Our ingenious forest garden watering system

As Michael and I were scheming together on the design of the new bike shelter, we saw the potential for it to do more than just protect our wheels from the elements. Being adjacent to our recently installed mini-forest garden, the new structure was a perfectly placed to act as a passive catchment surface.

With that idea in mind, we designed the corrugated metal roof of the shelter to slope gently towards the east, where falling precipitation drains into a gutter. From there, it travels into a perforated tube (scavenged from a defunct French drain) that Michael hung with wire to coil around the canopy of the crabapple tree. In a large rain event, water flowing into the coil falls through the perforations and onto the garden in a beautiful sheet pattern.

The results have been stunning. Within weeks, the plants that benefited most from our passive watering system shot up in growth and looked more vital than before. We’re excited about seeing how the system holds up, and improving on the design in other contexts.


  • Reduces dependence on energy-intensive and chlorinated tap water
  • Increases utility of water flows arriving on site
  • System was constructed from scavenged and upcycled materials
  • Looks pretty darn cool, especially in the rain

Observations for improvement:

  • The coil works well only in a heavy rain – and even then, the water only makes its way about halfway around the tree. This could be altered by adjusting the number and size of holes, as well as the slopes of the catchment surface and coil.
  • The weight of the coil puts a small amount of stress on the branches of the crabapple tree. An older tree would handle the weight just fine.
  • Some of the species, such as bunching onion and strawberry, still require some hand-watering. More drought-tolerant species would be ideal
  • The fact that rainwater is directed to the surface, rather than the root zone, means that a good deal is lost to evaporation (although this is mitigated by the straw mulch)

Video: Cityfarming the Front Range

The Wall Street Journal, that verdiest of periodicals, gave some video love to cityfarming recently. For some reason the story passed over such exemplary urban efforts as Philadelphia’s profitable Somerton Tanks and Oakland’s charitable City Slicker Farms in favor of a couple folks working in my home state of Colorado: Kipp Nash, the founder of Boulder yardfarming network Community Roots, and Denver first-timer Debbie Dalrymple. Not that I’m complainin’.

Urban Permaculture Part 1: Waste = Food

While I might not be doing a whole lot of posting these days, Andrew Faust is keeping himself busy on the blogosphere. The following is the first piece in a series, cross-posted on Green Brooklyn, on how permaculture principles can apply to urban settings, specifically in NYC.

– Adam 

An Ecological Design View of Brooklyn and New York CityPermaculture works with whole systems integrated ecological design goals. We create designs based on our understandings of how the earth works and what human beings truly need for a high quality of life. As a person practicing and teaching permaculture design in New York City, I describe the goal of permaculture as: to create ecologically intelligent designs for human settlements.

In part we accomplish this by creating more regionally self-sufficient, local economies. I call it retrofitting the infrastructure. Instead of centralized mass production, the commodification of basic necessities and the long distance transportation of goods and energy services, we want to shorten the distance of transmission of all goods and services, this improves quality, efficiency and creates truer food security. In permaculture design we seek to close the loop on linear energy and nutrient flows.

In this series we will look at what these design goals offer in the way of insights and opportunities to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Brooklyn and New York City overall. Some of the key urban permaculture issues we will explore through this series:

  • Bringing ecological design to New York cities infrastructure
  • Water issues, air quality, soil contamination
  • Boosting our vitality and health
  • Creating healthy architecture
  • Greening urban environments
  • Bringing food production, trees and biodiversity back into urban landscapes

In whole systems design analysis everything is interconnected and pollution is a result of an unused excess. We want high urban density areas like New York City and Brooklyn to begin to generate and properly digest some of its vast quantity of imported and exported nutrients. By adopting this goal we will address a range of interconnected realities which I shall outline herein.

Some facts and figures to get us rolling:

  • New York City population: 8,250,567 as of 2006
  • New York City imports 20,000 tons of food a day
  • New York City exports 13,000 tons of trash a day
  • 40% of New York’s trash is organic matter
  • 600 diesel fume spewing tractor trailers a day haul this trash in a nine mile long convoy to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and Idaho
  • The average NYC household throws out 2 pounds of organic “waste” a day = 1 million tons a year
  • There are 12,000 vacant lots in New York City which are publicly owned

So let’s connect the dots. The way to improve this highly energy intensive and pollution producing linear flow is to begin composting this organic matter, turning this “waste” into a resource. We need to have accessible and well maintained ways to compost properly throughout New York City and Brooklyn. We need to begin composting on a citywide — as well as individual household — level. Start small and remember one person beginning to compost makes a big difference.

On the 12,000 publicly owned vacant lots we can compost this organic material and start community gardens, biodiversity reserves, tree farms, orchards and small inner city farms.

One of our ideas in Permaculture is that within the problem lies the solution. These are a couple of clear examples of how this works.

In Brooklyn there are many brownfields and other contaminated old industrial sites.

An Ecological Design View of Brooklyn and New York CityOne of the most successful ways to bring back a contaminated site is to begin to introduce living soil (i.e. compost), a diverse vegetative community and mushrooms and fungi. The microbes and enzymes in living soil breakdown a wide range of harmful synthetic chemicals and certain plant species are known to sequester heavy metals, enabling the gathering and reclamation of these metals.

In our upcoming postings on Urban Permaculture we will look at the dynamic processes by which nature provides us with healthy air, water and food. We will look into the many ways to bring these essential ecological elements back into our urban landscapes.

This Urban Permaculture series addresses a range of ecological issues in New York City and Brooklyn and presents permaculture design solutions to these city-wide problems. For more information about Andrew Faust and his Permaculture Design in NYC class, please go to The Center for Bioregional Living at www.homebiome.com.

Of Pressure Cookers and Black Radish French Fries: How to Keep it Local in the Wintertime

By Adam Brock

With a million farmer’s markets, CSAs, and green restaurants starting up in the New York area, it’s getting easier and easier to eat locally – that is, between April and November. But what about during the dark, cold days of winter? Without all those local peaches and basil, it might seem like time to turn to Chile and California, but in fact there’s an abundance of great local food even in January – it just requires a different approach. I asked a bunch of my locavore pals how they dealt with the challenge, and was amazed with the feast of solutions they presented.

First up are some tips from Annie Myers of Thoughts On The Table:

  • If you eat meat (smartly, of course) there’s plenty of it this time of year. Check out: 3-Corner Field Farm (Karen sells at the Union Square Greenmarket) and DiPaolo Turkey (also at Union Square, and several other greenmarkets).
  • Root vegetables are in! And they’re my favorite, to be honest. beets, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, potatoes…are always good roasted with oil and salt, pureed thick or thin, boiled in soups, or made into spreads.
  • Use milk and cheese! Especially as part of recipes with the root veggies. The animals need a rest at some point during the year of course, but it’s not necessarily this one! And plenty of cheesemakers are making their winter cheeses. go to the Greenmarket, or to Saxelby Cheesemongers at the Essex Street Market, for plenty of local cheeses, and Ronnybrook and Evan’s Farmhouse Creamery for milk and yogurt.
  • Embrace the bread. Bakeries may not be using local grains, but I’m working on finding more of that, and in any case, it’s a good time of year to support your local baker. And there are always local jams and spreads available, preserved from the summer.
  • Greenhouse tomatoes are great. Expensive, yes, but just as good as the summer ones.
  • Can or pickle the root vegetables! And if you pickle beets, don’t put more than one or two cloves in the jar, like I did. You’ll get something that tastes like beet-shaped cloves.
  • Embrace local businesses. If it feels like local products aren’t plentiful enough for you, it’s still “locavore” to avoid large companies, brands, and mass-produced foods, and support artisan work (like the baker), rather than industrial machinery.

My friend Abby Rosenbaum seconds Annie’s thoughts on root vegetables and canning, and also suggests making the most of dried fruits and beans.

Andrew Faust, permaculturalist and founder of the Center for Bioregional Living, gives us this handy list of veggies to buy (and grow!):

  • All root crops: potatoes, garlic, turnips, celeriacs. Especially experiment with, say, black radish french fries, or rutbaga with your mashed potatoes.
  • For leaf crops: kale, collards, dandelion, chickories
  • Be starting mizuna, purple mustard, arugula and lettuce in indoor window boxes or pots.
  • Cabbage (fermented and fresh), carrots and beets

Finally, Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally gives us a cornucopia of tips for buying and cooking local winter foods like a pro:

First, let’s put to rest the notion that the winter pickin’s at the Greenmarket are slim. OK, so there’s not much in the way of salad greens, but we are, in fact, blessed with an abundance of root vegetables, squashes, apples, pears, and the meat, dairy, and bread vendors don’t go into hibernation either.

Thanks to our globalized food chain, though, we’ve grown so used to an eternal summer of hothouse tomatoes and raspberries from Chile that everyone turns up their noses at turnips. And the sweet potato’s only invited to most American dinner tables once a year, on Thanksgiving—what a waste of a versatile, nutritious and tasty tuber. Other root vegetables I’m especially fond of are parsnips and beets— if you can find beets with the greens intact, you get two vegetables for the price of one, because beet greens are essentially the same as Swiss chard.

Winter produce does require a bit more planning than summer’s eat-it-now bounty; you have to buy your Bosc pears a few days beforehand and let them ripen, and most root vegetables are better eaten cooked than raw. On the other hand, you can buy a gorgeous heirloom squash and admire it for weeks or even months before making it into a soup or stew.

The Greenmarket’s obviously the ideal source for those looking to eat as locally as possible. But it does have its limitations; if you’re pursuing a predominantly plant-based diet for your own health as well as the health of the planet, you’ll want to include plenty of beans and whole grains in your diet, most of which are not produced locally. I have been able to find locally grown and milled corn meal, spelt flour, and buckwheat, but for other grains and beans I go to Integral Yoga, Life Thyme or Kalustyan’s.

There are some staples I end up buying at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, things like ginger, soy sauce, olive oil, lemons, canned fish and so on. But we strive to buy as much of our food from our local farmers as we possibly can. I’m more of a retrovore than a locavore, which is to say that I prefer the kind of food that pre-dates industrial agriculture—pasture-raised animal products, minimally processed foods, ideally from our own region whenever possible. No pears from Argentina or asparagus from Peru or garlic from China.

I go to the Greenmarket nearly every other day to bring our kitchen scraps to the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s drop-off site, so I’m in the habit of browsing the stalls and buying whatever looks good. I bring a list, but it’s best to be flexible—yesterday, my list called for red onions, blue potatoes, and garlic, none of which was available. So I came home instead with sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and an acorn squash. It’s all good, and if you’re not sure what to do with it, the Greenmarket booth has pages of simple and
tasty recipes there for the taking.

The thing that makes it so easy for me to cook up all this produce is a life-changing—and, sadly, rather expensive—appliance; the new, improved pressure cooker (not to be confused with the ones that our grandmas used, which had a reputation for blowing their tops off.) I use mine two or three times a day and can’t imagine life without it. It’s the ultimate low-carbon cooker, because it lets you make all kinds of dishes in a fraction of the time they would take to cook conventionally. It’s a godsend for making grains, beans, soups and stews and cooks any kind of vegetable you can think of in just a few

The Greenmarket is definitely a streamlined operation in the winter, but I know several farmers upstate who are devising ways to extend their growing season with alternatively heated greenhouses and other innovations, so I suspect we’ll have more variety in the future. In the meantime, though, take advantage of all the treats the market has to offer: the magenta-pink watermelon radishes that taste almost like jicama; Adirondack blue potatoes; Hawthorne Valley’s jalapeno sauerkraut; fresh-baked cider donuts from any of the apple vendors, and so on. Just go to the Greenmarket with an open mind–you’ll be sure to find something delicious and filling.

photo credit: flickr/ianqui 

Why Cityfarming? Because It’s Fair

By Adam Brock

The last decade has seen sustainability principles begin to redefine the way we do business – as the success of Somerton Tanks proves, even growing food in the city can be profitable. But while the green business revolution is far from over, the frontlines of environmentalism have begun shifting towards the next and final frontier in a triple-bottom-line society: equity.

The concept of environmental justice has been around for a couple decades, of course, but the last year or so has seen it move to the center of the sustainability discourse. Much of the credit probably goes to the charismatic director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Van Jones. With his mantra of “connecting the people who most need work with the work that most needs doing,” Jones landed a starring role in Tom Freidman’s column a couple months back and led a successful campaign to get a “Green Jobs For All” act included in the energy bill currently being debated in the house.

That legislation focuses on creating a new energy economy, training thousands of inner-city residents to weatherize homes, install solar panels, and the like. But what about food? As the locavore movement continues to pick up momentum and rising agricultural prices make food security a serious issue, this same enthusiasm could easily be applied to create a new generation of farmers in the city’s core.

No doubt, the inner city could use a farm or two. Gentrification may have transformed much of the urban landscape into a sea of Starbucks and lofts, but many neighborhoods remain ignored by creative-class types and municipal services alike. In these areas, decades-long patterns of disinvestment have led to the creation of “food deserts”: where the only sustenance around comes from overpriced corner stores and unhealthy fast-food chains. Forced to eat poorly in areas with bad air quality and little in the way of health care, low-income city dwellers are suffering dearly: according to a report from the New England Journal of Medicine, African American men are less likely to reach the age of 65 than men in Bangladesh.

It’s no surprise, then, that in food deserts across the country, cityfarming programs have begun sprouting from once-vacant lots – call them food oases. Programs like Detroit’s Black Community Food Security Network, the Cityslicker Farms in West Oakland, and Added Value in Brooklyn’s Red Hook are as diverse as the neighborhoods they’re in. Nearly all, though, share a strong emphasis on youth involvement and a commitment to feeding the hungry, whatever the cost.

One of the most successful food oases has been a Boston-area program simply called the Food Project. Founded in 1991, TFP puts 100 paid teenagers and thousands of volunteers to work on five small-scale urban plots and a 31-acre farm in rural Massachusetts. Cumulatively, the Food Project farms grow 250,000 pounds of produce per year, which is split evenly between donations to local shelters and sales from CSAs and farmers’ markets. The Food Project’s initial goals were successful enough that they’re now spreading the word across the country: in 2003 The Food Project launched BLAST, an initiative to develop a nationwide youth-led movement around sustainable food (of which the Real Food campaign is a part)

While, running an inner-city urban farm is perhaps one of the most noble pursuits of the regeneration, it’s also one of the most challenging. There’s yet to be a food oasis that earns a profit: even the Food Project only gets a tenth of its budget from sales. But the science of urban agriculture is still young, and much remains to be explored in terms of maximizing yield, growing unconventional crops, and creative methods of outreach and revenue generation.

How might the first moneymaking food oasis go down? Let’s posit an intrepid group of urban farmers on the edge of gentrification – in Bed-Stuy, perhaps, or Chicago’s Southeast Side– that manage to secure $100,000 in start-up capital and a half-acre of free land. The farm is managed by a three-person paid staff, with the rest of the labor coming from community gardeners, interns, and school programs. At first, the soil on the site is of poor quality and contaminated with heavy metals, so the initial crops are grown in raised beds and self-watering containers while a program of compost and bioremediation works to restore fertility to the soil below. The growing space is split 50/50 between nutritional staples destined for the nearby local food banks, and high-value crops like berries and lettuce for CSAs and farmer’s markets.

After three years, the container gardens are thriving, but the grants have run out and the project is barely making enough revenue to sustain itself. To further its income, the program works out a deal with a nearby commercial kitchen to make value-added products like salsa and jam to sell at the farmers’ market. Fast forward another few years, and the farm is earning a hefty profit from the salsa as well as from a successful gourmet mushroom business. Some of these profits enable the construction of a small greenhouse for lucrative aquaculture and winter tomatoes…

…and so on. Sounds unrealistic? Perhaps it is, at this point, anyway. But dismissing it as too idealistic can only guarantee failure. If, on the other hand, we aim to feed the poor, restore nature to the city and turn a profit all at once – well, it just might happen despite ourselves.