Chewy and Other Innovations

‘Chewy’ is the name of a macgyvered Styrofoam shredder made at Manitoulin Permaculture. Its genesis is soaked in the ingredients for a highly creative marinade. The process that gave birth to it illustrates the unique learning environment at Manitoulin Permaculture. Eventually selected as opposed to air-crete, EPS-crete, sometimes called styrocrete, was chosen to insulate their unique greenhouse design. Styrocrete ‘rocks’ because instead of using gravel to make concrete, Styrofoam is used instead. It’s also a great way to recycle non-biodegradable Styrofoam. They eventually became the proud owners of their proprietary blend of styrocrete thanks to chewy. Here it is insulating the greenhouse:

The greenhouse is its own myth. After years of painstaking research that included professors, internships and volunteering, with months spent at organizations like the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute and SchoolGrown, a cost-saving, and permit-hacking greenhouse was erected.

Mark, who graduated with a bachelor’s in biochemistry, came on site and built a dome for himself that eventually became popular, so he built others. He is among many here who have benefitted from the extra time and space to create and research. Justin acts as a sort of venture capitalist at a Research and Development firm, and reallocates his funds to benefit the group. This group is steadily expanding. Their non-profit the Northern Ontario Permaculture Research Institute (NOPRI) recently scored the green light for community gardens and greenhouses at their new Little Current headquarters. They are also building a strong network of permaculture and alternative living enthusiasts. I meet a few every week who say they are catching on to this place. It is a vortex. Obstacles, like getting approval by engineers and architects, become opportunities to build a better network. Needless to say things are growing quickly.

Chewy was forged in the nexus of scavenged materials. Made of parts originally for another project, as well as a $2 addition, the collection of motor, nails, and axle was enough to shred Styrofoam, turning a once impossible process into a grueling and tedious task of dropping Styrofoam into the void.


There are constant setbacks and ‘technical maneuvers’ needed to keep things running smoothly. In many ways we are always living on the edge. Shane stresses that we are living on the ‘tail-end’ rather than the ‘front-end’ of development. Although Chewy survived the season, it was decommissioned. I think it represents a step in the right direction for the organization here.

I see a team of people who are resourceful with their scavenged materials. However, the immaterial scavenging here has as much if not more potential than the material scavenging. The opportunity to think combined with the freedom to create in a resource rich environment is the stuff places like The Recurse Center, a famous hacker school, and Open Source Ecology are made of. Wired magazine even had a similar idea when they ran this article

Here are the principles of scavenging that I think apply on both the material and immaterial plane.

-Tetanus. Avoid tetanus at all costs. Regarding information, I think that means ‘play it safe’ and avoid toxic material.

-Don’t take things you don’t need. If you take something that you do need but there are parts you don’t use those can turn around and benefit you later. If you take things you don’t need but that look cool, you’ll get distracted. In the end you’ll have to burn it all in a big fire anyway.

– Wood is always good. Never ignore a building block, especially a multipurpose fundamental like a new concept.

-NO MAYBEs. If you are iffy about it, just put it down. That’s how big fires start.

Diving into the innovation process here has revealed a few paths to me. The first is a combination of deliberate and non-deliberate network creation. One of the inspirations for the greenhouse was The Garbage Warrior Many of the resources that went into Mark’s research into the greenhouse came out of Google Scholar. The networks that need to be built are informational and social. While working here I notice many of the interns going in their own directions and leaving trails unexplored. This isn’t because they aren’t diligent, it’s usually because there just isn’t enough time. The potential energy is palpable. With an accelerating network in a resource rich environment (resources include: freedom, time, parts, ideas) minor increases in human capital lead to major increases in production. This is the kernel of educational theory that the above mentioned organizations/movements are based on.

These organizations are competing to create a synergy of forces (or resources) that accelerate their acceleration. The vision here is of a sustainable future, with a focus on regenerative agriculture. Hopefully, the success of NOPRI and Manitoulin Permaculture insures the food sovereignty of Manitoulin Island. This is what it feels like here when you make something.




Musings of an Intern

First Week Impressions

I arrived on Manitoulin Island bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Shane picked me up and told me about the lay of the land. He took me through Little Current and showed me the learning center where he works as a tutor/mentor.

Once Shane opens his mouth you can tell that he is wicked smart. He was the first person to ask me about my interests and to try to understand why I was interested in them and I though no one would ever ask. It was no surprise that everyone on the farm was as passionate and curious about their own subjects as Shane is with his.

Upon arriving at the farm I was greeted first with the solar field, a disheveled barn sporting huge solar panels overlooking a large garden. I later learned that it housed a few turkey vultures too. After the solar field there is a beautiful and bright house with a green roof. Veronica stays there and comes by to visit. She checks out the sunsets from the farm property, which are beautiful.

Not exactly a sunset, I know.

Finally, the farm house is down a long driveway, hidden away from the highway outside Little Current. It has a red door, many cars and carpentry projects around it. The house belongs to the Tilson family who run the farm and a sizeable amount of side projects/organizations. Their output and work ethic are prolific.

After meeting all the interns, workaways, and visitors I am shown my tent where I will be staying all summer. While here I am encouraged to do my passion projects while doing duties such as tending the chickens, doing dishes, cooking, and cleaning. I am also allowed to participate in the many projects that are ongoing on and off the farm. For instance, the group here is launching a local community garden, which I will get to help build. On the second day I learned how to wire a solar panel and helped construct it. Since I have much less expertise than passion I’ve spent a lot of time learning. Fortunately, the environment is perfect for learning anything about permaculture, since everyone around me has a general understanding and their own specializations to boot.

The Manitoulin Permaculture farm is part of a growing network of farmers who are trying to do farming in a more holistic way. We have connections with local legends like Ed Burt, and have contacts participating in the new wave of biodynamic farming.

The biggest change for me, one that I had been meaning to get to, was waking up early. My tent is right beside the chicken coop, so the first morning was quite a shock as I tried to fall asleep to the sound of roosters. I got used to it pretty quickly. I also find that I get tired around night time, since I spend so little time on a computer and much time doing work/studying. My sleep schedule is finally back on track. I am having more vivid dreams too.

Since this is my first time on a farm I got to experience the pleasures of weeding and sowing seeds. I discovered that twitch grass is the plant version of evil, and recently learned that as it decomposes it becomes toxic to other plants. If you don’t already know about it look it up and you’ll see. Here is a great article on the topic One surprising experience, though small, is the feeling of roots in the ground as you dig them up. Picking dandelions is especially odd, since the tops are so unassuming, but the bottom is very large. I felt like I was lifting a complex alien life-form out of the ground.

Bugs are another alien life-form you’ll meet out here. Although you’ll meet several new fellows, it’s the familiar ones that will get you. The farm is situated in a windy area, so the wind repels most flies and mosquitoes, however, I wouldn’t recommend anyone take them lightly. I was bitten the other day and came down with a fever, so now I am sporting my ‘bug suit’ no matter how silly I look. Thanks Mom!

Nature can be kind of strange. There are many animals out here that are not under the purview of the farm. This morning I caught a chipmunk who had managed to open a banana and start eating it. As we get smarter, they get smarter. No more bananas outside of the fridge! One day a fish swam sideways up to our boat and offered itself to us. It was pregnant, so we harvested its eggs and cooked the rest for dinner. Talk about natural and local.

The food here is delicious. I feel like I live out of the extreme version of a whole foods store. When I was sick Jaime cooked up a stinging nettle and willow bark tea and it made me feel much better. Every night one of us cooks dinner for the group. The main interns here are all great cooks. This week we have had a French couple staying with us who have cooked amazing meals and desserts. They made caramel apple pie for us. Yum! I plan to make mac and cheese the way momma taught me.

It seems we will have many new faces come and go throughout the season. We recently housed three Buddhist monks who came for a visit. It was nice to have them teach us about Buddhism. I don’t know how they meditated outside!

My impressions over the first week have been that I am in a hard-working and disciplined group, like a mini-military operation, who combine healthy living and a strong sense of community to accomplish their tasks. Many people here run their own businesses on the side, and the environment is geared to unleash creativity. I feel like there is nothing in my lifestyle preventing me from achieving my self-improvement goals, and many people here foster me as I try to achieve them. By the way, the fitness program here is incredible. All in all I feel superhuman!


Musings of an Intern

Elymus Repens – Twitch Grass

QuackGrassUpon arriving to the farm in May of 2015 with my friends and fellow interns, bright eyed and eager, we were exposed to the insanity that is twitch grass. The ‘Twich’, as it is known, is the slow degradation of your sanity caused by interactions with twitch grass. It creeps up on you, like its roots and ensnares your mind the way it chokes out your vegetables and herbs. The Twitch cannot be stopped by gloves or respirator or other personal protection for it is a unique and sinister phenomena, transmitted directly into your mind and soul.

For those of you who haven’t heard of twitch grass, you have. It is literally everywhere. Commonly known around the homestead as Twitch grass and is also known to take on other names such as quick grass, quitch grass, dog grass, quackgrass, scutch grass, witchgrass and mother f***ing twitch grass. Hardiness  zone 0 (citation needed), I swear this stuff will grow on Mars if left alone up there. You know that sharp leaf you but between your thumbs and blow on to make that obnoxious honking noise when your mother makes you go play outside? That’s twitch grass. It uses children as hosts to prey upon the minds of their parents.

The Twitch encroaches.

Here at the Homestead , we had three large gardens that had been taken over by this stuff. Before anything else, we had to take it all out. Which is much easier said than done. You see, you can’t just pull it out, oh no siree! If you try it will just break at the root, leaving the entire rhizome intact and happy. For those of you who don’t know (because I didn’t at the time) a rhizome is a root that can send up a new shoot whenever it god damn feels like. Alright, I shouldn’t hate on all rhizomes because that’s what ginger is, and ginger is delicious. But I digress. You could rototill all the grass (which, in our ignorance, made perfect sense) but all that does is shred and nicely distribute those roots whose only goal in life is to shoot up new grass stocks. So for that garden, we sifted through every square meter of soil with out hands, pulling out fragments of these white, hairy cables. The soil was sandy so the roots were pulled out easily enough but it took the four of us days to hand-sift that garden. Since it was within a week of our arrival, we were mostly sane if not mildly frustrated.

But, ever patiently the Twitch brews.

We began on the second garden. With our newly lost naïveté, the Bee Garden looked a lot more daunting. Nix the rototiller, we all agreed. This time, we are going to hand bomb it. Spaces in hand, and eyeing the now-chest-high grass, we dropped the tips of our shovels on the soil, prepared to plunge the spade into the ropey network of roots, and with a tiny hop landed on the top of the blade.


The shovel stopped dead. I had hit a rock just below the surface. Reposition the shovel and…


Another rock.




This continued for the entire garden. Our only solace was knowing that if and when we finally got through the layer of baseball-sized rocks, we were privileged with lifting a 30 pound mat of dirt and grass, shaking out the soil and hauling the roots and shoots over to the compost pile. Wax on, wax off. This is when the Twich begsoil-manan to manifest itself. It started fairly inconspicuously by causing bouts of swearing and blisters on the hands. Then, a tired and sore back and body begins to set in. Soon, your entire vocabulary has been reduced to grunting and profanity. An intern lost in the throes of the Twich will erupt spontaneously and frequently into episodes of hysteria as their shovel fails to sink into the ground for the 9th try. Even when we managed to pass through the rocks and thought we had cut a piece out, the ubiquitous rhizomes still had a death grip on Mother Earth. By the end (and there was an end), I am not exaggerating here, we had removed 13 billion rocks from the garden.

But the Twitch wasn’t done with us.

An angiosperm is a plant that produces flowers and reproduces in that fashion. Flowers have pollen. Lots of pollen. Grass in an angiosperm. So, when the quackgrass decided to spread open their lovely purplish flowers in early July, my self and many other were completely incapacitated from allergies for about a week. Although we had rid out gardens of the hell spawn, it still grows everywhere, ejaculating clouds of its angio-sperm into the atmosphere. I flicked a flower for fun and it exploded in a dusty way all over my face (one of many lessons learned that summer). Ever have allergies so bad that the roof of your mouth and your inner ear canals itch? Mother f***ing twitch grass.

The Twitch evolves.

The summer grew hot aIMG_20150910_195829nd lazy and ponds were drying up and our detwiched gardens were starting to share up delicious baby zucchinis. Watching the sun set over Lake Huron is always blissful, and there is always a breeze on the lake front, playing with the tall grass. Seeing the wind ripple though it like seaweed in the tide makes you forget about the sifting, and the shovelling, and the hauling and the sneezing and well, just about everything else. You can feel the shape of the wind as it pulls and tugs on the stocks, you can’t help but smile when you see the grass rustle and part as the dogs wrastle around in it while the turkeys pluck, and pop and hoot to each other. I would take walks through the fields at sundown, just to run my hands through the grass and listen to it speak. Fascinating really that it could both cause so much discomfort and frustration one month and induce peacefulness the next. ‘Grief and appreciation’ a teacher once told me, ‘are two sides of the same coin’. I was to find that most things on the farm that summer shared a similar duality.

OK, time to end this post, I’m starting to get mushy. The moral of the story here is this: Sheet mulch your goddamn gardens because it’s no fun watching your friends Twitch out. ☯


Actinidia Kolomikta – Super Hardy Kiwi

Hardy up to zone 4, super hardy kiwis (or kiwiberries) are vines that produce small tasty berries the size of large grapes. You can expect a yield within 3 – 8 years. They can tolerate a range of soils as long as the area is well-drained but still moist. While less vigorous than the hardy kiwi (actinidia aruguta), they still require a substantial trellis to support their growth. They require a male pollinator, 1 for every 6 – 8 female vines. As wind is the primary pollinator, plant the male to the West or the direction of the prevailing wind.

WARNING: Cats like to eat them and may destroy young vines!


Lycium Barbarum – Goji Berry

Also known as Wolfberry, Goji berries can grow is sandy, loamy or clay soils. They require watering during the first year but are drought tolerant after that. They require good drainage and require full sun. They can be grown in zones 2 – 7.

The goji berry grows into a large shrub reaching heights of 7-10 feet with vines that can reach 10 feet. Pruning of the main stem and branches will keep the plant shorter, thicker and help with increased flowering and fruit production.


Rubus Fruticosus – Black Satin Thornless Blackberry

Black Satin BlackberryThornless. Vigorous grower that establishes itself quickly with heavy yields, excellent for home gardens. Semi–erect growth habit, but they require trellising or plant them along a fence. Very disease resistant.

Lighting: sun
Plant Height: 5-7′
Ground Condition: Well drained
Spread: 3-5′

ZONE: I’ve seen 3a – 11 posted online. Most references are zone 5 and up. Winter protection in colder climates seems like it may be necessary.

Ripens in early August.

Plant Database

La Crescent Plum

La Crescent PlumLa Crescent (Japanese-American) is a hardy fast growing tree that produces a freestone plum that is yellow skinned with a slight red blush. Its yellow flesh is aromatic and sweet making it an ideal plum for fresh eating, preserves, drying or canning. It requires a pollinator.

ZONE: I’m not entirely sure. The tag says 5 but other online sources say 3 & 4. Zone 4 seems to be the mostly commonly referenced number.

HARVEST: Early (End of August)

Moderate susceptibility to black knot. Aphids can be a common problem to all plum trees.

Plant Database

Hippophae Rhamnoides – Seabuckthorn


  • roots distribute rapidly and extensively, providing a non-leguminous nitrogen fixation role in surrounding soils
  • tolerant of salt in the air and soil
  • demand full sunlight for good growth/do not tolerate shady conditions
  • typically grow in dry, sandy areas
  • male produces brownish flowers which produce wind-distributed pollen
  • female plants produce orange berry-like fruit (6 – 9 millimeters) in diameter, soft, juicy and rich in oils

For a more exhaustive explanation see: Sea-Buckthorn – A Promising Multi-Purpose Crop For Saskatchewan