The Call, Column 98 – An Early-Summer Gardening Checklist

24 06 2018

(June 24, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

An Early-Summer Gardening Checklist

Happy Summer Solstice! This is a great time of year: the days are long, the weather is warm, the garden is growing, and the RI legislative session is over so we can start organizing for candidates…sorry, I just had to put that in here for the chuckles. But that’s not what today’s column is about.

It’s primetime on the urban farm, so today I want to talk about a few important tasks that we should all be taking care of in the next few weeks.

  • If you haven’t already, plant your garden. I’ll admit to being very late to plant my garden this year, so maybe we are in good company. But it isn’t too late. We had an odd start to the warm season this year, with a lot of cool days in June and very little rain. Hopefully it will level off for the rest of the summer, so now is probably a good time to plant in anticipation of that. All threat of frost has passed, so all of your warm-season crops – tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans, summer and winter squash, and cold-sensitive herbs are fair game.
  • If you haven’t already, prune bramble fruits (raspberries and blackberries). As I wrote about a few years ago, raspberry and blackberry bushes are some of my favorite plants. They require basically no maintenance, and each year they produce a bumper crop of incredibly healthy fruits. They are the epitome of a “Paleolithic crop” (if such a thing even existed).
    The thing is, they also try to take over your yard. They spread via a network of underground roots, with dozens of “new” canes (stems) popping up five or 10 feet from the rest of the patch. Thankfully, you can prune existing canes and pull these new ones pretty much at any time during the growing season, without much of a negative impact on the health of the patch. Remove any canes that haven’t started growing leaves at this point (they are dead), and either pull or mow over newly-sprouted canes that are spread too far beyond the boundary of the patch.
  • Keep your garden mulched and weeded! This is the time of year that you can get ahead of the mulch. The weeds are only just coming out in full force, so if you make sure to keep a nice, thick layer of straw, or grass clippings, or shredded leaves, or whatever you can get your hands on, on top of your garden soil, you can prevent the problem of excessive weeding later on. I mulched with straw this year, which worked great…other than the fact that one of the two bales I put down still had viable seeds in it! So while half of my garden beds are pretty much weed-free, the other half are full of some sort of grain plant.
  • Make sure to water. Rain is sparse and kind of irregular during the New England summer, especially as of late with the effects of climate change. This whole weekend is supposed to be stormy, which made me happy to hear (other than that fact that it limited what activities I’ll be able to do outside).
    If you keep your garden mulched, it will prevent a lot of the evaporation that necessitates watering many times each week. But I still recommend that you water maybe twice a week, especially if it’s been dry. Use your judgment, and base watering frequency on how well the soil has retained moisture, and what the weather looks like it will be in the next few days.
    Also, consider drip irrigation. I have yet to fully install mine, but a drip irrigation system saves you lots of time by watering your garden for you…all while using a lot less water, and spreading it over a longer period so that plants can absorb more of it before it percolates too far downward into the soil.
  • Clean out the chicken coop. If you have chickens, now is a great time to do a very thorough cleaning of the coop. You should be cleaning it out once every few weeks, but completely replacing all of the bedding/mulching on the ground of the coop is best to do before it gets too hot. They will thank you, and hopefully repay you with a bumper crop of eggs!

Clean out the accumulated junk. I’m sure that you, like I, still have seed trays and old plant ties and a whole slew of other materials from last year’s season, still lying around in your garden. It’s so easy to fall into that trap: you plant in May and June, and your garden – and life – get so hectic, and remain that way well into the fall, that you don’t get around to cleaning up the equipment and odds and ends…and then it all freezes over in the winter. And the next spring (or early summer), you’re preparing to plant again, and last year’s trays are still there!
Its ok, we all do it. I made a concerted effort, a few weeks ago, to clean up a bunch of that stuff (and isolated it in one corner, to eventually bring inside). It is definitely cathartic to do this; it makes you feel more organized in your gardening, and also makes it less likely that that stuff will get in your way while you’re planting and taking care of your garden.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.


The Call, Column 97 – Further Thoughts on Saving the World

10 06 2018

(June 10, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Further Thoughts on Saving the World

I almost hyperventilated this morning. In my 25 years, that’s never (almost) happened as much as in the past couple of months.

You see, I was tending to my chickens outside, and realized how out-of-control my raspberry and blackberry patch has become – sprawling, un-pruned, and way-too-infected by weeds for my liking. And that realization spawned another, bitter thought: how comparatively little time I’ve given to my garden this year. There are so many things that I want to do in my garden, so many things that I “need” to do, but I’ve been so busy with other obligations that I haven’t yet been able to give it the attention it deserves and requires. And then, the heavy breathing began…

Why am I telling you this? In my last column, I waxed poetic on the virtues of saving the world. “Saving the World”…really? The point of that column was to try to deal with some of the anxiety that we as woke urban farmers will absolutely feel while trying to both contribute positively to the collective (environmental) good, and also enjoy our own lives…after first, of course, doing those mundane things required to keep ourselves alive. I never pretended to be an expert, but the two weeks since I wrote that have made it abundantly clear how my personal exploration of this topic is both incredibly important to my wellbeing, and ironically, woefully infantile. And also how important that exploration probably is to all of you.

So today, I want to talk about sustainability efforts as expressed by two distinct types of actions: individual/lifestyle changes on the one hand, and collective/legislative/political/community-wide changes on the other. I will preface this discussion with my view that both have a place in our society and each of our lives, but I think we need a lot more nuance in how we talk about, approach, and allocate time to these efforts.

What are the individual changes I’m talking about? These are things like switching to LEDs and other energy efficiency retrofits in your own home, buying sustainably-grown food, turning off lights and water when not in use, recycling, composting, gardening, refraining from creating plastic waste, etc. You get the picture.

They are the sustainability-oriented actions which make us feel the most accomplished – they require the most effort and time, produce the most tangible results, and make us feel more intimately connected with the systems we wish to change for the better. And relative to the 350 million people in the United States, and the 7 billion people in the world, these actions in isolation produce basically no positive effect towards our species’ move to sustainability…Ouch, bet you didn’t see that coming.

What about the collective changes? These are actions in the political and societal realm – lobbying for legislation, voting and otherwise working towards the election of environmental leaders, protesting, contributing to environmental lobbying and action groups, urban farming on a wider community scale, and volunteering. These actions likely produce the most positive change for the time/money/effort spent, but with the exception of volunteering, there is often no concrete, tangible outcome to celebrate. And so effort towards collective change can often leave us feeling empty or unaccomplished. Double “ouch”.

So what are we to do? How should we allocate our time on individual versus collective change, and how can we derive meaning from both? And what does that have to do with my unkempt raspberry bushes? Glad you asked.

The topic of this column was inspired by a couple of different things: an article that I encountered a few weeks ago, about the best solutions to climate change; a couple of very deep conversations with my close friend; and, naturally, a Facebook post about food waste and “sustainability-shaming”. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as of late, and it has actually sort of shifted and fine-tuned my views.

One initial comment, from that Facebook post: “sustainability-shaming”, valuing someone’s commitment to sustainability based on how well they recycle and efficiency-retrofit their home – is ineffective, classist, and ignorant of the actual problem. Climate change and environmental degradation are industry-level problems. You, reading this, did not cause climate change. Your neighbor, who works two jobs and doesn’t always have time to separate her recyclables, did not create the landfill. And your grandfather, who uses an entire bag of salt every time it snows, is not causing soil degradation.

Environmental problems are structural problems, largely perpetuated by the fossil fuel and other industries who stand to gain from (to quote that same friend from above) “internalizing profits and externalizing losses”. The fossil fuel industry’s business model relies on freely polluting the global environment – with particulates, NOx and SOx pollutants, and of course, fossil carbon dioxide – while making money off of you, a necessary consumer of energy who likely cannot reasonably produce it yourself. You, and your neighbor, and your grandfather were simply born into, and more-or-less have to participate in, this incredibly damaging economy. Be wary of anyone who frames environmental issues on the individual scale, because the very industries causing the problems stand to gain by making us blame each other.

Now, our approaches to change-making – the use of our time, money, and personal energy on things beyond our individual happiness – are influenced by two very different motivations. The first is efficiency: which actions produce the most positive change for each dollar, minute, or unit of psychological wear-and-tear they consume? The second is gratification: which actions make us feel most accomplished, give us the best “warm, fuzzy feeling” inside, and satisfy our deep desire for tangible outcomes as the result of our expenditure of money, time, and effort?

Ultimately, it is your personal values, socioeconomic situation, and mental/emotional/spiritual state that should inform how much you weigh each of these motivations, in deciding how to spend your “saving the world” resources. If you are already burned out – from trying to save the world or anything else – it may be better to focus on more actions that produce gratification (individual-level changes) to help alleviate that. If you are just starting out, or find yourself with more than enough time and energy, it may be better to focus on more efficient actions (collective changes). But most of us lie somewhere in between.

In fact, I made a pretty remarkable realization while writing the above: if your goal is to maximize the positive effect you have on the world, it may actually be necessary to divide your time between effective collective action, and gratifying individual action. Wait, what?

I think it may be something like a bell curve, where the extreme left side is hyper-focus on collective action, resulting from the efficiency motivation, and the extreme right is hyper-focus on individual action, resulting from the gratification motivation (any correlation to the political left and right is completely unintentional). Let me explain why.

If you hyper-focus on only efficient actions, especially ones that don’t produce adequate levels of personal gratification, you will probably burn yourself out. So while that next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional drive might be most efficiently spent at another protest or legislative hearing…if doing so then means you then have to sit in your car for an hour, screaming and swearing about how imbecilic certain politicians can be and how climate change is going to be our species’ downfall and we aren’t doing enough about it (definitely not speaking from personal experience or anything)…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect. Alternatively, while the next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional energy might be most meaningfully spent watching Food, Inc with your vegan club for the 16th time…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect.

Do you see my point? The truest, most effective way to save the world lies somewhere in the middle of that bell curve. Spend enough time on efficient, collective action to produce results that you often won’t see, but enough time on gratifying, individual action to motivate you to keep trying. I firmly believe that there is a balance that each of us can strike, which will keep us happily saving the world for the rest of our lives.

So that brings us full circle, right back to this morning’s almost-panic-attack. Do you want to know why my berry patch has become so unkempt? Because I have spent a HUGE amount of time in the past few months on collective action, towards climate change and other issues that are important to me. Judging by the fact that a few weeds (like many other things these days) had the effect of making me want to flee into the woods and live as a hermit…I think, maybe, I’m not doing enough of those gratifying, less-efficient actions, like sitting and watching my chickens fight each other over a worm for half an hour. If that’s what it takes to be willing to get up tomorrow and engage again in the political realm, then maybe that’s just what the doctor ordered.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 96 – How to Save the World

27 05 2018

(May 27, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

How to Save the World

There is something that most of you probably don’t know about me: I am an amateur painter. It started almost two years ago, when I signed up for a painting class at Michaels, at my mom’s suggestion. The second my brush hit the canvas, I fell in love.

I loved the subtleness of the techniques; I loved how I could convey feeling and emotion simultaneous to physical imagery through just the bristles of a paintbrush; I loved the power that I felt, being able to turn tubes of paint into art; and I loved how all of this combined, allowing me communicate so deeply with anyone who might see my finished work, even long after I’m dead.

This new passion, made on the coattails of my prior discovery that spoken and written words had value beyond just communicating facts, quickly formed the basis of my newfound appreciation for the power of art in all of its manifestations.

I have gone to these classes pretty regularly in the time since, and have painted a lot on my own. Then, sometime in mid-April, I found out that the instructor who taught me everything I know would be giving her last class.

This was sad, of course, but I was excited for Sylvia, since the decision was made as the result of some good changes in her life. And for our last, celebratory class, she decided we would do something a little different – painting on wooden signs, instead of canvas. I distinctly remember how important the decision felt, about what I should paint…I sat there for at least 10 minutes just thinking, while the others had already started fleshing out designs. And finally, I decided on a simple phrase, “Save the World”.

Now, it’s probably obvious to you that I spend a fair bit of my time working on various projects with the loose, underlying intention of fostering positive change in the world. But that moment, making the decision about what to paint and meditating over the idea as I actually painted it, was the first time I was able to really conceptualize this basic motivation of mine, the driving force that has increasingly compelled my passions and decision-making in the past couple of years.

I was very happy with the final product (depicted), and decided to give it as an “Earth Day present” to my friend Joe, with whom I share a lot of similar philosophies, motivations, and involvement in world-changing activities. But I also replicated it and hung a copy in my room, above my bed.

I have to say, this simple sign is hands down the most thought-provoking, emotionally-fulfilling thing I’ve ever made. The emotional basis for this sentiment has been swirling around the dark, deep ether of my mind for at least the last nine months, and it took this artistic expression of this nominally simple phrase to make me understand how truly, principally important it is to me to…Save. The. World.

That’s kind of an unrealistic request of oneself, don’t you think? It harkens back to this quote that I really identify with, by E. B. White:  “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one [heck] of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

And now, after 500 words of introduction, we’ve finally arrived at the main purpose of this column. How do we balance doing 1) the things we need to do, in order to keep ourselves alive, with 2) the things we want to do in order to seek fulfillment and happiness in life, with 3) any additional efforts to solve problems bigger than the confines of our own lives…to “save the world”, or at least to try? And how do we “try to save the world” at all?

I’ll be honest with you, this is still something I’m figuring out myself. So let’s first deal with those activities that we need to do in order to live. I’m the absolute last person to succumb to the flawed, boomer-era definition of that list – it certainly does not include manicuring our lawns, watching any TV, any form of conspicuous consumption (new cars or otherwise), or climbing the corporate ladder.

Rather, our basic survival is predicated on having access to adequate food, water, shelter, (arguably) clothing, energy, physical movement, and community. Barring exceptional circumstances, this list translates into a modern life in which we: work, in order to buy those things and create financial stability; perform minimal life-maintenance tasks like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and bill-paying; exercise; and maintain basic social relationships. Other than the last one, I firmly argue that we must minimize the amount of our limited time on Earth – not to mention our emotional and spiritual energy – used to perform these activities, at least in such a way that we can still gain most of the benefits of them. (Read the poem “Dust if you Must”, if you want a tear-jerking reason to believe what I’ve just written)

So, good: we’ve gotten that out of the way and can talk about more important things. Once we’ve done the minimum necessary to keep ourselves alive, how do we balance seeking happiness, fulfillment, and meaning, with putting in effort to try to save the world?

I don’t know. You don’t know. No politician, or doctor, or mechanic, or pastor really knows. But our life experiences, and the experiences of others, can help us to try to figure that out. First, let’s talk about what these activities actually are.

“Seeking happiness, fulfillment, and meaning” is pretty subjective. For me, those activities include spending quality time with my friends and family, traveling, spending time outside, being part of the process of producing my own food, reading, writing, painting and other forms of art, listening to music, building things, learning about and discussing ideas, engaging in progressive activism, and my theology. For you, the list may be completely different, but it’s a good thing to be explicitly aware of it for yourself.

On the other hand, there exists a good, if not incredibly generic definition of what it means to “try to save the world”. There are many well-defined problems in the world – environmental degradation, institutional discrimination and racism, systemic poverty and income inequality, excessive war, human rights violations, the existence of oppressive political regimes…the list could go on and on, and I would argue that most or all of this stems from fundamental flaws in the political and economic systems that we’ve allowed to control our societies. There is also the vague problem of general unhappiness, discontentedness, anxiety, and lack-of-fulfillment experienced by many of the people on Earth. (See how I just brought that full-circle?)

“Saving the world” can take the form of 1) uncovering and making known the problems which exist; 2) seriously discussing solutions; 3) working towards fixing the problems; 4) working towards putting in place systems which prevent these and other problems from arising again; and 5) creating things which add to the general richness and meaningfulness of peoples’ lives (to address that last problem above).

Journalism, getting involved in politics, making art of any form, protesting, lobbying for good legislation, community organization and involvement, conscious decision-making, any profession where you help people directly, engaging in sustainable production (full-scale and urban farming for example), philosophy, protecting wild spaces, volunteering, turning your thoughts and prayers into action, sourcing your food and other products from sustainable production models, being a good person…these are all examples of actions we can take to help save the world.

For a second, try to consider your personal list of things which bring you happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. It’s pretty likely that some of them overlap with this list of world-saving actions, huh? I know quite a few of mine do…and that isn’t an accident.

My recommendation, for balancing personal contentment with saving the world: find things that do both! I’ve taken to calling this “stacking”, and truly I’ll tell you, it has made me a lot more productive as a person. My work with political campaigns and organizations is both personally fulfilling (I am energized by public speaking and the social capital gotten from this involvement) and also helps to improve the world. Spending time outside, working in my garden or with my chickens, brings me an elemental happiness…and also contributes to the sustainable production of the food I eat. The creation of my paintings is emotionally fulfilling…and each of the (thus far, few) instances where I give one to someone, it is a form of solution #5 above.

Some other recommendations: For activities which cannot be “stacked”, you have to make a personal assessment of the relative values of enjoying yourself versus saving the world, and divide up your time accordingly; focus some of your effort on making positive change as part of a group, since it is generally easier than doing so as an individual; recognize that certain save-the-world activities are more effective towards the ends that you personally value than others, and choose appropriately.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 94 – A Gardener’s Worst Nightmare

16 04 2018

(April 15, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

A Gardener’s Worst Nightmare

Gardening is going to get a whole lot more difficult in the years to come. Nope, not because there’ll necessarily be more woodchucks. I don’t foresee a shortage of seeds or plant starts, or any particularly nasty new plant virus. And if every garden supply center is planning to stop selling shovels and rakes, no one told me.

No, probably the biggest overall threat that we, urban farmers, will face to effective garden-growing is (drum-roll please) climate change.

It’s real, it’s our fault, it’s an overall threat to our well-being, and we need to do something about it…but we aren’t doing that fast enough.

And at this point, all action that we take on climate change will be to reverse the changes that have already taken place, and avoid more catastrophic atmospheric warming and related events in the coming decades and centuries. We are already seeing the effects of climate change around the globe – the ice caps are receding, ancient and new pathogens are spreading in territorial coverage, species are becoming threatened and extinct, and…the seasons are no longer dependable.

And that’s our kicking-off point for this column. There are many effects of climate change that are very relevant to urban farmers (not to mention full-scale farmers), and may threaten our ability to grow effectively. I want to discuss these impacts, and give some idea of how we might adapt to them while still in the process of transitioning away from climate-change-causing fossil fuels and towards the inevitable sustainable future.

The most prominent threat, of course, is the changing of weather patterns. I’m sure that you, like I, have noticed that the real beginning of winter – frozen mornings, consistently cold temperatures, regular snow – is creeping later and later in the year…as is the real beginning of spring. This has left us (in New England) with warm Novembers and cold Aprils, and wildly unpredictable Decembers and Mays.

Gone are the days when we could reliably assume that the first frost would happen within a week of October 15th, and the last around May 20th (in Southern New England). The agricultural zones are even shifting, as the frost line moves northward…who knows how long we will even be in Zone 6b?

This all makes it very hard to plan our gardens. When do we start our seeds indoors, if we don’t even know the appropriate month for their plant-out date? And when can we even be sure that we’ve had the last frost, since that May 20th approximation is not nearly as accurate as it was 30 years ago?

And, though the first and last frost dates are changing, the amount of sunlight we receive isn’t. We already have a short-ish growing season in Southern New England, which means we rely heavily on that growing season coinciding with the longest days and highest amounts of sunlight in the year. Well, May is typically a lot sunnier than November…if we lose growing time at the beginning to gain it at the end, our gardens will suffer no matter what we do.

This is a huge problem. I’m not sure I can confidently recommend a solution to adapt your gardening strategies, other than being as attentive as possible and selecting varieties that are able to mature in a shorter time, or with less sunlight. Also (and this one doesn’t come naturally to me at all), we may have to be more risky in our initial plant-out and final harvest. We will have to have more plants than needed, plant them out in late May, and pray there isn’t another frost lest we have to replace whatever dies…and come October, leave some of the less-than-optimally-ripe stuff on the vine later than normal, in hopes that it can mature before we get a hard frost.

Unfortunately, this is not foolproof. Three or four years ago, basically every farm in the state of Rhode Island lost its peach crop for the year because of this seasonal shifting. A short period of warm weather in early February of that year “tricked” the peach trees into budding out early, and a subsequent deep freeze in late February killed it all. Many trees died, and those that didn’t bore little to no fruit that year.

One of the other effects of climate change, that I’m sure you have noticed, is an increasing incidence of precipitation in high-precipitation areas. This translates to more snow in our area during the winter, which (despite uneducated claims of this nature), absolutely doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening.

As the atmospheric temperature warms, water is more easily evaporated from the oceans and other bodies of water, resulting in more frequent and substantial precipitation. The atmospheric temperature has increased by a couple of degrees, and is set to increase by a couple more in the coming decades, which means our winters still do, and always will dip into freezing temperatures…and presto-chang-o, we get lots more snow as a result! This has meant that it’s harder to plant early-season crops like spinach, since the snow covers the soil later, and threatens the health of tender seedlings. This weekend’s nice weather aside, this fact has delayed me from doing much early-season stuff in my garden this year…and I really don’t have a good solution to offer.

Despite having more snow, the progression of climate change has meant that the soil freezes a lot less – and for a much shorter time – during the winter. Our winters now consist of alternating days of frigid temperatures, with less-cold or even above-freezing temperatures, which means the soil doesn’t freeze for a few months, and to the same depth, that it used to. This has meant that topsoil-borne diseases are more able to survive the winter, resulting in a more pathogenic start to the growing season.

Your best bet to prevent this from being much of a problem is to mulch, mulch, and mulch again! If soil doesn’t get splashed up onto the leaves of your plants, it significantly reduces the risk of them catching many soil-borne diseases. This doesn’t prevent every effect of the above problem, but it’s a start. I spread a thick layer of straw on my garden last weekend, which I’m hoping will be enough.

Finally, the variability in the weather in early-to-mid spring results in less native plant growth, less early-season berries, and less worms and soil insects. That is a HUGE problem since, well, nature relies on biodiversity.

But for gardeners in specific, that means that birds, woodchucks, and other “pests” do not have a reliable food supply early in the season. Well, no reliable supply…except whatever you’ve taken care to grow in your garden. I don’t even have a solution to this for a world without climate change. It’s a problem we just have to live with, I guess.

I hope you may be able to use some of this information. But even more, I hope it has helped you to internalize the pressing issue of global, human-caused climate change. Our gardens are in trouble. Our world is in trouble. We are in trouble. We have to adapt to what’s already happened, but also take action to stop further change, and ultimately reverse what has happened altogether. And we have to do it now. Shoot me an email if you want to find out how.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 91 – Low-Impact Urban Farming

25 02 2018

(February 25, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Low-Impact Urban Farming

I love urban farming, let’s get that out of the way first. I love the smell of the soil; I love the process of growing things; I love the calmness and serenity of nature; I love the act of creating sustainable food with the labor of my own hands. I love chickens, plants, and insects, soil microbes, and human beings. And I love the rebellious act of using land in the city not for passive consumption, but for active production.

As ideas, I love all of these things. And in practice, when I am able to do them successfully, and when I am able to dedicate enough of my time to them to bring them to fruition, and when I am in the right mindset to weather little difficulties like a woodchuck eating my cabbages and lettuce for the sixth time in one year, then I love all of these things.

But rarely is anything as perfect as I just described. Ignoring the mostly unavoidable Acts of Nature, I would guess that many of you suffer from the same types of frustrations as I do in your garden every year – intending, early in the season, to put in as much effort as is required to make it really awesome…and starting an elaborate garden that would require this effort…but then spreading your time so thin with other things that you end up not devoting the time and energy you need, and being frustrated with minor failures and setbacks.

This is a special shout-out to my fellow P-types (for those of you who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, I am an ENFP in the best and worst definitions); you, like me, probably have a dozen or so very important projects at any one time, that all require enormous amounts of your attention, and which are all very important to you…which unavoidably leads to frustration and disappointment when things don’t get done. Add in the fact that urban farming is supposed to be fun, calming, and productive, and so much of it is so lovable (see the above)…and it’s totally reasonable that this can leave some of us feeling disheartened at a certain point each year.

What’s the solution to this? Well, at first glance, it would seem that we should design our urban farming systems with the singular goal of maximizing production while minimizing labor inputs. But you know what you get when you approach something as sacred and inherently holistic as food production with that singular mindset? Factory farming. You get factory farming…and I know you don’t want that.

So today, I want to talk about my idea of low-impact urban farming. This combines two basic motivations: maximizing productive output while minimizing human input (time, labor, and money), but also reducing strain on the environment by considering it as another form of input that needs to be minimized. Now, it’s generally not good practice to maximize/minimize on more than one variable – what produces the most tomatoes or eggs per unit of human time/labor/money (which can be considered the same thing for these purposes) doesn’t necessarily produce the most tomatoes or eggs per unit of stress on the environment. And this logic, combined with the cold profit motive of industrial agriculture, is what dictates that chickens be kept in battery cages and cows should be fed chicken feces and expired Skittles.

But on the scale of urban farming, it is actually often true that those practices which minimize stress on the humans doing them, also minimize stress on the environment in which they’re being done. And there’s the remainder of this column: what types of practices have I learned, either by doing or intending to do, that accomplish this? Let’s find out.

Starting your plants: Each of the past 7 years or so, I have started all of my longer-season plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, brassicas, etc) inside, under grow lights, in late February. I enjoy doing this, watching as life springs forth from a seemingly lifeless seed, and nurturing it to the point where it can be planted outside. But, I realized last year, the amount of effort and time that I devote to this aspect of my garden is enormous, and it generally yields plants that are less healthy than if I had bought them (organic, sustainable ones) from a professional greenhouse. And by exerting so much effort, so early in the season, I have often burned myself out by the time the garden really picks up in June.

I’m not saying not to do this. But I think the benefits and drawbacks of raising everything from seed, as opposed to buying starts sometime in early May, should be considered in the context of maximizing output while minimizing human and environmental strain.

In my experience, it takes a lot of time to seed, tend to, plant up, and harden off plant starts when they’re done at home; it actually costs quite a pretty penny, with all of the equipment required and the energy needed for the grow lights; and there is a lot of mental effort (especially for a flighty P-type like myself) that goes into keeping track of all of this and remembering to do it all, correctly, on time, on a regular basis. And beyond all of that, the grow lights use a huge amount of energy and this setup uses a lot of plastic, neither of which are great for the environment.

All things considered, the inputs required to start your own seeds are much, much higher than if you were to buy equivalent plants (i.e. organic, sustainably-raised, from non-GMO seed) from a professional greenhouse. This is absolutely true of the mental effort, human labor/time, and environmental impact; and though I haven’t crunched the numbers, I spend so much money on this part of the garden every year that I suspect it would be cheaper just to buy them.

In my view, and in my personal context, all of this is a good argument for buying high-quality plant starts in May, rather than spending more time and money and electricity, and burning myself out by the real planting season, in order to do it myself. If at some point I am planting a much larger area, or began to place more of a value on the effective self-sufficiency of my endeavor, my view would absolutely change. And on the flip side, shorter-season and smaller-sized crops, like leafy greens and root vegetables, are much easier (and cheaper, and lower impact) to direct-seed in the spring than buy as starts…at least in my context.

Irrigation. If you have a big garden, watering can easily become a huge time commitment. And the penalty for doing it too infrequently is a huge reduction in your garden’s productivity. Mine requires like 45 minutes to water fully, and should be watered every second or third day; in my experience, it’s very easy to not have time to do this.

The solution: drip irrigation! I have intended to install a drip irrigation system for the past two years, but because I was already kind of burned out by when it came time to do that in late April (because of 2 months of seed-starting), I delayed and eventually didn’t do it. Not this year! By installing a system like this, you could conceivably not have to water your garden at all, instead just monitoring it to make sure soil moisture is good. This would reduce the time and labor impact on you, the busy gardener, and also reduce the amount of water used. Now, this system costs more than just the hose required to water manually, so that’s an assessment that you have to make individually. But in my context, saving a few hours per week in labor, and the mental effort of keeping track of a watering schedule, and reducing my water usage is all worth the cost and initial time investment of setting up the system. And my garden will be watered more, and more regularly, which will maximize production.

Mulching. This is one I’ve talked about a lot, so I won’t give it too much space here. There should always be a layer of mulch on your soil, short of when you’ve direct-seeded smaller crops like spinach, that need a few weeks to sprout and become established. But in general, you can find organic mulching materials (like leaves, grass clippings, straw) for free or very low price-per-area-of-coverage, and it takes very little time to apply mulch, and doing so minimizes the growth of weeds that would otherwise dominate uncovered soil. I’m slowly getting better at this, but if this year goes as planned, I won’t have to weed at all and my garden’s productivity will be all the better for it.

Regular maintenance. If you’re like me, you simultaneously hate tightly-scheduled activities, but also don’t have the organizational wherewithal to make sure those activities would get done if you tried to do them freely. God, I’m such a P-type. What are we to do?

I think the best solution is to schedule a very small amount of time – say 10 minutes a day, right after waking up/coffee/breakfast in the morning – in which to do basic garden maintenance tasks, combined with the other suggestions above. Without having to regularly weed and water, it is totally conceivable that 10 minutes per day is enough to take good care of your garden. Check that the irrigation is working; pull any weed-lings that have broken through the mulch (since they’re easier and quicker to pull at that size) and just throw them on top off the mulch; tie up staked plants like tomatoes; and harvest anything that needs to be. None of this takes very long, and when you do it as little bits of time every day, rather than larger amounts (say) once per week, it is less overwhelming, more likely to get done, and more effective at keeping your garden healthy and productive.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 89 – It’s 2pm: Do You Know Where the Sun Is?

28 01 2018

(January 28, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

It’s 2pm: Do You Know Where the Sun Is?

Two columns ago, we talked about the “passive solar clock”, the fact that many of the things happening on Earth’s surface are driven by the amount of sunlight received. This creates a sort of weather clock, which varies periodically over the course of one day and one year.

Last column, we moved on to the idea of the “active solar clock”, the ability of certain things on Earth – namely animals, plants, fungi, and some microorganisms – to keep track of the Sun’s position over the day and the year, and adjust their behavior accordingly. This is called the circadian rhythm. It is a feature of so many organisms, from fungi to chickens to human beings; and drive behavior like (more obviously) sleep and wake cycles, hormone levels, and reproductive capacity, but also (less obviously) mood and metabolic health.

Today, let’s expand on this last concept. I want you to fully understand how important the circadian rhythm is – including your own – and the possible side-effects of circadian dysregulation, when an organism’s brain (or whatever regulates its circadian clock) can no longer accurately discern the time of day and year.

So last time, we discussed some examples of how organisms are able to use their circadian rhythms to regulate biological things. I want to make one side note here: in general, though my language kind of indicates otherwise, it isn’t organisms making the conscious choice to use their brain’s record of solar time of day and year to do things. Rather, it is their brain (or whatever) automatically regulating lots of biological mechanisms and processes according to its record of solar time.

There are some very obvious examples of this in the natural world. Plants use a series of biochemical reactions to maintain a circadian rhythm, which they use to “know” when to flower, set seed, and go dormant for the winter. Most animals reproduce best in the spring and summer, which is why birds’ nests are filled with eggs in the spring, baby deer and turkeys emerge sometime during the warm season, and even chickens take a break in their egg-laying during the winter. Much of the life in the soil goes dormant during the winter. Almost everything – including plants – sleeps at night and is awake during the day, with the curious exception of nocturnal animals. In general, animals tend to store fat more easily in the fall, and have more difficulty shedding it in the winter. This is an adaption that helps to prevent starvation during lean months…not that that fact makes me feel any better about the numbers on the scale as of late. But all of this is driven by the circadian rhythm, and therefore by sunlight!

Looking specifically at human beings, this is regulated by the human brain. It uses a combination of neuron activity, electrical charges, and hormones to accomplish this intricate timekeeping endeavor. For example, your brain produces melatonin when it believes bedtime is approaching, and cortisol when it believes it is time to get up; these are respectively responsible for feelings of sleepiness at night and wakefulness in the morning. That’s a pretty powerful hormonal drive, huh?

So what is circadian dysregulation? I’m glad you asked! Your brain has a central clock that it tries to maintain on a roughly 24-hour cycle and another roughly 365-day cycle, based on 1) the brightness of sunlight you’re exposed to; 2) the spectrum of that sunlight (more blue light indicates morning and noon, while more red/yellow light indicates evening), and 3) possibly, the position of the sun in the sky. If you go outside, and those data points match the time of day and year that your brain thinks it is, that’s a positive feedback which reinforces your circadian clock; if they don’t match, that is negative feedback, which forces your brain to readjust. Again, how cool is that?

But there are some very widespread behaviors that can actively throw off this regulation…and nighttime exposure to blue light is probably the most significant. When you look at basically any electronic screen, or even at certain light bulbs (some fluorescents and LEDs, unfortunately), the exorbitant level of blue light in their spectrum tricks your brain into thinking that it is morning/noontime. This is the reason that, for many people, staring at their phone right before bed can jolt them awake or make them less tired, even if they were ready to fall asleep right before.

But the problem is much broader. We live in a society where it is perfectly possible – even considered normal – to not see the sun most days each week, for a few months of the year. If you work in an office, it is entirely possible that during the winter, you will go to work while the sun is rising, and leave after it sets…and spend the entire day under (bluish) fluorescent lights, staring at a (bluish) computer screen, without seeing the sun at all. The shortest day of the year was just a few weeks ago, so this problem is particularly relevant right now.

On top of this, we look at a lot of brightly-lit screens at night, we generally don’t get as much sleep as we should, and we rely on coffee to keep us awake. With all of these biologically-abnormal stimuli, it’s no wonder that circadian dysregulation is rampant in the West! But what does it look like, for a human being’s circadian rhythm to be misaligned?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is one of the most relevant manifestations of circadian dysregulation. Some peoples’ brains seem to be more reliant than others on exposure to sunlight, in order to keep their circadian rhythm aligned. During the winter, inadequate exposure to sunlight can lead to this form of acute depression, which (at least in my experience) creates feelings of bitterness, hopelessness, and resentment. The exact hormonal mechanism isn’t quite understood yet, but the link between SAD and exposure to adequate sunlight for circadian alignment is obvious.

Another common manifestation of (probably) circadian dysregulation is metabolic disease (i.e. obesity). There is far less scientific evidence linking these two, but early studies (and lots of anecdotal evidence) have shown correlation between circadian dysregulation and metabolic dysregulation, and causation between circadian dysregulation and hormonal problems…and the relationship between metabolic health and hormonal health is indisputable. This is one connection for which I’m anxiously awaiting on more concrete science.

There are things you can do to prevent the worst effects of circadian dysregulation. Avoid looking at screens and other blue-containing light sources when it’s dark outside. If this isn’t possible, invest in a pair of blue-blocking/amber-tinted glasses, which filter out most of the blue light, and as a result prevent much of the negative effect on your circadian alignment. I have a pair that cost me $10, so if you want recommendations, just shoot me an email.

Try to get adequate sleep. I know how hard this is in modern society, and my personal demon is the shear amount of interesting things I could be doing at 10 pm and midnight and 2 am, instead of sleeping…but join me in trying to sleep at least 7 hours each night (the optimal amount varies by person), because it helps to fine-tune and properly-align the melatonin and cortisol spikes that drive sleepiness and wakefulness. Also, keep in mind that coffee helps to create an artificial increase in cortisol. This is probably fine earlier in the day, but cortisol should be very, very low at night as melatonin and sleepiness start to kick in. This means coffee in the afternoon and night = no bueno.

Finally, and this is probably the most important recommendation (alongside reducing blue light at night): get some sunlight each and every day! Last winter, which the first one of my life where I was working fulltime instead of either in school or on Christmas break, I suffered a little SAD. It took me a few weeks to realize what it was. But as soon as I did, I began taking 15 minute walks most days, during my breaks or lunch at work, and the symptoms almost immediately evaporated. When I began feeling inklings of it late this past November, I took that same action and haven’t really felt it since.

Now like I mentioned earlier, the effects of circadian dysregulation on metabolic health are much more indirect and ill-defined, so it would be harder to relate the solution of that back to taking daily walks outside. But if the disappearance of my SAD symptoms is any indication of the effect of more sunlight exposure on proper circadian alignment, I have no doubt believing that this is great for long-term metabolic health as well. (Side note: I am not a psychiatrist. I am not a doctor. This is a solution which worked for me, for a specific type of acute depression that is very well-linked to sun exposure, and more likely in someone of my genetic/geological origin. If you are suffering depression symptoms of unknown cause, I urge you to seek medical help.)

Ending on a bit more of a lighter note, there is another aspect of this that I have been giving some thought to, and wanted to share. There are some…“less scientific”, shall we say…topics that may potentially be linked to the human circadian rhythm.

The first is the possibility of a greater conscious awareness of the circadian clock, beyond its background (hormonal and other biological) effects. I tend to believe that other animals – whose circadian rhythms aren’t boggled by blue lights, sub-optimal sleep, coffee and alcohol, and spending all day in climate- and light-controlled boxes – may be more consciously aware of what solar time it is, and deliberately perform actions or adjust their behavior accordingly. Do you know how, if you find yourself in a random place and the sun is not too far above the horizon, you can sort of “intuitively tell” whether it’s sunset or sunrise? Also, do you ever have those mornings where there is something very important that you need to be up for, and your brain seems to wake you up shortly before your alarm? I feel that these may be manifestations of this phenomenon – something that other animals use all the time, like when my chickens obviously know that nighttime is approaching even before dusk.

The second is astrology. I don’t actually subscribe much to it, but there have been some cases, in my experience, that the solar horoscope accurately describes behavior. If there is any underlying scientific reason at all, that the time of year that one was born may affect their behavior, I think it is probably due to circadian effects. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that there may be subtle differences in the way a mother’s body forms and nurtures an unborn baby, depending on the time of year that this is happening, because of hormones or expected availability of resources or whatever…and that this could somehow affect the baby’s long-term behaviors. Additionally, the initial circadian alignment that a newborn baby’s brain has to perform shortly after birth, and the information about the time of day and year that its life began, could conceivably affect the formation of its brain and therefore behavior as well.

This is all speculation and “thinking out loud” so-to-speak, but those are my final thoughts.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 85 – What You Learn on Thanksgiving

12 12 2017

(November 26, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

What You Learn on Thanksgiving

Early Friday morning, I sat down to one of my favorite meals of the year, a heaping plate of Thanksgiving leftovers. Right as I was about the take the first bite, I paused and thought to myself: “I’m not nearly as reflective about the local-ness of my food as I used to be.”

When I started seriously urban farming five or six years ago, which was right around the same time that I started buying from local farms and farmers markets, I remember being obsessed about the origin of the things on my plate at each meal. I don’t mean that I was compulsive or anything; I didn’t require that everything I ate be local/organic/whatever, or lament over anything that wasn’t. I just spent a lot of time in self-congratulatory mode, meditating over whichever ingredients I had managed to source locally/organically/whatever, or had grown myself.

But over the past few years, I’ve gotten so good at sourcing my food mostly locally, that it’s second nature at this point. A majority of my food comes from the local foodshed and my own yard, because I’ve put “systems” in place – shopping regularly at the farmers market, structuring my diet around foods available year-round in our area, processing and storing some of my garden’s produce, and keeping my fridge and freezer always stocked with meats and vegetables of known and acceptable origin – to make sure of it. I’m used to it that it no longer even occurs to me to stop and think about that fact at every meal.

But something about Thanksgiving changed that. This meal was made up of layer upon layer of significance; layers of meaning that were deeper than just taste and nutrition. The same may be said about any meal, to a varying degree. But I thought it would be fun today for us to dissect this a little and really ruminate over the meaning hidden in the foods on our holiday plates.

The first layer is that the meal is made of local, quality ingredients. I don’t have to explain to you how important this is. Our entire Thanksgiving meal was made up of real, while ingredients, mostly vegetables and meat.

But beyond this, we were able to source many of the primary  ingredients from the local foodshed. The truly free-range turkey was from Radical Roots Farm in Canterbury, CT, a beyond-organic farm owned by my friends Aly and Ryan. It was among the best turkeys I’ve ever had; so much so, that there is another in my freezer.

The Brussels sprouts, cranberries, potatoes, apples, pumpkins, and onions were all from local, sustainable farms; the garlic, tomatoes, spices, and a couple of other ingredients were from my garden; even the olive oil was sourced as locally as possible (California). Basically every food on the Thanksgiving table can be sourced from the local foodshed; and absolutely every ingredient can come from sustainable farms that know what’s up. This is the most basic significance of the food, and one that I’m glad I was reminded of by my plate of holiday leftovers.

Digging down, the next layer of meaningfulness is that the work of so many hands went into creating the meal. At base, of course, is the fact that farmers grew the food.

And this meal represented three generations of my family: my grandparents cooked the turkey and stuffing, my mom made the vegetables and potatoes, I did the desserts (ironic, much?) and a couple of sides, and my sister and her boyfriend made a cheesecake and a nice batch of grain-free tabbouleh. And my dad, though he doesn’t cook too often, supports the effort by cleaning the house and helping where needed.

Though my family usually eats one meal together per day, the vast majority of cooking and preparation is done individually. I can’t overstate the significance of this big meal, where each of us made a significant contribution to the end goal.

The next layer of meaning, is the power of this meal to bring people together. The dinner (actually lunch) itself included the people above: my grandparents, my parents, me, my sister, and her boyfriend. But when it came to dessert, the circle got even bigger.

My grandfather’s sister, my mom’s brother and his family, and two of her cousins and their families, along with two of our oldest, closest family friends, all came to spend the latter part of the day. We talked, laughed, gossiped, and of course, ate more. This is something that doesn’t happen nearly enough for my liking, especially for a Greek family. And it demonstrates the power of food and celebration to bring people together.

The final layer is, of course, the cultural and historical tradition which led us to this feast day. Now, I will be the first to point out that the history of our country, especially at the time of the first European expansions into North America, is one of genocide and imperialism. We did not have any claim to this land, and the ensuing takeover of a relatively peaceful land of small hunter-gatherer and agrarian tribes was violent and uncomfortable.

But it happened long ago, and the best we can do now, as individuals, living in this country, is to remember and learn from those events (and make reparations, of course). Thanksgiving Day was established to commemorate the knowledge and help passed on from the Native American tribes to the first, relatively peaceful English settlers, which allowed them to survive in the harsh climate of New England.

In spite of the history, it is the selflessness of the Native Americans – acts which crossed religious, national, and cultural lines – that is commemorated in our continued celebration of Thanksgiving Day. It is the deepest layer of significance in that meal I was contemplating, and one that should occupy our thoughts each year as we celebrate.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.