Archive for November, 2011

I was tag surfing this morning (hard at work, as usual) and came across this brilliant little design for Windowfarms. It’s basically a small hydroponic system that uses minimal power to produce food in areas of limited space. The kicker is that it’s a vertical garden, ideal for apartment dwellers. I’m thinking that, for myself, it would be an ideal addition to the greenhouse I’m planning to build next year. Really maximize my use of available space.

I spent a good deal of time on the website, Windowfarms, and it’s impressive on so many levels- not the least of which is that an open source community has been formed to share ideas, improvements, and questions as people around the globe build their own Windowfarms in various climates, with variable sunlight, and using a multitude of materials.

The plans are free to the public and it’s said for as little as $30 (USD) in materials and an afternoon, you can build your own 3 container vertical unit. Plans for a considerably larger unit are also available. You do have to register with the open source community and agree to the terms of service, which basically state that you are free to use the plans however you like other than commercially, i.e. you can’t sell these plans or the products produced from them. This is in order to keep the technology in the hands of the people. (Note: By all means read the terms of service- it’s interesting and gives a real feel for the community around this idea. Not the standard TOS I’m used to reading/not reading.)

I should tell you that I found the video for Windowfarms not on their site, or Youtube, but on a WordPress blog, Permaculture Power.  It’s a great little blog with lots of videos and links to the resources. Check it out for other wonderful little gems. I’ll add it to my blogroll as well for easy reference.

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5000 litre cistern

In all my years as a city girl, it never occurred to me that not everyone (in Canada) has access to good, clean drinking water. Water has long been my favourite of all beverages and all I’ve ever had to do was turn the tap. That’s not been the case since moving to the country. Our well water is heavy in both iron and salt. The iron can be filtered -more or less- easily enough but the salt would have to be distilled out. I can’t stand the taste of it, even in tea, so I don’t drink it. I drink rainwater that’s been boiled and filtered instead and, with our long winters, I won’t have access to that pretty soon and will have to drink bottled water until the temperatures rise again in the spring.

I’ve been assigned the task of researching our ‘water options’ for the new home. (Shane has taken on the altogether easier task of ‘power’- generating it, storing it, distributing it, determining how much we need, possibly learning to build a wind turbine to accompany our solar panels, redundancies in the system- for back up support, etc… Like I said, easy.) I’m already feeling a little overwhelmed by my assignment. Fortunately, this is old hat for me. Feeling overwhelmed that is. At least since moving to the country…

comic relief in trying times

Our well ‘blew’ this summer and we had a period of about 10 days without access to well water. It was quite the experience. Initially we found ourselves impressed by our ability to carry on. I reveled in the feeling of being like a pioneer, hauling water from our cistern for everything from drinking to cooking to bathing. That lasted until about day 3. By day 7 I was getting a little testy, and by ‘testy’ I mean very near to having to hold back tears and making snappy comments to Shane, who I felt was handling not having a hot shower better than I was.

And then I left the tap on the cistern open overnight and drained it completely, necessitating going to the dugout down the road, about 800 meters, filling the buckets and climbing back out, wailing the whole while… Anyway, I’m getting off track- I’m in charge of water for the new place, right…

Some of the decisions that I have to make are: how much water do we want to store indoors and in what kind of containers? I do want to be able to access rainwater throughout the winter, so storage is a biggie. Besides which- we can’t count on the well working all the time, obviously. And where exactly do we plan on storing the water, and exactly what kind of ‘space’ are we talking about, bearing in mind that I was hoping that my building schedule would be lighter next year? (Hahahahahahahaha! Ha! Ya, it’s not funny.)

How do we want to heat the water? Electric heat is too ‘expensive’ in terms of power consumption, wood heat is a little impractical given the lack of trees in the region, propane just strikes me as not an altogether good long-term plan, and solar hot water is kind of expensive at the outset, at least the kind of system that works well in our climate… But right now I am leaning towards solar water heating, maybe with a preheating mechanism in place, maybe by building pipes into a heavy mass structure behind glass… (You can see how one bit of research can lead into a tangled mess of ideas that also require research.) Then again, manure is plentiful in the area, maybe there’s a way to build an efficient heater powered by cow poop.

There’s distributing the water, i.e. the pipes and pressure tank or combination pressure tank and gravity feed. And pumps of some sort, that use little or no power-which I have to constantly keep in mind is limited- to dispose of the water. (Whoa- any idea of how many options there are on that front? Pressure tanks and pumps alone? Good grief.) Which I also want to reuse, cycling it through some sort of graywater system, that will function even at 40 degrees below. And then what type of graywater system? How big? Indoors or outdoors, or both? And again- more building? You’re f*cking kidding me, right? I don’t know. I’m kinda thinking that at least if the water was confined to a single room it’d be an easier plan. Like, say, we do the dishes in the greenhouse/bathroom/laundry room/graywater recycling plant? I’m not sure if Shane’s raised eyebrow was tacit approval or skepticism when I threw it out there.

And then there’s filtering and/or distilling the water for drinking… There has to be an easier way. We have a Berkey, which is a lovely little unit but it gets a little slimy when I pour unfiltered rainwater into it and it needs to be washed too often. It removes the iron from the well water just fine but not the salt, so it’s still not entirely potable. Shane drinks it but his taste buds are questionable. So I could prefilter the rainwater but how much prefiltering needs to be done? And what’s my best way to do that?

Yup, so there are ‘a few’ decisions to be made, and loads of research to do prior to making any decision. There’s nothing like planning to go off grid to make a girl feel like a total idiot. I miss coming up with the ideas and having staff figure out how to implement those ideas. I miss tasty tap water. I even sometimes miss the misguided simplicity of just paying for whatever I need. But I suppose I don’t miss that feeling of being trapped…

scenic little dugout

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hey there, tasty 😉

I recently watched an episode of Earthrise* on Al Jazeera that discussed the benefits of eating insects. I have to say- much to my husband’s chagrin- I’m intrigued. I’ve heard a few different programs on entomophagy and it strikes me as absurdly practical.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to this alternative protein source is the tremendous stress our current agricultural practices put on the environment. There’s a lot of discussion about “carbon footprints”, “carbon taxes”, “carbon dioxide emissions”, but very little on methane and yet methane has up to 25 times the effect on temperature (i.e. trapping heat in the atmosphere) as carbon dioxide does.

According to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization, livestock contribute 80 million tons of methane into the atmosphere every year and by 2030 that figure is expected to rise to 128 million tons. Pardon the pun, but holy cow! That’s about 35-40% of global methane emissions. (Interestingly, rice production contributes another 20%.)

Further, livestock and related activity accounts for 9% of CO2 emissions, and 64% of global nitrous oxide emissions, and we haven’t even gotten started on what this does to the land, of which livestock alone occupy 30% of the global land surface. (Agriculture in general accounts for approximately 70%, so while 30% is livestock, a large proportion of the remaining 40% is also dedicated to crops to feed that livestock.)

Modern agricultural practices in general leave me unnerved for so many reasons, not the least of which is that while displacing entire peoples and changing the dynamics of entire economies (don’t even get me started on cash crops), it’s totally unsustainable. We’re not only poisoning our water systems and land, we’re eroding the very soil that we need to survive and- you want to talk scary- it takes at least 500 years to produce an inch of new soil.

veg & feta pie

Anyway before I digress into a full on rant, it strikes me that there are some very simple (moderate) changes that the average meat eater, of which I am one, can make. One: go vegetarian at some point during the week. I recently made the decision to cut out 3 ‘regular’ meals and replace them with vegetarian options. This week that’s meant homemade hummus and garlic naan, a homespun version of aloo gobi with basmati rice, and a filo pastry pie stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, red onion and feta. We’re hardly going to stick to the lifestyle change if it’s not interesting so I plan on switching things up regularly.

Another extremely easy option is just to cut back on the amount of the meat used in a meal. I can make a hardy beef and barley soup using only one large soup bone. Afterwards, the pup gets the bone (until the cats steal it) so I’ve not only used the bare minimum in terms of actual meat, there’s no waste.

And my new favourite idea: raise and eat bugs! I know, I know- it’s not for everyone (Shane insists I’m going to be alone on this one) but it’s worth considering and maybe even trying. It takes approximately 45 kilograms of feed to produce 4.5 kilograms of beef whereas that same amount of feed will produce 20 kilograms of crickets. They’re tremendously efficient at converting biomass to protein. Add to which only a minimum amount of space is required to raise insects, they require very little water, they’re super packed with protein and low in fat, and according to many people they’re downright tasty. (I like the sound of a popular Oaxacan treat: grasshoppers toasted with lime, garlic and chile.)

According to some estimates, at least half of the human population do eat insects. It’s just not in favour in North America and Europe, probably at least in part due to the shift in attitudes towards insects as ‘crop destroyers’ upon our move to an agrarian lifestyle. And then there’s just the “ick factor” that we’ve developed over time, which when you think about it is kind of funny considering what we are willing to ingest. Never mind the absolute crap that we mindlessly consume in front of the television (hey, I’m not hatin’, I eat it too) but we’re perfectly content to eat some arthropods, like shrimp, lobster and crayfish.

I have to say, I’m feeling pretty optimistic that I can stick with the maximum of 4 meals with meat a week and that alone is a significant lifestyle change. And I’m downright excited, though still a bit nervous (squeamish?) about raising insects as a food source. I won’t get started until next spring at least but stay tuned for my bug eating adventures. 🙂



Earthrise* is a fabulous new program that focuses on solutions to our global environmental challenges. I love the fresh perspective.

Some interesting (bug related) links:

All around most awesome site

Discover Magazine article

New Yorker article

National Geographic article

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Not another article about the Occupy movement, oh puh-leaze. I know, I know. I find myself bombarded and at times even slightly bored by the number of updates that I receive from the worldwide movement. (Granted I’m subscribed to a dozen or so feeds so what did I expect?) Never mind the rants by friends and strangers alike, on both sides… It’s a good thing the media has decided not to broadcast much news on that (or any) front or there’d be no end to it. And I support the movement, so I can imagine how frustrating it must be to those against it.

It’s those against the movement that have spurred me on though- the naysayers with their faulty logic and weak arguments that are somehow gaining ground (even with normally thoughtful people) with their own set of mantras. As usual (sigh) I find myself on the side of naïveté , having expected more of the masses ironically not involved with the 99%. What I did not expect was the momentous backlash from the “Satisfied with the Status Quo” movement- and make no mistake, there’re no tents or signs or marches, but it’s a movement. All you need to do is log onto the internet for evidence of this group. It’s just a lazy movement, as evidenced by their lack of deep thought.

I want to speak to the arguments the Satisfied with the Status Quo movement has grown so attached to. Number one: “We have it so good in Canada (compared to other nations)- what do we have to complain about?” Ah, good old fashioned guilt with a hint of shame. Born to an Irish Catholic family, I have to say- I have some experience with this tact. But it’s never had the intended impact on me. If an argument is valid, guilt and shame aren’t necessary. And I don’t subscribe to the whole ‘comparative pain’ theory. Can you imagine if we applied that concept liberally? No one but a handful of individuals on the planet would ever have earned the right to complain, or to demand change, because someone, somewhere would always have it worse. It reminds me of the whole “finish your dinner- there are children starving in Africa” argument. “Well, if that’s going to help…”

Besides being a completely illogical argument, it’s wrong. We don’t have it so good. There are too many areas where things are definitely wrong to even begin to address in a single article. How about our electoral system? The proportion of Natives filling our prisons? The fact that during a time of economic struggle we are looking to increase spending on prisons? (Even though crime is at it’s lowest…) The damage we are doing to our environment right here at home, never mind the active role we are playing in destroying the planet on a larger scale? The fact that our government doesn’t see fit to consult us about whether we wish to go to war, or whatever euphimism they choose to use in place of ‘war’, they just go for it with American zeal? Massive misspending and corruption at every level of government? Money to spend on increasing our military might but not on the homeless population (or emergency services) right here in Canada? Documented police brutality that never seems to make it past the point of “investigation”? I haven’t even gotten started. “Better” does not mean “good”.

Which brings me to my second point, and the second part of the Satisfied with the Status Quo movement’s argument. “What will the poorer nations, those who are really struggling, think of us?” “How spoiled,” is the implication, and sometimes direct assertion. You know what? I suspect they already think we’re spoiled. But I suspect it has more to do with the fact that we’re entirely okay with raping their nations for whatever resources they have, using their people as cheap labour, destroying their environments for the massive cash crops we’ve come to ‘depend’ on, supporting tyrannical leaders so long as it’s in our interests (i.e. we benefit in some way), and bombing the hell out of them when the tide turns.

I suspect it has to do with the fact that we have more “environmental” groups in the West than anywhere else on the planet yet are also the biggest consumers, and produce the most waste. I suspect it has to do with our grand speeches to the “world” about minding our carbon footprint and thinking about the generations to come (cue the violins) whilst living high off the hog. I suspect there are any number of reasons poorer nations may see us as spoiled but I don’t think it has one goddamn thing to do with the fact that people are finally standing up and saying “enough” to the status quo. Maybe they’re even a little relieved to know that we’re not all “okay” with the way things are going.

(Don’t even get me started about how self congratulatory those poorer nations must think we are…  It’s funny though, isn’t it, that we live in a country where people can get sooo excited that we’ve switched to fluorescent lightbulbs after all these years, it’s as if we pulled off some great environmental feat instead of one teeny, tiny wholly inadequate change but expect other nations to change their entire political and cultural identities overnight.)

And finally there’s the “what’s their point?” argument. What indeed? I have to admit to occasionally wishing “they” would just cut to the chase too. I definitely have a Western attention span. Kind of ideal for my government. While I disagree that there is no direction to the movement (there’s a very clear direction, look no further than the repetitive messages) I do acknowledge it is taking an awfully long time to find out just exactly what the people want. What will make them take down their tents and go home? Good grief.

Alas, I’m reminded of the fact that it may have started in NYC but has rapidly become a worldwide movement, espousing the very democratic values the rest of us are more familiar with in theoretical terms. So it’s taking a while. They’re looking at nothing less than changing society as we know it. At dismantling systems it took years (and years, and years) to build, at taking on a financial system that- let’s face it- controls pretty near every facet of life, at challenging values that see us buying t-shirts ‘promoting’ the environment, that allows our governments to wage wars for resources under the guise of ‘spreading democracy’ or ‘protecting our nations’, that threatens our ability to produce and consume safe (non GMO) foods, that- in a nutshell- is nothing short of fascism in it’s greatest hour. It’s natural that it will take a while to figure out how to address, and what the priorities are. The only way to do it faster would be the top-down democracy we’re so accustomed to. In a true democracy, things are never so swift or tidy- just representative.

You know what? I don’t know if this movement will go anywhere. Once the tents are down and the people have gone home, once our favourite shopping time is upon us, once we have to get back to working 60 hour weeks to pay the rent… I hope not, but it very well may die. Or, or, the movement may drive a change in government. In the general way we presume to govern. It may trigger a change in our dealings with the environment, here at home and in lands beyond our immediate sight. It may (and this is a long shot) send a message to corporations that they cannot buy our countries, never mind the planet. People may start living a little more gently on the land, standing up for others a little more often and more vocally, refusing to be so easily distracted by this bit of celebrity news or that sports event… And maybe not. Maybe the Satisfied with the Status Quo movement will win out, once again, and we will continue the downward slide that’s taken us this far.

I, for one, am glad that the nations of the world know that we’re not all on board with the status quo. We don’t all feel that because we have ‘more’, or have it ‘better’, that what we’re doing is ‘alright’. If for but a moment in time- we had a voice. And we were angry. Vive la revolution!

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I might just have easily titled this blog, “The Seeds I Tossed on the Ground and Forgot About”. I had very (very) little time for gardening this year and we had that water concern part way through the summer that left me feeling very stingy with the rainwater. Our well water is very heavy in salts and iron and I don’t like to use it on my freshly built beds so without rainwater- well, the gardens were pretty dry a lot of the time.

Luckily it didn’t seem to matter all that much, if the results were anything to go by. I mixed things up, yet again, with an interest in what companion plantings would work best. Had my labels lasted more than a few weeks in the blazing sun, or my knowledge of plants in general been stronger, it might have been a better exercise. As it was I wasn’t entirely sure what some of the plants were- other than tasty. (I still have that old childhood habit of eating anything that looks pretty, or interesting. Mixed results on that practice.)

I do know that I threw a lot of different seeds into a relatively small space and got pretty good results. Some of the plants that I did recognize were the pumpkins, squash, green beans, yellow beans, soy beans, turnips, beets, leeks, onions, milkweed (gorgeous!), borage, cabbage, tomatoes, amaranth (though it took looking up on the internet), dill, nasturtiums and peppers. And of course the potato patch, with lots of golden and red potatoes.

Our raspberries and strawberries did well again, though we welcomed some little critter that took to the strawberries in a rather ambivalent way- eating half a strawberry and moving on to the next. We had gooseberries as well this year, off a little bush I bought. And we bought a couple of apple trees with an eye on the future. An added bonus- some red clover found it’s way into my garden and yet more wild roses are popping up in random places around the property. And we had a brilliant crop of pin cherries that I’m still making my way through.

I didn’t weed much, or at all for periods of time. My reasoning was two-fold. One: I’m lazy, or would like to be if I had the time. I was far too busy on the site to want to spend my nights kneeling in front of a garden weeding. So I didn’t. And the other reason is that I noticed last year (or the year before?) that the pests don’t seem to care whether the plant is edible to me or not- they’ll eat it. So I found leaving at least some weeds in (especially leafy ones) keeps damage to the other plants down.

All in all not bad for a no-maintenance garden. I think that even though I didn’t follow through on my plan to monitor how the plants interacted with each other (whether they benefited each other or had a negligible effect) I can safely assume that variety is the way to go. Had I neglected my gardens so badly in previous years, when I followed the more traditional planning of straight rows and single crop groupings, they wouldn’t have survived. And I did notice that while some plants were hit by pests (my turnip tops and cabbages got hit hard by cabbage moths, even with the placement of borage I’d heard might repel them) they didn’t decimate the entire garden. So that was nice. Bats next year, I hope.

How about you? How did your gardens fare this year? Any companion plantings that you swear by, or won’t try again?

tomatoes & clover

borage and cabbage

before things got wild

early plantings

milkweed, turnips, leeks

dill, borage & squash

leeks, beans & milkweed

amaranth, turnips & onions

nasturtiums borage corn

Squash, corn & borage

mid summer wildness

our gooseberry bush

little Macintosh apple trees

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We fell in love with Ianto Evans’ rocket mass heater the first time we heard of it. So much so that we booked a trip to Oregon to take his course. What isn’t to love? The idea is so ridiculously simple and immensely practical it’s amazing that we haven’t been using these all along. Rather than burning a fire in a traditional fireplace and allowing much of the heat to escape straight up the chimney, with a bit coming into the room and quickly dissipating, the chimney is built into the furniture. Furniture that is built to store the heat. Additionally, it’s built in such a way that it uses way less fuel than a traditional fireplace.

If you don’t already own a copy of “Rocket Mass Heaters: Super-efficient Woodstoves You Can Build“, it’s worth picking up. True, if you’re using anything other than an eight inch system (we went with a seven inch) you will need to adjust your calculations, and the pictures are not altogether fabulous if you’re hoping for a step by step pictorial to accompany the tutorial, but the basics that you will need to understand are in there. Understanding the ‘whys’ of how the system works was critical, for me anyway, and helped with a somewhat finicky build.

The critical measurements are the feed tube, the burn tunnel, the riser and insulation, and the space between the top of the riser and the barrel. Of course the size of pipe that you decide to go with will affect those measurements. Less so, but still factoring in, are the bell chamber and the length of the run.

If you are planning to build one of these, I’d suggest leaving yourself a little extra time for fiddling around. You may have to raise or lower your barrel a little to get a good draw (and the amount of heat you want on the top of the barrel) or make other adjustments to the system. We ended up shortening the burn tunnel and widening the feed tube a little from where we started. Don’t apply your final mortar or mudding in until you’re certain the system works.

In the first pictures that accompany this article, you’ll see that we used papercrete blocks against the wall- behind what would become the bench. Less visible is the papercrete that we built into the floor (about 6 inches worth) along the wall. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t losing any of the heat to areas that don’t provide any value.

We didn’t use cob for the bench- we went with a mix very similar to that which we used for our bag work, just a little wetter. (Gravel reject: clay/soil: touch of cement. No- I didn’t keep exact measurements.) We used quite a lot of rocks in the bench. Rock stores heat more efficiently than cob, or in our case ‘mix’, so it makes for a better battery to have lots of them.

Our stove pipe will end up being eight inches from the surface of the bench. We don’t want it so high that the top super-heats and we want to ‘charge’ as much of the thermal battery (the bench) as possible, so that the system continues to release heat over a longer period of time. As the bench was put together post-building season we were short on time (it’s now freezing every day, and snowing) so we built the system to where it will work and provide heat to the area and will finish it off come spring.

The stove takes amazingly little wood. I’m impressed by how little fuel it takes to fire this puppy up and heat up that amount of mass. Although the bench isn’t done, it’s already several tons of material. Another impressive feature is how efficient this thing is. I’d seen it work at Cob Cottage, but I have to say- when I went outside and put my face to the vent to find steam being released- and not smoke- I was just thrilled. Still, we’re interested in using as little wood as possible so we’ll work on some possible biofuel alternatives over the winter.

So there it is- the basis of what will be our primary heating system for the living room area. Come spring we’ll finish building the bench and punch a hole lower in the wall so that we have a more direct fresh air intake (we’re connecting to one of our vents right now). In the meantime- we have heat! 🙂

papercrete blocks & floor fill

mudding over the papercrete blocks

insulation shroud placed & ready to be filled

feed tube, burn tunnel & riser w/shroud

riser & insulation shroud: top view

insulation packed around riser

riser w/insulation & brick platform

custom cut barrel, ready to be placed

barrel placed & ready for mudding

note the gap underneath the barrel

the run all laid out to confirm placement

building the bell chamber, note the clean out

the somewhat tricky bell chamber

note the clean out on the side

checking for level on run

lots of nice big rocks in the bench

first section of bench started

almost done- what a lot of mix

bucket over brick feed tube

the cats, enjoying the warm bench

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I’m full on into my post-season slump. We finished the final roof on October 23rd and moved onto building the mass heater right away. We finished that and had a fire last Thursday, just in time as we had our first snowfall on Friday. The building season is officially at a close and both my body and my mind have decided to take a long overdue break. I just can’t seem to muster any energy for the endless tasks that lie ahead; stuff I’ve been putting off because I’ve been too busy with outdoor work.

While I recuperate, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the building. Hopefully my faculties will be back to full strength some time this week and I’ll have the mental aptitude to write a blog detailing some of the work. At the very least I will get some pictures of the mass heater up in the next few days. It works like a dream by the way. I’m pretty impressed.

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