What’s Doing at DoTank: Brooklyn Urban Agriculture Skillshare

Posted: June 20th, 2010 | Author: Amy Newton

Crafting seedbombs for community beautification

On June 5th, I attended a workshop in Williamsburg at The Change You Want To See Gallery, hosted by a local organization called DoTank:Brooklyn. As part of their mission to promote “interdisciplinary exploration, engagement, and enhancement of the formal urban planning process”, the Urban Agriculture Skillshare presented three distinct ways that individuals can effect change in their own communities using minimal resources, a little creativity, and the help of Mother Nature.

The gallery was packed, standing-room only, but that was fine because this workshop was a series of hands-on, how-to demonstrations where, divided into three groups, the participants rotated to three different stations, spending thirty minutes at each, learning and creating a small project in urban agriculture that included Vermiculture: Indoor food waste composting, WindowFarms: To grow food indoors year-round, and Seedbombing: To beautify abandoned lots.

My first turn was at the seedbombing station where we literally got our hands dirty crafting seedbombs intended to green empty and abandoned lots in the neighborhood. Proponents of FoodNotBombs should rest assured that these bombs do no harm. In fact, they are a combination of a mix of wildflower and herb seeds, moistened in compost with a little water, and then rolled in clay to dry over night. Once hardened, these seedbombs can be tossed into abandoned lots in neighborhoods around the city where eventually, with the help of a little rain and sunshine, they will produce pretty wildflowers and fresh herbs, transforming what was once an eyesore into a more attractive space. What’s not to like about these bombs?

Today's seedbombs, tomorrow's upgrades

Aurash Khawarzad, a founder of DoTank:Brooklyn and our seedbomb instructor, calls it “upgrading community”. He spends his time teaching skillshares like these in the hopes that it will become normal for people to do these sorts of things in their own communities. Seedbombing as the norm, rather than the exception.

DoTank:Brooklyn is all about doing rather than waiting for the slow process of urban planning and implementation to kick into gear. Interested in transforming an empty and abandoned space in your neighborhood? Check out the Do:Tank website for detailed seedbomb instructions.

After washing our hands, we moved on to the white plastic bottles at skillshare number two, building an indoor hydroponic system for growing food. Britta Riley, artist and creator of WindowFarms, gave us a brief overview of her project before handing us the tools to get started. The project has two goals: to empower urbanites to grow their own food year-round indoors and to give ordinary people a way to contribute innovations toward more sustainable cities. WindowFarms are a unique design partially made from recyclable materials using a vertical, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, system to produce high-yield, edible plants in limited space indoors.

Assembling a Window Farm

As an indoor gardener myself, I was intrigued by the prospect of growing my own fresh produce even in the midst of winter in the middle of the city, so I paid close attention. Using one-liter plastic water bottles connected through a series of cut-outs and modified bottle caps, a WindowFarms design allows for as many as five plants to grow without soil in a vertical assembly that hangs neatly in any sunny window.

The plants are fed water and nutrients through a plastic tube connected on the outside of the system and run by a small air pump, such as those used for fish tanks and aquariums. The water is recycled, conserving a precious resource, while the plants, rooted in specially-designed hydroponic clay, grow through cut-outs in the sides of the bottles. The theory is that because the roots do not spread out in soil and lose water to run-off, the plants are able to utilize the nutrients faster, promoting higher yields.

One could build their own WindowFarm with a little resourcefulness and some scrap materials. Or you can explore WindowFarms’ website for instructions and printable patterns for transforming plastic water bottles into your own window farm.

As part of attaining their second goal, WindowFarms maintains an online community of over 12,000 members worldwide. The Window Farms Network has been sharing ideas and input from their own experiences with Riley to help guide the design through twelve innovations, or subversions, making the WindowFarms system more nutritionally productive, easier to maintain, and better-looking, among other things.

A WindowFarm system……just add plants!

Currently, WindowFarms is in the process of creating WindowFarms kits for purchase through its website which will help fund their non-profit organization. As I look at the plants in pots on my window sill and think about the one I accidentally knocked off last night, snapping its stem and dumping dirt everywhere on the floor, I feel quite inclined to test out a tidy, efficient WindowFarm system myself this winter.

As a former volunteer on sustainable farms, I am familiar with a variety of composting systems, but I had never been introduced to the small-scale, in-home version of vermicomposting until this workshop. At our third skillshare for the day, we took on the task of how to reduce the two and a half pounds per day of waste that the average American produces. NYC processes 12,000 tons per day of trash at a whopping cost of two million dollars each day, sending trash to six different states as well as upstate.

Dumping our waste in landfills is not only dangerous to the land below these dumps, but the process of anaerobic decomposition creates methane which can stay in the atmosphere for nine to fifteen years. Methane traps twenty times more heat than carbon dioxide, contributing extensively to our issues of climate change through greenhouse gas emissions. So what to do with all this waste?

The North Brooklyn Compost Project offers one solution to reducing waste in the home: vermicomposting or composting with worms. Considering that 40% of the waste we generate in our homes is organic compostable material, vermicomposting can be an easy way to keep that organic material from entering the waste stream by recycling our food scraps into rich, dark compost for use in our gardens and on our indoor plants. Scientifically proven, compost is powerful enough to remediate contaminated soil, transforming it once again into productive, healthy earth, and is therefore referred to as “black gold”. Anyone can make their own black gold with a few starter materials, some worms, and your food scraps.

Here’s how it works:  You need a compost bin to get started. At the skillshare, we modified a plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid by drilling some air holes in the sides. Proper ventilation will aid in the process of decomposition (and let the worms breathe!).

Modifying for a vermiculture compost bin

A successful compost ratio is 2:1 — two parts “browns” and one part “greens.” Browns contain carbon, such as leaves and yard waste, or, as we used, shredded newspaper.  Greens contain nitrogen — your food scraps. Coffee grounds, egg shells, and tea bags are all acceptable for composting, but citrus peels, which take much longer to break down and can turn your compost acidic, should be left out. Use vegetable not animal waste in your compost bin.  Meat scraps, animal bones, dairy, and fats should not be included in your compost bin as they will not degrade quickly and will add unpleasant odors. Woody seeds and pits should not be included as they may germinate.  If the newspaper or yard waste is dry, it’s important to mist a little water in there and turn it to moisten the mix. Then, add the worms and let them do the rest.

Red wrigglers, often used for fishing bait, make great compost worms. The Lower Eastside Ecology Center sells compost worms for about $22/lb. For a bin the size we used, a pound of worms is plenty. One pound of worms will process two to three pounds of food per week.  Worms multiply rapidly so you may be able to give a pound away to a friend in about six to twelve months, keeping the amount of worms to waste balanced in your bin and doing your part to help more people compost their food waste in the city.

It will take about six weeks to reach the first harvest of compost. Keep adding food scraps, stirring the contents once in awhile and monitoring the moisture and ratio of brown to green. When it’s ready, you will see dirt accumulating underneath — a rich compost layer at the bottom of the bin separate from the remaining food scraps above.

The worms will work their way upwards in the bin over time, leaving the compost below and feasting on newer scraps and papers above. You can transfer the food scraps and worms from the top to another bin, harvest the compost beneath and then start over with a new bin. Fresh, wet compost is very high in nitrogen and needs to be cured — aired out for two weeks before applying it to your plants.

Red wrigglers, newspaper, and food scraps

Carina Molnar, our vermicomposter extraordinaire (and blogger for CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, offered these tips for maintaining a healthy compost system — very important as this is an indoor system. She keeps her bin of worms and food scraps under the kitchen sink.

If the worms are escaping, it’s because the bin is too hot or cold. Adjust the location or situation to amend this. If it begins to smell like sulfur (like eggs), add more brown, such as shredded newspaper, to absorb the odor. And if it’s too dry, spritz it with water to help maintain the moisture.

As food scraps break down, they release liquid. Balancing the scraps and newspaper will help keep an inviting environment in which the worms will continue to do their work. And the results will be your very own pot of black gold.

A pile o' black gold!

For further reading, Carina recommends the book, “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary Appelhof. Or check out the Brooklyn Botanic Garden website for resources on composting. The North Brooklyn Compost Project accepts kitchen compostable scraps from the public as do many community gardens in neighborhoods around Brooklyn.

If you missed out on the DoTank:Brooklyn Urban Agriculture Skillshare, visit their website and tell them you are interested in more Skillshares. They are always working to create opportunities for locals to join in the efforts to enhance urban communities all over the city, so roll up your sleeves and get “doing”!

Filed under: Composting, Events, Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming, Urban Planning, Water Conservation | 1 Comment »

2009 Fall Leaf Collection Crisis: NYCLeaves to the Rescue!

Posted: November 14th, 2009 | Author:
Fall leaves set out as regular garbage curbside in NYC

Fall leaves set out as regular garbage curbside in NYC

THE 2009 LEAF COLLECTION PROBLEM

You may be surprised — as I was– that NYC is neither collecting nor composting leaves this Autumn.

According to NYCWasteLe$$, the curbside Fall Leaf Collection program has been suspended until further notice due to budget cuts.  To make matters worse, the Compost Givebacks Program has been suspended as well, lacking leaves as raw material to make more compost.  

That’s a shame.  From 2000 to 2008, NYC Department of Sanitation composted an average 20,000 tons of leaves each year. Leaves were collected each autumn during a four-week period beginning in mid November. Formerly, the Compost Giveback program provided residents free, high-quality compost from the Fresh Kills and Soundview sites.

In 2009, however, Fall leaves will be collected with regular household refuse on regularly scheduled refuse collection days. Paper lawn and leaf bags are no longer required because leaves will be collected as regular trash. 

Why is this a problem?  According the NYCWasteLe$$:

Though New York is one of the world’s densest and most populated areas, nearly two thirds of the city consists of low-rise housing with tree-lined streets, front gardens, and backyards—all of which produce leaves and yard waste.

If it’s not composted, it’s landfill.

Personally, I was thoroughly bummed at the sight of hundreds of bags of leaves placed by the curb in my neighborhood, including my own nine –gulp!– trash bags full of leaves. I do not have the capacity to compost this quantity of waste myself. Unable to bear the thought of adding leaves to landfill, I removed my bags of leaves from the curb, determined find somewhere to compost them.

THE COMPOSTING SOLUTION

When faced with an urban gardening question, I did what I usually do: I called the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Unfortunately, the Botanic Gardens can compost only the leaves from its own trees. However, I learned about an coordinated effort by community gardens around the city to compost leaves and other yard waste called: NYC Leaves: Project Leaf Drop.  

NYC Leaves ”is a volunteer-run, neighborhood-based coalition of gardeners and greening partners who are harvesting residential leaves for compost this Fall.” Through the excellent and helpful NYCLeaves site, I found out that the nearby Wyckoff-Bond Community Garden was accepting leaves on Saturday November 14, 2009. Eureka!

I marked my calendar, raked some more leaves in the days between and was (almost) euphoric today when I dropped the leaves off today. Upon my arrival, garden volunteers weighed the leaves to document the yield and the need for the City to fund the leaf collection program again. It wasn’t that much more effort than the actual yard clean-up.

Victory! Volunteers David and Peter taking my leaves for compost at Wyckoff-Bond Garden

SIMPLE STEPS TO LEAF COMPOSTING

Here is what you can do to solve your own leaf guilt:

(1) RAKE your leaves.  Bag them.  Store them.

(2) FIND a community garden near you that is composting leaves.  Here is a special list of participating gardens in Brooklyn, BKDECAY. 

(3) SAVE THE DATE – The next scheduled leaf drop-off dates are Saturday and Sunday, November 21 and 22, 2009 from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm.  

(4) DROP leaves at a nearby garden.  Pumpkins too.  See below.

(5) OTHER COMPOSTABLES?

My mums and pumpkins on the compost pile at Wyckoff-Bond Garden!

What about pumpkins and mums and other fall decoration? I took these items along in a separate bag, hoping I could compost them. Luckily, the Wyckoff-Bond Garden accepts such items but not all community gardens will.

NEXT STEPS: TAKE COMPOST ACTION!

Here are some other actions that NYCLeaves reccommends doing to solve The 2009 Leaf Problem: 

(1) Sign the Petition to bring back city-wide leaf collection and composting! 

(2) Enlist a Community Garden – Ask your local community garden if it would like to participate in NYCLeaves and you may be able to drop off leaves earlier than a scheduled collection date.  Most community gardens already have composting bins. Note: Do not to leave bags outside the gate of the garden (or risk a hefty fine).

(3) Volunteer with your local garden on drop-off days.  At least three volunteers are needed at each participating garden, so take this opportunity to help the greening of your community. Great way to meet your neighbors, too.

(4) Spread the word at your local library, school, church, arts collective CSA or BID. For flyer ideas, check out NYCLeaves Tools and Printable Flyers to post around your block.

Although a few bags of leaves each Fall may seem like a small amount of additional waste in a year of creating tons of residential garbage, composting leaves is an important way to recapture the valuable energy and nutrients created by local plants. I also believe that widespread composting represents an important behavioral change that can help bring about a mental shift, conceiving of urban space’s potential for making food from plants in the City.

Filed under: Composting, Urban Agriculture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Urban Farming in the Public Interest

Posted: October 25th, 2009 | Author:

Source: RUAF – Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security

THINK GLOBALLY!  Mega cities need mega tons of food to survive.  Urban farming responds to a growing need as mega cities — like New York City — continue to expand around the world.  Urban farming can help increase the availability, access and quality of food for city dwellers.  

ACT LOCALLY?   Why promote the growth of urban agriculture in New York City?

A recent NYC report, Food in the Public Interest, issued by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, suggests that “urban food production” in NYC is one crucial strategy to address a broad spectrum of related local food issues.  The report outlines three major reasons why urban agriculture may be seen as increasingly important in improving the quality and quantity of good, fresh food to urbanites:

(1) “The Environment: Common commercial farm practices such as using chemicals and aggregating livestock in small spaces can contribute to air pollution.  Further, food that travels extraordinarily long distances from farm to plate requires more food, [packaging], storage and refrigeration all of which consume energy [and other resources].”     [Text in brackets added by The Greenest].

(2) “Public Health: Locally grown and distributed food is likely to be fresher, more nutritious, less subject to intensive pesticide use and less processed.”  

Note: The report emphasizes that NYC has a looming and serious health threat of epidemic proportions represented by the steady rise in the incidence of both diabetes and obesity in populations that generally lack access to affordable fresh food close to home. 

(3) The Economy: Enhancing the local food system would create more opportunities for local employment at all levels.  Urban agriculture could also contribute to food security for the City’s neediest.

In addition to these excellent points, The Greenest would add some of its own in support of promoting urban agriculture:

(4) Heat Island Effect – Cities are sometimes called “heat islands” because they are hotter than surrounding areas.    Greenery –like urban agriculture– helps reduce the “heat island effect” by cooling cities down, thereby reducing electricity used by air conditioning and refrigeration equipment.  

(5) Waste Water –   Green spaces absorb more rainfall reducing the amount of stormwater in the city sewage system.  Green spaces can also be irrigated by so-called “grey water” filtered from water produced by stormwater runoff, showers, sinks, diswashers and clothes washers, reducing loads on city sewage systems and doubling the benefits received from fresh water.

(6) Solid Waste  –  Gardens can create and use compost derived from solid waste to fertilize — diminishing the costs, energy and environmental impacts of a portion of the city’s solid waste production.

(7) Psychological benefits – Plants make people happy.  It’s a fact.  It’s a well established human response called “biophilia.”  More plants will make more people happy.  

(8)  “Foodie” Culture – NYC is one of the cultural food capitals of the world, home to many a sundry “foodie.”  Food is the second most talked-about topic in NYC — after real estate.  However, NYC produces less and less of its own food outside of restaurant kitchens.  The growth of urban agriculture will form part of a growing and intensifying local food culture that emphasizes better taste and better health together.  

Through my exploration of Urban Agriculture, I aim to understand what motivates the urban farmer to till the soil — the challenges and opportunities.  In the upcoming posts, I will look at other industries that are part of the “food system” that could be a source of increased productivity and market penetration for urban agriculture.

Filed under: Composting, Food Security, Green Roofs, Uncategorized, Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming, Urban Planning, Water Conservation | Tags: Air Pollution, , Biophilia, , Energy, , , , , Gardens, , , , Heat island Effect, , , , , , , , Public Health, , , , , | No Comments »
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