Tag: Gardening

Eat meat?

eggs & pitcher copy
‘Eggs & Pitcher’ Oil on canvas © J.Hart ’16

Our relationship to the foods that we eat is probably the most intimate and immediate choice that we can make to help heal the planet. And the question  of whether to eat meat or not can be, in our society, a major moral and ecological decision.

As in everything driven by the late stage hypercapitalism in which we live, corporations work hard to convince us that convenience and price override every other consideration. Nowhere is this clearer than in the foods we buy and eat, especially animal products.

I think of eating meat or not as on a continuum. On the far end is the daily (and sometimes three times a day!) habit in the United States of eating industrially raised meat. This is meat available in fast foods, processed foods, and in large supermarkets for just a couple of dollars a pound. How meat could be sold so cheaply is explained by government subsidies (our tax dollars at work!) and a monstrously large scaled farming system that can mechanically spew out tremendous quantities of inexpensive, imperfectly inspected meat to feed millions of people.

The horror of sentient beings (cows, pigs, and chickens) treated as nothing more than factory material to be imprisoned, tortured, and killed to provide us with their flesh should be a good enough reason to abjure eating corporate food products. But there is another important reason to give up meat and that is the destruction that this method of farming causes to the environment (and by environment I include each person’s individual body).

The methane that the animals, especially cows, expel is a major contributor to global warming. (https://timeforchange.org/are-cows-cause-of-global-warming-meat-methane-CO2)

The feces that the animals(especially pigs) excrete are stored in vast lakes that pollute the local environment and sicken nearby (usually poor) inhabitants. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/24/pig-farm-agriculture-its-wrong-to-stink-up-other-peoples-lives-fighting-the-manure-lagoons-of-north-carolina)

And finally, the hormones and antibiotics that are given to these poor creatures to ensure the fastest production of eatable meat and eggs and to keep these animals alive while living under truly inhumane conditions are ending up in both our bodies and the water supply. This profligate use of antibiotics will be responsible for creating the antibiotic-resistant superbugs that await us in the near future. (http://time.com/4590391/animals-meat-antibiotics-antibiotic-resistance/)

Are there any other choices besides the complete refusal to eat meat? We can substitute fish and seafood for meat; but as the latest predictions are that fish will be unavailable by 2048 as we are overshooting the ability for fish to reproduce and replenish their species, and the industrially raised fish have the same issues with hormones and antibiotic use as meat!

For me the immediate solution is to eat less meat (once or twice a week only) but buy local raised, humanely farmed, and higher quality meat. Joel Salatin and other organic small scale regenerative farmers, use chickens and cattle to free range across their fields thereby naturally fertilizing their pastures. In Dallas, free range beef, chicken, and eggs are easily available, though more expensive than industrially raised meat and eggs. However, if you cut down the amount of meat and eggs you eat and up the quality, the price becomes manageable. Also, the recent studies suggest that your all-over health will improve with less meat, and therein lies a savings in doctor bills and prescription medicine costs!

A vegetarian diet which still uses eggs, and diary products like butter and cheese, is at the further end of the continuum. As with everything we eat, the closer the fruits and vegetables are grown to where we live (and raised in our backyard is best of all!), and the more organically grown, the better.

At the far end of the no meat argument are the vegans who eschew all meat usually on moral grounds that it is immoral to enslave and eat another sentient. For me, it is a very refined and noble sentiment, but I am not sure that it realistically reflects how Nature operates. Personally I expect one day to provide a very high quality feast to the beetles, maggots, and worms when my body goes in the ground!

Meanwhile, I am making the choice to slowly but consistently move toward eating less meat and treating that pasture-raised sirloin as a once a month luxury!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Time out of mind

Morning lilac working drawing
‘Morning Lilac’ working drawing watercolor pencils

I have a birthday later this week, and as I am statistically into the category of ‘old,’ time and how much time I have left has been much on my mind. Time also seems to me to be something much constrained by how our society insists that we use it. In other words, only certain modes of time use are allowed if we wish to be included in this culture and not marginalized.

We are obligated to abide by the clock, which has dissected the body of our lives into equal, small, standardized parts. We must go by the clock’s law if we want to work in most jobs, or socialize easily with other people, or even organize our daily routines in an acceptable fashion. We are habituated to living fast and being constantly entertained; the hours of the day determine what we do and when.

Farmers and gardeners, on the other hand, work with the weather, the seasons, and Nature. This structure is in some ways less forgiving than the clock. If seeds are not planted in time, food not harvested promptly, or animals not cared for regularly, failure, starvation, and penury can ensue. But these actions are made in larger, slower chronological increments: mornings, afternoons, evenings, seasons, and years.

I am a gardener as well as an artist. This Spring, gardening trumped the painting! It took me the month of May to get all my seeds and plants into my balcony garden (this year my garden is focused on plants that can be eaten). I therefore, unfortunately, missed the magnolias and lilacs which bloom in May in the Botanical Gardens. Still, I am in time to paint the peonies which will bloom all through June.

The experience of painting a blooming flower is a surprisingly active one: the peonies can open their blossoms and then loose their petals even in the couple of hours as I paint them. They are, in essence, a type of clock based not on mechanical numeric equal divisions, but on the natural cycle of birth, growth, setting seed, and death. And since painting and drawing also are both not clock-based activities (although it is interesting how often I am asked by non-artists how long it takes to make a drawing or painting: it seems to me that the question represents a way for non-artists to somehow make more concrete an activity that feels mysterious to them!), I have the happy daily opportunity to step out of the confines of mechanical time!

I am lucky in my life that I have chosen to experience the exterior time of biological reality and the interior flow of artistic production. It allows my mind to escape the urge to speed and the habit of entertainment that keeps us all alienated from Nature and our true selves.

 

 

 

 

Protect your Fungi!

lasagna composting copy

What if the things that we think are so important in our world-money, status, political affiliation, religious beliefs, etc.-turn out to be as transient as foam on the ocean? What if the bedrock of our world, the engine of our existence, the support of our sustenance, turns out to reside in a microscopic population beneath our feet and embedded in our bodies?!

I have mentioned the microbiota of the soil in other posts, especially the last one on vermiculture, but I am being reminded of this reality again because I am in the middle of work on a garden attached to a local homeless center, The Bridge Recovery Center (https://www.bridgenorthtexas.org/) in downtown Dallas. And the first task, as we start the Spring garden (in March! how lovely is that?!!), is to revitalize the soil which means giving the microbes-fungi, protozoa, nematodes, etc.-as much help as possible.

The reason that the Earth feeds us is because the microorganisms that live in the soil feed the plants that we eat. These little guys are living beings, and their habitat, much like the habitats of larger plants and animals, can be ruined and made uninhabitable. This happens when the soil is left uncovered (many of these soil dwellers are killed by the UV rays of the sun); or is filled with chemicals from industrial fertilizers or herbicides; or is dug up or tilled by heavy equipment that breaks the soil up or crushes it down. And when the soil is depleted of these important microscopic beings, the plants that live in and on the soil become undernourished and diseased.

So here I am: raring to go; wanting to dig up the weeds; till in some fertilizer; and (finally!) put in my transplants, seeds, and seedlings. But I will have to make some better choices if I want to see a healthy harvest: I will need to slow down and first feed the soil while protecting its tiny (fungi, bacteria, protozoa, etc.) and not so tiny (worms and insects) ecosystems.

The best way to do this is by not disturbing the microorganisms, especially the fungi, that are already in the soil. The fungi play a particularly pivotal part in soil fertility. Fungi are responsible for bringing nutrients and water to plant roots; and what is called the mycorrhizal network extends far beyond the reach of individual plant’s roots. So when weeds are pulled up, or tilled under, the mycorrhizal network that was in place is destroyed!

The solution to this is no-till gardening. One way of doing this is as follows:

  1. The weeds are covered with cardboard carefully overlapped so there is no place for the weeds to come through. This kills the plants but leaves the roots and fungi network in place; make sure to take off any plastic tape from the cardboard.
  2. The cardboard is soaked so it is wet top to bottom;
  3. Then a layer of organic compost is put down (or good organic soil if you are beginning a raised bed); and this is watered;
  4. And finally a layer of mulch (chopped up leaves & wood chips work well) is laid on top.

This “lasagna” garden should be left for awhile to allow the worms and insects to begin their work of eating through the cardboard and dead weeds. When the transplants and seedlings are ready to be put in, the mulch is pulled aside to expose the soil underneath.

Just be careful not to use wood mulch in beds where you are direct seeding. Pill bugs and other good predators will eat small seedlings, though they will leave larger ones alone. I have been told that wood chip mulch also can attract slugs. I am coming from a very different planting zone (5a!) so I will see if our wood chip mulch does, in fact, attract slugs.

If you would like to see how Our Backyard Garden at the Bridge is progressing, please follow my blog: https://ourbackyardgardenatthebridge.wordpress.com. Check out YouTube for videos about sheet or “lasagna” mulching and no-till gardening.

Two great books about the soil and microorganisms are Sir Albert Howard’s seminal The Soil and Health; and David Montgomery & Anne Bilké’s The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health.

The important points, again, are to treat the soil with respect; and the denizens of the tilth with gratitude and care.

Happy gardening!

My Own Worm Herd!

red wigglers
A handful of composted wood mulch hosting red wigglers.

Yesterday I attended a two hour class at the Texas Worm Ranch (www.txwormranch.com) in Garland, Texas; and I am now the proud owner of my very own herd of red wiggler worms! They are in a bin with air holes, bedding, and cover. I fed them yesterday with the bits & bobs left over from my dinner salad; but I am resisting the urge to keep looking at them: worms dislike the light, so unlike a new puppy, they do not appreciate being played with!

What I will have after two weeks of feeding my herd every 3 to 4 days a handful of scraps (no meat, dairy, or grease!) will be lovely vermicompost. Vermicompost is the finished product made up of worm castings (poop), digested food scraps, and microbes. It should be a chocolate brown, fluffy, moist like a wrung out sponge, and smell like the deep forest…aaah!

finished vermicompost
Sifted finished vermicompost at the Texas Worm Ranch. Vermicompost at home can have more wood mulch in it.

The exciting part of this is not only that I will now be able to compost my kitchen scraps, but that the worms come with a complete ecosystem which makes the fertilizer that they create both healthy for the soil and the plants that grow in it, and nutritious for us who eat the plants and their fruits.

As Heather, owner & head worm whisperer, explained yesterday, the worms are part of a underground system of living microbes that “modern”, very mistaken, gardening information has both ignored and disparaged.

The denizens of this microbiota include fungi (responsible for feeding and watering plants’ roots and extending the reach of plants’ roots); bacteria which eats organic matter; assorted protozoa (amoebas, flagella, & ciliates) that eat bacteria and give off nitrogen (nutrient cycling); and nematodes, that also help keep the ecosystem in balance.

Unfortunately, almost all of these microscopic creatures do not do well in sunlight or in the presence of chemical fertilizers or herbicides. Which means, when traditional (the past couple of generations) advice urges tilling the soil in the Spring, or amending with commercial fertilizers, you will be killing the very microbes that would otherwise feed your plants and improve your soil!!

So best garden practices are:

  1. Keep your garden beds covered with mulch at all times. The mulch can be wood chips (except black walnut) or straw (not hay!). Do not dig the mulch into the soil. Layering should always remain: soil, compost, mulch (from bottom to top).
  2. Cover the walkways between the beds with mulch. This encourages fungi to extend its root system between beds and get even more nutrients to the plants in the beds.
  3. Move the mulch aside to add compost or vermicompost. (Never put red wiggler worms in the garden, even in their own compost. Red wigglers do not burrow so they can not escape heat or cold! Red wigglers are strictly indoor pets; they appreciate the same temperatures we do.) Then put the mulch back over the compost.
  4. Remove mulch where you plant seeds or put in transplants. Keep the seed rows and transplants free of mulch until they have sprouted and established themselves.

Like Permaculture, vermiculture uses the methods that are in place in Nature. The bins that the Texas Worm Ranch uses mimic the forest floor with composted wood chips as bedding and leaves as the top layer.

worm bins
Worm bins covered in leaves at the Texas Worm Ranch, Garland, Texas.

Treating the soil and the beings (microbes, worms, insects, etc.) who live in it with care and tenderness is, for me, an expression of gratitude for their support of our lives and of respect for them as living creatures.