Backyard Chickens Still On Arlington Council’s Mind

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

Urban agriculture is a growing phenomenon throughout the country. This goes beyond simply having a little vegetable garden, which was long a staple of suburban homes, and instead consists of applying some actual agricultural know-how to urban plots. Urban agriculture has been touted as a potential savior for cities like Detroit, which have a lot of unused space and large areas of “food deserts,” which are areas in which actual grocery stores cannot be reached on foot.

But advocates of urban agriculture have been fighting a constant battle against zoning laws in a lot of cities across the country. While Seattle or Portland might have embraced urban agriculture because it appeals to large segments of their populations, other places, like Arlington, Virginia, have had more trouble moving forward.

That city in particular has spent a lot of council hours on the question of who can legally raise chickens within the city.

Chickens are a common sight in urban agriculture because they don’t require a lot of room or nearly as much work as other livestock, and they produce eggs frequently enough that they’re actually worth having around. But to date, only a very small number of households in the city can raise chickens legally, because the coop has to be at least 100 feet from the street, and the vast majority of lots simply aren’t that big. There have been discussions of reducing that number by as much as 75 percent, which would vastly increase the number of single-family lots in the city where chickens could live.

Unfortunately for urban farmers in Arlington, the discussion has been off the table for the last few years, but some changes in the city council have opened up the possibility of moving forward with the discussion.

If those rules could be amended, it would be a win for urban farmers across the country, showing that even places that aren’t “weird” like Portland can embrace potentially very helpful trends.

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Preparing Your Garden for Winter

Time to prepare your garden for winter!

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As much as we hate to admit it, fall is here and winter is right on its heels. It’s time to get your garden ready for next year by doing a few things before the snow flies.

Clean up your garden beds or planters. Remove and compost all your dead vegetation and rotting fruit or veggies that you didn’t get a chance to eat before the first frost. If your plants had fungus, mildew, mold, or blight, burn or trash them rather than composting; your compost pile won’t get hot enough to kill those microorganisms and they could spread to your plants next year.

After you’ve cleaned everything out, add a layer of finished compost and mulch to get your garden off to a good start next spring.

If you have a lawn, gather your fall leaves. Leaves are great mulch and compost materials, and over time those leaves will break down into humus, a lovely, rich soil that will make your garden bloom even better next year. The leaves will compost more quickly if you can shred them using a mower, but even if you can’t, it’s worth piling your leaves in the compost.

Get a soil test. This is especially important if your garden didn’t grow so well in spite of everything you did to help it along. Your soil may need special amendments to give it the ideal balance of nutrients for crop growth. A soil test will tell you your soil pH (acid/alkaline balance); the levels of potassium, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur in your soil; the level of organic matter; and whether your soil has toxic materials like lead in it.

Plant garlic. Garlic always does best if it’s started in the fall. Use a bed or container that didn’t have garlic or any of its relations (onions, scallions, shallots, or chives) growing in it. Plant the bulbs about 6 inches apart and 1 to 2 inches deep, then cover with 1 to 2 inches of fine soil. If you live in the northern U.S., add a six-inch layer of mulch before the ground freezes in order to protect the bulbs. Next spring, your garlic crop will be off to a great start!

Finally, remember what did well and what didn’t, and consider making notes that you can refer to when you start your garden again next spring.

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Backyards Chickens: Easier Than You’d Think

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

As people are learning more and more about where food comes from, there has been a greater focus on the wellbeing of the animals that produce our food. It has become increasingly popular for people to raise their own chickens.

There are numerous benefits to these backyard creatures and you have the security of knowing you are benefiting from happy, healthy, antibiotic-free chickens.

Compared to other animals, chickens are relatively easy to take care of. They’re a great form of chemical-free pest control, and chicken waste is one of the world’s best fertilizers.

Eggs are one of the main reasons people raise chickens. It’s great to be able to enjoy and share the eggs with friends and family. The yolks of home-raised chicken eggs are a much richer yellow and have much better flavor than store-bought eggs.

Buy your chickens as young, day-old chicks. You will need to set up a safe space for them. The floor should contain pine shavings or corn cob bedding. This is especially important for chicks.

Baby chicks need to be kept warm with a warming light at 90-100 degrees F for the first week of their life. Every week, this temperature can decrease be about 5 degrees F. They will also need food and water. It is important that they are allowed some time to play and get used to their human owners. In addition, its good to remember that determining the sex of baby chickens is difficult. It is likely you will get a rooster in your bunch. Having a rooster could be illegal in your city.

Once they are adults, your chickens will need a coop. This should provide two to three square feet of space per chicken and be able to protect them from predators. Their space outside should have around four square feet per chicken. The chickens need regular food and water as well as treats in the form of vegetables, bread, or bugs.

While they don’t need a lot of space, your chickens will produce odors. Regular maintenance can mitigate some of this, but anyone who embarks in chicken ownership should know that while they are generally low-maintenance, their coop will need to be cleaned weekly in order to prevent disease. Chickens generate a lot of waste, and they can’t be house-trained or litter trained, so that waste will be everywhere they go.

If you have a dog, keep in mind that some dogs have a high prey drive and can chase and possibly catch your chickens if they’re not protected in their coop.

If you’re ready for the commitment and you have the space, backyard chickens can be a great addition to your urban garden.

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Space Farming: The Ultimate in Urban Farming

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

If you thought urban farming was a challenge, imagine the idea of space farming.

The idea of sending a manned mission to Mars is increasingly realistic, so much so that NASA thinks they can make it happen within the next decade or so. SpaceX wants to send an unmanned mission by 2018, and there is even a movement to train potential settlers willing to live out the rest of their lives on the Red Planet.

But there are a lot of things that need to be worked out first, like feeding astronauts and future settlers. Luckily, growing plants in space isn’t all that difficult. However, factors like microgravity and the space environment seem to have effects on plant growth, root development, and even flavor.

Researchers have been growing plants on space stations and rockets since the 1960s, so we know it’s possible, but there have not been any truly large scale experiments on this front. According to professors from the University of Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne, those are things we need to address.

Lucie Poulet, one of the University of Clermont-Ferrand researchers, says, “Challenges remain in terms of nutrient delivery, lighting and ventilation, but also in the choice of plant species and traits to favor,” and that scientists need a more thorough understanding of physical and biochemical phenomena in order to “accurately control and predict plant growth and development in a space environment.”

In other words, researchers must figure out what kinds of plants can best be grown in a space vessel and on a planet like Mars, and they need to figure out how to do that on a large scale. Growing a few beans on the International Space Station is one thing, but growing a large and diverse enough crop to feed travelers on the six- to 12-month journey to Mars is another thing entirely. Growing crops to feed a population on Mars, which would ideally be there for much longer than a year, will take even more investigation.

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Easy Ways to Improve Your Homemade Coffee

Woman enjoying a cup of black coffee

Photo: Shutterstock

Everyone loves coffee, but most people don’t like the price tag that goes along with treating yourself to a fancy coffee from a high-end coffee shop. Instead, many people choose to brew their own at home. In our bleary-eyed morning state, we love the coffee to pull us into a more functional version of ourselves. Unfortunately, there are lots of small mistakes that people make that prevent them from having an incredibly delicious cup of coffee at home instead of a mediocre one.

First, starting of with quality beans will make a difference. The roast is up to you, although it is not common knowledge that light roasts actually contain more caffeine than dark roasts. Not only do quality beans matter, but when you grind them does as well. Beans should be ground just before the coffee is to be made for best flavor. Grinding it too thickly or too thinly can also affect the flavor of your coffee. Bitter coffee means you’re grinding too finely, and weak sour coffee can mean it’s too thick.

Next, finding the proper ratio for your coffee will give you a consistent cup of coffee every time. If you like strong coffee, try a ratio of 1 tablespoon of coffee for every two ounces of water. Pay attention to deviations from this ratio to find your exact preference.

In a coffee shop, the machine gets cleaned every night. At home, how frequently do you clean your equipment? Leftover grounds or dust can add bad flavors to subsequent cups. It’s also not good for your machine to have residue or buildup blocking its function.

Following these steps can improve the taste of your homemade coffee and allow you to appreciate the variety of flavors in a cup of coffee.

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Umami, the Savory Flavor

Umami is a flavor present in the cuisine of all cultures.

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In elementary school we all learn about the basic flavors our tongue can taste: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Recently we have learned about another flavor called umami. This flavor has been translated from Japanese as a yummy savory taste. In Western food, Parmesan cheese is the most umami ingredient in normal usage.

The flavor is particularly strong in stocks and broths. The amino acids that create this flavor have to be released by some sort of cooking, molding or fermentation process. In 1908, chemist Kikunae Ikeda tried to replicate a traditional Japanese soup. In doing so, he was able to isolate the substance that creates this flavor: Glutamate, an amino acid. He also gave it the name “umami,” which is most simply translated as “delicious.” One of the salts of glutamate has been used to create the flavor enhancer called monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG.

The glutamate works in conjunction with ribonucleotides that are also naturally present in foods. This is why certain combinations of foods, such as cooked beef, tomato, and cheese, are so much more delicious than their individual parts. Aside from cooked meats and cheeses, products like soy sauce are high in glutamate. So are mushrooms, sweet corn, and cherry tomatoes. It’s part of the reason why children prefer these foods.

We crave sweetness for calories and energy. Rejecting bitter foods protects us from poisons. Umami tells us we are eating protein. We prefer cooked or preserved food because it detoxifies the food and protects us from illness. MSG has been created to give us this taste, but it is a manufactured flavor. While the debate over whether MSG is a harmful food additive continues to rage on, it is safe to say that ingesting the natural forms of flavors will be better and easier for the body to process.

Whatever the source, human beings naturally crave umami flavors, and each of the world’s cultures has its own ways of adding it to their cuisine.

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East 25th Street in Flatbush Spreads the Garden Love

Flowers and plants on a balcony

Photo: Shutterstock

If you walk down East 25th Street, between Clarendon Road and Avenue D in Brooklyn, the first thing you’ll notice is that the streets are lined with a lush array of flowers, shrubs, and gardens.

In August 2016, the block was named the Greenest Block in Brooklyn by the Brooklyn Botanic Group. This is the fourth time in 20 years that the neighborhood has received this prestigious award.

The effort to green East 25th Street was led by a six retirees in the block’s gardening club. They planted, watered, and weeded many plots on the street, aided by a very large group of neighborhood residents. Most of the plants growing in the neighborhood are flowers, a mix of native and non-native species including Echinacea, black-eyed Susans, and marigolds.

Gardens didn’t go unrepresented, though. The community took it upon themselves to green up the yard of a vacant house. Pumpkins and tomatoes are growing there now. We suspect the neighborhood residents have enjoyed lots of fresh tomato salad and will have a very good Halloween indeed, with lots of jack o’lanterns to carve.

The winners of the Greenest Block contest are judged on resident participation, eco-friendliness, plant variety, use of color, and street tree maintenance.

More than 150 blocks in 25 neighborhoods competed for the 2016 Greenest Block in Brooklyn prize.

Congratulations to the East 25th Street neighborhood. Congratulations also to Fulton Street, between South Portland and South Oxford streets, which won the award for greenest commercial block in the borough.

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July Was Hot, But Things Are Going to Get Hotter

July was the hottest month on record, and it's only getting hotter

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Everybody noticed how hot July was. According to NASA, it was the hottest July ever recorded, going back as far as we’ve been recording temperatures and other weather data (about 200 years or so). Not only that, but this year is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded—which is par for the course of late, as 14 of the 15 hottest years recorded have happened since 2000. That’s an obvious trend, and one which we need to keep an eye on, because it isn’t going to get better.

At least, it won’t get better if we don’t step up and start taking better care of the Earth.

Any guesses why it’s been so hot? Yup: climate change, caused primarily by greenhouse gas emissions caused, of course, by human activity. The world is getting hotter and it’s going to have a lot of negative affects on us.

What does this have to do with gardening? A lot.

Firstly, the number of days that will break 95 degrees in the United States, which was pretty low between 1991 and 2010, will be going up precipitously over the rest of the century. A couple of key American cities illustrate this point. Between 1991 and 2010, Boston averaged 1 day over 100 degrees per year, as did Chicago, while Washington D.C had 4, Atlanta 7, and Dallas 44. By 2060, those numbers should jump to Boston: 9, Chicago: 23, Washington D.C.: 32, Atlanta: 47, and Dallas: 97. By 2100, we’re looking at Boston: 28, Chicago: 54, Washington D.C.: 74, Atlanta: 94, and Dallas: 133 days a year. Dallas should be spending about four months a year over 95 degrees.

It’s going to be more difficult to work or play outside in the summer, but that’s just the beginning. Those temperatures are also going to affect water supplies, stifle the growth of certain crops (and move whole parts of the country and the world into new hardiness zones), and lead to even more forest and brush fires in the American West.

The continuing warming trend isn’t just bad for us as urban gardeners; it’s bad for the world at large. It’s up to us to add our voices to the chorus demanding action on climate change, before it’s too late.

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Pickling: An Easy Way to Preserve Your Favorite Veggies

Pickled vegetables. Pickling is an easy way to preserve your fresh veggies.

Photo: Shutterstock

We’re all familiar with pickles—cucumbers preserved in brine with dill and some other spices. But you can pickle almost any vegetable, from asparagus to zucchini, and make the most of the work you did in your garden or the veggies you bought at your local farmers’ market.

Before we get going on the how-tos, though, let’s briefly define pickling. Pickling is the art of adding an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice to low-acid vegetables, in order to lower their pH (acid-alkaline balance) to an acidic 4.6 or lower. This preserves the vegetables and can add some really delightful taste.

You’ll need a little bit of hardware to pickle your veggies: A boiling-water canner (a large lidded pot with a jar rack) designed to hold seven quart-size jars or eight to nine pint-size jars in boiling water.

You’ll also need canning jars with new lids. Do not use recycled household jars; they may break or the seals may not seal properly, thus ruining all your hard work.

Before you start your pickling, buy canning or pickling salt. The difference between pickling salt and table salt is that pickling salt has no additives. Iodized table salt could change the color and/or texture of your veggies and could make the brine cloudy.

Another crucial part of the brine is white distilled or cider vinegar with 5 percent acidity. We recommend using white vinegar for lighter-colored veggies like cauliflower or golden beets, as cider vinegar could lend the final product a brownish color.

When you choose vegetables to pickle, be sure to use fresh vegetables. Wax-coated veggies will not take the brine as well and will probably taste odd when you go to eat them.

For more very important tips on pickling vegetables and great pickle recipes, visit The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

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Is “Vertical Farming” the Next Big Urban Innovation?

This "green wall" could be the next innovation in urban farming.

“Green wall.” Photo: Shutterstock

It’s already a thing in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and the Midwest, but will it catch on in America’s cities? Vertical farming, the art of growing crops on the sides of roofs or buildings, or even inside buildings in large cities, is the newest idea in growing local foods for urban dwellers.

There’s a long way to go before vertical farming really takes off. The amount of energy required to grow plants in indoor settings is pretty high.

“It’s such an appealing idea…that people picked up on it right away,” says Utah State University professor Bruce Bugbee. “The fundamental problem is that plants need a lot of light. If we’re going to do it inside, it will require burning a lot of fossil fuels.”

However, people who support the idea say that technology is improving to the point where vertical farming will soon be as common as flat-earth farming, especially as climate change and water supply problems make traditional farming more difficult.

AeroFarms, for example, operates a vertical farming operation in a warehouse in Newark, New Jersey, producing leafy greens and herbs. The company uses a closed-loop irrigation system and light-emitting diodes to minimize energy and water consumption. According to AeroFarms marketing director and co-founder Marc Oshima, using LEDs instead of sunlight means the growing season takes about two weeks rather than a couple of months, allowing for up to 30 harvests a year.

He also pointed out that the absence of pests helps to maximize growing and that the LEDs can emit colors that maximize growth, taste and nutrition.

Other vertical farms are taking a different approach, building structures specifically for their gardens. Swedish firm Plantagon International is working with real estate developers to construct purpose-built facilities. Plantagon plans to reduce energy costs by using heat thrown off by the artificial lighting to keep the buildings warm.

It’s hard to know for sure how much food comes from vertical farms, but the local-food movement seems to offer a market for this new business model. At this time it looks like the best bet for vertical farming is in the arena of crops like those AeroFarms is growing, since leafy greens are highly perishable and generally don’t do well when transported for long distances.

What do you think? Is vertical farming poised to be the next big thing, or is it more of a flash in the pan that is not sustainable in the long term? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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