Via, worth reading if you get some time.



Optimizing for Scarcity

Posted: October 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

A nice article from GENOMICON on Optimizing for Scarcity

Predator Pressure

Posted: September 26, 2011 in Gardening

Last week we had a visitor in the garden, a thrush, probably from this year’s hatch. This is very odd as we have two cats and our neighbors appear to have about twenty between them. Birds sometimes show up but often only in bits…

This little bird has come back several times which is very positive. This year has been a bit of a slugfest which I totally blame on our two moggies, cute and fluffy though they are. The equations go something like this: birds eat insects, cats eat birds, insects eat yummy veg. If the cats scare away the birds, the insects run riot with no direct predators.

I’m hoing this isn’t an isolated incident and my little birdy friend sticks around. A bit of predator pressure won’t go amiss. I may put out a bird feeder but it feels a bit like inviting the birds to the slaughter.

About two years ago, before I had heard of Permaculture, I had been exploring the idea of closed systems. The main reason for this was what would be the ideal situation to be in, living-wise, in the event of an Event. What I mean is that the worst thing you can imagine has happened, but as far as you are concerned you can just carry on, business as normal, because you are already living your life in such a way that you are impacted minimally if at all.

I had sat down with a program called GraphViz which is a free, open source, brilliant tool for creating graphs of systems. These are mathematical graphs, not the type that you make in excel. A simple and incomplete example might be:

I was trying to and create a model of a self-sustaining system. My ideal farm would have all of the elements needed to sustain itself from within (OK, with the addition of sunlight and water). Each subsystem (rabbits above) would have its needs provided by other subsystems and in turn would provide for others.

The first example of a closed system I had come across was the Chinampa systems used by the MesoAmericans. These are a mixed aqua- and agra-culture system. The main ingredients are chickens and fish. The fish live in a canal system which also holds large raised beds. The raised beds were usually about 30m long by 3m wide and the canals inbetween were shallow and about the same dimensions. The chickens were used for eggs and meat, but their manure was put into the canal system to encourage an algae bloom, which would feed the fish. These fish were used for food, but also their waste enriched the sediment at the bottom of the canals. Periodically this was placed onto the raised beds which were used for growing vegetables. The canals were also used as a heat sink to keep the temperature of the beds a little higher to give a longer growing season.

Once the vegetables were harvested the waste products were put into a vermiculture system to compost. This was put back onto the raised beds (along with human manure) but the worms were used to feed the chickens, thus closing the system. I drew this system out as:

When these chinampas were being used they provided a vast amount of food which sustained the (then) large population. When the Conquistadors arrived they promptly put in ‘proper’ farming systems and the population crashed, although this was probably more to do with metal than food.

I have about a dozen of these elements which fit together into the most horrifically detailed graph. Each individual element is nice and concise, but the effect of putting them al together is almost unreadable, which shows I need to improve my GraphViz skills. I also need to include more elements as my initial attempts were a little naive, but you live and learn.

The reason for explaining that is so that you can imagine how utterly pleased I was when I watched the delightful Geoff Lawton‘s Introduction to Permaculture and saw the following:

One of the ideas in Permaculture is that there are no such things as waste products – only that elements require inputs, have characteristics and product outputs. An over-abundance of any particular output can be viewed as pollution, or as a sign of a badly designed system.

The DVD is very enjoyable, a gentle but solid introduction to the ethics and processes of Permaculture. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in finding out more. Alternatively (and on short notice but I only found out about it this morning) if you are anywhere near Cambridge there is an Introduction to Permaculture course being run this weekend by Cambridge Sustainability Centre which looks good. I would love to but cannot attend.

Geeky aside

Posted: June 29, 2011 in Computers, Firewalls, Open Source

Looks like pfSense 2.0 will be released any day now. Look at all the goodies.

pfSense is a marvellous firewall/router platform which branched from m0n0wall a few years ago. I used it for a while and found it lovely, except it lacked IPv6 support, which m0n0wall did. Still no IPv6 support in version 2.0 but plenty of other stuff.

First things first. Jack Spirko does not wear a tinfoil hat.

I just wanted to make that clear. He has some great podcasts on gardening and permaculture, and all of his episodes are at least worth listening to if not downright fantastic. With that in mind, imagine what a coincidence it is that he puts out a fantastic podcast on Transitional Gardening during the same week when I get my allotment!

I had been having a think about how I was going to begin getting my allotment started. My initial thought had been to dig over a smallish area and get a single bed up and running. I was going to plant it with some pumpkins to help keep the weeds down (as well as having pumpkins). Then Jack comes along with four (count ’em) great ways of getting more production up and running quickly and easily, which means I can concentrate on getting the rest of the plot into shape.

Of the four methods he described I think my first one will be straw bale gardening. The short version is you get a few bales of straw, arrange them where you want a permanent bed, put some nitrogen on them and wait a few weeks. Once they cool down a bit you can plant seeds in or on them. They cover the ground and suppress the grass while at the same time allowing taproots to penetrate into the subsoil. At the end of the season you can turn them over, plant a winter cover crop and by the beginning of next year you pretty much have a raised bed.

Once that is up and running I can get a small hugelkultur bed up pretty easily and have that ready for next year, assuming the soil has fairly good drainage and isn’t just claggy clay.

All I need now are my keys, which should arrive tomorrow. You might have guessed that I’m getting pretty excited.

Soil Cubes

Posted: June 26, 2011 in Gardening, Seeds

I plan to start most of the plants in my allotment next year in soil cubes. I’ve had great success with them in my small (and highly experimental) back garden this year.

A soil cube is exactly what it sounds like – a small cube of soil. You can buy tools to make soil cubes or you can be cheap like me and make your own. Given the choice I would probably buy one rather than make it. You basically need something which will lightly compact the soil so it holds it shape.

What makes a soil cube such a brilliant idea is that it almost totally eliminates transplant shock. This normally occurs when the roots are moved from one location to another. There is a certain amount of bashing around, another amount of nudging etc. Plants do not like this. Paul Wheaton postulates that if  a seedling which would normally develop a taproot is transplanted then the taproot will never develop (for certain values of never).

Starting seeds in a seed tray or plastic pot can (and mostly does) result in either a tightly bound root ball or circling roots. Both of these need some bashing about to fix which the seedling does not like. The ideal thing to do is to plant your seeds where you want them to end up. This isn’t always possible as they may need more heat, light etc than can be provided where you want them when you need to plant them to get the produce when you want it.

A seed cube sorts this out. You can start them where you want, when you want them and then never get transplant shock because the roots are never exposed. In the cube the roots never reach the surface. When you want to plant them on simply dig a small hole, pop in the cube and hey presto, job done.

A store bought one looks like this, nice, shiny etc. I made mine out of lego and it looks like this:

Soil Cuber - Home made

Lego FTW

Mine will do four cubes at a time but sometimes bits drop off. It took me about half an hour to make and has so far been in action for about a year.

All you need to do is mix up some soil/compost/whatever else, add a bit of water to it so it is the consistency of thick porridge and then add it to the large part at the top of the picture. Then put the lid on (the bit with the rocket motors on it) and compress the whole lots. At the bottom is a plunger which will push the cubes out nicely. One they have dried off a little bit you put a seed into the depression at the top, then fill in the rest with soil and water lightly.

Here are 12 I made earlier, already filled up with seeds (pumpkins, courgettes and cabbages in this example, although I imagine if you looked closely you’d be able to see that…)

Soil Cubes!!!