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GMO-Free: or IS it?

GMO-Free: or IS it?

The debate around genetically modified organisms is intense this year as labeling laws and bans and bans on bans are taken up. GMO technology has become pervasive in our world; and its impact on our food supply gets most of the attention. Is your food safe or isn’t it?

Whether you believe GMOs are dangerous or not, the majority of people agree we should have an option to know whether the food we buy contains them. And this is where GMOs get even more confusing. Many companies voluntarily label their foods GMO-free. Others don’t. 

There is also the belief that if you buy organic, your food is also GMO free. This was called into question by Henry I. Miller and Drew L. Kershen in a July 8 opinion piece for Forbes magazine. The key passage is includes this quote from USDA officials:

“As USDA officials have said repeatedly: “Organic certification is process based. That is, certifying agents attest to the ability of organic operations to follow a set of production standards and practices which meet the requirements of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the [National Organic Program] regulations . . . If all aspects of the organic production or handling process were followed correctly, then the presence of detectable residue from a genetically modified organism alone does not constitute a violation of this regulation” [emphasis added]. 

This language is probably meant to protect the investment farmers have made in certifying organic and the value of organic as a label. It also means that due to genetic drift or other means, organic food may have GMO “residue” in it.

Miller and Kershen go on to point out the issues with certification and accountability with organic certification programs. Among their points, they report that there are only two conditions under which organic produce can be tested: 1, if the farmer is suspected of intentionally violating organic standards; 2, 5% of the operations certifiers work with are tested annually.

The authors' bottom line is that eating organically doesn't guarantee your food is GMO free. They seem to miss the point that farmers choose not to use materials like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that will compromise their certification. This means the food is not sprayed with synthetic toxins and that natural, organic substances are used.  In addition, growers are becoming savvy to dealing with genetic drift by using measures like planting corn earlier than GMO corn is planted so that pollination times are staggered.

Does this mean throw out the value of eating organically? By no means! Becoming more aware about the concerns surrounding food safety and helps us understand why we want to buy and eat certain foods—or turn more towards growing our own.



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Micro Climate Change, Part II

Micro Climate Change, Part II

Microclimates are those areas around your home and garden with distinct temperature and moisture variations; exposure or protection from winds; and access to light. They create unique opportunities for variety in your garden plantings and the use of your home. In part I, we looked at the factors affecting microclimates (latitude, elevation, temperature, moisture, vegetation, and soil composition).

In this section, we’ll look at identifying microclimates. Then we’ll look at options to adapt to less than desirable microclimates or how to enhance positive areas.


1. Observe and interact. The first principle of permaculture according to David Holmgren comes into play here. Observe and interact with the microclimates in your space.
2. Once you’ve identified your microclimates, match those spaces to their best use for your home economy. Here is a simple worksheet to help you do that. 


In the home:

Growing or producing items can improve your home economy (turning old t-shirts into quilts? Or some other craft). Do you have space for a workshop or sewing corner? Gardens? Mushroom logs?


Right behind production in the home economy comes the question of storage. How much storage do you have in your home? With the growth of the consumer society in the 1950’s space for storage in the home decreased. In recent years, home designers increased the amount of storage. This is not because we are more productive in the home economy, but because we consume more. Some savvy people are using that space for storing away their harvests, materials and other resources.


I often have my permaculture design students sketch a map of their homes. Then I ask them to put the pencil down in their bedrooms—pretending to move around as they would in a typical day. They discover the areas they use the most often. Many identify a cold or hot room or a room they almost never use—and why. Use cold rooms as cool storage for items that need to be dry (root veggies through the winter?). Mitigate overly hot rooms (next to a stove or furnace?) to be useable by increasing ventilation and shading (from the inside or outside). They also might be helpful spaces for drying herbs or veggies in the summer. Insulated curtains or a spread of indoor plants to absorb the sunlight and humidify a room can make a huge difference.


Dry, warm rooms with good air circulation are excellent for storing tea, herbs, and other smoked or dried foods—like the mint or basil from your Garden Tower! Or dried tomatoes. [For a treat, dry slices of tomato with basil and a diced garlic on a cookie sheet in the oven or in an electric dryer. Stack them in a glass jar and use in winter sauces and stews—or just as a yummy snack!]


Cold and cool dry rooms are good places for winter squash, potatoes, and apples. Old-timers (and some savvy younger generations) use cool bedrooms (which are better for sleeping) for keeping produce in crates under the bed!


When you observe these areas and begin to match need to use, your home economy improves dramatically.



In the garden

Microclimates are everywhere! They are a secret to the theoretical unlimited yield mentioned by permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison.

b2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_0906modcomp.jpgMicroclimates affect the placement and success of gardens. Situate your garden where plants can get 6-8 hours of direct light. This is the amount of light needed for most annuals and perennials to bear fruit. If your garden area gets less than the minimum amount of light, don’t despair! Play with plants that bear in partial shade or even deep shade. Use Plants for a Future to help you find good options for your space. Try greens, potatoes, and anything in the brassica (broccoli) family. These are more likely to yield a harvest in a shady spot. You might want to consider thinning the tree canopy if that’s your limiting factor.

The second generation Garden Tower is fantastic because the rotating design allows you to turn the tower and even out the amount of light each section gets. If the tower is on casters, then you can move the tower into just the right place for what is growing. 

If you live where there is too much light saturation—where intense light negatively affects plants--you need to change your growing area. They are usually areas with higher temperatures. Sometimes we find them at higher elevations (where the thinner atmosphere hits plants with more intense UV light). In these areas, light shade can improve your yields. An awning or a light over-story tree with dappled shade can be the easiest way to create a shade house. Shade cloth or placing your garden on an eastern wall can also help to get the right amount of light to your garden. Shading your garden has other benefits, too. It lowers temperatures. It limits light. And it eases the soil evaporation and transpiration sucking water away from these tender plants.


As ozone levels continue to change in our atmosphere and UV light intensifies, these strategies (common in the southwest US) will become more common throughout the continent. More of us need to experiment with growing under light shade. Your plants will tell you as they drop their leaves or slow productivity in the hottest parts of the summer.


Vegetation and buildings (and landscape features) also determine how wind moves throughout the landscape. Excessive exposure to wind tends to dry out the soil and place stress on the plants. Plants like being in a sheltered, sunny spot. Windbreaks make a big difference. At the same time, a light breeze can confuse or discourage pests. To create a windbreak, try to install something (a perennial planting or wall) that gently lifts the wind over the area you are using and sets it back down. To direct wind, use perennial plantings in a V shape with the V pointing towards the window or garden area you want to cool and the wider part of the V pointing toward the direction from which wind tends to come.


Even a hood to keep pests away will provide some insulationI’ve mentioned keeping plants cooler with shade, but keeping them warm enough to be productive is the other side of temperature and microclimates. It is THE key strategy for season extension in spring, fall and winter. The keys to passive heating are: (1) to create a barrier that traps warm air (like a hoop house or greenhouse); and (2) to use thermal mass to warm an area through the night. If this is not enough, you are looking at using a heater, which requires expense, maintenance and fuel of some kind. It is much simpler to insulate the greenhouse well and use thermal mass to absorb the sun’s energy from the day—re-radiating it out at night. You’ve all enjoyed a warm stone or brick ledge on a cool day. That is the one way of benefitting from thermal mass.


In greenhouses, people use stone, brick, gravel, and tanks of water to store away solar energy. Usually the tubs of water are black to be the most effective. With the Garden Tower, a wonderful thing happens as the core mass of compost and soil (which is also moist) absorbs a good deal of solar energy and stores it away—just where the plants want it. This is a win, win, win when the tower is in an enclosed area in the cooler months.


As you practice observing microclimates; become more familiar with the techniques to modify them; and learn about different productive plants you can include in your garden, your system will become more resilient and unique to your interests. Enjoy discovering your microclimates! Don't forget to put a hammock or other relaxation spot in your favorite microclimate! Please share what you learn with other gardeners on the Garden Tower Facebook page!


Micro climate change, part I

Micro climate change, part I

Cats and dogs are microclimate masters. They can identify that warm, cozy spot or that spot in the shade better than anyone. This post explores what goes into understanding microclimates. In the next one, we’ll look at how to apply this to your garden—and especially to your Garden Tower.

Microclimates are identifiable climates at a smaller scale. That scale can range from a few miles to a square foot in your garden where a particular plant can be happiest. We deal with microclimates all the time. Think about the coldest part of your house in the winter or the hottest in the summer. The sunny window is another microclimate in your home. Take a tour of your home and think about those spots! How could you use them to your advantage? (Indoor plants, root vegetable or seed storage, summer sleeping areas?)b2ap3_thumbnail_Mogollon-Rim-by-Kevin-Dooley-CC.jpg


Just like your home, the garden has many microclimates. Mid-latitude gardeners of the northern hemisphere often identify a shady, northern wall that is challenging. West facing patios where air temperatures warm throughout the day and then have overheat under afternoon sun are uncomfortable, too.


As a gardener and designer, the good news is that we can organize and create solutions modifying microclimates for our benefit. Some plants (cooking herbs from the Mediterranean or succulents from the southwest) love those sunny, hot, western areas.


There are several factors affecting microclimates: moisture, temperature, winds, vegetation, soil, latitude, elevation and season. Use your observations of your own microclimates to make your home more comfortable and your garden more productive.


Where you are in relation to the equator [latitude] affects your general microclimate. Closer to the equator, you may be in the tropical or subtropical zones. The soil in these areas does not hold fertility in the same way mid-latitude, areas. Temperate soils act as a battery for deciduous perennials—storing fertility (organic matter, sugars in roots, etc…) in the soil for use in the next season. The advantage of subtropical and tropical areas is that the sun’s light is more constant—allowing plants to hold their own fertility throughout year. The Polar regions have yet another set of microclimate factors to design for. We unconsciously adapt to the ecological limits of our latitude—internalizing the flow of the seasons, for example. We can’t change these factors—only adapt to them. We can become roficient at placing our productive plants in those mimates that suit them—and making duke they have enough protection through the winter or spring and season to be productive. We can make sure there is enough protection from intense light, rain, and heat to produce in the hotter, more humid zones.


Elevation also affects microclimates. At the home scale, plants growing at the top of a hill vs. the bottom can make a difference—they are different microclimates. In the evening, plants at the top of the hill, the mountain, the forest lose the warm air faster than plants on the lower slopes or in the valleys (where heavy cool air can also pool). Apartments in a taller building are more exposed to light and wind, for example. Again, we may not be able to change our elevation (unless we have a large farm, or the ability to change apartments). Usually, we have to get savvy about choosing the right plants to grow—adapted to our elevation—or using greenhouses and shade houses to protect our gardens.


Moisture affects microclimates a great deal. The moisture regime you are in—from arid areas to humid areas with dozens of inches of rain each year impact microclimates. Most of our productive plants need more water than less. Moisture in the soil and atmospheric moisture are both important to the life of the plant. For this reason, many plants’ leaves reflect their ability to modify the microclimate immediately around them.


A plant’s form reflects a balance between absorbing or deflecting light. The form tells us about how a leaf transpires or absorbs water and materials from the atmosphere. It tells us how the plant holds humidity around itself. A community of plants can, to some extent, regulate their own humidity and light levels. Ever see squash “wilt” in the intense summer heat—even though it just rained? They were lowering their leaves to self-limit light levels. This is how vegetation can affect microclimates.


b2ap3_thumbnail_Clouds-on-the-Head-by-photophilde-CC.jpgWinds affect microclimates. It is a good idea to know your prevailing winds in both the summer and winter: they can change. You want to soften or block cold, northern winds or strong winds coming from large bodies of water. Likewise, tall buildings in urban areas speed winds up as they pass between buildings.


If you can enhance gentle breezes by creating a “path of trees and shrubs” for them, you can create a pleasant area, too. Letting prevailing, hot summer winds cross a pond or fountain before arriving at your patio, can be a good way to get a cooling, pleasant microclimate benefit.


Temperatures fluctuate a great deal in microclimate due to a whole host of other factors—many mentioned already. Latitude affects seasonal temperatures. Higher elevations see cooler temperatures or a wider range of temperatures throughout the day. Areas with more lush vegetation can be shady and cool in the understory and hot and humid at the edges. Temperatures near large bodies of water are more stabile—remaining warmer into the fall. Thermal mass affects microclimates in the garden a great deal. Any dense material that can absorb the sun’s light during the day and radiate heat out to the surrounding area creates thermal mass. Our homes create thermal mass. Brick walkways, and walls, tanks of water, and ponds all create thermal mass. They regulate the temperature and keeping plants warm in the shoulder seasons. Green houses--allow air to warm through the day and trap it inside—cool slower than the surrounding air. Shade houses prevent the sun’s light from entering an area—creating cooler zones in a hot climate.


In an upcoming post, we’ll take these factors together help you place your garden elements in just the right places to help them thrive.

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Garden Tower Project Receives International Design Award for Garden Tower 2

Garden Tower Project Receives International Design Award for Garden Tower 2

We received a design award!

Garden Tower Project received international recognition from the International Design Awards held in Los Angeles, earlier this month. The newly released, Garden Tower 2 earned third place in the Sustainable Living/Environmental Preservation Category.


Garden Tower Project’s newest creation was selected for its achievements in design, creativity, usability and innovation in a competition that examined over 1,000 entries from designers from 52 countries. This annual competition recognizes, honors and promotes legendary design visionaries and uncovers emerging talents in architecture, interior, product, graphic and fashion design.

"It's been a wonderful honor to be recognized by the international community for creating something that is meant to improve people's lives" said Colin Cudmore, the inventor/founder of the Garden Tower Project.


What is the International Design Award?

A handful of designers, thinkers and entrepreneurs created the International Design Awards in 2007 as a response to the lack of recognition and celebration for smart and sustainable multidisciplinary design. The International Design Awards (IDA) exists to recognize, celebrate and promote legendary design visionaries and to uncover emerging talent in Architecture, Interior, Product, Graphic, and Fashion Design. IDA aspires to draw attention to the iconoclasm of design world wide, conceptualizing and producing great work.

What’s so special about our design?

The Garden Tower 2 helps you grow food in places that were challenging, or impossible, before—flat rooftops, concrete slabs, and ordinary decks. Fertile soils, a way to compost kitchen scraps, efficient use of water, and nutrient-dense foods are among the benefits of using the Garden Towers. 


Garden Tower 2, is a patented, space-saving planter and vermicomposter that enables gardeners to grow up to 50 plants (and maybe more) vertically and compactly inside a footprint of just 4 square feet. The new design easily rotates 360 degrees for optimal lighting and convenient watering. This means healthier plants and more growth over the long run, with less fuss for you.


b2ap3_thumbnail_CrossSection.jpgIn combining gardening with vermicomposting, the Garden Tower returns nutrients to the closed system, making it self-fertilizing. Vegetables thrive as the potting blend grows richer naturally over time. A nutrient collection drawer also allows the gardener to harvest compost “tea”, finished compost and worm castings, for easy recycling to the top of the Garden Tower to increase soil fertility. The Garden Tower can also support a much wider variety of large vegetables that cannot be grown in any other container type garden, including cabbages, broccoli, squash, zucchini, cucumber and melons. With supplemental lighting, the Garden Tower 2 can be used indoors.


When it comes to water, everyone is pleased to see how well the design is performing. Early users report water savings of 90 percent compared to traditional garden plots, because the exceedingly efficient design minimizes evaporation. This helps wherever you live, but is particularly critical in high-altitude and desert environments.


Garden Tower 2 was created to make growing fresh, organic produce accessible to everyone in the most innovative, efficient and effective way possible,” said Joel Grant, Garden Tower Development & Technology manager. “We are honored to be recognized by the IDA for our design.”


Click here to see the Garden Tower 2 on the IDA award winners’ page or view our press release.


Water Food and Energy Nexus

Water Food and Energy Nexus

Water Energy and Food systems on our planet are inextricably linked. This nexus plays an integral role in our sustainable future. 

Did You Know?

  • 70% of our freshwater is used for agriculture

  • 30% of GHG emissions are linked to agriculture

  • 40% of land is used for agriculture, mostly livestock


    Watch this video from the University of Minnesota to learn more.