ChocoSoil

 

 

“One of the teachings of the food of the gods, namely cacao, is that if you want the food of the gods you have to start with the soil of the gods. This means that the soil is sacred, and it must be fed and honoured as though it were a god worthy of respect and nourishment. ChocoSoil therefore is the actualization of this Indigenous Knowledge.”  – Michael and Byron

ChocoSoil is a community-based urban agriculture research project that integrates soil making and rooftop container gardening into the day-to-day operations at our facility.  It is an embodiment of our cradle-to-cradle approach to food waste and is a model for high density chef gardening and soil regeneration in small urban spaces.

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‘Cradle to cradle’ is an approach where the creation and disposal of waste is considered from design to production. This re-integration of our waste contrasts the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that currently exists in our urban waste production system. Our food scraps, garden clippings, paper towels, cacao shells and coffee grounds are sorted and composted on-site. This compost is mixed with coco coir to create the soil for the edible weeds, herbs and flowers we grow for our chocolate, tamales and tortillas.

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Our rooftop garden is 300 square feet and holds 60 self-watering container planters. We grow grow epazote, sorrel, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, spinach, mustard greens, kale, mint (5 different varieties) chives, cilantro, basil and lemon balm. To add extra beauty and to support urban pollinators we grow flowers such as borage, nasturtium, milkweed, sunflowers and calendulas.

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Each year we expand our operation to meet the growing demands for fresh produce and healthy soils. In 2016 alone we have increased the number of garden containers, added a second rain barrel to double our rainwater collection, and incorporated a tumbler composter into our vermicomposting soil-making project.

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The ChocoSoil project is an exploration of regenerative ecological gastronomy. Ecological gastronomy is when plants that are grown ecologically together also contribute to tasty food together. This garden ties our urban production facility with the cacao forest gardens of Mexico and the maize fields in rural Ontario. It provides a sustainable and creative model of how to grow and to appreciate food and soil in the urban landscape in a fun and tangible way!

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If you would like to learn how to get involved with ChocoSoil as a volunteer or student intern please contact our Lead ChocoSoil Animator Byron, at: byron@chocosoltraders.com

Cacao shells, the by-product of our bean to bar chocolate making process, can be used as a wonderful mulch for your garden. It is nutrient rich, prevents erosion, repels slugs and fully biodegrades into a valuable soil amendment. We love its bold aesthetic and its wonderful chocolate aroma!  Email byron@chocosoltraders.com for pricing and availability.

 





 

 Hello and Welcome to the ChocoSoil Blog!

May 22nd/2015

This is your destination to find out the latest on ChocoSol’s rooftop garden and worm composting research project, ChocoSoil! We will be sharing with you the ingredients that we are growing for our cacao and maize kitchens. Plus, get an up close and personal look at the worms – the engine of our soil-making operation! For now, let’s meet the team- our lead animator Byron and interns the ‘ChocoSoil Sistas’ 🙂

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image-2Byron: I love the challenge of composting and container gardening here at our St. Clair West facility. Transforming neglected urban areas into high density food gardens is an active and fun way to address our modern environmental challenges. ChocoSol has a unique opportunity to provide community based research on urban agriculture, and to demonstrate our potential in growing food and healthy soil. I’m excited to share this research with you!

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Madison: I had my first experience with Toronto based urban agriculture projects last year as an intern with Cultivate Toronto. I had an awesome growing season on a rooftop container garden in Regent Park and was able to make valuable connections within the Regent Park Farmers Market. I loved the experience of growing and connecting with others in the community. I was inspired to deepen my knowledge and completed the Master Organic Gardener course at The Stop through Gaia College. I learned about permaculture principles and holistic soil making practices. I was on the lookout for an environment where I could garden with similar values and feel that this is what I found and more at ChocoSoil. I am happy to be a part of this project and to share it with you! My true loves are dill and parsley.

photo-4Sarah: Growing up in BC, I always had a natural connection to nature. I looked up to mountains, lived by the sea, and helped my parents in their gardens. I moved to Toronto to learn how to protect and sustain those vital components to my happiness and well-being. Although I was studying the environment, I felt a lost of connection. It didn’t take me long to notice the momentum of the urban ag movement in Toronto and I knew that I had to get involved. I took the Gaia College Organic Master Gardener course, started volunteering at community garden days, and visited the farmers markets. These opportunities took place in amazing communities and through these experiences and my studies I gained a deeper knowledge and respect for community-based projects that are sustaining the Earth. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to work on the ChocoSoil research project and am looking forward to keeping our blog updated with our challenges and success!


Check back throughout the season to see what’s growing! For more info on ChocoSoil check out our website chocosoltraders.com/chocosoil. Reach out to Madison (madison@chocosoltraders.com) and Sarah (sarah@chocosoltraders.com) with any questions or fun and interesting things that you want to share with us! 

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ChocoSoil Blog #2 – Let’s Talk About Worms, Baby

Access to proper space, water, sunlight, fresh air and healthy soil can make growing food in cities very challenging. Urban farmers must therefore use innovative ways to maximize a city’s growing potential. Healthy soil plays a vital role in this issue, but is increasingly under threat from degradation, pollution and development. Container rooftop gardens have become a popular way to grow in the city, but requires the proper soil mix.

This blog focuses on the soil building practices that we use to grow some of our ingredients at ChocoSol. 2015 has been declared “Year of the Soils” by the United Nations so it’s a great opportunity to highlight how we are composting our kitchen scraps into high quality “ChocoSoil” with help from our worms!

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Red wigglers “the engine” of our composting system

We process the food and garden scraps, paper towel, cacao shells and coffee grinds using red wiggler worms (Eisenia fetida). This “vermicomposting” process produces nutrient dense worm castings. All compost is considered humus, a crucial ingredient for any soil mix. Not only does humus help with water retention for our soil, it provides our plants with nutrients and essential soil microbes, plus protects them from pathogens and harmful bacteria.

Vermicomposting fits under the “cradle to cradle” approach of handling waste at our facility. Cradle to cradle mimics nature’s efficient and waste free cycles, whereby our organics are not wasted but are processed back into compost and returned into our garden soil. We believe that this approach is essential to tackling Toronto’s waste issues. In 2014 alone our city produced 380,552 tonnes of waste, approximately half of which is organic material. Once landfilled the organics breakdown and produce methane, a significant greenhouse gas.

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Beautiful worm castings!

To set up a vermicomposting unit at home, remember that it is important to create a comfortable environment for your worms. Our system consists of 6 large plastic tubs with holes drilled into the sides and tops to ensure air flow. The bins are also kept in the shade to avoid overheating and drying out. According to Mary Applehof, self-described “Worm Woman” and author of Worms Eat My Garbage(1982), the ideal temperature for your bin is anywhere between 15-25°C., but they can survive in temperatures as low as 0°C and as high as 30°C. Make room inside and outside to enjoy composting year round!

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moist paper towel layer on top of bin
Moist paper towel layer on top of bin

Your bins must also have a balanced carbon and nitrogen ratio. Our carbon sources are paper towels, coffee cups and corn stalks, which also acts as an essential bedding layer to block light and fruit flies. Our nitrogen sources are the kitchen scraps and coffee grinds.

Ensure the worms stay happy by checking the temperature, moisture, acidity (pH levels), amount of food and airflow within your bin on a weekly basis.  Managing our project takes a small dedicated team (hi!), but most single-family vermicomposting systems take little maintenance since food can be added on a semi-regular basis.

Worm bins are just one of MANY great composting options – it works best for us because it’s relatively quick and doesn’t take up a lot of space. We process approximately 15 pounds of organic waste each week and since April we have harvested over 130 pounds of castings!

Please tweet us your pics and stories of your own composting adventures (@chocosoltraders) with the hashtag #worms4all.  If you have any questions about starting your own worm composting unit please email us! We can direct you to some great resources or give you some pointers from our own experiences.

ChocoSoil Blog #3 – Edible Weeds!

Weeds are often viewed as undesirable and unwanted plants in our gardens. After you read this blog you will hopefully come to realize that some weeds are not only edible but are also a great addition to urban gardens and your local diet.

At ChocoSol we recognize that edible weeds are a great asset for our local and eco-gastronomic production kitchen because they are resilient, easy to grow, nutrient dense, and have a significant culinary history both in Europe and the Americas. This growing season has been exciting!  We doubled our mint and lemon balm production and cultivated hardy leafy greens such as Lamb’s Quarters, Sorrel, Epazote, and Watercress for the first time. The next 2 blog posts will focus on our research and experiences cultivating these edible greens. This first post we’ll be taking a look at lamb’s quarters, mint and sorrel.

Lambs Quarters – Chenopodium album

Lambs Quarters (also known as Pigweed) is a prolific seed producer and has become one of the most abundant weeds in parks, roadsides, back alleys and backyard gardens across Canada. Although it may seem like a nuisance, lamb’s quarters is very nutritious – the leaves and seeds are great sources of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, iron, they also provide trace minerals, b-complex vitamins, vitamin C and fiber. The young upper leaves and flower can be eaten raw or cooked. You can continue to eat the tops even after flowering, making this a long lasting seasonal food.

During the middle ages in Rome, it was a popular wild vegetable and was used as spinach before it was cultivated and brought over to North America by the Europeans. Although not native to Canada, many indigenous peoples used it after it was brought over from Europe in horse feed during the gold rush. The Iroquois peoples poulticed it onto burns and the Ojobwa peoples used it in mush or bread.

Lamb's Quarters!
Lamb’s Quarters!

Because of its prolific seed production, all of the lamb’s quarters that we cultivated on our roof this summer came from sprouts that we discovered in our containers in May. As they sprouted voluntarily we transplanted them into two of our EarthBoxes and harvested them in a ‘cut and come again’ manner, waiting a week or 2 between harvests.

To our dismay the leaves on each plant seemed smaller than ones seen around the city. We suspect that it got a later start in the spring, and that its roots may not like the constant moisture it received while growing in the self-watering EarthBox container. Nonetheless, the leaves and seed heads were very tasty when served in our corn tortillas at markets!

Mint – Mentha

Koren Mint!
Koren mint has a black liquorice taste that pairs well with our tamales!

Mint has a rich and diverse history. In ancient Greece it was the main ingredient in the drink Kykeon which was served at the spring festival celebrated to awaken the fields, and the fall festival celebrated to put them to sleep. In ancient wedding rituals it was woven into the headdresses to wish them happiness and was also reported to have aphrodisiac properties.  Since the 1700s, mint has been cultivated for medicinal use, specifically for calming the digestive and respiratory system. It thrives in rich, moist soil and can be found flourishing near ditches, streams and meadows.The varieties that we are growing on the roof are Korean mint, Black Peppermint, Egyptian and Chocolate mint.

Egyptian Mint :)
Egyptian Mint 🙂

Anyone who has experience with growing mint in their garden knows it can be aggressive. Mint is an ideal addition to our rooftop because it is easy to grow, its growth is contained, and it enjoys the consistent moisture of the EarthBoxes. To provide them with additional shade, we intercropped them with with sunflowers, squash, zinnia, lemon balm, and borage. This summer we have used the mint in our tortilla and tamale masa, in our eating and drinking chocolate, and cold tea brews.

Black Peppermint!
Black Peppermint!

Sorrel – Rumex acetosa

Sorrel (also known as sour dock) is a common weed found in grassy Europe and North American fields, meadows and pastures. In the wild it can be a sign of poor soil conditions, and is often found on roadsides and sandy soils. It is thought to originate in Asia but is found growing as a perennial across North America and Europe. It has a high vitamin C content and was once thought to cure scurvy.

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Sorrel bursting from the EarthBox!

We started the sorrel seeds under our grow lights in late March and transplanted them in 5 EarthBoxes. We planted some in organized rows and scattered planted the rest. This seemed to be a better fit because its leaves were able to leaves were able to spread out more comfortably. It grew quickly in the full sun on the southeast corner of our roof top, and reacted positively to being harvested in a ‘cut and come again’ manner. After each harvest it grew back quickly and produced a lot of seeds that we will save for next year. Our customers love the tangy taste that it gives to our corn tortillas!

ChocoSoil Blog #4 – More Edible Weeds!

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

IMG_20150612_101321Watercress is an aquatic plant that thrives in moisture-rich environments such as alongside streams and ponds. It can be found growing in Europe and West Asia and was brought to North America with the arrival of European immigrants. In ancient times it was a popular vegetable for its flavour and medicinal properties, and in mid-16th century it was cultivated in Germany where it was often used to treat coughs and bronchitis.

Watercress can be cooked or eaten raw, and is a source of beta carotene, iron, calcium, Vitamin C, bioflavonoids, Vitamin E, B1, B2. When cooked it is a good diuretic and also has positive effects on the respiratory systems, kidneys and heart through relieving fluid tension. For these reasons it has been used across many cultures to cure colds and fevers.

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Our watercress seeds were started indoors in mid april and transplanted into a single earthbox in mid-may. We planted it alone because it spreads out low to the soil and intertwines into a thick clump. To harvest we simply pinched off stems and leaves in a “cut-and-come-again” manner. They were used in our masa and beans for our tortilla project. It did not flourish as well as we had hoped since it remained small and dry. We believe this is because the environment of the earth boxes was not moist enough for the plant. While there is a constant storage of water it is not a constant stream of moisture which the plant thrives on in the wild.

Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides)

IMG_20150708_161921Indigenous to Mexico and cultivated throughout Mesoamerica, Epazote grows wild in hot, dry and relatively poor soil conditions. It usually grows to be between 3-5 ft tall with strong-scented leaves 2-4 inches long.

This edible weed has many medicinal and nutritional benefits, but it can be detrimental in large quantities. Making a tea is a good way to get the nutrients from the plant, and can be especially helpful in treating parasites. Epazote helps to reduce gas, so it’s great to eat with beans 🙂 We add it to our mole recipes and to our tortillas.

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We sowed epazote indoors in mid April and transplanted them in late May outdoors into two earthboxes. We felt the plants never reached their full growing potential as the plant and leaves were smaller than expected. The flavour was still strong and was a tasty addition to our tortillas. The reason the plants were spindly may have been that the dry-loving plants did not react well to living in a self-watering container where moisture is constant. When we allowed the water levels in the EarthBox to drop, the epazote started to do better. We have saved some seeds for next year and are hoping that the plant will eventually acclimatize to our rooftop environment.

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