Archive for January, 2012

The Unexpected Loom

About a week ago, I left my building to go to work, walked about 15 feet and was stopped dead in my tracks by this loom that was sitting on the sidewalk with the trash and recycling.  One of the things I both love and hate about New York is the crazy stuff that people throw out.  Back in the 90’s, over 75% of the furniture in our apartment was picked off the sidewalk -and some of it was really amazing. But this topped it all!  I picked it up and promptly went back to my apartment.  For a few minutes, I just sat there looking at it – dusty, but otherwise in perfect shape – marveling at my good fortune.

The event was startling because I had recently been thinking about whether or not to look for a loom.  It has been over 15 years since I have woven anything, but I spent many hours of my college years in the fiber arts department.  My courtship with my husband played out over the warping of a particularly large loom, and his willingness to help with the tedium of that exercise showed me that it was for real.  But in those peripatetic years post-college and beyond, there was no room for weaving.  Until now.  The sudden appearance of this beautiful object makes me feel obligated to do something with it, but what?  It’s a unique form of stress. Luckily, I still have some of the yarn from my former weaving days – having moved it from place to place hoping that it would be put to use again.

So, now I need some inspiration.  Where to start?  Why not with this incredible installation by Brazilian artist, Tatiana Blass (via TrendTablet):

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Two options for the urban gardener

Do you live in the city and have a rooftop, sunny alleyway or even a fire escape?  If you’re looking for inspiration, see what Farmtina has done with container gardens in her space:

And for those of us who grow indoors, check out Treehugger’s profile of LiveScreen.  Designed by Danielle Trofe,  these beautiful modular  hydroponic gardening system that would look amazing in just about any space.

Happy Weekend!

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Moving Up the Urban Food Chain

With all this talk of composting, why don’t we move up the food-chain a bit and talk about all the things that happen to food before it ends up in your compost bin?  Food gathering in this country is complex, to say the least, and I suppose it would be safe to say that the majority of the food gathering that goes on in this country happens via the supermarket following a food chain that looks a lot like this charming yet disturbing flow chart created by Rahul Kamath:

Crazy, right?  But even if one tries to minimize dependence on this model by limiting grocery store shopping in lieu of Community Supported Agriculture and Farmer’s markets, it can’t be totally avoided. We live in Manhattan.  It’s an island.  Everything in our kitchen had to be brought here one way or another (see nos. 3, 5, 7, and 9 on the diagram).  That is, unless we were to grow it right in our proverbial “back yard”.  So, what would it take to support our family of four locally?  Well, according to The Remote Gardener, about 2 acres!

Now, we don’t even have 2 square feet of outdoor space, let alone 2 acres, so renegade survivalism is out of the question.  If you live in a city, you are inevitably dependent on a larger system to provide you with food. The question is: does it have to be the system in the diagram above?  What are the alternatives?  Is it possible to grow enough food right here in the five boroughs to support a population of 8 million?  That, of course, remains to be seen, but the answer is sure to lie in some combination of rooftop gardens and vertical farms, as in the idea described by Dickson Despommier in this video:

Of course, Despommier’s vertical farm is still theoretical and has its detractors, but it is an extremely compelling idea and you can see designs for what the buildings would look like here.  Wouldn’t NYC be that much more gorgeous if it was sprinkled with giant greenhouses?  What better way to put to use all of those crazy glass highrises in Manhattan and Brooklyn built during the recent real estate boom, many of which now appear to be vacant. Would it be possible to build a “mixed use” building that both houses people and feeds them?

The Living Skyscraper designed by Blake Kurasek

While vertical farms are visionary, a number of actual working rooftop farms have sprouted up (sorry!) in Brooklyn and Queens. While there aren’t nearly enough to feed 8 million people, developments in the past few years have been inspiring.  Here are a few of the biggest:

  • Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is a non-profit organization that runs a 6.000 square foot farm in Greenpoint Brooklyn that was designed and installed by Goode Green and is run by founding farmers, Annie Novak and Ben Flanner.  It is run by interns and volunteers and hosts a number of community educational programs. It’s produce supplies a CSA, area restaurants, and a local farmer’s market.
  • Brooklyn Grange is the largest commercial rooftop farm in the world with a 40,000 square foot farm in LIC, Queens and a new 45,000 square foot addition opening this year in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Although they are a privately owned enterprise, they run a number of volunteer and educational programs and supply food to local markets.
  • Gotham Greens is the newest addition to the Brooklyn landscape having installed rooftop greenhouses to grow food year-around in a hydroponic environment.  Started in 2011, their farm supplies area supermarkets, including Whole Foods.

Brooklyn Grange Image © Cyrus Dowlatshahi

Last Fall, Mayor Bloomberg announced a Green Building initiative as part of his ambitions PlanNYC program that includes rooftop gardens and farms. I wonder what it would take to green the rooftop of my building?

In the meantime, I will go micro-farming with my window garden, experimenting with what can be grown indoors. There are a number of things we can try to grow ourselves that would supplement our food gathering, especially now that we have a WindowFarm. This is what we plan to experiment with this year:

  • Herbs of all kinds
  • Mushrooms
  • Pea shoots
  • Tomatoes
  • Kale
  • Ginger
  • Onions

Of course, this experiment will not even come close to meeting our actual food requirements.  Even if we manage to miraculously produce two healthy heads of Kale, we’d still need about 48 more to cover what we consume in a year.  But it will be fun, and give my children some idea of where food comes from.

What are you growing indoors?

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Design + Composting in India: The Daily Dump

These beautiful terracotta planters are…. you guessed it! Composters!  I came across an article in City Farmer News this week about an inspiring kitchen waste management project in Bangalore, India, called The Daily Dump.  The project was started in 2006 by Poonam Bir Kasturi, an industrial designer who teaches at the Srishti School of Design in Bangalore.  The company offers a number of composting options for single families through communal set-ups.  Check out this totally charming video they produced – it makes me realize what our compost bin is lacking…. a garland of marigolds!  I totally want one of these and wonder if they are available in the U.S.?

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Harvesting your Worm Bin – Indoor Composting part 2

Once you get your worm bin up and running, you will fall into the happy rhythm of saving/freezing your scraps when you cook and adding them to your bin once a week.  The bin has a sort of magical quality to it where it seems like you can just keep adding food scraps and it never seems to fill up! Of course, that is because your worm friends are hard at work breaking it all down into a much smaller volume.  But eventually (as in 4-6 months) you will notice that your bin does start to fill up and there is quite a bit of compost in there to be “harvested” – but how the heck do you separate the worms from their castings?  Good question!

Open your bin and you will likely see a combination of compost and foods that haven’t quite finished breaking down.  Avocado pits and eggshells are notorious for taking a long time to disintegrate.  If you have a large percentage of recognizable food scraps that need wormy attention, I suggest you let the bin sit for 2-3 weeks before harvesting.  Unfortunately though, that means not adding to it for those weeks. If you have two bins, you can stagger them, so you always have a place to put your scraps.  Otherwise, you will need to find an alternative during this time – or take a vacation!

If you let a few weeks go by, your bin should look something like this:

You are now ready to harvest.  Doing so takes a bit of time, so pick an afternoon when you have a few hours free, and if you have easy access to outdoor space, take your bin outside with the following supplies:

  • Plastic garbage bags (white is easier to use, but black is fine)
  • paper towels
  • old newspapers
  • a gardening spade, spoon or spatula
  • a container to hold your finished compost
  • gloves if you don’t want to get your hands dirty. 

The optimal situation would be to harvest your bin in the garden where you plan to use your compost.  That way you can spend your afternoon both gardening and composting, since there is quite a bit of unattended time required.  If you don’t have a sunny outdoor garden (which might be why you opted for a worm bin in the first place) have no fear!  This process can also be done in your plastic lined bathtub!

Start by removing the contents of the bin onto a garbage bag:

What you see here is a combination of worms, compost, and a few bits that just haven’t broken down yet. Beautiful, isn’t it?  The first thing to do is to pick out the avocado pits, corn husks, eggshells and other items that need a long time to break down and set them aside.  Then, take the compost and divide it into small pyramids.  Note: Kids love doing this.

You see, worms do not like light – and will do their best to avoid it, so doing this on a sunny day will yield the best results.  If you are harvesting indoors, you can use a flashlight or set up a utility light to mimic the sun. Once you make your pyramids, wait a about 20-40 minutes (during which you can garden, read a book, call your mother…)  and the worms will make their way down to the bottom of the pile.  Start by removing the top and sides of the pyramids and putting them into your compost bucket.  Reform the pyramids and wait another few minutes.  Repeat this process and soon you will just have tiny piles of mostly worms and some compost.  To be certain, you will also find there are worms in your finished compost, and I don’t think that can be avoided.  Think of them as an extra bonus to the plants.

You should now have a nice supply of finished compost – black gold!  You can put it directly onto your indoor and outdoor plants – just add them to the top of the soil just around the base.  If you have extra, you can donate it to a community garden, or put it into some fancy packaging and sell it on Etsy!

To start your worm bin anew, just clean it out and make a fresh bed of shredded newspapers.

Add your remaining worms along with the food scraps you removed earlier that need more time, and you are good to go!  If you are worried about the number of worms you are left with, you can put them in a bucket and weigh them. 1 pound = about 1,000 worms.  But have no fear, in a healthy worm bin the worms themselves do a pretty good job of maintaining the appropriate population for their space.  You might even notice little worm cocoons when you are harvesting your bin, like the ones on this avocado pit:

A little creepy, but also sorta cool!

There are a few other methods to harvest a worm bin here and here.  But the pyramid method has worked best for us. And I can’t recommend highly enough the handy reference guide, “Worms Eat My Garbage!” for an even better explanation of how this all works.  If you have any tips on how you successfully harvest your bin, I would love to hear about them.

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Windowfarm update: tiny sprouts!

They’re growing!  After my last failure with seed starting, I was beginning to think I would never succeed as an urban, indoor, landless farmer. Yet, here they are.  Clockwise from the top left: cilantro, shishito peppers, kale and parsley.  The tomatoes, arugula, and basil didn’t make the photo shoot (in truth, the basil may end up a casualty here).  The secret? Grow lights on a timer and the proper amount of nutrition.  It’s that simple.  Except it’s not because I have also become mildly obsessed with their well-being, to the chagrin of our poor cat.  Upon waking, the first thing I used to do was feed her, but now she has to wait while I check the plants.  Do they need more water? How much did they grow? Like any baby, when something is so tiny and fragile, every change is noticeable.  In a few weeks, they will be ready for transfer to the Windowfarm, but I say this with trepidation like I’m sending them to preschool.  The windowsill is cold – what if they don’t survive?

One of the best things about participating in this Windowfarm endeavor is the crowd-sourcing, both for the information provided and the camaraderie.  Once my seeds had sprouted, they grew to a certain point – about 1 inch – and then seemed to stop thriving.  Beside myself, I uploaded their sad photos to the Windowfarm site and asked for help (which came almost immediately).  The answer? Nutrients.  As the grow plugs are not soil, they only supply a support to the seedlings, nothing more.  So, I was advised to add some liquid nutrients to their water supply in the form of  Botanicare Pure Blend Pro which is a hydro-organic vegetative fertilizer custom blended from organic and natural sources of the essential major, secondary, and trace minerals that plants would normally find in good soil.  Within a day of adding a tablespoon of this magical liquid to a gallon of water the seedlings sprang to life! Growing plants from seed has so far been an exercise in wonder – when (and if) the time comes, will I actually be able to eat these plants? I’m only half kidding here.

Speaking of gardening, I came across this amazing article via MNN about the town of Todmorden in the UK that has landscaped its public spaces with edible gardens.  Residents can harvest what they wish on an honor system and…. it seems to be working!  The town of about 15,000 residents has the goal of becoming self-sufficient in communal food production by 2018.  Love.

And last but not least, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a lovely exhibition on….Terrariums! running until February 26th.  The perfect winter outing.  Click on their banner below for details.

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A terrarium interlude

My friend, Johanna, has the terrarium fever – and she’s got it bad!  Any glass vessels in her vicinity will suddenly be filled with strange flora and figurine fauna.  She has even taken to the thievery of moss – something I certainly can’t judge after pilfering mulch and leaves from Central Park.  After I saw a few of her creations, I asked her if she would send me some photos to share and she obliged. They remind me of the tiny and strange worlds that were on display at MAD this summer – bucolic, yet bizarre.  I think my favorite is the one with the ponies. Or the gorillas. I can’t decide.

She has also put together a curriculum for teaching kindergarteners to build their own terrariums. It incorporates history (when did people start putting plants in jars, anyway?), biology (did you know that there are over 12000 types of moss?), organization (learning about the different elements in a terrarium and how they are layered), and creativity.  Each child will go home with their own funky living environment to keep alive. Or not.  I’m hoping to borrow the idea to use in my own daughter’s kindergarten class this spring.

All this mossy-ness has me yearning for spring – a dangerous thing to do on January 19th.  I think the reason why I am so drawn to terrariums (besides their obvious qualities) is because they are a beautiful way to bring the outdoors in. Especially if you live on the 9th floor of a building in Midtown.  Some days you just need a little moss.

You can also see some fascinating terrariums at Little Orphan Girl.

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