The Turning Of The Worm  

Posted by Big Gav

Soil seems to be the theme of the week here at Peak Energy (even though its an area I know very little about), so I might continue exploring the subject a little deeper and see what comes to light. I'll try and get back on track next week - unfortunately I have more post ideas and links to fill them with than I have free time at the moment.

I'll start off with something of an oddity - an indoor worm farm called a "digestive table" (or as Futurismic called it "table that eats"). A construction diagram for this contraption is available here.

A living ecosystem of worms, sowbugs and bacteria are invited to this table. They are a part of the digestive system that starts with a person discarding food leftovers and shredded paper into the portal at the top. The bacteria and sowbugs begin breaking down the waste and the worms soon join in to further digest it into a rich compost that sprinkles out of the bottom of the fabric bag that hangs beneath the table. This compost is used as a fertilizer for plants, such as those at the base of the table.

The human plays an important part at the table by eating, feeding the food waste to the worms, feeding the resulting fertilizer to the plants, or by simply sitting and appreciating the living ecosystem she/he is a part of. A cross-section of the activity inside the top 9 inches of the compost is made visible using an infrared security camera connected to an LCD screen built into the table. On the screen, viewers can see the live movements of the worms and sowbugs inside.

Vermicomposting - The hand-made composting bag is based on a "flow-through" vermicomposting system, designed to make harvesting the worm castings much easier. Standard methods involve separating worms by hand, or by lifting heavy sections of the stacking tray type of bin. I use several types of bins at home, including the homemade plastic tub type and the fancy, stacking tray type, but I am most excited about the ease of use of this new bag type. To construct my own vermcomposting bag, I've sewn together 2 layers of landscape fabric, rather than use plastic, in order to increase the air circulation around the sides, but the top is closed off, to keep more moisure up there. The worms like the moisture level to be around 75 - 85%. To harvest the "black gold" castings, I simply untie the string at the bottom of the bag and squeeze it a bit to allow the finished castings to fall out. Very few worms remain at the bottom of the bag where the finished castings are, because the food is at the top of the bag and the material gets a bit drier at the base, so the worms don't like it. More info on vermicomposting here. And a very informative how-to handout, written by Amy Stewart can be downloaded here.

Seeing worms - is more difficult than you might imagine, since worms are harmed by white light. They do not mind infra-red, but humans cannot see in that frequency. Video cameras are sensitive to that frequency, but often have filters to remove it. The video camera used in this project is a very low light, black and white security camera (.0003 lux, 600 lines of resolution, Sony Super HAD CCD). It is showing the worms and sowbugs live, using infra-red light that filters in from the theater gels located beneath the feeding portal (because it turns out the white polyethylene lets a little light in) and on the side of the bag where a clear acrylic dome cuts into the fabric for the camera to image the action inside the composting material. The filters that allow only infra-red to pass are Rosco #27 and #382, discussed in detail here. The camera is connected to a 10" LCD screen, which was removed from a $200 snail-shaped TV for kids made by Hannspree.

Wood and stain - The wood is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council Certified) oak plywood, which I actually purchased at Lowes. They have a policy to "agressively phase out the purchase of wood products from endangered forests". In an effort to be ecological - and to reference the cycle of food reprocessing - I decided to stain the wood with a homemade concoction of boiled red cabbage, mixed with a little worm compost tea (leachate from pure worm castings) and alum. This stain is beautifully purple at first, but after a few days the color fades quite a lot, even after 2 coats of polyurethane...

The list of inspirations for creating this object contains a number of interesting links, including Bruce Mau's "Massive Change" which should be familiar to Viridian readers:
Inspirations:

- Dr. Clive Edwards and Norman Aroncon, soil ecology researchers at the Ohio State University who graciously showed me their vermicomposting research and answered my many questions. Their recent research paper is, Effects of Vermicompost Tea on Plant Growth and Disease.

- The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms - a book by Amy Stewart. Also check out her great blog called, Dirt.

- N55, Eco concept art/design collective in Copenhagen, Denmark. They made a very cool vermiculture project called Soil Factory.

- MASSIVE CHANGE, Bruce Mau Design and the Institute Without Boundaries

On the subject of worms, one of the many (lamentably) unread books that sit unattended on my shelves while I peck away at the computer is called "In the beginning was the worm" which describes the history of the study of worms, which have the distinction of being the first creatures ever to have their genome's sequenced. There is a brief outline here:
C .Elegans is about the most unremarkable nematode known to man. There must be others, even less obvious, lurking undiscovered in the crannies of the world since nematodes are overwhelmingly the most numerous animals on earth. If a Martian biologist were to collect, at random, five million animals from the earth, sampling everything he could find, from apes and penguins through fish to the uncountable myriads of insects, almost all of them, four million,would be nematodes. The best estimates of the number of their species range between 100,000 and 10,000,000. The wild disparity of these estimates means that for every species we know about there may be a hundred that haven't been discovered yet, or there may be only ten. If Brenner had been interested in an organism that was economically valuable, he might have picked any of the numerous nematode parasites which cause humans suffering - either directly: about half the world's population are afflicted with parasitic nematodes, which can cause some extremely unpleasant diseases - or indirectly, because they parasitise almost everything that humans eat: not just sheep and cattle, but plants ranging from coffee to carrots. Victorian biologists catalogued nematode parasites of lions, vultures, and seal's kidneys, these last growing up to 40 inches long. There is a gruesome saying among worm researchers that if everything on earth were to disappear except the nematodes, the outline of all plants and animals would be left, filled out by their nematode parasites. Just how close this comes to literal truth emerges from the fact that there are three different species of nematode found living in the rectum of the American cockroach Periplaneta americana. There appears to be nowhere these animals will not try to live.

Yet elegans lives in tranquil obscurity underground, parasitising nothing, eating only bacteria and slime moulds.


The most important thing about C. elegans at the beginning, apart from the fact that it could be displayed under an electron microscope in illuminating ways, was its sex life. It has sex early and often, usually with itself. These two facts make it fascinating for geneticists. C. elegans takes less than four days to grow from an egg to an egg-laying animal so the results of an experiment are quick to appear. The sex organs of a hermaphrodite C. elegans take up most of the middle of its body., they resemble an art nouveau "y" that has been squashed flat, so that the very short stalk is the vulva, and the two long arms, each folded back once on itself in a hairpin bend, are the gonads, where eggs and sperm develop. The eggs start to develop at the far point of the hairpin, and gradually grow as they move around the bend in the tube towards the vulva. The sperm, which are repulsive to look at , lurk at the exit of this tube, and fertilise the eggs before they move into the vulva. Unlike most animal sperm, those of nematodes have no tail and don't wiggle or swim; instead, they are amoeboid blobs, that drag themselves along a surface by expanding and contracting the cell walls like tiny caterpillar tracks.

Once fertilised, the embryo develops inside the eggs until it has grown to a tiny larva, which hatches once the eggs have been expelled form the vulva. Since the worm and its eggs are transparent, this process can actually be watched through a microscope as it happens

The mathematics of worm sex are simply mind boggling. I once tried to work out how many worms had laid down their lives for science in the last thirty years, and decided very rapidly that the number was incalculable. I mean that quite literally, and not just because my spreadsheet refused to contemplate them. The beginning of the calculation is quite easy to make: a worm will grow to maturity in about three and a half days. After that it will start laying eggs. Most will lay about 300 eggs in over the next four days; each of these will hatch in four days' time into a hermaphrodite that will lay another 300 eggs. So one worm has three hundred children and 90,000 grandchildren. These 90,000 worms would, if food were unlimited, produce 27 million children of their own. By the end of a month, assuming unlimited food and room, one worm could have eight thousand million living progeny, or, as an American would say, eight billion. There aren't that many people alive on earth. After the second month , each of those eight billion worms could have produced another eight billion descendants giving as the total number of possible descendants of one hermaphrodite in 69 days a figure that has 27 zeros after it. No wonder the spreadsheet boggled. When God promised Abraham descendants who would outnumber the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on a beach, he didn't mention that he had made the same promise to a worm first.

When I moved into my new place I found an unused worm farm out in the backyard (I can only guess the local council was making them available at some point and the previous residents picked one up and couldn't be bothered using - or moving - it). Once I found myself a seed population of worms (courtesy of the friendly folks down at "The Watershed" in Newtown) I began filling it with kitchen scraps, which the worms seem to be enjoying. Hopefully in a month or two they will have filled the bottom layer and I can migrate them up and see how the stuff works as fertiliser. The only slight annoyance I've encountered so far is a small plague of fruit fly (the curse of the east coast) which reputedly can be reduced by adding a bit of garden lime from time to time.

WorldChanging also has a post on worms this week from Jennifer Bogo, called "For the Worms: Vermiculture in Brooklyn".
Sitting in the “wildlife corner” of my Brooklyn apartment, next to a ceramic mallard lamp and a cat scratching post, is a blue Tupperware container perforated with air vents. It holds, I’m convinced, the key World Changing concept for 2007: a pound of worms.

These thousand or so red wigglers are easily the most industrious members of a household that includes me (the science editor at Popular Mechanics), my roommate (who slows down to read email), and a cat that’s clearly bent on driving toy mice to extinction. Nestled deep in a bed of shredded newspaper, the worms chomp their way through a half-pound of food each day.

It’s impressive, really: eggshells, tea bags and fruit and vegetable scraps in, nutrient-rich, earthy black compost out. Instead of contributing to New York City’s colossal waste stream, that mealy apple and last night’s kale stems will in three months be coaxing heirloom tomatoes from buckets on our fire escape—the remnants of which will eventually be fed back to the worms.

In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan observes that: “…in nature, there is no such thing as a waste problem, since one creature’s waste becomes another creature’s lunch.” My worm bin, like the polyculture farm Pollan visited for the book, mimics those natural relationships to create a closed cycle—a loop of endless energy rather than a line leading to a pile of onion peels.

The same principle can be applied to all kinds of systems, from agriculture and manufacturing to transportation and cities (especially appropriate for 2007, when humans officially become an urban species). And it will have to be. The new year brings unprecedented challenges, and it demands solutions that are elegant, and extraordinary in scope.

As William McDonough told GreenBuild attendees this fall, mere efficiency won’t be enough. It may stretch our supply of fossil fuels, but it won’t stave off global warming. To do that, we need a new design—one that allows materials to cycle indefinitely, one that imitates a biological, rather than industrial, system. We need, in other words, an old design. We need to take our cue from worms.

If worms aren't your thing then MetaEfficient has a post on "Effective Micro-organisms" which are another way of creating compost from kitchen scraps that is apparently popular in north east asia.
This may be one of the most efficient things we've featured.

"Effective Microorganisms" or EM is a formula of specially selected microbes which can be used for many applications. For example, they are a metaefficient compost additive. If you add a mixture of them to your kitchen compost and it will decompose more quickly and with less odor.

EM is a microbial consortium (aggregate of more than one type of microbe) that was developed by Dr. Teruo Higa, a Japanese horticulture professor.

Similar to the wine-making process, this system relies on fermentation rather than putrefaction. The ME mixture, called "Bokashi", is made by mixing sawdust and bran that has been inoculated with the microorganisms. It takes about ten days to do its work, and in the end you are left with nutrient-rich liquid compost. The system will also allow you to compost meat and diary products. A step-by-step guide can be seen here and here. The EM system is very popular with apartment dwellers in Japan and Korea. Real Goods sells a bokashi system. EMTrading has a lot of Effective Microorganism information. Whole Foods will soon be selling EM too.

There are many other uses for EM. The exact microbes in the microbial consortium may vary somewhat over time, but there are certain principles which guide which beneficial microorganisms are included and how they are combined with the other microbes in the formula. It is likely safe to say that the single largest area of EM utility is in farming (agriculture), and even moreso within the realms of organic farming, sustainable farming, or "super-organic" farming. However, EM has also found applications in waste treatment, waste water treatment, toxic waste remediation, remediation of polluted waterways, human and animal health, protecting building materials (architects call EM "building friendly"), and in many other diverse areas as well.

Philip at "transect points" has another post on Terra Preta called "Sombroek's Challenge - Terra Preta Nova".
The Godfather of Terra Preta, soil scientist Wim Sombroek (1934 - 2003) enjoyed a lifelong fascination with enhanced soil. The importance of plaggen soil in his native Netherlands impressed him at an early age, and early in the 1960's, he recognized in the Amazonian Dark Earths something familiar and precious. Before his passing, he assembled specific soil scientists, challenging them to discover the process for making and sustaining a modern equivalent of the bio-char enhanced terra preta, what he termed terra preta nova.

A great opportunity in answering Sombroek's challenge lies is surmounting the opacity of mutualistic rhizospheric species to traditional analytical approaches: only 1% of rhizospheric species are cultureable ala petri dish. We don't have a robust body of culture-independent studies against which to compare Terra Preta, so we are doubly challenged to reverse-engineer the phenomenon.

Considering Wim Somboek's many noteworthy accomplishments, the perspective of his international leadership, and the late-in-life timing of his challenge, one senses he is pointing us to a mystery fundamental to understanding soil in new and exciting ways. This happens at a time when the soil science profession is in dynamic transition and sorely in need of a unifying vision. Wim Sombroek has given soil scientists a most welcome and worthy quest.

Erich J Knight seems to be travelling the blogosphere seeking out sites that mention Terra Preta and fertilising them with additional links - from the comments at "transect points".

Danny Day's Eprida work at GIT, is a social purpose firm, designing equipment and a business model that will not cost the farmer anything out of pocket and create a many fold increase in rural high pay employment.

And now this commercial , larger industrial scale effort of a similar closed-loop pyrolysis system is now on the market. This is the first I've seen of a process like Dr. Danny Day's Eprida on the market:

BEST Pyrolysis, Inc.
http://www.bestenergies.com/companies/bestpyrolysis.html

In E. O. Wilson's "The Future of Life" he opens the book with a letter to Thoreau updating him on our current understanding of the nature of the ecology of the soils at Walden Pond.
" These arthropods are the giants of the microcosm (if you will allow me to continue what has turned into a short lecture). Creatures their size are present in dozens-hundreds, if an ant or termite colony is presents. But these are comparatively trivial numbers. If you focus down by a power of ten in size, enough to pick out animals barely visible to the naked eye, the numbers jump to thousands. Nematode and enchytraied pot worms, mites, springtails, pauropods, diplurans, symphylans, and tardigrades seethe in the underground. Scattered out on a white ground cloth, each crawling speck becomes a full-blown animal. Together they are far more striking and divers in appearance than snakes, mice, sparrows, and all the other vertebrates hereabouts combined. Their home is a labyrinth of miniature caves and walls of rotting vegetable debris cross-strung with ten yards of fungal threads. And they are just the surface of the fauna and flora at our feet. Keep going, keep magnifying until the eye penetrates microscopic water films on grains of sand, and there you will find ten billion bacteria in a thimbleful of soil and frass. You will have reached the energy base of the decomposer world as we understand it 150 years after you sojourn in Walden Woods."

Certainly there remains much work to just characterize all the estimated 1000 species of microbes found in a pinch of soil, and Wilson concludes at the end of the prolog that
"Now it is up to us to summon a more encompassing wisdom."

I wonder what the soil biome was REALLY like before the cutting and charcoaling of the virgin east coast forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till have helped to rebuild it.

First-ever estimate of total bacteria on earth
http://www.sdearthtimes.com/et0998/et0998s8.html

Given that, as Lehmann at Cornell points out, "systems such as Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! "

Bart from Energy Bulletin published a comprehensive article on soil ecology a little while back called "Soil food web - opening the lid of the black box which contains a mountain of information and links - the quote below is just a small excerpt.
We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.
- Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1500s

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

"Magic" is how humans have customarily described the soil's natural cycles of decay and growth. Without a scientific understanding, our ancestors relied on observation and traditional practices to grow crops.

Modern chemical agriculture has been only marginally better at understanding the soil. Unable to control the natural cycles, it bypasses them with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Despite the outward successes of modern agriculture, its heavy-handed approach brings with it pollution, soil degradation and other ills.

In contrast, organic methods like permaculture have attempted to work with natural cycles. Despite the many insights and successful practices that have emerged, a rigorous scientific model is still lacking. Permaculture and its brethren are accused of being belief systems rather than science. It's hard to make progress without having a common understanding of how things work.

Recently, however, soil ecology has developed to the point where we can open the lid on the black box of underground processes. We can begin to understand how micro-organisms maintain the structure and fertility of the soil. We learn that symbiotic relationships between plants and micro-organisms are not the exception but the rule.

It is no longer just compost-lovers who are excited about soil. The respected journal Science devoted an issue to "Soils: the Final Frontier" (June 11, 2004), saying:
"In many ways the ground beneath our feet is as alien as a distant planet. The processes occurring in the top few centimenters of Earth's surface are the basis of all life on dry land but the opacity of soil has severely limited our understanding of how it functions.... However, perspectives are beginning to change... Interest in soil is booming, spurred in part by technical advances of the past decade."

Waiting for Dr. Ingham

It's a chilly winter day at the San Mateo Garden Center in Northern California. Several dozen of us are drinking tea and coffee, waiting to hear soil microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham talk on the soil food web. We're drawn by the promise that by understanding soil ecology, we can grow healthier plants without relying on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. And in the long run, we're told, it will be cheaper and easier.

Actually most of us don't have to be convinced -- we're a cross-section of greenies from the San Francisco Peninsula: landscape designers, horticulture teachers, nursery owners, Master Gardeners, Master Composters and permaculture activists. We know Ingham's reputation and are here to listen to the master.

At last Dr. Ingham steps to the front and we're off. For the next two days we are inundated with dense, high intensity information that's very different from the usual. It's like having your head unscrewed.

She's the kind of professor you wish you had in college. She loves her subject and invites you to share it with her.


Much of the talk around organics is vague -- but not with Dr. Ingham at the helm. Ask a question or raise an objection, and she'll come back with a detailed response, complete with references in the scientific literature. As we say in Master Gardeners: "science-based gardening advice."

Ingham has been researching soil microbiology for over 25 years, having received her PhD in 1981. She taught at Oregon State University (Corvallis) from 1986 to 2001. She left academia to devote herself to Soil Foodweb, Inc, the consulting and testing service she started in 1996. She has published over 50 articles in refereed journals.

Years spent peering through a microscope have given her a perspective that is ... different. As one aside, she remarked that humans, if viewed from outer space, would bear a remarkable resemblance to rod-shaped bacteria. As with many good biologists, she has an affection and respect for the organisms she studies.

She also has a gift for the apt metaphor that makes a technical concept come alive:
* Pests and disease are "garbage collectors" that take away stressed plants growing in the wrong habitats.

* When adding water to compost, follow the "Goldilocks Principle" (not too little, not too much - just the right amount).

After several days of lectures, I had taken over 100 pages of notes and was in danger of getting lost in the details. How to summarize Ingham's message? One attempt:
Life on earth is sustained by a complex underground ecological system - the soil food web.

Through ignorance, we've disrupted the food web, in particular with ill-advised farming and gardening methods.

We can return the food web to health by restoring the soil biology.

The picture of the soil food web that Ingham presents seems to be widely accepted. Rarely however are the ideas synthesized into a coherent whole. No wonder. The concepts come from many different fields -- microbiology, ecology, soil science and agronomy. Specialists absorbed in their own fields often find it difficult to see the big picture. ...

Moving up out of the soil in into the backyard garden, Groovy Green has a post on how to grow a luffa (plus a follow up).
For the third autumn in a row I am pleased to be harvesting my shower sponge for next year. Now I know that must sound like a strange statement but it’s true. Many people are surprised when they find out I grow my own Luffa sponges. “Don’t those come from the sea?”, is the standard question to which I respond that the Luffa is a vegetable you can grow in your very own garden.

This annual requires a long growing season of frost free weather. But for those of you in colder climates it is possible to start seedlings indoors and then transplant them outside allowing you to grow your own sponges. The vine can grow to great lengths producing beautiful yellow flowers all summer. Next spring I will be sure to remind you to start your sponges. Right now though I am focused on the harvest. I almost waited too late to get my Luffa started this spring so I was lucky to get a hand full of mature sponges. This one grew right outside my bedroom window. ...

Quite a few people were interested in my recent harvest of Luffa shower sponges. I thought I’d explain a bit more about the plant and the process of growing it. Luffa aegyptiaca Mill. or as it is commonly called, the Loofah, is a vegetable native to South America. It can be eaten when it is smaller. I have stir fried them but only up to a size of about 4 inches. After that they become tough like an over ripe squash. Left to fully mature each fruit produces an excellent sponge. Seeds for this plant are readily available through vegetable catalogs and you’ll only have to buy seeds your first year- one mature Luffa sponge will produce at least 30 seeds. Some will produce many more.

Frost kills the plant and it needs 4 to 5 months of growth to produce sponges. Here in North Carolina I can plant seeds directly in the ground near the date of the last frost and then harvest a modest number of sponges later in autumn. If I wanted a better yield or if I lived further north I would start them indoors several weeks, maybe even a month before the date of the last frost and transplant them outdoors after frost danger has passed. Planting them on the sunny, southern side of your property will help. They are natural climbers and are happiest running up the sides of a trellis or even the outer walls of your home. I sprinkle a few seeds near, but not in front of, one of my south facing gutter downspouts. When the plant sprouts it climbs up the downspout and along my gutters. It doesn’t impede the flow of water and in the fall when the plant dies I easily pull it off of my home. The large Luffa leaves help to shade the hottest side of my house in the summer. I am certain they could be grown just as well on a large trellis. They can get quite long. I’ve grown vines that exceeded 15 feet in length.

Sometimes Luffas left to fully mature and turn brown or Luffas that ripen lying on the ground will have brown splotches of color throughout the sponge. For some people this isn’t a problem. Others however do not like bathing with something that is several different shades of rust. After I remove the outer skin and squeeze out the pulp and seeds from inside the Luffa, I often soak them in a weak solution of bleach and warm water for about 5 minutes. This is especially true of the Luffa sponges I give as gifts. The process usually lightens the color and gets rid of dark brown spots. After doing so I let them dry thoroughally by hanging them up or placing them on a drying rack. It is also possible to dye the Luffas if you think you’d like bathing with a pink sponge.

I highly suggest you try growing Luffa sponges; even those of you in Northern climates with shorter growing seasons. Each morning as I start my day, I am reminded of my commitment to becoming more self-sufficient when I shower using a sponge I grew myself.

If you're not into luffas (I always thought they were some sort of sea creature) then Groovy Green also has a post on how to how to grow your own tea.
When the world goes to hell, and you no longer have ample supplies of crappy Linton tea bags lying around (but you really don’t have those do you?), it will be refreshing to know that you’re not powerless. Granted, growing tea is not something out of the realm of thought (like growing your own shower Luffa), but did you ever really consider it? Maybe I’m alone, but a great article I found today has inspired me to grow tea leaves, as well as a shower luffa for the coming season. Perhaps you’ll had them to your list as well?

According to the author, it’s really not that difficult. However, one hindrance to interested readers might be the Zone 8 region (mid-west to southern USA) requirement for outdoor success. For people living above this zone, it’s worth giving it a shot indoors or in a greenhouse. From the article,

” The Camellia sinensis plant is a small shrub about 1-2 meters in height, though it will grow taller if you don’t prune it. In the fall, your tea shrub will flower with small white blossoms that have a delightful scent. These plants are often grown as ornamentals. For planting, Camellia sinensis likes well-drained and sandy soil that is on the acidic side. If you are going to grow your tea in a container, add some sphagnum moss to the potting mix. You’ll need some patience, too. Your plant should be around 3 years old before you start harvesting leaves.”

It’s interesting to note that from this one plant, you can make Green, Oolong, or Black tea. For some reason, I thought they were all from different types of tea plants. Head on over to the site for the full instructions. The author recommends your local nursery or the site, SeedRack, for the correct seeds. Good luck and happy brewing!

One last link from Groovy Green - this one on ecoforms - pots for plants made from sustainable materials (I got a Wollemi pine for Christmas in a biodegradable pot that seems quite similar to these).
Wow, here’s another West Coast only first! In Santa Rosa, CA (just north of San Francisco) there is a company that makes pots for your plants, flowers, herbs, and such out of sustainable crops, mainly grain husks. They’re called EcoForms.

Now from what I understand, such a product already exists in Canada, the UK, and Australia. EcoForms is the first here in the US (but correct me if I’m wrong). They are a husband wife team who run an organic nursery called Sweetwater Nursery. Like most things borne out of necessity; they wanted an alternative to the plastic pots. They had already converted their greenhouses to solar power and their trucks to biofuels, but the plastic containers for their organic plants just seems contradictory, hence an idea was borne!

They are designed to last 5 years in all climates. and come in a variety of earthy colors and different sizes. If you decide to discard it into a landfill, it will breakdown into a nutrient-rich organic matter with a PH value of 7.0. You can find them at Whole Foods or contact them directly for wholesale orders, or custom designs.

Science Daily has an article noting that Soil Nutrition Affects Carbon Sequestration In Forests.
Building on preliminary studies reported in Nature, the researchers found that trees can only increase wood growth from elevated CO2 if there is enough leaf area to support that growth. Leaf area, in turn, is limited by soil nutrition; without adequate soil nutrition, trees respond to elevated CO2 by transferring carbon below ground, then recycling it back to the atmospheric through respiration.

"With sufficient soil nutrition, forests increase their ability to tie up, or sequester carbon in woody biomass under increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations," says Kurt Johnsen, SRS researcher involved in the project. "With lower soil nutrition, forests still sequester carbon, but cannot take full advantage increasing CO2 levels. Due to land use history, many forests are deficient in soil nutrition, but forest management -- including fertilizing with nitrogen -- can greatly increase growth rate and wood growth responses to elevated atmospheric CO2."

The studies took place at a Free Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) study established by the U.S. Department of Energy on the Duke Forest in Durham, NC. In FACE studies, groups of trees are circled by rings of towers that provide CO2 to increase atmospheric concentrations of the gas around the selected trees. At the Duke FACE experiment, half of each ring was fertilized with nitrogen to study the effect of added soil nutrients on tree growth under elevated CO2.

The researchers further tested their hypotheses using data from FACE sites in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Italy. In the articles, the scientists identify critical areas needing further study, but the overall consistency they found across these diverse forests bodes well for developing accurate models to predict the ability of the world's forests to sequester carbon.

"Forests play a critical part in sequestering carbon, and may play a role in mitigating the elevated levels of carbon dioxide associated with climate change," says Johnsen. "To predict how much forests can sequester, we need accurate ways to predict what happens to carbon within forest systems and how this partitioning is affected by environmental conditions."

And to close, here's an article from "Plenty" on desert farming in Israel which will come in handier for me in a few years time when the east coast of Oz has become one.
Drylands cover about a third of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and some of the world’s poorest people live in these arid and semi-arid regions. The challenges that drylands present are formidable: Overfarming and unsustainable development often lead to erosion, soil salination and vegetation cover loss. The result is ever-widening swaths of desert.


“If current climate scenarios of change, growth demographics, consumption, and poverty continue, the fight in the 21st century will be over water, not oil,” United Nations Ambassador Gregoire de Kalbermatten warned hundreds of environmental experts at the four-day United Nations International Conference on Deserts and Desertification Sde Boker, Israel in November.

But in Israel, researchers have found that drylands hold hidden potential.

For decades, Israel’s scientists have been at the forefront of environmental technology development aimed at working with limitations the desert presents. They have pioneered the use of drip irrigation (a method used to apply water slowly to the roots of plants by depositing the water either on the soil surface or directly to the root zone), planned desert-friendly architecture aimed at maximizing solar energy use in homes while minimizing damage caused by desert heat, and developed inexpensive water desalination technology. But their work didn’t stop there.

Scientists at the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research are cultivating practical technologies like fish farming in the desert—and teaching those techniques to local farmers. By filling fish tanks with geothermal, brackish water pumped from beneath the desert floor, farmers are able to produce 35 times more fish than they do in traditional outdoor ponds in this area. The brackish water is then recycled to irrigate surrounding olive groves.

In winter, tilapia is scarce in many parts of the world. High European demand and low market availability make it a valuable export for Israel. Farmers raise the fish in the Negev desert and export it to Belgium, Italy, and Spain, where it commands high prices.

“As I tell my students, fish live in water but don’t drink water. Plants live on land but drink a lot of water. So when you grow fish you’re just recycling the water,” Blaustein Institute director Avigad Vonshak explains.

Looking to the future, Israel’s scientists plan to expand aquaculture to vegetables and dual cropping techniques.

“Sustainable development of dryland can go all the way from the human issues of organizing education systems in remote societies to soil type used for blending and growing tomatoes in brackish water,” says Vonshak. “The awareness arises from being located here, in the desert. The solutions come from practical necessity.”

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