Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Late Blight... Tomato and Potato Killer

Very interesting article in the NY Times. Farmers everywhere have been effected by Late Blight, which is a fungus that attacks tomato and potato plants. Prices are expected to go way up this year due to the lower supply (farmers will need these higher prices to survive... it's so terrible they are comparing this to what happened during the Irish Potato Famine).

Here is a link to the article, and I've also pasted it below. Comments welcome.
You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster

IF the hardship of growing vegetables and fruits in the Northeast has made anything clear, it’s that the list of what can go wrong in the field is a very long one.

We wait all year for warmer weather and longer days. Once we get them, it seems new problems for farmers rise to the surface every week: overnight temperatures plunging close to freezing, early disease, aphid attacks. Another day, another problem.

The latest trouble is the explosion of late blight, a plant disease that attacks potatoes and tomatoes. Late blight appears innocent enough at first — a few brown spots here, some lesions there — but it spreads fast. Although the fungus isn’t harmful to humans, it has devastating effects on tomatoes and potatoes grown outdoors. Plants that appear relatively healthy one day, with abundant fruit and vibrant stems, can turn toxic within a few days. (See the Irish potato famine, caused by a strain of the fungus.)

Most farmers in the Northeast, accustomed to variable conditions, have come to expect it in some form or another. Like a sunburn or a mosquito bite, you’ll probably be hit by late blight sooner or later, and while there are steps farmers can take to minimize its damage and even avoid it completely, the disease is almost always present, if not active.

But this year is turning out to be different — quite different, according to farmers and plant scientists. For one thing, the disease appeared much earlier than usual. Late blight usually comes, well, late in the growing season, as fungal spores spread from plant to plant. So its early arrival caught just about everyone off guard.

And then there’s the perniciousness of the 2009 blight. The pace of the disease (it covered the Northeast in just a few days) and its strength (topical copper sprays, a convenient organic preventive, have been much less effective than in past years) have shocked even hardened Hudson Valley farmers.

Jack Algiere, head vegetable farmer at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (where I have a restaurant that purchases from the farm), lost more than half his field tomatoes in three days. Other organic farmers were forced to make a brutal choice: spray their tomato plants with fungicides, and lose organic certification, or watch the crop disappear. Even for farmers who routinely spray, or who reluctantly spray precautionary amounts, this year’s blight lowered yields. (Fungicides work only to suppress the disease, not cure it.) As one plant pathologist told me, “Farmers are out there praying and spraying.”

Of course, farmers aren’t the only ones affected. If you love eating flavorful organic field tomatoes, good luck — they’ll be as rare this summer as a week without rain. And those that survive will cost you; we’re already seeing price increases of 20 percent over last year.

So what’s going on here? Plant physiologists use the term “disease triangle” to describe the conditions necessary for a disease outbreak. You need the pathogen to be present (that’s the late blight), you need a host (in this case tomatoes and potatoes) and you need a favorable environment for the disease — for late blight that’s lots of rain, moderate temperatures and high humidity.

Does that last bit sound familiar? It has been the weather report for the Northeast this summer, especially in June. Where we saw precipitation fit for Noah’s Ark, late blight found something akin to a four-star hotel. Those soggy fields and backyard vegetable plots? Inviting, and all too easy to check into.

But weather alone doesn’t explain the early severity of the disease this year. We’ve had wet, cool summers in the past, but it’s never been this bad. Instead we have to look at two other factors: the origin of the tomato plants many of us cultivate, and the renewed interest in gardening.

According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens. Perhaps this is why the Northeast was hit so viciously: instead of being spread through large farms, the blight sneaked through lots of little gardens, enabling it to escape the attention of the people who track plant diseases.

It’s important to note, too, that this year there have been many more hosts than in the past as more and more Americans have taken to gardening. Credit the recession or Michelle Obama or both, but there’s been an increased awareness of the benefits of growing your own food. According to the National Gardening Association, 43 million households planned a backyard garden or put a stake in a share of a community garden in 2009, up from 36 million in 2008. That’s quite a few home gardeners who — given the popularity of the humble tomato — probably planted a starter or two this summer.

Here’s the unhappy twist: the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.

So what do we do?

For starters, if you’re planning a garden (and not growing from seed — the preferable, if less convenient, choice), then buy starter plants from a local grower or nursery. A tomato plant that travels 2,000 miles is no different from a tomato that has traveled 2,000 miles to your plate. It’s an effective way to help local growers, who rely on sales of these plants before the harvest arrives. It’s also a way to protect agriculture. If late blight occurs in a small nursery it’s relatively easy to recognize, as straightforward as being able to see the plant, recognize its symptoms and isolate it before it has a chance to spread.

This is less of an option on a farm that’s spread out over dozens of acres, nor is it likely once the plant gets to a large retailer. A plant pathologist from Cornell told me she visited one such store and noticed the tomato plants were infected with blight. She immediately reported it to the manager, who said he couldn’t remove the plants without approval from his superiors (which would take time). The pathologist returned a week later to find that the plants were still there.

In fact, this late blight outbreak appears to be a classic example of what Charles Perrow, a sociologist, calls a “tightly coupled” accident. With tight coupling — lots of tomatoes grown in one place, say, or distributed by one large retailer — failures in one part of the system can quickly multiply. The damage cannot be as readily controlled. The recent spike in food-borne illnesses is another example of the problems associated with an overly consolidated food chain. E. coli’s been around for a long time; what’s new is how quickly and widely it spreads when there are only a few big meat producers.

There’s another lesson here for the home gardener. When you start a garden, no matter how small, you become part of an agricultural network that binds you to other farmers and gardeners. Airborne late blight spores are a perfect illustration of agriculture’s web-like connections. The tomato plant on the windowsill, the backyard garden and the industrial tomato farm are, to be a bit reductive about it, one very large farm. As we begin to grow more of our own food, we need to reacquaint ourselves with plant pathology and understand that what we grow, and how we grow it, affects everyone else. (Potato farmers in the Andes, for example, plant disease-prone varieties at high altitudes where the cold keeps pathogens in check — to protect themselves and their neighbors. They don’t get as big a harvest, but they decrease the risk of an epidemic.)

Government can help. For all the new growers out there, what’s missing is not the inspiration, it’s the expertise, the agricultural wisdom and technical knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Congress recognized the need for this kind of support almost 100 years ago when it passed the Smith-Lever Act, creating a network of cooperative extension services in partnership with land-grant universities. Agricultural extension agents were sent to farms to share the latest technological advances, introducing new varieties of vegetables and, yes, checking the fields for disease.

The cooperative extension service is still active, but budget cuts have left it ill equipped to deal with a new generation of farmers. The emphasis now is on reaching farmers through mass e-mail messages and Web-based dialogues, with less hands-on observation. That’s like getting a doctor’s check-up over the phone. More agents in the field during those critical weeks in June might well have resulted in swifter, more effective protection of the plants: early detection of any disease requires a number of trained eyes.

The food community has a role to play, too — by taking another look at plant-breeding programs, another major fixture of our nation’s land-grant universities, and their efforts to develop new varieties of fruits and vegetables. To many advocates of sustainability, science, when it’s applied to agriculture, is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic. It’s a nostalgia I’m guilty of promoting as a chef when I celebrate only heirloom tomatoes on my menus. These venerable tomato varieties are indeed important to preserve, and they’re often more flavorful than conventional varieties. But in our feverish pursuit of what’s old, we can marginalize the development of what could be new.

That includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell that the Stone Barns Center is testing in a field trial. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to the pathogen.

Mountain Magic is an example of regionalized breeding. For years, this kind of breeding has fallen by the wayside — the result of a food movement wary of science and an industrialized food chain that eschews differentiation in favor of uniformity. (Why develop and sell 20 different tomato varieties for 20 different microclimates when you can simply sell one?)

Breeders in regions vulnerable to late blight should be encouraged to select for characteristics that are resistant to it, in the same way that they select for, say, lower water demands in the Southwest. While they’re at it, breeders could be selecting for flavor and not for uniformity, shipping size and shelf life. The result will mean not just tastier tomatoes; it will translate into a food system with greater variety and better regional adaptation.

Healthy, natural systems abhor uniformity — just as a healthy society does. We need, then, to look to a system of food and agriculture that values and mimics natural diversity. The five-acre monoculture of tomato plants next door might be local, but it’s really no different from the 200-acre one across the country: both have sacrificed the ecological insurance that comes with biodiversity.

What does the resilient farm of the future look like? I saw it the other day. The farmer was growing 30 or so different crops, with several varieties of the same vegetable. Some were heirloom varieties, many weren’t. He showed me where he had pulled out his late blight-infected tomato plants and replaced them with beans and an extra crop of Brussels sprouts for the fall. He won’t make the same profit as he would have from the tomato harvest, but he wasn’t complaining, either.

Sometimes giving in to nature can be the biggest victory of all.

Monday, August 3, 2009

My complete (very long) journal from permaculture design course

If people are interested in permaculture and would like to take a course in it, I would strongly recommend the one at Sirius Community in Shutesbury, MA. It runs 3 weeks long every summer. Below is a run-down of what my last 3 weeks entailed. It is a pretty long entry - I don't expect anyone to read the entire thing! But it is broken up into more readable sections (by days) and includes pictures and videos if you go to the following link.

But here it is anyway.

July 11, 2009

Today at Sirius was the first full day of our 3 week intensive permaculture course. The 90 second introduction, longer than yesterday's, gave us all a sense of each other's backgrounds and interests. I felt some great energy in the room and enjoyed hearing about how all of us came to be sitting next to each other at that very moment.

When it came my turn to talk, I wasn't exactly sure what I would say. Explaining how you came to be here, at this very moment, takes much longer than 90 seconds. So everyone gave a condensed version, highlighting the things that came to mind while sitting in our community room.

After, we took some time to define permaculture, learn its ethics and determine what problems it seeks to solve. Everyone seemed to contribute and it felt as if nobody was too afraid to share their personal views and beliefs – something rarely seen in most classrooms. However, this course does not take place in a typical classroom, nor is it a traditional course.

Lunch is a great time to share more stories about our pasts and develop strong relationships with our fellow students. The nice weather had most of us eating outside, under the sun, prompting good conversations and a lot of smiles.

Finally, at 2:30pm, we got a formal tour of Sirius. I hadn't done any exploring on my own so everything we saw was new to me. We started our exploration at the sunroom and greenhouse. Bruce, a founding member of Sirius, explained all the passive solar strategies that were incorporated into its' design. Most of the things I already knew from the past year in the UMass green building program. However, I know it's one thing to have academic knowledge and another thing to go out and construct such a structure. The angling of the glass, monitoring of temperatures and selecting the appropriate species are all things I still need to learn (first-hand works best).

The tour then moved to the solar oven. It is fascinating how efficiently it works (how fast it can cook food – a pizza in 90 seconds!). We proceeded to the gardens next, which has a lot of companion planting. Comfrey was found in many places and it was a very different design than I'm used to seeing. What I mean by this is that my garden at home, and most gardens I've seen growing up, all are planted in rows of the same species. I'm looking forward to learning more about companion species as this has wonderful effects on both the soil and the yield.

From the garden we passed through a straw bale house, the orchard, the cob house, and in and out of the woods. We saw where vegetable oil is stored (900 gallons I think he said?) and also the Phoenix house which has an active solar system and radiant floor heating. What really impressed me was the wind turbine. I never thought of one being placed in the woods; I think of them on hills in open fields and by the shore.

Seeing how the entire community is run was extremely interesting to me. Just like a garden, a house and real life – everything is interconnected. As we brought up in class today there is a big disconnect between humans and nature…but we are a part of nature. We aren't above it, we are it. Picture a spider web. If a fly hits it on one end, it sends a vibration across the entire web so that it is felt everywhere. If humans do something to the environment, good or bad, it will eventually be felt by others on the complete other side of the world. For that reason, it makes much more sense to live in harmony with nature, rather than working against it. No… as we learned today instead,"I am nature working".


July 12, 2009

Day 2 has ended at Sirius Community. The morning started with a reflection of yesterday's activities followed by some exploration of permaculture principles. It was a very nice day and we took full advantage of it by going outside and becoming observers. Many times I find myself overlooking many things, especially when I'm outside. It's essential in permaculture to be an active observer; using all senses to assess the environment and observe how the land is currently functioning.

Jono took us in the woods and identified some plants for us - the Indian Cucumbers were very tasty. It was great being outside and feeling connected to nature. That disconnect is a main reason why I'm at Sirius now. I want to be more in-tuned with nature – I am nature.

After lunch we were asked to put on old clothes and hiking shoes as we would be outside for the entire afternoon. The group walked to the resource pile (junk pile according to most outsiders) and we were divided into teams of 3 or 4 people. Katrina, Marisa and I were assigned the task of designing a transport for a large object. It was not the easiest task with the materials that we were given.

Some of our initial ideas were:

* A wheel barrel

* A pully system

* A catapault (I don't know how the girls thought that would work)

Then we realized the tarp was part of our materials and decided it would be easiest to just fold it over the object and drag it the 100 feet. We only used 2 of our materials, which I was hesitant about at first, because it seemed too easy. But it worked, and that's an example of the permaculture principle, leverage (doing the least amount of work and achieving the best result). I have to admit that I was a little frustrated with my group's performance. After we found one solution that worked (though if the object was bigger, it wouldn't have), neither of the two wanted to find other ways of doing it. I felt a little bit like they didn't want me trying anything new, that they were content with the first design and it was adequate enough to do the job. But I like to do better than just what is asked I guess.

Working in teams is tough, but only one other person seemed to share that with the group. I have a feeling that during the major design project we are assigned, there will be some tensions between groups. That's life, and that's also what helps people grow.


July 14, 2009

It is the fourth day at Sirius Community and today we were assigned our group projects. Our assignment is to do "the best permaculture design possible". The class was divided into 6 teams; 3 teams are doing a design for "The Ark", and 3 teams are doing Daniel and Monique Greenburg's house.

Before going on site, we spent time outside talking about our teams goals as well as brainstorming. My group consists of Margaret, Katherine, Winston and I. We all spoke about our backgrounds, some concerns we might face and some of our personal limitations (only a beginner's knowledge). Our group dynamic seems like it will be fine after first impression. I am very excited to get some ideas on paper and see what our group can come up with.

After connecting with the group, we went outside to finish up some of our site surveying (practice). Then we walked over to our actual site and began the initial assessment. Using tracing paper, we sketched out some of the land formations / water movement that will effect our landscape design. We noticed areas of erosion, marked the high and low points, and noted any other slopes that were apparent.

Over the next few weeks we will be spending a lot of time at our site. We will be using the equipment that we learned today to mark lines on contour and discuss the potential improvements that could be made. I'm hoping the group will become very close during that time, but I also know that the process will not be easy. No matter how great things seemed when we started brainstorming, it doesn't necessarily mean the design will be a cake walk. Problems are always arising when collaborating with others on a design project like this. Cooperation is essential and giving each person a chance to share his or her ideas will be necessary to have a group that communicates effectively.


July 15, 2009

The morning activity today consisted of learning about swales, ponds and dams. Ethan showed us a slideshow about Earthworks and we spent some time outside in which we literally played in the sand. I think most of the students would agree that this activity was one of the most fun that we have done thus far.

Ethan demonstrated with a toy bulldozer how to make a swale / dam that wouldn't break. After digging the ditch, the soil is filled in and compacted down. The top soil is put off to the side and is used to create a fertile growing space around the tops of the pond/swale. After building up the walls, water is allowed in and the pond is eventually filled. The swales re-direct the water to other ponds and allow for the rainwater to seep back into the ground. Vegetation is grown all along the sides –it can be a mix of about 20 different species… all thrown together in a machine and sprayed with a blue glue mixture.

To practice what we had learned the students split into teams and dug holes (ponds) in the sand using these simple techniques. Our system worked brilliantly and now I am very excited to go to the beach and create a fantastic permaculture sand castle/landscape!

After lunch, we split into our design teams and began articulating our project's goals. The team has a lot of potential to do great work. However, it's going to take a lot of research for us to create a successful permaculture design, as all of us have very limited knowledge in plant selection.


July 16, 2009

Today was excellent. I feel much more knowledgeable about identifying different species. That is one of the main things I want to get from this course and after just a few days I feel more confident.

Things are coming together quite well with our design project. It will take a lot of work to learn about companion species and determine what works well in each part of the yard. I want to utilize my day off tomorrow to do some work at the library. It will be good to have some time to myself and also to get some much needed rest, as the course has been very draining of my energy. But that is largely due to the great people that are here and wanting to spend most of my free time learning more about them.

When going to the site, it seems that we sometimes lose focus and want to just dive right in. I realize that this is not the best way of going about things, and having set goals is a necessary first step before implementing any of our design. Being our first permaculture design, it is a great hands-on learning experience for all of us. Although it's a low-pressure and fun project, I am wanting to learn as much as possible and challenge myself to make the "best permaculture design possible".

The group dynamic is great and all of us are learning a lot already. The design will be extremely interesting and I am hoping that between the 3 groups designing the Greenberg's property, some of our strategies will get implemented. I can't wait to see what our group and the other's come up with – that will be when all of us learn the most from each other.


July 18, 2009

Today we did some studying of natural building which is a big interest of mine. Our morning activity consisted of making a cob mixture; clay, sand and straw. The straw, we learned, is for strength and flexibility. Kay explained the difference between straw and hay and all of us got our hands dirty creating our own small cob structures. I enjoy these fun hands-on activities the best as they are engaging, fun and easy to learn from.

Our design projects are moving along, but rather slowly. It seems like we are putting in all this work and not getting very far. However, I know that this is all part of the process and it takes countless hours of preparation before implementing any of the permaculture strategies. The site assessment takes a great deal of time but I realize it is an essential step in the process. I am just a little impatient and want to get going on the design piece.

I've done some research on my own to determine companion species and where different plants should be located. Our clients, Daniel and Monique, have specific goals that we learned about in our interview. Since they are the ones who make the final decision on implementation, we must come up with a design that caters to their needs. Maintenance, cost and kids are main factors for our design.

Other than this, our day off was great and it allowed us to bond even more. I still must take into consideration my own personal time as I spent most of my day off with students from the class. I love them all a great deal, but I am going to spend more time in my own head during these remaining two weeks. It has been great thus far and it still can be even if it means I'll be a little less social.


July 19, 2009

Our site assessment is finished! Sort of. It will be a continued assessment until the final design is completed (and in a real life scenario, until implementation… and beyond if the clients are doing things in phases). The instructors did not tell us this, but reading between the lines one can realize that this is a continuous process. Nothing is permanent except change. That is the philosophy I live by (one of them).

During our morning session we had a great talk about soil. Ethan explained to us a little bit about soil patterns in different climates (tropical, temperate and arid) and we learned about its composition. The class got an overview about pH (parts Hydrogen) levels, the different amounts of sand, silt and clay, and we discussed briefly about living matter.

The class then went outside for a dig in the orchard and forest. We discussed the different layers (O, A, B were present… C, D and E were not) and saw first hand what soil was best for growing and which would be more difficult to use effectively. Soil is very low on the scale of permanence as it can easily be manipulated…or transformed, rather, into a highly productive mixture. Comfrey, mulching, non compaction and selecting the appropriate plants all aid in this transformation.

One thing that stood out today was the mentioning of weeds being a good thing. It is a misconception that they are bad…in actuality they tell us a great deal about the soil. A weed arises when there is a certain mineral/element lacking in the soil. If a minor element such as magnesium is not present, a weed will sprout which restores it. At the end of the weed's life, it dies and decomposes back into the ground and this releases its elements (which brings the soil back up to balance). The pH level should ideally be between 5 and 8…and there are always measures that can help achieve this.

One other thing to mention is that we learned a lot about composting today. It was a very serious but at the same time comical discussion we had about composting toilets for our homes. Kim did a great job explaining how to make it work…but I guess us young adults still find the poop conversations extremely funny. Strike of the day is that I'll probably never find that subject not a little bit funny. The breaks they give us really make a world of difference in keeping us smiling, having fun and learning at the same time.


July 20, 2009

We talked a lot about composting today. The Berkley Method is amazing…having a ready compost pile in 18 days sounds almost unreal. But it works and I'm eager to give it a try. Before getting into this, Ethan explained to us the "Biocide cocktail". This is the process of adding fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides… which are all subsidized by the U.S. government. It is an atrocious cycle that needs some major revamping for humans to have any sort of future on this planet.

Tilling is usually done which "aerates" the soil. This is the first mistake. Tilling wrecks the top soil and should not be done on a regular basis (yet in agriculture this is a standard practice. After this, fertilizer is used and this works… big and green plants are grown but they are full of salt due to the fertilizer. Therefore they need more water (unsustainable). These big, green and bloated plants attract many insects.

What do we then do? Pesticide of course. This kills the insects, and that is good, right? Not exactly. 90% of insects are actually beneficial to plants and the soil. Killing these damages the soil and creates more work in future years. The hair roots of plants are killed off and this also makes the plants less healthy.

Then the rain comes, and this makes the plants become covered in fungi.. so we use fungicide. But this kills the good fungi…95% of fungi is beneficial. The soil really starts to fall apart at this point. There are hardly any air spaces, bugs or fungi left and the soil becomes unusable. But we can fix this, too…just throw in some herbicide. We are turning our country into a desert slowly but surely with this agricultural system, and we need a new system desperately. Permaculture can do just that.

Composting creates humus (not to be confused with hummus) which regenerates the soil to grow produce and other useful plants. It needs to be aerobic (having oxygen) not anaerobic…which is just putting it in a closed bin without any ventilation. There needs to be approximately a 25:1 Carbon to Nitrogen mixture… and diversity is great. Then there's aerobic compost tea, in which a vessel filled with water is mixed with a handful or two of "black gold" compost. The water and compost "bubbles" by use of a pump and air compressor for 24-48 hours. After this, the tea is ready! And should be used to water your beds in the next 24 hours.

I will post more of what we learn over the next week and a half. The first half of the class has been incredible and all of us have learned so much. I would recommend this class to anyone interested in making a positive impact on the world.


July 22, 2009

The final design project is due tomorrow! Stress is starting to build…you can cut the tension in this room with a non-cutco knife (compared to the past 2 weeks when you couldn't even make a dent in it with a butter knife)! But it's not anything to worry about…yes this is our final design projects and we have "clients", but this is our first permaculture design ever. We don't have to worry about losing our jobs, or making money for our family… we are students learning about ecological design and sustainable food production. But permaculture is so much more than that…

The past 10 days at Sirius have been filled with so many learnings about a variety of topics. I've learned how much permaculture encompasses from the instructors of this permaculture course. Compost, water conservation, vegetation, access and circulation, water flow, climate, soil… the list goes on. And we haven't even touched upon edible forest gardening yet! I'm really looking forward to that component of the course.

As for now, we must concentrate on creating the best permaculture design possible. Each group is giving it their all and holding nothing back. I sense some competition from another group… but my attitude is that we are all doing this to learn from one another. There is no need for competition for this project…though in real life it is sometimes present. Regardless, I'm just going to learn as much as I can while I'm here and produce the best group product that all of us can come up with, together. Cooperation is essential.


July 26, 2009

What is Permaculture? Edible Forest Gardens?

We were asked to come up with a definition of permaculture, now that we've completed the 2 weeek 72 hour intensive design course. Here is my definition:

"It's a way of living. In short, it's a whole systems approach to ecological design that incorporates humans with nature, because we are nature. Everything is connected; people, insects, animals, plants…and just listening and observing the landscape can tell you exactly what the design should be. It involves using all of your senses and being constantly aware that nothing is permanent except change".

…and Bill Mollison would add, "It involves not shitting where you sleep".

What is Edible Forest Gardening?

It involves mimicking the outdoor environment. We go into a forest and observe how nature has developed with minimal human disturbance. We then try to essentially copy this process but replace the species that have little benefit to us with similar edible plants. Transforming a front yard into an edible forest garden involves exploring the symbiotic relationships among plants and learning what plant species are companions.


July 27, 2009

Today we learned about forest architecture, social structure and succession. We looked at the different layers in a forest as this will surely apply to our designing of an edible forest garden. There are the tall trees, medium trees, shrubs, herbs, groundcover and vines. An edible forest garden has a 3 layer minimum.

Next we explored patterns in some detail. Usually species will respond to site conditions (growing in wet areas is one pattern) or they will have distinct dispersal patterns. Diversity is key to both permaculture and edible forest gardening…for one it is a great roadblock for pests. What do I mean by this? Say an insect like the Japanese beetle is eating your hearty kiwi's. If you have some other plants between kiwi plants, there is a greater chance that a predator (like a chicken!) will scarf down the Japanese beetle.

We also explored nitrogen fixers and different insect attracting plants. Dandelion, red clover and plantains are all great dynamic accumulators. Legumes tend to be great nitrogen fixers.

Finally, we talked about succession before heading outside for the afternoon. There are no straight lines in nature.. usually it is somewhat messy (or beautiful, depending on who you are talking to). All in all today was great. The energy in the class was somewhat low…we are all feeling very tired after 2+ weeks of intensive design and learning.

Tonight we had a class talent show… is pretty incredible the amount of talent we have in this class. Some people read poetry, some sang and I did my balloon animals routine. We had a lot of laughs and were all in great spirits. Pictures and possibly some videos to be posted soon.


July 28, 2009

Today was excellent. I was well rested for a change…eating breakfast during the early morning meditation may not be a bad idea after all. Usually I can't stand being indoors, as this is a permaculture / edible forest design class which deals mostly with the outdoor environment. As Eric put it, and I paraphrase "learning permaculture indoors is a little bit contradictory"… you know? But we were inside all day hearing Eric speak and seeing his powerpoint slides. And you know what? I enjoyed every minute of it. The breaks were just enough to keep us truckin along in good spirits…and the information was so valuable. I could have sat twice as long without getting bored – it was that interesting!

Every time I learn something new I can't wait to get out there and start trying it out. My yard in Amherst is going to be transformed into a permaculture / edible forest garden… though probably not the most successful one because this will be my first time designing and implementing. What is great is that all of the local people in the class (UMass Amherst and Hampshire students) are going to help me with the design. We might help design another property, and another, and who knows…maybe we'll get our own permaculture design business going – us students from the class. Wouldn't that be interesting…

I've learned so much over the past 2 ½ weeks and I'm starting to get a bit sad that the class is almost over. I'm not really thinking about it at this point, but after tomorrow we only have one full day left. Ok, now I'm starting to think about it. I am really going to miss Sirius Community; the residents, our instructors, and my fellow "permies". I'm going to make a big effort to keep in touch with everyone from the course. We all have gotten so close here, and distance shouldn't be a reason why we all don't still talk. PDC reunions must happen…


July 30, 2009

Well, it's the last night at Sirius Community. My energy was a bit low earlier on today, but when we got outside to do some planting that all changed. It was so beneficial learning how to sheet mulch… that's exactly what I'll be doing next year to my front lawn. Speaking of which – doing it how we did it yesterday, with 20+ people having fun and working together seems to be the best way of going about it. Getting dirty while learning is great!

Tonight we will be working on our design projects for the Sirius permaculture orchard. It doesn't seem the same as the last design project…nobody seems stressed out, rather, people are realizing how much knowledge they have acquired over the past 3 weeks. Being the last night at Sirius, I think everyone is more concerned with ending on a good note and enjoying the present moment with each other.

It has been a long intensive permaculture course…but short at the same time. And we really have learned so much. I'm just restating what has been stated in previous journals at this point. I'm ready to leave but sad to go. I've gotten very used to the routine here at Sirius, and I think I'll incorporate some into my everyday home-life.

One thing I notice about myself is that I appreciate the outdoors much more after taking this course. I am extremely eager to continue learning about permaculture and edible forest gardens. I will transform my yard into one over the next year. I also want to spread the message about all that I've learned and have my house be a model for others.