Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Going Organic in West Haven, CT

Going Organic in West Haven, CT

by Jenna Messier, NOFA OLC Program Director

Last Spring, NOFA OLC held a Permaculture Design Workshop at my house, since my .1 acre property provided so many common design and landscape challenges for the landscaper to ponder.

Most prominently, we had major stormwater issues, with the concrete driveway falling apart and the basement leaking.  In addition, we had an over abundance of concrete pathways in the yard, taking away valuable growing space. My husband had been parking his truck on 1/4 of the yard space- a practice which I was officially ending on the day of the workshop - which led to compaction and probably small amounts of oil and automotive fluids leaking into the mixture of gravel and sand.

On the more fun and functional side, we were interested in designing the yard to maximize usage of space so humans had a place to lounge and grill, a kid could run through a sprinkler, and ornamental and vegetable plants were well-placed. I also wanted to incorporate the rabbit hutch and future chicken house into the yard, where they would be best suited.

Former parking space now veggie gardens
At this point, I will remind the reader that I am an average homeowner who has very few hours to give to these projects, so I have accepted that all of these modifications will take a few years to complete.  I thought I would share a few of the proposed design changes which students had provided during our workshop to both demonstrate best practices and tell the real story of how practical and costly they really have been.

1. Soil Testing - Prior to the workshop, I was pretty upset to learn that my soil had 900ppm lead, which made it unhealthy to harvest any root veggies or leafy greens from the soil.  However, knowledge is power, so we decided that the most important change we could make was to design raised beds and place them in the old parking space. There is one 15 foot raised bed which cost around $350 to build and fill with soil and compost.  The second set of hoops covers 4 long rectangular planters which offer mobility if I want to move them. I also have cool weather crops like greens and chives in the planters.  The large raised bed produced spinach, arugula and mixed greens all winter.  I planted carrots and potatoes one month ago and just started some tomatoes last weekend.

The old vegetable garden would became lawn, with a few perennials like echinacea, day lillies and rudbeckia "herbstonne" around the outside border. Just this spring, I added a raised bed wooden box and transplanted my black raspberries since they were getting a little unwieldy.  I also have a box of garlic, which I will move someday.  I have to admit, I am pretty impressed with my lawn which I planted with a seed mix called Tuff Turf and microclover from Good Nature Organic Lawn Care. This photograph also shows some of the old concrete pathways which will be removed at a later date. (It's on the list.)
Old veggie garden now lawn, berries on left
Side view, gravel has replaced concrete

Compost Manager 
Worms galore!
2.  Composting and Animals - Go Hand in Hand!  I have one cute angora rabbit named Stephano.  He is an easy pet to take care of, and relatively cheap to feed at about $15 per month. I use sterilized straw to line his cage and all of the straw, manure and urine go into the compost and really get it cooking! 131 degrees for 3 days is easily achieved. I plan on having 4 chickens for eggs and their compost contributions, but the chicken coop is nothing more than a wooden frame and an item on the To-Do list at this time.

The animal cages and outdoor run are situated along the outside edge of the property to maximize space and to utilize the windbreak which the solid fence provides in the winter. The compost bins were moved next to the tunnels last summer, but I think I will be moving them again so I can plant a paw paw tree in the sunny southern corner of the lot.  I figure that by moving the compost, it is improving the soil in multiple places.

To maximize compost production, I collect bags of leaves from my neighbors in the fall, and keep them for shredding and adding to my compost pile all year round.  My newest toy is a paper shredder which allows me to create carbon-rich, shredded paper, made from junk mail and out-of date paperwork, to balance out the kitchen scraps and manure in the piles. You want a 30:1 ratio of browns to greens, on average. Composting is so rewarding: you use your own waste products to create an excellent soil conditioner and fertilizer for your lawn and gardens. I estimate that my two bins create 20, 5 gallon buckets of finished compost per year.  My goal is to not have to buy any bags of soil or compost, but for now I need about 10 bags per year for containers and over-seeding the lawn.

Jenna's House - with New Gravel areas in red
3. Ripping up the driveway - the elephant in the room:  Honestly, I don't think we would have undergone the expense and time of ripping up the driveway if it had not started caving in. Yet, it is a best practice to manage your stormwater on site and allow it to infiltrate on your own property. This is especially true in my neighborhood which is only a mile or so from Long Island Sound, where runoff from our roof, lawn and driveway often go into the street and into the storm drain.  The picture on right is a garden design by one of the groups who attended the Permaculture Design Workshop last year.  I use it here to show in red the area which was concrete and is now gravel.The blue area was previously gravel and the green areas are under demolition this year.

I also wanted to share the costs of such a project.  It cost around $6000 to remove the concrete, haul it away, pay for dumping fees, 3 days labor, gravel and stone dust, and rent the excavator.  I am lucky to have a husband who was willing to take this project on. (Or maybe he just didn't want his trucks falling into the sink hole!)

So I want people to feel empowered to make small, medium and large changes to our landscapes for both personal enjoyment, like having a grape arbor and using it for summer shade, and to benefit the environment, like growing flowers for pollinators.  If all you can do this year, is over-seed your lawn with a packet of microclover to fill in the bare spots, adding a plant that will provide free nitrogen to your lawn, then that is just all you can do and it's good enough!


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Fight Against Artificial Turf in Middletown, CT

By: Thomas Christopher
Middletown, CT

It was a rare success, notes Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, Inc.: While synthetic turf fields are popping up all over Connecticut, residents of Middletown turned back a proposal by their city to create 9 synthetic turf playing fields.  As such, it’s worth studying how the Middletown activists mounted their campaign.

Alderman’s organization, a non-profit dedicated to protecting human health from environmental harms, has been raising the alarm about the recycling of tires as play surfaces for several years.  As Alderman points out, in some states, used and discarded tires are regulated as a hazardous waste; in Connecticut, they are treated as a “special waste” that, by law, cannot be disposed of in landfills.  That’s just common sense, because as they decompose tires release heavy metals such as lead and zinc, a variety of carcinogens such as carbon black and benzene, and other toxic compounds that are as yet poorly understood.

Yet grind these same tires  up into fine crumbs – enhancing the rate at which they release their toxic contents -- and they can be used as in-fill for the synthetic turf fields on which your children play sports.    Indeed, such fields have in recent years been popping up all over Connecticut, despite the resistance of local environmental groups.
The struggle in Middletown began with a largely uncontroversial parks bond referendum.  This was to be placed before the voters in November on 2015 and was to secure funding for 10 years worth of improvements to recreational spaces, including a new pool, new exercise and walking trails, bike paths, a splash pad-spray park and playground, and a dog park.  But even before the text of the referendum was officially released for public scrutiny in early August, 2015, environmental watchdogs had learned that it would include funds to install nine synthetic turf fields.

These activists were unusually well organized thanks to an environmentally oriented local 501(c)(3) non-profit, the Jonah Center.  In 2011, with a $1,000 grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, it had founded ECoIN – the Environmental Collective Impact Network – to serve as a clearing house for Middletown’s environmental organizations.  Currently, it includes some eleven such groups, ranging from the local garden club to the city of Middletown’s Recycling Commission, and the representatives of each meet once a month to discuss common concerns.  Thanks to members from the city government, EcoIN had an early warning of the proposal to install the synthetic turf fields.  Opposition began immediately, with ECoIN members coordinating so that there would be minimal duplication of efforts and a systematic strategy.

The activists recognized that education would be the key to a successful campaign.  Initially they had to educate themselves and for this they turned to a number of sources, in particular Environment and Human Health, Inc. which has been collecting information about the dangers of synthetic turf fields for a number of years. 

After educating themselves, the ECoIN members began meeting privately with members of the Middletown Common Council to share their concerns with them.   The activists also created fact sheets about synthetic turf targeted at different groups; on a sports night meeting at the local high school, for example, they distributed a fact sheet especially aimed at the parents of student athletes.  Eventually they addressed the general public, sponsoring a booth at an outdoor festival and collecting signatures on a petition requesting that the city eliminate the synthetic turf fields from the referendum.  Three hundred signatures were collected in a single day. representing a number of voters sufficient to sway a local election and proof to the Common Council members that interest in the issue was intense.

Defenders of synthetic turf insist that while the crumb rubber typically used as infill in synthetic turf is contaminated with a variety of toxins, no definitive studies have as yet proven that the resulting risk to children through inhalation, skin contact, and ingestion is at an unacceptable level.  The response of the Middletown activists was to ask parents and the city government if they wanted to make their children the subjects of a toxicology experiment.  In addition, using data taken from synthetic turf industry websites, the activists called into question the economics of the artificial fields, which would cost $850,000 to $1,000,000 each to install, and which would require extensive specialized maintenance and replacement typically after just 10 years of use.

Despite opposition from Middletown sports clubs, this lobbying paid off.  First the Common Council agreed (in a tie vote with the city’s mayor serving as the tie-breaker) to rewrite the referendum and substitute natural turf fields for the synthetic versions.  The environmentalists then rallied to the support of the referendum, which synthetic turf supporters tried to keep off the ballot.  Finally, on election day, the environmentalists handed out fact sheets outside the polling places, persuading voters to support the referendum.   Thanks in part to these efforts, the referendum passed and the city won funding for the parks and public spaces upgrades it was seeking – at a better price, due to the elimination of the costly synthetic turf.

Grassroots activism is a learning process, with practitioners constantly improving and updating strategies and skills.  What brought success in the campaign against synthetic turf will undoubtedly be re-applied to other, future campaigns.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Going Organic in Hopkinton, Massachusetts

Scott Currin Excavates with Soils in Mind

By Kathy Litchfield
HOPKINTON – Orchestrating the buzzing and swirling dance of a busy construction site is no easy feat under regular circumstances. When striving to disturb the soils as little as possible, separate types of soils for optimal usage later, and direct water flow with an eye towards appropriate stormwater management, neighborliness and erosion control, the job  becomes that more challenging.
Scott Currin, his family, and crew
                NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional Scott Currin is up to the task. Since the mid-1980s, he has worked in excavation for high-end residential homeowners as well as commercial clients. Early on he noticed the difficulty in avoiding compacting the soil as the construction process goes on – what with building contractors and subs hauling in tons of materials and heavy equipment, timing things so that everyone can get their work done in the most time- and cost-efficient manner and watching the weather to ensure control of water flow through the site from beginning to end.
                “I’m the first one in and the last one out (on a job site) so I have a lot of say as to how things progress. It’s really a huge dance. You have all the trades coming in with blinders on, trying to get their piece of it done. Most of them don’t fully understand the impact they have on the site; they drive materials over everything without thinking about compaction (for instance). So I have to try to control that a little bit,” said Currin, owner of Hopkinton Homesite Designs, LLC, founded in 1999. He started with high-end residential properties and also works on commercial sites, believing that “no job is too small” for his one-man operation.
Within the last three years, Currin said he “really got on board with the do no harm, organic ideas.”
                “The more I’m educating myself, the more I want to educate others. I found Dr. Elaine Ingham on the internet. I’ve been digging in the dirt for 30 plus years - like a big boy in the sandbox - and I’ve never really understood how everything works in terms of soil microbiology until I met her. She led me to NOFA and I really got into soils. I’ve always been environmentally sensitive to what’s going on anyways, and now I have the knowledge behind me to back it all up. This all makes sense,” he said, praising Todd Harrington of Harrington’s Organics and Paul Wagner of the Soil Food Web as being wonderful resources.
When Currin arrives at a new site, he tries to envision the whole job in his mind – what will go where, who needs to be where, when, for how long, how large the site is in terms of having places to move different soils to for safekeeping until later in the job process, and how to control the water on the site for months at a time.
                “All sites are different so you have to really see it all happening before it does, in order to make good decisions,” he said. “Water is the first thing I look for.”
                Currin assesses how he’ll control water flow throughout the construction process, ensuring it won’t negatively affect neighbors or cause erosion, and have the best drainage possible. Then he looks at the soils.
“We try to see what we’re going to disturb and try to disturb it as little as possible, thinking of how you’ll move your materials through the site during construction,” he said, always considering how he’ll keep types of soils such as topsoil, organic matter, subsoils and structural soils, separate – perhaps by stockpiling them in a back corner of the site, or removing them to another site if the site is too small (such as in a city or suburb environment) to house soils for the project’s projected time span. 
He also keeps in mind the future use of the site, thinking about where lawn, gardens, planting beds and driveways will be, so he can replace the right soils to the right places.  
“Be sure the soil you’re excavating is suitable for what you’ll use it for. All soils are very different in terms of how they respond to use. You want to limit the number of times you handle it both for cost and environmental concerns,” he said.
Currin often builds terracing and retention channels where water will drain quickly into the ground, especially for sites with high water tables. He watches the weather because when there is a two- to three-inch rainfall within a 24-hour period, that’s a lot of water to control on a building site.
                “You have to manage the site, for every weather event, every rain event, access issues . . . keeping all this in mind, as to how little impact you’re trying to have on the site. . . . It's great to have unlimited funds to do everything you want but that's rarely the case, especially when working with builders and budgets. You have to convince them sometimes that it’ll be worth it in the long run, to sell the organic aspect,” he said.
                Currin uses a large 320 excavator, backhoe and multi-terrain track loader, the latter of which he praised for its non-compaction properties. He makes his own compost tea and sources soils from the best companies he can find to ensure top quality for sites where that is appropriate. He praised Weston Nurseries for their high-quality loam and topsoil and stressed the importance of sourcing soils that are not contaminated.
                On the side, Currin loves adopting “rescue plants” from sites where they are unwanted, and often “marries them together” in his Hopkinton backyard by putting their dead sides back to back in close proximity. In spring, he said it’s “like a slow motion fireworks display of flowering” as plants bloom in succession blasting out form, color and fragrance. Among his favorites are rhododendrons, azaleas and umbrella pines all growing in close quarters, along with a 15-20-foot tall blue spruce that is married to an Alberta spruce and rhododendron. “They seem to enjoy each other and are growing like crazy,” he said.
                “The reason I got into pushing the organic end of it is to try and build on this (way of thinking) to become second nature. You’ve got to add some passion to your life after all. I really enjoy helping people understand that this is so, the way it needs to be, to be sustainable,” he said. “If I can convince people not to dump toxic chemicals on site, take care of the soils, and just notice the woods. It takes care of itself. If a tree gets sick, it dies but it provides food for everyone else. Let nature decide how it’s supposed to be. Let it be!”
    For more information, contact Currin at siteworkplus@gmail.com or call (508) 726-2094.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Going Organic in Portland, ME: Portland Protectors Works to Eliminate Pesticides

A total of 25 towns in Maine already have local pesticide ordinances and others are joining them.

By Kathy Litchfield
PORTLAND, MAINE – A group of concerned citizens, founded by two moms fed up with their children’s and pets’ pesticide exposure, is encouraging the Portland City Council to adopt a comprehensive pesticide ordinance banning the use and sale of synthetic landscaping chemicals and fertilizers within this progressive city.

Co-founder of Portland Protectors, Avery Yale Kamila, put it this way: “The bees are dying; the waters of Casco Bay are polluted with pesticide residues; synthetic fertilizers are causing massive algae bloom. Our kids are getting exposed to harmful pesticides and our pets are walking across lawns sprayed with pesticides. We are fed up and are doing something about it.”

Kamila is the mother of an almost three-year-old son who works as a freelance journalist and food columnist at the Portland Press Herald. She co-founded Portland Protectors in the summer of 2015 and has garnered support from over 500 people who’ve “liked” the organization on Facebook, more than 600 people who’ve signed the group’s Change.org petition, joined mailing lists and actively serve as concerned community members attending city council and related subcommittee meetings as well as talking to residents, business owners and landscape companies to spread the word about the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides and what can be done about it.

In August of 2015 the group submitted a carefully written ordinance to the City Council that would ban the use and sale of synthetic landscaping pesticides and fertilizers within the city. The Council has yet to adopt it and meanwhile, Portland city staff countered with their own ordinance which includes many exemptions – “pretty much everything they’re already doing” applying pesticides on city property, she said.
Kamila shared that presently, the city of Portland spends $10,000 a year to spray Roundup throughout the Arts District and Old Port areas, populated by thousands of tourists annually as well as local residents.

In addition, she said, “Portland budgets $5,000 a year to spray Roundup in other areas of the city, including around the base of trees, in ornamental display gardens, in parks and wherever invasive plants grow.” Another major problem, she said, is the city-owned Riverside Golf Course, which budgeted $25,000 for synthetic pesticides in 2015, she said.

Several non-profit groups are supporting the efforts of Portland Protectors, including the Friends of Casco Bay, the Portland Pollinator Partnership, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the NOFA Organic Land Care Program, which is exploring the possibility of hosting its intensive professional accreditation course in the Greater Portland area.

Kamila recently wrote a guest editorial, writes regular letters to local newspaper editors and attends City Council meetings as well as meetings of the Council’s newly formed “Energy and Sustainability Subcommittee,” who met last month to determine the year’s work plan.

Last November she and other citizens shared survey results they collected, showing which council representative candidates were in support of pesticide legislation, and she believes helped those candidates get elected in at least two of Portland’s districts. In early February 2016 they also released a report called “Playing with Chemicals” including a detailed analysis of chemicals used on the Riverside Golf Course, which she is sending out to local media in the hopes of coverage.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 29, Chip Osborne of Osborne Organics based in Marblehead, Mass. is hosting a workshop titled “Learn How to Transition Turf from Conventional Management Programs to a Natural Approach” from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn. On April 15-16, Beyond Pesticides is hosting their 34th National Pesticide Forum at the University of Southern Maine in Portland – both signs of the state’s ever-increasing move towards a less chemical-based approach to land care, said Kamila.

There are presently 25 towns in Maine who have passed some sort of pesticide ordinance, many of them including the banning or restriction of aerial spraying of crops including blueberries and forest trees grown for the paper and wood products industry and/or lobster fishing. These towns include Coplin Plantation, Lebanon, Limestone, New Sweden, Sweden, Rangely, Cranberry Isles, Waterboro, Amherst, Harpswell, Ogunquit, Standish, Wayne, Allagash, Brighton Plantation, Arrowsic, Limerick, Newburgh, Southport, Owl’s Head, New Gloucester, Brunswick, Castine and Wells. Kamila heard at a recent meeting that Old Orchard Beach is also working on an ordinance.
Closest to home is South Portland, where a group called Protect South Portland anxiously awaits the public release of a City Council-approved pesticide ordinance to be written by that town’s sustainability coordinator that Kamila hopes will set the stage with appropriate language for a comprehensive pesticide ban that could then be adopted by neighboring towns including her home city. It is expected to be released this month.

“I feel optimistic and confident. I feel like we have common sense on our side. We have the independent science on our side and we have the citizens of Portland on our side,” said Kamila. “We do have a strong opposition, that’s well financed, but they don’t have any of those things on their side. I feel like we have a good chance. It’s a matter of what we can get the council to wrap their arms around.”

For more information, visit Portland Protectors’ Facebook page, which Kamila updates regularly: