Friday, May 1, 2015

Samurai Seed Saver Improvised Seed Packet

A Jack-of-All trades, all-around excellent human and good friend of mine taught me how to make these seed packets. He learned it in one of his trades, police work, because some drug dealers use it as a cheap way to package dope or crack.

But not us gardeners! So crack is often a powder, from what I've learned in the movies, and expensive powder at that. So both the drug dealers and their poor addicted clientèle want to minimize losses. This works great as a seed packet because even small seed can be easily collected and transported. It works much better than pockets of coats and pants, and you'll see a significant decrease in the amount of lint in your seed mixes.

It's pretty self-explanatory, but if it proves unclear still, I could do a video. I'm on a computer that doesn't allow me access to any real illustration software, so I made do with paint and a mouse.

I've used this for seed exchanges, wildcrafting, and sharing seeds with friends from my own genetics collection.

Cheers and happy collecting, growing, and sharing!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Executive summary Permaculture 1: Biochar

What is biochar?

It's carbon. It's half-burnt lignified tissue. Biochar is basically woody material that has been "half-burned." When we burn wood, it burns first to charcoal, then to ashes. Biochar is essentially a carboniferous sponge that can soak up all sorts of useful compounds that will later be available to plants, fungi, soil bacteria, and soil animal life. The "bio" part of biochar is because it's charcoal that has been enriched with useful microorganisms and compounds (usually by placing it in compost or by adding special mixes, see below).

It's important to realize that biochar is NOT a fertilizer.


Biochar is an ancient technique, used most interestingly by a civilization in the Amazon basin over 2,500 years ago to create what is called today (yes, the soil is still exceptionally fertile for that part of the humid tropics) terra preta. To make it on an industrial scale with controlled temperatures and homogeneous, predictable production takes a significant investment. Buying it at local gardening stores or from biochar producers can be expensive as well (depending on your annual income).

The best way to get biochar is to make it. If you have access to:

  1. time to tend a fire
  2. a shovel 
  3. a place where you can dig a small hole for a fire
  4. a container to hold hot water
  5. woody material (pine cones, pine needles, slash, branches, logs, etc.)
Of the hundreds of techniques that work, this one seems the simplest: 

A very cool permaculture fella, Sean Dembrosky, owner of Edible Acres in New York state, made this video. The method consists of digging a v-shaped pit, and building the fire above it, in a way that allows charred material to fall down into the pit and be oxygen-starved, thus slowing the combustion process.

Once it has burned down, you can shovel the hot coals into a container. This is supposed to "pop" the charcoal, as Sean puts it, thereby increasing the surface area (which is already very high) and create pores that will improve soil health over time.

Benefits (of properly prepared and applied biochar)

  • increases water retention
  • releases energy during production that can be used (heat)
  • sequestration of carbon (we're talking 100s to 1000s of years)
  • improvement of crop growth (especially dramatic results in poor soils)
  • improvement of soil health (flora, fauna, fungi)
  • short-term benefits to poor soils by additional of ash mineral (Ca, K, Mg)
  • long-term improvement of soil's nutrient retention (reduces leaching)
  • increases effectiveness of green manure, and animal manure as soil amendment
  • better water retention and infiltration in soil (depending on soil type)
  • decreased watering requirements for dry climates
  • potentially decrease nutrient runoff from agricultural sources into rivers and lakes
  • provide habitat for beneficial soil microorganisms (such as N-fixers like Rhizobia)
  • can help to decontaminate abused or neglected soils

Potential Applications in Permaculture Systems:

  • soil-building
  • obtain yield of heat and biochar for cooking and soil improvement
  • soil rehabilitation/decontamination
  • dryland systems (to increase water holding capacity)
  • humid tropical systems (to decrease nutrient leaching in short and long-term)
  • clay soil systems (to increase infiltration, help to ease the extreme moisture fluctuations in clay)
  • integrate with animal systems (bats, pigeons, chickens, ducks, cows, horses, sheep, etc.) to keep as much of that precious nitrogen in the soil as possible. (I don't think Joel Salatin uses biochar, but he uses straw with cattle during the winter to accomplish a similar function and calls it a "carboniferous diaper" in his book "Folks this Just Ain't Normal")
  • build long-term soil fertility
  • increase pH (decrease acidity)
  • create an excuse to roast pasture-fed, acorn-and-apple-finished pork sausages with friends and family (or other meat if you don't eat pork; or tofudogs if you don't eat meat).

sources to check out:
Innoculating Biochar with Josiah Hunt:

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Intergenerational taste differences and the inheritance of consumerism

some thoughts on what we inherit and what we leave behind

I saw an image a few years ago of a steaming landscape that looked like the periphery of a slum in a Neill Blomkamp film. There were kids on heaps of smoking garbage; they were picking through charred electronics for what little value they could find to later resell. The photo was taken in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, but analogues can be found elsewhere, notably in Guiyu, China and Southeast Asia.

Agbogbloshie, Ghana


In nature, any species, after dying, leaves an imprint on its ecosystem in some way. At the time of death, a body or tissue is left, which could feed other animal, bacterial, plant, or fungal species in the system. An animal may have pooped in the same place, returning or living there year after year. Plants may have pumped up from the subsoil and concentrated certain nutrients in their leaves. Then they die and leave the topsoil enriched from their having been there. Dying roots pores and channels in the soil that improve air and water movement.

Some plants leave allelopathic imprints in soil. Successful species will reproduce by seed, spore, eggs, or some form of live birth. Each species leaves an imprint on it’s habitat and the broader ecosystem that tweaks it ever so slightly for the next generation, and then the next generation does the same, and the generation after them.


In permaculture there's a lot of talk about the positive impact that humans can have as big-brained keystone species. Ben Falk, a well-established and well-credentialed permaculture designer from Vermont, said the following (in this video):

"human disturbance can actually increase ecosystem health rapidly. If we just left this landscape alone, it would be healing, producing biomass, and biodiversity, a lot more slowly than if we work with it intensively. So, there's a really interesting piece of news there, right? That humans can actually do good."

That is some interesting news. And the odd thing is that those who exploit the world's resources like a mine, those who are largely ignorant of the world beyond their  netflix-bedecked LCD and plasmascreens, and those whose idea of environmentalism is simple conservation have all failed to realize that simple idea Ben shares. In concrete terms, not filmsy pot-fueled-blind-idealism-of-youth ways, human beings can live on land and contribute in a valuable way to the local ecosystem. Then the ecosystem gives back, and the ROI can be wildly generous.


Now to bring these ideas together. 

The tastes of any species, the resources they use, or abuse, the behaviors they engage in, where they poop, where they play, where they live, and how and where they grow their food (in our case) will be part of the imprint--that small tweak that changes the cards ever so slightly--that is left on the ecosystem for the next generation. 

Think of the old nonsense in garages and thrift stores, and in landfills. We humans are complex animals, with complex tastes and diverse activities. Add to that complexity our infatuation with newness, a consumption-based economy, and cheap energy and we get a inheritance of products, services, and companies left over from previous generations. And the implications of those products, services and companies--culturally, socially, politically, logistically, emotionally, and of course, environmentally.

So how do other keystone species modify their ecosystem in each generational iteration? From what I've seen, most leave it as good if not better than they found it, albeit probably not consciously. We have big brains and self-awareness, what's our excuse?

What if instead of leaving a trail of plastics and cars, obsolete electronics and worthless clothing, persistent organic pollutants and elementally-contaminated soils, we left a heritage of improved species, ecosystems, and landscapes?

If I think my mother-in-law's plastic Christmas tree has passed it's prime, what are my options? Trash it, recycle it, or upcycle it. The first option doesn't really fix the problem as much as passes the buck to someone else either in time or geographically. Recycling is good, but very energy intensive. Upcycling is great, but eventually that product will drop it's transmission and we'll be back to that first decision point.

What if I think this apple cultivar on my land is too acidic for my tastes, no matter how heirloom it is? You can graft onto the tree or use the wood to smoke some meat. Or give it to your neighbor. Or compost that sucker and plant a new tree. 

OPTIONS are what we leave. A myriad of options. What if I don't like the highly productive food garden by my house and I prefer to farm lawn (hopefully not the case)? You've left that option open for future humanity.

I got seed from a man in Idaho (in the western US) that took 20 years to develop a super short season watermelon variety. He painstakingly selected it year after year. And now not only his children, but all of Southeastern Idaho, and many similar climates, have a botanical jewel--and a real concrete connection to another human being.

What I like about the idea of leaving a biological heritage is that we leave the next generation to pick and choose what jives with their tastes, because they are the ones that will have to live with and in it or clean up. If they don’t like a variety they can let it die out by inaction. The amount of energy required for a taste shift like that is minimal. Construction, style, and clothing fads and dated status symbols can all require a significant energy investment to clean up; leaving the burden of our short-sightedness on future generations.

The Romans left us crumbling marble temples, the Egyptians left huge stone pyramids built on the backs of slaves. Will we be known for our simple and patient offerings of useful cultivars, carefully selected, and our enhanced landscape systems, or for the Agbogbloshie ewaste site, the Great Pacific garbage patch, and as the generation that ate Doritos as 100,000 years of topsoil blew away in the name of corn?

Let's leave something beautiful and useful, something deeply invested yet easily exchanged.

Resources to consider:

- I read a great book that talked about the ethnobotany of european americans from 1620-1900. The graphic design of the cover isn’t great, but the content of the book is superb, with in-depth molecular explanations in places and cooking suggestions for lesser-known species like skirret and salsify.

- Eric Toensmeier mentioned Carol Deppe's book here as one that changed his life (in a podcast here-thanks Scott Mann)

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