Black Friday Book Suggestions

While we don’t much approve of all the self-referential Black Friday hoopla each year, the fact is that it is difficult to get through this season without buy something for someone, and books make great presents, especially for do-it-yourselfer types. With that in mind, here’s a round-up of our favorite books of the year:


Wild Drinks & Cocktails: Handcrafted Squashes, Shrubs, Switchels, Tonics, and Infusions to Mix at Home by Emily Han.

Emily visited us on our podcast just a couple of weeks ago.  Wild Drinks is a really fun book which teaches you how to wildcraft both fancy artisanal cocktails and unusual non-alcoholic drinks like shrubs and switchels. Her emphasis is on foraged ingredients, but she also works with ingredients which might be foraged at the grocery store or farmers’ market. An excellent choice for the budding mixologist  or herbalist in your life, as well as anyone interested in unusual, healthful drinks.  (Kelly)

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action by Per Epsen Stoknes.

Does anybody really want to get a climate change book for Christmas? Happy happy holidays!!!!  Santa’s Workshop is flooding! On the other hand, this might be the best gift you could give the downcast environmentalist or resigned doomer on your list. Here’s my review. (Kelly)

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

At this point, what more can we say? Many of you followed along as we decluttered using this book as a guide. (Here’s our original review and here’s a link to the whole series of posts inspired by this book.) In the meanwhile, this book became a bit of a media phenomenon in the U.S.. I’d go so far as to say that this has been a KonMarie kind of year, and decluttering has become a buzzword and a lifestyle. Hype aside, we liked this book more than others of the genre, and it helped us. However, decluttering is not a single event, but a way of life so I’m afraid we already need another round of tidying in our house. .. (Kelly)

Planting in a Post Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

Of course this book is on the list! We’re talking about it right now on the blog as a part of our garden redesign series, so I won’t repeat myself here, except to say this my favorite new landscape design book. For the thoughtful gardeners in your life. (Kelly)


The Essential Oil Maker’s Handbook: Extracting, Distilling and Enjoying Plant Essenses by Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl.
The Artisinal Vinegar Maker’s Handbook: Crafting Quality Vinegars–Fermenting, Distilling, Infusing
by Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl.

The two books above, The Essential Oil Maker’s Handbook and The Vinegar Maker’s Handbook are both by the same authors and press. I’ve not reviewed them for the blog yet. I’m hard on “how-to” books — the projects have to work, and the project steps have to be clear and easy to follow, with no gaps in the steps or assumed knowledge. The only way to know if this is true of any book is to do several projects in each book to find out, and I haven’t had the time to delve into these two books yet–to actually try one of their projects.

However, I don’t want to pass them by in this roundup, because they make a good first inspection. They look and feel like AP chemistry text books–and I mean that in a good way! They are sturdy hardbacks with lots of pictures, step by step instructions and detailed reference charts.  They’re pretty intense in their obsession with detail–a world away from your usual lightweight “10 Quick n’ Easy Projects” type of books.

They strike me as books for a craftsperson ready to take that next step toward making these products as a home business. Malle and Schmickl are scientists–stern Austrian scientists, no less– and they are all about consistency and professional practice. So these books mean to take you from being someone a casual dabbler to a home chemist who could make batches of vinegar or essential oil with consistent, predictable –saleable–results.

I’d say the vinegar book would be good for someone who has already made some vinegar, perhaps in a more intuitive manner, a la Sandor Katz, and wants to make larger batches for gifts or sale, and is ready to really delve into the serious science of vinegar culture.

The essential oil book covers not just essential oil, but also some other basic perfume techniques, like enfleurage, and recipes for beauty products to make with your essential oils and hydrosols.  FYI: you need a still to make essential oil, and stills ain’t cheap–so gifting this book could lead to future expenses! They discuss different sorts of stills you could make or buy. They sell their own stills and mention them. This did raise a flag for me, but it’s not obnoxiously done, and they do give alternatives. (Kelly)

Microshelters: 59 Creative Cabins, Tiny Houses, Tree Houses, and Other Small Structures by Derek “Deek” Diedricksen.

If your tiny house seems like a mansion this book is for you. “Deek” is a master of re-purposing junk into cute micro-structures. There’s 59 great examples for inspiration and a couple of detailed plans in the back of the book. If you’d like to build a “thoughtstyling” shed or small outbuilding to escape the pressures of the main house Deek has you covered. This tome was worth it just to discover the PLB formula: pillow, lamp, books. Add those three things and a cardboard box will seem like a home. (Erik)

One Straw Revolutionary: The Philosophy and Work of Masanobu Fukuoka by Larry Korn.

Korn worked on Fukuoka’s farm in the 1970s and went on to work as his translator. We interviewed Korn at length on episode 64 of of our podcast. Fukuoka’s ideas can be quite challenging to wrap your head around and this book serves as a great introduction. (Erik)


Guerilla Furniture Design: How to Build Lean, Modern Furniture with Salvaged Materials by Will Holman.

Holman plays with our waste stream to craft handsome and easy to build furniture. This book reminds me of classic 60s and 70s DIY furniture manuals such as Victor Papanek’s Nomadic Furniture. Holman was our guest on episode 55 of our podcast. (Erik)


Josey Baker Bread: Get Baking-Make Awesome Bread-Share the Loaves
by Josey Baker.

When folks ask me how to learn how to bake bread I send them to Josey Baker. As a former science educator, Baker is the idea person to write a baking cookbook. The recipes go from easy to more challenging and if you work your way through the book you really will make awesome bread. The book also captures Josey’s infectious enthusiasm. I don’t think he’s physically capable of frowning. (Erik)


The following two books are just out. We haven’t seen them yet, but can hardly wait to get our hands on them. They were both written by friends, and we know they’ll be great:

The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir by Pascal Baudar.

Pascal and his partner Mia Wasilevich are rock stars of the local foraging scene. What they do with foraged ingredients is breathtaking. I can’t wait to see this book. (Erik)

Save the Bees with Natural Backyard Hives: The Easy and Treatment-Free Way to Attract and Keep Healthy Bees by Rob and Chelsea McFarland.

Rob and Chelsea are the dynamic founders of and are responsible for getting beekeeping legalized in Los Angeles. They are also proponents of treatment-free beekeeping and I’m looking forward to reading their take on this contentious method. (Erik)

Our hypocrisy revealed


(Well, one of our hypocrisies.)

We make snarky comments  all the time about the new trend toward horizontal fencing in our neighborhood– what we call “flipper fences.” We’ve talked about flipper fences at least once on this blog, probably more, and anyone who hangs out with us has heard the term from us too many times.

To us, these fences are symbols of gentrification. The appearance of one in front of an old house is a sure sign the interior has undergone a rough-n’-ready “Dwell” style modern makeover inside, and the house is about to be re-sold at a 100k mark-up.

Yet when it came time to finally install a handrail on our staircase (just in time for the holidays, to appease our family, who for some reason find our treacherous staircase problematic) we discovered that arranging the boards horizontally worked best.

In short, due to a combination of laziness and skill deficiency and general expediency (the usual deciding factors in our design decisions) we’re constructing our very own flipper fence.


Josey Baker on Bread: Whole, Wild, Wet, Slow and Bold


You can make bread or babies with Josey Baker’s advice. Earlier this month, the bread cult I co-founded, the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, hosted a class by author and enthusiastic bread nerd Josey Baker. Baker and his mentor Dave Miller (yes, they do have oddly appropriate surnames) have developed a style of baking that Josey has turned into set of five principles, a kind of Kama Sutra of bread: whole, wild, wet, slow and bold. Let’s get funky and break that down.

To make white flour, all the good stuff in wheat is sifted out, leaving it lifeless. Even “whole wheat” breads are made with a significant proportion of white flour. It’s been this way now for a long time. White flour, once the exclusive domain of the elite became, in the 20th century, the ubiquitous loaf of Wonder Bread many of us grew up with.

And what about that whole grain flour at the supermarket? Imagine if the only wine available in stores was wine-in-a-box, and it came in two flavors, “white” and “red.” This would be a sad world. Well, our whole grain flour choices are actually worse: there’s only one kind sold in supermarkets. Despite appearances, though, there’s actually a whole wide world of biodiversity and flavor to be found in wheat, varieties such as Kamut, Sonora, Charcoal, Triple IV, Einkorn and Red Fife, to name just a few. All are radically different in terms of color, texture and flavor. It really is analogous to wine varietals. Both Baker and Miller take advantage of grain diversity by working with farmers, milling their own flour and creating 100% whole-wheat loaves that highlight the flavor differences between wheat varieties. We’re very lucky in Los Angeles to have a retail mill, Grist & Toll, that sells many different varieties of fresh ground flour and whole grain. But, for those of you not in SoCal, check the interwebs for local millers or mail-order sources for flour and whole grains.

The wild refers to wild yeast, as in sourdough or “levain” in French. For me the best thing about working with wild yeast is that the bread has a more interesting, pronounced flavor. Another big advantage is that, due to the lactic acid producing bacteria in wild bread cultures, your bread will last a lot longer–up to a week in my experience. Lastly, though it hasn’t yet been proven, there may be some health advantages to wild starters. The lactic acid bacterias might make bread more digestible.

Both Baker and Miller mix up doughs that are surprisingly wet. Whole grain soaks up a lot of water to begin with, but both Baker and Miller push that wetness to very high hydration levels: sometimes in the neighborhood of 120% hydration if you’re keeping score. (N.B. Hydration level refers to the ratio of water to flour by weight: 100 grams of flour mixed with 100 grams of water = 100% hydration)  A big advantage of wet dough is that you don’t need to knead it. The gluten strands align on their own in the wet dough matrix. You still have to do some stretching and folding to help the gluten alignment process along, but you don’t have anything that resembles traditional kneading. Very wet doughs have the disadvantage of being difficult to turn into hearth loaves. Dave Miller overcomes this by his almost supernatural ability to shape dough. It’s almost like he can just stare at a pile of what looks like pancake batter and miraculously turn it into neat little boules. Baker had a great tip for those of us not as adept at forming loaves out of wet dough: just bake your bread in a loaf pan. Problem solved! I’ve been doing a lot lately.

The refrigerator is your friend. Doing some part of the fermentation in the fridge lengthens the fermentation time and helps develop more pronounced flavors. It also allows greater flexibility in your baking schedule. Got to go to work? Pick up the kids? No problem. Put that dough in the fridge. Baker likes to do the bulk fermentation (e.g. the first fermentation) at room temperature, shape the loaves, and then proof them in the fridge. They can then come straight out of the fridge and into the oven. Miller, due to some quirks in his schedule, likes to do the latter part of the bulk fermentation in the fridge, shape the loaves and then proof them at room temperature. One advantage with Miller’s approach is that cold dough is easier to shape. Personally, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I’ve had more luck with bulk fermentation at room temperature and proofing in the fridge.

One of the biggest mistakes newbie bakers make is puling their loaves out of the oven before the bread is really, truly done.  Both Miller and Baker leave their loaves in the oven until they are almost burnt. The reasons are multiple. Take the loaf out too soon and, particularly with whole grain breads, the crust will be too soft. Another reason is that Miller contends that the sort of whole grain breads you buy at the supermarket are under-baked. Poke the center of those commercial breads and the texture is often like play dough. Plus, I’d say, those boldly baked loaves are pretty.

Josey Baker’s formula is simple: find an interesting grain, ferment it with a sourdough starter with a lot of water, use the refrigerator to your advantage and bake it to the edge of being burnt. The details of this process will be the subject of future posts.

Our new front yard, part 4: a digression on the new paradigm


Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1500

A couple of comments have come in on my last post remarking that this way of designing a yard (inspired by Planting in a Post-Wild World) seems really complex. And I’d say to that, it is! And yes, it’s kind of a pain to figure out. But (fingers crossed) I think it is a worthwhile thing to do.

What I’m talking about here is moving from seeing our yards as outdoor rooms, and our plants as furniture to be arranged and re-arranged at a whim. Instead, I’m talking about seeing our yards as communities, or as systems. You can pull a chair out of a living room, or paint the walls a new color one day, and these changes won’t effect the the other furniture. In a living system or community, though, changes to parts of the community ripple through the whole community.

I used to buy plants to suit my needs. These needs came in two general categories. The first was the need to fulfill a limited function: “I need a bush over there to hide that section of fence.”  The second was acquisitive lust: “That plant is beautiful.  I’m going to buy it and find some place to put it.”

Both of these ways of thinking are, to go back to the first simile, very much like doing interior design. I need a curtain for this window. I found a great clock at a swap meet, and now I need to fit it into the living room. In approaching planting this way, I’m pretending that plants are inanimate objects subject to my will, and I am placing my needs ahead of theirs.

Sometimes this approach “works” and the yard looks good. What this means is that I make some right calls and the plants play along. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and the plant dies, or fails to thrive, or conversely, grows unexpectedly large and tries to take over the yard. When this happens, I cast blame around, against myself for being a poor gardener, against the soil, against the drought, against the nursery which sold the plant, against the plant itself. In all cases, though, I’m considering the plant as an isolated individual, and I’m evaluating its success or failure in myopic terms.

Now, I’m not a botanist or any other kind of “ist” and I sometimes I suspect all I know about plants would fit in a thimble. Yet I don’t think that the point of viewing the yard as a system means that I have to understand the intricacies of how the system works–I just have to respect it. That’s why I prefer the term “plant community.”

System implies something we could pick apart using logic. Community is more mysterious–it gives agency to the plants. In other words, they are doing their own thing, they have their secrets, their alliances and their agendas– and I, twitchy, chatty primate that I am, can only understand a little of what goes on in their elegant, sessile world.

If I’ve learned anything recently, from books like Planting, from talking to Masanobu Fukuoka’s student Larry Korn, and from hearing Suzanne Simard speak, from studying the aboriginal idea of the kinship of all things is that we should be humble before plants. As Fukuoko-san said, we know nothing. Starting from a place of humility, I’m trying to find a new path. I’m trying to develop a new relationship with plants, and as a result, a new approach to landscaping. This is the path of the post-wild.

New paths often run rough. Meanwhile, the lawn n’ shrub is a path worn into smoothness. In fact, it is a rut.

So yes, learning to view the yard as a community takes some mind stretching and extra work. We are changing the lens by which we view our relationship to the natural world. (Dare I say we are becoming wise?)

This is work, but it is rewarding, because as we engage with this process, we realize that we’re a part of the community, too.  Instead of being a petty overlord, mowing and blowing the world into submission, we are partnering with the life in the yard to make the world a better place. Re-connection with nature is its own reward, because lets face it, it’s lonely being a despot.

068 Planting a Post-Wild Garden

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This week I interview Kelly about the ideas behind the remake of our front yard. We talk about why we took out a bunch of stone fruit trees and Kelly discusses how the principles in Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s book Planting in a Post-Wild World  inspired the new design of our yard.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.