Wednesday, March 12, 2014

PDC Project

This is my final project for my PDC.  Unfortunately its lower resolution than I would like but it wouldn't load otherwise.

Monday, January 13, 2014


Fungal Mycelium
It's been a bit of a mission of mine to preach the gospel of fungi.  Fungi are a monumentally huge part of ecology.  Apart from the odd complaint about mold in the bathroom or the occasional mushroom dish, most people do not know a thing about fungi.  From a Permaculture standpoint, they can be used to create a food crop which has many health benefits and is a good vegetarian source of protein.  They are also important in the composting process.  But their benefits go far beyond this.

Fungi play an integral part in nutrient mobility for plants, especially in forests.  The structure of mycelium allows it to cover and infiltrate large areas, more completely, and with less energy expenditure than plant roots.  Fungi act more like an animal than a plant in that there mycelium are basically a pseudo-stomach, which has infiltrated its food source and digests it outwardly instead within itself like a human stomach.  Because of this, fungal mycelia are extremely well equipped for breaking down raw organic matter.

Plant roots in forests partner with fungal mycelium and bacteria, which are the general store or marketplace of the rhizosphere.  They form physical points where they touch each other or even grow together symbiotically.  Plants will secrete sugars and substance through photosynthesis which the fungi would not normally have access to.  These are used as currency to 'trade' with fungi, and bacteria as well.  If they want copper, they may secrete a sugar which the fungal mycelium will trade for copper.  In bacteria, they may secrete a substance which causes a bloom of bacteria high in iron.  Once the bacteria colony starts to die, the iron becomes available for uptake by the plant roots.  Fungi can also carry messages from one plant to another, like a neural network.  Plants of different species can become aware of each other and even trade nutrients via the fungal mycelium network.

Fungal mycelium perhaps show some of the greatest potential as an instrument of bio-remediation.  Mulch beds can be used to clean water as it comes onto, or leaves a property.  Fungi have the ability to find impurities and lock them up within complex organic molecules, rendering them benign.  Similarly, in his Greening the Desert Project, Geoff Lawton was able to demonstrate that fungi can lock up excessive salt in badly damaged soils, rendering it inert and allowing plants to grow where they could not before.  Paul Stamets, author of the incredible book Mycelium Running, also discusses many ways of using fungi to clean water and soil of impurities.  In one particular instance, a species of fungus showed an outstanding ability to clean up Uranium.  When fruiting, it was found that the mushroom collected Uranium from the surrounding area and concentrated it in the fruiting body at thousands of times the background level.  These mushrooms could then be picked and moved to a proper storage area for processing.

Here in Portland, OR, they are building rain gardens all over the city to clean some of the runoff before it enters the drainage system.  The basin will fill until it reaches full capacity, upon which it moves to an overflow.  Within the rain garden are trees and plants, and generally a thick layer of organic matter which cleans the water before it leaves the system.  My feeling is that there are not enough of these and until we can get municipalities to start implementing them on a wider scale, they will be no more than token gestures of the cities willingness to 'go green'.  It seems in the attaching article that the EPA agrees.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Sea Grass and Otters

Group of Sea Otters Resting

In yet another example of trophic cascade, sea otters are helping to demonstrate why intact ecosystems are more important than trying to save any one particular species. 

It is well documented that sea otters have been pivotal in saving kelp forests on the Pacific coast.  Without sea otters, spiny sea urchins increase in number.  The urchins feed on the roots of the kelp, causing them to break free of their anchor and float away.  They can often be seen washing ashore afterwards.

Because sea otters are so intelligent, they have developed cultural adaptations to make the sea urchins, and other hard shelled prey edible.  As everyone knows, sea urchins are covered by a hard outer shell bristling with sharp spines.  The otters dive down, grabbing a sea urchin along with a rock from the sea floor.  After surfacing, they flip over on their back, place the stone on their stomach, and crack open their food item.  This helps them to make use of foods that may not be accessible otherwise!

Seagrass Beds
It now appears that sea otters are an apex species in more than one ecosystem!  Studies show that  The increased nutrient density in coastal waters causes algae to grow on the surface of the sea grass, stealing its light and out competing it.  Normally, sea slugs and small crustaceans such as Idotea would control the algae.

Unfortunately the absence of otters has allowed the crab population to explode in sea grass beds.  The crabs eat the sea slugs and other herbivores which would normally keep the algae in check.  This one-two punch makes the remaining portions of the ecosystem unable to take up the slack.  The result is disappearing sea grass beds.

In 1984 sea otters started moving into Elkhorn Slough, one of the largest estuaries in California.  Up until that point the sea grass beds in the slough had been in decline.  The return of the otter showed a dramatic comeback.  The predation of the crabs by otters reduced their numbers to the point that the sea grass was able to make a recovery.  With the system back in balance, sea grass beds are showing even more vigor than in unpolluted areas that do not have sea otters!

It should also be noted that seagrass systems are a keystone ecosystem which acts as a nursery and breeding ground for many important commercial fisheries such as the Tiger Prawn.  Many species rely on different ecosystems during different stages of their life.  It is important to save these natural systems and ensure that they remain pristine and interconnected.  Our overall lack of understanding necessitates this.  If you don’t understand a natural system, it is difficult to know how to protect the species within it.

The more we learn about these types of issues, the better we can understand what happens in the ecosystems of our own back yards.  When the otter population was originally decimated back in the 1700’s and 1800’s, our understanding of ecology was little to none.  Even if we did know it would be this disruptive, it may not have made a difference.  Hindsight is 20/20 and without an advocate, nature stands little chance of lobbying in its own (and our) interests.

When we exterminated wolves and brown bears from large parts of our country, we could not have known that it would put grassland and forest ecosystems in peril.  We did not know what a massive impact the loss of beavers would cause for riparian ecosystems.  These are just some examples of how ecosystem disruption can have unintended and unexpected consequences.

It is our desire to show people, step by step, that all things are connected and that we cannot separate ourselves from nature.  We must find a way to return to it.  Are you having an aphid problem or a squash bug problem?  What can you do to encourage nature to solve this problem for you?  Just as an aquarium must cycle to get the proper bacterial species in order, a garden, orchard, or pasture must take time to mature and ‘season’ it self.  The species composition will change over time, in succession, until it reaches equilibrium.  These types of systems provide the most food for the least amount of work, while creating and improving soil in the process.

Sea Otters Facilitate Recovery of Important Seagrass Beds in California

Seagrass Beds are Important to Fisheries

Both sea slugs and Idotea (the crustacean between the two sea slugs in this photo) feed on algae and increase in numbers when the crab population is controlled by sea otters. Credit: Brent Hughes

Read more at:

Both sea slugs and Idotea (the crustacean between the two sea slugs in this photo) feed on algae and increase in numbers when the crab population is controlled by sea otters. Credit: Brent Hughes

Read more at:
Both sea slugs and Idotea (the crustacean between the two sea slugs in this photo) feed on algae and increase in numbers when the crab population is controlled by sea otters. Credit: Brent Hughes

Read more at:
Both sea slugs and Idotea (the crustacean between the two sea slugs in this photo) feed on algae and increase in numbers when the crab population is controlled by sea otters. Credit: Brent Hughes

Read more at:
Both sea slugs and Idotea (the crustacean between the two sea slugs in this photo) feed on algae and increase in numbers when the crab population is controlled by sea otters. Credit: Brent Hughes

Read more at:

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Creating Food and Processing Waste with Black Soldier Flies

I am really excited about this article I saw on CNN.  A sexy, sleek design for a Black Soldier Fly culturing appliance is in development and is intended to bring counter top composting to a new level.  Designer Katharina Unger, a recent graduate from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and current Fulbright Scholar, devoted her thesis project, called Farm 432: Insect Breeding, to developing an appliance that incubates insects for human consumption.  She would like to see more efficient use of nutrient streams to help reduce worldwide food demands.  Rising populations, combined with degradation of farm land, loss of topsoil and peak oil, mean that we will soon be unable to provide food for future populations.  Creative solutions like these might be the only thing standing between us and starvation in the near future.

I have been raving about black soldier fly or 'BSF' for some time.  It seems that they are starting to catch on in the mainstream as well.  There are so many benefits to these amazing creatures that one could elaborate on the subject indefinitely.  My experience is somewhat limited, but I did have a small colony for a while and intend to start a larger one within a few weeks.  The benefits are many and the drawbacks few to none.  Their efficiency speaks for itself and their potential as feed, bio fuel, natural preservatives, nutraceuticals and management of waste streams is a potent combination.  Insects are a major food source for most of the world.  It remains to be seen how long it will take Western culture to catch up with the rest of the world on this subject.  Either by choice or necessity.

There is so much to say about this wonderful creature, but some of the more obvious benefits that come to mind are listed below.

1)      One square meter of BSF feeding surface can process up to 15kg of organic waste daily.

3)      The pre-pupatic larvae are self harvesting when they are at their peak value.  If supplied with a ramp, they will climb out of the media and into a container in search of a place to pupate.  This is also evident by their change to a dark brown or almost black color.

5)      BSF have an amazing food to biomass conversion rate of 24%.  This means that for every 4lbs of food consumed (dry weight), 1lb of larval pre-pupae can be cultured (dry weight).

7)      They are not a disease vector since the adults do not eat and do not have any mouth parts.  The adults only live for 5-8 days and die after breeding.

8)      BSF keep other fly species at bay through pheremones that advertise their presence.  Other species have no chance of competing and inherently know to move on.

b)      BSF pheremones on site can disrupt the life cycle of parasitic flies in pasture systems.

d)     House flies and fruit flies do not generally frequent areas with healthy BSF populations.

10)  Black Soldier Fly are 45% protein (dry weight) and are an excellent source of feed for chickens, fish, hogs and other livestock.

12)  The composition of whole unseparated Hermetia prepupae meal (dry weight) is 35% lipid.  Besides being a source of nutrition, this amount of fat makes them a valuable source of oil for distilling bio-diesel fuel.

14)  The nutrient value of BSF can be manipulated thorough feeding regimes to create large amounts of valuable lipids such as Omega 3 fatty acids, increasing their value as a source of designer feeds and neutraceuticals.
16)  They are anti-microbial and secrete substances which suppress bacterial activity in organic waste.

b)      Their shed exoskeletons can be used to dress wounds and prevent infection.

d)     Live larvae can be applied directly to wounds to clean necrotic flesh and suppress mild infections.

f)       Dried and powdered BSF can be added to food as a preservative.

h)      Dried and powdered BSF can be used to deactivate the fermentation process.

j)        SF meal lipids contain about 54% lauric acid which has been shown to be active against lipid coated viruses, including HIV virus, measles virus, clostridium, and many pathogenic protozoa.

18)  The feeding action of the larvae help waste to remain aerobic and prevent foul smells.  This also serves to prevent the formation of methane and sulfur dioxide.

20)  BSF can speed up or slow down their life cycle from 1 to 9 months based on temperature conditions and food availability.

22)  Effluent byproduct can be used as a fertilizer to be added to compost, added to a vermiculture bin, or used as a compost tea directly on plants.

24)  BSF can process organic waste of any type including but not limited to the following

b)       Food Scraps

d)      Meat/Carrion

f)       Dairy

h)      Feces

j)        Manure

l)        Yards Waste (Partially processed then vermicomposted) 
It should be noted that if eating BSF you would not want to feed them feces.  Pathogen cycles can be very resilient and we would advise putting more 'trophic distance' between you and your waste!

We have previously posted about using insects as a food source for animals and people.

Ladies and Gentleman - The Amazing Black Soldier Fly
Cricket Protein Used To Make Protein Bar
Insects as Food for People and Livestock

For more information on this, contact us directly.  The Black Soldier Fly Blog is also a great place to get information on culturing these useful creatures.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Woodpecker Populations Respond To The Emerald Ash Borer Infestation

Red Bellied Woodpecker
From the parasitic flies that prey on fire ants to fungal parasites that kill tent caterpillars and beyond,  a pattern is emerging of ecological responses to invasive species and infestations.  When given the opportunity, nature is capable of balancing systems which seem hopelessly unmanageable from an anthropogenic standpoint.  Allowing nature to correct its own issues is generally the most pragmatic solution to these types of problems.  The traditional slash, burn and spray techniques are becoming a thing of the past, as they should be.

The emerald ash borer is an exotic beetle whose larvae feed on the inner cambium layer of ash trees.  They can effectively girdle a tree, cutting off the flow of moisture and nutrients with its roots.  The infestation began in Michigan and has spread at an astonishing rate.  It has spread far beyond Michigan and any attempts to control it have met with failure.  However, a pattern of increased woodpecker populations in the areas where the beetle populations are highest.  This makes perfect sense since the larvae are perfectly edible and nutritious.  Increasing numbers of these birds are beginning to suppress beetle populations.

Four species of birds have been noted.  The red bellied woodpecker and the white breasted nuthatch (a bark gleaning species) showed population increases very early on.  More recently in 2009 both the downy and hairy woodpeckers have started to show population increases as well.  Since not one, but four species are showing increased numbers, its quite apparent that a robust ecological response is developing.  The emerald ash borer shows great promise as an important food species for these bird species in the future.
the downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker – as well as the white-breasted nuthatch, a common bark-gleaning species that is also a potential predator of EAB.

Read more at:
the downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker – as well as the white-breasted nuthatch, a common bark-gleaning species that is also a potential predator of EAB.

Read more at:
the downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker – as well as the white-breasted nuthatch, a common bark-gleaning species that is also a potential predator of EAB.

Read more at:
the downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker – as well as the white-breasted nuthatch, a common bark-gleaning species that is also a potential predator of EAB.

Read more at:

It remains to be seen if this will be effective enough to allow recovery in devastated forests, but it does provide a measure of hope.  Additionally, parasitic wasps and fungal pathogens which prey on the emerald ash borer have been released by the U.S. Department of agriculture and have managed to become established in the wild.  Perhaps this multi-pronged approach will be enough to bring the beetle numbers down to manageable levels.  This is yet another example of how a biology-based, holistic approach is generally far more effective than anything else.

My main concern is not the increased bird populations, but the release of non-endemic parasites and biological controls, which can have unintended consequences.  If the parasitic wasp makes the jump to utilizing native beetles, than this could cause more problems than it solves.  In the case of the kudzu bug, the pest species was able to make the jump from kudzu to soybean.  There is no reason to think that parasitic wasps or fungus are not capable of similar adaptations.  It remains to see how this is going to play out.

See some of our previous entries on similar subjects:

Mutualism Is More Than Two Species Working Together
Kudzu Bug Jumps Ship And Invades Soybean Fields
Invasive Crab Species Returns Balance To Marsh Ecosystem
Gypsy Moth Problem Beginning To Resolve Itself

Friday, August 2, 2013

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Worms Help To Control Slugs
We are all aware of the benefits that earthworms offer.  Nutrient availability, aeration, nutrient cycling, microbe diversity, water infiltration, retention, and drainage, the list goes on and on.  It appears that earthworms also have a profound affect on slug populations and possibly other pest species as well.

The presence of earthworms causes plants to uptake nitrogen compounds which are toxic to slugs.  A controlled study shows that slugs can be reduced up to 60% in plots with healthy worm populations.  Combined with various degrees of increased plant diversity, the slug population can be decreased an additional 40% beyond this.  This one-two punch can result in an overall reduction in slugs of close to 80%.

If you want additional slug control, a diverse ecosystem will provide predators such as snakes and lizards.  Ducks have been known to be incredible at pest control in additional to their many other benefits.  Frogs, centipedes, beetles, birds and a myriad of other species can help to further suppress slug numbers to the point that they are more of a curiosity than a nuisance.

This just continues to highlight the fact that a stable and diverse ecosystems-based approach provides free natural protection with minimal inputs.  Healthy invertebrate populations serve to balance out predator/prey, parasitic, mutually inclusive/exclusive and symbiotic relationships.  There is no reason to think that this type of dynamic is not happening all throughout any complex food web.

Systems will never be perfect and some losses will occur.  But in addition to increasing (rather than decreasing fertility over time) the amount of labor and input saved will far outweigh any losses.  In the end it will end this is the best, most viable option for land management.  The increasing fertility of an ecology-based approach will end up increasing yields in the long term as well as the value of the land.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Insects as Food for People and Livestock
Eating insects!  The way things are going it may be a forgone conclusion.  Insects are extremely efficient at converting feed into protein.  Many of the insects that people culture are detrivores, meaning they eat just about anything.  I am going to expand this into the term micro-livestock for purposes of this discussion.   What this really boils down to is a whole systems based approach to addressing ones needs.  I have not made the jump to eating them full time but know it to be a viable option.  People all over the world eat insects.  Only Western culture and those heavily influenced by them seem to have an issue with it.

Insects can be kept in a small intensive system.  They can be kept in high-rise apartments and fed off of waste from previous meals, yard trimmings, leaves, or whatever else you can find.  Fruit flies have more special needs which are still easy to meet.  

 I have experience breeding:

1) Blaptica dubia Roaches
2) Tenebrio molitor Darkling Beetle
3) Tenebrio obscurus Darkling Beetle
4) Drosophila hydei Fruit Fly
6) Hermetia illucens BSF Black Soldier Fly
7) Acheta domestica Crickets

Although they are not exactly insects I have also cultured:

1) Gammarus (scuds)
2) Glass Shrimp (most difficult)
3) Ramshorn Snails (very easy)

Scuds and Sow Bugs are both Isopods and have more than 6 legs.  I also have experience with honey bees and worms (again not insects but also very useful).  I have not perpetuated them past the original queen but I have maintained several reproducing ant colonies before.  Also, I would not suggest eating fly or fly larvae, but they can still be put to good use as you will see below.  I see no reason why BSF wouldn't be safe, I just cannot bring myself to do it.

Another micro-livestock animal I have some experience with is Guinea Pigs.  They are easy to take care of for the most part.  They have a need for vitamin C just as humans do so be wary of what you are feeding them to make sure they get it.  If they are not getting it regularly you need to supplement it.  They breed at a very young age, mature quickly and are born eating solid food.  There is very minimal suckling.  They have an efficient conversion ratio and a couple of them make a decent meal for a grown man.  I was able to successfully keep them in my apartment with relatively little hassle.  They are usually fed Timothy hay as a staple but I really do not feel that this is necessary as long as they get plenty of roughage.  In Peru guinea pigs are commonly used as food and this is what they were specifically developed for.  They are a meat animal.

Another micro-livestock animal one can keep would be Quail.  In my opinion they may be a little bit too dirty to keep inside but would fit well on a small patio.  They need a couple square feet of space per bird.  Be sure to provide 40 to 50 square inches of floor area per bird. The interior height of the pens should be about 8 to 10 inches to prevent the active quail from flying up and scalping themselves on the ceiling.  They need a feed about 25% protein.  So let’s say you don’t want to eat your insects.  Just convert them into quail and eat those instead!  They are excellent and efficient meat and egg birds.  They do not generally rear their own young well so you will need to incubate when you want more.  To create your own feed, see below:

1)      An oil source such as black oil sunflower seeds, flax seeds, etc.
2)      A mineral source - kelp works nicely, or molasses in the winter
3)      A green source such as sprouted seeds, grasses, chop n drop herbs and weeds
4)      A high protein grain such as - Hard Red Wheat, Quinoa, Amaranth, Kamut, Rye or Spelt

I do not see any problem with using insects for protein and many use milk products such as kefir and whey.  It seems as though this would be easy stuff to find in local fields or around the house.

Read more:

Try the Cricket Bar!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Feral Pigs And Wolves - Bringing Nature Into Balance

Feral Hog Distribution
Wolf Distribution
I may be going out on a limb here but I wanted to share some thoughts with you on pigs and wolves.

We have all heard plenty of news about feral hog populations spreading out of control in various parts of the country.  Florida, Texas and California have been mostly over run and large portions of other states have been colonized.  Overall the trend is moving from South to North.

States have been powerless to control established populations.  This is partly do to large litter sizes, young breeding age and ability to produce more than one litter per year.  Part of the problem is a lack of natural pressure from predators.

The best hope for this issue is the rapidly expanding population of wolves which is becoming more and more self sustaining.

Several areas show promise for first contact.  On these maps there are 3 obvious areas where the species are set to collide.

1) Wisconsin has a very healthy wolf population in the North and Central part of the state, which may expand into a small pocket of hogs in the far Western part of the state.  It should be noted that the closest large population of hogs is in Missouri.

2) New Mexico has a small but stable population of wolves in the West and a sizable population of feral hogs in the Eastern and Central portions of the state.

3) Eastern Oregon has a rapidly expanding population of wolves in the East which is on the verge of linking up with a large population of feral hogs in central Oregon.

It is difficult to say what the result of this contact will be.  Will the wolves even predate the pigs at all?  My guess is that they will.  Although pigs are known to violently defend themselves and can put up quite a fight, they are no match for a pack of wolves.  The fact that people use pit bulls to immobilize pigs on hunts just highlights this fact. 
Additionally, it would be quite easy to separate a small piglet from a large litter during the confusion of an attack.  In that respect it may not be necessary for the wolves to even take down adults when there is a steady supply of piglets.

I would also propose that dense pig populations will act as a corridor for the further spread of wolves.  It may be just the edge a still struggling wolf population needs in order to make the final leap to full recovery.  I look forward to following this story in the near future.

More On Yellowstone - Trophic Cascade With Elk, Cutthroat and Lake Trout
Yellowstone seems to be a wonderful case study for ecological study and restoration.  We have posted previously on Wolves, Elk, Willow, Beavers and Geese in Yellowstone.  Now it appears we can throw Cutthroat Trout, Lake Trout and Grizzly Bear into the mix.

Scientists stumbled upon this fact in an attempt to try and explain declining elk numbers in the park.  They found an interesting connection between declining cutthroat numbers and grizzly predation.  Invasive lake trout introduced by anglers have suppressed cutthroat numbers to the point that grizzly bears are looking elsewhere for food.  Additionally, lake trout cannot replace that niche because they breed in deeper waters where the grizzlies cannot reach them.  The result has been very high predation rates on elk as grizzlies attempt to find a replacement source for protein.

It seems that the more we learn about these systems, the more it highlights how everything is connected.  Change any one aspect and you get a ripple affect.  This is how trophic cascade works.  It is a domino effect that is very difficult to understand.

In order to understand the further implications of this please read our other posts.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Loss of Eastern Hemlock Affects Hydrology Cycles
I am going to get a little preachy on this one.  As many of you may know, Eastern Hemlock is dying out due to the woolly adelgid.  The cited article states that this will have a lasting affect on hydrological cycles in Eastern forests.  The question is, if the loss of JUST ONE species can have such a profound affect, what does the loss of ALMOST EVERY species do?  What changes have taken place since the loss of the American Chestnut?

We need to make some serious changes if logging is going to have any future at all.  Forestry can actually be used to create more resilient, biodiverse and stable ecosystems.  It can be used for good.  Unfortunately the vast majority of the time it is used to create less diverse, brittle and degraded landscapes.  Until we move people back into the landscape as stewards of ecology, the picture you see below will be the norm.  We cannot TRUST big business resource management to make the right decisions.  We need to be there watching them and managing our own properties in a way that reflects our values.

More species diversity and multiple uses are the key to the future of forestry.  Forests should be managed in a way that augments biodiversity, logging, food production, hunting, recreation and soil building.  One should never take precedence over the other.  Anything but a multiple use scenario is wasteful and irresponsible.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Are there any limits to what willow can do?

Here is what I have read so far about the many uses of willow.
Stream Erosion Control
Rapid Biomass
Natural Rooting Hormone
Living Fences
Living Structures
Biofuel Production
Fishing Nets
Living Gabions
Early Bee Forage
Edible Catkins

Mutualism Is More Than Just Two Species Working Together

Wiki Commons Jan Celliers Park
I found this particular article interesting to show how mutualism expands beyond an interaction between two species.  There are complex connections throughout nature that hold together well established systems.  Upsetting any one factor can throw the whole system out of balance, causing ripples in the population dynamics of all species involved.

In this case, fig wasps lay their eggs in the seed ovules of the fig.  The larvae feed on the seeds so for every wasp larvae, one seed is lost.  However, the wasps fertilize and disperse the pollen of the fig so it is advantageous for them to sacrifice some seeds in order to pass on their genes.

It becomes obvious that the wasps could potentially take up all the seeds and put the trees genetic heritage at risk.  In comes another parasitic wasp which preys on the pollinator wasp.  The parasitic wasp injects its eggs directly through the fruit into the ovule.  Their larvae then feed on the pollinator wasp larvae.  The effect of this is that the pollinator wasps tend to concentrate their egg laying in the middle of the fruit, where the parasitic wasp cannot reach.  In the well protected interior of the fruit, the larvae are safe from parasites and can complete their life cycle.  

The result is that the outer ovules are safe from the pollinator parasites and those seeds are able to mature and pass on the trees genetics.  The tree needs BOTH wasp species to maintain a balance.  Even this scenario is an oversimplification.  There are probably other species and environmental factors that come into play here as well.  Upsetting any part of this and you will no doubt develop a pest problem.  The population of all species in the system needs to remain stable for it to work correctly.

These are the types of interactions that begin to take place in a well established food forest or garden.  It is important that increasing biodiversity and stability be maintained in order for these mutualistic interactions to develop.  If you eliminate any one species, the consequences could be profound and you may end up running counter productive to the overall productivity of your system.  It is impossible to actively control the population of undesirable garden species without affecting their natural biological controls....  and the species they are connected to.... and the species connected to them...

If you diminish the biological control, they cannot be effective when the prey species rebounds.  Complicated biological controls often take longer to develop and stabilize than the species they prey on.  This leaves the system vulnerable in the meantime.  If you take matters into your own hands, you become responsible for the control of that pest species forever more.  The system becomes addicted to that response.  In this respect,  even organic control measures have a profoundly disruptive effect.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Traditional African Ranching Practices Teach Lessons In Ecology Based Agriculture

It appears that we can learn a lesson from grazing practices in East Africa.  For thousands of years pastoralists have been using “Boma” enclosures to protect cattle herds at night.  They are made of thorny shrubs and branches woven together into an impregnable mass.  This makes for a formidable enclosure that is very difficult for predators to enter.  The Bomas are generally used for about one year until they move on to a new one.

The magic happens after the cattle leave.  The area becomes very lush.  Initially it is protected from the drying action of sun and wind by the shelter of the enclosure.  Months of urine and manure application result in extremely eutrophic conditions, but once released from pressure, a hyper-fertile environment results.  Soil becomes richer, thicker and retains more moisture.

Pasture in former Boma enclosures shows better growth and drought resistance.  Native plant and animal biodiversity increases.  Population densities go up.  Plant growth and vigor are augmented.  Grass quality is better and tree growth accelerates.

This shows some parallels with rotational grazing as well as chicken tractor food forest initiation similar to what is shown in Geoff Lawton’s videos.  The effects of this form of human augmentation have been shown to last for as much as 100 years after the departure of the cattle.  Since the area is basically laid waste, it is more of a succession based regime as opposed to a rotational regime which augments and sustains the pasture system that is already in place.

Savannahs have succession regimes as well so this could be a valuable tool in broad scale permaculture and ecology based agriculture.  As the Bomas break down, self mulching would be something to take into account.  Some tweaking could possible to turn this into a very useful regime in combination with landscape scale animal rotations.  Moving your sacrifice or permanent holding paddock once a year and making your operation more mobile within its own property context could actually result in greater fertility in the long run.  The area could be used to plant trees or a garden afterwards or simply to create a patch of very fertile pasture.  The possibilities are limitless.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

High Fructose Corn Syrup Damages Bees Immune Response
Isn’t it interesting that high fructose corn syrup is being linked to colony collapse in honey bees?  It turns out a highly varied diet from many sources is the key to bee health.  They gain valuable immune function from a variety of sources.  This creates a stacked immune response of cumulative value, but one that is also extremely complex and difficult to understand. 

Bees are extremely social and live in hyper-crowded conditions.  This makes them especially susceptible to disease.  Optimum nutrition is paramount and feeding them nutrient poor foods like high fructose corn syrup are just empty calories with no nutritive value.  This waters down their intake of essential micronutrients and photochemicals, which would be taken in through normal, natural foraging.  This does not even take into account the fact that it is an unnatural food which has been proven dangerous to humans.  Bees are even more sensitive than we are and we are playing around with things that we do not understand.

I have also noticed that many of the ‘studies’ done on bees do not take into account the cumulative effect of multiple generation exposure.  They just do a limited trial over the course of a few weeks or months and tag the product as ‘safe’.  While the affects of a product may not be immediately apparent, subsequent generations may reveal them over time.  No doubt the corn syrup trial did not include other factors such mites, malnutrition, adverse weather, insecticides, viral suppression, and a host of other problems that bees face. 

Science is unfortunately not always able to understand this cumulative, stacked suppression which is always present in healthy ecosystems.  This is what keeps things in balance.  A stacked suppression along with a stacked response allows for resiliency in both population suppression and population persistence.  This creates the stable systems we seek in ecology based agricultural systems.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Geoff Lawton Has New Videos!

Here are a couple of great new videos by Geoff Lawton.  They are pretty long so grab the popcorn.  It may ask for your email address.  If so don't fret about it.  I received a couple of emails from him but it wasn't to bad and I am certain Geoff does not sell your email to others.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Eco-Regions PNW

I found this AMAZING map of PNW Eco-Regions.  There are other ones for different parts of the country.  Its quite interesting to see how and why the topography affects climate and plant communities.  Once you know what the natural ecosystem of your area is, you can study it and plant accordingly.  It can sometimes be difficult to know if you live in an area that is severely altered by human activities.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Oh The Poor Soybean!
It just never stops for these big agriculture mono-crops does it?
The kudzu bug has moved its life cycle into the soybean fields.  It showed up in 2009 and is no doubt natures attempt to put the kudzu epidemic back into balance.

Evidently kudzu is not the only legume that this insect can feast on.  Isn't it interesting that it rode in on the coat tails of an overcrowded, invasive ecosystem and has now moved into another?

Here is another thought.  Keeping the Kudzu in check through browsing would have been a good start to keeping this problem at bay in the first place.  Kudzu moved in and took over because there is nothing to put it in check.  An unbalanced ecology allowed it to take over.  It is the same reason Himalayan Blackberry has taken over portions of the Pacific Northwest.

Keeping your landscape healthy and increasing biodiversity within farming systems are the only way to create the resiliency needed to absorb shocks like this.  We just don't seem to be getting the hint.  No doubt there will be a whole new wave of chemical solutions from our friends in the agriculture industry to solve this most recent problem.  The insects and pests will then adapt and and ever increasing measures will be necessary to control them.  It is an inevitable and destructive outcome.

Invasive kudzu bugs pose greater threat than previously thought

Update: Tracking the Kudzu bug in Maryland

Since I last wrote about this there have been some updates.  The original thought was that the Kudzu bug would be relegated to the Southern states.  The reason is that it has several generations in its annual life cycle.  Normally, generation A lays its eggs on Kudzu and the larvae move to soybeans when they are mature.  Generation A then leads to generation B which is able to feed exclusively on soybeans.  This means that the kudzu bug should be relegated to where kudzu grows.  The problem they have discovered is that this is not a necessary part of the equation at all.  The kudzu bug only uses kudzu because it PREFERS it.  Experiments show that multiple generations can live entirely on soybeans without kudzu being utilized at all.  We should keep an eye on this for what happens in the immediate coming years.  It is amazing how quickly insects can adapt when an available food source is staring them in the face.

Friday, April 5, 2013

'Eco-Friendly' and 'Green' do NOT mean what people think!

I am very uncomfortable using terms like ‘Eco’ or ‘Green’ these days.  They seem to have been stolen and twisted into marketing strategies with no real meaning behind them.  To be honest I am tired of hearing these words and I never use them.  It has become a way for people to be complacent and stop thinking.  People are really kidding themselves if they think they can working within our crumbling, industrial infrastructure without causing environmental damage.

Eco-Friendly laundry detergent is all fine and dandy, but is it really?  Inert biochemistry is great and it definitely helps.  But even if what is inside of it is biodegradable, how did it get onto that shelf?  It was probably created in a very un-green way with a very ecologically damaging infrastructure and supply chain.  The collateral damage associated with its production, distribution and packaging are not eco-friendly in any sense of the word.

Buying a Prius is not green.  Do you have any idea how much energy and infrastructure go into making a car?  It doesn’t really even matter what powers it.  Not having ANY car would be truly green.  Riding a bike is more green.  Riding a horse is pretty dam GREEN.  An oxen pulled wagon carrying produce to the neighborhood market is REALLY FRICKIN' GREEN.

What matters is the lifestyle choices you make, not what purchasing choices you make.  What matters is what you can provide for yourself or go without so you don’t have to buy it!  If you burn carbon but sequester far more than you are burning through agroforestry or rotational grazing, then you may be on the path to becoming ‘green’.  Becoming a carbon and pollution sink is what makes you ‘green’.

These are a few questions I try to ask people before I work with them to find out if we have a similar vision.  I am probably forgetting some stuff and it is by no means a complete list, but it gives me a good idea if we will be able to work together.  There is almost nobody that does all of this so the answer to every question does not have to be yes.

1)      What does ecological farming or homesteading mean to you?

·         What do you think the difference is between organic and ecological farming?
·         Would you be willing to sacrifice productivity of one particular crop in order to increase overall productivity and fertility through diversification?
·         Are you willing to be flexible and adapt to the ecology instead of forcing it to adapt to you?
·         Are you willing to adapt your gardening and farming strategies to work with the least amount of inputs possible?
·         Are you willing to move away from intensively managed annual systems and towards perennial grasslands, plants, orchards, and natural systems?
·         Are you willing to set aside portions of your property to exist in a natural, unmanaged state with native plants?
·         Are you willing to save money by putting some energy and capital into building infrastructure that will decrease the need for energy and inputs later?

2)      Do you use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides and if so would you be willing to stop?

·         What chemicals have you used in the past?
·         Would you be willing to use ecological diversity to solve these problems instead?
·         Are you willing to us medicinal plants to keep your animals healthy as a pre-emptive measure?

3)      How do you feel about ornamental lawns and landscaping?

·         Would you consider converting your lawn to pasture, orchard or gardening space?
·         Are you willing sacrifice order for a more chaotic and natural beauty?
·         Are you willing to let crops, trees, pasture and shrubs grow naturally and allow the animals and livestock to do their job?

4)      How do you feel about managing and encouraging insect populations and wild life on your property?

·         Would you live along side insects such as ants, bees, locusts, spiders, wasps, sow bugs, earwigs, centipedes, millipedes and aphids without using destructive measures to control them?
·         Would you be willing to keep one or more beehives?
·         Would you be willing to live with moles and gophers?

5)      How do you feel about livestock and eating animal products?

·         Would you be willing to keep one or more beehives?
·         Would you be willing to take on chickens, rabbits or guinea pigs?
·         Would you be willing to take on goats, pigs or cows?
·         Would you be willing to manage your animals in a rotational grazing system using a series of hard fenced paddocks or temporary fencing?
·         Will you try to produce their food on-site?
·         Are you willing to eat, sell, or barter your animals as a population management strategy?

6)      What does the word ‘Green’ mean to you?

·         Are you willing to try and supply as much of your own food as possible?
·         Are you willing to make increasing fertility and building soil a priority?
·         Are you willing to harvest water for consumption and irrigation?
·         Are you willing to re-use grey and black water?
·         Are you willing to compost or mulch any organic waste you have?
·         Are you willing to use worm or insect cultures to manage waste?
·         Are you willing to make bioremediation a priority?
·         Are you willing to create products like soap, fuel, or clothing from the byproducts of your operation?

7)      Are you willing to change your habits and design priorities to meet the needs of the system as opposed to your own preconceptions?

·         Will you give priority real estate to plants and animals based on their needs?
·         Are you willing to place labor intensive and high traffic areas like composting systems and chicken coops close to your home for quick access?
·         Are you willing to eat new foods or sacrifice old ones based on the needs of your system?
·         Do you and would you be willing to eat ‘in season’ and store food for the winter?

8)      Are you willing to use design to decrease your need to expend energy?

·         Would you buffer your house using vegetation?
·         Would you consider a rocket stove for heating?
·         Would you use passive solar energy to heat and cool your home?
·         Would you use stone, cobb, earth, bricks, concrete and water to create thermal mass?
·         Are you willing to manage woodlands for fuel wood and construction materials?
·         Would you switch to solar or hydro-generated electricity?
·         Are you willing to build with natural, existing, or recycled materials?