Plastic, Gardens and Drought

The replacement of lawn with gravel to save a rain shadow valley from drought is based on the principle of laying plastic down over the living earth and smothering it so that its natural creative energy is killed.Or so it seems. After only two or three years, the earth reasserts herself and begins to bury the stones.
Any decorative appeal, which was gained at great expense, is soon lost.

Things begin to look like hell.

What a lot of work it is to kill the earth. Sometimes it’s just easier to give up and grow a garden.

Dang, but a few years will nix that, too. Whew.
Best to give that up to and relax by the lake. A cool brewsky. Kids playing in the sand. Corn on the cob. Nature, you know? Nice. Here’s the corn, coming along.

Oh, crap. Of course, you don’t have to kill the earth. You can use plastic to bring her to life, too. Water, you know.

A society gardens in its own image. That’s the thing. If you want to know your country, look to its gardens.

Ouch.

Who is the Gardener?

I have learned this week what I already knew but had no words for. I am not the gardener in this land, but the garden that the land makes. Needle-and-thread grass makes me, with its sprays of delicate light in the wind and its way of drilling its seeds into the soil using the heating and cooling of days and nights. It is a beautiful plant that connects me to childhood and mystery. It also thrives in this dry climate.
In comparison, the weed-choked land, the gift of bad cattle management, and the orchard land it was developed into a little over a century ago, create different selves. I follow their paths, often unknowingly, and thus am created by them in their image. It is often an ugly image.

It replaces eternal ones, such as this doe and her year-old fawn, who watch me out of the last snow, in sagebrush that has turned weedy from overgrazing by cattle. There is little for them here now, but her gaze tends me, and make me in her image. I am gardened.

Many of the old orchards are weeds of mustard now. The idea of chopping the land into small spaces did not produce people with the ability to develop a culture other than to develop into the weeds that speak most clearly of the introduction of foreign crops in this ancient space. These weeds, and the people who buy and sell the land they grow on, are gardened not by the land and its water but by sets of laws imposed upon them.

But they are still gardened. To say that we, humans, have a garden is to say that we stand in the place of the earth and try to recreate that relationship to our own benefit. Here’s a glimpse into my garden this morning.

It, of course, also gardens me, if I let it. I do. I’m not the only one. A woman down the road has sown poppies in the cheatgrass and rescued a barren, scarred hill into a delight that can recreate the land for thousands.

We make ourselves by tending the land, so that it can tend to us. If we cover it with black plastic to kill that relationship, our children will grow up in a zone of death. It will take time, but it will come. That is not gardening.

This is gardening:

This is respect.

A Summer Home for the Family, On Earth and in the Sky

Here we are in a community garden in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, an old roman fortress, and before that a 4000-year-old settlement where Lake Constance becomes the Rhine.

A shaded picnic bench for the parents, in the middle of the garden, and a magpie nest for the kids, up in the sky, where they like it.

Rome, and the old sub-alpine culture might be gone, but its shadow can be very fiine!

Apples Make Their Own Heat

Here’s my Spigold opening up last week. Note how the sun drew the leaves out quickly, but the flowers take their time, drawn out more slowly by the heat their fur traps close to their skins and the heat the red spectrum of their first show of petals gathers from the sun. What tiny worlds. What tiny energy effects!

This isn’t global warming. It’s local warming!

In the end, 500 gram apples are the result. It takes time. We have that.

Sustaining the Okanagan 10: 24 Apple Pies

We know who makes the best summer apple pies. Here she is, the summer pie maker.P1180166

She was born in Russia 220 years ago. Look how young she looks in my garden.

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Here in Vernon, she usually ripens in late July. This year, three weeks early (two weeks before my apricots). Here she is, hanging out with marigolds, tomatoes, garlic, spinach (for seed) and marjoram.

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These are amazing pie and sauce apples. We could have a massive industry here, supporting a large processing and food industry. Instead, we have sweet fall apples to compete with industrial-scale production from Washington, while the warmer contours of the food industry are left to wine: a luxury product, exuberantly priced. People want pie. Don’t you? And tart apple sauce for those pork roasts in October? Of course you do!

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The sustainable beauty of transparents is their sweet tartness, their earliness and their processing suitability: no cosmetic pesticides necessary, and a very short season for other pests. What’s more, they respond well to climate, so we could pick them continuously for a month, from the bottom of the valley to the top, using water in the cool zone, where water consuming fruits like this belong. Besides, they’re even better when grown to be picked in September, just before mountain frost. And they are a remarkably easy tree to grow, incredibly resistant to bacterial disease. Look how clean they are!

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As another bonus, there’s a variety called Lodi, which ripens five days later, and stores longer. We could further extend our production. The trick of surviving in the Okanagan is about using water cleverly. These apples which take up water in our wettest month, June, and then are done, are a good start. We could exceed the employment of the grape industry, easily, which is a darned good use of our water, too. Think transparents. Think pie. If you’re in the Canadian Okanagan, there were some at Quality Greens last week. They’re probably all gone, but you might like to check.

 

Eliminate Black Plastic Now

This is today’s post on creating a sustainable Okanagan. Like the others, it is archived above.
Black plastic sheeting serves 4 purposes, but all look like this:

  1. It warms the soil for earlier crops.
  2. It keeps trickle irrigation from evaporating.
  3. It replaces human employment for weed control with profits for the petroleum industry, and rural economies with urban ones.
  4. It makes the investment in an expensive tractor worthwhile (tractors lay this stuff.)

The thing is, at the end of the season the plastic is taken to the landfill, the soil is depleted, people have no income, huge public investment is made in separating water systems so that there is no back suction of fertilizer-enriched water into freshwater systems (yes, every house owner subsidizes farmers on this one), weed seeds in the uncovered strips are laid down astronomically, and the difference between the actual labour cost of growing food and this enhanced cost becomes the farmer’s profit, minus the inputs of supplies and machinery, rather than the profit being the farmer’s labour. In other words, the whole system pays for the supplies and machinery, in order to replace farm-based economies with bank-based ones. That’s simply unsustainable.

Are there real reasons for farmers needing to sell their souls like this? Of course there are. But let’s just look at it: we need to efficiently distribute and conserve water, we need labour costs in balance with prices, we need heat, and we need healthy food and healthy growing conditions. What we don’t need is plastic. It’s amazing that society can subsidize, to the tunes of trillions of dollars a year, infrastructure to move more-or-less unnecessary automobiles …

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…. when the same infrastructure could heat tomato plants, and feed us. Now, I’m not proposing that we ban automobiles or plant tomatoes and peppers in the middle of the asphalt, but imagine if we built permanent fields, using rock to gather heat, and planted tomatoes there. I did it with wood. My tomatoes will be ready in 3 weeks.

Sure, some efficiencies of scale would be lost by a rock wall method. Farmers wouldn’t get to drive around on tractors, so much, either, but, hey, the darn things cost major coin, and, besides, what I didn’t tell you was that the farm I showed you above was a self-pick operation. Farmers aren’t doing the labour of harvest in the first place! In short, no tractor is  actually necessary. Walking tractors would do …

Or maybe just a wheelbarrow. What would you need a tractor for? Moving manure once a year? Moving tomatoes four or five times? Tractors are useful machines, but I reckon that if we’re going to sell tomatoes as healthful products, as better than industrial tomatoes sold in supermarkets, we shouldn’t be compacting the soil with heavy machinery and killing it, reducing our yield rather rapidly over time, or growing tomatoes on plastic, destroying the soil, using unnecessary hydrocarbons, creating tremendous waste (it’s cheaper to lose 50% of a crop than to pick it yourself) …

… and hauling all that plastic to the dump at the end of the season, just to provide income for farmers on the difference between the potential cost of their labour and the actual cost of their supplies and equipment, on a pricing structure that incorporates all this waste and charges more than twice the cost for self-picked fruit than for fruit picked by the farmer. That is a way of moving wealth from the land to manufacturing centres, on the backs of the land. It might provide an economy on paper, but it doesn’t provide my black krims…

… or my late season Christmas tomatoes, protected against frost by a reusable (and recycled) tarp, months after the plastic-grown tomatoes are all finished and the only thing available is industrial, from the supermarket, shipped in from thousands of miles and grown there by people using walking tractors.

By the way, my insect control system is that marigold. That’s it. I don’t need more than that. One other point, if I may: I have these late October tomatoes because I don’t prune off the extra branches from my plants, to ensure even ripening in a concentrated season on a single stalk, which is the recommended method. I’d rather have fresh tomatoes for 5 months, a bucket every three days, than all of them at once and then nothing. What I’m proposing is a ban on black plastic. We don’t need it. I’d love to go further, with public infrastructure for growing food. Supermarkets, with their huge parking lots, are already displacing huge amounts of growing space. Community gardens and farmers markets already exist, on a small scale. It’s time to be done with the myth that farmer’s knowledge and cleverness can solve these problems, when the problems have to do with forcing agriculture into a non-agricultural business model. If we want food, the movement has to be the other way: the society provides the infrastructure; the framers fill it. That’s what’s happening right now, but the infrastructure is incapable of providing healthy food or of using the common resource of water wisely. It will take a lot to change this, but it’s not really that complicated, and the first step is simple: outlaw the use of black plastic for agricultural production, period. Let’s get smart again. Let’s stop doing this:

Call this removal of unpicked self-picked (and overpriced) fruit what you like, but if you call it farming you’re romanticizing the growing of money. We can’t afford this. There are too many of us in a small space.

 

Landscaping for Water Capture

Welcome to the second of a series of posts on creating a sustainable Okanagan. They are archived on the menu bar above. Today: smart water. Read on…

Wherever there is a crack, stuff grows in the Okanagan. P1050147 That crack above has yellow clover and feral grasses, but there are cracks, right on the sidewalk beside the main highway through town, which are growing wireweed, purslane, amaranth, wild lettuce and plantain, which is to say four food crops and one medicinal plant great against mosquito bites. As for downtown Kelowna, the Okanagan’s urban knot, have a look at this wild lettuce, growing behind a downtown restaurant.

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Now, it’s not going to fly to grow our food in these cracks beside the highway, or in alleys, due to pollutants from traffic, but let’s consider a few principles here:

  1. The roads and sidewalks are collecting water and …
  2. the cracks are delivering it and …
  3. in what appears a total desert, life is flourishing.

In other words, the Okanagan is neither a desert nor dry. Look at how a simple roadway can be a seasonal river. That water could have been easily diverted at that joint, and used to grow the thistles I mentioned yesterday, or sunflowers, for a bird seed industry, or anything you like.

The land is simply not dry. Only the air is, and not always. Here’s that alley again. Note the tree on the right, and the water pouring out of a roof drain, uselessly onto asphalt.

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Water is limited in the Okanagan, and so is agricultural land, but consider: every sidewalk and every road has cracks, and every road has ditches, and they all work on the same principle, collecting water, moving it and generating life with it. It’s not necessary for water to flow freely to create crops in this climate. With that in mind, here’s a crack:

Rocks like that are everywhere in this region, split by winter frost and spring thaw. They collect water. Not only that, they collect bird droppings, which contain saskatoon seeds, which bloom and give fruit. The image below shows a very common local sight.

The rock shelters the young plant from deer, better and more elegantly than snow fencing around inappropriate, irrigation hungry Japanese maples …

…and collects water and manure (from birds and marmots) and nutrients (from crumbling rock) to nurture the plant, despite the ongoing lack of free-flowing water. The trick in this climate is not to get water to flow but to get it to stop as soon as possible. This principle can be applied throughout the valley, for landscaping projects and even for creating farming land where no water is otherwise available. And we’re close. Look at the decorative rocks in the landscaping above. They are visually appealing (perhaps) and collect heat. They could have been arranged to collect water as well. We’re close on this one. Let’s take that one extra step.