Thursday, January 22, 2009

Backcast and Take Charge of Your Future!!!

One of the few memorable concepts in that I remember from my undergraduate years is that of forecasting and backcasting and their use in the planning process. Forecasting seems to be the technique used by most governments, utility companies, and municipal planning departments. In order to forecast, one extends a current trend and then plans your actions to meet this extrapolation. For example (and I do realize that this is a gross simplification), if Ontario is using X amount of electricity with the current population, then if the population doubles we would then used twice the electricity. What action would we take to meet this demand? Easy, build twice as many nuclear power plants.

In contrast, to backcast one envisions a desired scenario or outcome and then plans successive steps and actions to reach this goal. So in the case of Ontario doubling its population, an alternative envisioned future might be a more energy-efficient society that uses electricity from multiple green or at least greener sources, which may include small scale hydro plants, and solar and wind generated electricity. Energy use could become more efficient through simple steps such as phasing out incandescent light bulbs and using compact fluorescent or LED lights and legislating the use of energy-efficient appliances. Of course lots more could and would have to be done. These are just off the top of my head and I'm hoping that they will at least illustrate the difference between forecasting, which I view as reactive, with backcasting, which I regard as proactive. To me a proactive approach is much better, as it allows us to guide our society and civilization towards something that we would like it to be rather then simply heading in the direction of its own unplanned inertia.

On this much smaller scale, I can use backcasting for my own permaculture design approach by envisioning not only with what kind of landscape I would like to have, but also what kind of activities would I like to be doing on it. I think that second question is important, as too often conventional design is based on “looking nice” rather than what it will actually be used for or on what actually makes you feel good.

Bread oven built with on-site clay: I see not only great bread, but great outdoor pizza parties and social events.
Flower cutting garden: a fresh cut flowers for the table, food and habitat for beneficial insects.
Backyard play area: a play area of lawn behind the house where I can do tai chi, run around with the kids, etc.
Berry patches: multiple berry patches using different varieties of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and currents, to provide berries from spring to fall.
Medicinal garden: various medicinal plants such as chamomile, Echinacea, feverfew, etc. There is something both romantic and practical in using your own herbs to treat your ailments.
Vines growing up the house walls or on trellises to shade of the house.
Fruit trees with companion plant groundcovers mimicking forest processes.
Sitting areas throughout the property where one can “just sit and be (man)”.
Pergola with grapes providing shade for a sitting and eating area. Relaxed BBQs outside and eating in the shade.
No-dig raised beds for easy gardening.
Mulch and coppice growing areas to replace some unused lawn areas but otherwise just have to be cut.
Bean trellises providing a living functional fence to black unwanted views
Potato towers makign use of vertical space
I envision NOT having so much lawn to cut as it will be replaced with useful and beautiful plants.
I envision our house and yard being a beacon of beauty, diversity, and abundant food

These are some of the prominent things that come to mind when I envision what I would like my property to be like and what I would like to be up to do on it. I must note that these items are what I have envisioned and to be fair I must also ask the other members of my family to do the same (keeping in mind that I do hold a secret veto power…). To continue the backcasting exercise, now that I have some idea of what kind of future property I would like to have, I must now research the elements and decide where best to place them. For example, I know almost nothing about clay ovens other than the fact that there is a good book called Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost, Wood-Fired Mud Oven; Simple Sourdough Bread; Perfect Loaves, written by Kiko Denzer. Action item number one, buy or borrow the book. Another action item would be to investigate perennial medicinal plants. I have a friend who built a pergola, maybe he can give me some advice on designing and building one. What kind of vines would be best to grow on the house walls? A time frame for the implementation of each step can then be made once the design plans are firmed up a bit. In any case, the main point I want to make, whether or not you call it backcasting or not, is to ENVISION and DESIGN your future INTENTIONALLY. Yes, even the best plans may go haywire, but it is best to try. You just might succeed.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Coffee With a Side Of Mushrooms

One of my goals this year is to learn how to cultivate mushrooms. What we typically refer to as mushrooms, i.e., what you see at the supermarket or growing on the ground or trees in the woods, is actually only a reproductive structure. The majority of the fungal body that created the structure is hidden within the tree or ground. Fungi are extremely interesting organisms and play an incredibly important role in ecosystems by decomposing organic matter, which allows the nutrients in the matter to be recycled and used by other organisms. In nature there really is no waste or pollution - everything is used by something else and cycled around and around. An interesting example of this is with beer. To make beer or wine you add yeast (uni-cellular fungi) to fruit juice or grain mash. The yeasts eat the sugars in the mix with their waste product being alcohol. Thus, one organism’s excrement is another organism’s Friday night.

A good permaculture plan also tries to minimize waste and to reuse outputs from other elements in the plan. We call this “closing the loop”. Take coffee grounds for example. I wonder how many people take their morning coffee grounds and either throw them out into the garbage or wash them down the sink. That is an example of an open loop. The output from your morning coffee is literally going down the drain. What a waste! Coffee grounds are high in nitrogen and make an excellent fertilizer. You could compost them, sprinkle them in your garden or simply throw them on your lawn. Not only will this fertilize the plants, but it will also keep some harmful bugs away (note: any bidder or strong tasting or smelling plant likely contains natural chemicals that repel insects and animals that may otherwise eat them. Of course some plants have flowers and fruits that attract insects and animals to pollinate or to carry their seeds elsewhere.). In addition, you would be diverting the coffee grounds from the landfill. I remember seeing someone on the Internet selling fertilizer based on used coffee grounds. They were also selling a liquid coffee based fertilizer as well. While this is an ingenious method of closing the loop and making some money, I for one would not pay for used coffee grounds and twice brewed grounds to fertilize my plants, but I suppose there are worse things that one could spend their money on...

In permaculture, we try to cycle are inputs and outputs as many times as possible in order to milk their energy for all they're worth. This is where mushrooms and coffee grounds come into play. I had previously read that one can grow oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds. Doing this would allow the coffee to be used one more time before being used as compost or fertilizer. As I had always wanted to grow mushrooms, I ordered some oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) spawn on from a nursery for around $15. Oyster mushrooms are ear-shaped mushrooms that decompose wood and are widespread in the temperate and subtropical forests of the world. When the spawn arrived, I started dumping my morning coffee grounds into an empty yogurt container and added a few tablespoons of the sawdust based spawn. I kept topping the container up with grounds until it was full and then placed it in a dark cupboard. After a few days I could see the white fluffy filaments of the fungal mycelium growing through the coffee. Interestingly, the mycelium and grounds have a very perfumery odour. There are also sometimes drops of water on top of the mycelium, which I call mushroom dew. I have been thinking that maybe I could bottle it and sell it as a fragrance called “Eau de Pleurote”? In any case you can see the fungus growing throughout the grounds photographs at the end of the post.

To get the fungus to fruit I am going to cut some slips on the side of the container and dipped it in ice water for a couple of hours. This stresses the fungus and causes it to start growing the reproductive structures that are so tasty fried in a little bit of olive oil.

If you want to learn a little bit more about the interesting world of fungi take a look at the following short presentation by leading fungi expert Dr. Paul Stamets, a, entitled, "6 ways mushrooms can save the world."

Finally, if you have any mushroom growing experiences please feel free to write about them in the comments section. Alternatively, if you can think of any ways we can “close loops” you can write about those as well.

Yours permaculturally,

December 29, 2008January 2, 2009
January 4, 2009
January 7, 2009