Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wonderful Water

We live in an amazing time. Paradoxical, seemingly contradictory, results of quantum physics experiments lead to the inescapable conclusion that mind and emotion somehow have a direct effect on matter at the subatomic level. The same physics that is behind the breathtaking sequence of new inventions we've come to expect nowadays is also telling us that there is more to reality than just the physical world.

The best of science is dancing us back to a more earthy spirituality. Hard-nosed researchers, with disciplined protocols to ensure objectivity, are coming up with some of the wildest conclusions. Some are making seemingly wacky statements like that the emotional state of a person has an effect on the water that person comes into contact with. And there is a long history of tests showing that meditation and prayer somehow change the characteristics of things such a crime rates. So somehow - though humanity at this time is enmeshed in an unfathomably complex interaction of changes (many of them human-caused) - we still can know that our individual efforts can have good effects on the future. Your mind and heart make a difference.

Water has always been associated with life; no wonder, as no life form can do without it. The more I learn about biodiversity the more enchanted I become with using a variety of living things working together to clean a flow of water by making use of its pollutants as nutrients. The concept of the "living machine" comes from the recognition that a controlled water flow traveling through numerous varieties of life can filter and biodegrade toxics - using toxics as nutrients to produce, for instance: fish; earthworms; watercress; algae for food and/or fuel and/or feed; oysters or clams; greenhouse plants. This combination of constructed wetland with organic waste recycling takes problems and turns them into products. By first running the polluted/nutrient-laden water through stones, then smaller and smaller mesh-sized gravel, then smaller and smaller sized sand, and maybe finally through clay (which is even smaller), the system filters and uses the filtrate as food for the plants, animals (mostly small like insects), and microbes living in the system.

One of the reasons Pittsburgh became a great city was the abundance of water here. Back in the day (I mean WAY back in the day, before any of us alive today were born, when forest covered most of the country), people got maybe a third of their protein from the rivers. De-industrialization in recent years has allowed some of the river life to come back. Because of the abundant rain, many plants and animals can live here that can't make it some other places. To the extent we have vegetated areas, the rain is slowed down on its journey to the rivers and then to the sea. As the living things - microbes, plants, bugs and larger animals - drink the water they hold it back. That's why planting trees, for instance, is a way to prevent the nutrients in the soil from being washed away. The trees brake and drink the water and then sweat it into the air. This even affects the weather, as more water vapor from vegetation makes for more clouds. By recognizing our dependence on our fellow creatures - plant, animal, and microbial - we can better assure our own future. So, paradoxically, simply by deepening our enjoyment and appreciation of the beauty of the life all around us we can be most productive.

Jim McCue

Friday, March 14, 2014

Green up!

Green up!

The chives are coming up, and will have beautiful purple buds when they're ready to harvest. Snip some for your salad or soup or mashed potato dish. Anybody want sunflower seeds I got em, lots of them and a bunch of other seeds. I can't wait till I get some arugula going; I love it's sharp tangy wake-me-up taste. Speaking of wake-me-ups, mints are easy to grow and have been shown by scientific studies to perk your brain waves up - make you more alert and in a better mood. The smell of any flower can be aromatherapy; all you have to do is enjoy it.

Either hide where you plant or be willing to share your cantaloupe and watermelon - their sweet taste is mighty attractive to humans and other people. Stake and/or fence your tomatoes unless you're into feeding the wildlife and the soil dwellers. With global warming we might get a super-hot summer, so I'm getting interested in stuff like okra which loves the heat. I found out the hard way - mistakes repeated until my hard Irish head finally gets the message - that beans and peas don't like garlic, putting out some kind of signal that wards off legume competitors (No wonder I haven't been able to grow peas or beans well).

Be careful out there: garden injuries laid me up three times last year. Take your time and focus on enjoying your work rather than looking at it as if it's a chore.

I finished three new beds last fall before the cold really set in. Minnefield contributed both equipment and labor to move the mulch pile to the Flowers Avenue Garden, where it needs spread. Now that the mulch is gone from Everybody's (corner of W. Elizabeth and Lytle), there's room for a couple more beds, which need dug say two feet down and the rocks and bricks removed. Most of the older beds already have garlic and/or some perennial herbs growing in them, so their space is taken up right now. I will re-seed cilantro (coriander). I've more than I can give away of oregano; come get transplants from me. I want to increase the variety at Everybody's, so contributions are welcome. I gave away the comfrey last year, so I'll walk over to the Hazelwood Food Forest and get some more to transplant from there.

Not being a "garden expert" (only a soil expert), this Everybody's Garden I steward could use more well-rounded expertise. Don't be afraid to enjoy giving your own unique contribution to our gardens - whether it be labor or sharing plants or dropping off grass clippings or whatever. You can soak brown cardboard and paper bag in water and mold it in the bottom of a planter or planting area as a way to nourish the soil life as it rots down.

We really need a neighborhood garden education program, so that volunteering gardeners' work doesn't get destroyed. I'll plant "greens" (kale, collards, chard) and parsley this year, for instance, but I'm hesitant to plant brussels sprouts and broccoli because people around here harvest the leaves for cooking - not knowing to wait for these crops to bud. A similar problem with peppers: Lots of people like green peppers, but don't know they're more digestible and nutritious if allowed to ripen to become sweet RED peppers. And there is such a demand for them people pick them when they're small instead of waiting till they get bigger.

I decided I really like butternut squash and will plant more this year. It keeps well, cooks easily, and tastes great. But I'll be growing zucchini and crookneck squash too; I love the outlandish productivity of a healthy zucchini. I'm looking forward to radish, which pops up and is ready to eat (greens and root both) in less than a month. Radish and the onion family especially remind me of the old adage "Let food be for your medicine". Researchers are finding now that greens, especially uncooked greens, are especially important and need more emphasis in our lives. I found out you can eat daylily flowers, and they taste great! But try and leave some for the honeybees and to add to your garden's beauty. Rose of sharon gives lots of flowers, and they're edible but to me don't have much taste. A couple neighbor's with better noses than me told me the roses we got started at Everybody's smell wonderful, but I can hardly smell them. I have to find some room for fennel; most everybody likes the anise licorice taste. One more time this year I'll try cucumber, but I haven't had much luck with them. I always try to grow some really long long beans to brag about, with little success; this year I'll try again. I want to spread the asparagus this year, but it's such a temptation to eat it rather than let it spread for next year...The same problem with French sorrel, which one little girl named "lemon plant" for its taste. So many people like it it gets all eaten up and I have to go find more to start and try to spread the next year.

There are a growing number of (especially younger) aspiring gardeners who, not owning land, are taking commitment to Earth to a higher level by discretely planting and maintaining (on land they don't own) native, medicinal, culinary, and decorative plants in various places for all to enjoy and make use of. Property owners should welcome them, as they are raising the intrinsic and monetary value of the land.

The figs at Everybody's Garden will likely give little or no figs this year because, lacking help, I never got them covered and we've had a helluva winter. Fig trees wish they were in sunny southern Italy or somewhere warmer like that.

The Squirrel Hill Food Pantry intends to get a garden going just down from the Flowers Ave Garden this year, and will be needing volunteer and expert help, so maybe there'll be some days people needing a little fresh air and exercise will want to help. The nice thing about volunteering is there's no pressure; you say goodbye and go home when you want.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Nature's wisdom

Some people think that, of all the living things on Earth, humans are the highest-evolved and most important. I beg to differ. Why are we even comparing? All life is connected. We're ALL important - people, other animals, plants, microbes. And we all (all living things) work together to create the ecosystem which keeps us all alive.

All life is conscious. There is reason to believe the Earth of which we are a part is alive. There is even reason - good, scientific, logical reason - to conclude that the whole Universe is alive.

I can back up with evidence these wild statements. And here's another wild one for you: Our species is not really that smart in the big picture of things; we just have big heads.

Think we invented needles? Mosquitoes and bitey-flies were way ahead of us. Think we invented the internet? Sorry, but the underground communication of the fungi community is more complex and came before this human communication system. Think our big brains make us smarter? Some other animals have bigger brains than us. And why assume the brain is the seat of intelligence? A butterfly can smell a flower's nectar a half mile away; can you? Plants and non-human animals communicate via ultraviolet and infrared frequencies we're not aware of without instrumentation. Elephants hear and speak via infrasound; we can't even hear infrasound. We figured out how to make velcro and similar materials from flies and geckos and other animals; that's what allows some of them to walk up walls. Spiders spin silk many times the strength of steel. Think plants are dumbbells? Plants protect themselves by producing chemicals to sicken the animals that eat them. Plants respond to attacks by changing their growth and flowering patterns. We call people dumb by referring to them as "birdbrains", but there are thousands of stories of birds displaying individual personalities, social skills, and so-called "human" attributes such as compassion, cooperation, jealousy, revenge, and nurturing. Non-human animals have long term memories, the capacity to reason, and often skills we humans don't have. Some birds orient themselves via the incredible complexity of stars. Non-human animals fight but also cooperate with other species, and make moment-to-moment decisions based not on instinct but on the situation at hand.

It is being borne out in laboratories and elsewhere that non-human animals, plants, and even microbes are in constant electromagnetic relationship with others, including us. You can call that unconscious interspecies communication or even extrasensory perception, but all life has it.

There is a long history of human discoveries about the natural world that boggle the mind. Our proper attitude should be awe. We are waking up to life all around us and in the rest of the Universe. And, through quantum physics and the recognition that science and spirituality are talking about the same thing, we are finding we ourselves are connected to the life in the rest of the Universe.

Each kind of life has unique abilities. And we humans don't have the corner on wisdom, either.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

the greening of Hazelwood - history

Re "large-scale compost dumps": the interviewer did not know I was talking about medium-scale enclosed bioreactors at dumpsites.

Power Plants
by Adam Fleming 2/5/2009

Monday, January 20, 2014

concrete love

1/20/14 to whom it may concern
As a long time Meals on Wheels volunteer in Hazelwood, I want to point out the vital importance of this program to this neighborhood. Those of us paying attention know of the growing income gap in our society, but a street level experience of it has served to highlight to me how concrete the impacts the decisions we make are.

As one of the founders of the beginnings of hopefully many more community gardens here (and, along with others envisioning improving the nutritional status of the Meals on Wheels program by integrating into it some locally grown fresh produce from local gardens) I have found there are cultural barriers to health in all of our community - both with those on the receiving AND on the giving end. The recipients of Meals on Wheels (both paying and non-paying) are valuable or potentially valuable contributors to our world. Falling into the category of being "in need" is not a choice any of us makes, but it happens to everyone eventually. We all want a stable, healthy home, neighborhood and world. But this is only possible to the extent that those in the role of potential givers at the moment drop any conscious or unconscious mindsets about those we can help. We are all blessed as we help, since the humanity, intelligence, and desire to be of service of those we help returns to each of us one way or the other.

Jim McCue

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

garden dreaming

Well, all right, it's not Spring yet, but a feller can dream, can't he? Imagination comes before action anyway, so now's the time to get ready and plan for what we're going to try to do this year. We could use fifty more gardens in Hazelwood to my way of thinking, but they don't all have to look the same. Each site with its situation is unique, so we can visualize beautiful and functional growing places to fit different locales.

I'd like to be involved with a garden or gardens somewhere in which there was a large ongoing input of organic matter, and in which one of the goals is nurturing both quantity and variety of life of all sizes, from trees to bugs. The community of life and health generated in this kind of a garden makes for a general productivity of ecosystem services - air cleaning, water cleaning, feeding people and wildlife, and others. But (if you don't know what you're looking at) this kind of a garden might look to you like just another overgrown place. The plants are not in straight rows, and Nature decides to some extent what grows where. The happiest gardening experiences I've had have had to do with finding myself enmeshed in living things. My mother called one of my first gardens Jimmy's Jungle.

Similar to this is a food forest type of garden, the difference being that a food forest is called a permaculture (permanent culture) site because (like a natural wild forest area) it doesn't necessarily need any input of organic matter once it gets going. But, as an activist working to get more of our organic waste recycled, I'm oriented toward quickly and efficiently transforming biomass into plant food. For this I need a much larger composter than what most gardeners have. Having studied industrial composting during a long period of unemployment, I learned that a relatively simple system can be set up in which the material gets hot and turns the organics into soil amendment faster. People don't know about me that I was in the waste management business for a hot broke minute before having to look elsewhere because I couldn't make any money as a "resource recovery consultant".

Some wonderful desires are being talked about for the greening of Hazelwood. Lots more of all kinds of gardens. There are phrases going around like "gardens on steroids" and "Hazelwood - the breadbasket of Pittsburgh". When we get our community grocery store, some of the produce there can be produced in Hazelwood. The Meals on Wheels kitchen can have locally grown produce going to our elders. The Fishes and Loaves Food Club can provide members with healthier foods with lower prices coming from our gardens.

Everybody's Garden, at the corner of West Elizabeth and Lytle, is evolving into a more peaceful, settled place than I had originally expected. It has a picnic table, a barbecue pit we built from salvaged brick, some chairs, some raised beds with mostly herbs, and some fruit trees. We need places in areas not so busy where vining plants like watermelon and cantaloupe can trail out without getting trampled.

The rush of activity that comes on when it starts to warm up makes Spring always surprising, in so many ways unpredictable. With community gardens there are other people involved, so along with the weather and any number of other variables it's even more complicated. I'm beginning to think everybody needs her or his own garden, since each person is so different as to what to grow and how. We can work together to for instance organize community composting of kitchen scraps or coordinate runs to get pickup trucks full of horse manure; but each garden has to be run according to individual styles and tastes and priorities.

What gets me into the garden is making good soil, but I know there are people in our neighborhoods who for example would just love to garden with butterflies in mind. Low-maintenance pollinator gardens can be set up to give habitat to all the wonderful insects that pollinate the plants. Local organic gardening experts Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser say, "Love your bugs."

Years ago we with the help of the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy put in what are called "highly visible floral beds" (gorgeous flowers) on both sides of this end of the Glenwood Bridge, and also at the corner of Hazelwood and Second Avenues.

A healing garden would be just the ticket for so many spots. This kind of garden doesn't necessarily have to be worked at all once it's established; it's just nice to be in. There's an illness called "nature deficit disorder" which refers to how so many children especially nowadays have had so little contact with woods and trees and birds and bugs and so much of nature that they're not healthy. This is psychological, but it's also has real physical health impacts. People in contact with nature heal faster, learn faster, don't as often get sick in the first place. Studies have determined that a view out of a window of a green scene, even if it's just a mowed lawn and some trees, tends to make employees more productive. Even a painting or picture of some natural setting in a place makes for healthier happier occupants. Whether with many people or by yourself, being in some form (even if only in your imagination) with other life is what life is all about.

Spring always turns out different than we expect. So these are my positive garden dreams; maybe some others are dreaming along some of the same lines. But others have other ideas for gardening. What makes for an attractive place? When I was younger and a little more materialistic, I would have answered by naming things - clean air and water, good homes, lots of gardens, wildlife, birds,... I still like them now, but I've come to realize that everything is connected. And everything changes, so you can't get stuck on things. Happiness comes from enjoying being a part of good things happening, so it's more about verbs than nouns.

What are your garden dreams?

Here are a few great websites:

Monday, December 16, 2013



Leaves and other dead plant materials are so valuable to my way of seeing things. If the average citizen knew what I know about what can be done with this organic matter, there'd be none of it going to the landfill. So let's just start with leaves and all the good things these cast off parts of trees can yield when properly managed.

There are so many ways of looking at the dead leaves that fall off trees in the fall. Just listing will help us figure what best to do with them. One purpose of the leaves while they are still on the plant is to convert the sun's light and carbon dioxide into energy for the plant. Traditional gardeners and farmers concentrate on the big three of plant nutrients - nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. That's what the npk percentages refer to. Lost in the shuffle over the years with technological developments has been that there are other nutrients valuable for plant growth and health (and the health of those eating the plants) - carbon, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, and other so-called 'trace minerals' which are ultimately just as important as the big three. Leaves have these trace minerals.

The leaves fall off and break down to feed nutrients to the soil for the roots to absorb. But it's not that simple. It turns out there are microbes that have to be present for the roots to uptake the plant's food. Molds, bacteria, single-celled organisms, and a myriad of larger life forms swirl around in an enormously complex community in a healthy soil. A plant will grow in a soil that doesn't have much of a soil community, but it won't do very well.

When a plant dies it's seed is the only part still alive. Aside from the seed the rest of the plant has both nitrogen and carbon. As a dead plant dries out it loses its nitrogen to the air. So leaf fall is for the most part carbon once it dries out, but it also has trace minerals. In the short-sighted gardening/farming style that developed after the invention of synthetic fertilizers, waste carbonaceous organic matter was often just burned off to get it out of the way. That loss of organic matter and life from the soil was a short-circuiting of the natural cycling of carbon back to the soil. People still using synthetic fertilizers today don't know this.

Some look at leaves as messy. Some enjoy the smell as they are decayed by those precious molds and bacteria that synthesize enzymes to break them down and help transfer their nutrients into the roots of the plants. Leave those leaves on the ground and next year's trees and other plants will do better. The Amish build up their soil by valuing their dry plant matter - whether it's leaves, hay, or whatever - and labor to return it to the soil. I've read some American Indians view leaves as being full of energy, and so they treasure it. Scientists such as Paul Stamets use "waste" organic matter - leaves, cardboard, newspaper, grass clippings, etc. - inoculated with mushrooms, other fungi, and bacteria - to clean up polluted areas on land and in water. A mulch or compost pile is habitat for the rich diversity of life so vital to any healthy garden - such as insect pollinators.

I think an enterprising group of young people could get ahead forming a cooperative venture to transform this currently wasted resource into substrate (soil) to grow whatever they thought valuable to grow, in whatever situation - gardens, greenhouses, aquaponics set-ups, potted plants - and possibly even value-adding their products by turning them into e.g. herb vinegars - and in the process teach themselves skills in demand in various fields from landscaping to biotech.