Despite having the potential to be solitary pursuits, one thing I really enjoy about both gardening and cycling is the wealth of opportunities to spend time with and learn from others. Following up on the seed exchange, this weekend I attended the 5th annual Rooting DC, an urban agriculture conference for the DC Metro Area organized by the Field to Fork Network. I attended last year’s conference and got a lot of practical tips as well as encouragement, and so was excited to see what this year’s event had in store.
The day started out promisingly, as I managed to get there both without getting lost or being late, two areas in which I epically failed last year. Then, when I tracked down one of the event organizers to find out the location of the general information table so that we could put out our Ecolocity DC handouts, she informed me that they had an extra space! So full of win; I almost squealed. In fact, the organizer seemed a bit taken aback by my enthusiastic gratefulness.
Once I had displayed our Ecolocity DC materials, it was time for the main event. First up was Brendan Shane, the sustainability coordinator for the DC city government’s Department for the Environment. He was nice enough and the work they’re doing with the community to envision a more sustainable future is great, but it seemed like a long commercial for DC government policy. He certainly lacked Gordon Clark’s revolutionary spirit from last year, which made me want to go seed bomb fancy manicured lawns with carrots.
Moving right along, I squashed myself into a barely standing-room-only room to hear the presentation “An Edible Forest in Your Backyard,” a subject of great interest to me. I’m a big fan and somewhat practitioner of permaculture, a form of agriculture that follows ecological principles to maximize food production as well as ecosystem services. While there are some permaculture techniques – like lasagna gardening – that apply to traditional vegetable patches, forest gardens take these principles to the max. Rather than needing to plant a new garden each year, which can involve significant economic and time resources, forest gardens are planted once and then produce food every year with little input. They layer a number of types of food-producing plants, such as fruit trees, nut trees, fruit bushes, medicinal herbs, and mushrooms, in ways that play off of their natural niches. Although some of the plants require 5 to 10 years to reach full food production, others (like mushrooms) can be available in the first year or two. Because of the long-term sustainability potential, Ecolocity DC is actually carrying out a few food forest projects across DC, with a focus on underserved areas. (If you’re in the DC metro area, you can help support these projects by signing up for wind power with Clean Currents and mentioning us!) Although our tardiness on contacting the Rooting DC organizers meant that our group failed to snag a workshop spot, both Steve and I were eager to hear what the actual presenters had to say.
As it turns out, they did a great job explaining the concepts. From talking about the surprisingly high potential for acorn flour to beautifully illustrating the principles of diversity and resilience through examples, both presenters got the crowd excited about carrying the principles out in their own areas. Much to Chris’s confused frustration, I know I came home yammering on about how we should plant blueberry bushes, paw-paw trees, and mulberry bushes in our yard this spring. In terms of the presentation itself, Lincoln Smith from Forested Creative Ecology has a lot of the photos and diagrams on his company’s website. From the community development point of view, I especially liked how Spencer Ellsworth from Beet Street Gardens, which builds food forests in some of the toughest neighborhoods in DC, talked about how his group is working to collect neighborhood input before moving forward on any project.
The other very exciting workshop was the session on “Who said it’s too cold to grow food? A session on four season farming” by Christian Melendez from ECO City Farms. I tried to attend his session last year, but ended up in a weird back corner where I couldn’t see or hear anything. This year, I was right up front and center! It was a great complement to the previous presentation because while food forests can provide an immense amount of food in the summer, local food needs to be available all year round. Tools such as hoophouses, which are unheated greenhouses made from thick plastic rather than glass, allow sustainable farms to grow food all year round with very little extra energy. Even though most gardeners can’t build their own hoophouses, they can construct low tunnels and cold frames to achieve some of the results. (One of my co-workers with a very engineering-heavy approach to gardening actually harvested spinach in the middle of Snowmagedden!) Using his farm’s success, Christian walked through the four elements that all gardeners interested in winter gardening need to deal with: appropriate crops/varieties, succession, protection, and light. For me, the most useful tip was using old bicycle tubes to weatherize a hand-build cold frame. As I’m planning to build a cold frame to harden off my seedlings and I have a couple of busted bike tubes in the garage, it’s a great reuse. In terms of the most impressive example, Christian described how the farm built a seed germination station “outside” in the middle of the winter. In their hoophouse, in which temperatures drop below freezing, they organized a bunch of hay bales into a square. They then shoveled wheelbarrows-full of compostable matter from Compost Cab between the hay bales. After covering the compost with burlap sacks and coconut fiber, they set up window panes on top of it to create a giant cold frame. Between the heat created by the compost and the sun shining through the window, the temperatures can get above 90 degrees in the soil while there’s snow outside! As a result, they’re able to germinate seedlings, even peppers, which I’m afraid won’t germinate in my heated house because the temperature isn’t high enough.
Other successes from the day included signing up lot of people to plant food forests, listening to my college classmate Bradley present on canning food, and scrambling to find the best seeds at the seed giveaway. I scored a pack of heritage sunflower seeds!
Overall, a great day that provided me with a lot of quality information. And perhaps most importantly, yet another way to build community with my fellow gardeners.