Saturday, May 28, 2011

Permaculture Projects: Rain Harvesting

Don't waste all that free water!

This is is just going to be a quick post to reference the formula for calculating how much water can be obtained from a roof (it is A LOT, by the way).

Formula for calculating rain collection - from Gaia's Garden.

For those who don't like to do a lot of math, here is a quick reference for rain water collection.

The basics of rain harvesting from your roof is quite simple.  First you need gutters.  Then you need somewhere to store the water.  That is it.  To make things more efficient, your storage tank is situated above (higher) than the location you need it, so gravity will take it to where you need it.

Traditional style of rain barrel.. what most people think of.

Modern Rain Barrels come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

More styles of rain barrels.

The basic function of a rain barrel.

Another diagram of a rain barrel.

Here is a more detailed diagram of a rain water collection system.  If you are going to reuse the water in your own home, there are a few additional components to think about.  First is a pump.  If you are fighting against gravity, this is obviously needed.  Second, a filtration system is needed if you will be drinking the water.  Third (or maybe considered part of the filtration system) is a way to separate the first water off the roof which carries roof dust, bird droppings, and other particles that you don't want in your water storage tanks.  These contraptions go by various names such as "roof washer", "flush diverter", or "first flush diverter".

A "Roof Washer"
More detailed photo of the "Roof Washer"
Note the ball that floats as the first roof water flows past.
As the water rises (and becomes more and more clean) the ball will eventually form a seal, and the clean rain water will be diverted to the storage tank.

Another more basic design.

Yet another variation of a first flush diverter.

Here is a link to a PDF from the University of Georgia Extension Agency on Home Rainwater Harvesting.  It is a pretty good article.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Homebrewing Beer

Before we get to beer, let's talk about homebrewing in general first...

What is Homebrewing?
"Homebrewing is the brewing of beer, wine, cider and other beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, through fermentation on a small scale as a hobby for personal consumption, free distribution at social gatherings, amateur brewing competitions or other non-commercial reasons."

Some quick definitions of alcoholic beverages:
Beer: Made from cereal grains, usually barley but also wheat, oat, corn, rye, etc.
Wine: Made from grapes.
Cider: Made from apples.
Perry: Made from pears.
Mead: Made from honey... a.k.a. Honey Wine
Cyzer: Made from honey and apples.
Pider: Made from apples and pears.
Pyment: Made from honey and grapes.
Melomel: Made from honey and other fruits.
Country Wine: Wine made from fruit other than grapes.
Why Homebrew?
  1. Price:  It is much cheaper to make your own.  At a minimum, it is 50% cheaper.
  2. Quality:  If I make it, I know what I put in it.
  3. Variety:  I can make things I cannot buy is stores.  I can even make my own varieties!
  4. Self-Sufficiency:  I like to know how to make things from “as scratch” as possible.
  5. Health:  Drinking alcohol, in moderation, is associated with many health benefits.
  6. It is FUN!
Basics of Brewing Beer
Note: This is a VERY basic overview.  If you are an experienced homebrewer, forgive the brevity and exclusion of some detail.


This is germinated grain (usually barley) that has been allowed to dry in a process called “malting”.  If you raise your own grains, you can do this yourself.  If you don’t raise your own grains, then you can purchase malt.  It usually comes in either liquid or dry forms.  The liquid form is partially evaporated and sold in cans labeled Liquid Malt Extract.  The dry form is the same substance, but it is evaporated even further into a powdered form and sold as Dry Malt Extract.
Geminated Barley

Variety of dried ("malted") grains.
Hops is a flower from the Hops vine.  It is used to add bitterness and aroma to the beer.  Bitterness is required to counteract the overly sweet taste of fermented malt.  Hops really became associated with beer due to its preservative ability.  Traditionally, without hops, beer would go bad much faster.  Hops can be used fresh or dried.  The dried forms are sold as whole flowers, pellets, and plugs.

Hops on the vine.
Yeast is used to convert the sugars from the malt to alcohol.  There are many varieties of yeast in the world, but the one most used in brewing is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and there are hundreds of strains to choose from.  This is usually sold in liquid or dry powdered form.   Some people even culture their own strains.
Dried brewer's yeast.
This is used after the beer has already undergone its primary fermentation.  Adding some sugar right before bottling or kegging allows the remaining yeast in the beer to create additional carbon dioxide under pressure… carbonation!  Many types of sugar can be used, but most common is corn sugar.
Basic Homebrewing Process for a simple Ale
  1. Malted barley is boiled in water.
  2. Hops is added.
  3. Allow the mixture to cool.
  4. Yeast is added (“pitched”).
  5. This concoction (wort) is allowed to ferment (typically for one to 3 weeks). You now have uncarbonated beer!
  6. Sugar is added.
  7. The beer is bottled or kegged.
  8. Wait another two weeks.
  9. Drink your beer!
Overall, homebrewing beer is a very simple process; however, there are thousands of variations to this simple process.  Which grains to use (barley, wheat, oats, rye, corn, etc).  How the grain is processed while malting (light, amber, dark, chocolate, etc.).  How long and how much  malt is boiled with the water.  When and how much and what type of hops is added.  What type of yeast is used.  How long and the temperature during fermentation.  What type of sugar is added.  What other ingredients are added (fruit, herbs, spices, etc).

With all these variables, there are literally thousands of beers you can make…  what are you waiting for?

Resource: This is my favorite book on homegrewing beer.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why does this physician endorse Permaculture?

Why am I, as a physician, so excited about Permaculture?

Let’s look at the following chart:

  Causes of death in the U.S. from 2006/2007.

The #1 cause of death (Heart Diseases), #3 (Stroke), #4 (COPD, Emphysema), and #5 (Diabetes) are almost exclusively related to lifestyle choices.  The #2 cause of death (Cancers) has fairly strong associations with lifestyle choices depending on what type of cancer we are talking about.
There is also some evidence that lifestyle choices may contribute to #8 (Alzheimer’s Disease).

 So, basically there is from strong to contributory evidence that lifestyle plays a role in causing six out of the eight leading causes of death.

As a physician, I have a growing frustration in treating “lifestyle” diseases.  Lifestyle diseases are things like Hypertension (High blood pressure), Hyperlipidemia (High cholesterol), Diabetes Mellitus Type 2 (adult onset or diet caused diabetes), Lung diseases from tobacco use, etc. that are directly or strongly associated with lifestyle choices.

Now I know that not everyone with one of these diseases has them based on their lifestyle, but I would venture to guess that over 95% of them do.  Which probably means that if you are reading this, and you have one of these diseases, then it is most likely due to choices you have or continue to make.  Before you get upset and think I am condemning you entirely, know that I lost over 40 lbs before starting medical school.  I was living a life that was leading to the same diseases I am currently trying to treat.  I understand the struggle and the frustration.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it.

I do not like to be the doctor who treats the symptoms and not the disease (or the root cause of the disease).  Treating High Blood Pressure and High Cholesterol and Diabetes with medications is just putting a band-aid on the symptoms.  It is not treating the root cause of the disease.  The real root of these diseases are poor lifestyle choices, specifically poor decisions in the food we eat and our low activity levels.

Treating these conditions with medications is only giving a person the ability to continue living a life that is slowly killing them.  As a physician who is supposed to be truly helping people, I seriously question my ability to continue contributing to this cycle.  The cycle I am referring to is outlined in the graph I made below:

The only way to break the cycles in yellow and red is to change our lifestyle.  As I said before, the lifestyle I am talking about is the food we eat and our activity level, but what does all of this have to do with Permaculture?

Geoff Lawton, the head of the International Permaculture Research Institute, once said “All the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.”  Keep this in mind as I continue.

Let’s talk about activity level first.  Let me start by saying I do not expect anyone to become a marathon runner.  In fact, I think most people should not become marathon runners.  Cardiovascular exercise is great, but you can cause a lot of joint damage by running.  If we take up gardening (especially with a Permaculture method), our activity levels will be greatly improved.  Yeah, it can be that simple.

Now let’s talk about the food we eat.  The “Typical American Diet” is killing us!  There is growing information on this that is just too hard to ignore any longer. 

Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilema and the lead consultant to the movie Food, Inc.  I highly recommend this book and movie if you want excellent information (facts and sources) that support the idea that the American diet is very unhealthy. 

I rarely endorse books on health/nutrition/diet.  One of my few exceptions is In Defense of Food.  It is not written by a physician or a dietician but a journalist, the above mentioned Michael Pollan.  This is probably the best and simplest instruction on why and what we should eat.

In Defense of Food proclaims three basic guidelines:
1. Eat Food: Real food… not processed food-like substances with over a dozen ingredients that you cannot pronounce and that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize.
2. Not Too Much: Avoid overeating… fairly self-explanatory, but the book gives great information on this.
3. Mostly Plants: I hate to feel hungry.  If you eat mostly fruits and vegetables, then you can fill up and feel full without excessive calories.  Plants have large amounts of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients which keep your body healthy.  But you should still eat some meat and dairy as well.

Now, bringing this back to Permaculture

When you are growing your own food in a Permaculture way, you are eating real food (without chemicals that do poison our bodies regardless of what the agribusinesses tell us).  You are eating mostly plants, since that is mostly what you grow.  The diversity is so much greater that what you get in the grocery store (check out this entry on Heirloom Agriculture) which means even more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients for our health.

If all Americans were involved in personal Permaculture projects where they live then they would increase their activity levels and improve the food they ate.  And this doesn’t have to be an all-or-none thing.  Any change in the right direction will have growing benefits.

As a physician, I am excited because I firmly believe we could greatly improve the health of our nation if we embraced Permaculture and I also firmly believe that, to paraphrase Geoff Lawton:
Most of our health problems can be solved (or greatly improved) in a garden.

Will you join me?

What are Heirloom or Heritage Foods?

Imagine you are a modern farmer...

You want to sell apples.  To make money, you need to sell as many apples as you can.  But an apple tree is not like a factory with predictable outputs... there are unpredictable harvest times and quantities, there are pests, there are diseases.  And the problem with fruit in general is that it can go bad.  It doesn't ship well.  It has a limited shelf life. 

Now what if there was an apple that produced most of its fruit all at the same time?  What if it produced apples of all the same size?  It was resistant to pests and disease.  It could be picked easily.  It could handle being processed in modern farm equipment.  It would not bruise easily in shipping.  It could sit in a grocery bin for a lot longer than other apples. 

If such an apple existed, and there are a few that are pretty close to that ideal, then that would be a great product with which to make money.  In fact most apples you buy in modern grocery stores were developed to meet these criteria.

But notice that I didn't say anything about taste... hmmm.

Did you know that there are over 7,500 varieties of apple?!  If you ate a different apple each day, it would take you over 20 years to try them all.  The majority of all apples sold in the U.S. are one of five varieties... FIVE out of 7,500!  These are (in order of popularity): Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and Fuji. 

Maybe it's just the foodie in me that wants to know what all these other apples taste like.  Fortunately, I've had the chance to sample a few dozen varieties.  I haven't kept track, but I am probably at around 40 varieties.  I have so many left to try!

Okay, I have gotten on a tangent here.

Heirloom and Heritage Foods.  What are they?  In simplest terms, they are varieties (cultivars) of foods that were raised earlier in human history, but they are not used in modern agriculture.  By in large, these are foods that have fallen off of farms, and therefore off our plates, because of the reasons I listed above.  They just didn't handle mass production well.  Fruits were too soft or bruised too easily or couldn't be transported.  Vegetables took too long to grow or ripened at unpredictable times or spoiled too fast.  Did you know that 96% of commercial vegetable varieties sold in 1903 are now extinct?  Gone forever!

Heirloom and Heritage Foods are not just plants.  Did you know that 99% of all turkeys raised in the U.S are one breed, the Broad-Breasted White?  There are at least fifteen breeds of turkeys out there, and the average consumer only gets one choice. 

How about chickens?  No one knows for sure, but there are hundreds of breeds.  What do we eat?  Only one chicken, the Corinsh-Rock.  How sad is that?

Cattle? Over 800 types, and we typically consume only Hereford or Angus.  Milking cattle?  Typically only Holstein or Jersey.

For you vegetarians and flexitarians out there...
- There are almost 7,500 varieties of tomatoes.
- There are thousands of peppers.
- There are over a thousand types of potatoes.
- There are hundreds of lettuces.
- There are dozens of carrots.

I am going to end here for now.  I've got some resources for those of you interested in finding and sampling these foods.  I've got some resources for those of you interested in raising these foods.  I'll post these soon.

But you'll have to wait for now and dream of all the amazing tastes you haven't yet experienced!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Permaculture Zones


One of the foundational patterns of Permaculture is the concept of Zones.

There are five Permaculture Zones in the landscape.  These zones are areas of land (large or small) that are organized based on how much time is spent in them.  In its simplest form, the Permaculture Zones are concentric cirlces like this:

Permaculture Zones

Permaculture Zone 0
This is your home.  This is where you reside, obviously.  There is a lot I will have to say about home design, energy (traditional, alternative), water use, etc.  Zone 0 can include attached greenhouses, indoor plants, window plants, window boxes, bird feeders, companion animals (i.e. dogs).  In my opinion, the optimal house design has large windows that let you observe your yard/land as frequently as possible.  It should also connect to the outdoors in a way that makes you have a hard time deciding if you are inside or outside... e.g. covered back porch/patio that transitions to an overhead grapevine/wisteria trellis with an outdoor kitchen that transitions to a garden path.  Your home should be a place of refuge and relaxation.  This is not meant in some new age kind of way.  I really mean it.  If you work away from home, you should be able to walk in and find places that calm you.  This is vital for you and your family.
Frequency: Very frequent daily visits

Permaculture Zone 1
This is the area of your yard/land that requires the most time and energy to maintain.  It is typically located within 15-20 feet of your home.  It makes sense to start designing Zone 1 in areas that you typically walk past multiple times per day: right outside your front and back door.  In Zone 1, we place our annual vegetables, salad mixes, herbs, small fruit plants, dwarf fruit trees, espalier trees, external (non-attached) greenhouses, cold frames, rain barrels, nursery for new plants, small composting areas (including worm composting bins), a small pond, and small, quiet domestic animals like rabbits or pigeons.  This area is often fenced in to protect from predation.  This is the first place to be developed in your Permaculture plan. 

Bill Mollison once said that if you need some fresh herbs for your morning omelette, and if you go to collect them from your Zone 1 garden and your slippers get wet from the dew, then they were placed too far from the home.
Frequency: Frequent daily visits

Permaculture Zone 2
This area is getting a bit further from the home.  The components of Zone 2 include the larger, less frequently attended annual and perenial vegetables, larger shrubs and fruit bushes, some smaller fruit trees, maybe a pond or a small plot of wildflowers, larger home composting areas, louder or larger domestic animals like chickens and bees.  Zone 2 areas can extend along frequently used paths that lead to other Zones or to areas that are more frequently visited like a barn, a large pond, or path to a neighboors back yard.
Frequency: Visit every few days

Permaculture Zone 3
Fairly minimal components of your Permaculture Plan are placed in Zone 3.  This is a great place for a forest garden, nut trees, large ponds, dams, mushroom logs/hay bales, commercial crops (if you are considering this), barns, large trees used as windbreaks, and any other components that are used/harvested only a few times per year.
Frequency: Visit once a week to once a month

Permaculture Zone 4
Not everyone will have a Zone 4.  This is an area mainly used for pasture to graze larger domestic animals (sheep, goats, cows, pigs), firewood, timber, coppicing, and wild harvesting.  It is considered semi-wild.
Frequency: Visit a few times a month to a few times per year

Permaculture Zone 5
This is a permanant wild area.  This is a place to go and observe and learn from the designs in nature.  It is a place to enjoy the wild places of God's creation.  We do not intervene here.
Frequency: Visit frequently

Additional Comments on Permaculture Zones
In reality, Zones are NOT concentric circles.  Zones are designed based on the land you have and the functions you are trying to create.  You cannot create your individual pattern of Zones until you are actually on the land walking around.  Zones also are not always distinct.  They can be when divided by a fence, but more often to not they merge into each other.

Illustration of Zones from Toby Hemenway

Permaculture Zones are a great way to start thinking about practically applying Permaculture to where you live.  When designed properly, Zones will save you time, energy, and money. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Beneficial Insects: Lacewings

Lacewing Larva Eating a Caterpillar


Latin Name: Family Chrysopidae.  (Over 85 genera and 2,000 species in the world.)

Lacewing Larva Eating an Aphid

Why are they beneficial?
Larvae feed on soft-bodied pests, mealy bugs, scale, spider mites, thrips, caterpillars, whitefly, leafhoppers, and pest eggs.
They LOVE aphids!
A larva can eat 100-200 aphids per week.
Many adults do not feed on other insects but on nectar and pollen; however, some adults (like the common Chrysopa genus - the "common green lacewing") are voracious eaters of pests in the garden as well.

What is their life cycle?
The female will lay her eggs (200-300 in her life) in a small cluster on a plant leaf or stem.
The eggs are suspended on a hair-like stalk.
In a few days, the eggs hatch into larvae.
The larvae mature and grow for 1-3 weeks depending on environmental conditions.
When mature, the larvae pupate (go into a cocoon-like stage).
In about 5 days, the adults emerge.

What do they look like?
This is important.  Most people only know what the adult looks like.  Here is what to look for in all stages of the life cycle.
Single Lacewing Eggs

Lacewing Egg Cluster

Lacewing Eggs and Thumb (for size)

Newly Hatched Lacewing Larvae

Green Lacewing Larvae Feeding on Whiteflies
Note that Lacewing Larvae are about 1/2 inch in length.

Green Lacewing Larva Feeding on Aphids.
Note that different species have different color patterns, but are basically the same shape.

Lacewing Pupa

Adult Lacewing

Adult Lacewing (for size)

Adult Lacewing.
Note that colors and spots may be different with different species, but size and shape are about the same.

What do they need?
Prey: Lacewing Larvae feed on soft-bodied pests, mealy bugs, scale, spider mites, thrips, caterpillars, whitefly, leafhoppers, and pest eggs.
Food: While some adult Lacewings are carnivoers and will eat the prey items above, all adult Lacewings should have nectar and pollen from flowers that have shallow clusters or are umbrella shaped to ensure reproduction... and more larvae!
Examples of plants that provide nectar and pollen to Lacewings:  basket of gold, buckwheat, butterfly weed, carpet bugleweed, chamomile, chervil, chives, clover, cornflower, cosmos, coreopsis, cinquefoil, coriander, dandelion, dill, fennel, four-wing saltbush, golden marguerite, marigold, mustard, parsley, queen anne's lace, scented geraniums, spike speedwell, sunflowers, tansy, vetch, wild carrot, yarrow).
Lacewings also need places to overwinter - loose mulch, leaf litter, under rocks, etc. 
Some Lacewings will overwinter in the pupal (cocoon) stage.

Check out these other pages on beneficial insects in your garden!
Praying Mantis
Trichogramma Wasps

Permaculture Projects: Sheet Mulching

I had a good friend recently ask me about techniques for preparing soil for planting a garden bed.  The goal in Permaculture is to establish a system that builds the fertility of the soil with minimal work.  This requires two things: a good start and a design that is self sufficient.  This post is going to deal with the first part... a good start.

The technique with which I have had the most success when starting a garden bed is sheet mulching. This is not a brand new idea, nor is it something I developed.  There are many examples out there to use as guides.  I do prefer the method as described by Toby Hemenway in Gaia's Garden.  Here it is:

The Ultimate Sheet Mulch

My method of implementing the Ultimate Sheet Mulch:
1. Chop any vegetation and leave where it stands.  This includes all herbaceous plants.  If you can cut the woody plants into small enough pieces that is great.  If not you may need to move the larger woody pieces.  Don't worry about grass and small surface plants.
2. Breakup the soil with a shovel.  Step on the shovel to dig the blade in deep.  Then work the handle back and forth to let some air in.  Take out the shovel and move to the next spot about 5-7 inches in front or behind (depending on which way you are going).  Perform this aeration over the entire garden bed.
3. Water the whole area to get things nice and soaked.
3. Lay cardboard down over the entire area.  Overlap at least 6 inches, 8-12 inches is even better to prevent shoots from working through.  You can use multiple layers of newspaper for the same effect, but cardboard doesn't blow away as much.
4. Water this layer again until all the paper is nice and saturated.
5. Thin layer of manure if you have it.  I've used composted manure, uncomposted manure, from cattle and from horses. I haven't noticed a huge difference.
6. Water everything again.
7. As close to a foot of bulk organic matter (hay, straw, dried out lawn clippings, whatever you can find).
8. A few inches of compost.
9. A few inches of mulch.  This can be straw, leaves, wood chips, or any other seedless material.
10. Plant right into it.
11. OR cover with dark plastic for a few months in the sun and let it compost down.  When you do plant into after removing the plastic, you will probably need another few inches of mulch.

I think any variation of the above will work pretty well.  The key is an initial grass killing layer (newspaper or cardboard), a bunch of organic matter, then a SEEDLESS mulch layer. 

Here is a pretty well made video showing the results of sheet mulching.

Permaculture Projects: Seed Balls

Seed Balls: What are they and how do you make them?

Seed balls are a great permaculture technique for spreading seeds in a desired location.  These are small balls of clay, compost, and seeds that are dried and are easy to toss.  Because they are dried out, the seeds inside do not germinate.  They are protected from predators (ants, birds, etc).  When the rains come, the clay slowly "melts" away, and the seeds in the compost are ready to germinate and grow.  This is an easy project with which even kids can help.

Sprouting Seed Balls

The basic recipe for seed balls is as follows:
1 part seeds (can be a single species or a seed mix that you make)
3 parts compost (ideally fresh, live compost or humus with mycorrhizal fungi soil inoculates)
5 parts powdered clay (ideally red or brown clay from a pond bank or other natural source, but you can buy red clay used to make terra cotta pots).
Water as needed

A Single Seed Ball

Instructions for making seed balls:
1. Add 1 part seed mix in a large bowl
2. Add 3 parts compost and mix thoroughly
3. Optional - add dried red pepper powder or other natural irritant to prevent birds/bugs from eating the seeds if the seed balls only partially melt in a light rain
4. Add 5 parts of powdered clay
5. Begin mixing and slowly add water to a "bread dough" consistency
6. Take a small amount and role it into balls about 1 inch in diameter
7. Let dry (ideally in the sun) for 24-48 hrs, until hard
8. Store for use in a dry location
9. Spread anywhere you want your seeds to grow.  They can sit in a field for months!

Dried Seed Balls Ready To Go!

Here is a very good video on making seed balls using a couple of techniques (it is not very well produced, but the information is outstanding).

The Von Bachmayr Drum

For those who want to mass produce seed balls, the use of a Von Bachmayr Drum is a huge timesaver.  Here is a link to step-by-step instructions for a Von Bachmayr Seed Ball Drum.

Here is a human powered rolling drum adapted from the Von Bachmayr design.