Wishing readers a happy new year seems inappropriate somehow, insensitive possibly, given the social, environmental, and economic challenges that many Americans and Canadians are experiencing as we skip from year two of the pandemic, to year three.
Happiness is of course relative, and at its simplest requires little more than peace of mind, contentment, and security.
I can do little to assist with peace and contentment, but I hope that in sharing my adventures in urban permaculture and food gardening, I can help provide some security.
I don’t know about you, but I found this past year more difficult even than 2020. It seemed easier somehow to accept labour, food, resource, even employment shortages in year one of the pandemic.
Perhaps, because we assumed that year two would bring relief, we were better able to cope with what we thought would be short term pain.
My pain was inconsequential compared to so many in my city and region. We’ve lost thousands of citizens to COVID 19, and to the toxic opioid drug crisis. We lost almost 600 people during the catastrophic heatwaves and wildfires, and we are very likely to lose many more during this winter’s bitter cold.
During these final few days of 2021, the ‘cold snap of a lifetime’ is throwing environmental curve ball number three to local farmers already reeling from heat waves and historic flooding.
During recent flooding, some 650,000 farm animals perished and 110 beehives were lost. Farmers struggle now to manage temperatures in enclosures and keep farm and milking equipment from freezing. Entire food and feed crops that were below floodwaters are now at risk of frost-kill, though according to local experts, evidence of such won’t present itself until spring.
Almost certainly local farmers will prevail. Farmers are the most resilient, positive and grateful people I know. From them we can learn a great deal, and to them we owe a huge debt of gratitude.
In my own urban farm gardens, wildlife is reacting to the cold in ways that I have not seen previously. Birds and squirrels of all species and sizes are cohabiting under shelter of our outdoor kitchen patio — feeding and drinking together, side by side as if they know that their lives depend on a ceasefire-like spirit of cooperation and community.
At any other time of year, stellar jays trump towhees and chickadees, towhees trump thrush, and small but mighty Douglas squirrels trump everything including the many-times larger grey and black squirrels, even crows.
Today they are making room for each other, sharing equally both the sustenance and the space, taking only what they need. I am so grateful to witness this tiny miracle, this lesson of nature.
Today, on-property water sources remain frozen solid, or buried under ice and snow. Small local streams and ponds are frozen as well, hidden too, from view. The immersible heater that typically keeps the birds’ small waterfall-fountain flowing slowly throughout the winter, can’t keep ahead of the unseasonably frigid -15°C (5°F) temperature. It too, packed it in.
I have been making do with pie plates and cake pans full of tepid water, switching the vessels out every few hours as they freeze, so the feathered and furry ones can stay hydrated. I have been told by many naturalists more schooled than I, that if small birds are forced to eat snow for hydration, their body temperatures could drop so low that they could die.
To my way of thinking, I have a debt to pay to wildlife for changing natural habitat so drastically that they seek refuge from me. It costs me little to feed and water my little buddies during the cold snap, and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of predator bobcats, coyotes or raccoons. Perhaps they too, are laying low.
My neighborhood, known locally as ‘Rancherville’ comprises a small plateau that was levelled out of the mountainside during the 1940s’ to make room for a polo field that never came to fruition. As neighborhood old timers tell the story — coloured no doubt, in memory — developers clear cut the forest, burned and buried mountains of off-cuts, plowed under huge stumps, and filled in several large and small streams with acres of gravel to make way for progress.
Eventually, modest ranchers with vast gardens were built over what appeared to be level ground. I like to think that the beautiful, wide, old-growth cedar planks that clad our old home, came from the trees that once stood tall on this very spot. It is entirely possible that they did.
The gardens and sapling trees grew tall and wide and the area become known for its low profile, and large and lush sunny gardens punctuated by long wide hedgerows and parklets of massive timbers and native habitat. Perhaps the biochar from the burned off-cuts is in part responsible for the impressive field capacity and healthy biology of the soil on our property. I came across great swaths of biochar when I dug deep to plant our dwarf fruit trees.
Over time, most particularly during the past dozen years, many of the large treed lots, hedgerows and parklets were razed to make way for large and glamorous homes surrounded by very few trees and small ornamental gardens. More progress.
Over the course of the past 80 years, unaware and unconcerned with goings on above ground, the stumps have been doing what buried stumps do — decay, implode and cause sink holes. Potholes in the roads and driveways, and cracks in our concrete foundations bear witness to the forest that was. During extreme or prolonged rain events, the streams and rivulets re-surface forcefully in the most unfortunate of places — very often in the basement media rooms of unsuspecting new homeowners.
The old timers and the descendants of old timers, are quick to point out that nature always wins, and that as a rule, building over streams just isn’t a good idea. Indeed, and for many reasons.
During very cold winters, our high water table ponds, puddles, and rain gardens freeze and become covered in snow, leaving nothing at all for the wild things to drink. Many of us remember to put our suet or seed, but some do not know to put out water. I didn’t, not until I studied natural water systems and the hydrological components of permaculture.
Water is life — clean water, that is.
On that note I am inspired to declare publicly my resolutions for 2022. I have one primary resolution, that will require pretty much all of my time and resources, and may involve some measure of change-making at the community level.
I resolve to design (with much help) a large-scale rainwater harvesting (RWH) and distribution system to look after the irrigation needs of all or most of our food, medicine, habitat, and ornamental gardens. Given the siting, layout, mature plantings, hardscaping, setbacks, bylaws, covenants and multiple other impediments to designing a large and for the most part ‘invisible’ urban system, I have my work cut out for me.
In all likelihood, cost will be the greatest consideration. Early estimates are that it could cost several times more than the basic and affordable pre-build RWH systems that should, in my opinion be legislated into all new residential building codes. I’m going for it anyway, hoping against hope that we will find a way. If there are grants available to incentivize homeowners to switch from one form of non-renewable energy to another, then perhaps we can find or inspire a grant dedicated to RWH.
“The problem is the solution,” is one of permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison’s original design principles. It sounds absurd at times, but most often some incarnation of the philosophy proves to be true — at least for me.
According to the EPA (I couldn’t find statistics for Canada), the average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day, about 30-percent of which is used outdoors. More than half of that in turn is used for watering lawns and gardens. Nationwide, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for nearly one-third of all residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day. That’s potable water.
Ironically, here in the temperate rainforest, we have no reliable community source of water. Rain falls, snow melts, and there it all goes, away from where it is needed most. The municipal water management system is complex and well-intended (at least it was a century ago), but absolutely it needs a climate-change-inspired re-think.
Based on preliminary calculations, somewhere between 750,000 and 900,000 litres (200,000 – 250,000 gallons) of rainwater fall on the roof of our rancher each year — a huge natural resource worthy of capturing where it falls, and where nature intended for a measure of it to stay.
I have been assembling a small team of RWH consultants and resources, and doing all kinds of homework. In particular I’ve been reading up on strategies and solutions for rainwater harvesting in cold climates. Most of the case studies relate to rural properties where space and design considerations are infinite. I am hopeful that it can be done here in my polar opposite environment, but there is a chance that some or all of it will be cost prohibitive or that local bylaws and/or in-place infrastructure will prohibit installation.
Regardless, I am excited to embark on the process and for sure I will write about it as I go. We must talk about RWH, act on it, and care deeply. Not just in the country where we can design from the ground up, but in the city where we are forced to reimagine the possibilities, and lobby if necessary, for adoption. The world depends on it. Our children depend on it.
My second resolution is water-related as well as it involves the removal of two more small sections of grass on the boulevard, and the installation of some sort of native habitat ecosystem. I am working on a classically-inspired design, but it is early days yet. We inherited a lot of grass when we moved in, and slowly, as time and budget have allowed, we have been converting to beds, planters and bee turf. The grass was lovely for the children to run and play on, but it isn’t productive and it does consume resources unfairly and disproportionately. We have a small patch of lovely soft and mossy grass out back, and a stretch of bee turf in the front, so there is still plenty of surface for tiny people and for bocce.
Clean water is the new gold, but infinitely more valuable and seemingly more scarce. Very soon, I predict, we will be reading about peak water in resource terms, just as we are reading about peak coal and peak oil.
The sun is rising over yet another dump of fresh snow, and my furry and feathered friends are amassed yet again in the dim winter light under the snow-covered patio cover. I must go and switch out the water pans, and scatter some seeds.
Sincerely, I wish you every happiness and good health in 2022.
Until next week, stay safe and warm.
One very small, and apparently very hungry roof rat risked venturing out into the open and into the daylight, to munch seeds alongside small birds that on any other day, would have hightailed it and run.
Rats are part of the web of life and they have a role to play. To be honest, they give me what my grandmother called ‘the heebie-jeebies’. I try to be reasonable and open-minded, and I don’t dislike them for no reason. Full disclosure: I set humane traps to keep ravenous rodents out of our food gardens this summer and last. I did it without causing pain, suffering, or injury to any species, and I tossed the fresh carcasses into the woods for consumption by predators and fungi.
The rodent population of late has been out of balance, thanks to human-caused upsets, not the least of which has been the widespread use of rodenticides.
Anticoagulant rodenticides kill rodents efficiently, if painfully. Sadly they can kill their or injure their raptor, canine and other predators too. The unintended result of widespread rodenticide use in the city these past years, seems to have been a surplus of rodents. It takes patience, commitment and a quality pair of rubber gloves to manage rodents humanely, but restoring balance is well worth the effort.
Today was this cute little fella’s lucky day. I simply watched and let him eat his fill. To do otherwise, would have been unfair. We will face off another day, on a level playing field that is not frozen to disadvantage.