Saturday, April 30, 2011

Backyard food security

Here at Community Cultivators we like to highlight those folks who are really taking the ideas of sustainability to new heights. The backyard of Denton Weaver's home in Northeast Austin is a prime example. Through the use of recycled materials, a strong imagination and a vision for highly productive food systems, Denton has created something we can't help but recognize as a revolution in local food security.

More than just a backyard garden, Denton looks for ways to put our waste to work... producing food for himself and the community. In what would otherwise be an average backyard, Denton has begun to explore new and creative ways to produce a large amount of food in a very small space. He does this through an innovative system known as "Aquaponics".

Aquaponics takes the familiar systems of Aquaculture (farming of fish) and Hydroponics (plants grown in liquid medium) and bridges them together to create a closed-loop system that produces almost no waste and is capable of unbelievable productivity. Perhaps the most astounding and promising aspect of this bio-integrated method of food production is the incredible lack of water being used compared to conventional gardening systems.

In a conventional garden, you might have to water daily to keep your plants happy and productive. Much of this water seeps through the soil or evaporates before your plants can put it to use. Often times this escaping water takes many of the vital nutrients, those essential building blocks of healthy plant growth, with it as it leaches away. The "closed-loop" water circulation within an aquaponics system resolves this loss of vital nutrients and water through a symbiotic relationship between plants and fish.

In aquaponics, water is continually filtered through gravel beds where rhizobacteria and plant roots strip out the fish wastes, such as ammonia, nitrates, nitrites and phosphorus, that would otherwise build up and become toxic to fish. In turn, these fish wastes serve as liquid fertilizer for plants. Very little water is lost to evaporation and, unlike most traditional gardens, the water is continually recirculated requiring only 10% of what might be used to irrigate the same amount of produce in a typical garden.

Denton prepares his floating-raft grow-bed system in the
repurposed hull of small sailboat.
Looking something like a Rube Goldberg machine for gardeners, Denton's backyard system is built largely out of recycled materials.

"I found the old miniature sailboat hull on the side of the road with a 'free' sign on it!" Denton happily exclaims. "It just worked out that I was looking to experiment with a floating-raft design. It's my sunken boat garden!"

"The fish tank is a large sand filtration system for natural swimming pools I recovered from the dump. I'd say about 90% of the materials were on their way to the landfill."

There are many challenges to designs such as this and Denton has spent a considerable amount of time experimenting and retooling his designs.

"It's all a work in progress," he concedes. "We've just started to establish the grow-beds and we're still looking to find more fish."

Currently, Denton has only a single fish swimming around in his fish tank with a plan to add several more as the system stabilizes.

"Even with a minimal amount of fish solids, we've still managed to propagate several tree cuttings and the root systems of our water-loving lettuces are really healthy."

"Eventually I'd like to have several varieties of fish and other aquatic life. It's all about diversity and trying new things," he says with a smile.

There are a lot of reasons to appreciate that motto and it's one that Denton lives by.

"Soon I'd like to have enough food to start selling at the farmers market but, more than that, I'd like to show others how they can grow a ton of food in their backyards without a lot of waste."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Community Cultivators Bike Brigade of the East Austin Urban Farm Tour

One year ago sunday, the inception of Community Cultivators began at East Austin Urban Farm Tour. In a chance meeting, a vibrant community would soon take shape and come to be know as our now beloved Community Cultivators.

In honor of this most auspicious occasion, Community Cultivators invites you to join us on a Bike Brigade of this, the second annual, East Austin Urban Farm Tour.

Buy Tickets for the East Austin Urban Farm Tour here!

Tickets are only $35 and proceeds benefit the the Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance. Tour includes cooking demos and tastes by local celebrity chefs and samples of local wine, beer, and spirits!

We'll meet at the unforgettable Permaculture Park (3609 Pennsylvania Ave) at noon. We'll leave out for the Hausbar Farm at 12:45pm.

The pace will be slow and mellow to accommodate even the greenest riders and this event is 100% child friendly so bring along the tikes with bikes and remember, children under 12 get in FREE!!

If you can't make the meet and greet at the Permaculture Park, meet us at Hausbar Farm at 1pm or link up with the Bike Brigade anywhere along the way!

After an amazing day enjoying local fare and touring East Austin's wonderful Urban Farms, the Brigade will make the trek north to join other party goers to bid Mary Hess a loving farewell with more friends and fabulous food.

Please join us for this very special event in honor of the still very young but thriving Community of loving Cultivators!

Monday, April 4, 2011

The amazing progression of the Dead-end Homestead

In harmony with the beautiful Spring weather, the permaculture excitement continues to blossom on Austin's East side. The timing, in fact, has never been better to get involved! So many educational projects to work on, amazing people to connect with and delightful local dishes to savor... it's what we mean when we talk about community cultivation!

Thanks to the contributions of so many wonderful volunteers, the Dead-end Homestead has made some impressive transformations over the past two weekends. As Cooper's relaxed demeanor would suggest, the atmosphere is laid back and stress free. When the main goals of the day are to have fun, learn something new and cultivate new friendships... there's never a reason to rush.

At the same time, it's always very impressive to see the tons of projects we manage to knock out in short order on any given Sunday afternoon. The Mulch-crete hoophouse has only one more wall left to pour before it's ready for a layer of plaster to seal it all up. The swales have been cleaned out, mulched and drainage piping laid. Several compost piles have been spread around various fruit trees and grape vines. And several large piles of wood mulch have met a quick death at the end of a pitchfork. All the while, the ambiance remains one of relaxation and leisure. Take it from Cooper, life at the Dead-end Homestead is pretty darn sweet!

Speaking of sweet, this past week we were blessed with a somewhat impromptu wild bee capture workshop taught by Carrie "Queen Bee" Guipe. She showed us what we need to build "swarm boxes" and use those, scented with lemongrass oil, to attract wild bee swarms. After the bees establish a colony in one of our swarm boxes we can build them "top bar hives" so they can begin to build combs and produce delicious honey! The process is actually fairly simple and said to be mostly fool proof -- so long as you don't try to agitate the bees that is.

Carrie graciously set us up with all the plans, basic materials and laid down plenty of wisdom to get us started. Needless to say, she's sweet as honey, and it was very inspiring to have her stir up the dormant hive in us!

To continue on the path of organic design, Daryl Stewart, founder of and host of the Permaculture Park, the one acre site that makes up the core of the Dead-end Homestead, laid out this lovely walkway that makes a beautiful accent to the swale system traversing the land. Fed by the top swale on the property, this walkway will boarder and help to retain a small pond. If you're at all familiar with the Central Texas climate, we sometimes wait months for the rain. When it finally does bless us, we want to hold onto that water as long as possible or risk the serious drought conditions that have surely been the tragic end of many a backyard garden. Creating plenty of small retention ponds helps to keep the humidity high for our dry seasons and, better still, attracts an abundance of aquatic creatures that help us build balanced and resilient ecosystems we can all enjoy.

This and other projects at the Dead-end Homestead is only a fraction of the fun work cooking up. If you've yet to make it out to a Sunday Potluck yet, there has truly never been a better time! As the weather starts warming up and approaches the unbearable 'Jul-august' the work and fun slow down and we start seeking more indoor activities. The opportunity to get some practical, hands-on permaculture education awaits. Best of all, it's completely free of charge! Just bring some work gloves, a wide brimmed hat, some sturdy shoes and an open mind... the rest will come naturally.

If you can't make the work party, the potluck usually starts around sundown and is always accompanied by friendly faces, live music, interesting conversation and, of course, some of the best food Central Texas has to offer! If you come for the potluck be sure to bring at least one dish that will feed 6-8 happy people and, whenever possible, use only the freshest local fare. For those participating in the work parties, no need to bring anything aside from the aforementioned hat and gloves, we're more than happy to feed you and keep you hydrated! Of course, if you have a dish you just have to share... by all means, your generosity is an important part of what makes us a thriving community!

With that in mind, come join us at the beautiful Dead-end Homestead this Sunday! For details check out our facebook event listing. While you're there, join the Community Cultivators facebook group and stay up to date on all the cultivation action, of which, the Dead-end Homestead is just one piece of the big vision we're cultivating together!