Inclusive Peace Processes Are Key to Ending Violent Conflict

1 Jun

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(This report is a USIP PeaceBrief copied in full here. The original appears at: https://www.usip.org/publications/2017/05/inclusive-peace-processes-are-key-ending-violent-conflict)

Friday, May 5, 2017 / By: Colette Rausch; Tina Luu

Violent conflict, refugee flows, and internal displacements present international policymakers and practitioners today with unprecedented challenges. Tackling these problems requires not only signed peace agreements but also sustainable peace. It is not enough to bring armed actors to the negotiating table, however. To be effective, the peace process needs to be inclusive and participatory. But what constitutes inclusive participation, and how can peacemakers and peacebuilders achieve it in their own, very different societies? Drawing on discussions in a public forum held in early 2017, this Peace Brief looks at the elements of peacebuilding and explains how critical inclusive participation is to that process.

Summary

  • The number of armed conflicts reached a post–Cold War peak in 2015, exacting a terrible death toll and forcing millions to flee.
  • One key to reaching a sustainable peace is inclusivity, which can knit together a frayed social fabric and give all groups a stake in transforming their country.
  • Conflicts have many levels, and peacebuilders need to create paths between them, creating opportunities for involvement and linking issues and groups.
  • Various peacebuilding strands of issues or activities—such as building trust and consulting with affected groups—can be woven together to strengthen a peace process.
  • Enabling marginalized groups to influence the content of a peace process increases the chances of a sustainable peace.
  • Peacebuilders are sharpening their understanding of how to achieve inclusivity but knowledge gaps remain. Multidisciplinary efforts are required.

Introduction

Violent conflict has taken a heavy toll in recent years. Surging refugee flows and internal displacements have presented international policymakers and practitioners with stark challenges.1 Any effective long-term strategy to tackle these problems must prioritize processes that not only produce agreements but also bring sustainable peace. The chances of such an outcome are greatly enhanced by an inclusive process.

Why Does Inclusion Matter?

More armed conflicts—both state-based (fifty) and nonstate (seventy)—broke out in 2015 than any other year in the previous twenty-five years.2 The death toll totaled an appalling 118,000, down from 2014 but still the third highest since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Most of these deaths are occurring in societies not only scarred by protracted violence but also torn by deep divisions.

In countries ravaged by war, social cohesion is typically threadbare. Populations are divided along multiple fault lines, with some communities denied access to social, political, or economic power because of how they identify themselves and are identified by others. These identities, which typically overlap, can include age, gender, race, ethnicity, and culture or language as well as physical, economic, and social status. Fragmentation and competing identities within a society, coupled with real or perceived exclusion, can fuel violence and undermine peacebuilding efforts.

Building more sustainable peace depends on healing the wounds and defusing the underlying tensions that have pulled apart the social fabric of a country. An effective peace process can be the tool with which to knit together that frayed fabric and generate enduring stability.

It is not enough to bring the armed actors to the negotiating table. To be effective, the process needs to give all groups in a society the opportunity to be heard and to have their concerns addressed. This in turn ensures that those most affected—in terms both of fighting on the front lines and of bearing the brunt of the consequences—are actively involved and have a stake in their country’s transformation. An inclusive peace is likely to be a sustainable one.

But what constitutes inclusive participation, and how can peacemakers and peacebuilders achieve it in their own, very different societies?

Multiple Levels, Multiple Strands

Conflicts have multiple levels, and thus many paths “must be pursued in the efforts to attain peace,” explains Jonathan Cohen of Conciliation Resources. Those levels can be defined in a variety of ways—politically, socially, geographically, thematically, organizationally, and so forth—and peacemakers and peacebuilders need to determine the most efficient paths into and between them. Each level consists of subparts (political parties, identity groups, issues unique to regions within a country, ranks within a government bureaucracy, or armed group) that peacebuilders should assess as they draw up their plans. Achieving inclusivity requires identifying key stakeholders across these areas, creating opportunities for meaningful involvement, and linking relevant issues and opposing groups.

For instance, the peace process in Northern Ireland involved efforts to mediate and facilitate not only at the highest political levels but also at lower ones and within civil society. Indeed, especially in the initial stages of the peace process, most activity occurred at the civil society level. Mari Fitzduff of Brandeis University estimates that 60 percent of that success was due to civil society’s capacity to mediate, educate, brainstorm new ideas, and bring members of antagonistic communities together. Peacebuilders worked hard to develop this capacity: civil society leaders “can go where politicians cannot go,” and “civil society provided opportunities that were unthreatening to bring political and paramilitary parties together.”

Nonetheless, building peace is not possible without engaging those with the power and authority to foster legitimacy for the process and ensure that outcomes are translated into institutional change. Although Fitzduff emphasizes that “civil society can do a lot of the difficult work that political and military parties cannot do themselves,” she also points out that “people-to-people talks, by themselves, will rarely develop into the kinds of conversations you need in terms of developing an actual peace process….There is little point in developing just relationships if you’re not prepared to also develop structures. People become very suspicious if they think you just want to be friends and not address existing inequalities.”

Moreover, those inequalities need to be addressed across international, national, provincial, municipal, community, and even individual levels. As evidenced in Iraq, localized efforts to facilitate reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict require community- or tribal-based consultations, which can also help bolster the durability of a national peace agreement.3 Michael Shipler of Search for Common Ground emphasizes the need to localize peacebuilding efforts, affirming that “most violent conflicts are deeply personal,” even those that engulf an entire country.

Conflicts and peace processes that seek to resolve them also have multiple strands—that is, issues or activities. Common peacebuilding strands include building trust between opposing parties, generating public support, and consulting with affected communities. If interwoven intentionally and skillfully, with a keen understanding of the conflict environment, these strands can significantly strengthen a peace process.

In Nepal, for example, after a peace agreement ending a ten-year civil war was signed, a critical period when further violence could have derailed implementation of the peace process, the Justice and Security Dialogue program at USIP brought the police and local communities together to build trust, dispel prejudices, and develop joint responses to common concerns.4 Police-community relationships were improved, paving the way for justice, security, and rule of law reforms that helped solidify the nascent peace and prevent violence. In the district of Morang, in southeast Nepal, the number of violent youth demonstrations fell by 80 percent after youth were engaged in the program. Today, ten years later—and two years after locals assumed complete control of the program—many of the partnerships and initiatives continue to have a sustained positive impact. The Nepal program has become a model for efforts in Burkina Faso, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Similarly, in the Philippines, local nongovernmental organizations worked to engage women in the Mindanao peace process by consulting with women in conflict-affected areas and raising social awareness. This outreach resulted in seventy-two consultations with approximately 2,750 women from diverse backgrounds throughout the Bangsamoro and helped extract important insights, foster intercommunal dialogue, and address common challenges and concerns.5 The consultations also led to a Women’s Summit of three hundred Muslim, indigenous, and Christian women and a set of recommendations they presented to the Bangsamoro Transition Commission for the new Basic Law, a regional constitution for Bangsamoro.6

Given the multiple actors and levels and the complexity of interweaving multiple strands, clarity of objectives is essential, as is a realistic timeline. The goals of peace processes should be identified “and made clear from the start,” argues Doga Eralp of the School of International Service at American University. “Too often,” Elizabeth Murray of USIP’s Africa team observes, “national dialogues will result in dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of recommendations without a clear plan of how they can be implemented through law and policy.” But, Murray adds, it is essential that key recommendations be translated into action and that the public see implementation occurring.

Build Partnerships and Broaden Participation—but Not Blindly

Ensuring transparency and creating channels for public participation can help legitimize the process. For example, Murray notes that national dialogue processes “can garner more legitimacy when [public] participation is included at an earlier stage.”7 The importance of this participation lies in the public’s ability to “contribute to the national discourse and dialogue about the change of their society,” Shipler explains. Peacebuilders should facilitate participation by creating channels—such as through social media or radio shows—through which the public can contribute to the national discourse on how to change their society.

Cohen explains the importance of understanding and responding to diverse constituencies and constructing partnerships across communities; doing so, he says, is essential if peacebuilders are to address root causes and develop relationships that can push the boundaries of conflict lines. “All stakeholder groups affected by conflict conditions in the country [must] have a seat at the table,” Murray observes. The participation of groups with a direct stake in either the continuation or the termination of conflict will create opportunities to foster trust and cooperation. Murray cites the challenges in South Sudan’s National Dialogue, where the government’s centralized control of the process and a lack of meaningful public participation led to a discredited process and opposition group boycotts.

More specifically, engaging historically excluded or marginalized groups, exemplified by the positive engagement of women in Colombia’s peace process, is vital to fostering inclusion.8 Indeed, increasing evidence suggests that not only including women but also enabling them to have an influential role increases the likelihood of reaching and implementing a peace agreement.9

Last, the timing and manner of inclusion requires forethought. Depending on how they think a peace process will affect their interests, both powerholders and marginalized groups may try to act as spoilers. To minimize this potential, those managing the process need to carefully choose whom to involve, their degree of involvement, and the timing of each participation.

Conclusion

Conflict in divided societies is complex and has no single solution. Peace processes are vital tools but cannot on their own achieve sustainable peace. The international community should not only help develop an agreement and shape a process but also grapple with longer-term challenges of building national identity, transforming entrenched systems, and improving poor governance. As Fitzduff argues, societywide efforts to create or transform institutions and power structures and to strengthen rule of law and justice and security are required to address inequalities and other drivers of conflict.

A variety of definitional and structural knowledge gaps remain around the process of inclusive participation. What do we mean, beyond formal negotiations, by the term peace processes? How do we weave together levels and strands of peacebuilding activity? How can we deal with dilemmas in the politics of inclusion (such as when the inclusion of one group creates a backlash or brings a process to a halt)? What mechanisms have been used, and how effective have they been?

Addressing these knowledge gaps using a multidisciplinary approach will help develop innovative tools and good practices for practitioners and policymakers working on the design and implementation of inclusive peace processes.

Notes

  1. Alexandra Bilak, Gabriel Cardona-Fox, Justin Ginnetti, Elizabeth J. Rushing, Isabelle Scherer, Marita Swain, Nadine Walicki, and Michelle Yonetani, 2016 Global Report on Internal Displacement, Norwegian Refugee Council/Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, May 11, 2016, http://internal-displacement.org/assets/publications/2016/2016-global-report-internal-displacement-IDMC.pdf.
  2. Uppsala Conflict Data Program, “2015: Number of Deaths,” Uppsala University, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, http://ucdp.uu.se/#/year/2015.
  3. Fred Strasser, “How to Foster Peace in Iraq after ISIS,” USIP In the Field, February 13, 2017, http://www.usip.org/publications/2017/02/how-foster-peace-iraq-after-isis.
  4. Nigel Quinney, “Justice and Security Dialogue in Nepal,” USIP Building Peace no. 1, June 2011, http://usip.org/publications/2011/06/justice-and-security-dialogue-nepal.
  5. “Operationalising Women’s ‘Meaningful Participation’ in the Bangsamoro: Political Participation, Security and Transitional Justice,” Conciliation Resources Research Report, September 2015, http://.c-r.org/downloads/803%20CR%20Womens%20agenda%20Bangsmoro%20ready%20for%20web02.pdf.
  6. “A Better Bangsamoro for All,” March 2014, http://www.c-r.org/resources/better-bangsamoro-all-womens-contributions-bangsamoro-basic-law.
  7. For more information, please see Susan Stigant and Elizabeth Murray, “National Dialogues: A Tool for Conflict Transformation?” USIP Peace Brief no. 194, http://usip.org/publications/2015/10/national-dialogues-tool-conflict-transformation.
  8. Virginia M. Bouvier, “Gender and the Role of Women in Colombia’s Peace Process” (New York: UN Women, March 4, 2016), http://usip.org/sites/default/files/Gender-and-the-Role-of-Women-in-Colombia-s-Peace-Process-English.pdf.
  9. Thania Paffenholz, “Can Inclusive Peace Processes Work?” Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative Policy Brief, Geneva, April 2015, http://inclusivepeace.org/sites/default/files/IPTI-CCDP-Can-Inclusive-Processes-Work.pdf.

About this Brief

This Peace Brief draws from discussions at a 2017 public forum, “Building Inclusive, Stronger Peace Processes: Here’s How,” held at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The event was part of the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum, a consortium of organiza-tions that have worked since 1999 to share ideas across disciplines to improve the ability to manage con-flicts and prevent violence. Colette Rausch is associate vice president, Global Practice and Innovation at USIP, where Tina Luu is a program assistant.

Some Like it (Really) Hot: Making White Ghost Pepper Sauce

2 Apr
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Collection of Hot peppers, Including White Ghost Peppers

We were perusing one of our favorite garden nurseries a few springs back when my son Calvin saw a lone Ghost Pepper mixed in with the tomato plants. Its label reflected an eerie ghost figure surrounded by flames. Calvin had watched a number of You Tube videos showing people eating whole Ghost Peppers and then, within minutes, not being able to speak, as eyes began to water and stomachs began to lurch. Burping was also involved. A lot of burping. Chugging large amounts of milk or shoveling in ice cream was usually involved in an attempt to sooth the now on fire mouth and digestive system. It was all so fascinating for a then eleven year old.

Calvin explained to me that Ghost Peppers (otherwise known as Bhut Jolokia) are some of the hottest peppers in the world. Peppers are rated on what is known as the “Scoville” scale which measures the spicy heat level of peppers. Jalapenos come in at 2,500 – 10,000 heat units, while Thai Peppers rank at 50,000 – 100,000 units.  Ghost peppers? They range from 855,000–1,041,427 units.

So Calvin was very excited to grow his own Ghost Peppers. So we bought the little pepper plant and carried it home excited as if it were a rare find from a flea market. Then we searched stores for the perfect container befitting of such a pepper. We found one that looked like it could be a prop in a halloween movie, with its gothic design emblems adorning the pot. Then we planted the Ghost Pepper and waited and waited (as peppers take a bit of time until the heat and sun give it power and growth.)

By the end of the season, we ended up with a good sized harvest. I had every intention of making hot sauce out of the peppers. I researched recipes and made lists of ingredients to buy.  I even got as far as putting the list in my purse. As Summer turned to Fall, Calvin inquired a few times about the status of the hot sauce making endeavor. Heck, I even started this blog and had it half way done, ready to complete it as soon as the hot sauce was made. But then school started and work and life got busy.  The hot sauce never got made and the peppers ended up going from plump peppers to drying up peppers to rotten peppers. Calvin asked about the peppers off and on over the Fall and then gave up.

Fast forward two years. Yes two years. Calvin had heard about another pepper that was hotter than the Ghost Pepper. It was called the Carolina Reaper and he asked if we could grow that. So I made a renewed effort to overcome my past failure and ordered hot peppers seeds for Calvin.  I ordered seeds for Carolina Reaper, White Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper), Marbles and Devil’s Tongue. We started the seeds in our indoor greenhouse and then planted them in our community garden plot and container pots at home.

It was amazing to see the peppers turn colors over the summer. The White Ghost Peppers turned a milky shade of white. The Devil’s tongue peppers were yellow while the Carolina Reapers where a vibrant red. The marbles were purple, red, white and yellow. We had an incredible harvest. I used our dehydrator to preserve most of the peppers.  But then I remembered the failed attempt a few years back at making Ghost Pepper hot sauce.

Like many things in life, I had a chance to do a “do over” on the Ghost Pepper hot sauce.  So late last September, I harvested the last of the peppers and made hot sauce. I was also at the time just getting into the “idea” of fermentation and decided to use the method to make the hot sauce. As to not have much attachment to the process, I decided to just do it all as an experiment and see what would happen. Detachment was my motto.

Here is the recipe I used:

WHITE IMG_6865GHOST PEPPER HOT SAUCE

Ingredients:
  • 15 white ghost peppers
  • 1 Tablespoon of salt without additives such as iodine or anti-caking agent (Himalayan pink salt or Salt is good.
  • 1 cup of white wine vinegar
 Caution:
  • Wear gloves while handling the ghost peppers.
  • Take care that you do not inhale any of the fumes that will waft out as you pour the vinegar over the peppers and when you remove the blender lid.
Steps:
  • Put white ghost peppers in the blender.
  • Add the salt
  • Boil the vinegar and pour over the peppers.
  • Put the lid on the blender tightly and blend all items together.
  • Let cool before removing lid.
  • Pour into  jars
  • Ferment for 8 weeks at least (I fermented mine for five months before using)

I used a canning jar with a fermentation lid. It was easy. Then after I let it sit in a dark corner for about five months, we tasted it. We were so surprised how rich tasting it was and not too hot at all!  It had an incredible depth of flavor. Calvin loves it and uses it on his eggs. He loved the idea so much that we went to the Container Store to buy a cool looking glass jar with a cork for him to put it in, like a magical concoction. We also bought a few tiny spray bottles to turn it into pepper spray. But we realized that the small pepper particles clogged up the sprayer. But it was fun anyway.

IMG_6864After we realized it was a success, I decided to order some of those pepper sauce bottles you get from the store and also add a label.  A few years back I was in Nepal for work and had lunch at a friend’s house. He showed my colleague and I how his wife and son had started a small business right out of their house. They made pickle and other Nepali delicacies. His wife is an amazing cook so it was a natural thing. His son helped with the business side. They bottled and labeled their own product. This really impressed me. So I had this in my mind as I ordered the bottles and labels.

Now I am inspired to make more hot sauce using different peppers. So this year we are again growing hot peppers from a variety of seeds. Also, my husband Patrick who is an artist and advertising guru, will design a label so we can customize the label for the next batch after this year’s harvest. Who knew how much fun growing hot peppers would be?  Well, actually Calvin knew.  It just took me a few years to catch on.

(Recipe adapted from the following websitehttp://www.instructables.com/id/Ghost-Pepper-Sauce/)

Warning:  In 2016, it was reported that a man who engaged in an eating contest involving pureed ghost peppers on a hamburger ended up with a hole in his esophagus following  violent retching and vomiting.  He was hospitalized as this could have been fatal. 

Winter? Spring? What???!!!

21 Feb

IMG_2689.jpgForget rigidly following the traditional wisdom of when to do what when it comes to gardening. Global warming (yes, deniers, it does exist!) has thrown the playbook out the window. I have learned over the past five years that one needs to look at the calendar and guidance on when to start seeds indoors, when to harden off and when to put seedlings in the ground — with a grain of salt.  Or grain of compost in the gardening vernacular.

On the bright side,  the unpredictability of a gardening season is an opportunity to go a bit with the flow, let go of a little control, get over disappointments of crop fails and move on. And, in the process, learn that hey, doing so is actually not so bad. As a matter of fact, it is kinda liberating and an adventure in accepting and going with the ebbs and flows of nature.

To that end, a few days ago it was freezing. A few days before that we had snow followed by freezing rain and ice. We are talking temperatures in the teens. I decided to be in full denial of the deep winter freeze and planted a few tomato seeds last weekend. A few are already sprouting.

 

Today?  It is in the 60’s. So, I took the cue, even though I know this is transitory, and planted a few pepper seeds in one of my indoor greenhouses. I know it is a bit early. But hey, so what. Be bold. Peppers actually need a bit more tender loving care and time to sprout than tomato seeds. If this does not work out, I can always start a few more later and see how it goes.

This year I ordered the 2016 Art Pack Boxed Collection of seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Library. I love this company. I was introduced to it by my sister-in-law who sent a few seed packs to me for Christmas a few years back. I was hooked. I love the beautifully and creatively crafted artwork depicted on each seed pack. In previous years by the time I got around to ordering seeds, the Art Packs were sold out. What is an Art Pack?  It is “15 spectacular varieties packed in artwork by 15 artists, using mediums including: Watercolor, oil painting, pen and ink, stained glass, paper sculpture, and paper-painting. The original works from each year form a traveling exhibit called Art of the Heirloom.” See: http://www.seedlibrary.org/art-packs/new-for-2016.html

This year I thought ahead and ordered the Art Pack early. Also, as a bonus, since this year I am buried with work and all sorts of commitments, I very much appreciated the Art Pack because it took out the pressure of figuring out what to order. When the box arrived, I was like a child at Christmas time opening up a gift. Not sure (well actually, I am quite sure) that my husband and son were not as enthused as I was but they did the obligatory smile and showed enough encouragement as to not dampen my excitement.

So the 2016 gardening season has officially begun, at least in my house. The few seeds have been planted in the anticipation of a bountiful year.

Gardening Season in Full Swing

7 Sep

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It is hard to believe we are already in September and about a month away from the end of the Spring/Summer gardening season. It has been a wonderful gardening season so far. Having an indoor greenhouse set up let me kick off the season in February so I broke out the seeds, set up the greenhouses and started planting the seeds. Hagrid the cat got into the action and decided to plant himself on the shelf of the indoor greenhouse. IMG_4915

IMG_5505IMG_5503 IMG_5587Come March, everything was doing nicely and the greenhouses were full of seedlings including kale, swiss chard, bok choy, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and a variety of herbs. I decided this year to plant catnip, chamomile and anise to use for tea. Hagrid the cat has been loopy a number of times after he got into the catnip while i was drying the leaves for tea. Lovage was also planted although I have not yet decided what to do with it. I gave a seedling a few months ago to my kind neighbor who invited us over for dinner this past weekend for an amazing lovage soup that she had made from the leaves.

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Then the two outdoor unheated greenhouses helped the hardening off process proceed smoothly and protected the tender seedlings when the periodic dips of temperature threatened a frost. A few times this year though we had to bring in the seedlings and, like last year, my son’s room was taken over by tomato and peppers plants.

We spent April and May getting everything planted in our community garden plot as well as in large containers we situated around our back yard patio.The herbs and small pots took their place on the shelves against the house.IMG_6406 IMG_6029 IMG_6389

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June, July and August kept me busy with harvesting, canning and pickling. Now the freezer is full of pasta sauce, salsa and pesto while we have pickled peppers in the cabinets.  Pickled beets are lined up in the refrigerator.  I estimate that more peppers will joint the others that are pickled as the pepper plants continue to produce prolifically.

My son got in the creative mode and made vegetable people out of the bounty from our gardens. The white squash pictured here went crazy. I only planted two seeds yet the plants to date have produced over 30 large squashes! After coming up with various ways of cooking them (stuffed with meat, stuffed with cheese, sliced for vegetable lasagne, eaten with just butter), I started to give them to friends and neighbors. Then a box of them went to the community food kitchen yesterday. We still have about ten  more growing in the garden and more blooms after that!  So all in all, it has been a great season so far.IMG_6832 IMG_6834 IMG_6820 IMG_6830

The Hydroponic Betta Fish Adventure

29 Mar

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Hydroponic vegetable gardening has fascinated me ever since I saw a YouTube video of a New Yorker growing lettuce in two-liter soda bottles strung vertically along the living room window of his tiny apartment.  When I was in the market  for a professional-strength grow light for my indoor greenhouse last year, the supply shop had all sorts of tubes and paraphernalia for hydroponic growing.  I couldn’t get my head wrapped around it all and decided it was not yet time for me to delve into the mystery of growing plants indoors, in water with no soil.

As I brought my single grow-light purchase to the shop owner, he pointed over my shoulder to a small-sized box and suggested I take a look.  Wow!  It was a self-cleaning fish tank that promised to also grow food.

IMG_4971It was an “Aqua Farm” with everything needed to dip one’s toe into the hydroponic growing world.  Not only that, but it was also a fish tank!   Since my son and husband were with me, we agreed that this was the answer not only to my desire to hydroponically grow lettuce, but to also finally replace the fish that had sadly died a few months back when our old fish tank, well tanked. So we purchased the kit and took it home. Here is a link to the website that tells more about the Aqua Farm:  https://www.backtotheroots.com/shop/aquafarm

Not only did the kit include everything needed, including seeds, it even came with a coupon for a free fish at one of the chain retailer pet stores.   Well, that was a year ago.  The kit sat for a few weeks in the living room, then migrated to the hall, then it — and my plans to delve into hydroponics — ended when the kit landed somewhere in our upstairs storage.  We had been so consumed with setting up the indoor greenhouse and purchasing the multiple types of grow lights, little greenhouse-ettes, seedling heating pads and such that we never seemed to get the mental bandwidth going to set up the Aqua Farm last growing season.

So a few weeks ago, I came across the kit and got inspired to get the job done.  I pulled out the wrinkled free fish coupon only to find it had expired. No matter, we went to our local independently owned and operated fish store to pick out a beautiful Betta fish.

After we selected our new family member — who is also conveniently a nitrogen producer — we walked around the shop, looking at the multi-colored tropical fish and saying hello to the erstwhile desert tortoise who lives in the shop throughout the winter until it can live a leisurely life eating grasses in its owners backyard once the warm weather returns.  Since, at the time, we were in between snow storms, that warm weather was a long way off, and you could tell the giant tortoise was growing impatient by the worn edges of the wooden enclosure, worn smooth by many slow motion escape attempts.  We walked past slumbering cats and intermingled with two small dogs darting in and out of the gaps between aquariums, much like the clown fish above us were doing as they swam in and out of the tentacles of their sea anemone home.  Then we came to the counter to buy our Betta, pick up a little ornament bridge to dress up the tank and choose some fish food.  The owner counseled us to ignore the package’s liberal feeding instructions, as it was just a ploy to get unsuspecting fish owners to buy more food.  The store owner insisted, instead, that we use the much less generous portions of  2-3 pellets a day, thus also avoiding mucking up of the water in the tank.  We left the store happy and content, having done business with a local honest business owner.

IMG_4975Then we got home and set up the tank.  Okay.  I didn’t exactly do anything. I watched. My husband (sherpa, as he labels himself) and son did all the heavy lifting.  But I did select two varieties of lettuce to plant in addition to the basil and wheat grass seeds that came with the kit.  Now our betta, who my son affectionately named, “Madame Bubliea” given her billowing, colorful and elegant tail, was introduced to her new digs. We were all excited to see what hydroponic growing would produce.

IMG_5588Now fast forward to four weeks later, and thankfully Madame Bubliea is still alive.  The wheat grass is doing magnificently, albeit a bit flattened thanks to Hagrid the cat, who has developed quite the knack for jumping on the tank and pulling out the newly sprouted grass strands with his teeth.  IMG_5598

The basil and lettuce are barely sprouting but coming along, still safely out of reach of Hagrid’s pruning teeth.

So the hydroponic experiment is going well.  Who knows, if the tank can produce some usable lettuce and basil, maybe next season I’ll expand the operation.  Maybe.

Spring to Fall: Gardening Across the Seasons

4 Oct
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Aunt Ruby’s Green Tomatoes

The changing angle of the sun, shorter days and cooler temperatures signal that Fall is sneaking up. It also tells me it is time to reflect over the past six months and the gardening adventures. This year, starting in March, I went all in with starting seeds indoors and setting up a series of indoor greenhouses outfitted with grow lights. As discussed in my previous post, it was quite the production, including multiple trips to various stores, to get it all set up.

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Hardening off the tomato and pepper plants

It then got tricky. The seedlings had grown into solid leafy plants but the fluctuating weather meant that I had to wait until after Mother’s Day in mid-May before I could safely plant outside in the community garden plot and at home in my patio container garden. So we spent the good part of a month “hardening off” all the plants to get them ready to go outside. This hardening off process was a feat in and of itself because although I was able to use our two outdoor unheated greenhouses, there were many a night where the temperatures would dip too low for tomato and pepper plants.

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Outdoor unheated greenhouses

The challenge was these plants were getting quite big and had already outgrown the indoor greenhouses. So I had to find another home for them when they needed to be shuttled from the outdoor greenhouses where they resided during the day back to the safety of the house at nights.

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Hardening off process. Using a bedroom for overnight protection with unpredictable temperatures in April and May.

I ended up taking over my son’s bedroom where the door could be shut to prevent Hagrid the cat from digging up and destroying the plants. (Previous years’ experience told me he could take on five plants and eviserate them in 15 minutes flat.) The benefit of my son’s room is that I could open up the window out to the patio and hand the plants to my husband who then carried them to the greenhouses. Then we reversed the process the next morning. Tedious? Yes. But necessary.

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Compost. Ready for use.

We then got the community garden plot and the containers at home ready. We used our own compost and compost tea that we had pulled from our Envirocycle composter and collected in empty cat liter plastic tubs. I’m a fervent composting booster. We compost everything we can. It’s very easy because we have a colorful ceramic canister on the kitchen counter and just drop in appropriate food waste in it.

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Rotating the compost from holding bin to Envirocycle composted.

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Compost tea.

Then my husband takes it out to an old scuba box that he had buried in the backyard. It has two compartments so we can rotate. Then when one side is full, we scoop it into the Environcycle composter, add dry leaves that we had collected from our yard and give it a spin periodically. Then when the compost is ready, we store it in the cat liter tubs. The tea is made from the droppings and is collected in a bin under the rolling part of the composter.

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Community Garden Plot.

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Taking an iPhone break in the Community Garden Plot.

Over a series of weeks, we began setting out the plants in the community garden plot and in our home patio garden containers.

This year’s harvest was bountiful to say the least. I am a huge fan of the Hudson Valley Seed Library. From now on, that is the only place I will get my seeds from. Not only are the seeds of high quality, the packaging is fun. There are “art packs” with vibrant colored artwork that differs from pack to pack. I just LOVE these seeds and the art. Here is the link to their website: http://www.seedlibrary.org

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Baby Bok Choi.

We planted baby bok choi seeds indoors. In previous years, I tried to direct sow the seeds but did not have success. This year, the seeds loved being started indoors and when I transplanted them, given they tend to bolt when the heat starts, I put them in containers on my patio so I could move them out of the direct sun when needed. Also, since they also do not like really cold weather, I rolled them into the outdoor greenhouse and put a row cover over them when the nights got too cold.

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Brilliant Beets.

My family loves beets. So we planted seeds indoors from the Brilliant Beet Blend. I had read conflicting reports on whether it was a good idea to plant beet seeds indoors since they can easily be direct sowed into the ground once the soil is ready to be worked. But I was on a planting frenzy and decided to give it a go. I am so happy I did. My beets got a great head start and were ready early. In addition, I went ahead and direct sowed beets later around the existing beets. I had beets all summer and still do. We had beet salads, pickled beets and I froze many for use in the winter.

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Two varieties of Kale.

I also went ahead and started indoors two varieties of kale: Vates Blue Curled Kale and Dino Kale. In the past I would direct sow the seeds but with the varying weather and heat, it was a mixed bag. I also planted Silverado Chard. The key to getting healthy chard is to keep on top of the bug problem. There is a beatle that comes around fairly early in the season and will damage the leaves. But if you frequently check under the leaves for the eggs and scrape them off, then all is well. There is also a beatle that likes Kale and later in the season they can nearly swarm the plant. But these all can be picked off too. The key is to be vigilant and check leaves and pick off the pesky bugs.

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Donation bin: “Produce for the Community”

This year I had more kale and chard than I could keep up with. So I gave away some of my plants to fellow community gardeners. After I had frozen enough to get us through the winter, and the harvest was nearly overwhelming, I brought in bags for my colleagues at work and also donated bags to our local food kitchen. My husband built a bin at the community garden for folks to donate extra produce and every morning after dropping me off at the Metro to catch the train to work, he stopped by and picked up the donations and took them to the food kitchen. In past years I often felt overwhelmed with the combined produce that we grew ourselves and the weekly community supported agriculture share from our local farmer. But having the food kitchen donation was perfect.

IMG_3298The tomatoes were amazingly hardy and productive. In past years, the blight, being a common problem in our region, was a constant battle. But this year it was not so bad because we had a surprisingly mild summer and the humidity was not as oppressive. I grew Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Goldie, New Yorker and Mama Leone. I had an abundance of fresh tomatoes throughout the season (and still going even now).

photo-3The peppers were just as successful. I grew King of the North bell peppers and Gatherer’s Gold Sweet Peppers from seed. I also picked up a sweet banana pepper plant at our local nursery. With the harvest, I was able to fill up my freezer with homemade pasta sauce and salsa as well as can whole tomatoes for the winter.
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IMG_0529Of course I had lots of basil and have lots of pesto cubes in the freezer. Finally, as in past years, I had two shelves of herbs, strawberry plants, spinach and lettuce on the patio. In the community garden plot, I grew a few cucumber plants to ensure a supply for pickling.
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The community garden plot and my home container garden is starting to slow down but still producing. I figure we have another four weeks or so before it will be time to call it a day and clean up for the winter. I had planned to do some Fall planting but frankly am worn out. It has been six very active months, my freezer is absolutely full, I still have some pickled cucumbers left from last year and I have canned enough tomatoes to get us through the winter.

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Pulled from the composter: a few vegetables that sprouted and looked like little compost creatures 🙂

So all that I planted is some lettuce. I am going to conduct an experiment to see how they do in the indoor greenhouse and then the outdoor greenhouse when the weather dips. So with that, I am bringing this gardening season to an end.

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Hagrid jumped in the little greenhouse as soon as I had removed the seedlings.

Snow? An Indoor Greenhouse to the Rescue

17 Mar

IMG_2288 Snow. It snowed today. We even set a few records for the level of snow this late in the year. But no worries at my end.  I have an entire greenhouse operation going on inside my house.  Over the past few years I started indoors a few things from seed, including tomatoes and peppers. But lack of space and my cat made the endeavor very challenging. After Hagrid (the cat) ravaged my tender seedlings a few years ago, I ended up setting up my system in a small area in my living room using a big cage with clip on grow lights and warming pads.  It did the trick but greatly limited me in the amount of seedlings I could grow.  It was also difficult to regulate the temperature and the peppers had a hard time, resulting in a meager yield of survivors. But this year is different. Thanks to my husband who did some renovation in our upstairs half floor attic, I have more space and with it, more ambitions for the growing season.  I ordered a multi-shelf covered greenhouse from Lowe’s that I had coveted over the past few years.

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Seeding tray and my seed packets.

Then I got my seeding supplies ready and began planting.

Patrick and Hagrid building the little greenhouses from IKEA

Patrick and Hagrid building the little greenhouses from IKEA

During a trip to IKEA, we came upon little greenhouse units and picked up a few of them.  Then over a  few weekends, we collected an assortment of grow lights. One professional grow light was picked up at a local hydroponics store and the owner gave us a great discount on a super cool unit in addition to some excellent growing advice.  I learned that the key is to get florescent lights that are “daytime” intensity.   I also learned that LED lights are the best but also the most expensive.  The other grow lights I purchased from local hardware stores included a collection of  inexpensive under the cabinet style plug in florescent units and small clamp on shop lights.

What happens when you spend too much time looking for grow lights. Loved these clamp on lights.

What happens when you spend too much time looking for grow lights. Loved these clamp on lights.

My son.  Worn out by the grow light shopping marathon.

My son. Worn out by the grow light shopping marathon.

Then I rounded out my purchases with a few new seedling heat mats since I only had two and needed a few more.

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IKEA Greenhouses with tomatoes and peppers (3 weeks after planting seeds)

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Just over one week after planting seeds.

Ta da!   Three weeks later I got four varieties of tomatoes, two varieties of sweet peppers, beets, baby bok choi, lettuce, kale, swiss chard and basil growing strong. As soon as the snow clears, I will get the kale, swiss chard, beets and baby bok choi into the ground under the hoop cold frame in my community garden.   Then I look forward to moving the tomatoes, peppers and basil into the outdoor greenhouse to begin the hardening off process before the last frost date (estimated to be May 1). Now back to today.  Snow.  Lots of snow.  Hard to believe that in just a few weeks, we will see the buds of Spring.

Today’s snow. The outdoor greenhouse and the “add on” greenhouse started over the warm weekend, waiting for another warm day to be completed.

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