Yesterday Growers’ Gizmos attended its first Small Business Saturday in Enfield, NH. We met lots of great people, and enjoyed talking about the product. We hope to see more people at our next event!
With everything going on with the #NoDAPL movement (Sunday’s treatment was appalling. To help or donate supplies, click here.), it is very important for humanity to really look at the value of water in our world. We have a drought in California, with 102 million trees dead within the last 3 months, due largely to the 5 year drought. Yet, we have a President Elect who refuses to acknowledge any of this. If the people cannot rely on their government to give them solutions to global problems, then it is up to innovative businesses to do so (I’m looking at you, Elon Musk).
So much new technology is arriving daily, and I feel lucky to live in an area of the country where businesses are focused on being socially and environmentally just. In my previous post on designing ecologically, I state that one of the precepts of ecological design is to use renewable energy. It is now more important than ever for consumers in the United States to pay attention to how their energy is produced. If we the people choose to support businesses who produce this clean energy technology, then there will be a continued market trend toward that technology (supply and demand, right?), and we will not need our government to make this trend happen. Another extremely important piece of the conversation is the conservation of water. Right now, many households in the US have the luxury of having this incredibly valuable resource available to their sink, for free. We often take our water for granted when we have it, but the moment we no longer have it, we realize its value. On the other side of that, there are also many households without water, or without drinkable water. The #NoDAPL movement is but a shadow of things to come if we do not both focus on renewable energy models, and if we don’t reevaluate how we view our water.
“But Rebecca, your blog is about growing plants, homesteading, why is this relevant?”
As a gardener and a homesteader and a hydroponic grower, water and power are things I think about constantly. Living in New England occasionally means that I am without power, sometimes even when it is 86 degrees and sunny. In situations like that, I wonder how I would water my animals, when I can’t use my well. How will I water my hydroponic plants when I have no power? Would I be able to offset some of my expenses by installing a solar array, panels, or purchasing solar credits from an offsite producer? How do I conserve my water in times of drought (which, believe it or not, does happen even in wet Vermont)?
Low water use and the ability to run on clean energy is on of the things I really love about growing hydroponically. In addition to not contributing to agricultural runoff, and worrying about nutrient overload in my pond, I can also grow using solar panels for my ebb and flow system, harnessing the energy of the sun not just in the PAR cycle. This summer, I intend to grow hydroponically directly out of my pond using solar panels, my Growers’ Gizmo, and built raised beds. I want to design and build a simulated flood plain, and research the best edible plants for that project. More to come on designing that, in a future post.
If you’re a soil-gardener, you know that the best way to grow strong produce is to make sure that your soil has the elements it needs. The three essentials are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. There are also a host of other micro nutrients needed, and a vast market of fertilizers. It is no different for hydroponics, except for the name.
Instead of being called a fertilizer, in hydroponics, we have nutrient solutions. These can be purchased from a manufacturer or you can use “Do It Yourself” concoctions, such as compost tea. The nutrient should be for hydroponic systems, and be safe for consumption. The type of nutrient is up to you and your desire to experiment. There are two types of nutrient solutions; synthetic and organic. Synthetic nutrients are fast acting and can be drawn into the plant immediately. This leads to a common mistake of overfeeding the plant. Organic nutrients typically have a lower amount of fertilizer than synthetics but feed plants for a much longer period of time. Because of this, the impact of organic fertilization is usually more subtle, meaning that it can take longer to get results.
In our first hydroponic experiment, described in a previous post, we used a synthetic fertilizer starter kit from Technaflora in our Grower’s Gizmo. However, in a very beginner kind of mistake, we were not using pure water. We used water from our pond in the back yard, which was full of organic nutrients. We still had success in vegetative growth, and even managed to get flowers, using the “wrong” solution, and natural light only. That’s one of the great things about hydroponics. We made mistakes, we didn’t follow the rules, but we still were successful in our endeavors.
It all started with John Todd’s class, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. I had such fun making an ecomachine with my classmates. We created a design that used plant life to purify water, specifically from cow-manure. As I explored the different ways to use plants to purify water, I began to realize the power of using only water to grow plants. Suddenly, I found myself with healthy plants that were not vulnerable to soil diseases, that could produce food and feed fish, and they grew faster. I began reading up on the subject, but I was always too cash short, or too space constrained to begin experimenting in my own home. A few years later, I became involved with designing and testing the Grower’s Gizmo. I was by no means an expert at hydroponics, and am still a far cry from one today. In fact, I knew more of the opposite; removing fertilizers from water, not adding them!
Today, I have grown tomatoes, peppers, licorice mint, jade plants, and even a pineapple in my Gizmo.
I started with Green Zebra tomato seeds High Mowing Organic. These seeds are heirloom and yield indeterminate plants. The fruit produced is green and yellow striped, and has a unique zing to the taste. It is an early cultivar. Also within the my first hydroponic machine was licorice mint seedlings. Licorice mint, a perennial herb, was chosen due to its sensitivity to being over-watered. It is a plant that prefers well-drained soils and full sunlight. For this plant to do well,the “drain” system of the machine must be sufficient.
The seeds of both plants were planted in early April and were grown in a small scale greenhouse under standard conditions for 8 weeks. On May 9th, plants were transferred to the Gizmo. On May 16th, the first dose of nutrient solution was added to the system. The Technaflora Starter Kit was used, and a vegetative solution was added.
The 6 tomato plants responded well to the solutions in the vegetative state with no supplemental light requirements, despite this being the most light intensive phase in the life of the plant, requiring 18 hours of light to just 6 hours of darkness. The licorice mint also performed well during this time, with large amounts of vegetative growth. The vegetative solution was added once to twice weekly from May 16th to July 5th. The choice to use one dose of solution or two doses of solution was based on the pH and turbidity of the water as measured once weekly. Turbidity was tested because the water in the system came from a small outdoor pond. After July 5th, the solution was changed from a vegetative solution to a flowering solution, from the Technaflora starter kit.
Flowers appeared on the control tomato plants on July 16th, but did not form fruit, because it turns out that tomatoes when grown indoors must be hand pollinated! Learn from my lesson, everyone, and make sure you do your research.
Elaine Ingham is a soil scientist that has experience with botany, microbiology, and plant pathology. She is the founder of an organization called Soil Foodweb. At Oregon State University in the 90s, Elaine was studying if engineered organisms have any impact to the “real world.” Her analysis first looked at fourteen species that were incapable of surviving outside of the lab, in real world situations. These fourteen organisms had no effect on the outside world. At this point in time, the USDA was determining policy on GMOs and “set a course that essentially said that a genetically engineered organism posed no greater risk to the environment than the parent organism does.”
After the testing of these first fourteen organisms, a fifteenth organism was studied that did not fall to the same conclusion. Klebsiella planticola was the parent organism that exists in most soils, growing in the root systems of plants. A gene from another bacterium was taken and combined with the DNA of Klebsiella planticola, allowing it to produce alcohol. Genetic engineers assumed that this would be beneficial, allowing the alcohol to be extracted and used commercially in some countries. The problem with this idea was that the bacteria could get into the roots of the plants, causing alcohol production. Plants are sensitive to alcohol levels at one part per million, and the organism produced around seventeen parts per million. In a nutshell, it would kill the plants.
Elaine Ingham then became an advocate against GMOs, after seeing that two organisms considered relatively harmless, when combined, could possibly wipe out all terrestrial plant life. She goes on to say, “I have attended some of the United Nations biosafety protocol meetings. At the 1995 meeting in Madrid, the U.S. delegation was the strongest in saying, in essence, ‘Don’t worry, be happy. Trust us. We don’t need a biosafety protocol. Why would biotech companies ever do anything to harm people?’’
Living in a world where scientists and publicists can spin the truth and sell it to the highest bidder makes me wonder if anyone really does care about the condition of the world. It is very important for people to push their governments into making the right policies, and not “messing” with nature.
Alchemilla mollis is a shade tolerant perennial that is native to southern Europe (Mahr 2010). It belongs in the Rosaceae family. A. mollis is hardy in zones 3-8. This perennial is known for its bright yellow flowers and 6” across scalloped leaves. The plant grows to about 1-2 feet tall and requires a 1½ foot spread (Clausen 2011). A. mollis grows well in most soil types, but prefers well drained, consistently moist soils (Perry). Another notable trait of this plant is its resistance to deer-feeding and many pests.
A. mollis has a long history of use, stemming all the way back to early Celtic druids who believed that the early morning dew on the leaves of the plant possessed healing powers (Carr-Gomm 2007). The genus Alchemilla comes from the word alchemy because this herb was believed to be a powerful cure for most ailments. A French alchemist named Armand Barbault wrote about using the dew from Lady’s Mantle to create an elixir of life in his book Gold of a Thousand Mornings (Carr-Gomm 2007).
Many uses for the plant today include treatment for stomach ailments, astringent for wounds, lotions for skin, dyes, and even as a leafy addition to salads (HipHerb). Teas can be made from the leaves of the plant as well. Today, this plant is often used as a cut flower in bouquets and vase arrangements A. mollis is also commonly used in landscape design as a perennial border due to the dew that forms along the leaves as well as the plant’s tolerance for most soil conditions (Collins 2009).
The 10,000-year-old problem, according to Wes Jackson, is that “…agriculture in most places is based on practices that use up limited resources. The major grains, like wheat and corn, are planted afresh each year. When the fields are later plowed, they lose soil. The soil that remains in these fields loses nitrogen and carbon.”
He continues to describe the rate of soil loss in the world due to erosion when it is unplanted, and how the soil left under the eroded soil is lacking in nutrients. His solution to this problem is simple: perennials. A perennial is a plant that puts down strong roots into the ground to hold the soil in place and survives year round. Instead of replanting every year, a farmer would plant once and let nature do the rest. In my mind, this makes incredible sense. A person has to wonder why people didn’t think of it sooner. Wes Jackson was inspired by the prairies surrounding his home in Kansas. He knew that the native grasses around his home actually improved soil quality as the years went on, instead of depleting it. The answer to his problem was to begin selectively breeding strains of different crops, including strains of wheat. The main problem he has encountered is in his attempt to change the social norm of what a farm should be. People generally see farms as involving plowing, planting, and harvesting; to begin the cycle all over the next year. People have been farming this way for a very long time. How do you explain to them that one crop can be harvested for many years?
Wes Jackson believes that the path to a better, “greener” world begins with redesigning the way we get our food. I have to agree with him. There’s no point in reducing our CO2 emissions if we’ve lost all our soil and our nutrients.
Trillium is one of my favorite flowers. It has many interesting characteristics, and the first time I saw it was when I was out for a run in the woods. I took the photo above of the lone red trillium I encountered that day. I had to go home and attempt to identify it on my computer. Luckily, it is an easy identification to make. Trillium is so interesting and captivating because it is one of the first plants to pop out of the ground in early spring. One of the more interesting facts about Trillium is that they are myrmecochorous; ants spread the seeds! Anywhere that you find wild trillium, just think of how it got there. Some little ants nearby carried it and acted as its gardener. It’s a great example of a symbiotic relationship, as the ants actually consume the fleshy structures that are attached to the seeds, called elaiosomes. Elaiosomes exist solely to attract ants.
When thinking about the future and design, there is one main book that I like to consider. This book, From Eco-Cities to Living Machines, considers nine important precepts as guidelines to design.These guidelines are not to the technical aspect of building ecologically, but to the spirit of what it actually means. For instance, the first precept is that “The living world is the matrix for all design.” This is not a concrete rule that insists if it is not followed, the machine will fail. It is more of a conceptual, beginning definition of what ecological design is and what it should achieve. By defining ecological design in this way, it leaves room for artistry in natural systems to be created.
The first precept is based partly on the Gaia hypothesis by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. It sets the general idea “that the earth together with its surrounding atmosphere constitutes a continuum, an entity which, taken as a whole, exhibits many of the properties of life.” This statement is not fact, but it sets a strong foundation for the other precepts by saying, in simpler terms, that design is made of complex systems that act as an entity to perform a task. An example of this complexity is how systems of the earth work together to keep oxygen levels within a range from 15 to 24%, within levels for the existence of most carbon-based life forms. If one component of the natural system fails, then others will follow. This is the most important lesson of the first precept.
The second precept says that “Design should follow, not oppose, the laws of life.” This second precept is more complex than the first because it begins to delve into the more biological aspects for design. Biology is an incredibly important parameter to be considered in design. One of the biological rules is that the cell is the basic building block of life. This is important because looking at the basic needs of a cell is a good place to begin design. If a cell cannot be supported in a design, nothing else can be either. It is also stated that the cell participates directly in the fundamental functioning of the whole organism. This shows how an eco-design must support the biological interconnectedness of the organism and what it needs to survive. The eco-design must have the proper components to provide the organism with its habitat. Biological constraints apply.
The third precept says that “Biological equity must determine design.” This third precept deals mostly with social justice in the design of the machine. Saul Mendlovitz is quoted as saying, “How will it affect the poorest third of humanity?” This is a great question to keep in mind during the design process because the problem with most things considered to be “environmental” in today’s world is that most of the time it is not economically feasible for most of society. We have to ask ourselves, what is the point of designing if people cannot afford to use it? Also, if the design has a negative impact on others, even in the slightest way, it must be improved. There is no point in a design that will improve life for some, but degrade life for others. That is not the purpose, or the desired by-product of an ecological design.
The fourth precept of ecological design states that “Design must reflect bioregionality.” In order to understand this precept, it is important to know what bioregionality is. A bioregion is defined as a cluster of ecosystems, arranged topographically and climatically so as to delineate a distinct region. The importance of this is that a machine designed for a tropical region will not work in a snowy, mountainous environment. Jim Dodge said that “Bioregionalism is simply biological realism…” An environment strongly determines what will exist and where. It is important for a design to reflect this or else it will fail its purpose.
The fifth precept of ecological design is that “Projects should be based on renewable energy.” This is an especially important precept in this age. This epoch is being called the Anthropocene due to the amount of pollution humans have released, and the impact we have on the world around us. We need to steer clear of “the clumsiness of large-scale single source strategies,” as stated in From Eco-Cities to Living Machines. Choosing alternative clean energy over carbon-emitting energy sources is the best thing we can do at this time. The atmosphere is at a record high for carbon levels, above 400 ppm. This is a dangerous level. Ecological design won’t be necessary when the ozone layer has a giant hole in it and oxygen levels are too low to support life. The point of this precept is that the movement to alternative energy is completely needed to produce a good design.
The sixth precept is that “Design should be sustainable through the integration of living systems.” This precept is an obvious one; an ecological design, to be considered ecological, must have life. After all, is this not what we hope for our future? With mass extinction happening all around, it is important for humanity to design within nature, rather than without it.
“Design should be co evolutionary with the natural world,” is the seventh precept. This precept goes back to one of the rules from the second precept; nature is not static. In order for a practical design, it has to have adaptability and be dynamic enough to evolve with the world around it. The purpose of the design is not to be an advancing technological design, but to be a natural system that provides a service. This precept reminds of the looseness of the term “machine” when describing one of these man-made natural systems.
The eighth precept is another one of the obvious ones; “Building and design should help to heal the planet.” What is the purpose of designing such a system in a polluted, desolate world that has been destroyed by fossil fuels? The purpose is to heal the planet, and to try to restore nature to the balance that it once maintained.
The ninth and final precept is that “Design should follow a sacred ecology.” This is an interesting precept because it isn’t something that is found in other engineering disciplines. An architect does not necessarily look on his creation as something sacred. In ecological design, this is an important precept because it teaches people to “remember the larger context of one’s existence.” Basically, that we have a duty to our planet and to others living here. We must sustain the resources we have, as well as remember that we cannot live without the gifts that nature has given.
The precepts of ecological design are less conventional than most engineering practices, but they have to be. Biology is concrete, yet flexible with many different possible outcomes. For ecological design, it is necessary to have some base precepts to define what the goals of a project will be, but they must be based loosely enough to give biological processes some room to grow and live. Design is not a precise science and the precepts are perfect in guiding the creative process.