way to extend your garden plants and save money. In the In addition, the rooted plants also make great gifts, particularly because they cost nothing!

Now get out there and propagate some good times! Out of curiosity, does anyone else sing “My Mycelium” to the tune of “My Sharona” when they are cultivating mushrooms?

A red currant plant that I rooted in a sand-filled juice carton

Red currant and black elderberry rooted in potting soil

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Home-style Guerrilla Gardening

Guerrilla gardening refers to planting flowers or vegetables on land that is not your own. Often the land is abandoned or is a bare patch that belongs to the city. Guerrilla gardeners do these plantings for many reasons including making a green political statement (Food Not Lawns!), beautifying empty or brown spaces, and growing food for themselves and others. The practice takes its name because the plantings are often done in a secret, “guerrilla style” manner due to the fact that it is occurring on land that is not theirs. While I do not belong to a para-horticultural organization, I have done a little bit of guerrilla gardening on my own property. I will describe one such covert action that occurred when my better half went shopping.

My mission was to turn my side yard, which resembled a sparse, barren, steppe-like grassland, into a life-sustaining, food producing patch of goodness (see Potato Patch Pictorial below). I only had a couple of hours to perform the operation, so I had to move fast. I quickly overturned the sod in a semi-oval perimeter around the four clumps of zebra grass. I then worked inwards turning the grass over. Yes, I know, permaculturalists always preach against digging in preference to creating no-dig mulch gardens. However, I am not against doing a quick dig, as it can give both the plants and the soil forming process a head start. It is also handy to turn the grass over if you happen to be a little short of mulch, which is often the case. The next step was to empty a few bags of leaves onto the freshly turned earth. I always try to save my leaves just in case I get the hankering to make a new garden patch. I also added a little bit of peat moss to the soil. Please note that I try not to use peat moss because its use results in the destruction of wetlands. Potatoes were then placed in rows on top of the leaves and soil. Finally, I covered the whole patch with wood chips. You can get free wood chips from your handy dandy local tree cutter. They are usually more than happy to dump a load of chipped trees on your driveway or yard, as it means one less trip to the city recycling centre or wherever they have to bring it.

The whole operation only took about two hours or so. The best part was when my spouse came home and complimented me on my work. She liked the empty, Zen-like aesthetics of the grass coming up through the wood chips. The best part was when she said, “you aren't going to plant anything in it, are you?” You would think that she would know me better by now...

Potato Patch Pictorial

The side yard. So unproductive. So barren.

Digging around the zebra grass.

'Taters ready to be covered with wood chips.

The finished product with potato plants coming up.

Bigger potato plants!

Check out more on guerrilla gardening at: