If we are to grow and produce enough food to meet our families’ nutritional needs in an urban situation, we need to go beyond organic, to remineralise the soil where there are deficiencies, cultivate soils rich with microbes and to grow food that is nutrient dense.
The Koanga Institute’s 200sqm Urban Garden Project’s aim is to showcase how people living in small urban sections can satisfy their nutritional needs following a Weston Price diet; that is whole unprocessed foods including eggs and meat from rabbits and guinea pigs. The project garden located at the Koanga Institute in Wairoa, New Zealand includes 40sqm of bio-intensive gardens, a top bar beehive, rabbits over a worm farm, a chicken scratch yard which is where all the compost is made, a passive solar cloche incorporating water drums as thermal mass, guinea pig tractor, a forest garden area with 34 different heritage fruit/nut trees, bushes and vines planted with understory and nitrogen fixing plants, soldier fly farm and water-wise wicking beds. The garden was designed during a Permaculture Design Certificate at the Koanga Institute a few years ago and has been flourishing for 16 months now. See previous blog posts for further background information.
The Urban Garden project is ‘not just a pretty and functional garden’. It is a research garden where the soil is tested, inputs and outputs are recorded, nutrient levels of the foods are tested using a refractometer, and a monetary value is put on what is harvested showing the economic viability and savings that could be made by people with a similar setup. Last month, $793 worth of food was produced in the urban garden, and that is just the beginning. Once the fruit trees start producing, it will be a different story.
There is a focus on growing nutrient dense food because in an urban situation where we have minimal space the emphasis is on quality not quantity. At Koanga Institute, they are very focused on adding minerals from seaweed, animal bones, phosphorus accumulators such as lupins and oats, garden lime, liquid iodine and pre-mixed cocktails of minerals such as EF Nature’s Garden from Environmental Fertilisers into the compost to add to the calcium and phosphorus deficient soils in NZ.
A refractometer measures the sugar, mineral and protein levels in plant material and reflects nutrient level and pest/disease resistance in the plant. Extract the sap from the plant using a garlic crusher and add a few drops to the glass before covering it. Hold it up to the light to see the brix reading.
The refractometer measures the amount of light that is refracted or bent, which reflects the amount of water and dissolved solids in the sap/liquid.
Below a brix reading of 12, the soil needs some work, anything over 12 is considered to be nutritionally dense, and of high quality- fit for human consumption! A recent test at Koanga Institute revealed the hulless oat which is grown for eating and also to add to compost as a highly ligneous carbon additive, had a brix level of 22! This is great as the minerals and nutrients will be recycled through the compost pile and eventually given back to the plants.
Watch the video below to see how a refractometer was used to test the brix levels of chinese cabbage harvested from the wicking beds in the 200sqm Urban Garden.
Try using a refractometer to test the quality of food bought from the supermarket and compare it to your own home grown food. It is also a good tool to measure the effectiveness of any fertilising regimes. The best time to test is at least a couple of hours after the sun has hit the leaves in the morning, and usually the brix levels may change at night when the sugars in the leaves are more concentrated in the roots. They can be bought from Koanga Institute in NZ, or from the PRI shop in Australia.
The Koanga Institute currently has a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise funds to keep maintaining and testing the techniques in the 200sqm Urban Garden, and to further develop it to include a council-approved legal composting toilet, passive solar food dryer, permanent wicking beds, aquaponics, and to convert a concreted area into a plethora of horizontal and vertical food growing systems. We want our urban garden to be an example for the rest of the world of how we can be food secure and nutritionally resilient in cities and urban areas.
Please help us reach our target by contributing to our crowd-funder (get ebooks, seeds and perks in return!) and following Koanga’s 200sqm Urban Garden Project to see how you too can replicate a productive system in an urban situation that grows healthy plants, animals and people!