Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The fight for Urban Homesteading

Fifty and more years ago, it was commonplace for families in towns and cities to dedicate part or all of their backyards to grow edibles. In the early thirty and fourties, these gardens were given media and social attention when the term "Victory Garden" was coined (the propoganda being that they were supporting the war effort by not relying as heavily on ration coupons), though either way the effect was the same; by growing their own fruits and vegetables (and the occasional chicken as well, but I'll tackle that in a later post), the less money they had to spend buying those same foods, and the more self-sufficient they became.

Now I am not sure when, how, or why it happened, but over the course of the last 50 or so years, it suddenly was no longer as culturally-acceptable to have such gardens in an urban settings (especially when said gardens were easily visible!). I have heard many stories of neighbours complaining, fights with landlords/bylaw officers, all in the struggle to maintain a more sustainable home (and not just with gardens, but to raise chicken/other small animals for food, wind turbines; even Toronto has a rediculous by-law against hanging clotheslines!), but this article posted by one of my friends on facebook really takes the cake. The article tells of a group of housemates in Vancouver who decided to use the space in their front yard to grow a "permiculture" vegetable garden (not usings straight, orderly rows, but a more random, organic layout). Apparently, after a couple of complaints from neighbours the city has ordered them to "clean up" their yard, or face hefty fines.

My first thought after reading it, and looking at the picture provided was "that doesn't look ugly or untidy at all!" Mind you when it comes to gardens I do like the more natural, rustic appearance as opposed to a perfecly manicured one, but even still; I think that the city's ruling was a little too severe. I am curious to see how this pans out.

I am sure this is not the only case of it's kind. I want to know when the "look" of a garden was more important than it's substance (I suppose I can understand if they had old cars and trash littering the yard, but this was not only a garden, but one that was tended!). Urban centres, and society in general has reached a point when we can no longer afford to uphold such laws and by-laws that prohibit individuals and families from living sustainably. Now this is a tough thing to say, because granted, we cannot let ourselves submit to anarchy in the name of living as environmentally friendly as possible, but there has to be some give.

And granted, not everyone has the option of having their own garden, or putting up wind turbines/solar panels etc. But there are things that can be done. In Penetang, a group has just re-opened the community garden to the public after years of disuse. Individuals/families can now apply to rent a plot for the year (I do not believe there is a fee involved), and have it to grow vegetables/flowers as they see fit. It is a wonderful opportunity for anyone wanting to start a garden, but has no land themselves (such as apartment/condo dwellers). I know for years (not sure if it is still there) there was a large development of this kind down in Ash Bridges Bay in Toronto, as well as elsewhere in the city.

Another option is container gardening. My sister-in-law just introduced me to the book Crops In Pots; which has some fantastic ideas for beautiful arrangements in planters, all of them edible. (And for each container "recipe," there is an actually recipe that uses all the vegetables/fruits planted in the pot!) I was actually quite surprised to find out how many fruits and vegetables thrived in container gardening, even things like corn, miniature apple trees and grape vines that I would have never suspected. A fantastic book!

Luckily though, it seems like it was mostly the larger cities and urban centres that fell prey to the mentality that urban homesteading is unnapealing. One only has to stroll through the backyards (and sideyards, and frontyards!) of Penetanguishene during the summer months to see that urban vegetable gardening is alive and well. It is not uncommon to have the majority of your backyard dedicated to your garden, and as I have learned from various family members of Chris', this has always been the case. However, what has changed is that it is no longer just the older generations participating in these ventures. Younger couples and families have since seen the benefits of growing their own food, and the awareness is increasing.

And that is in part what I hope this blog will accomplish: awareness, if nothing else.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Back to my roots

It's funny, but I find as I get older, and am responsible for planning and making most of the family meals, I am craving the foods we ate growing up; the very foods I rebelled against eating as a child!

The foods we ate for the better part of my childhood were part of a diet called Macrobiotic cooking.

The idea is to basically to avoid meat and meat products (unless it has been organically and free-range farmed - and even then protein is mostly obtained through the eating of beans/bean products). The belief is that most commercially grown meat contains too much trans or saturated fats, and that animals raised in the stressful environment of commercial farms pass on that stressful enegy to whoever consumes it. Fish is more acceptable, yet it too is eaten sparingly. The main staples of macrobiotic eating are whole grains (brown rice, millet, barley,buckwheat, spelt etc.), green leafy vegetables, root and round vegetables (such as squash), beans, and additions such as tofu, tempeh, various prepared seaweed, miso, and my all time favourite; gomasio.

The essence of such eating was started by a Japanese army surgeon named Sagen Ishizuka, who attempted to create a balanced diet by combining oriental eating habits with eastern and western medical philosophies. In his theory, everything we consume has certain properties that either help or hinder different parts of the body, and thus he set out his macrobiotic guidelines to help create a healthy and balanced body. This diet is also purported to heal all types of ailments without the help of medication. I won't go any further into this way of cooking/living, but if your interested, this Website is a good place to start.

Though I am not sure I believe all the claims of macrobiotic cooking, (nor even like all of the food!) there are certain things that just make sense; such as eating whole grains (and staying away from refined, pre-processed foods), eating locally-grown vegetables and those in season, and avoidind foods and oils that are high in trans fats.

So what in the world is gomasio?

Gomasio is a condiment, designed to add a salty flavour to food without having too much sodium added. It is created by first toasting sea salt, then sesame seeds, and then combining them together in a suribachi (Japanese mortar and pestle) and grinding them until most of the seeds have popped open. The ratio of sesame seeds to salt is about 1/4 cup seeds to 1 tbs salt, and is absolutely delicious on grains.

Whenever I can (which is usually when Chris will not be there for mealtime - he decidedly does NOT like this way of cooking!) I will make myself a small meal of grains and beans, and I find now that I am breastfeeding, I crave whole foods more often. And with the first steps we've made at producing our own food, it's bringing us one step closer to only eating organic, locally grown food. I suppose this just proves that no matter how hard you try, you can never truly get away from your roots!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Best laid plans...

Every wise general knows that in battle, the best strategy only survives as long as first contact with the enemy. And as we have quickly learned; so it is with garden planning.

I had spent the better part of the last few weeks finalising the layout of the three vegetable beds; based on what I thought would be the best spacing and with vegetables adjacent to others that offered some sort of benefit to one another. What I did NOT do however, is actually measure the beds, and using optimal spacing, figure out just how much of each vegetable we could actually fit. Which is an important step!

Once I actually did this, I realised very quickly that my beautiful garden plan would not work. For example, in the original plan I had only accommodated room for a few rows of cooking onions. Once I actually started placing the bulbs at 6 inch intervals, I ended up using almost half of the first bed! (Mind you that was 100 onion bulbs planted!) That combined with the fact that not all the vegetables we will be growing will be planted the first year (corn, asparagus, and rutabaga to name a few), and a few last minute additions (radishes as a surprise for our neighbour) means that the actual layout of the garden is much different than originally planed. Yet I think we found a suitable solution, and one that has room to evolve as we find what works, and what vegetables are just not worth it at this scale (I hope all do though!).

Another change that will occur from the original plan is that the tomatoes will not be planted in the beds alongside the other veggies. When planting tomatoes, one has to be very careful as they have a tendency to leach nutrients from the soil at a much greater rate than most other vegetables. This means at the least their position in the garden has to be rotated from year to year, and that extra care has to be made to replace the nutrients via compost and manure. Originally, we planned to do this as we have in the past; until in his research Chris came across the idea of planting the tomatoes upside down, in planters.

I have seen this done before with annuals such as petunias or violets, but was initially skeptical of planting vegetables this way (from what we've read, not all vegetables can be planted this way, but in addition to tomatoes, peppers also take to this method of gardening). Chris has since devised a creative way to hang the tomato planters which will not only take up no extra space in the garden, but also provide shade during the summer of intense heat and little to no rain, as well as visual interest. He is going to build a set of three trellises; one above each garden bed. From these trellises can be hung the tomatoes, which will still be high enough to work in the beds without any hindrance. Each trellis will also have a set of hooks along the top, and I'll be making sets of canvas "sails" that can be attached across the three trellises. On days when we need the extra shade, the sails can be attached, and will save the vegetables from being scorched, and should also look interesting. The sails will be narrow and not block out the sun entirely, just enough to provide some relief. It should look pretty unique!

In the meantime Chris has also been doing his own researching on composting. In fact, his knowledge in that subject has now far exceeded mine, and he has become our very own Compost King (and he seems to take glee in informing me what I can and cannot place in the compost and what is "Greenbin" material - though if you ask him he is still frustrated that his compost is not "composting" yet).

Contrary to common belief (including my own), it is not sufficient to simply throw organic matter in a composter and let it sit. You will certainly have the materials break down over time, but it will take a VERY long time, and the compost will not be at it's prime condition. The method Chris has employed involves two composters. The first we used until it was about half full of kitchen waste, or "green matter," at which time Chris filled the rest of the composted up with leaves and other yard waste, which provided the "brown matter." He let that sit for several days, after which he shoveled everything out of the composter, mixed it thoroughly, and put it back in. Now the composter will begin to compost, when the matter begins to heat up as it breaks down, and that heat is what creates the compost. The exact ratio of green to brown matter varies depending on who you ask, but Chris decided that half and half would be best for now until we have a chance to experiment. I believe the more brown matter added, the more carbon, whereas the green matter provides the nitrogen (which you want slightly more of) but I would have to check to be sure. Now we are on to filling the second composter, and the theory is that once we have filled the second, the first will be ready to be emptied, and the compost spread on the gardens!

Friday, April 9, 2010

And baby makes four!

After months of waiting, planning, and painting (to which Lucien's room is STILL not finished!), our new son has finally arrived!

Marcus Raphael arrived on April 5, just 5 days early of his due date (I was not even the least upset by that - I am glad to have it over and to finally meet my son!), and thus far has been a hale and hardy little boy! Though we've been home since Wednesday things are still quite chaotic; and with not much semblance of a routine. I do have Chris home for another two weeks which has been a tremendous help, I don't know how I would survive without him! We are quickly learning to tag team between both boys, and I am sure the routine is soon to follow.
Another bonus to having Chris home is that rapid headway is being made on the side yard and gardens. One bed is completely in (it was my surprise present!), and the other two have been framed out. We just need to order about 3 cubic yards of topsoil to flesh out the beds and a truckload of wood chips for the walkways, and we'll be ready to plant! I even had the drive to begin clearing out the herb garden of rocks and debris the weekend before Marcus was born, so all Chris has to do is finish tilling it and it'll be ready to plant as well.
This weekend I planted my onion bulbs (they should have been in already) and I'll be starting my seeds indoors for the other veggies, and once the May 24 weekend arrives, we'll be ready to go!

It's amazing, but with the birth of Marcus, our resolve to channel our lifestyle to one that is more sustainable has been strengthened even more. I look at the progress that has been made with the gardens in particular, and I so look forward to feeding my family fresh fruits and vegetables that we have grown ourselves. To know exactly what is going into our food is important, as well as to know no pesticides/artificial fertilisers will be present either.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Garden planning (and planting?) time!

Well, it's finally that time of year! I get to start planning a real (or at least large) vegetable garden! Last year, other than the odd herb or flower I wasn't able to flex my green thumb at all, so you can imagine how excited I am at the prospect!

The first thing we had to do was design the layout of the garden. We have chosen to use the side yard of the house as it's a faily large plot (all together usable space is 35'x18'), and gets a good deal of sun, as well as being removed from the main backyard (which is beneficial in deturring little ones and dogs from running through the beds) We have decided on 3 main raised beds (the benefits I'll go into more detail of later), our raspberry patch (which Chris pruned and walled last Autumn), and a herb garden, which is part of a raised level about 2 feet above the main garden.

Why raised beds?

It's been at least three years since I started researching ideas and resources for my dream garden, and from everything I've read, it looks like block-style raised beds (beds that are built up with wooden/stone walls) would suit us better than the traditional hills of earth that are commonly used as garden beds. These beds can be anywhere from 6"-24" high, depending on individual preference, and the benefits of using this technique are numerous. They are never built more that 4 feet wide, so it is easy to weed/plant/harvest from both sides of the bed without ever having to step in the garden, and thus eliminates unwanted packing of the earth. And because of being slighly removed from the main ground, raised beds usually thaw faster in Spring, and remain warmer further into Autumn thus extending the growing season, if only by a few weeks. Raised beds are also less susceptable to ground frost, and retain water more evenly and longer. Our own are going to be build from 4"x6" logs that we got from Chris' dad, and though will not be that much higher than ground level, should still provide some relief from having to bend over so far.

Vegetable Harmony

When all is said and done, we will eventually have a total of 17 different varieties of vegetables (unless we later decide to add more), and a myriad of herbs. I have done research to understand the compatability of certains veggies to one another (for example; growing corn to provide a pole/relief from sun damage to beans, close to zucchini to deter pests as done in the Native Canadian Three Sisters technique, or how beets provide nutrients to the soil that are used by broccoli and other such veggies), and have come up with what I hope will be a well nurished and flourishing garden plan. Each garden bed will be rotated at the end of each year, so that plants such as tomatoes and peppers that leach the soil of nutrients will only be in the same bed once every three years.

The veggies we plan to cultivate are (ones in italics denote what will be planted the first year):

  • green/red peppers

  • green beans

  • scallions

  • bunching/cooking onions

  • zucchini

  • kale

  • carrots

  • tomatoes

  • spinach

  • broccoli

  • head lettuce

  • beets

  • corn

  • romain lettuce

  • asperagus

  • potatoes

  • rutabaga (yellow turnip)

  • cucumbers
In addition to those veggies, we will also be planting in our herb garden basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, lavendar, dill, and garlic.
When Chris is off for three weeks on holidays (once I have had the baby) we will be building the physical garden beds, and importing the soil/compost needed. But with two composters in the backyard, and a large property full of vegetation and trees, it will not be long before we have our own supply of compost going. We have also decided that anywhere in that side yard not a vegetable garden will be covered with a layer of woodchips, for easy walking and to keep any weeds at bay (plus it will just be more esthetically pleasing). That means this weekend I get to go out and get my first batch of seeds to start indoors; I couldn't be happier!
As an aside; eventually we plan to order heirloom varieties of the herbs/vegetables and harvest the seeds ourselves. But that will have to come in later years, as I want to make sure we are knowledgable enough to end up with a decent yeild of food first!
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