The Worry Book

A place where one woman has gathered resources and information to help her family survive in an uncertain future; together with occasional personal musings.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fears About Future Food (2/11)


Fears About Future Food

There has been an awful lot of noise in the news lately about global food prices. The price of most basic commodities such as wheat, sugar, corn, soybeans, and oilseeds are near or at historic highs. Global stockpiles are near or at historic lows. The recent events in the Middle East have been partially attributed to the swiftly rising price of food. In fact, food prices never really recovered after the 2008 spikes, though they did ease somewhat, and rice in particular (probably the most important grain, globally) seems to have stabilized for now, which is excellent news.

The factors that led to the 2008 spike are still with us, and in fact are intensifying. Most importantly, terrible weather events in many parts of the world over the last couple of years have drastically impacted regional staple crop production, from last year's drought in Russia and floods in Pakistan to this year's floods in Australia and unusual deep-freezes in the American south. Today, I bought some zucchinis to make a special Valentine's Day dinner, and paid over $7 for three smallish squash. They were $5.50 a pound. And no, they were not organic. I actually thought there was a mistake and asked the checker if that was the right price. She said it was and that the store had received a letter from their wholesalers letting them know that prices on many products would be higher through the season due to the freezes in the south.

Even if you think the weather events are a statistical aberration not likely to repeat in the coming years (which is a foolish opinion, but I'm granting it for the sake of argument), there are other, longer term forces at work which will continue to push food prices higher. There is the growing demand for biofuels - a sad story, which I am not going to go into in detail now. Suffice it to say that market forces have succeeded in turning a potentially brilliant, clean, carbon-sinking innovation into a global environmental disaster. As it currently exists, the global market in biofuels is destructive and helping to cause shortages. That doesn't mean I am against biofuels - I am decidedly for them! But the industry needs to evolve, and fast.

There is the price of oil, which is inexorably creeping upward and on which our agricultural system is utterly dependent, not just for transportation but for synthetic fertilizers. These fertilizers, in turn, mask another long term problem - the failing fertility of our soils. The loss of topsoil to drought and overtilling is only a small part of the soil's sickness. Loss of the biodiversity of microorganisms in the soil due to the long term use of insecticides and fungicides and herbicides has resulted in "dirt death."

Another huge problem - one of the biggest - is the water shortage. I was going to write "incipient water shortage" but in fact, the shortage is already here in many parts of the world. For the first time in recorded history, the Yellow river in China failed to reach the sea last year. All of it's water was siphoned off before it got there. That is routinely the case for the Colorado and the Rio Grande here in the states, as well as many other smaller waterways. I recently read (in a four page agricultural paper sold at my local feed store) that Eastern Washington's gigantic fossil water aquifer is down to about 15% of it's original capacity. The aquifer was not even tapped until the forties, and most of the drawdown has occurred in the last twenty years. They expect it will be totally exhausted within a decade. Then what? Well, my guess is that within another decade or two after that, the mighty Columbia may no longer reach the sea. California's imperial valley (source of a major slice of the nation's fresh produce) is losing productivity due to loss of water rights - water that is now being diverted to L.A. and San Diego. In Arizona, the water table has dropped from about 15 feet underground in the seventies to over 100 feet underground today.

The increasing wealth in large swaths of the developing world, including China and India, is obviously very good news in many respects. But not as regards global food supplies. As people get wealthier, they pretty much universally want to eat more meat. Meat, particularly beef, is the least efficient extraction of calories from the land, and the methodology of it's production - factory farming - is nearly indescribably destructive to the environment, further depleting the future productive potential of a great deal of land.

The largest underlying factor and the most difficult to address is, of course, population growth. By 2050 there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 billion people on the planet, and they will all be hungry. Right now, population is not the problem in a direct, immediate sense - we still produce plenty of food for everybody, if it were evenly distributed. But if all production trends point downwards while all consumption trends point upwards... well, I'm not an economist, but.... I'm also not an idiot.

You may be thinking "what the heck are you talking about? My food prices haven't gone up that much. I've hardly noticed anything." The fact is that we here in the States are well-insulated from food price spikes, for a variety of reasons. Farm subsidies are one of them, but even more, it is because we tend to eat so much processed and packaged food that the cost of the actual ingredients represents only a small fraction of the total cost of the product. When you buy a box of cereal, the cost of the wheat or the rice is only about 10% of what you pay. The rest is packaging, processing, advertising, et cetera. If you go down the aisle and look at the cost of a sack of plain rice or a sack of plain lentils, you will notice that they have indeed gone up. Actually, so has the cereal. Cheerios for $5 a box? C'mon!

Personally, I have noticed big increases in the cost of bulk coffee, sugar, wheat flour, and some fresh produce such as citrus fruits and salad greens. I have also noticed that selection seems to be decreasing in many stores, and I wonder why this is? This is a longer term trend, I think. Ten years ago, I would have no problem at my local grocery finding pretty much any product I wanted, from fresh habanero peppers to, oh, say, savoy cabbage. There were always at least five varieties of potatoes. Lately, I have more and more often found myself looking for something I think of as a basic item and not been able to find it. A partial list - those that spring to mind - include:

-wild rice
-pearl onions
-dried garbanzo beans
-shitake mushrooms
-spinach that wasn't bagged baby spinach, but plain old fashioned adult spinach.

I'm curious to know, have you noticed similar trends? Are rising food prices an issue for you? What do you think will happen to global food prices in the next several years, and are you making any preparations? I will talk about my own preparations in a later post.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

goat health

The Thin Poor Doing Goat

by Kevin D Pelzer DVM. MPVM
Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine
Periodically goats appear thin or lose condition but generally regain weight. This is pretty normal in most animal production systems. Unfortunately, some goats do not regain the lost weight and may even continue to lose weight. There are a number of reasons that goats may become poor doers, some are management related and some are related to disease agents that have a long term negative effect on the animal.

Extra label usage - drugs listed in this category can only be used under direction of your veterinarian. Need to obtain withdraw periods and directions.

Management Factors

a) Low quality diets or low quantity diets
Goats should have a diet that consists of 8 - 13.5 % CP depending on the stage of production. Energy requirements will vary as well and are the highest during lactation. The best means to evaluate the ration is to have forage analysis performed on the forage. Book values can be used for the common grains.
b) Inadequate feeder space

Ideally more than one feeder should be used.
1.4 to 2 linear feet per head.
c) Inadequate space

Dry lot confinement there should be 35 to 100 sq ft per animal.
Less space increases fighting.
d) bully vs shy animals

French Alpine and Toggenburg breeds tend to be more aggressive.
Nubians tend to be shy and submissive.
e) Age hierarchy

Infectious Agents

a) Parasites
Internal parasites - Haemonchus contortus or Barber pole worm
causes severe anemia
look at the third eyelid
bottle jaw, edema under the jaw
External parasites - Biting and sucking lice

can cause anemia or blood loss along with blood proteins
part the hair and observe little brown dots with white/cream ends
Cylence® - pyrethroid Extra label usage
Seven Dust® - carbaryl Extra label usage
sprinkle over back
CO-RAL® powder Extra label usage
Cydectin® pour-on cattle dewormer Extra label usage
Along with topical treatment, injectable treatment with an avermectin may be helpful.
Ivomec or Dectomax Extra label usage
b) Caseous Lymphadenitis

Caused by Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis
Survives in dark, damp areas, soil, and manure for extended periods of time.
Clinical signs:
Enlarged lymph nodes especially in the throat latch area
Internal abscess, lungs and associated lymph nodes, lymph nodes of the intestinal tract.
May affect the spinal cord and udder causing mastitis.
contamination of superficial wounds (shearing) or mucous membranes
indirectly through fomites - feeders, grooming equipment, and bedding
inhalation or ingestion
appearance of thick green pus
serology/blood test
lance abscess and pack with iodine gauze
contaminates the environment - keep isolated
long term penicillin, 30 days rarely successful
hygiene, disinfect equipment (trimmers)
cull infected animals.
don't buy infected animals.
blood test, cull positive animals - consult veterinarian
vaccination - using sheep vaccine may cause adverse reactions in goats if the goats are already infected. Best to vaccinate at 2 - 3 months of age and then yearly
c) Johne's Disease

Caused by Mycobacterium paratuberculosis
survives in soil and manure for years

Clinical signs:
chronic weight loss in spite of a good appetite
diarrhea may occur in animals but is generally not seen as it is in cattle
weight loss is noted (brought on) after a time of stress, kidding or breeding
rough hair coat
animals are usually older than 1 year of age.
fecal oral, consumed in feed or off pasture
kids are most susceptible to infection
can be acquired through milk or colostrum
can be acquired in utero
serology/blood test
biopsy of intestinal lymph nodes
hygiene, keep waterers and feeders clean
cull infected animals and off spring of affected animals
don't buy infected animals
blood test, cull positive animals - consult veterinarian
raise kids separated from adults
use colostrum from negative or disease free animals
Chronic Pulmonary Disease - Lungers

Chronic pulmonary or lung disease can be caused by a variety of infectious agents.
Depending on the agent, clinical signs may vary.

Clinical signs:

may or may not have a temperature, may go and come
persistent cough
noticeable movement of the chest with effort to expel breath, little grunt
slightly depressed and poor appetite or intermittent anorexia
exercise brings on clinical signs

Lung worms
Diagnose by fecal exam
treatment of animals with severe signs is unrewarding
Mycoplasma mycoides
Long acting tetracycline Extralabel usage
-- these infections can be very difficult to treat
Pastuerella hemolytica or Mannheimia hemolytica
Nuflor® Extralabel usage
adjunct treatment
Vit C/100 lbs Extralabel usage
BoSe/100 lbs, may not want to use in pregnant goats as may produce an allergic type reaction. Extralabel usage
Caprine Arthritis and Encephalitis Virus

Degenerative Joint Disease
Caprine Arthritis and Encephalitis

Caused by CAE Virus - retrovirus, similar to AIDS virus

Clinical signs:
chronic weight loss
swollen joints, especially the knees (carpus) usually a year of age or older
may have swelling just behind the poll
contracted tendons
rough hair coat
lung problems
Note* Many animals may be affected but do not show clinical signs. Most infections are acquired around birth but clinical signs do not develop for years.

exposure to body fluids - milk, saliva, nasal secretions
kids are most susceptible to infection
can be acquired through milk or colostrum
can be acquired in utero
can be transmitted by blood
serology/blood test
Pasteurize colostrum and milk (heat milk to 134F for 30 minutes
cull infected animals and off spring of affected animals
don't buy infected animals
blood test, cull positive animals - consult veterinarian
raise kids separated from adults
use colostrum from negative or disease free animals, colostrum substitute - Lifeline®
Mycoplasma arthritis

Mycoplasma mycoides
Clinical signs - similar to CAE
acquired through infected milk and colostrum
kids develop a joint infection but recover but some damage has been done to the joint surfaces which takes some time before noticeable arthritis occurs.
Diagnosis - difficult
antiinflammatory drugs - Aspirin
Adequan® Extralabel
Foot rot

Caused by 2 bacteria
Bacteroides nodosus (Dichelobacter nodosus)
Fusobacterium necrophorum
Clinical signs:
under run hoofwall separated from the hoof
swollen joint above hoof is common in severe cases
necrotic smell, black tarry dirt in the overgrown hoof
organisms picked up from the soil
spread via hoof trimmers
clinical signs
trim feet, remove all separated hoof wall
soak feet in 10% sodium sulfate foot bath
Long acting tetracycline or Penicillin
keep feet trimmed
keep out of wet damp environments
Return to Maryland Goat Conference.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What gardening method works best?

Comparison of raised beds, sheet mulching, and tilling: a three-year study of home gardening methods
May 25, 2011 at 7:07 pm (Organic gardening, Starting a garden)
The short version:

In the past 7 years, I have built three types of garden beds at my current location.

Plowing of local soil, with horse manure added.
Sheet mulching. Corrugated cardboard over sod, covered with a variety of materials.
Raised beds. Sides made of composite decking or 2x8s, placed directly on sod, filled with garden blend soil and/or horse manure.
I’ve had all three types for at least three years now, and I’m ready to proclaim a winner: raised beds. Plowing was an abysmal failure.

The details: (After the jump)


Year 1

I had a neighbor plow under sod and weeds in a 12′x100′ strip of our clay-filled yard and smooth it out for planting. think I also put about a foot of horse manure over the top of this. A few tomatillo plants and peppers were planted the first year on part; compost crops like alfalfa and radishes went on the other part. The greenhouse ended up on part of this strip in October.

Year 2

Planted corn and squash and harvested rye. The rye yielded 1 lb per 100sf and the corn was completely annihilated by raccoons and deer. Weeds were starting to get out of control, especially in the rye area, so I covered the entire area with cardboard and a foot of horse manure (sheet mulch). Planted winter wheat, one patch in rows and one patch broadcast.

Year 3

Planted sugar beets (in a patch we weeded by hand to remove sods of weeds) and potatoes (in a fairly weed-free area) The sugar beets never emerged from the straw; I blame slugs because I mulched them with straw that had overwintered outside. Replanted the beet area with squash, which did OK but were never really robust. The potatoes yielded about 1/2 lb per sf (half or a third of the rate of my “good” garden beds). The row-planted wheat succumbed entirely to weeds. The broadcast wheat made it just about to harvest and the deer ate every last kernel.

Year 4

I looked at the grass and Canada thistle taking over the beds and declared the area a total loss.

The upshot:

Plowing was an abysmal failure for me. I’m never plowing again if I can possibly help it, and I’m never making a garden bed with that many linear feet of edge backing up to grass and thistles with no solid border between them.

Sheet mulching, a.k.a. “lasagna gardening”

Year 1 – fall

Laid down huge sheets of cardboard directly on the sod (20′x20′). Covered cardboard with about 8″ of fluffed-up straw, then a foot of horse manure (half composted and mixed with straw), then maybe 6″ of garden blend soil. Possible the dirt was on top; I forget exactly.

Year 2

Made paths of straw and planted potatoes, sweet potatoes, brassicas, squash, and cantaloupe. The squash and cantaloupe all succumbed to squash borers but the other things did pretty well.

Year 3

Added another 20′x20′ bed: cardboard with horse manure (this time mixed with both straw and wood shavings). No layer of straw, and no dirt added. This section got a Three Sisters garden and the 2 year-old section got potatoes, brassicas, and black-eyed peas. The three sisters garden was 2/3 failure and 1/3 OMG success: the squash went nuts and produced something like 300 pounds of winter squash. The beans never thrived, and critters got the corn again, despite the thicket of squash vines and a nylon stocking placed over each ear.

Other crops did quite well: potatoes yielded 1.5 lb/sq ft and black-eyed peas grew 7′ tall. It was a bad year for brassicas, meaning we had enough to eat all summer but not enough to share or freeze.

Creeping Charlie and grass (something with big rhizomes…quack grass?) were really starting to move into the beds by the end of the season and it became clear that beds with no edge would be succeptible to weed infiltration annually.

Year 4

Converted entire area to raised beds, with cardboard in the bottom and filled with garden blend soil. Put down weed block fabric and stone chips on the paths. Goal is to completely eliminate edge where grass and other rhizomes can creep in.

The upshot

Building up is better than plowing down. The main difference between sheet mulching and raised beds is simply the absence or presence of wooden sides to the beds – and the sides make a huge difference in maintenance time.

Raised beds

These are still my all-time favorite. I won’t go year-by-year, but I will say they that after 7 years, they continue to offer the best yields with the least work year by year. Weeding is truly very minimal, and almost never resembles sodbusting. Just put the frame on a flat area and fill with at least 8″ of heavy material – soil and/or manure – and that will kill the sod. Weeds can get in at the corners, so try to keep the sod away from the boards.

Framing materials

I’ve used composite decking material and untreated pine lumber. I will not use the decking material again. It bows too much and has gaps that make it easier for rhizomes to come in at the corners. Instead, I like 2″x8″ lumber, in whatever length makes sense. I’ve had untreated beds holding dirt for 6 or 7 years and am not noticing any rotting. Tacking a 1″x2″ “sacrificial” furring strip on the bottom might be good for longevity; if that rots, you could flip the bed up, pull off the 1×2, put a new 1×2 on, and carry on with the same 2×8.

I usually just drill pilot holes and use 3″ deck screws to hold the corners together – to braces, blocks, or brackets. Most have held, but a couple have pulled apart. I just push those back together and re-screw, or, in a couple cases, add an external L bracket to bandage it back together.

Filler materials

Beds need some dirt and some manure; just manure isn’t good enough to support many crops (beans, tomatoes) though some seem to appreciate it (squash). If you fill a bed with just manure and put tomatoes in it, you’ll have blossom end rot until the tomatoes get their roots into the soil below, at which point they’ll do OK because they can access the minerals in the soil. However, after a year, 8″ of manure compacts down to 5-6″ of soil, and the worms and roots and such have done a pretty good job mixing the manure and soil even if you don’t get in with a digging fork to help. Still, when I top off the beds, I try to use something with some mineral content (i.e., dirt, not just more compost).


As much as I admire the idea of building up soil, and as much as I feel bad importing materials to garden in, and as much as I grumble about paying for garden soil and framing wood, I really stand by my decision to use raised beds. Now that they are installed, I can keep up soil fertility with compost produced on-site. I don’t have to kill myself weeding or preparing beds each spring – a 4′x8′ raised bed can be completely weeded, composted, and ready to plant in about 10-15 minutes. I don’t have to own, rent, or use a rototiller or tractor; I can maintain the gardens entirely without burning fuel other than elbow grease. Yields are fantastic – I’ve raised squash and potatoes in multiple kinds of beds and the tilled area yielded only about 1/3 the weight of produce of an equal square footage in the other kinds of beds. I know not everyone can afford to buy materials for a raised bed, but you can often scavenge them (wooden pallets for sides, perhaps?) and they make such a difference in ease and yields that I strongly recommend them to anyone trying to carve a garden out of a lawn.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Medicinal Ornamental Garden
admin May 19th, 2011
Ornamental edible gardening gets a lot of attention right now. Consider a new book _The Edible Front Yard_ by Ivette Soler that The Peak Oil Hausfrau has just reviewed. I did a post a while back on ornamental perennial edibles, and I wanted to do a companion piece on ornamental medicinal herbs. If you are looking for something to put up front, your medicinal herb garden is a really choice. Not only are many of the plants useful, but they are also drop-dead gorgeous. And just as perennial edibles run “under the radar” – meaning that neither zombies nor your local zoning board are likely to even realize that your garden is (gasp!) useful as well as purty – medicinals do the same. Just as I did in my perennial ornamental edibles post, I’m going to give you gardens for both sun and shade. Obviously, this will be most useful to people who live in my climate or something like it – hey, if you can grow saw palmetto or chasteberry, go for it. I can’t, but there are plenty of gorgeous options here. Oh, and a lot of them are highly scented as well – even better!

First, let’s do a sunny border with a lot of general-purpose medicinals, useful in most households. I’d suggest you throw in a handful of low-growing sunny annuals as well to add some brightness – calendula perks everything up, and german chamomile makes a great, cheerful understory plant. This is for a site of ordinary soil, with ordinary moisture levels.

First, large backbone plants. You’ll definitely want Valerian, which is a beautiful plant with vanilla-scented flowers in bloom. It gets huge, so give it plenty of room. Valerian is a reliable perennial, and can be dug and divided when you harvest the roots. The roots smell like dirty socks, but tinctured they are one of the best relaxants out there, and a natural sleep aid. Valerian does like some moisture, but will grow in ordinary garden soil.

All the mallows have roots with soothing properties – particularly good for coughs or irritated urinary tracts. Marshmallow, above, is a beauty with pink flowers, but you can also use Malva sylvestris or garden hollyhock!

Angelicas are cool and weird looking. They umbels with dark stems are odd, but beautiful. Carrot family members, they attract insects like crazy and also attract visual attention. If you have anyone female in your household, I’d recommend growing A. sinesis, also known as Dong Quai. It is used for both menopause and menstrual cramps, as well as to gently help regulate high blood pressure. It is not a safe herb for pregnancy, however, as it increases the risk of miscarriage.

You either love elecampanes or you hate them – I love them, huge and strange looking sunflowerish things that they are. They were a common ornamental during Victorian times, but they’ve fallen out of favor – and I can understand, but I find them structural and cool. Their roots are used for bronchitis and persistent coughs, but a grad student in Ireland has also found that extracts of elecampane in alcohol kill MRSA, which is certainly a non-trivial usage.

Moving up to the middle of the border, an obvious candidate, one that does well in almost all gardens, are the coneflowers. Generally what you want are Echinacea purpurea or augustifola (shown) as the easiest to grow, but if you can grow one of the rarer species, please do – they are often endangered and very beautiful. The medicinal qualities of the ornamental hybrids are probably lower, so stay away from those.

Meadowsweet is one of my absolute favorite herbs for its tidy foliage, beautiful sprays of creamy white flowers, wonderful fragrance and medicinal usage as both a painkiller (this is the plant from which salicytes were originally isolated) and a stomach soother. It does cause hayfever in some people, however and those with asprin-sensitive asthma should not use it, but unless I was terribly allergic, I’d have this plant around – it is just too useful. Its flower heads have also been used to flavor ales and jams – it imparts a slight sweet almondy taste! The roots also produce a black dye.

You have to be careful with tansy – in some of the drier parts of the US it is an invasive pest and can become weedy. You also have to be careful with internal use of tansy – not for kids, pregnant women and I personally wouldn’t take it internally unless the benefits outweighed the risks – but it is a great worm killer for internal parasites. Best of all, however, are its natural insect repellent qualities, its delicious fragrance and those cheerful bright yellow buttons. Tansy just begs to be mixed with reds and oranges, so it is a great companion to calendula!

Pretty mounds of tidy leaves with lovely wands of purple flowers – I’m surprised that Betony (stachys officinalis) doesn’t make it into more gardens. It is great for headaches, and the leaves taste pretty much like black tea – and has similar antioxidant qualities. This is a fond favorite plant in my garden, and you can never have too much of it!

I’d have feverfew in my garden even if it wasn’t a medicinal – but it is, with good documentation on its ability to affect migraines. The flowers are just gorgeous – and they come in double forms as well.

Yarrow if a favorite of mine as well, and it tolerates almost any conditions, from dry as a bone roadsides to damp spots in my garden. The flowers are used to treat hayfever and allergies, the aerial tops for colds and the leaves can be used as a styptic to stop bleeding. Yarrow looks like a lot of umbelliferae, and some people have occasionally mistaken poisonous plants like water hemlock or cow parsnip for yarrow, which is all the more reason to grow your own! You want the true white yarrow, not the ornamental colored species, although the chinese species A. asiatica, which has lovely pink flowers, is also extremely ornamental and used for fever pains and arthritis.

I can’t grow the traditional Arnica montana in my garden – elevations aren’t high enough and my soils aren’t naturally acidic enough – but A. Chamissonis grows well for me, and the bright, low growing flowers are easily tinctured or added to salves to ease sore muscles and bruising. This is an external use only herb – but it is heavily overharvested in the wild, so growing your own becomes imperative.

Lady’s bedstraw is a lovely, low growing, incredibly fragrant plant that ought to be in more gardens. Besides its use as a natural curdling agent for cheesemaking, a decoction is also used for urinary tract issues, and the roots produce a red dye, while the leaves produce a pretty yellow one. But the honey scent and the way it flavors cheese would be enough for me!

Add in calendula, california poppy and german chamomile in the front of the garden, and you’ve got something no one will ever believe is useful! If you are looking for more of my herbal writings, check them out here.

Ok, next time – the ornamental, medicinal shade garden!


garden design , herbs Comments(8)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

pee in the garden

Pee in the Garden

Posted by Kate at 9:55 AM
My crusty old uncle Jay told me one of his characteristically amusing yarns once while we were puttering around his garden. He looked kinda like Colonel Sanders, but much leaner, and he spoke with a lovely Louisiana drawl. (He was an uncle by marriage.) His story was about a writer who composed a lengthy poem dedicated to his beloved, who liked to garden. He entitled it, She Sits Among the Lettuces and Peas. His editor liked the theme, but suggested he come up with a more tactful title. The poet considered this advice and then submitted the revised manuscript under a new name, She Sits Among the Cabbages and Leeks. I can hear Jay's gasping sort of laughter now.

Nope. This is not an April Fool's post. I decided that this would be the year we start using pee in the garden in some sort of systematic way. Human urine contains abundant nitrogen, a key nutrient for plants and soil microorganisms. My husband has used the compost pile for the odd leak now and then with my encouragement, but we've never approached the use of urine with any organized intent.

I'd heard of the value of urine in the garden from various sources. After all, garden centers sell urea (which is actually fake urine) as fertilizer, and I know that some compost enthusiasts use pee as a compost activator. Sharon Astyk has written in her inimitable comically informative way about the renewable and cheap nature of human pee. I attended a session on humanure systems at the PASA conference last year, and was sold on the concept even though we don't have access to a good supply of cover material to make it work. I read Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, which further extolled the virtues of urine. And it's not just crackpot greenies talking about this. Heck, even the Washington Post reported on the concept. Researchers at the University of Kuopio's Department of Environmental Sciences in Finland...

...concluded that urine produced by one person over a year would be enough to grow 160 cabbages -- that's 64 kilograms (141 pounds) more cabbage than could be grown in a similar plot fertilized with commercial fertilizer. They recommend collecting urine from eco-type toilets, storing it, then scattering it on the soil around the plants rather than directly on them.

After being bombarded from so many directions, the idea finally worked its way up my priority list. While we may not be able to employ a full humanure system, we can at least divert the less problematic of human wastes into useful channels. Several million pounds of nitrogen are flushed "away" in the US every single day. Homesteading is a process of learning to use what you've got, and learning to find value in what society so often treats as garbage. This is one more resource available to us that we will no longer squander, one more dependency we can rid ourselves of.

Okay, a few technical details. Urine should be diluted 1:7 with water if you keep yourself well hydrated, or 1:10 if you don't typically drink enough water. Too high a concentration of the nitrogen in urine will chemically "burn" plants. Of course, I like to streamline functions around the homestead, since convenience means my good intentions are more likely to result in good practice. So I came up with a simple bucket hack. All that's involved is marking the inside of the bucket to indicate the fill levels that represent the correct proportion of water to pee. There are two ways to go about this, depending on how quickly you anticipate "contributions" being made.

The first approach is to work out the volume of just the first pee of the day per household. Carol Deppe wrote that she uses only her first pee of the morning, since that is typically the most concentrated specimen of the day. I've been doing this off and on for a while now, so I know generally what volume is typical for me. From there one can multiply by 7 or 10 to get the volume of water, measure that quantity of water into a bucket, and mark the surface line with a permanent marker. You may need to empty the bucket and dry the inside very well to mark it. With this method you don't really need a second line indicating the additional volume of urine if your estimate is reasonably accurate. But if you want to put a second mark as a check, go ahead and add your estimated volume of pee to the water and make a second line above the first. Check your accuracy over a few days and adjust as needed.

The other approach is to start with how much liquid you want to carry in the bucket, which should take into account the distance you'll need to carry it, how you will be emptying the bucket (lifting?), and your physical strength. So let's say you're comfortable carrying the bucket half full, or a third full, or whatever. Put your first mark inside the bucket at that level. Then fill to that line using a measuring cup to determine how much liquid it takes to fill to that level. From that measurement, do your calculations - either multiply by 6/7 or 9/10, depending on hydration habits. That will give you the amount of water needed for correct dilution rates. Then empty the bucket and measure in the amount of water indicated from your calculations. Make your second mark at that line inside the bucket, which should be below the first line you marked. When you're ready to start, fill the bucket to the lower line with water, and when enough pee has been collected to reach the top line, it's time to empty the bucket. Rinse, fill, collect, empty, repeat. Free, renewable fertilizer.

There's also the direct method with no need to muck about with dilution or measuring. Over the winter months I've just been adding my morning collection directly to the compost pile. A well established and active compost pile should be able to sort out a concentrated dose of nitrogen and "digest" it, so to speak, before it is applied to the garden. This approach feeds the soil microbes directly, which then later indirectly feed the plants where you apply the compost. If you want to use this method, it's better to not let the collected pee sit around very long, especially at indoor temperatures. The nitrogen in pee is such a valuable commodity that airborne bacteria will colonize the pee almost immediately and begin exploiting it. The faster you get it into a compost pile, the more use it will be to soil microorganisms.

Now for the tedious caveats and common sense warnings, lest I fall foul of the hygiene police and the white knuckled. Human urine is very nearly sterile when it exits the body, unless you happen to be carrying one of a very few nasty diseases. Theoretically, hepatitis B, CMV (cytomegalovirus), and HIV (possibly others) are transmissible via direct contact with urine. There's no data I know of on disease transmission through consuming food from soil fertilized with urine. I regard healthy soil as a universal cleanser of toxins and pathogens of all stripes anyway. Further, it's impossible to infect oneself with any disease. Either you've got it, or you don't. You don't pick something up from yourself. If you're using your own urine in your garden, you have nothing to worry about if you're the only one consuming that food. If you're super cautious, go ahead and test any member of your household for disease who might contribute urine to the cause. Make sure none of you have any disease that could theoretically be passed on to another. As indicated above, apply diluted urine around crops, not directly on them. Finally, you probably want to steer clear of this technique if you sell to the market. The last thing you need is a frivolous lawsuit. To be on the safe side, use it on your fruit trees, berry bushes, corn (maize), ornamentals, or your asparagus crop after this year's harvest is finished.

So what are your thoughts? Is pee in the garden just beyond the pale? Do you already use urine (human or otherwise) as fertilizer? If not, would you consider it?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Uses of Hops

Hops (Humulus lupulus) is a member of the marijuana (Cannabaceae) family and is a tall, spindly vine that can reach heights of 15-30 feet. Only the female plant’s flowers are used for beer brewing and medicine (sorry guys).

Hops is traditionally used to help with sleeplessness and is often paired with Valerian; its properties are related to Valerian in that it acts as a smooth muscle relaxant. King George III and Abraham Lincoln both used Hops pillows to help them sleep.

Hops is also useful for pain, twitching, and tremors associated with exhaustion from mental, emotional, and nervous strain and excitement. A Hops personality is one who is very intense and has strong emotions such as hatred and anger.

Dried Hops

Hops is a bitter digestive that is useful for treating nervous indigestion, ulcers, IBS and Crohn’s, and can relax the digestive tract within 20-40 minutes. Hops has anti-bacterial properties which can help fight digestive tract infections.

Hops is a natural estrogenic, meaning it can aide “women’s issues”; regular doses of this herb can help regulate the menstrual cycle, ease PMS and menopause symptoms, and calm cramping.

A Hops poultice can relive the pain and inflammation of an earache or toothache.

Externally Hops can treat abscesses, skin infections, eczema, herpes, leg ulcers, and relieve muscle spasms – especially in the lower back.

….and a piece of folklore: regular use of Hops can increase breast size!

Insulated Window Covers

One way or another, though, whatever income my readers happen to have coming their way in the months and years ahead is likely to buy quite a bit less energy than the same amount of money buys at present. That makes finding ways to make less energy do more work crucial just now – and that, in turn, leads to windows.

If you’ve caulked and weatherstripped your home, and have a decently thick layer of insulation in the attic, your windows are where the largest fraction of your remaining heating bills go dancing out into the great outdoors. Window glass has an R-value (R means resistance to heat flow, remember?) right around 1 per layer of glass, so a double-pane window has an R-value of 2, or maybe a bit more: that is to say, not much. Interestingly, this is true no matter how fancy or expensive the windows happen to be: you get an R-value of 2 or so from an old-fashioned single-pane window with storm windows slapped on the outside, and you also get an R-value right around 2 from a very expensive vinyl-framed double-pane window with the space between the panes pumped full of inert gas, or what have you. If you want a higher R-value, glass is not going to give it to you.

One point worth taking home from this last comment is that if you’ve got windows that don’t serve a useful purpose, getting rid of them, permanently or temporarily, may be your best option. It takes a certain amount of skill at carpentry to take out a window and seal up the opening so that the resulting wall is weathertight and well insulated; if you don’t happen to have the skills, your friendly local handyperson can do the job in a day or so, and it’s often money well worth spending. If you don’t feel confident in doing anything so drastic, get some rigid-board insulation from your local lumber store, cut it to fit exactly into the window opening from inside, and then cut a sheet of hardboard to fit the same opening, inside the insulation; glue the insulation to the hardboard, paint the hardboard to match the wall, weatherstrip the edges of the hardboard so that you’ve got a good tight seal around the sides, top, and bottom to prevent air leaks, slide it into place and you’re good to go. If you live in a place with cold winters, closing up half a dozen windows in this way during the cold season can save you quite a bit on your heating bills.

What if you want something more easily movable, so you can catch the rays of the winter sun when it’s out but close things up easily at night? Here we come to one of the great forgotten secrets of the Seventies appropriate-tech movement, the fine art of insulated window coverings.

I had the chance to learn about those personally in my teen years. In 1977, my family moved from a rental house in a down-at-heels Seattle suburb to a larger and more comfortable place we actually owned – well, subject to mortgage and all that, but you get the idea. The one drawback was that the new place was expensive to heat, and that was mostly because most of the main floor’s walls facing southeast, toward a stunning view of the Cascade Mountains, consisted of single-pane windows. Insulated window coverings were much talked about in those days of high energy costs and state-funded conservation programs; my stepmother found a pattern, fired up her sewing machine, and made what amounted to a set of inexpensive quilts – faced inside and out with the ornately printed sheets popular in those days, and filled with polyester batting – rigged to slide up and down like Roman blinds. They went up in the morning and down with the sun, and the monthly heating bills dropped by a very noticeable fraction.

There are dozens of designs for insulated window coverings – or, more precisely, there were dozens of designs. It will take you a bit of searching to find them nowadays, as a result of the thirty-year vacation from reality American society took in 1980 or thereabouts. All the designs have certain things in common. The first, obviously enough, is that they put a bunch of additional insulation over the window. How much? A good rule of thumb is that your windows, with window coverings in place, should be as well insulated as the wall on either side – for an uninsulated wall of normal American housing construction, this means around R-5, and up from there as your level of insulation improves.

The second common feature is that the window covering should be sealed around the window, especially at top and bottom. Conventional curtains, open at top and bottom, can actually increase your heat loss by convection: air up against the window glass is chilled and flows out the bottom opening, making a draft across the floor, while warm air gets drawn in through the bottom opening and flows across the glass, cooling as it goes. Stop that "flue effect" and you instantly make the room more comfortable. The insulated shades my stepmother made were pressed right up against the wall above the windows, and had little magnets sewn in along the edges to hold them against metal strips in the wall beside and below the windows; there were many other tricks used to do the same thing.

The third common feature is that the window covering should contain a vapor barrier. Ours didn’t, which meant that the windows were thick with condensation when the shades went up in the morning, and often had to be mopped off with a rag. A layer of something waterproof, on the side of the insulation closest to the interior space, will prevent that, and avoid problems with mold, water damage, and the like.

Beyond these three points, the options are nearly unlimited. It’s entirely possible to use something like ordinary curtains to get the same effect, as long as they have something holding them tight against the wall on all sides of the window opening. Shades were a very common approach, and so were shutters of various kinds, hinged or sliding or even concealed within pockets built out from the walls. One of the most elegant examples I know involved built-in bookcases along a northern wall; there was a gap behind them just wide enough to make room for sliding shutters, and at night the homeowner simply pulled two inconspicuous handles together and turned the window into an R-12 wall.

These same techniques can be used in two additional ways to help save energy. The first is to use insulated coverings inside a solar greenhouse at night. The same clear surfaces that let sunlight into a greenhouse lose plenty of heat at night; equip your greenhouse with some sort of movable insulation to cover the glazing at night, and it becomes possible to run a solar greenhouse much more efficiently in cold weather. The other is the old medieval custom of using cloth hangings, a few inches out from the wall, to insulate an otherwise chilly space. That’s what all those tapestries were doing in medieval castles; insulated wall hangings can function exactly the same way in a modern house, so long as they extend from floor to ceiling on exterior walls, and have both a reasonable amount of insulation in them and a couple of inches of air space between the fabric and the wall.

None of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to make. If you have some basic facility with a sewing machine – and if you don’t, getting it might be a worthwhile project sometime very soon – you can knock together a good set of insulated window coverings for a couple of rooms in a couple of hours, using storebought sheets and some quilt batting as your raw materials. If you know how to handle a saw, a screwdriver, and a carpenter’s square – again, these are skills worth acquiring soon if you don’t have them already – it won’t take any longer to turn some lumber, hardboard, and rigid board insulation into good sturdy insulated shutters.

The time to get these skills, and get your window insulation in place, is now. Just as the inhabitants of dying empires in the past used to listen nervously for the distant sound of hoofbeats that told them the barbarians were on the way, those who are paying attention to the predicament of our own time need to get used to listening for the cracks and judderings of an overburdened system as it lurches down the slope of its own decline and fall. Those faint noises and brief glimpses may be the closest thing to a warning that we’ll get.