Archive for the ‘Recycling Wastes to Resources’ Category

Help Your Garden Help Others: Donate Excess Produce Locally, with AmpleHarvest.org

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Backyard gardeners can help change this shocking number – click image for a running tab of the pounds of food wasted in the U.S. since the beginning of 2014.

How is it that one of out of every six Americans experience food insecurity when there is more than an adequate supply of food potentially available? A broken food system is big part of this issue and one of the many reasons I started the Intervale Center 30 years ago (more on that below.) 

According to both the National Resource Defense Council and the US Department of Agriculture, we throw away a pound of food per person per day in this country, or well over 100 billion pounds of food per year. Some estimate this to be more than enough to totally eliminate hunger in America. You can view a thought provoking image that gives a running tab on the 40% of food wasted since the beginning of 2014.  

Not included in these statistics is the volume of home-grown produce discarded by us, the more than 40 million gardeners across the U.S. Why do we it? Sometimes our plants produce far more fruits and vegetables than we could possibly use, preserve or give away. It is not uncommon for tomato plants to bear 20 to 40 or more fruit each, more than we can use. Many other crops, such as peppers, cucumbers, squash, citrus, apples and peaches, also produce abundant harvest.

And our neighbors and friends can only use so much. Until recently, it's been difficult to find food shelves that would accept fresh harvests due to space and refrigeration issues. But now, thanks to Gary Oppenheimer of AmpleHarvest.org, you can harvest your excess and get it into the hands of hungry children and adults who need it. 

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When the nearest peat bog is 4000 miles away…try coconut!

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Gardeners know that plants grow best in soil that is fertile, well drained, moisture retentive and alive with biological life. When we are not blessed with good soil, adding organic fertilizers can be an effective Band-Aid. But the best long-term solution is to build up the soil and stimulate beneficial soil life by adding organic matter — especially compost and mulch.

Good soil is also important when starting seeds and growing flowers or vegetables in containers. In these growing conditions, plants need soil that’s lighter and more moisture retentive than even the best garden soil. Time and again we have found that the ideal growing medium is a blend of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite.

Here in the US, we have easy access to a number of different peat-based growing mediums and soil conditioners. But in Costa Rica, where my wife Lynette and I garden from January to April, these materials are very expensive and difficult to find. Vermiculite and perlite are made from minerals that are mined in distant locations and their production requires high heat and industrial kilns. Peat moss is made from decayed, compressed sphagnum moss that’s harvested from peat bogs 4000 miles away in northern Canada. 

Without access to these excellent soil conditioners, it was hard to imagine how we could start seeds, garden in containers and lighten up the heavy clay soils that are so typical in the part of Costa Rica where we live. Fortunately, nature has provided a local alternative. We are learning that coir – the fibrous waste product from the outer shells of coconuts – is a good substitute for peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. Throughout the tropics, coconuts are harvested for their water, meat and oil.* Now their shells are proving to be valuable as well.

Finding effective soil conditioners is important for the success of our personal garden, but it’s even more important for the success of Mi Tierra, the 5-acre organic fruit and vegetable farm that we operate in Costa Rica. This winter we discovered that 50-pound bags of compressed coir are readily available just a few hours away. Elias Rodriguez, the farm manager of Mi Tierra, screened these blocks of compressed coir to remove lumps and create a uniformly textured growing medium that’s perfect for seed starting, transplanting and growing in containers. Even the lumps are being put to good use. When mixed into the heavy clay soil, they lighten it and improve the tilth. This soil conditioning property is proving especially effective in areas where we transplant crops such as watermelons and squash.

Nature has given coir unique hydrological qualities. Under a microscope, each coir fiber looks like a bundle of straws. When coir absorbs water, it holds the moisture inside, rather than around these fibers. For this reason, wet coir doesn’t really “feel” wet because most of the moisture is held inside the fibers. 

All our tests with coir have been encouraging. We have had good results with a coir-based seed starting mix. Our tests using coir as a soil amendment for field crops also look promising. When mixed into the soil, coir lasts longer than compost or leaf mulch, which is an important benefit in tropical climates. Coir’s unique microstructure also makes it more effective than peat moss for maintaining aeration and minimizing water logging.

Our highest hopes for coir are as a growing medium in container gardening. With the farm’s generally poor soils and many challenges to making an adequate supply of compost, plus strong winds, torrential rains, soil diseases, insect pests and troublesome animals (iguanas, monkeys, opossum), we have come to the conclusion that to maintain a consistent output of produce, some crops need to be grown in containers.

In our current container growing trials we are comparing pure coir to the growing mix we’ve been producing ourselves for the past 5 years. We’re also comparing several different organic fertilization protocols, including a slow-release organic fertilizer. We are growing in reused plastic rice bags linked to a drip irrigation system, and are experimenting with preformed cubes of compressed coir that are currently being used in the commercial greenhouse industry. If these tests are successful, the farm could significantly increase the amount of local, organic food it produces. Ideally we can be bringing fruit and vegetables to market 9 to 10 months per year rather than just 3-4 months.

* See also "What’s the easiest and most important (tropical) plant gardeners can grow?".

 
 

Elias Rodriquez, farm manager of Mi Tierra, with a bag of screened coir. Bulk coir must be screened before use to remove big lumps.
 

 

 

Elias next to watermelons, newly transplanted into heavy clay soil that’s been amended with coir. The cages protect against garobos, which are large omnivorous iguana-like lizards that eat almost everything that isn’t protected.
 

 

My wife Lynette with some of the reused rice bags filled with coir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seedlings started in coir. In the background is a coir brick ready to be hydrated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are growing eggplants and cucumbers in both coir and a local soil mix. We’re also testing various organic fertilizers and are experimenting with windbreak netting.

 

 

 

These tomatoes are growing in pure coir with slow release organic fertilizer and drip irrigation. The surrounding fence protects against iguanas and opossum.

 

Pushing ‘Start’ on Vermont’s New Energy Future, and a New, Sustainable Economy

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Recently in Brattleboro, a southern Vermont town often noticed for its independent thinking and activism, Vermont’s U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D) made an important public appearance.

He was in town not to campaign for another Senate term (which he won again this Election Day, by the way), but to usher in a new energy future. With a single keystroke on a laptop computer, Senator Leahy did much more than start a 250-kw generator: He sent the message that Vermont is thinking forward and setting a new standard when it comes to the environment and the economy.

Carbon Harvest Energy, a two-year-old company based in Burlington, created the “Brattleboro Renewable Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Project” to revive an offline landfill—which decades ago generated methane gas for energy—and to eventually turn it into the first link in a chain that uses and reuses power and virtually every waste product generated for good. When complete, it will be the first integrated, renewable energy-to-agriculture, algae feed and biodiesel project in the country: Burning the methane for power will offset roughly the equivalent of 20,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, and a portion of leftover CO2 will be harvested for algae production.

The project also integrated the thoughts of open-minded leaders from the Windham Solid Waste Management District, Central Vermont Public Service (the area electrical utility), the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School, the Brattleboro Select Board, and even the Vermont Foodbank. Together, they cooperated and brainstormed to find ways to have the closed landfill benefit as many systems, and people, as possible.

At this stage, the landfill’s methane gas will run the generator at the power plant, creating enough electricity to power 300 homes (while sequestering harmful greenhouse gasses). CVPS will buy that power at a slightly higher-than-usual, State-authorized feed-in tariff rate rate.

The “waste” heat produced through that process actually won’t be wasted at all: CHE will construct a combined heat and power (CHP) generation plant that will supply low-cost energy and heat to a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse and aquaculture operation. Year-round, the greenhouse and aquaculture will produce fresh, healthy, locally produced vegetables and fish for sale to customers, with a portion provided to the Vermont Foodbank.

The fish will provide high-nutrient-content, organic waste to help grow the vegetables, and the 30,000 gallons of water they live in will be reused to grow beneficial algae for a research and development effort at UVM. Ultimately, that algae will become animal feed and an ingredient in biofuel.

This innovative project demonstrates the way that creative, open-minded leaders can take a system that seems to bet set in stone—store solid waste, release harmful greenhouse gases—and turn it on its ear, integrating science, technology, nature and community into a sustainable cycle that benefits society on so many levels. Most important, by generating electricity from the waste—and producing food and fuel—while preventing greenhouse gases from contributing to global warming, it shows we can redesign industrial systems to achieve both economic and ecological benefits.

Could Vermont’s energy future be profitable, as well as “No fossil fuels required!”? CHE is demonstrating that it can.

***

You can see diagrams of how the project works, as well as photographs at various stages of construction, at Carbon Harvest Energy’s web site.

To read local Vermont coverage of the generator start-up event, visit these sites: local Fox 44 News and commonsnews.org