Permaculture for the wealthy

At Seedy Saturday I picked up a brochure for a permaculture design course taking place over two weeks this summer. However, the cost is prohibitive: $988 registration plus $390 for meals and a minimum $140 for accommodation. The promotional material gives no evidence of scholarships. Over the past 15 years websites on this topic have shifted away from providing a wealth of information toward advertizing expensive training courses like this one. It is a shame when wisdom becomes a commodity. Permaculture could improve the nutrition of low-income urban families, but not if we allow the knowledge to become inaccessible.

Seedy Saturday

Yesterday we went to Guelph’s Seedy Saturday at Norfolk United Church. I brought home a few more ideas along with packages of heirloom vegetable and wildflowers seeds.

Seedy Saturdays began in Canada in 1990, encouraging communities to share locally-adapted, non-hybrid plant varieties. I first attended one in Toronto in 1997 as a vendor of handmade papers, many incorporating wildflower seeds. Numerous Seedy Saturdays and Seedy Sundays are organized under the auspices of Seeds of Diversity, a volunteer organization concerned with conserving biodiversity and traditional horticultural knowledge. Its website lists a few more of these events occurring in small cities across Canada this month. Other similar events like the one in Guelph seem to have sprung up independently.

Best find of the day was a seed potato collection including three varieties: Bintje, Norland and Warba. I purchased a few more packets of commercial heirloom varieties, but also a few from plants that have grown in Guelph for several generations; arugula, calendula, lettuce, tithonia (Mexican sunflower) and zinnia. The latter two are supposed to be good for attracting pollinators.

The most interesting new local enterprise is the Guelph Community Orchard Project, which aims to build community, improve local environment, foster awareness of fruit and nut trees, and increase food security. It received its first grant from Tree Canada a few days ago and has launched a new blog.

Starting a permaculture garden

For the permaculture garden, I began by choosing the best site in the yard. Most vegetables and herbs prefer full sun. This section gets a little morning shade, but full sun from late morning through early evening. I decided to make two long mounds with a trench in between. No one is ever supposed to walk on the beds, so they have to be narrow enough for easy access. I laid out a plot 10 feet wide by 26 feet long. That means Van’s feet, a more organic system than metric or Imperial.

The trenches should be as level as possible so water won’t all run down to one end (irrigation, if necessary, will be applied to the trenches). I had a hard time because the garden slopes considerably down toward the back fence. Instead of levelling it all out I decided to make dams, but for now the shovel will do.

Digging a garden is hard work, especially when you are out of shape. I worked for a few minutes at a time whenever I had some to spare this week, edging my way into it. I was grateful for an early spring so I do not have to finish it all in a rush six weeks from now. This afternoon the trenches and mounds are finally finished.

Now the fun begins. And I mean fun, because the worst is over with all that shovelling. The rest feels much more creative. Next a layer of manure goes on top of the mounds, as thick as you can make it. A sprinkling of bone meal helps balance nutrients and soil pH. Over that goes a triple layer of wet cardboard. This smothers any grass and weeds and stabilizes the mounds to prevent erosion. The cardboard should cover the bottom of the trenches, too. Finally, a layer of straw mulch goes on top. Leaves would work as well.

Brock Road Nursery gave us two old bales of straw for free, a sensible and neighbourly thing to do. Today I ran out of manure, bone meal and disposable cardboard, but there is more to come. For now I have enough space to start planting some early crops that tolerate cool weather and soil: radishes, spinach, peas, chard and bunching onions.

Years ago I started a permaculture garden by a similar method. I made holes in the cardboard and planted tomatoes, squash and other seedlings in the compost underneath. I never planted seeds until the beds were established and I had soil to work with. Geoff Lawton recommends making the holes just big enough for taproots to go through the cardboard, and planting seeds and seedlings in pockets of compost in the top layer of straw. They need to be watered vigilantly from above until the taproot grows through. I’m nervous about that, but will give it a try.

Next nice day, I will plant seeds.

Weather: weird, worrying or wonderful?

This afternoon we took a break to walk 20 minutes to the supermarket. We dressed in shorts and short sleaves. Along the way a Forsythia and crocuses were in full bloom. Normally in Guelph we might expect to see these things a month from now. Meanwhile buds were bursting on a magnolia, a dogwood, a maple and a lilac, all six weeks ahead. Spring is burning to catch up with itself. It is lovely. It is also frightening.

Extreme weather is normal, but this is no quick flash. The average winter daily high here was above freezing. Looking at it a different way, the daytime temperature only stayed below freezing 18 times between Dec. 22 and the Mar. 21. The weather is expected to cool off Friday, but there is still no sign of frost in the long-range forecast.

What place is this? Surely not Ontario? Our normal last frost date around here is supposed to be May 9. Setting aside the bigger question of climate change, we ought to consider how this affects our environment, economy and food sources right now. Add to this heat a lack of rain and we have a long trend of extremely unusual conditions. Global warming was supposed to bring an economic advantage to cooler temperate climates like this. Farmers must be tempted to plant their crops early, but no one living can assess the risk of planting in Ontario in March.

As soon as I finish digging the backyard garden I intend to plant lettuce, peas and onions, things that tolerate cool weather and frost. If I decide to plant tomatoes a month early, I risk only a few dollars’ worth of seeds and supplies. It is not my livelihood.

The dry weather is bound to kill off blackflies and mosquitoes early. People will not complain about that. Birds, on the other hand, might suffer severely. As swallows and warblers begin arriving hungry after migrating thousands of kilometres, who can say whether a suitable diet will await them? No one has performed this experiment before.

One thing we can expect: plenty of strange weather variations to come. Hunter Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute called it “global weirding.” Right here and now, it is beautiful, but we should all be a little frightened. Besides that, I must admit to a fascination about what happens next, and how the world will adapt.

Birthday morning post

Who could have believed I would ever eat breakfast on my birthday sitting outside in shorts? The air smells of white pines and is full of the songs of chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, goldfinches and crows. I also glimpsed a blue jay flying overhead. I’m going to work on digging the vegetable garden while the bottom of the yard lies still in cool shadows.


I took the umbrella outside and planted it in the middle of the glass table so I could eat lunch on the deck. This weather is fantastic! So is this place. We have silence indoors, but that is nowhere near as beautiful as the complex outdoor stillness. I am reminded of our first few magical days in this house last July before we had our own wireless connection, when I would bring my laptop out here to take advantage of some neighbour’s unsecured network. I loved—still love—the soft movement of air, the bright light and the lack of street noise.

Although in the middle of the city, our house backs onto Hanlon Creek Conservation Area. Yet I can hardly believe the quiet is so profound. The drone of a small plane plus some other distant vehicular muttering leaks like the memory of a dream. Mostly I am enfolded in the whispers of nature.

You can hear the pines even in the slightest air movement but today, despite the breeze, they stand mostly breathless under the sun. Occasionally they whisper a soft: “Aaaaaaaaaaah!” A goldfinch twitters brightly in the distance. A pair of crows flies overhead with a faint sigh of flight feathers. I absorb as much warmth and peace as possible before returning to work.


My favourite time of year

I have two other favourite times of year: Lilacs and August. But my favourite favourite is Dirt. It calls up memories of the first gardens I planted as a boy: first a small herb garden, then a larger vegetable patch across the road, and later a rockery on the bluff overlooking Lake Erie. My heart is rooted in soil. I love when the snow is just melting, everything is wet and the Earth smells like earth.

My birthday comes on the last day that can never be spring, except in California and further west, where the Vernal Equinox occasionally creeps ahead of midnight on March 19. But I am hooked on Ontario.

Usually my age clock clicks higher during the last throes of winter weather. Mom told me I was born during a week of sunny, 70-degree weather (it was a Thursday and we still used Fahrenheit).

What a gift it is to be able to go outside in a t-shirt on a day such as this and dig. And to find such nice topsoil in our new backyard. Dirt has arrived before my birthday with so much promise, incipient power, a dream of urgent growth. Thank you, 2012.

Ready to dig in

I plan to start a permaculture vegetable garden behind the house. March is far to early to start most plants in Ontario. However, with this stretch of mild weather and our well-drained hilltop soil there’s no reason why I shouldn’t start the grunt work this week. Winter will inevitably return, but I can get a head start so when spring returns I can go ahead and plant. Here are two guides to creating a permaculture garden:

How to Build a Permaculture Vegetable Garden

Ten Steps to an Organic Permaculture No-Dig Garden: It would be great to include chickens and they’re legal in Guelph, but that would be a little too ambitious for now.

I need to find a source of straw and manure.

A thoughtful comedy about bird nerds

Yesterday we rented and watched The Big Year (2011), a movie about birders. Specifically it stars Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson as three eccentrics competing to break the record for most species sighted in a year. Black plays a socially inept computer programmer who gets no respect from anybody except his mom (Dianne Wiest), Martin plays a CEO trying to retire in order to pursue his passion (with the profound support of his family but equivalent resistance from his vice presidents), and Wilson plays the reigning champion who will stop at practically nothing (and perhaps sacrifice all else) to defend his title.

Despite comedy star appeal, the movie flopped at the box office, unfortunately. Maybe it is too sentimental and not funny enough. This movie is about three things:

  • the diverse relationships of three oddballs with one another and their families
  • bird life as a metaphor for eccentricity and beauty of the human spirit
  • the rewards and fellowship of being a geek

Bird geeks are a peculiar species certain never to become extinct (as long as birds survive). I swear I have met many of the characters in my own excursions around Point Pelee, Wellington County and elsewhere. We must forgive the charming arrogance of some individuals who are very good at what they know and do, and are willing to share it. I have occasionally encountered the less palatable sin of goal setters driven past common decency and respect. But on the whole birders are a humble, generous crowd.

I can’t believe this story would fail to warm hearts in alternate realms of geekhood. Anyone who feels a little bit weird should love it.

But yeah, it also makes me want to do my own Big Year.

Starting with onions

[slickr-flickr tag=”onionflat01″]

The vegetable gardening season has begun! Onions require a long growing season to mature. If we’re growing them from seed in a northern climate it means we have to start them in February. This is not necessary for green or bunching onions, which can be sown later outdoors, but I would like to have some bulb onions by the fall.

We purchased a bunch of organic and heritage vegetable seeds from Urban Harvest. I have two onion varieties: Cipolinni yellow, which is sweet and good for storage, and red baron. Today I planted the seeds in these Jiffy seed starters (click on photo above). I would have preferred to start them in open flats, but this was all I could find at Canadian Tire. A few seedlings can start in each cell, to be separated when I transplant them to the garden. That should happen as soon as I can work the soil in April or May.

I’ve set the tray on boards to raise it above the floor over a furnace vent to provide some bottom heat. I don’t know whether onions need this, but it stimulates germination of warm-weather crops like tomatoes. Now is too early to start most of the other seeds, but probably not perennial herbs like thyme, sage and lavender. Tender vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and squash should be started four to six weeks before the average last frost date. That is May 11, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

I intend to use permaculture principles in establishing the garden; more on this later. To bad we don’t have chickens (Guelph is one of the few cities in Canada where it is legal to keep backyard chickens, but I don’t think we’ll try that since we’re only tenants).