Saturday, October 31, 2015

Physical Reality

STEM seems to be the focus of many parents' desire for their children's educations due, in part, to the sponsorship of Bill Gates of educational programs including common core standards.  Whatever it takes for the kids to be admitted to college is what most parents are willing to aim for, and with the new standards, it takes a lot more technical ability than before.  What parents need to realize is that a college education is going to become ever more unattainable as the economy devolves into a less energetic state.  People power is what is going to be more valued in the near future as the consequences of peak oil play out.

For that reason, we shouldn't fret over the dismally low scores of many minority groups in Maryland showing that 95% of them aren't ready for college when they should be.  On the one hand, it does not serve the fight against discrimination for their cohorts to be left behind those of whites and Asians.  On the other hand, many whites and Asians will be less prepared than these less brainy youth to take on the physical demands of the new-old world of work.  Fewer and fewer of them will be able to enter or complete college due to costs.  Many of those that do finish college will be no better off than their less educated peers due to their debt burdens.

I'm not saying we shouldn't keep pushing the tech envelope, and science offers hope of discovering keys to our continued occupation of the planet, but if you happen to fall short in intellectual or financial capacities, you can still look forward to having a role to play in the economy we are entering - just don't fall short in phys-ed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Future Reedy

Calvert County's school district, like over 2,000 districts across the country, took a pledge recently to support the Future Ready initiative that attempts to level the digital playing field for students while enhancing the payoff of technology-based learning.  Half of Maryland's school districts have taken the same pledge and almost all are sure to follow suit, since parents and corporations are quite concerned about youths' ability to deal with the work challenges of the future.

In Calvert County this year, there was a lot of anguish over the 2016 budget squeeze which resulted in possible cuts to many extracurricular programs.  Nevertheless, the march of technology is going to require more funds, some of which will have to be paid by the school district.  It will probably mean that students will have fewer opportunities or incentives to become athletic and will be more encouraged to become geeks.  This is an unrealistic plan since the energy-deficient future these kids will face will actually require of them more physical strength and endurance than their parents had.  High school represents the best opportunity for most people to grow into strong adults.  Confidence in one's abilities and perseverance gained in those years can carry on through life.  The challenges faced by one generation are not going to be the same for their offspring.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Getting Smart

Higher education holds out some promise for getting us away from the canyon our economy is stumbling toward.  Canyon is an apt metaphor since the easiest way to stay or get out is orthogonal to the slope that you might tumble down.  When the direction that worked for awhile leads to danger, maybe there will be enough smart people around to understand that we need to change course.

Such critical thinking is rare and difficult to engender with many of the higher education programs currently available.  Non-traditional education and online groups may be better.

Here in Southern Maryland, they are pressing on with business-as-usual in the groundbreaking for a new community college campus in Hughesville, central to our tri-county area.  With the higher education industry in crisis partly due to overleveraging their student portfolios with debt slaves, many colleges will be unable to continue as before.  Community colleges will suffer less than many of the 4-year schools, but even they are at risk when they buy into poorly conceived estimates of strong economic growth such as the Bureau of Labor Statistic's projected > 20% increase in demand for construction industry trades over the coming decade.

I hope the College of Southern Maryland's new Center for Trades and Energy Training will turn 90 degrees before we tumble down the canyon and that they will prepare our workforce for building smaller, renewably energized, and resilient accommodations for a future that includes a lot more time in the outdoors.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cultivating the EcoMind

STEM extracurricular programs seem to be all the rage these days, but the environment gets a modicum of educational attention on our continent by way of an annual Envirothon.  Engineering (the 'E' in STEM) includes consideration of the context directly affecting the artificial system of interest.  One aspect of these contextual influences is that associated with the natural environment.  Some understanding of the environment is essential, therefore, to design of engineering systems, but the engineering perspective typically assumes that we can surmount or circumvent environmental forces by adjustments in the system's design. However, an environmental perspective of our human systems' contexts would lead to designs more harmonious with nature.  (Have you ever noticed that Environmental Engineering is usually all about how to clean up the messes we make on our planet?)
I am, therefore, pleased to note that the environmental literacy standards that Maryland instituted for its childhood education programs just won Silver in the 2015 Future Policy Awards of the World Future Councilthe Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UNICEF.  These were the first such standards adopted by any of our states and serve to counter the narrowing of curricula caused by the No Child Left Behind law.  Other states are taking notice and coming along as well. 
If, by wild chance, Martin O'Malley becomes our next President, I hope he won't forget to carry with him the environmental legacy endowed to Maryland by his governorship.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Fall Undertakings

Though wood chips are available here year-round, a more compostable product of nature is offered only once a year.  When the leaves fall in the Fall (get it?), we have some choices to make.  Are we going to blow or rake them off to the side? bag them? shred them first? and then what?
Any of those three options are fine, it's the "then what?" that makes the difference.  If you leave them on the ground off your lawn, they will eventually decompose and nourish the soil there.  If you bag them, then add a little rich soil or compost, slash the bags in several places, and plan on turning them every month for a year, you will then have leaf mold that can be used as a mulch or compost input. If you shred them, then use the shreds as mulch or as a compost input.
Speeding up life and death's natural rhythm always takes exertion, as I demonstrated yesterday at Double Oak Farm when I made 25 gallons of biochar during the Calvert County Farm Festival.  In our area, the most prominent exemplar of leaf composting is found in the two counties immediately north where they make Leafgro from leaves and grass clippings.  It makes a good soil amendment, but you can make better if you include food wastes and biochar in the compost you make yourself.  After my exertions at the demo yesterday, I am glad to know that some people are getting the biochar bug along with me down here in Southern Maryland.  Maybe someday, we can get enough interest to mass produce a biochar compost product to rival the popularity of Leafgro in this region.  One company has actually beat us to market and are beginning to penetrate our area with it.

Friday, October 16, 2015


Today I found what appears to be a bunch of clustered wood lovers fruiting on dead roots near my "farm."  I'm assiduously verifying the identity because this little brown mushroom has some deadly near-look-a-likes.  If they are hypholoma capnoides (aka clustered wood lovers), I might try to cultivate some - on wood chips.
Mr. Hanners, our local mushroom mogul, gets his thousands of logs delivered by tree service companies for a fee.  One thing the innumerable tree service companies are happy to drop off at no charge are fresh wood chips.  We had a pile conveniently dumped in our driveway early this year and now I have decided that several more are needed.
A byproduct of portable, powered equipment, and thus destined for near-term decline, wood chips are usually made from ramial wood, i.e. less than 4" diameter branches, in order to save on hauling or to avoid creating brush piles.
I have a solution to both of these problems.  Not only is hauling of bulky branches unnecessary, but forests would also benefit if wood chips were left behind and used as mulch for saplings.  My second solution is that, once we reach the point where it is too expensive to chip wood, purposefully constructed slash piles make an instant low-emissions biochar-generating burn opportunity.  Again, the biochar could be used to amend the soil for young plants in the vicinity.  Since biochar needs an initial charge of microbes and nutrients, the rich soil under the previously laid mulch beds would be good places for spreading biochar.
Along with these two measures, the forests subsequently benefit from the proliferation of various saprophytic fungi that break down the wood chips and leave a profusion of exudates, chitin, and complex carbohydrates that nourish trees and their soil buddies.   Mycorrhizae also flourish in biochar-rich soil.  The resulting humus is a living, networked organism that emerges much more quickly than over the natural cycle time.
The most well-known wood chip gardener example is Paul Gautschi in Washington.  Maybe I can help bring some of that attention to Southern Maryland.  I have a plan to combine wood chips, biochar, and gourmet mushrooms in commercial quantities.  Don't hold your breath though, when you are dealing with wood chips, it takes a year or so to get an end product.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mushrooms Mushrooming

The message from Paul Stamets' book, Mycelium Running, is that mushrooms can help save the world.  They do this, in part, by helping to recycle organic material, often in the form of wood.  That would make the gentleman we met today at the farmers market a real hero.  As the main local supplier of gourmet mushrooms, Mr. Hanners vouches to maintain 10,000 mushroom logs on his farm in central Calvert County.  He has been raising mushrooms for 40 years and seems to have an untiring passion for all things mushroom.  In contrast, I have managed to inoculate 25 or so logs in this, my first year of growing mushrooms.

Chespeake's Bounty is also planning to begin mushrooming on a commercial scale.  At the Mother Earth News Fair last month, the number of people taking an interest in the mushroom growing vendors and lectures was surprisingly large.  Mr. Hanners also told us about the excellent potential of finding morel mushrooms in our area - a quest that I had abandoned.

In addition to logs, I have been growing mushrooms on wood chips and plan to begin growing some oyster mushrooms indoors on spent coffee grounds and next year some Almond Agaricus mushrooms on compost.  Aside from the health benefits of eating various mushrooms, I expect my gardens to benefit from the residue left behind by the extra abundance of mushrooms in our domain.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

My Secret Garden

After attempting to grow vegetables in my backyard, which receives less than 4 hours of sun per day, I shifted those efforts to the front, where the sun shines up to 8 hours per day.  I can grow things there, but not as well as those that come from my plot in our community's garden area.  Now, I am going back the other direction.  Rather than concede my remaining undeveloped 0.6 acres to the forest, I'm beginning to turn it into a forest garden.  Ironically, this entails removing a good number of trees for reasons just mentioned.
The thing is, a forest garden is not the type of forest that we find most places.  It is a place where selected plants are allowed to successively develop together, as in a new forest, but does not result in an overstory that shuts out the shrubbery from the sun.  My first tree removal authorization comes with the stipulation that I plant a new tree for every 5 that I cut down.  In my area, that is probably a good ratio to build a forest garden by.  The trees I cut down will either end up as biochar or as hosts to some of my gourmet mushrooms.
My forest garden will be a secret garden since my undeveloped land is mainly in a ravine not visible from the road.  Plants growing on slopes tend to be smaller than those on level ground, so I may be able to get away with planting a larger range of plants, while keeping their sizes down to garden scale.
Since forest gardens are an attempt to restore our surroundings to something approaching the Garden of Eden, I thought I would start with one of the trees reputed to having been there - the fig (contrary to what you may have been led to assume about Eve eating a forbidden apple).  Along with that, we picked up a gooseberry bush from Edible Landscaping on our last swing through Virginia.  They are positioned well to be the premier supplier of forest garden plants in our area as this idea catches on.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Local Radicals

The transformation that forest gardening will make to our lives, if the Forested vision comes true, is radical.  Radical means "related to, or proceeding from, a root."  In that sense, any change that stems from a "grassroots movement" is, by definition, radical.  There are a number of these upstarts in my local area which I will be posting about in the future.  The most relevant to the matter at hand is one I will be assisting this coming weekend - Chesapeake's Bounty.

I had long taken this farmstand to be not much more than a mini-farm with a good location.  Later I learned that they bring in wholesome food from all over the local area.  They also give classes on topics that match my interests, e.g. mushroom cultivation, and other permaculture subjects.  More recently, I discovered that they are planning on planting food forests across much of their 40 acres.

This is just the beginning, but it is mind-boggling to imagine being able to wander through acre after acre of planted perennial patches ranging from ground-level shrubs to canopy trees, each serving some beneficial function.  Twenty-four acres of food forest is probably a record, and might be a spark to emulation, both locally and throughout the eastern states.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Vision for the Eastern U.S.

At the Mother Earth News Fair we recently attended in Seven Springs, PA, we were privileged to listen to Lincoln Smith of Forested, LLC give some practical advice about food forest gardening. Forested runs a training center in Bowie, MD where they seek to enact their vision, which reads,

Our 50 year vision is for forest garden ecosystems to sustainably supply
a large portion of all the things people use in the eastern United States.

Considering that the portion of forest garden products in what most people here currently use is approximately 0, Forested's ambition is on a scale as that of  Smith speaks with certainty about the need for forest gardening to replace the mono-culturated crops that presently supply most of our food, fiber, and a little fuel.  Edible Forest Gardens - Volume One: Vision & Theory by Dave Jacke elaborates greatly on Forested's vision, and may, indeed, be the source of it.

Let me quote excerpts of the scenario that Jacke lays out to give you an idea of what life may look like in the Forested future:

  • Fruits and nuts swell on trees everywhere
  • ...foods grow along your path - you even know all their names and how to use them
  • Flowers bloom all over the place
  • Some of these forest gardens approach farm scale as they grow 
  • Cottage industries ... have sprung up
  • fishing got better
  • Previously isolated forest fragments linked to each other
  • Our human habitation started looking, feeling, and acting more like a natural ecosystem
  • Agriculture as we knew it was transformed
  • we felt healthier, more alive, more connected... than we had for generations

The week after the Fair, I had a conversation with the new director of the American Chestnut Land Trust (topic of my previous post) in which he asked me if I had any involvement with agroforestry (synonymous with Forest Gardening).  The fact that he has an interest in this concept is crucial to the chances of ACLT achieving their vision for Calvert County, since forest gardening is going to redefine life all around us if Forested's vision comes true.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Vision for Calvert County, MD

The grass can often seem greener in other pastures, but I found a kindred spirit in the American Chestnut Land Trust (ACLT) here in my county, so I may need not search far to find my chosen community. Below is an excerpt from their strategic plan.  How would you like to have this be your county?
Our goal is for Calvert County to be a national model for environmental stewardship balanced with a healthy economy. We hope that in 2018 our landscape will be characterized by forests, fields and farms and well-planned and diverse communities, surrounded by a healthy river and bay. Additionally, we envision a future where citizens are educated and active stewards of the land and their daily living is enhanced by the abundance of natural areas.
The ACLT is a grassroots organization started back in the last century with pushback against developers potentially destroying the natural beauty of this part of the western shore of the Chesapeake.  It now manages over 4,000 acres of semi-wilderness in the central part of our peninsular county.

A recent project of the ACLT is the Double Oak Farm which is now run by volunteers, especially local Master Gardeners like myself.  I'm going to give my fifth public demonstration of biochar-making there on October 18th as part of the Calvert County Farm Festival.  This ought to have many more onlookers than any of my prior demos.  It would be nice to get others interested in making biochar, but I've become reconciled to being the only local char maker for the time-being.  At least it will be another opportunity to make biochar familiar to prospective users.

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