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I had the fortune of attending a gardening workshop this past weekend in Pagosa Springs, CO where the Growing Domes are manufactured. It was wonderful to meet the designers of this amazing 4-season growing structure and fellow dome owners. When Udgar and Puja Parsons brought their business, Growing Spaces, to Pagosa Springs 17 years ago, they were the first dome. Now there are over 80 in the greater Pagosa area making it the mecca for geodesic greenhouses. It is more than just an impressive number, it demonstrates a mountain community' self-reliance and ability to grow their own food year-round.

Leading the workshop was permaculturist, Jerome Ostenowski with the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt, CO. Jerome had us up and out of our chairs in under an hour digging in the dirt and planting tropical plants of banana and papaya in Growing Spaces newest dome demo. These "Growing Spaces" are so amazing that you can grow tropical plants in the mountain climates!

Before the trees went in the ground, we had to "make the bed" using a fascinating and simplistic method called "sheet mulching." Some people call it a "lasagna bed" because you create a soil profile by layering a combination of organic materials alternating layers between browns (carbon) and greens (nitrogen). There are different theories on what ingredients you can use. Some allow newspaper and cardboard as a brown, carbon source. But for this exercise, we are going to keep it strictly organic. Sheet mulching is not only fun and easy but reduces the cost of buying a whole truckload of gardening soil. Many of the items can be sourced from your own yard (grass clippings, green manure) or acquired for FREE from local sources (composted manure and straw).

Above is a diagram I wrote in my notebook as the layers went into the bed. You can see how you start with a bulky carbon source on the bottom and begin stacking 3-4" layers repeating the process every 4-5 layers till the bed is full. Give the stacking a good soak every four layers too. Get rev up the mA few tips:
  1. Composted manure - composted manure means it is mature livestock poop and has been sitting for at least 3-years. It ensures that all the weed seeds have died and other bacterias have as well. You can find this locally from a farm. Try and get horse or chicken manure. And if unsuccessful, you can buy bags of chicken manure at a local plant nursery.
  2. Grass clippings - use clean grass clippings without a lot of other debris and that has not been treated with synthetic, chemical fertilizers
  3. Green Manure - this is yard and garden trimmings. It could be tall grasses from the side yard or discarded plant residue from the garden. Just be sure to not grab grasses that have gone to seed.
  4. Worms - you can order worms online or buy locally at a nursery. Best to get composting red worms versus earthworms. 
  5. Soil/compost - Buy good organic soil or compost versus native soil but native soil is fine too because it will be so well amended with all the other ingredients.
Next time you go to build a raised, garden bed, give sheet mulching a try and give your wallet a rest!



 
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Aquaponics system: water tank for fish with trellis above for plants
Monday the 5th is three days before the full moon and according to the biodynamics calendar, it is a good day to plant above-ground, leafy green vegetables. It will be our first official planting in the grow dome. And what better veggies to start with than cold-hardy, winter greens like spinach, arugula, parsley and bok choy.

Meanwhile, waiting patiently in the back corner of the dome is the 3200gl water tank. It plays an essential role in regulating temperatures in the dome acting as a thermal mass in winter to capture heat during the day and as a cooling mass in summer to keep the dome from overheating. But in true permaculture spirit, the tank can serve dual, even triple purposes....permaculture likes when you stack systems and cycle different eco-services.

One of the dual functions that the water tank will serve is for Aquaponics. I'm just learning about this technique but I'm already fascinated by its potential. Both aquaponics and hydroponics grow plants without soil. The plant is suspended in a tray allowing only its roots to touch nutrient rich water that is being circulated. Hydroponics uses nutrient additives to feed the plants where as aquaponics generates its own nutrients between a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. The fish poop then microbes in the water convert the amonia-rich waste into nitrates making it available to the plants to absorb as food. The plants then filter the water as it passes through the system and back to the fish. It's a closed loop, organic system unlike hydroponics which takes a lot of inputs many of which can be synthetic.

Tilapia is a common aquaponics fish and they eat water based plants like duckweed or watercress that float on the water's surface. At full capacity, a 3200gl water tank could hold enough fish to grow food for three 900sqft domes. But in our system, aquaponics is an added value not the primary growing style. Soil-based farming is our focus and the water tank's primary role is to regulate temperature in the dome. Aquaponics allows us to stack an additional function on the water tank and by running it at a quarter of its aquaponics capacity, we can use the nutrient-rich water to not only feed the aquaponic plants but irrigate the crops in the gardens beds as well. By building a trellis above the the water tank, we can take advantage of the open space above the garden beds that would otherwise go unused.

 
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I handed the postmaster my yellow slip and he returned with a package from Amazon. I hadn't ordered anything so while he processed my other mail, I opened the box to find the book, Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter. I started flipping through it and was immediately enthralled turning the book so the postman could see the color glossy images of the cutest small homes, I'd ever seen. Some were made from earth, mud and other natural materials sourced on site. While others were made out of recycled scraps, repurposed materials, backyard sheds as well as old trailers, buses and gypsy wagons.

On the drive home, I was wondering how this book came to be in my possession. Perhaps it was from a publisher for whom I was doing a book review and they had sent me the book by mistake. It would have been such a coincidence to send this book, of all books, to me...I've had a fascination with cottages for as long as I can remember starting when I was eleven years old with Julie Andrews' book, Mandy. The reply from the publisher read, "no, they had not sent me the book," I rustled through the box that was now in the recycling bin to find a wee slip of paper that said, "From your brother-in-law, Mike." A smile grew across my face. So cool! I had forgotten our conversation from a few months earlier where I had told him how I wanted to build a simple, 500 sq. ft. cabin on a lovely piece of land and call it home. He, however, had remembered our chat and when he saw this book, sent it along for inspiration. Those are the best presents of all!

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Later that week, I was attending the first day of a permaculture course with Northern Nevada Permaculture and Urban Roots Garden Classrooms in Reno. The whole premise of permaculture is to create land-use systems which utilize resources in a sustainable way. Nature is permanent agriculture so in permaculture you are basically mimicking nature's design to grow food,  harness energy and live in connection to place. It is more than sustainable it is regenerative because a large part of permaculture is stacking functions which create cycles to reuse energy like the sun and water. 

People are a part of nature so in permaculture, they live in more ecological structures. When our instructor started flipping through examples of "tiny homes, simple shelters," I was even more amazed by the timing of this book in my life.

For a long time now, I've realized my life choices may never make me millions and I will more than likely have to work well past retirement age. But my life choices could be my social security! And a small, energy efficient, sustainably sourced, off-the-grid home could not only provide me a simpler life in later years but be kind to the environment as well. These homes are as beautiful as they are unique and their ingenuity is intoxicating. We talk about reducing our carbon footprint. Perhaps it starts with literally reducing the footprint upon which we live. The costs associated with eco-homes can be expensive but when scaled for smaller structures and when supplemented with natural cycles to capture energy, it can be affordable. Granted, not everyone is going to move to the country and go Daniel Boone but it does give pause for reflection. But for me, my financial future just got a whole lot brighter with this as a possibility.

 
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One of the venues at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival
Six years ago, I went to my first Wild & Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, CA. At the time I was there representing festival sponsor, Patagonia. During one particular film, Broken Limbs, I was hit with an a-ha moment..."I had to take these films around the county." Eight months later, I quit my job at did exactly that. Over the next five years, I watched 1200 or more films as tour manager using the stories presented on screen to inspire audiences nationwide.

I went back to Wild & Scenic today as a spectator and had another one of those moments. I chose one of the seven venues and arrived just as the film, From the Mara Soil, was starting. I felt my way through the dark hall to a vacant sit against the back wall. The film's message quickly became clear, "sustainable food systems are possible anywhere."

Using subtitles to translate his heavily-accented English, the native dread-locked, Tanzanian spoke directly to the camera and said, "In Tanzania, we don't have a dictator, we don't have war. We just have poverty!" With conviction, he continued, "we must change the way poor people live."

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Tanzanian permaculture at Kinesi Orphanage
For years, Tanzania has been gripped by the inherent woes of its harsh environment making them dependent upon global support. Permaculture and better management of their natural resources is turning the tide. People have mostly eaten rice and beans because a short rainy season makes it nearly impossible to grow vegetables. At the time, vegetables had been grown using western, monoculture methods which left the soil dry and a nutrient deficient. Permaculture is demonstrating that the lack of rain and hot sun are not the problem, it is the farming practice that were wrong. Now they harvest water holding it in ditches next to their crops, they interplant a mix of vegetables to cycle nutrients in the soil and employ dry farming techniques which utilize ground covers like straw and green manure to insulate the soil keeping moisture locked in and conserving the precious, collected water.

With the help of Global Rescue Alliance, small villages are evaluating everything they do through a new lens...solar ovens are replacing indoor, open-fires for cooking; and wells are finding the rain from the rainy season water trapped in bedrock near the ground surface. Instead of feeling like victims on a hot continent, they are finding ways to grow and cook food by harnessing the the sun's energy and the water delivered once a year..

Every growing region comes with its own host of constraints, it is a matter of working within those constraints to figure out how to stabilize a community's food security. In Tanzania, it requires working with the sun not against it. In the mountains, it requires working with greenhouses, low tunnels and cold frames to extend the season or better yet, grow all year long.

Tanzania, however, is acting out of necessity and survival. In America, we just go to the supermarket. Our survival is not as visceral or palpable. Any vegetable we want is available anytime we want it throughout the year. Western cultures have little incentive to change because we are disconnected from the repercussions of our broken food system. Ironically, developing countries could be more sustainable if they so chose because they can adapt faster to sustainable farming methods and be rewarded immediately with better health, improved lifestyle and a more resilient community.

American communities, however, don't have to be victims of their inequitable food system. They too can be empowered to take control and address their own food security needs and build a stronger local economy in the process. It starts with community!