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One of the main themes of this blog is what might be called “applied ecology” – ways of healing the planet by creating, maintaining, and evolving ecological systems that are resilient and healthy for Earth and its inhabitants (including us).

acres of palm oil plantation, where Indonesian rain forest used to grow

all around the world, people are catching the ecology bug

They are finally realizing that spraying poisons on farms and home gardens to suppress bugs and weeds is Just Plain A Bad Idea, as butterflies and bees die out and birds fall out of the sky. They are noticing how we are fishing all the edible creatures out of the oceans, from krill to whales. They are seeing how the Amazon basin, Indonesian forests, and other natural treasures are being steadily turned into endless tracts of cattle pasture and monoculture plantations. These and dozens of other warning signs show clearly that our planet, our beloved Gaia, is desperately ill.

The more people notice these horrible trends, the more they are beginning to take action.

gorgeous green roof over a car park in Victoria, BC

big projects and big ideas

There are talented, courageous people producing documentaries, articles, and other large-scale media exposing the truth everywhere.

There are people with Big Ideas like desert-greening using solar seawater desalination, sustainable closed-cycle eco-aquaculture farms, green roofs and green walls, enclosed greenhouse eco-farms, innovative new farming ecosystems using unconventional species, and tons of other fabulous projects.

There is a huge amount of creative exploration going on, with some people spending lots of money and time on such ideas.

some very lucky chickens live here

smaller local efforts

Other people, a group much greater in numbers and adding members all the time, are acting on a more local level.

Some of these are home gardeners turning their lawns into healthy urban wildflower meadows. They are suburban families installing chicken coops and rabbit runs in their back yards, feeding their family farms with kitchen scraps and home-brewed compost. They are guerrilla gardeners, tossing native-plant seed bombs into vacant lots, spreading biodiversity everywhere. They are volunteers helping schools build eco-friendly organic gardens, farms, and composting systems.

Thousands and thousands of us, across the world, are waking up to the ecological imperative of re-growing the planet’s sustaining bounty in large and small ways, everywhere.

everything you see here is edible

a personal quest

Since I recently left the world of “working for a company” the personal quest has moved more and more deeply into the global applied ecology movement.

Personal goals now center on helping people imagine, design, install, and maintain all sorts of eco-friendly systems. I want to show people how to preserve species diversity by growing ecosystem gardens. I want to help people build and run backyard ecosystem farms, where nothing is wasted and excess production helps support the neighborhood, in exchange for kitchen scraps that feed the farm. I want to become a local resource for anyone who wants to be more ecologically attuned to the living systems of the planet.

This blog is offered as both a source of inspiration and an ongoing presentation of what I do. The aim is not only to do this on a local scale with friends and neighbors, but also to take part in the larger movement, possibly joining one or more bigger projects as seems appropriate.

I offer myself to Gaia, and to my fellow humans, as an agent of the global ecosystem. How can I work with you to preserve existing ecosystems and bring more healthy ecological diversity into the world?

some specific directions

There are many great ideas out there, some in development and some still just ideas. Here are some ideas you might find inspiring and interesting. Use your favorite search engine for more information about any of these rapidly evolving fields of applied ecology. There are lots of projects popping up all over the planet.

green wall in Paris, France

green roofs, green walls, and indoor ecospaces

Most buildings are little more than sterile boxes, with carefully controlled, unhealthy, dry air. What a waste of valuable space! The roofs, walls, and interiors of buildings can be so much more.

Instead of ecologically dead surfaces, we could have living greenery, soaking up pollution and releasing clean fresh oxygen. The greenery in turn can attract and support butterflies, birds, and bugs. It can even be “seeded” with wonderful life forms like earthworms, salamanders, and frogs. Indoor ecospaces are wonderfully healthy for humans who live there, since they provide clean air and living natural beauty.

Sahara desert used to look like this

rewilding

Gigantic parts of our planet have suffered enormous losses as a result of human activities.

There are huge deserts that used to be forests. There are endless tracts of grassy open space that used to feature fantastically varied natural life forms, but now only support bland mixtures of invasive generalist species.

All of this ecological devastation was directly or indirectly caused by the works of humans, often hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

The rewilding movement is about converting large and small tracts of land (and sea) into self-sustaining, diverse “wilderness” ecosystems.

The newly growing, managed wildland need not be exactly the same as the ancient ecoscape that was there before humans ruined it. In many cases it would be impossible to fully restore the ancient ecosystem, because of the presence of hard-to-remove introduced alien species. But with a little human intervention of the right kind, almost any bio-wasteland can be made much more diverse, much healthier ecologically, and much more productive for the planet as a whole, even if the species mix is not the same as the ancient original wildscape.

prickly lettuce, bearded iris, and a “living rock” with moss and lichens

ecosystem gardens

As a second-floor apartment dweller with an upstairs container garden and a small bit of actual earth downstairs, my own personal space for gardening is limited. But in this blog perhaps you can see what beautiful diversity is possible even in such a small space.

Here in this suburban zone, in this tiny space, there are hundreds of kinds of plants, including many unusual species that are quite hard to find in nearby gardens and lots. Where did all this variety come from?

I collect soil samples from many locations. There is a wonderful semi-wilderness creek near here, and there are many small areas that are allowed to mostly grow wild. A tiny handful of topsoil from such a place, properly nurtured, can yield up dozens of fascinating new seedlings of plants seldom seen in any “normal” garden.

After a while, such a garden of “collected volunteers” not only becomes a veritable botanical garden in its own right, it also begins to attract a fantastic variety of insects, birds, and other critters. You may see unusual butterflies, maybe even laying their eggs on your unusual plants (a good thing for sure!). You might find bees, beetles or plant-sucking bugs that are very, very rare in the local neighborhood – except, of course, in your garden!

It is one of my main goals to help people create ecosystem gardens, both locally in my neighborhood, and out there in the bigger world.

Read more about ecosystem gardens in another blog post.

wonderful compost “food”

ecosystem farms

If a farm produces any kind of “waste product” at all, it is not truly an ecosystem farm.

A typical pig farm produces tons of noxious pig poop, a kind of slop that is notoriously toxic and hard to deal with. Meanwhile, that wheatfield a few miles away gets plowed several times a year, releasing (and wasting) tons of blowing topsoil. Then it gets hyper-kicked by vast amounts of chemical fertilizers, before growing monoculture crops of grain grasses, most of whose biomass is removed from the land. Neither one is any kind of ecofarm.

But combine the pig farm with the wheat field, scale it down a bit, change the land to critter ratio, and add a few more subsystems, and we could design a true ecofarm where nothing is wasted. Its only inputs might be compostable wastes (maybe from customers!), sunshine, and rain and its only outputs might be edible or useful products.

As a partial first step toward the goal of self-sustaining ecofarms, some people are working on local inter-farm ecosystems, where one farm’s wastes become useful input for another farm of a different kind. This kind of inter-farm ecology is exactly right for suburban environments like Menlo Park, where I live.

One way I can participate in such a local farming ecosystem is by receiving your kitchen scraps and returning to you some of the valuable, power-packed compost I make from it. Another way is to give you seeds of some of the wonderful edible plants that grow here in my own garden. These are not only traditional vegs like carrots, chard, and radishes, but also delicious, nutritious plants like goosefoot, purslane, chickweed, and so much more.

rainforest in Australia’s Daintree Park

so much opportunity!

This is a rare time in human history. Not only are we fast approaching a dangerous, world-changing mega-crisis of overpopulation, pollution, and biosystem degradation, but we are also waking up and rapidly developing ways of healing and rebuilding those same vital biosystems. It is a spine-tingling, nail-biting time. Will the human race wake up quickly enough to save most of the existing biodiversity, or will the planet fall prey to a cataclysmic eco-disaster, in which only the hardiest generalist species will survive?

I want to live in a world in which Morpho butterflies still flit like blue metallic ghosts among the rain forests of South America. If you want these things too, please follow this blog, leave a comment (button is at upper left), or get in touch via nick [at] mindheart [dot] org. What can we do together to heal the Gaian biosphere?

Late Sunday afternoon the pale, milky cirrostratus clouds that had been filtering the sun all day thickened up and drew themselves together into patchy sprays of white. Curving tails of drifting ice crystals dropped down into the dryer air below, producing the iconic cirrus mares’ tails.

These are some of my favorite clouds. In this case, waves of moist air came pouring off the top of a cold front skirting the coast to the west. That front will probably give us some rain on Tuesday.

It was sheer good luck that I happened to glance straight up at this precise moment. It faded into view as I watched, and for less than thirty amazing seconds it glowed brightly: the rare, elusive, often fleeting circumzenithal arc!

Wow! I had seen this colorful skybow before, but never captured a photo of it. Camera ready, I snapped away. I was able to get several good shots before the arc faded out.

Circumzenithal arcs are among the brightest, most colorful of skybows. They are caused when sunlight hits flat ice crystals at a low angle, refracting the rays down and passing them out through a vertical side face. To form a CZA, the crystals must be very well aligned, almost all floating with their widest faces horizontal. This can only happen if the air flow within the cloud is very smooth and free of turbulence.

Because the sun angle must be low, CZAs only happen when the sun itself is low in the sky. Because they always happen near the zenith, where the clouds move past most quickly, they are usually very fleeting. One is lucky indeed to see it, and even luckier to get a photo.

The CZA has an even more colorful cousin, the circumhorizon arc, which can only happen when the sun is quite high in the sky. With the summer months coming, CHAs are becoming possible. If I can catch one I’ll certainly share it here!

On the whole, it was a very satisfying cloudscaped evening.

 

The first nasturtium bloom of the season is open, blazing in crimson glory in the morning sun. The photo does not begin to do justice to the velvety richness of the actual flower.

It’s not visible in the pictures because it ran away down into the neck of the flower when I surprised it, but there is a yellow crab spider here too. The flower has only been open a few hours, and already the little spider has found it – a perfectly matched flower to hide in.

Nasturtium flowers are edible, with a sharp, peppery flavor. They are great in salads. But don’t chop up these gorgeous little beauties! They need to be strewn on top, or added as a colorful garnish alongside. Throw in some blue and purple pansies for a true work of edible salad art!

While this amazing flower was posing for the camera, another bright red being came along. A spotted lady-beetle stopped by to lay some eggs on the bean sprouts. They are welcome there, because her babies are incredibly voracious aphid gobblers.

The presence of small critters like lady-beetles, aphids, and crab spiders is a good sign that a garden has a healthy local ecosystem.

Bring on the aphids, this garden is ready!

You may recall from previous posts that last year the little blueberry bush provided a grand total of nine plump, sweet berries. As you can see from these pictures, there are plenty of beautiful flowers this year – I’d say around 120 at least, on the whole plant.

While it is likely that not all of these flowers will set fruit, it definitely seems like the estimate of 20 berries for this year was a bit on the low side. This is exciting news for sure!

UPDATE: The berries came in and it looks like a bumper crop!

Another happy ecogarden citizen is this brightly colored Swiss chard plant, growing more and more rapidly as the weather warms up. Look at those gorgeous red veins!

Since this is an ecogarden, no plant is alone. Surrounding the chard plant are scarlet pimpernel (see the tiny orange flowers?), white flowering sorrel (in the dark background) and an abundance of other fun stuff. The chard’s leaves won’t be quite as huge as they might be on a commercial farm (because of sharing nutrients with the neighbors), but the flavor of any harvested leaves will no doubt be excellent.

You may also recall that the shade-handicapped stand of bearded iris has recently been bloom-free for three years.

Now that the big magnolia tree is gone, the iris plants are already looking much healthier in the sun. In fact, there are now gigantic, fat flower buds poking up.

On the whole, things are looking very happy in the ecosystem garden. However, like any growing, human-managed garden, it needs some work now and then.

As you may be able to see in the last picture, it is about time to do another thinning.

The little winter cress (low, fuzzy looking brownish stuff just left of the path) is now in the last stages of seeding. It’s time to pull it out (gently!) before the property owner comes around and complains about the “weeds” in the garden.

There are also some mature dandelion plants ready to be harvested, just to the right of the irises, at the base of the blueberry bush (which is nearly impossible to see in this picture). You might see their reddish flower stems, now topped by seed heads that have lost most of the fluffy seeds. The dandelion roots are edible and full of great vitamins, well worth digging up. Naturally, when I pull them out I will use appropriate tools and try to disturb the soil ecosystem as little as possible.

There are also many patches of sorrel (four different kinds!) that need serious reduction before they take over the whole space. The sorrels are also edible and delicious, if a bit tangy.

In addition, there are radishes, chickweed, lambs quarter, plantain, lemon balm, mint, green peas, and several other edible herbs ready to be harvested. Looks like a nice salad is coming tonight.

One of the most prized and interesting ecogarden community plants is this stinging nettle. It lives in a container, which is especially important for this very vigorous and prolific beauty. It spreads via underground root-shoots and if allowed to it would fill vast areas.

Of course the most well-known property of stinging nettle is how just-plain-painful it can be to touch it the wrong way. It’s really that bad… those thousands of little needles are like tiny syringes, instantly injecting a whole cocktail of nasty chemicals designed to cause maximum annoyance under the skin of any mammal.

Nettles are actually edible and full of protein, vitamins, and other goodness. Dried or cooked, the needles lose their sting. It makes a good tea.

There are a bunch of alleged remedies for nettle stings, including the juices of various herbs. I find that if I can get to the hose within a few seconds, a very hard spray of water directly onto the stung area for at least 30 seconds does a great job of flushing the nasty chemicals from the injection point. It still stings, but the hurt goes away a lot faster.

When visitors come to the ecogarden, I try to remember to warn them about the dangerous “nettle zone” of the upstairs deck. Also present in this happy container: a dozen or more fat sunchoke tubers (unharvested as yet, partly because of the nettles in the way). In the above photo you can see their sprouts just coming up – there’s one down at the front, just to the right of the gray rock. There are also smaller herbs including chickweed, strawberry, fringed willow-herb, sorrel, Santa Barbara daisy, and more.

See what this container ecogarden looks like by the middle of May, when the nettles are blooming.

Read more about stinging nettle in this fascinating Wikipedia article

Oh God, the colors, the colors…

Five minutes after this was taken, the eastern sky was an even span of yellowish-pink. For dawn and sunset clouds, sun angle is absolutely critical.

For these handheld pictures with changing, difficult lighting I use a Nikon D-80 on shutter priority, and the camera self-adjusts the f-stop and ISO rating for 1/200 second. It’s amazing what good pictures it can take when it’s properly programmed. I love this happy, faithful camera!

It looks like our rainy spell is over. Storm track will likely trend north of Bay Area for a while.

The garden is calling. I hear you!

 

The wind is gusting, the air is alive with moisture, and a beautiful cold front is coming in off the ocean. What a great way to start a Saturday!

Radar shows the front roiling and churning just off the coast. The weather forecast says up to 1/2″ of rain. We’ll see — it looks like the front is moving pretty fast.

It’s interesting how the wind comes and goes. As I write this, it’s fairly quiet. But a few minutes ago, it was blowing like crazy.

Okay, Mom nature, do your stuff!