July 2008

One of the key problems for urbanites who want to grow food is access to land. Some people simply don’t have land; others have land that isn’t usable, due to soil toxicity or excessive shade. I recently had dinner with an apartment dwelling woman, Elena, from Kazakhstan, who mentioned that her downstairs neighbor shares food that she grows on her dacha. I always thought a dacha was something just for the wealthy and powerful, that is, that they were large estates or second homes few could afford. But, Elena told me that it was very common for people in Kazakhstan to have dachas, small plots just outside of cities, often with a small hut or cottage to spend the night. Since Elena had told me that most people in Kazakhstan don’t have cars, I asked how her neighbor got to her dacha. She rides the bus. (more…)

It’s close to the end of July, so the calendar year is over half completed. What kind of progress am I making in my garden this year? There is, of course, my backyard landscaping. I’m putting in new planters so will have more space to grow food next year. I finished the retaining wall on the west side yesterday, and started backfilling dirt and leveling the yard. I’m pleased with the progress towards my summer’s goal of finishing the backyard. But, that’s not the progress I’m appreciating most. [Click images to enlarge to full size.]

Last year, I ate 20 different crops from my yard, sometimes in abundance, sometimes in just one or two pieces of a test crop. This year I’m up to 17 already (see list below) and will clearly surpass last year’s 20. But, this, too, isn’t what I’m realizing is my most important progress. (more…)

Every now and then I am totally surprised by something new, or at least new to me. This article in yesterday’s SF Chronicle was one of those surprises. The article discusses black soldier flies, and their dominant life stage as maggots. While not good for all types of composting, they are useful for reducing large volumes of waste food or manure. They can eat meat and dairy wastes, as well as dog and cat feces, so they are useful for closing the loop on those wastes, which aren’t recommended for traditional small-scale or home composting or vermi-composting. At present, my worm bin handles my food trimmings (I have no meat or dairy waste) and my yard trimmings are composted traditionally. So, I don’t have a need for these maggots as part of my organic recycling programming at present. But, I will keep this new technique in mind and expore it more fully should my needs change in the future.

I’m really stuck between harvests right now. The black raspberries are finished and my summer crops aren’t quite ready yet. Sure, I’m getting an occasional apple (tonight’s Gravenstein was delicious)and I’ve gotten a few raspberries, but they aren’t really producing much. The few plums I allowed to grow on my new tree are gone, and my Sungold tomato has just teased me with a few pieces of garden candy. Mostly, I’m watering and waiting. (more…)

Because industrial agriculture is in trouble, creative approaches are needed to respond to threats to food security that we face. While industrial agriculture gets some of its efficiency from a centralized production model that provides economies of scale, centralized systems are notably poor at adapting to change. To adapt to change, decentralized and small systems are much better, because many small and different approaches provide more chances to find better approaches to new conditions. When something isn’t working, they also respond much more quickly; it’s much easier to turn around my small kayak than it is a big oil tanker. This ability to adapt is why much more innovation in technology takes place in small firms than large firms. (more…)

Actually, three cool glasses of lemonade. Today was hot. I was up early to get some work done in my yard before it got too hot. I’m building planters, so I can complete the layout of my backyard as I designed it about five years ago. It’s been a slow work in progress, with a year off two years ago to landscape my front yard. But the end is in sight so I’m motivated to take advantage of my summer weekends and evenings by building planters, building a small retaining wall, leveling some dirt and sheet mulching to control the weeds. I made good progress today, continuing my morning work about 4 pm, when it started to cool down a bit. It was physical work, moving wood, digging dirt to level planter frames, dumping dirt and compost into a new planter, so I did get dehydrated.

I don’t use lemons a lot, but my neighbors gave me three lemons a few weeks ago, when I called and said I had some berries for them. We swapped over the back fence and the lemons have been sitting on my kitchen counter ever since. Today, they got used for my version of lemonade: one lemon, one tall glass of water and one teaspoon sugar. It makes for a refreshing drink and was a great way to rehydrate myself over the past few hours. Plus, I feel good about making significant progress on my yard. I could learn to like lemons.

I cut back the canes on my black raspberries tonight, finding a few remaining berries hidden among the leaves. This year was truly bountiful–I harvested 24 pints of these berries this year, giving away about two-thirds, trading a few pints for cherries and beer, and eating the rest myself. The canes for next year’s berries are already growing like crazy, and I need to get them tied off on their wires. I’m hoping to repeat this large harvest next year! (more…)