Biodynamic Preps: why am I looking into these?

biodynamic preps 502-507 go into compost

Compost piles get hot from all the microbial activity. (image from Wikipedia)

Biodynamic agriculture is most tangibly distinguished from other beyond-organic farming methodologies by the use of the Preparations developed by Rudolph Steiner.  It didn’t used to be true that you had to use the preps in order to be certified biodynamic*, but that changed around 2012.  So the preps, which may or may not confer advantages to the farm, have become central in ways they weren’t before.

My personal favorite aspects of biodynamics are the consideration of the farm as a whole organism,  the attention to detail, and the attention given to fertility via making the best doggone compost possible.  There are 9 preps, 5 of which are to be added to the compost, 2 of which are to be applied in the field (one on the soil, on as a foliar spray) and a final one that can be used in either setting. Intriguingly, this last one is left out of most of the research trials I’ve seen.  No clue why.

The initial scan of research projects focused on biodynamic compost indicates increased microbial activity and a higher retained soil carbon level.  Good!  Good composting habits are crucial to creating ACTUAL fertility (applying plant soluble nitrogens to the soil is FAKE fertility).  The rub:  nobody quite knows why.  Yes, this is applying a mechanistic world view to a holistic farming practice, but hang with me here.

When you do an experiment, you have the thing you are trying to figure out (the variable) and the thing that is a known entity (the constant).  If the results of the plot with the variable differs from those of the plot with the constant, then there is something in there that is making a difference.  Scientists get all picayune with the details because they are trying to prove that the only thing that was consistent different across all the times they did it this way versus that way was in fact the variable being researched.

If all the shrubs with more leaves are also all the shrubs that are downhill and therefore have moister soil, then you can’t say that adding X to the soil around the shrubs is what’s making the difference because the moister soil is probably also a factor.  The research has to “isolate the variable”.

Which is what I’m still looking for in this research.  So pretend you are looking at a row of compost piles.  They are all horse poop and wood shavings from cleaning out the horse barn.  They are all on level ground, all get the same amount of sunlight, all the same size, all have the same wind exposure…  after a year of decay, they should all have all the same properties.  So we tested nothing.

Now pretend we starting over and this time we are going to add the biodynamic preparations to all but two of the piles.  Now we have variables (the preps) and two constants (the “plain” piles).  So any differences between the piles after a year ought to mean the preps did something, right?  But what if the difference is just the adding of ANYTHING at all?

We know that biodiversity matters.  It matters deeply, intricately, vibrantly.  Horse poop and woodshavings is not very biodiverse, so maybe only a few types of composting critters (microbes, fungi, earthworms, etc) are needed, but if you add anything at all (a loaf of bread), then the whatevers that breakdown bread suddenly have to show up, et voila, the pile with the bread has different results.

There are ways to control for this in an experiment.  The “we’re not adding anything” piles are known as “negative controls”, but we could have a “we’re adding something, just not the thing we are testing” pile and that would be a “positive control”.  So far, I haven’t found anybody testing with a positive control.

biodynamic preparation 500 cow horn with cow manure

Prep 500, pre fermentation. It’s not added to compost, but who can resist a proof-you’ve-been-playing-with-poop photo? (shot by Stefano Wines)

What would that look like anyway?  To really get it right and test for whether or not these biodynamic preparations positively impact the composting process, we’d have to make up a fake formula.  Luckily, they basically follow a pattern: animal bit + plant bit + fermentation process.  One of them has powdered quartz rock in place of the plant bit, and another is basically tea, and there are other variables, but if there’s a pattern, it’s that.

So a fake preparation (509, as it were, since the others are known as 500-508) would follow that pattern but not use the ingredients specified.  Horse hoof (the preps use no horse bits) and basil flowers (the preps use no other herbs from the Lamiaceae [mint] family), fermented underground for a season would be a “fake prep” or a “fake 509″.

Now if we add our official preps to all the piles except two, and add 509 to one, and nothing to the other, we’re closer to really finding out what those preps do, right?  Almost.  We’ve added increased biodiversity to our “positive control” pile, but the biodiversity of adding the 5 preps to the other piles is, obviously, higher than adding the one to the control pile.  And that’s where science becomes a pain in the ass.  To really do this right, you have to add one prep to each pile, plus a do-nothing control pile, plus a fake prep pile, plus a pile that is all the official preps together, and one with all the official preps plus the fake prep, and then maybe even some piles with various combinations of official and fake preps.

See?  That’s a lot of piles of horsepoop and woodshavings, and we’re still trying to keep them all the same, which gets trickier and trickier…  BUT!  I have good news.  They do not have these same European plants and animals in Brazil (at least, not natively) but they do have a Brazilian biodynamic association.  So the next question is, what do the Brazilian preps look like?  What does the research on the Brazilian biodynamic preparations reveal? ooooo.  I’m like a geek in a new library.

Community food systems and the #BlackLivesMatter movement

It is with gratitude that I am watching (and participating where possible) the 2nd Civil Rights Movement grow from the long running tragedies of police brutality and systemic racism.   I am 100% pro-this.  Our first Civil Rights Movement made important changes to the legality of most forms of discrimination: housing, education, voting, and ostensibly the physical occupation of space (who can walk on the sidewalk, who can sit where in the bus, who can go to trial).  Now there is a whole ‘nother level of work to be done, and while the problems are absolutely more wide spread than an overly simple A+B=C equation, beginning with the most flagrant violations of reasonableness makes sense.

So here I am, thinking about this issue and thinking I would like to do a blog post and how can I explain the intersectionality of my interests and this moment in history?  With gratitude, then, I received this article in an email from the US Green Building Council, talking about the role of racism (and classism) in where we allow environmental pollution to happen and/or persist.   Eddie Bautista gets it!  Asthma is higher in inner cities by accident, but we allow that accident to remain true due to racism.

The 2nd Civil Rights Movement is about exactly this level of “subtle”, hidden in plain sight pattern of the same people being asked to “put up with” stuff (pollution, housing standards, air quality problems, police brutality) that certain other groups would never be willing to put up with, never be asked to put up with.

Whether it’s Majora Carter‘s work with Sustainable South Bronx, or the notion of food sovereignty, the work at the intersection of community food systems and oppression is already underway.  Part of understanding that Black Lives Matter is understanding that people have a right to healthy food, a vibrant community, and an abundant , fertile, resilient, functional ecology.  Song birds.  Fruit trees.  Clean Air.  Neighbors that you know by name.   None of that is too much to ask, and asking for only some of that is asking for too little.  We all need it all.

Edible living room: a new slant on houseplants

fish pepper plant inside the house

My fish pepper, with baby pepper in tow.

I’m a houseplant nut.  I have a small forest inside all winter, and a veritable Streuobst on my porch all summer.  There are ficus trees and a ficus shrub, aloe, jade, spiderplants, snake tongue, schefflera, a smattering of dracena, begonias, flowering cactus…. you get the idea.

Mine is the sort of porch that receives mystery deliveries in the middle of the night from people who are moving and can’t take their large houseplants with them.  I also fetch them from death beside the dumpsters.  But change is in the air:  I’ve started to sell and otherwise “re-home” a number of plants.

Do I have fewer plants now than 6 months ago?  Yes, but though 12 left, there are several new ones already.  I dug up my favorite garden pepper and brought it in.  We’ll see how that goes- the garden is heavy clay.  I added some lighter soil, used a clay pot (for moisture balancing help) and threw an earthworm in, too.  Maybe the little guy can help me get that soil mixed and the pepper transitioned.

apartment farming grow ginger root

Ginger root, ready to sprout. Any day now.

I also bought a good looking bit of fresh ginger and popped it in some water to sprout.  I’m scouting around for a nice lemon tree (Meyer lemon or regular) and then maybe a kumquat or tangerine.   The aloe is already edible (and good for  tummy ache), and I’m hearing rumors about the jade plant.

So maybe this is a two way street- learning to grow the tropicals I love to eat as houseplants, and learning which classic houseplants I can eat.  It’ll take some taste testing, no doubt, but that’ll be part of the adventure.  What I know for sure is that it feels good to be expanding my apartment farming skills rather than waiting for the day when I have some actual land.

Grain Place Foods: farm visit to a local processor

Grain Place Foods in Marquette Nebraska

Mike Hammond of (and at) Grain Place Foods

Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Nebraska, has been a vocal advocate for the organic food movement since the 1970s, if not earlier.  Crucially, when Dave Vetter rejoined his father on the family farm 30+ years ago, he had a vision that is just as fresh and cutting edge and vital now as it was back then:  we need more mills to process organic grains.

It makes sense that Vetter got there before the rest of us: Marquette is a small town in Hall County, which is corn-behemoth Nebraska’s hot spot for high quality, high yield corn production.  Low and snug in the Platte River’s historic flood plain, Hall County was gifted deep, rich soils; a high water table; and one of few navigable rivers in Nebraska, making it able to get products to distant markets even before the railroads cut through the Plains.

Commodity farmers here rotate between corn and soy, with the adventurous few dipping into oats or wheat for a year here and there.   Unlike vegetable crops, which can go directly from the grower to the consumer, with perhaps a brief detour through a co-op or farmer’s market, commodity crops generally have to be processed somehow before humans can eat them.

The majority of the grains grown here get processed by the cattle that have swarmed the state (thanks to the drought, Texas has handed Nebraska the title to being the biggest beef production state in the US, and now slaughterhouses, feedlots, and CAFOs threaten the state’s water supplies every bit as much as the Keystone XL pipeline would.)  But even that which is targeted for direct human consumption needs to be sifted, cleaned, and perhaps rolled flat or milled into flour.   If you want your organic grains to become organic flours, they have to go through an organic mill.  This is where the Grain Place steps in.

The local food movement has focused on getting more people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, which has meant setting up farmer’s markets and working with the produce departments at local co-ops and, increasingly, supermarket groceries.   Local eggs have joined this parade, and increasingly local meats, often grass-finished with no grains at all, have too.  But where are the local flours?  What about the local rice for the stir-fry?  The local barley for the soup?

I don’t mean to imply that Grain Place Foods is focused on local foods- they’re not.  With too few informed customers in their own backyard, they survived their early years exporting to Europe.  They still buy and sell nationally, making private label pet-bird foods and tasty flavored popcorns.   They do, however, highlight the clear next step in the maturation of the local foods movement: processing.  Even without grains, the bulk of what we grow cannot be stored long enough to make it through a winter without some sort of preservation effort, be it drying, freezing, canning, smoking, pickling, or what have you.  We need to improve our processing capacities, locally and regionally, if we are to truly develop resilient food systems.

Landscape behaviorism: maintenance of self and soil

"Liar" landscapes tell a fake truth to the passing participant.

Clear-cut forest landscape with roadside “liar lines”. Image by Joel Jacobsen

The operative landscape is as focused on behaviors as it is on objects. This behavioral focus is two fold: there is the behavior set we would normally call maintenance, i.e. is this a place that is mowed, burned, tilled, or abandoned? And then there is the behavior set induced in the typical person interacting with the site. Is that landscape participant awed, filled with reverence for the natural beauty, or delight in the resplendent abundance of their setting? Or is that person encouraged to ignore their surroundings, discard their litter wantonly, and turn a blind eye to the salt stricken spruces at the edge of the parking lot?

Common to both behavior sets is a capacity for cumulative impact. A hillside tilled every fall will be vulnerable to the eroding winds and melting snows. It is at risk of developing a till-pan, which is a layer of subsoil suddenly compact when everything above it has been fluffed and stirred and lost all structure. Such contrasting soil layers share neither water nor nutrients nor encourage root penetration by the plants above.

A landscape participant steeped in sites that demand to be ignored develops an ecological cataract, a blind spot in their interactions with the natural world. When you only see a cluster of trees from within your enclosed car, how can you know the scent of healthy leaf duff on a forest floor? And ignorant of the scents that signal vital new soil being created, how does a roadside ditch filled with standing, algal stuffed waters convey to you its distress?

A landscape that is not functional is not operative, which seems obvious, but more than that, a landscape which is not generative is not operative. If the maintenance procedure is a fundamentally destructive, either of that landscape or of the landscape participants, then that landscape is not operative either. We will not measure this in tiny little parcels.   There is nothing inherently evil in a small organic lawn, nor vitally wrong with tilling your garden plot. Our concern here is the larger mosaic, the interlocking pieces that aggregate over space and time.

Operative landscapes versus productive landscapes

We already know what we mean when we talk about productive landscapes: these landscapes are manipulated by humans with the intent of producing high yields of the target “crop”. This “crop” could be coal, could be beets, could be timber. This places the emphasis on the productive capacity. We measure, center pivot irrigation crop circles agricultural landscapeassess, and value our productive landscapes according to their ability to produce the target crop with the most efficient use of our labor and materials.

A sustainable farmer once explained to me that his true crop is soil, and the lettuce is just a nice side effect.  An operative landscape is one in which every crop, indeed every growing thing, is a sustainable crop.

An operative landscape is one in which human interaction is happening with the entire ecosystem that is in progress. There is never not an ecosystem in progress. Life is a dance and everything is a dancing partner. Whether we’re talking restoration agriculture, ecoagriculture, or restorative forestry, permaculture, biodynamics (possibly… I’m still exploring this one but like it better and better over time), or the daylighting of a stream, these are landscape scale interventions on par with the humility of the horse whisperer.

One of my favorite ecological texts is Supply-Side Sustainability by Allen, Tainter, and Hoekstra. In this book, the authors take trickle down theory, which was an unmitigated disaster economically, and place it in its proper context: ecology. It didn’t work economically because trickle down theory never accurately understood the mechanism or rather the fertile soil from which our abundance and prosperity actually arise.

When applied to ecology, trickle down works because we actually know from whence our abundance springs: the fertile soil, the clean rain, and the bright sunshine. If we take the care of our water, air, and soil as a baseline given in any equation, then the fundamental yardstick by which we measure, assess, and value a landscape’s productivity is already greatly healed.

Operative landscape theory asks us to go a step further and value the fundamental ecosystem in play.  Let’s use an orchard as our example. When measured for productivity based entirely upon the bushels of apples produced per acre, the health of the bees and the stream is not captured by that math, let alone the productivity of the ground plane, herbaceous layer, or any shrubs or vines.  Is that narrowness of focus a necessary given for an orchard?  No.

An orchard could fit one of several ecosystem premise models. We could consider it a fruiting forest, we could consider it a woods pasture akin to a variant on an oak savanna, or we could consider it an edible garden. Obviously, “an edible garden” is not actually an ecosystem, but I include it here as a placeholder for the social and cultural landscape. It’s an idea I’ll have to come back too and flush out further later.

A fruiting forest is a denser, shadier place than a standard orchard. The trees are closer together and at times form a contiguous canopy. Our apple trees are joined by other fruit varieties, tall nut trees, and shade appreciative berries like currants, wine berries, and elderberries.

sylvopastoral silvopastoral woodspasture

woods pasture (image from the FAO)

A woods pasture is a much more open place. These trees are further apart, and are joined by more sun loving plants such as grasses, which are grazed upon by livestock, or an abundance of raspberries, asparagus, rhubarb, and other perennial edibles in the shrubs and herbaceous layer zones.

The primary landscape structure that distinguishes these two ecosystems is tree spacing. There will be further implications for the structure of the individual trees (it would be silly to grow dwarf apples in proximity to goats) but in neither case is the productivity of this orchard compromised when the overall biomass harvestable is measured. Only a measurement that focuses in on the production of a single type of fruiting crop sees these ecosystem mimics as problematic.

In an operative landscape, there is room for vibrant life: multiple abundances that support each other and sustain the community through out the year.

Beautiful, blooming, soil boosting tree

Chain of white Cladrastis blooms

Footlong “flower-sicles”

To say that a tree is only useful for its nitrogen-fixing capacity is still to call that tree quite useful in a gardener’s eyes. Add to that talent the rich, buttery yellow heartwood of the aptly named American yellowwood, plus a potential for some very interesting dyes, and foot long chains of white flowers in the early summer, and this becomes a cool tree indeed.

Naturally rare, Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentuckea) is native only to the limestone cliffs of Kentucky and its neighbors, but the tree is willing to grow in a huge range of soil types and pH balances. It even survives winters fairly north of “home”, making it a darling of landscape designers.  We like it all the more when we are tired of Zelkova (Yellowwood is similarly vase shaped and similarly mid-sized) and hoping for something less completely foreign to our ecology than laburnum. (Truth be told: Yellowwood won’t bloom for you every year. The years it blooms, it’s awesome, but other years it just rides the bench.)

See the pinched bark where the branches meet?  Half of this tree will fall in a storm.

See the pinched bark where the branches meet? Half of this tree will fall in a storm.

Yellowwood is cousin to my other favorite summer-herald, the black locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia). Unlike black locust, though, yellowwood is a medium to slow grower. You’d think with the extra time it takes, it could manage a decent branching angle, but alas. Beware the included bark, my friend, and too many branches from one juncture.

Like black locust, it burns fairly hot (locust still wins) and it’s willing to sprout from cuts, but that slowed growth rate makes it a poor coppice option.

More interesting to me is the urban potential for Yellowwood.  As increased species diversity becomes more and more the mandate for cities and towns across the country, Yellowwood has some interesting mix and match capacities with other popular “trees about town”.

cladrastis is alternately pinnately compound.

See how the leaflets trade turns? That’s unusual in a compound leaf.

The compound leaf and the seed pod both look like smaller versions of the Kentucky coffeetree (until you look close and realize the Yellowwood is alternately pinnate!) The smooth grey bark is less showy than the Zelkova’s but not out of range, and a very good pairing indeed with many beech varieties. The fall color is akin to that of hickory and other not-ostentacious yellows. In short, pick the season or experience where you want your uniformity, and let the rest of the year undulate in the spice-y variety of life.

Pawpaw blooms: hidden in plain sight

If I said there was a tree in bloom here with red, bell-shaped and nearly golf-ball sized flowers, you’d think you’d notice the tree from the road as you passed. Especially since the leaves are only just starting while most other trees here are nearing full summer canopy!  Alas, not only are pawpaw* (Asimina triloba) flowers a dark brick red (so dark many authors call them “lurid purple”), they face downward. They end up being very subtle, despite their size and the naked branches.

Asimina triloba blooms dark red

Pawpaw flowers

It’s such a strange strategy for a flower.  The only bloom close to it in color that I can think of is Carolina allspice  (Calycanthus floridus), which comes in closer to true summer, but faces upright and has a host of thin petals more akin to a very small spidermum flower.

So what’s that about? Who is the object of such a quirky attempt at seduction? A close whiff hints at carrion, so I’m thinking there’ll be flies to do the work.  Fortunately for humans, the scent of the pawpaw flower is so faint that I really have to lean in to get it at all.  In fact, many pawpaw enthusiasts hand-pollinate because the (flies? beetles?) don’t do the job very reliably.

So who would grow such a funky tree?  Pawpaw is North America’s largest native edible fruit.  It’s a member of the custard apple family, producing large-ish round or oblong fruits that turn brown and black when finally ripe (generally in September).  The flavor is akin to bananas but with hints of Continue reading

She’s back!

eatcology explores the intersections of agriculture, the environment, and designIt’s been a long while since I was able to post regularly, but it is my intention to return now. Never fear, the in-between has not at all been dull.

Briefly: I spent sometime as the landscape designer and land-use specialist at a civil engineering firm, then I lectured part-time for a year in the landscape architecture department of a local university, teaching studio courses to undergraduates, and simultaneous to that (and on-going now) I’ve been helping with research projects in the horticulture department of the same university. We’re working on organic production methodology, primarily of specialty cut flowers but also of some vegetable crops, in both high tunnel and field scenarios.

Even briefer version: wow! Awesome! Lovin’ it! Holy crap I need sleep!

One of the things that eatcology has been able to do for me is to focus my thinking, allowing me to align with my inner-happy place. Now that there’s some semblance of breathing room, I have all kinds of thinking to crystallize here.

There are changes coming for eatcology. I have plans and ideas for it that will be revealed over time. The first step is that I’d like to make this a more clearly multi-author setting. If you’ve a hankering to write about topics pertinent to operative landscapes, edible and medicinal plants, and/or the design of spaces and places (of any scale), please contact me at info(at)eatcology.com. Please remember that I have worked as an editor and am very good at it. If your writing is too precious for polishing, eatcology is not a good platform for you.

From Fencing to Fancy: the Hedgerow in your House

What if I said there was a hedgerow in your house?  Okay, there’s not, but it’s likely that you are familiar with the aesthetics born of longstanding cultural interactions with hedgerows and coppice lots.  Hedgerows are not boxy rows of squared off shrubbery; those victims of suburban plant harassment are just plain ol’ hedges.

laying hedgerows

This newly laid hedgerow will be a scruffy abundance in a decade.

Hedgerows are a line (or two) of trees that have been cut not-quite through while young and then bent over, and woven into / tied to their neighbors, a process known as “laying”.  The trees re-sprout, forming a dense network of branches.

Laying a hedgerow is hardly speedy work.  The farmers would spend the winter working on stretches of their fenceline (hedgerow) but would never have gotten to even a 10th of the farm’s hedgerows in a single winter.  After 10-20 years, the hedgerow trees have fully recovered and the fence is quite tall and vigorous but perhaps not as tight as it used to be.  By now the farmer has worked their way around to the starting spot and down goes the hedgerow again.

This is part that garners the most attention, this living line.  It’s what’s cut off, though, that wound up in your kitchen.  Known as “small wood”, what comes off a hedgerow is typically long, thin, straight, and rarely more than a few inches in diameter.

hedgerow small wood craft

Chairs, banisters, balustrades, table legs and braces: all small wood crafts.

Think of all the spindle backed chairs, all the banisters and balusters, the tool handles, window mullions, wooden spoons, wicker furniture…  Actually, I’m not sure about the wicker, but you get the idea.  Hedgerows begat a whole economy and culture.

Why were the effects so pervasive?  Because the hedgerows themselves were so pervasive, and so very much not controlled by any large organized entity.  Small wood based craft houses formed a cottage industry, each acquiring from the farmers the lengths and diameters suited to their particular creations, from picket fences to chair backs to axe handles.  From these craft houses, the hedgerows filtered out and into our homes.

We’ve largely lost the thatched roofs and the technique of bundling very similar diameter sticks into “logs” to produce an even burning cooking fire suitable for baking bread.  Even so, a lot of what Western civilization considers “normal” is influenced by these hedgerows and their brethren, the coppice lots.