Gardeners, are you thinking beyond the simple tomato plot? Once again, the Blue Ridge Permaculture Network will offer a permaculture design course this spring. Over four weekends starting January 13, learn how to think deeper about plants, houses, and even human communities as you create systems that work with the natural rhythms of the earth to promote true sustainability. Everything from renewable energy to medicinal plants to watershed restoration falls under the permaculture umbrella, which can help you improve your own home as well as your neighborhood.
The course is 72 hours total, and it’ll be taught by permaculture experts like Dave Jacke, Christine Gyovai and others. It takes place at Montfair on January 13-16, January 27-29, February 18-20, and March 3-4. Cost is on a sliding scale from $995 to $1,200. To register, see blueridgepermaculture.net, or contact Terry Lilley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 296-3963.
If you’re interested but not ready to commit to the entire course, there’s a permaculture potluck on January 14 at 6pm, followed by a presentation by Dave Jacke at 7:30. See the website above for details.—Erika Howsare
BY THE NUMBERS
That’s the number of acres of forest Virginia’s losing each day, according to the state Department of Forestry. Sprawl and development are partly to blame, but so are insects like the gypsy moth and ash borer. To fight them, residents should watch out for diseased trees (brown tops, missing bark, holes in leaves or trunks) and call a professional if they spot problems.
EVER HEARD OF…?
Better than baggies
The green-minded dog owner—especially one who lives in town and has to curb her pet—might wonder if there’s a more eco-friendly way to dispose of pooch poop than throwing it, enclosed in plastic, into the garbage. Yup: It’s called the Tumbleweed Pet Poo Converter.
If you’re familiar with the concept of a worm farm (fancy term: vermiculture), you’ll recognize the basic idea. The converter is a plastic container made of stacking layers, filled with bedding such as shredded newspaper or coco fiber. The worms live, breed and eat in the top layer, while their waste drains into the bottom. That waste makes a fertilizer that’s extremely valuable to gardeners.
So, essentially, you feed the poop to the worms, who look at it as food (how’s that for a good attitude?) and turn it into something you can actually use. Waste from cats and other pets can go in, too. One caution, though: If you’re already raising worms on kitchen scraps, don’t add pet waste to the mix. It contains pathogens that need to be digested by exclusively manure-fed worms.
The converter is easy to maintain, is said to be odorless, and costs $120 through Fifth Season Gardening.—E.H.
TIPS FROM BETTER WORLD BETTY
Take a moment and consider how much coffee, chocolate, and flour you go through every week. Unfortunately, from farm to cup and bean to bar, chocolate and coffee (along with other staples) both involve an intense process to reach our mouths. This new year, green-raid your pantry and replace accordingly!
Phyllis Hunter of Spice Diva can help you build a more sustainable pantry. (Photo by Cramer Photo)
Fair-trade, shade-grown, organic. It’s hard to keep track, and it’s about to get harder with the recent split between certifying organizations Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International. For now, these labels are the best way to protect against land loss, help smaller producers have access to resources, promote sustainable practices, and ensure a fair wage. Significant acreage of rainforest is lost every year due to cheap, monoculturally-grown coffee. Bird- and forest-lovers (isn’t that all of us?), look for the Smithsonian Bird-Friendly and Rainforest Alliance labels. The good news: Locally roasted coffee is readily available.
Again, fair-trade organic chocolate is best. Divine Chocolate is 45 percent owned by the Ghanaian farmers who supply its cocoa beans.
I recommend agave nectar, honey, stevia, or organic varieties like Florida Crystals.
Virginia has its own mill: Wade’s Mill, sold at local markets!
Tea and spice
The same designations are important here. What better time to make the switch? The new Spice Diva at Main Street Market is offering a 30 percent discount to folks who bring in their spices to exchange.
Want to know more about specific brands or other food producers? I love these two websites: www.localharvest.org and www.greenamerica.org. Find local sources of sustainably grown food in your area along with green brands and companies.
Each season gives us a chance to catch the cycle of growth at another revolution and place ourselves safely in nature’s orbit. Climate change notwithstanding, we’re not a jungle yet. Plants still go dormant and most of our vegetation succumbs to colder temperatures. Take advantage of this dormant time to assess the garden’s structure, from the ground to the skyline. Here in the hollow our winter work is laying out paths in the vegetable garden and limbing up a few larger trees.
Since we erected the deer fence a few years ago, our vegetable garden has consisted of two 16’x 24’ squares bisected by a gravel path. Without interior footpaths, however, soil was needlessly trampled. The solution is to lay down permanent paths with cardboard. Ideally, it would be topped with shredded hardwood mulch, but straw and pine tags are what’s on hand, so we’ll start with that, though I’m afraid it might be too slick. With three paths in each square, running at right angles off the central walk, planted rows can be tended from either side, allowing the soil to build up into natural raised beds as repeated foot traffic gradually sinks the paths.
If you followed last month’s admonitions, your saw blades are clean and sharp and it’s time to contemplate some judicious pruning. Have a reason for every cut and you’ll not go wrong. I’ve been walking around our old ash since summer deciding which branches to remove to raise the canopy for easier tractor access and to open up the view to the east meadow. It’ll amount to three well-considered cuts.
Trees are often disfigured in the mistaken belief that they all should have their lower branches removed as a matter of course. As any knock-kneed naked holly or leaf-littered Southern magnolia will testifiy, this is not the right approach. Not all trees have the shade tree habit, naturally growing into a single trunk supporting a crown beneath which we can disport ourselves upon a grassy sward.
The red maple has a rounded shape; Japanese zelkova is upright like a vase; and willow oak has a massive horizontal branching structure (see the ones in Jackson Square by the old courthouse). All are fine shade trees, though each has a different outline against the sky. Often we can encourage natural habits with a few important cuts—removing lower branches as the tree ages, or thinning crowded branches on a young sapling.
Other trees, however, are best left with their skirts down, as privacy screens. Pin oaks and beeches have typically drooping lower branches; when they’re removed, the next tier will also grow downward. There’s nothing denser than a screen of twiggy oaks. They hold their handsome brown leaves through winter, making a bold contrast with dark green hollies and American boxwood.
Save Thursday, February 16 for the 29th annual PLA Seminar (www.piedmontlandscape.org), at The Paramount Theater. Speakers include the Smithsonian Institute’s white tail deer specialist and the curator of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.—Cathy Clary
Cathy Clary is a gardening teacher and consultant; she tends ornamental beds and a kitchen and cutting garden at home in a hollow south of Charlottesville. Read more about her at hollowgarden.com, and e-mail her with questions at email@example.com.