Our times are changing rapidly. This is occurring on many fronts, but few more rapidly than with our food supply.
Examples include the increasing number of national outbreaks of e-coli bacteria in our meat and vegetables, the growing trend towards genetically modified foods (GMO’s), ever present undercurrent of our food being sprayed with chemicals ranging from pesticides and insecticides to herbicides and fungicides, and the nutrient depletion due to modern farming methods.
Along with this are the precarious transportation issues that come with shipping produce from hundreds and thousands of miles from other states and countries. To do this often involves harvesting produce while still unripe and gassing them with bromides to accelerate ripening while still at the processing plant. After the long trip from the farm to the dinner table, much of the nutritional value of the food is depleted.
This all brings us to a personal cross-road. Do we simply continue on this path, or do we take our personal food production and thus supply, into our own hands? The growing trend points to the latter. Non-conventional food sources are cropping up all over the country. A few examples include small “mom and pop” micro-farms, CSA’s (community supported agriculture), food cooperatives, and backyard farms.
By far the most popular of all these endeavors are the backyard farms. These are ordinary backyards that have been transformed into personal farms, sometimes called TransFarms.
TransFarming incorporates the rapidly vanishing wisdom of our recent ancestors, while incorporating modern components and techniques that work in harmony with each other to support the entire growing cycle. Given a deliberate, calculated integration of these specific components and supports, a much higher “rate of return” is realized beyond each component by itself, while providing sustainability.
Backup and Redundancy
The pioneers must have done something right, after all we are here. They figured something out. They understood the importance of backup and redundancy. They used these two approaches to ensure they would have sufficient food in case of unexpected catastrophe. But how would this work in a modern “backyard” setting?
Over the past year, an organization called The Texas Aquaponic and TransFarming Group has embarked on a mission to figure this out. As a result, they have helped develop many different methods of producing clean, healthy food in a backyard setting, while focusing on backup and redundancy.
A possible backyard scenario may include plant cuttings (waste) from an organic garden being used to feed a rabbit. The rabbit’s slightly acidic and enriched litter goes to the berry bushes and gardens as highly fertilized mulch. What the bunny doesn’t eat goes to the egg laying chickens. They do their business on the hay which produces “highly-fertilized hay” which is used for ground cover in the garden. What neither of them eats is destined for the composter where mulch is made for the fruit trees. Nothing is wasted on a Transfarmed yard!
And then there is the Aquaponic system, a great addition to any food growing program. An Aquaponic system can create an unlimited supply of fertilized water for the gardens, an abundant year round produce crop, and great tasting clean fish to harvest. The occasional deceased fish fertilizes the garden also, just like the pilgrims did.
Additional supports for food growing such as worms that grow naturally in the gardens also feed the gardens, chickens, and fish, and are beneficial to an Aquaponic system itself.
Even a domesticated protection pet is part of the equation. A little dog will instinctively patrol the perimeter and keeps out squirrels, cats, possums, other vermin, especially those pesky chicken loving raccoons. Any dog will do, as long as they are smart enough not to dig up your gardens and attack the chickens.
The end of the waste chain for each system is the beginning of the food chain for the others, and ultimately ours!
In a TransFarmed setting, there can be any number of time proven approaches to food production which are integrated with “modern” techniques that take into consideration our times. Some primary components may include Wicking beds, Aquaponics, HugelKultures, Tank gardens, Keyhole gardens, as well as conventional raised bed gardens. Other ancillary supporting components may include composting, water capture, vermiculture (worms), chickens, and rabbits. These all support the primary components. Several of these components are described in further detail below.
There is one factor that is paramount to all this…water.
Water, Water, Water.
At the core of all food production is water. Without it, nothing prospers. TransFarming is about “re-thinking” traditional gardening methods to address regional and environmental challenges such as droughts, water restrictions and disruptions,while keeping in mind techniques for prosperous food production. TransFarming involves growing food in ways that conserve water.
Weather wise, not much has changed from the days of our ancestors, but they used vastly different approaches to dealing with the climate than we do today. They did not worry about watering their lawns. Should we?
TransFarming techniques utilize two approaches to minimize water use – water conservation and water retention. Water conservation includes housing large amounts of water in a way that uses the minimal amount required to grow food. These may include Wicking beds and Aquaponic systems. Another approach is using the properties of decomposition to conserve water. Decaying organic matter such as logs and branches absorb water and release it, along with nutrients, during dry conditions. This approach may include a HugelKulture, Tank gardens, and Keyhole gardens. At times it may make sense to shade your gardens in the summer to minimize evaporation, or winter to help keep things warm. An inexpensive Monkey hut may be used.
Following are brief descriptions of some TransFarming components often used to minimize water use while growing food in the backyard.
Wicking beds have proven to be a viable solution to the Texas heat and water conservation. These simple structures, based on a raised bed garden, incorporate a reservoir underneath the bed to store water. The garden is watered through an exposed pipe which then wicks water upward through the soil to the roots where water is needed the most. There is minimal evaporation. Done correctly, watering is needed about once every three weeks, rather than twice times a day. Wicking beds are relevant in any location.
Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soil-less plant production). In a backyard Aquaponic system, the nutrient-rich water that results from raising fish in any sized tank provides a source of natural fertilizer for the growing plants. Water is pumped from the fish tank into the plant trough. As the plants consume the nutrients in the water, they help to purify the water which is returned to the fish tank to be re-fertilized. A naturally occurring microbial process keeps both the fish and plants healthy, and helps sustain an environment where everything thrives. Both the plants and fish can be harvested year-round. Aquaponics is relevant in any location.
A HugelKulture is a type of 3-dimentional raised bed garden that utilizes dead organic materials (logs and branches) that are too big to go in the compost. Decomposing wood absorbs water. While the HugelKulture can be planted immediately, over time, that is 3- 5 years, the materials in the bed decompose, and provide a slow release of nutrients for garden plants while creating an incredible mulch. Every year, it just gets better.
Because of its shape, a HugelKulture garden combines the multiple functions of rainwater harvesting, and irrigation using no cistern, pumps, or pvc pipes. Done properly, there may be no need to water all summer!
These wonderful structures are perfect for small yards and, like a Hugelkultures and Keyhole gardens, use compost as its method for retaining water while growing great food. The perimeter is simply rolled metal and available at any home improvement store. Since the border is made of metal, it will last for many years, only getting better each year due to the decomposition process.
A keyhole garden uses the same principle as a HugelKulture and Tank garden in that decomposing matter is used to absorb and retain water in the soil. Large amounts of “rotting” wood and kitchen scraps are used under the soil which is stacked within layers of cardboard and paper. After completion and planting, composting matter such as kitchen scraps are added to the bed via a foot-wide chute which nourishes the entire system. A wedge is created in the circular rock bed wall to provide easy access the chute, which makes the garden look like a keyhole when viewed from above.
Hoop House/Monkey Huts
One of the major concerns with growing food (and fish) in the winter and summer is the temperature. The wind does not help much either. Greenhouses are expensive, and any constructed structures tend to be somewhat permanent.
Enter the simple Monkey Hut. These structures are by their very nature flexible, and designed to withstand strong wind and rain (dust too). Built correctly, they are easily dis-assembled in the spring, or used to support a shade cloth in the summer.
Traditional Raised Bed Gardening
Traditional raised bed gardening involves selecting the correct structure and materials for a specific outcome base on environmental factors such as shading, sun path, wind direction and desired crop. Additionally, soil composition will play a very large part in crop success.
A simple small hoop house may be desirable to protect from direct sun and winter cold. Simply hammer a metal rod into the ground at the four corners leaving about three inches above ground. Take PVC pipe and place it over the metal rods and bend it over the bed to create a frame. Then cover with plastic. Raised beds are not very water efficient.
Worm composting is an excellent way to create organic matter for gardens and Aquaponic systems. They can be added directly to gardens and Aquaponic media beds, and also used to feed fish and chickens. Worms are important in the garden because they aerate the soil which helps lock in moisture.
The Bottom Line
As mentioned above, of key importance in any sustainable food growing effort is backup and redundancy. It is highly desirable to have as many different components available in your food growing system in case of stressful conditions or a failure in any one component. These components comprise a food growing “system” which is much more stable and reliable than a simple in the ground garden.
More information on each of these components and how to construct them is available at CleanFoodSolutions.org.