Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What do ants have to do with it?

I just finished reading Gaia's Garden, a great book by Toby Hemenway on home-scale permaculture that I've discussed before. Along with Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Fast Food Nation, it has changed the way I view the world, and more specifically, North American gardening and agricultural practices.

As such, I've been more attuned to the plants around me lately and the interactions of each organism with those around it. When Sarah was playing with the boys the other day, she drew Sacha's attention to the army of ants covering Memere's peonies. Sacha of course asked why. Sarah told Sacha and his friend Jacob that the ants help the peonies bloom, so him and his buddy proceeded to try and pick up ants and place them on the peony to help it. When Sarah told me this story, I was caught completely unaware. I was not aware of this interaction.

So I Googled it and what did I find: myriad requests from individuals who wanted to find out the best way to kill the ants on their peonies. Of course. If they're all over the peonies everywhere you go, they must be pests, right? No, they're not.

Ants and peonies share a beneficial relationship. Ants are uniquely attracted to the peony nectar in the unbloomed buds. By going for the nectar and removing it, the ants help the peony buds to open and bloom fully. As well, by taking over the plant, they protect it from other insects that might otherwise harm it. Once the peony is fully bloomed and the nectar is gone, the ants part.

Why would you want to kill them? They actually make the plant more beautiful. How can we think we can intervene in something that's developed over millions of years of evolution? If we were to think intelligently about it, instead of trying to kill them, we'd do what we could to encourage this interaction and let it be. Nature will be nature, and by trying to intervene too often, we're just fighting a losing battle. Why not learn from it and utilize its patterns and interactions to our benefit?

Take a simple example like the Three Sisters Triad of corn, squash, and beans. From Gaia's Garden comes the following explanation: "The cornstalks form a trellis for the bean vines to climb. The beans, in turn, draw nitrogen from the air, and via symbiotic bacteria convert the nitrogen to plant-available form. These nitrogen-fixing bacteria...are fed by special sugars that ooze from the corn roots. The rambling squash...forms a living parasol that densely covers the ground, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil moist...[Y]ields of this [grouping], measured in calories, are about 20 percent higher than corn grown alone in an equal-sized plot."

What are the consequences of the antithesis to this approach in modern agriculture? Fifty years ago, loss of crops to insects and disease was around 7%. At the time of writing of Gaia's Garden (2000), that figure stood at 14%. If we've become so much more productive in our agricultural pursuits, how could this have happened? To finalize my discussion of natural interactions I will summarize the authors discuss of the causes of this drastic increase.

First off, soil fertility has declined as we use synthetic fertilizers now and have almost completely eliminated crop rotation, a practice that significantly boosts soil health. The other two reasons are much more fascinating though.

1. Clean Cultivation
As mentioned in the book, hedgerows and natural vegetation along backs of fields were common up until very recently. These oases of nature harbored numerous insects and birds that stood in waiting for any pest silly enough to invade the adjoining field. When they did, the insects and birds had lunch. Along came modern agriculture and the desire to make fields as large as possible and remove any possible source of weed seed. Goodbye natural control.

2. Widespread, ill-timed pesticide use
Insects that munch on plants, like aphids, reproduce rapidly. Their predators, ladybugs, being higher up the food chain, reproduce more slowly. Think of a mouse versus a hawk. So let's say you have an aphid infestation in your field. Now that the hedgerow is gone, you already have a decimated ladybug population. But they kick into gear nonetheless and start reproducing as fast as possible. While mommy and daddy munch on aphids, the little ladybug larvae develop. Just about the time when junior is joining the army, Mr. Farmer comes along and torches the field with pesticide, pushing the ladybugs and the aphids to near extinction. The aphids bounce back quickly as their food source remains plentiful, but the ladybugs need time as they need the aphid population to rebound before they can even think about breeding again. Finally, when the aphid population has reached critical mass and the ladies are ready to start growing another army, Mr. Farmer sees the aphids again and thinks, "Damn, my first bout of spray didn't do the job." Kablamo! He drops another spray bomb. After a few repeats of this vicious cycle all the ladybugs are gone and the farmer is in a perpetual battle with aphids.

All I'm saying, in my typical roundabout way, is that after reading this book, I can't look at a typical North American yard without shaking my head. I plan on designing mine based on permaculture principles over the next few years and hope to document the progress. In the meantime, for the sake of nature, if the ants aren't in your house, just leave them be. Maybe you could plant a few peonies to keep them outside?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The miracle of compound interest

In reading my monthly MoneySense magazine I relearned the genius of compound interest. It is used as a way to encourage people to save because growth on money compounds, with most of the growth occurring in the latest stage, ie. the time closest to retirement. The concept is so powerful that when asked what the most powerful force in the universe is, Albert Einstein replied "compound interest". So I thought I'd revisit this concept for readers.

In his great book, RRSPs, Preet Banerjee extols the virtues of compound interest by giving a scenario in which you are offered a large lump sum of money for a month's work, or the chance to be paid $0.01 one day, but your pay will double every day for a month. Of course, at the end of the month, the guy who took the lump sum looks like a sucker because the doubler made WAY more money! But I thought to myself, whose money ever doubles in a savings regimen? 5 or 10% seems much more realistic.

I'm going to give you 2 scenarios. In both, assume that you'd had enough money saved up prior to starting this job to hold the whole year through so pay frequency does not come into the equation as a confounding factor.

1. For 1 year of work, 365 days solid with no breaks, I will pay you $5 000 000.

2. For 1 year of work, 365 days solid with no breaks, I will pay you $0.01 on the first day. Every day after that I will increase your wage by 5%.

What do you choose?

If you choose scenario 1, you will make roughly $416 667 a month, or $2.5 million after 6 months.

If you choose scenario 2, after 1 month, you will have made a whopping $0.66. Month 2? $3.54
Month 6? $1303.28

Starting to look like scenario 2 man is a big donkey.

Month 8? $25565.11
Month 10? $454 799.03

Only 2 months to go, and he's nowhere near the $5 million mark. What a moron.

Month 11? $1 965 615.85

At the end of the year, scenario 2's total earnings are...........$10 842 368.12

The key here is that most of the growth did not occur until very late in the year. In fact, at what point did scenario 2 surpass scenario 1? Day 350!!!! There are only 15 days left in the year, but in those 15 days alone, the money grows by another $5 million.

Even if snopes.com says the attribution of the aforementioned quote to Albert Einstein is likely a modern creation, whoever wrote it or said it is on to something.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Eat like the Greeks!

Being a massive nerd with myriad interests does have its benefits sometimes. For example, I subscribe to a weekly news alert called Physicians FirstWatch. It provides a quick summary of newsworthy medical studies published over the last week and a link to the original article if possible. I came across a great one today that I'm surprised hasn't splashed all over the news given our society's obsession with diet and health.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, analyzed the diets of almost 25 000 Mediterranean residents over the course of almost 9 years. What the study was looking for was all-cause mortality, that is, death from any cause. It then tried to weed out any potential confounding factors to see how diet contributed to risk of death. The diets were scored on a scale from 0-10 with regards to how closely the diet followed that of the ideal Mediterranean diet. What did they find?

For every 2-unit increase in diet score there was a mortality ratio of 0.864, with the true value of this finding falling somewhere between 0.802 and 0.932 with 95% confidence. This means that those who followed the Mediterranean diet 2 points higher than those who didn't had a 7-20% lower risk of death. The most interesting facet of the study was the determination of which components of the Mediterranean diet contributed most to this reduction in mortality. I'm surprised the health media hasn't taken this and ran with it as the healthy living rule book or something of that sort!

(In order of descending importance)
1. Moderate alcohol consumption (versus no or excessive consumption)
2. Low consumption of meat and meat products
3. High vegetable consumption
4. High fruit and nut consumption
5. High consumption of monounsaturated fats in relation to consumption of saturated fats
-monounsaturated fats are basically healthy plant oils like olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados
-saturated fats include dairy fats (cheese, milk) and animal fats
6. High legume consumption (for those of you not currently enjoying the bounty of legumes nature has to offer, these include peas, beans, and lentils)

As Michael Pollan says in his book, In Defense of Food, there's a lot that can be learned from diets based on centuries of tradition. It's too bad it took a highly complex, and likely expensive, scientific study to tell us such a simple fact. If we'd just get back to our roots and start eating FOOD again instead of processed garbage, this would be common sense for most people. Hopefully it doesn't come as a shock to you!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The brilliant ramblings of a 3-year old

Sacha's not quite 3, but will be in 2 months and for all intents and purposes acts like a 3 year old already. Since he talks almost incessantly now, I thought I'd share with you some of the doozies he served up this weekend.

1. We were in Grande Prairie this weekend taking my car in to get fixed. While waiting for Sarah to come pick us up from the hair salon we walked over to Wholesale Sports, an outdoor enthusiasts dream. Although I am not an outdoor enthusiast, I do enjoy looking at fishing lures the size of my father. And of course, Sacha thought it was great, what with all the animal heads on the wall. Then he saw something he didn't quite understand: a bearskin rug.

Sacha: "What dat ting? What dat bear?" Daddy: "That's a bearskin rug." S: "A tapis? (French for rug) D: "Yes, a tapis." S: "Why it a bear?"

And so ensued a long drawn out conversation about the concept of hunting, why people hunt, and why people turn bears into rugs. I wasn't sure the whole discussion really sunk in, but then nothing really escapes this kid. So today we were playing and he brought out his little gun that whirs and shoots little foam discs out of it. He walks up to me with a devilish little look on his face, points the gun at me and says, "Hee hee, me turn you into tapis!" and then shoots me. Brilliant.

2. After finishing at his Memere's house where we had Father's Day supper, Sacha went to say goodbye to her, gave her a big hug and said, "Tank you fow fadder's day, memere".

3. When we got home I asked Sacha to tell his mommy what he told Memere when he said goodbye. His response? "I tell memere, tank you fow fadder's day, cause i powite." Classic.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Back to nature

This post will officially install me as an uber-nerd in any minds that may consider me somewhat conventional still, although I doubt there are many left out there. But I've been reading this book lately, and like any good book I get into, it has really changed the way I look at things. It's called "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture" and is written in flowing prose by Toby Hemenway.

Permaculture is a way of 'designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies' It has made me look at gardening and landscaping in a totally different way. (In case you're wondering, we are about to begin a full scale landscaping of our yard done by a professional landscaper so I've been brainstorming ideas). I'll leave you to discover the rest of what this phenomenal book has to offer but I will leave you with three things to entice you. First, the cover photo shows a lush green garden full of color and beautifully designed. The garden is situated in the middle of desert in New Mexico. The real kicker? Due to the use of permaculture principles, the owner hardly ever waters save for a few trips with a watering can to isolated spots that need a little love. Unreal.

Second, when talking about harvesting and storing rainwater, the author puts forth the following calculation:
"The average 2,000-square-foot, two-story house (which would be like a 1000 square foot house in Canada, with a basement, as most American homes do not have basements) has over 1,000 square feet of roof....If that house is in a region receiving 40 inches of rain a year...the roof will collect 25,000 gallons of water each year. That's enough to keep a 1,000-square-foot garden water for 250 days of drought." Where do we send that water now? Onto our yards where it runs off or onto our driveways and sidewalks where it ends up in the storm drain system.

Finally, in one chapter on the multiple uses and synergistic connections formed between plants in a properly designed garden (read: pretty much the exact opposite of most North American gardens) there is a particularly beautiful passage on the myriad functions a single oak tree plays in the forest ecosystem. The full description is 3 pages long but I will quote just a few paragraphs to point you toward some of the principles developed in this book:

"Soon the sun warms the humid, night-chilled air within the tree. The entrapped air dries, its moisture escaping to the sky to help form clouds. This lost moisture is quickly replaced by the transpiring leaves, which pump water up from roots and exhale it through puffy-lipped pores in the leaves called stomata. Groundwater, whether polluted or clean, is filtered by the tree and exits the leaves as pure water. So tress are excellent water purifiers, and active ones. A full-grown tree can transpire 2,000 gallons of water on a hot, dry day. But this moisture doesn't just go away--it soon returns as rain: up to half of the rainfall over forested land comes from the trees themselves (the rest arrives as evaporation from bodies of water). Cut the trees, and the rain disappears.

Sun striking the leaves ignites the engines of photosynthesis, and from these green factories, oxygen streams into the air. But more benefits exist. To build sugars and the other carbon-based molecules that provide fuel and structure for the tree, the leaves remove carbon dioxide from the air. This is how trees help reduce the level of greenhouse gases.

As the leaves absorb sunlight and warm the air within the tree, this hot, moist air rises and mixes with the drier, cool air above. Convection currents begin to churn, and morning breezes begin. So trees help create cooling winds."

I strongly encourage anyone interested in gardening or landscaping to check out this book. It is fantastic.