Urban Agricultural Systems Inspired By Nature Can Mitigate Climate Change
Lots of classrooms have plants and fish, but not many consider combining the two in a symbiotic aquaponics system. Together, fish-waste provides water and nutrients to the plants while the plants clean the water for the fish. Though aquaponics systems contain a complete nitrogen cycle, symbiotic relationships, cellular respiration, and photosynthesis they are in no way limited to the science curriculum. Addressing issues of food security (social studies), design (design/construction/fabrication/art/math), and food preparation (foods/culinary), aquaponics is an exceptionally effective cross-curricular platform for exploring various programs of studies. Regarding curricular connections, aquaponics is curricular gold mine. [Read more…]
The long tail of food has the power to transform our entire food system. It’s diverse, local, unique, and sometimes illegal.
Imagine that you could line up every conceivable food production activity and arrange them from most to least productive. On one end we’d see highly productive industrial farms, followed by large family farms, large and medium scale market gardens, hobby farms, CSAs, nurseries, urban agriculture projects, community and backyard gardens – all the way down to growing herbs on windowsills. Each produces food – all of it counts. [Read more…]
Almost by definition, cities are active, busy, bustling, ever-changing places where short-lived beings go about their busy days. Fast fashion, quick commerce, short election cycles – the world around us takes on various pace layers.
What better way to slow to slow things down than to seed cities with beings capable of living centuries or millennia? In what ways might a walk beneath ancient giants and twisted ancestors place us in a bigger here? A longer now?
Artist and musician Brian Eno once said that he wants to live in a “big here” and a “long now”. How long is your now? That is to say – what’s the timeframe in which you view our day to day? What timescale informs your decisions? Days? Months? Centuries?
In 01996, the LongNow Foundation (named by Eno) formed to “provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and [to] help make long-term thinking more common”. They define they now – the longnow – as the last 10 000 years and the next 10 000 years.
How differently would we act if we lived in a longer now? In what ways would our decisions change and in what ways might out priorities shift?
The point of slow landscaping is to provide continuity in a fast paced environment – to provide pause and contemplation – to remind us that we are the result of circumstances that extends way before (and after) us – that we’re living in the LongNow. Slow landscaping asks us to act in ways – and is an act in and of itself – that leaves future generations with more options than we inherited.
One strategy may be to plant long-lived trees on sites unlikely to be disturbed. A second more devious strategy might be to plant long-lived trees to protect existing and vulnerable sites from future disturbances or development.
Living longer than most buildings, slow landscapes would dictate the shape of the built environment – as opposed to the other way around. Cities and buildings would bend and shift to fit slow landscapes like geological features. Each tree would shape the fabric of the spaces it occupies. Poor architects and planners will hate them, but good ones will incorporate them into their designs.
There are many long-living species to choose from – a quick google search yields a list of the world’s oldest individual trees – many of which are slow growing conifers living in high alpine environments. I’ve selected a handful suitable for growing in my local (Edmonton) environment. I encourage you to see what will grow where you live.
One of three bristlecone pine species, P. aristata, can be found at local nurseries here in Edmonton and is a small to medium sized tree (20 feet tall and 25 feet wide) native to the Blackhills of Colorado.
Koren Pinenut is a slow-growing giant that produces edible nuts. Reportedly hardy to USDA zone 3, the Korean Pinenut is native to parts of Korea, Manchuria, Eastern Russia, and Japan. The tree can reportedly reach 100 feet, though, 30 to 50 feet is more typical for trees under cultivation. Plant one now and you’ll be harvesting pine nuts in 15 to 45 years – expect a yield of 10 to 20 pounds per tree. Bring a ladder.
Native to the high elevations of Alberta’s mountains, the whitebark pine is a long living Alberta tree with significant ecological value for wildlife (having coevolved with the local Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) who bury and inadvertently propagate seeds. Like the Korean Pinenut, the seeds are edible, though, smaller.
The Whitebark pine is slow growing and can take on various forms depending on the harshness of its location. At high elevations, it sometimes grows as a multi-stemmed shrub but has the potential to get as large as 70 feet tall and 45 feet wide in more favourable conditions. The oldest recorded tree is 1200 years old.
The Whitebark Pine is currently a species under threat due to white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle, and the ill effect of fire suppression. The most comprehensive sources of information on Whitebark pine that I could find is an Alberta Conservation Association report from 2007 and a profile on conifers.org.
A native Alberta tree found at high altitudes in the Rocky Mountains. Alpine Larch can grow anywhere from 30 to 80 feet tall depending on elevation – growing shorter at higher elevations. Soft green needles turn golden and fall off each year.
The oldest Alpine Larch is in Kananaskis and reported to be over 1900 years old. More information at conifers.org.
The trembling or quaking aspen grows locally in Alberta is has the potential to live for tens of thousands of years due to its massive underground root system that perpetually sends up new trunks. Though individual trunks – that present as individual trees – are short-lived, the plant as a whole can grow to be ancient.
The oldest know trembling aspen is named Pando growing in Utah’s Fishlake National Forest. Pando is a single male aspen tree estimated to be over 80 000 years old. Pando covers a staggering 106 acres, has over 4000 trunks, and has a mass around 6 600 metric tonnes.
Edmonton has embraced year-round decorative tree lighting, and it’s hard not to love it! An Edmonton Journal article from 2015 (Tiny white lights to adorn city tree year-round) states that the City’s forestry department “installed lights on 1000 city-owned trees in six business revitalization zones: Alberta Avenue, Beverly, Downtown, North Edge (107th Avenue), Old Strathcona, and 124th Street).” Walking Whyte, Churchill, or Giovanni Caboto amongst twinkling giant elms is magical, but it also has a potential dark side. If left unchecked, decorative tree lighting can cut into and even kill growing trees.
Beneath the bark of a tree lies a network of tissues that channel sugars, minerals, and water throughout the plant. When this flow of nutrients is interrupted by a cut or object wrapped tightly around the truck – a process called girdling – the tree can weaken or die. The danger of decorative lighting is that it can’t expand as the tree grows.
The same Edmonton Journal article goes on to state the “the lights are secured to the trees with zip-ties, and as the tree grows the zip ties will be loosened.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Though I’ve seen zip ties used to secure extension cords running vertically up the trees, the decorative lights are secured by continuously wrapping the tree’s trunk and branches. As such, the only way to loosen the lights would be to remove and reinstall them.
But don’t trees grow super slow? Won’t it take years for decorative tree lighting to causes any damage? Let’s take a closer look – since most of Edmonton’s light wrapped trees are American elms, I thought I’d look into their rate of growth. Fair warning, the following segment contains math.
According to the City’s OpenTree data, (and some help from pi), the elms between 104th and 105th Street on Whyte have an average circumference of 51 inches. Though OpenTree doesn’t say their age, an Edmonton Journal article about the removal of diseased elms (between 99th street to 96th street) claims that they were planted sometime in the 40s. Let’s assume that the 104/105 elms are of a similar age.
Whyte Avenue Elms
Average Circumference = 4 feet 3 inches (51″)
Estimate of Age = 72 years
Growth rate of Circumference = 0.71″ per year
Since my Edmonton data is spotty, let’s turn to some old elms from our Southern neighbours. These trees may or may not be representative of an elm growing in Edmonton.
The Treaty Elm – Philadelphia, PE
Circumference = 24 feet (288″)
Age = 280 years
Growth rate of Circumference = 1.03″ per year
The Johnstown Elm – Johnstown, NY
Circumference = 16 feet (196″)
Age = 200 years
Growth rate of Circumference = 0.96″ per year
The math shows us that an elm can increase its circumference somewhere between 0.71 and 1.03-inches per year – which at first glance doesn’t seem like a lot. But consider that each strand of light wraps around the circumference of the tree 30 to 40 times! To prevent strangulation, a string of lights would have to increase its length by 30 to 40 times the annual growth of the tree’s circumference. That’s between 1.5 and 3.5 feet per year!
Though most trees can handle a few years covered in decorative lighting, lights can’t accommodate 1 to 4 feet of annual growth it’s a matter of time before they tighten, bite into the bark, and interfere with the flow of sap. The only way to prevent this is to remove and rewrap the tree at regular intervals or to run the lights vertically – a technique called tracing.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Edmonton’s decorative tree lighting – it seriously adds something to the city – especially during long, dark winters. But I also love trees, and the math doesn’t lie – a string of lights can go from loose to snug, to deadly in a few short years.
In the grand scheme of things, Edmonton’s elms are juveniles and could live for another two centuries. Considering that elms are already under threat from Dutch Elm disease and Elm Scale, it seems cruel to add strangulation into the mix. That being said, Edmonton’s not the fist municipality to use decorative lighting on trees. So in the interest of preserving our lights AND our urban forest, let’s see what other cities are doing.
The following decorative tree lighting guidelines are hand-picked from the City of Portland’s Department of Parks and Recreations and Cincinnati’s Department of Urban Forestry:
Non-seasonal lighting can not exceed three years.
If it sounds like I’m being tough on the City of Edmonton I must apologise – the work they do it beyond exceptional as demonstrated by the fact that they’re caring for and maintaining an inventory of over 267000+ urban trees, 7400 hectares of River Valley, city-wide naturalization, and running Roots for Trees and numerous other community beautification projects! When it comes to nature and urban forestry, you’d be hard-pressed to find a city as ambitious as Edmonton. They wrapped 1000 trees in stunning decorative lighting! 100 trees! How cool is that?! Seriously! But there are many more of us then there are of them and we can help! So if you see a tree that has outgrown its lights, contact the City by calling 311 and they’ll send someone to check it out.
In June of 2016, the City of Edmonton enacted an Herbicide Ban with the aim to “eliminate non-essential uses of herbicides on city-owned land”. It’s been a year since and despite the fact that some people are losing their shit, I’m proud of my City for sticking with their decision – going so far as piloting a herd of goats in one city park.
I will admit that I’ve noticed and increased in dandelions in City parks, though, as an urban beekeeper I’m not in the least bit bothered. I like dandelions – they are beautiful to look at, good at breaking up poor and hardpan soils, and edible.
There’s an idea in permaculture design that the problem is the solution. Permaculture pioneer Geoff Lawton is famous for saying “you don’t have a grasshopper problem – you have a turkey deficiency”. The problem is the solution.
Young dandelion leaves make a lovely salad green while petals an exceptionally pleasing when steeped to make teas and wine. But for this post, I’d like to turn our attention to the root-cause. What if we don’t have a weed problem? What if we have a root beer deficiency?
Dandelion roots can be used alongside another noxious weed that’s taken up residence in Edmonton – burdock.
If you’re not familiar with burdock it’s a large biennial plant with heart-shaped leaves and purple/pink flower clusters that turn into hooked bracts (burs) when mature (the inspiration for velcro). Like dandelion, burdock has an extensive list of culinary uses. Sidenote: If you go to an Asian grocery store (such as T&T or Lucky 97 here in Edmonton) burdock is referred to as “gobo root”.
Locally, burdock is abundant in the River Valley and some of the older neighborhoods including, Old Strathcona, Riverdale, Rossdale, Boyle, and McCauley.
From the City of Edmonton’s website:
Great burdock originates from the temperate regions in Europe. In the Middle Ages, it was favoured as a vegetable and the roots are still commonly used in Asian cooking. It can also be found in a variety of herbal supplements.
D&B Beer is thought to have originated in Britain in the middle ages and is made by fermenting a tea made by boiling the roots of dandelions and burdock. The flavour is “mildly bitter and aromatic). You can buy a non-alcoholic version at some local grocery stores, but we’re going to make the real deal.
The clip and recipe below are from RiverCottage.net, though, I would anyone making D&B Beer to experiment. A quick Google search yields various approached to dandelion and burdock beer – here’s one that also uses nettle (another local noxious weed). I’ve made dandelion wine using petals and have an abundance of honey laying around the house so I’d probably incorporate both.
Contact me, if you make a batch! I’d love to hear how it went. There’s a lot of exploration to be had. How might dandelion and burdock integrate into a traditional brew? I’d love to see a local brew-pub make a batch – Situation Brewing’s daily cask comes to mind. How about a distilled version? Strathcona Spirits make a mean gin that already features “rogue-picked Seaberry (Seabuckthorn) from the streets of Edmonton” – is rogue picked dandelion and burdock out of the questions? D&B could be an Edmonton thing – an authentic Edmonton flavour.
Dandelion and Burdock Beer (D&B) Recipe from RiverCottage.net
Scrub and finely slice the burdock and dandelion roots.
Put them in a large pan, pour on 2.5 litres boiling water and add the carragheen.
Boil for half an hour; experience the aroma of an unpromising vegetable stew.
Take off the heat, add 2 litres cold water, the sugar, treacle and lemon juice and stir until the sugar has dissolved.
Strain the liquid into a clean fermenting bucket, cover and leave to cool.
When your brew reaches room temperature, pitch the yeast.
Cover and leave to ferment for up to a week, until the specific gravity is down to 1010.
If you want to be safe, carefully siphon into strong swing-top bottles at this point.
The flavour of dandelion and burdock seems to follow a bell curve of: too sweet, horrible, really rather nice, horrible, poisonous – with the ‘quite nice’ occurring at the 3–4 week point and extendable by keeping it in the fridge.
The flavour is mildly bitter and pleasantly aromatic.
A watershed is the area of land that captures, soaks up, and channels water towards increasingly large bodies of water. We think about watersheds as wetlands, streams, creeks, lakes, and rivers but they’re also forests, trees, soils, animals, and you.
You are 60% watershed – you’re a small pond capturing water from the environment – a small pond with legs. From this perspective, a 150-pound person walking hill is 90-pounds of water flowing against gravity.
Each day, a few litres of watershed passes through your body via foods and liquids you consume – even bread is 40% water.
Much of our food is imported from distant watersheds – the banana I ate for breakfast, as an example, was 74% Ecuadorian water. In fact, in 2013, Ecuador smuggled 4.11 millions tonnes of water disguised as 5.55 million tonnes of bananas out of its local watersheds.
Here are some numbers that I managed to dig up:
Wheat – 12% water
Meat & Eggs – 75% water
Milk – 87% water
Fruits and Vegetables – 80 to 96% water
Honey – 18% water
Exporting food between watersheds has an ecological impact. Globally, patterns of trade could be seen as wholesale changes to weather and rainfall patterns – causing rivers to dry up. California, a state prone to droughts, exported over 378 billions litres of water to China for cattle feed. If you consider all of the food it exports, especially fruits and vegetables, one could argue that California’s main export is water.
A foodshed is a geographical area in which food is produced and consumed. So here’s my question – since the food you consume is mostly water, might a watershed diet be a useful way to think about local a desired local foodsheds? How closely should your watershed and foodshed align? As a geological feature, it’s less arbitrary than political borders or imaginary circles drawn concentrically around your kitchen (see 100 Mile Diet).
In truth, I’m not entirely sure what a watershed diet might look like. I’m not even sure that I could tell you what my watershed produces – probably not a lot of bananas. What would a watershed meal look like?Could it even be done? How would it change seasonally? If anything, it brings up more questions.
If 60% of me is North Saskatchewan Watershed, how does that change my relationship to the North Saskatchewan River? To the wetlands, ponds, lakes, forests, and animals I share it with?
If food was produced low in the watershed (downstream) and consumed high in the watershed (upstream) would the height of the river increase? – essentially giving us more water to grow more food?
In 1868, Maria Ann Smith noticed an interesting apple seedling growing by a creek on her property. She grew the plant out and it eventually produced apples with green skin and sweet, tart flesh. She liked the apple so much that she took cuttings – a propagation technique that involves starting new plants using pieces of root, stem, or leave from the parent plant. Others liked the fruit as well and they too took cuttings. Almost 150 years later, Maria Smith’s Apple has been propagated thousands of times and is one of the most popular apple varieties on the planet – you know it as the Granny Smith.
Notice that I said the Granny Smith and not a Granny Smith. The difference is small but important because every Granny Smith apple you have ever eaten is an exact copy – a genetic clone – of the seedling Maria identified in 1868. Ever time you bite into a Granny Smith – regardless of where it was grown – you are biting into the same apple. [Read more…]
Imagine a parking stall – hot, grey, dry, and dead. Parking lots are uninteresting, uninviting, and inhospitable to most plants and animals. They are begging to be forests.
Even the most meticulously paved parking lot has minor imperfections that spell its demise. In the heat of the sun, asphalt and concrete bake – they also expand and contract encouraging cracks to form and spread. If you’re in a cooler climate, the process quickens as water seeps into crevices and pries them apart with each freeze and thaw cycle. As cracks spread they create a physical edge on which dust, dirt, and debris can cling. Small stones fall between cracks and wedge them open. Organic matter like leaves from nearby plants gets caught on them and turns to soil. This process repeats itself. The wind carries small seeds. Some find pockets of soil, germinate, and shoot above asphalt like fountains of life. Their bodies create ever more surfaces for dust, soil, and seeds to accumulate. With the help of chlorophyll, plants capture sunlight and carbon in their bodies. Their roots penetrate below asphalt and turn into columns of soil when they die. This process repeats itself. More plants grow and some of them flower. Insects visit flowers then birds visit insects in search of a meal. Birds deposit nutrients, and sometimes these nutrients come prepackaged with seeds. This process repeats itself. As cracks grow and soil accumulates, perennial grasses partially replace annual pioneers. Next, grasses are partially replaced by woody shrubs. Flowers, grasses, and shrubs colonise concrete, Life it gaining a foothold. Leaves shade the earth and protect it as a layer of soil holds onto water. Small shrubs succeed to larger ones and larger shrubs to trees. With trees come new species of animal. Things are interesting now. There is so much more life. So many more possibilities. The parking lot has become a forest. This process repeats itself. [Read more…]
One of the best ways to kickstart a local movement is to provide early access to training. I saw this firsthand while watching Jasper Place High School’s Culinary and Pastry Arts students. Under the guidance of teacher and Pastry Chef, Kelly Hobbs, JP culinary arts students won more over 28 awards between 2009 and 2017. But what happens when these students leave school? A sizable number of them head to programs like NAIT or SAIT, pick up jobs in local restaurants, and gradually transform the local food scene. There are local food benefits to graduating even one new local chef each year.
Teacher, permaculture designer, master gardener, hobby beekeeper, consultant, and network nerd living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Read More