Third time is a charm

Photo credit: Alex Pritz

This week I went to La Tohu/ Complex Environmental Saint-Michel area for the third time in 2 months. This time was great with beautiful sun shinning. It was wonderful because our survey respondent already had all of the survey filled-out, I got to take a walk and see the “famous” composting piles, and we also got some footage for our Montreal Ecosystems at your Service project so that we can interview another person at the center about their environmental education activities.

No luck on getting meetings with the larger farms this week, but I am hoping we will be more successful next week to get scheduled meetings before the end of June (even though the next two Mondays are holidays). Still, we are slowly but surely getting some meetings with individual gardeners and community gardens. I am now dropping off paper surveys with explanation letters at the doors of people with front-yard vegetable gardens, and I am also disseminating the call for survey participation through facebook and other listservs to try and get more respondents.

Still in that holding pattern but I know its probably the calm before the storm (a good storm of data that is)……


In a holding pattern


IMG_3415 Cherries starting to rippen on the tree and strawberries almost ready for picking.

Although I do have at least an interview a week to do the survey, I feel like I am in a holding pattern with data collection.

The vast majority of actors I want to do the survey with have been contacted and for the most part agreed to take the survey, but or the data is incomplete or I am still waiting on getting a firm scheduled date (or people cancel (for good reason) and need to reschedule).

I don’t want to harass actors that have agreed to participate, but at this rate august and september might be extremely busy with follow-up meetings to finish started surveys, as well as first-time meetings with organisations and individuals who agreed to do the survey at the beginning of the summer. We are definitely in “summer mode” with gardens starting to produce lovely fruit, but I don’t yet feel like my research is bearing fruit.

Although I know I am trying to get surveys answered in the summer, which is everyones busy time in UA, the alternative, the winter, was not a great option as the data I am collecting will not be fresh in the memory of actors. It seems to be a fine line between sending a friendly reminder and seeming pushy. I want to tread carefully…..

Thankfully its not like I don’t have other work to do while I wait a bit to recontact relevant actors. My lab just launched a new website today about Montreal’s ecosystems at your service and I have been busy writing posts about some of the other benefits of UA other than just my normal P cycle questions. I have also been working on a guest lecture about P sustainability and an other talk in french to explain my project to gardeners at one of the organisations I surveyed. I also met a journalist today who would like to do a little piece about my P research that would appeal to a horticulture crowd.  I am happy to have an opportunity to do some science communication for different audiences and in different languages.

Some lovely garlic in a surveyed garden.
A community garden looking quite green and filling out.

Coming to Montreal: more UA including aquaponics!

IMG_3409Through my surveys (and also through talking to people at UA events) I can say that aquaponics (so merging aquaculture (animals) with hydroponics (plants) is gaining traction in Montreal. Tilapia and lettuce year round are in!!!

When I visited one of the local UA actors, he informed me that Violons et Champignons were going to help their center install a 1000l tank to raise some tilapia (or catfish) and grow lettuce year round. The motivations for this Montreal organization are both educational (they a community center for a lot of local youth and do kindergarten all the way up to high school activities) and food security (they work with food backs and they often lack greens so the aquaponic lettuce will come supplement the baskets). If this pilot goes well, they have plans to help local schools get smaller units.

Violons et Champignons sell mushroom kits for home (inside or out) and do a lot of conferences and activities to teach people about the benefits of fungi for gardens (and ecosystems in general). They also do aquaponic systems.  I really appreciate the idea of regaining understanding of food production and agriculture as an ecosystem, and the missing link for the public is with the recycling of “waste” through decomposition back in to viable inputs (like P).  I think aquaponics is definitely a great of learning about ecosystems and nutrient cycling in food production.

One can’t keep up with all trends in UA (on the ground or in the literature I am finding out, because projects and publications are growing exponentially) but aquaponics seems to be on the up and up. In addition, the city of Montreal is also moving forward with its “permanent committee” on UA and launched a website at a 5 à 7 I went to this week. I also went to a Quebec Solidaire conference on UA (so provincial political parties seem to be taking an interest). Someone also shared a recent article through twitter about the importance of UA in social and ecological resilience of cities (which was nice because I am always looking for research that bridges social and environmental assessments through ecological and system theories). Lots happening every week it seems. I am even learning of new gardens pop-in up that I should probably go survey.

Visit of the complexe environemental Saint-Michel

You win some, you loose some. Not everything you do to “collect” data has equal value. Because I want to quantify P in solid waste and know where that P goes (recycled, exported, landfilled) I called to schedule both a meeting with someone responsible for composting and organic waste at the city, as well as a visit of the complex that takes care of the largest volume of compost in the city. I scheduled the tour because the city representative I communicated with suggested it. Although the tour was a well organized and pleasant, we never visited the compost facility and I didn’t get anything out of the visit for my data collection.

Still, the complexe environemental Saint-Michel has a very interesting history. It was a limestone mine and cement factory right in the middle of the city, then it was a landfill (because there was a big whole to fill!). Now it treats compost and sorts recyclable materials and the larger part of the site is being converted into a public park set to open in 2020. The development of the site as a park is in many ways trying to make up for the pollution (in many forms) the neighborhood surrounding the site has had to endure over the past 60 or so years. The park will become one of the biggest in the city. The recycling center is supposed to stay, and a new compost facility has been planned for 2015 (to help Montreal meet the Quebec Government requirement for 80% of organic waste diversion away from landfills). Unfortunately (from my P perspective) plans for the compost facility have been received with a lot of resistance from surrounding residents (but somewhat understandable considering the history of the area).


this is not the compost from the Complexe Saint-Michel (as I didn’t get to see it), but its still Montreal compost.

Weekly recap: 3 surveys

This week I administered surveys to three very different actors: a business garden, a set of collective gardens, and then solid organic-waste experts. My objective is to do 4 surveys a week (not including business, commercial farms, community, or individual private gardens as I do those surveys with my field assistants). I haven’t been progressing at the speed set on my original time table but at least I do have meetings every week (which is better than nothing).

First, we were invited to the opening of the business garden so it was buzzing with people adding new soil and compost mixes and looking at planting plans to manage each plot to its full potential. As with some of the other gardens I have surveyed, the contact person will need to send me some of the survey information by email, but seems interested in the project as she asked if I could share the results from their garden and the whole study when it is ready. One missing piece of the data puzzle: they do not know the amount of organic waste they produce, and have had problems with compost production and thus not currently able to reuse their “waste” in the garden. This missing data  piece (and this issue of compost production) has come up the vast majority of the surveys I have administered up until now. I will most likely need to rely on estimates and come up with some robust (well justifiable) assumptions about organic waste management at the garden level.

IMG_3387Second, I spoke to the horticultural specialist for a set of collective gardens (and as I learnt in the meeting 13 other gardens in another “arrondisement” I also wanted to talk to him about) for different organizations in the same area. The meeting was nice, I measured one of the gardens, but ultimately each separate organization is responsible for buying inputs and thus I still need to continue to contact them individually to get the surveys filled out. (I will probably need to go in person and measure the gardens for the 4 other organizations).

IMG_3391Third, I met with two city employees who knew about  how the city manages their organic solid waste. I had read the public city reports about waste management, but I wanted to verify with them if I fully understood what the data meant and if I was missing other relevant pieces of the puzzle. They were extremely helpful, coming ready with both numbers to share, and a clear explanation what these numbers covered and management reasons why these were the numbers availability. They will be emailing me some additional numbers, and a report so that I can finish my estimates for organic waste flows on the island. Although I came in with survey questions to ask, which they had also received a copy in advance, the flow of the conversation (and thus the information) did not really fit into those boxes. I still have all the information that the survey would have gotten at, but I need to reorganize it from my notes into excel to then be able to “translate” everything into P.

Little break in NYC

IMG_3334 This is an unscheduled post as I was in New York City for a few days at the end of May, and although it related to my PhD work (and thus P cycling in cities), its not about data collection on urban agriculture.

I felt like New York was Montreal on steroids: Denser, bigger, more diverse, just more of everything.  I has only in town for 2 days but I got to walk around, explore East Village, see the MOMA, see a Broadway show, and eat great vegan food (and do some great collaborative work on the importance of local context in urban P cycling). I spotted a few “secret gardens” in East Village that looked quite interesting, and if I would have had an extra day I would have gone to visit Brooklyn Grange Farm.


I have thought of using New York as a comparison city to Montreal as they are both islands, fairly dense and in a similar climate zone, and lots of exciting UA projects. Also, there are some great existing data from the Farming Concrete project at Cornell University. Still, the amazing density of NYC makes me wonder if UA in big cities merits as much attention as UA in small or mid-sized cities with more land, and peri-urban and rural-urban agricultural partnerships in terms of nutrient recycling. UA definitely has a role to play quantitatively but perhaps more importantly qualitatively in terms of citizen and government understanding of the food system and thus their actions with regards to “non-urban” agriculture, inputs, and waste in the food system they depend on. My current research questions will not get at the core of the role of UA in nutrient recycling if the qualitative is more important than the quantitative. I think this is ok though considering we have so few quantitative data on the role of UA and still have so much to learn about urban ecosystems and how we can manage more sustainably from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective.

Although I don’t know what my actual comparison cities will be yet (if any), my trip to New York got me thinking about the role of my small research questions in the large context of comparing urban ecosystems and the role UA does and could play in the future of cities.


P.S.: NYC also makes me feel good about the cost of living in Montreal, especially apartments.

First business garden meetings

We had the opportunity to interview two gardens located at local businesses in one day; and I have to say they were both super helpful and organized.  The people we surveyed were really easy to talk to, responsive to our questions, and seemed genuinely interested in helping with the project. I have to follow-up with them by email because they needed to gather some missing information from suppliers and gardeners but at least they knew who they needed to talk to and were willing to share the information when they got it.

We tried the tablet again, but it was not a great success. It is just too slow if you don’t use the full computer keyboard (so not really an effective tablet). It is disappointing, but the computer with the SIM card is still a useful tool for all the interviews we do inside as we can type directly into the online survey. The purchase is not a complete waste (thank god). Still, when using the computer to input responses during the survey, I find myself needing to sit down with the answers afterwards, and review and complete them. For example, when we took a tour of one of the roof-top gardens, we were not longer “filling-out” the survey but still getting general information about the garden. We talked about who uses the garden and it seemed like a good idea to add all that the information into the “supplemental information” section of the survey questions. I thus had to go back into the survey answers and add information.

In between the two business garden meetings, I went to the launch of the new Agriculture Montreal web platform. I was able to do one private garden survey and schedule two other surveys. All and all a pretty productive day.