Earlier this month, I was able to catch this great show at Wave Hill Garden and Cultural Center in the Bronx. Unfortunately, the show has just closed but you can still find plenty of information on this site. It was an inspiring display of innovation showcasing art, urban remediation, landscaping and reuse of waste products.

The first piece that caught my eye was a proposal by Mierle Laderman Ukeles for the upcoming development of Fresh Kills Park into the second largest park in New York City.

Proposed Fresh Kills Park, Staten Island, Photo: Courtesy Wave Hill

Ukeles proposes that “over 1 million members of the public, or “Donor Citizens,” create or select something of great personal value to be made into a “Public Offering.” The item must be small enough to fit inside the donor citizen’s hand. These offerings will be collected at designated “Cultural Transfer Stations” (sanitation garages, museums, libraries, schools, botanical gardens, and other cultural institutions throughout New York), where each object will be photographically documented, registered, and then embedded in a transparent recycled glass block. Eventually, the glass blocks will be placed at the new Fresh Kills Park, permanently embedded into the landscape along miles of pathways and retaining walls throughout the site.”

New York artist George Trakas was commissioned to complete a public access project around the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint. I’m not sure how connected we want to be to the pollution in the creek what with years of pollution and the massive Exxon oil spill that lies underneath much of Greenpoint, but Trakas has designed the perfect environment to encourage the return of nature to the creekside.

Jackie Brookner’s floating phyto remediation islands for a polluted lagoon in Finland reminded me of a talk I attended at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto about five years ago. That was the first time I had heard about phytoremediation. It’s something that makes so much sense until you have to find a place to dispose of the plants that have absorbed all the toxins from a site. Some plants can break down certain toxins but you wouldn’t want to eat the spinach from a phytoremediation site!

Finally, Matthew Mazzotta’s Park Spark Project proposes to digest dog waste into methane that can be used as an energy source. It’ll be interesting to see if this one goes into production.

Scanning electron micrographs showing morphological variation of bdelloid rotifers and their jaws

Image: Diego Fontaneto, Public Library of Science Journal

I wanted to know more about the processes going on inside my compost barrel especially now that I had started adding the daily waste from our five rapidly growing hens. I had composted waste plant matter before but I had a feeling that the chicken manure was going to create a whole different ecosystem.

So I Google compost and start reading through the Wikipedia entry. Under micro-organisms I look through the list of links to bacteria, fungi, protozoa and then notice rotifers which sounded interesting and vaguely familiar. Their name makes me think that rotifers would happily till the compost allowing all the other organisms access to break it down. It turns out that the name is actually derived from the Latin word for wheel-bearer because of the corona around the mouth that resemble a wheel although they do not actually rotate.

I was struck by the arresting beauty of this electron micrograph image that shows the delicate feathery anatomy of a creature whose job it is to covert our waste into useful compost. The compost pile is not the first place you would go searching for beauty and yet under the microscope, that’s exactly what you find.

The complexity of life at this small scale is intriguing and surprising when you read how they have a brain, nervous system, digestive system all packed into something that is at most 0.5mm in length. Scanning through the paragraph on reproduction I notice an unfamiliar word, parthenogenetically. My curiosity forces me to click on the link. It’s been a few years since my last biology class and I’m not sure they told us anything about this. I remember asexual reproduction but had no idea that anything beyond single celled organisms and fungi could reproduce asexually. I read on and am astonished to find that this parthogenesis (or development of an embryo without fertilization by a male) can occur in vertebrates like Komodo dragons and hammerhead sharks. So it turns out that virgin birth is possible after all, as long as you are a Komodo dragon!

In April we needed soil, pounds and pounds of soil, to create our portable garden. We didn’t want to plant directly into the garden because we suspected that it was contaminated with heavy metals and could see that it was peppered with garbage and broken glass. One of our neighbours had tested their soil and found it contained extremely high levels of cadmium and lead so we knew there was a good chance that ours would be similar. I had read about square foot gardening and all the ingredients required and although we weren’t planning to do a strict square foot garden, we were going to be using containers and I knew that meant we needed to create some sort of soil mix.

The base of the soil was easy enough. We knew that we would buy whatever topsoil or compost they had at the local big-box garden centre on the day we hired the van. Fortunately, our local store stocked masses of Composted Manure and the slightly cheaper Top Soil (from Long Island Compost). The good thing is that these products are produced locally in Yaphank, Long Island from landscaping waste and compost from local duck farms. I have some concerns that there may be pesticide residue in the landscaping waste especially if it comes from intensive users of chemicals such as golf courses. However, I have read that some contaminants are broken down in the composting process and that alleviates some of my concerns. (See The Rodale Book of Composting for more details.) There’s really no easy way to tell whether the ingredients of topsoil and composted manure are contaminated or not when they come from so many diverse sources but it looked like decent soil and was the best we could do at the time.

For container (or in our case mainly bucket) gardening, I knew that the soil had to be lightened to prevent waterlogging. I had read about the soil lightening properties of vermiculite and the benefits of adding organic material like coir (from coconut husks) or peat moss. We didn’t want to use peat moss because it is not a sustainable product. Recently, I discovered that well-managed harvesting of sphagnum moss in New Zealand is sustainable and can actually benefit the swamp as long as enough moss is left for re- growth. I wanted to use coir because it is generally a more sustainable choice than peat moss but it is more expensive and hard to find in local garden centres. I found some for sale at our local hydroponics shop but felt sure that we couldn’t afford to get enough for the amount of soil we wanted to create. Also, I didn’t feel like lugging it home on the bus.

The local big-box store stocked a brand of sphagnum peat moss, which is blended with perlite and plant food. We wanted to stay away from chemical feeds but couldn’t find any other peat moss on that trip. This was a typical – we’re here, we have the truck, it’s all they’ve got, we have to plant now- compromise that so often happens when you are subject to big-box store stock availability and rental vans. It’s rare for them to carry a selection of different brands of one particular item like peat moss so you have to get what you can.

Back at the yard, I mixed up a blend of roughly two thirds composted manure and topsoil with one-third peat moss to create our planting medium. I also added coffee chaff to provide more organic material and extra nitrogen and because we had secured a frequent and free supply from our local supermarket’s coffee roaster.  The soil seemed light enough to allow good root growth while still retaining enough moisture to keep the plants alive. The soil mix and container prep was a large operation over a period of a few weeks. I think we ended up buying over 1,000 lbs of soil which all had to be carted over a six foot fence one 40lb bag at a time. The soil has performed very well during our first growing season. The only problems I found were that the peat tended to stick into clumps within the pots which created wet acidic zones in the soil which may have affected plant growth but in general the plants seemed to love the soil. The resulting kale, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, sunflowers and melons are surely testament to that.

I don’t think there exists an unsuitable name for a chicken. Chickens can absorb any name but as a sometime military history enthusiast, I couldn’t help noticing how the feather patterns of the Barred Rock and the Wynadotte made me think  of naval ‘razzle dazzle’ camouflage. And so we named our new, black and white babies Razzle and Dazzle; unrelated in blood but forever united by pattern and naval history. The camouflage pattern inspired by Picasso and Cubism, but invented by British marine painter Norman Wilkinson, continues in a tiny garden by the sea in Brooklyn.