Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Growing food, earning life

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Growing food, earning life

I've been called a bleeding heart liberal many times, but that's not how I was raised and that's not what I am. My mother often said to one of her seven children (all sons) "My heart bleeds for you." She wasn't a fan of people feeling sorry for themselves, or complaining. You take what life gives, and you make what you can of it. I don't believe in feeling sorry for anyone, no matter how hard you have had it. But I do believe in helping out when I can someone doing something I think worthwhile. And helping someone else tends to help yourself too in the end. So let's talk about food - where it comes from, and how we can all enjoy providing ourselves with the most delicious and nutritious edibles Earth has to offer.

First of all, food doesn't grow at the grocery store, it's only stored there. If you want to figure out how to get a steady supply of it you have to go outside, because Nature is where it comes from. Oh, sure, you can grow food inside in a greenhouse (or even in your own home). But it doesn't just happen, you have to work for it. We were growing collards this year and one neighbor said "You should grow collard greens, we want collard greens" - not realizing that collards were growing right there but unrecognizable to her because she's used to them at a grocery store all one size leaf bunched up together. And you have to respect all the living things - microbes, bugs, birds and other wildlife, and plants - in order to get the living things to grow that you need to eat. In other words, in the long run and big picture, humans are no more important than any of the other life forms.

Yes, that's what I said, we homo sapiens ain't no great shakes, and any honest assessment would tell you that we, with our greed and wars and dog-eat-dog business practices, are causing a massive amount of suffering in the world. And not just to other humans. Though I did farm work thirty some years ago, it's taken me all this time - gardening every chance I got - to get a deep recognition that our agricultural system not only causes a huge amount of damage to the people employed in it and eating the food produced by it, but this industrial supposedly "efficient" extraction for profit rather than for life is enormously harmful to what's left of Earth's ecosystem and, literally, tortures the creatures caught up in this web of "production". Let's get one thing straight - We don't produce anything. We're just people and just produce arrogance whenever we say, "I grew". The best anyone can truthfully say is "I co-created", whether it be food or art or a chair or whatever. You can't isolate the environment from anything you do. Your mind may say, for instance, that this is my farm or this is my money or this is my house or this is my car or this is my country, but the reality is that if you go up into space and look down on the Earth you'll see it doesn't really have any borders on it. Everything is connected.

So let's apply this to growing food. You don't know how many times I've tried to grow food and found myself frustrated by some thing or someone outside the garden area. Like everybody else, I figured walls and fences would keep out nosy neighbors and other non-human pests. But - older and a little wiser maybe now - I realize that they (we) are all part of the web of life. If you grew up in the city you (like I) probably didn't much think about where your food came from. I was in my twenties before I saw a full grown corn plant. It was huge and I thought geez, you have to grow a great big tall plant like that for months before you get just a few ears of corn from it. I was losing interest in farm work even more when I found what hard work it was climbing apple trees to pick them, and having to compete with the cows for the ones that fell to the ground when I shook the tree. But the cows contribute their manure and urine, and this former city boy had a lot to learn from those "dumb" country bumpkins.

If you want to eat meat you have to not only nurture - feed and protect - animals throughout their lifetime; you have to kill them at the end. Not so romantic. But we humans have tried to pretend we're not part of this web of life. We say we're not animals, but we are. When we die a lot of our bodies get put in metal boxes which take an awful long time to rot back into the Earth to be returned to the web of life; how silly. Well, if we really want the sustainable community we're always talking about all this has to change. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides? Nope, can't do that any more. As the environmental effects of our trying to beat Nature into submission to give us what we want kick in, we're being forced to consider making friends with our former enemies of all species. We've so tortured the logic of mass production with our gimme mindset that the planet is now literally howling for us to stop - storms, droughts, radical temperature shifts, heat waves, crop failures - all speak with one voice. We are only one part of Nature; the ecosystem as a whole is vastly more powerful than any of it's individual species. And it's time to wake up to that. Debates about how much do we need fossil fuels are nearly totally useless. Nature's going to stop us now for the most part. We're in no position any more to talk about economic development in terms of what we can build. We need to cooperate - with whatever manufacturing and building capacity we have left, understanding that environmental (and also consequent economic) troubles already in the cards are greatly diminishing that capacity - to quickly ramp up locally-grown food (including via fermentation processes) and locally-produced energy. The violent ways of growing food and producing energy - with ever more environmentally destructive agriculture and wars over non-renewable energy sources - are going to stop soon, regardless of whether we as a species decide to change. If we don't stop fighting of our own accord, the ecosystem and it's collapse will stop us.

The Hazelwood Urban Gardens is dedicated to enjoying learning together as we grow the highest quality food to share. Join us, we'll have a good time kicking into high gear a regeneration of the web of life in Hazelwood, the food web in which organic matter is returned to the Earth where it belongs instead of screwing up things the way we have been doing by putting our organic waste in the landfills (where it generates greenhouse gases and disease).

Monday, January 30, 2012

Microbiodiversity: It's a bug eat bug world...

From Home Composter Handbook page 148:
"...Waste stream managers view composting pri-
marily as a means to divert materials from dis-
posal facilities. The environmental benefits, however, only begin here. Others are derived from use
of the product. These benefits have been widely
reported in the literature - increased aeration,
improved moisture and nutrient retention, de
creased soil erosion, reduced soil surface crusting,
plant disease suppression, improved tilth, etc. In-
deed, the ability of compost to reduce pollutant
carrying runoff and leachate (primarily due to its
organic matter content) can provide surface and
ground water quality benefits...The single most important me a sure of a soil's fertility is its organic con
tent . Compost applied to disturbed or damaged
lands can help restore both organic content and soil...."

Home Composter Handbook

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

food deserts


food deserts, ideas for the food buying club, local fresh organic food sources,...

Long-term goals we're all working toward for the people of Hazelwood - quality food at good prices - lead to some next steps. Sources: local farmers; community gardens; personal gardens; the YMCA garden; food forests. Going to: Fishes and Loaves food buying club; our farmstand; a community grocery store (eventually); Meals on Wheels.

As a soil expert, I am mostly aware of a tight part in the production pipeline - our soil's fertility. Over the years I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that - similar to the saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child - it takes a whole community to produce and protect good soil. It must be understood that the living web of life in an area is central to a soil's productivity. As much as a part of me would like to go off somewhere where I don't have to deal with pollution and ignorance, I know by now that (no matter how much money I might have to e.g. buy a farm), I would always have ignorant and destructive neighbors. We're all downwind and downstream of each other, no matter where we are.

I suggest or remind that - now that the food buying club is started - we keep in mind gradually opening up our sources for food to include not just Wholey's but: local gardeners; local community gardens (in the entire Pittsburgh area, not just from HUGS gardens); local farmers.

Always on my agenda is re-organizing organic waste stream directions back to the soil from which the organic matter originally came. The level of recognition of the need to rapidly move to a much higher rate of biomass recycling is tiny compared to the need. Contribution of a relative few people of a few kitchen scraps and grass clippings to composting situations is great but is not going to make it either in terms of food security or other ecosystem services in this present context of rapid climate change. So I suggest that outreach activities begin to include both: learning recycling to the soil; and sharing that and other skills related to protecting and regenerating the web of life in our community.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A simple home-made composter

Be a pro-sumer (consumer AND producer) - make yer own dang composter.

Every situation is unique...One design that interested me lately is...can't remember the name but it's something you can improvise - It's a container of whatever size and material you want with an open bottom which is set into the ground deep enough so that the larger critters like rats and woodchucks won't likely get attracted. The soil under and around the bottom of the composter serves to absorb the waste and the little critters like worms and molds and bacteria in the soil serve to distribute the nutrients to the garden area nearby. The top of this composter has a lid, so - unlike most composters which have openings on the sides to allow air to get in and smell to get out - this type is only open to the air when you open the lid. You could make one (or more for other parts of the garden) by just e.g. taking a wide piece of pipe (say at least half a foot diameter or whatever you have available) and just sticking it into the ground i'd say at least six inches.

If you want to fool with teas, the thing I'm interested in is exposing water with some nutrients (e.g. a little dirt or manure or compost) to sun and so encourage algae...Problem is mosquitoes lay eggs on the surface and within 5 days can go from larvae in the water to hatching out into the air. So either the water needs to be used before the mosquitoes hatch out or you need any kind of fish in the water that eats the eggs and larvae. An extremely simple ecosystem can be set up by having fish, snails, and anacharis (a fast growing submerged type plant). The water and muck from the bottom and any dead or live matter in the water ecosystem can both fertilize and water the garden - fertigation...And the variety of life helps to biodegrade any chemical pollutants that are in the water.

Stop by if ever you've time and are near Hazelwood for a little tour of our gardening efforts.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Looking forward to a new year and a new harvest

Thanks for St. Jim the Composter and Ace Garden Steward for setting up this Blog.
We are currently ramping up plans for this year's garden activities. Our most important task is to recruit more volunteers from the community of Hazelwood. We heard so many good words about the gardens and how they looked last year. I am hoping that this year more residents of Hazelwood will step up to participate in the project.
On the other hand the list of volunteers, who are students and interns from local universities have been calling in to participate. This is very exciting and we look forward to expanding our gardens this year.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Our second garden

Hazelwood Urban Gardens (formerly Hazelwood Harvest) has established another garden, located at W. Elizabeth and Lytle. Come see. With the help of numerous adults and children, we have roses and other flowers, garlic, onion, lettuce, potatoes, French sorrel, Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), squash, cucumber, brussels sprouts, peppermint, strawberry, a spruce tree, edible nasturtium (don't eat it, it's our only one), carrot, cilantro, parsley, tomatoes, cabbage, chives, peppers, beans,...

Our first, Ladora Way Urban Farm (also in the Riverside - "Below-the-Tracks" - neighborhood), has raised beds available free to residents without land of their own who wish to grow food. Get hold of me (Jim McCue) at appropriatebiotech@yahoo.com or

A third community food garden, for which (as with the others) we welcome volunteers, is on Flowers Avenue and is well begun. Email me at appropriatebiotech@yahoo.com to coordinate helping at that site also.


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