Nitrogen Fixing Species for Agroforestry Systems

Left - intensive agricultural, right - regenerativeI am currently working on a regenerative landscape design for a site in Todorovo, Bulgaria. The plan is to establish an agroforestry system known as alley cropping wherein rows of mixed species edible trees and shrubs are planted at intervals with spaces for herbs, forage and/or grain crops to be grown in between. It's a dynamic system which is inherently diverse, providing multiple yields and excellent habitat for wildlife while at the same time being relatively resilient to a changing climate.

An essential component of the design will be the nitrogen fixing perennial plants within the community of fruit and nut trees. These plants will be pruned at regular intervals to provide biomass for surface mulch and to release a biological source of nitrogen to the surrounding productive plants and soil life by means of root shed associated with top pruning.

When selecting plants for the nitrogen fixing component of this design, I was looking for species that could; withstand record lows of -28oC (Zone 5); tolerate some shade; were fast growing; tolerant of trimming and coppicing; able to grow in clay soils; known to provide significant quantities of nitrogen; easy to propagate from seed; and provide some food for humans and other animals. The following plants fit the criteria.

Elaeagnus angustfolia - Oleaster, Russian Olive
Elaeagnus commutata - Silverberry, Wolfberry
Elaeagnus umbellata - Autumn Olive. Autumn Elaeagnus
Caragana arborescens - Siberian Pea Tree

We are planning to grow the nitrogen fixing plants for this site from seed and to involve the local community in doing so. Many local people, particularly the older generation are skilled horticulturalists with many seasons of experience behind them. We hope to include a number of them in the process of propagation, each one functioning as a individual unit. This will keep the propagation process small scale, making it far easier to use biological methods. The propagation will begin in the autumn as Elaeagnusspp. all require cold stratification unless they are sown immediately after they are picked. Caragana aborescens will be sown in the spring 2015.

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Do You Suffer from Secondhand Stress?

Do you cringe when you see someone get yelled at, hurt, or embarrassed? Do you tend to soak up others’ emotions—especially the feelings of those close to you? A new study has confirmed that “secondhand stress” is a very real thing and that many people catch another person’s stress as easily as the common cold.

For the study, researchers from Saint Louis University set up a situation so that a man had to witness a stranger defend himself after being falsely accused of a wrongdoing. When it was over, the researchers measured the onlooker’s heart rate and cortisol levels and found that, yes, this man took on the stress of a total stranger.

Stress can be passed on from one person to the next by way of facial expressions, voice frequency, smell and touch, according to the researchers. And although it is possible to pick up stress from a complete stranger, we are four times more likely to catch stress from a loved one or friend.

So, what can we do about it? Because we do know—whether it’s firsthand or secondhand—that stress can be unhealthy. For starters, we can choose a healthy lifestyle so that our bodies are strong and resilient.

In a recent study at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers found that participants who exercised, slept well, and ate a better diet had less telomere shortening than those who didn’t maintain a healthy lifestyle, even when both groups experienced similar levels of stress.

Telomeres are little strands of DNA that work as protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces. As telomeres get shorter, the whole structure weakens, causing cells to age and die more quickly.

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The Extinction of Quiet

Noise pollution is linked to health problems and some argue it interferes with our natural connection to the earth. As the world’s quiet places disappear, are we forgetting how to listen?

In 1989, “acoustic ecologist” Gordon Hempton received a grant to document and record the natural sounds of Washington state. He identified 21 wilderness places to record—sites unsullied by the sounds of traffic, aviation, construction, and other man-made noise. Twenty-five years later, only three of those sites remain muted.

Little by little, our world is becoming louder, with the creeping spread of noise pollution infiltrating our homes, our workplaces, and even our wilderness. Hempton, whose work for the past 30 years has been traveling the world to survey and record natural sound, says he’s seen firsthand how the hum, ping, and roar of modern life has taken over our soundscape. By his count, the United States has only 12 remaining truly “quiet places,” which he defines as somewhere you can go for at least 15 minutes without hearing artificial sound at dawn, the hour when sound travels farthest.

“That dawn period is a really important time, because it’s when wildlife can vocalize and send their message the greatest distance with the least energy,” he says. “It’s a beautiful time to listen.”

With his nonprofit organization, the One Square Inch of Silence Foundation, Hempton is seeking to designate a “silence sanctuary” within the Hoh Rain Forest at Olympic National Park. While preserves have been created to protect rivers, forests, and even the darkness of the night sky, he notes, “There is not one place on planet Earth set off-limits to noise pollution.”

While exposure to high noise levels has long been a known cause of hearing loss in humans, recent studies have also linked noise pollution to conditions like heart disease, hypertension, and stroke.

Researchers are also studying the impact of industrial and urban noise on the natural environment. A 2009 study in the journal Current Biology found that noise pollution reduces biodiversity by increasing the population of urban-adapted birds and driving out more noise-shy species. A study published in the journal Animal Behaviour in 2007 found that excessive noise disrupted the pair bonds of zebra finches, perhaps by drowning out the birds’ mating calls. Numerous studies have also pointed to the negative effects of underwater noise pollution, including a 2013 study published in Ethnobiology and Conservation that found that noise from motorboats was disrupting the communication of estuarine dolphins in Brazil.

Hempton calls noise pollution “the canary in the coal mine,” noting that the sounds that impact our acoustic environment—the rush of freeway traffic or the roar of a jet passing overhead—are closely tied with our consumption of fossil fuels.

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Why we REALLY need protected bike lanes in the countryside

separated bike lanes photoI have often lamented the lack of physically separated bike lanes in Durham, North Carolina—but a transportation-geek friend of mine reminds me that they're hard to implement in many newer American cities where every house has a driveway.

But what about the countryside?

Having recently raved about how awesomely hellish it was to drive in Helsinki, I am also struck by how easy it is to bike in the Finnish countryside, not least because many quiet country roads have well-maintained, physically separated bike lanes/footpaths which get used regularly for both transportation and recreation—often over reasonably long distances. True, many Finns are at least as dependent on their cars as their American counterparts, but they at least have options. And the amount of bikes I see on Finnish roads—bikes being ridden by Finns of all shapes, sizes and ages—suggests many people exercise that freedom of choice.

Having previously lived in the North Carolina countryside for several years, and watched (mostly poor) people traverse dangerous grass verges on the side of a busy road, it seems to me that many rural American communities could benefit from similar bike infrastructure.

Here are just a few of the reasons why bike lanes/footpaths are at least as important in the countryside as they are in the city:

Ease of implementation: Try putting a physically separated bike lane in a dense urban environment and you'll need a whole lot of resources, some serious planning and a tolerance for long committee meetings. In the American countryside, however, where land is plentiful and the roads are wide, it really shouldn't be that difficult to evoke eminent domain, purchase some extra land and add a little asphalt for human-powered transport—so long as the political will were there. (You might have to contend with the anti-Agenda 21 crowd though...)

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Microsoft-iFixit scheme offers free training for fledgling repair and reuse firms

Microsoft has entered into a partnership with iFixit, the online repair manual site, to boost the reuse market for smartphones, tablets and laptops.

The work is being sponsored by Microsoft's Registered Refurbisher Programme, which already works with PC refurbishers to extend the life of Windows PCsOver the past year the two companies have been developing and testing a free online training programme - the Pro tech Network - to help start-ups and small enterprises who wish to offer repair services for these products get off the ground.

The work is being sponsored by Microsoft's Registered Refurbisher Programme, which already works with PC refurbishers to extend the life of Windows PCs. The online toolkit offers a range of support for businesses - these include in-depth repair manuals, repair skills training, marketing best practices and design templates, as well as parts sourcing and testing pointers.

The network is also intended to act as a collaborative platform, enabling repair technologists to share their knowledge and learn from each other. Both companies hope the initiative will spur on the repair industry as a whole.

According to Microsoft, mobile devices are often used intermittently by consumers. This, combined with their very low power consumption means they use relatively minimal electrical power over their lifetime. However, the process to manufacture these devices takes a significantly larger amount of power consumption.

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Beginner's Guide to Home Seed Production

Beginner's guide to seed production, including pollination, collection of seeds, and planting seeds of beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, corn, cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelons, lettuce, onions, peas, pumpkins, squash, radishes, spinach, tomatoes, and turnips.

Seed production is a science in its own right, and a complete study of the subject would take many volumes. This article is meant to be only a very basic guide for the beginner who wants organically grown seeds-free of any chemical-and who enjoys new challenges in gardening.

Home Seed Production

Saving the seeds of garden vegetables really isn't too difficult if you observe a few basic rules:

[1] Plan your garden with seed collecting in mind which means, for one thing, that the original plants must be standard varieties, and not crosses. This is because seeds produced by hybrids give very unreliable results: The offspring may revert back to either parent or even turn out to be something quite unexpected!

[2] Many closely related plants can cross if they're grown near one another (how near depends on the method of pollination for the particular species). Thus, if seeds are to be saved from the yield of a small plot, only one variety each of most vegetables should be raised. A larger area allows more freedom to diversify provided you understand the mechanics of fertilization in whatever crops you're growing, and arrange your plantings accordingly.

Some plants, for example, are wind-pollinated, and cross readily as their fertilizing dust drifts on the breeze from flower to flower. Variants of such a species must therefore be widely separated (or screened from one another by several rows of corn or a similar tall crop).

Other garden favorites are pollinated by insects and had better be grown in single varieties on the average homestead, since you can't control the movements of the small flying "helpers". (Commercial seed producers separate different varieties of such Vegetables by at least a quarter mile and often much more. — MOTHER.)

The greatest scope for diversity in your seed-saving program is among self-pollinating plants (those that have both pollen producing anthers and pollen-receiving stigma enclosed in the same flower). Accidental crossing is rare with these species and close relations can be grown in a modest-sized plot with little risk of mixing the strains.

[3] Remember to collect seed only from individual plants that show the best characteristics of their kind. Don't just settle for the first ripe specimen in a particular row! Careful selection of the finest, most vigorous stock may result-over a period of time-in a special sub-variety that's particularly well suited to your area or soil.

Before going any further with this article, of course, it's only fair to warn you that most authorities on horticulture don't recommend the saving of seeds from the home vegetable patch and it's true that your harvest's offspring won't be as uniform and predictable as those obtained from a commercial grower (who operates under controlled conditions). Nevertheless, this is a fascinating project, a real money saver at current prices, and a good alternative for the organic gardener who wants to be sure his future plants are free of chemicals.

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Seals discover offshore wind farms are all-you-can-eat seafood buffets

Looking to catch up with legendary British pop sensation and noted beach ball enthusiast Seal?The “Kiss from a Rose” singer has been soaking in the North Sea sun as he frolics amongst the offshore wind farms. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the four-time Grammy-award-winning, semiterrestrial mammal is drawn by the ample fish provided by these artificial reefs. [Editor’s note: Not Seal, Meyer, seals. Remind me again, how did you get this job?]

Well that makes a great deal more sense. Let’s let Eva Botkin-Kowacki at the Monitor explain:

The scientists observed eleven harbor seals outfitted with GPS tracking tags in the North Sea frequenting two active wind farms, Alpha Ventus in Germany and Sheringham Shoal off the southeast coast of the United Kingdom. One seal even visited 13 times, according to a report published this week in the journal Current Biology.

The wind turbines make up a grid. When foraging for food, the seals moved “systematically from one turbine to the next turbine in a grid pattern, following exactly how the turbines are laid out,” says study author Deborah Russell of the University of St. Andrews. “That was surprising to see how much their behavior was affected by the presence of these artificial structures and how they could actually adapt their behaviors to respond to that.”

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Offshore wind farms may slow down hurricanes, study shows

Wind turbines generate renewable electricity, but new research shows they could have another major benefit: weakening hurricanes before they make landfall.

The findings, published online in Nature Climate Change, show that offshore wind turbines could reduce hurricanes' wind speeds, wave heights and flood-causing storm surge -- acting as a buffer between coastal cities and the possible damaging effects of a hurricane.

"The little turbines can fight back the beast," said co-author Cristina Archer, an associate professor at the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

Archer and Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, had previously calculated the global potential for wind power. Taking into account that turbines are siphoning off some energy from the atmosphere -- as well as generating energy -- they found that there is more than enough wind to support energy needs worldwide, while having little to no effect on the climate.

In this new study, the researchers, which included Willett Kempton -- also from the University of Delaware -- simulated three hurricanes: Sandy and Isaac, which struck New York and New Orleans, respectively in 2012; and Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

"We found that when wind turbines are present, they slow down the outer rotation winds of a hurricane," Jacobson said. "This feeds back to decrease wave height, which reduces movement of air toward the center of the hurricane, increasing the central pressure, which in turn slows the winds of the entire hurricane and dissipates it faster."

Computer simulations showed that wind farms placed off the coast would have reduced Katrina's winds by 98 mph and Hurricane Sandy's winds by 87 mph. It also would have reduced storm surge by up to 34 percent for Sandy and 79 percent for Katrina.

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Destroying Nature Unleashes Infectious Diseases

The Ecology of Disease

THERE’S a term biologists and economists use these days — ecosystem services — which refers to the many ways nature supports the human endeavor. Forests filter the water we drink, for example, and birds and bees pollinate crops, both of which have substantial economic as well as biological value.

If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about. A critical example is a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.

Disease, it turns out, is largely an environmental issue. Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic — they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.

Teams of veterinarians and conservation biologists are in the midst of a global effort with medical doctors and epidemiologists to understand the “ecology of disease.” It is part of a project called Predict, which is financed by the United States Agency for International Development. Experts are trying to figure out, based on how people alter the landscape — with a new farm or road, for example — where the next diseases are likely to spill over into humans and how to spot them when they do emerge, before they can spread. They are gathering blood, saliva and other samples from high-risk wildlife species to create a library of viruses so that if one does infect humans, it can be more quickly identified. And they are studying ways of managing forests, wildlife and livestock to prevent diseases from leaving the woods and becoming the next pandemic.

It isn’t only a public health issue, but an economic one. The World Bank has estimated that a severe influenza pandemic, for example, could cost the world economy $3 trillion.

The problem is exacerbated by how livestock are kept in poor countries, which can magnify diseases borne by wild animals. A study released earlier this month by the International Livestock Research Institute found that more than two million people a year are killed by diseases that spread to humans from wild and domestic animals.

The Nipah virus in South Asia, and the closely related Hendra virus in Australia, both in the genus of henipah viruses, are the most urgent examples of how disrupting an ecosystem can cause disease. The viruses originated with flying foxes, Pteropus vampyrus, also known as fruit bats. They are messy eaters, no small matter in this scenario. They often hang upside down, looking like Dracula wrapped tightly in their membranous wings, and eat fruit by masticating the pulp and then spitting out the juices and seeds.

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Wild pharmacy: discovering the benefits of plants all around us

Jini Reddy heads out on a wild medicine walk with herbalist Rachel Corby and discovers how the plants around us, such as nettles, hawthorn and dandelions, offer a range of uses for our everyday health needs

imageA tiny, pretty, yellow star-shaped flower nestles in the palm of Rachel Corby’s hand. “Do you know what this is?” After a few unsuccessful guesses, she tells us: “St. John’s Wort. People know it as an anti-depressant. But if you fill a jam jar with the flower, add sunflower oil, leave it for a few weeks, and strain, then you’ll have a red oil that can help heal wounds, cuts and burns.”

I’m on a wild medicine walk at Wilderness festival on the outer fringes of its Cornbury Park site in Oxfordshire, and Corby – a herbalist and healer – is introducing us to, as she puts it “our heritage, the plants” and their healing properties. Nature’s pharmacy is awash with cures. “I believe that nature holds the key to great physical and mental health for humanity,” she says.

As she reminds us, wild medicine foraging was the only option our ancestors had before modern pharmacies came along and many plants contain the active ingredients for our our 21st century medicines. Small ailments, conditions, cuts and bruises can be easily treated by the nutritious, edible plants that grow in our hedgerows, our gardens and our woods.

We crouch low to touch, smell, and taste the plants in our midst. She shows us how to firmly grasp a nettle to avoid being stung. It’s a wonder remedy though: a fresh tea brew cures hayfever, it’s cleansing, and immune boosting. Meanwhile, the delicate, thin, ribbed stems of the plantain herb are soothing to the skin and good for healing wounds.

The hawthorn berry is medicinal gold and a powerful heart-disorder cure, she claims, while rose petals will sort out your heart metaphorically speaking: “It’s good for lifting your spirits, when you’re feeling depressed, low and frazzled, or your heart is broken,” Corby says, as we all scribble down notes.

If you have a poor complexion, dandelion is your herb: “Many skin conditions arise from a sluggish digestive system and dandelion stimulates it,” she says, recommending chopping the leaves to eat in salad, and the sap from the flower stem to dab on your skin. Next we learn that the thin outer layer of the birch contains salicylate, which is contained in aspirin, and is good for cuts. “Peeling off a bit to put on your skin won’t harm the tree,” says Corby.

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