This image of goats controlling the weeds at a San Francisco bus yard is whimsical and inspiring. Why doesn’t Tokyo (and other big cities) use these natural weed-eaters? The company behind this is called City Grazing, and their slogan: “Our herd of goats are organically fed, will eat your weeds and entertain your children!”
For urban gardeners, one key question is how to get plants, soil and pot from store to house. I buy many of my plants from small shops that are on my way from the train station to my apartment. Sometimes I bike to a DIY big box store called Shimatchu, and use a combination of large backpack and balancing plants in plastic bags across my handle bars.
Recently I discovered coconut husk as a soil. It’s sold at a wonderful Kichijoji indoor growing shop called Essence. Made entirely of husk, it recycles what would otherwise be waste, and it seems to be a high quality organic soil. Even better, it is sold dehydrated, so it is very light weight for transportation from shop to home.
I have bought three blocks (also called tampons) that make 11 liters when hydrated. Nakata-san of Essence recommended blending it 3-1-1 with perlite and vermiculite, which are also very light weight and low cost. When blended it makes about two regular sized buckets of soil.
I also used coco husk soil in small disks that expand with water to form seedling starters wrapped in a simple rope pouch.
You can see that my morning glory seeds were the first to sprout.
I also bought this funny Gro-Pot, a thick plastic bag with coco husk that you hydrate and plant directly into, as if it were a flower pot. I’ve put a sunflower in my Gro-Pot (bought for 500 yen, just over $5 from a local flower shop). Both the Gro-Pot and the coconut husk block are from U-Gro.
For the coco husk mix, I used another light weight new idea: Smartpots, a soft-side fabric container that claims to be better than plastic and clay containers, is super easy to carry and store. The makers claim that these polypropylene containers aerate and air prune the roots. When you buy the smartpots, they come folded up, which is very convenient.
Over two months, the residents of Suwa select enormous trees growing on top of the mountain ridge, cut them and transport them down the hills by dragging them with rope, race down a hill sitting on the logs, and eventually lift them up at several important shrines (while people stand on top of them, I guess, to make it more difficult, heavy and dangerous).
Onbashira is a very pleasant mix of animism, forestry and virility. More on the ceremony later.
But, first, the first joy of taking any trip in Japan is buying a bento at the station. There is an incredible variety, priced from about 500 yen to 1,500 yen. Each comes beautifully wrapped in a box, with fantastic graphic design. You can see some cool typography, artistic mountains and trains, a space shuttle, a pokemon, and cherry blossoms.
I chose the spring special, decorated with sakura petals. Inside I was delighted to find over twenty different foods, including takenoko (bamboo shoots).
Even more remarkable, my box came with a photo and description of the organic rice farmers.
And lastly here’s the purple-striped beauty that got us to the Suwa lake in just two hours from Shinjuku.
The last post about Big Globe reminded me of two recent dinners I attended in Tokyo and Kanagawa which featured food with visible and interactive connections to the farmers who produced them.
The first was a mochi party at the ceramic studio where I am a student. Their annual mochi party used special rice grown by Niigata farmers. The teachers found them online last year, and this year along with the huge bag of rice, they included the above image showing the family that creates the rice. I like how they also include a QR code.
The other event was a lavish dinner hosted by a Japanese architect friend that featured Kyushu pork fed a persimmon diet. The dinner included seven courses all of which included pork and persimmon, including an amazing sweet-and-sour and a tonkatsu with cream cheese and persimmon inside the batter. Both at the party and in the email invitation, we learned about the River Wild Ham store, and how it used fallen organic persimmons from Kakinoya farm as feed. The taste was astounding.
Given the discussion of technology in the previous post, it is interesting how these rural farmers are connecting with city people with online stores, blogs, QR codes, and Flickr accounts. I do not fully understand the “21st century rock and roll heart” branding, but clearly the pork store wants to be contemporary and relevant to today’s buyers.
Lastly, I realize that more and more vegetables in Tokyo now include images of the farmer. Well, given how industrial most farming is, I wonder how accurate some of these images are. Still, I think it is part of a broader interest by city people to know where their food comes from, how it is made, and who is making it.
Over a lunch of French crepes and organic cider, I had the pleasure of meeting John Moore. John is the former president of Patagonia Japan, a permaculture teacher, and entrepreneur involved with retailing and advertising agencies, corporate foundations, the design school Ikejiri, and social businesses. He will also be teaching a bilingual class at Freedom University on indoor vegetable gardening and natural soil creation.
John will be releasing a book and website soon about seeds and what to plant when for urban gardeners. In promoting the practice of growing your own food, he is adamant about keeping his distance from hippie aesthetics and connecting organic living with modern life today.
Our conversation ranged around so many topics: rural town planting fruit trees along roads for free food; a mountain bike resort for rural town revitalization; unused facilities and opportunities in the Japanese countryside; a program for kids with cancer to visit Okinawa; organic wasabi farming; a special machine to make “revitalized water” based on wasabi farming; indoor edibles in cites; kids and gardening; a farmer’s market at United Nations University in Tokyo; borage, elder berry, camfry and yarrow as compost accelerants; turning a small town’s landscaping waste, including branches and grass clippings, into compost and thus reducing the town’s cost of hauling and disposal; the role of animals, particularly rabbits & chickens, in soil improvements by turning leaf waste into fertilizer; use of urine, including human, in soil improvement; Japan’s need to create organic farming standards; lack of awareness of free range, antibiotic and hormone free meat and eggs in Japan; and connecting city dwellers with farming.
I hope we can find urban food and other projects to work on together.
I was proud to see a recent New York Times article about Harvard making its landscaping organic. Despite some initial resistance and skepticism that the new landscaping could withstand its heavy human usage, Harvard has found many benefits from abandoning pesticides and fertilizers: soil microbes now aerate the soil, its trees receive more nutrients and water, irrigation has been reduced by 30% or 2 million gallons per year, and tree diseases such as leaf spot and apple scab have been eliminated.
The photo above shows how grass roots now extend eight inches deep, and the soil, once heavily compacted, can now be cut like a “knife through butter.”
In a one acre test plot, Harvard has saved $45,000 per year by not buying chemicals and by composting grass clippings and branches that they previously paid to be hauled and disposed off-site. Harvard hopes to go from its current 25 acres of organic landscaping to its entire 80 acres of landscape in the next two years.
You can learn more about Harvard’s organic landscaping and what you can do on their website.
It is also exciting to read that the project was initiated by Eric T. Fleisher, the director of horticulture at the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, during his times as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Also involved was Michael Van Valkenburgh, the landscape architect whose public space designs includes the Teardrop Park in Battery Park City and Brooklyn Bridge Park. It is great to see money and knowledge being directed at the creation of new public spaces.
A US teacher’s blog reminded me of the importance of gardens in Japanese public schools. Loco teaches in a Yokohama junior high school, and remarked at how different Japanese and New York school facilities are.
At his school, there are two ponds, turtles, fish, and carefully pruned trees. The gardens are largely maintained by the students and staff. In contrast US students generally have no responsibilities for cleaning their classrooms or maintaining the grounds.
Another feature of Japanese school gardens is the frequent presence of at least one large cherry tree. These trees’ blossoms mark the ending and beginning of the school year in March and April.
In the United States, there is now an Edible Schoolyard movement to bring vegetable gardens to schools as a way to educate kids about food and the environment. The Berkeley California middle school garden was founded in 1995 by noted cook and food activist Alice Waters, who is now advising the Obamas about the organic White House vegetable garden. It would be interesting to bring this school vegetable garden concept to Japan.
Today and tomorrow in Yoyogi Park, more than 100,000 people are expected to attend Earth Day Tokyo. Hundreds of booths offered everything from natural maternity to bamboo crafts, organic foods and clothes, bio-diesel vehicles, free Tibet, save the baby seals, music ranging from all girl rock band to Hawaiian song, more cute and strange mascots than you can imagine, and 20 to 30 year old hippies as far as the eye could see. It was great to see so many city people concerned about the environment.
The most mysterious promotion was this human QR billboard. I guess you need to have a cellphone that can read this internet code to find out what she is advocating.