Like a lot of the agricultural duties around our urban homestead, composting requires time and initiative. Unfortunately both our garden and our energy level are at a low point, both sapped by the record breaking heat – anyone see Al Gore’s movie? The result of this lack of effort has been the maggot party currently going on in our compost pile.

The best compostin’ revolutionary I ever met, photographer Becky Cohen maintained a three pile system contained in bins she made out of scrap lumber. When the first bin would fill up, Becky would transfer the contents to the next bin, thus aerating the pile and creating room for additional materials. This aeration, combined with making sure to keep the pile moist produced a hot pile that kept the pests away and produced a high quality compost in a relatively short period of time – a few months. You can find instructions on how to build this type of compost system with used pallets on this web site.

Other composting systems include the lazy person’s single plastic bin, which you can make out of a garbage can, or you can buy a specialized composting bin. This is what we use around the Survive LA compound. The process is simple – put compostable materials (no meat, fish or oils!) into the bin, keep it moist but not wet, and wait a year. Also remember not to put weeds in the pile as the seeds can spread to wherever you use the compost. To speed up the decomposition process in a single pile composter, you can remove the compost contents, mix them up with a pitchfork, and put them back in the pile. Our composter is bottomless, so the soil underneath the bin gets fertilized as the compost decomposes, so when we move the pile the previous spot becomes a fertile new planting area.

There are also expensive tumblers, that rotate the compost in a large barrel. We’ve never tried one of these things and reviews that we’ve seen are mixed.

With any compost pile it’s best to maintain a 50-50 ratio of carbon material to nitrogen materials. Carbon materials are essentially everything that is brown, like dead leaves, sawdust and dry grass. Nitrogen materials include fruit, vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. The type of pile you construct depends upon the materials you have available to compost. Becky had lots of grass and leaves on a fairly large piece of property and the three pile system seemed the best to deal with a large amount of materials. We purchased our bin from the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation which hosts informative workshops where you can purchase a plastic compost bin for half price. The workshops are held at the Griffith Park Composting Education Facility.

The compost bin should be easily accessible from the kitchen, but far enough away so that compost problems, like smells and rodents don’t migrate to living quarters. Our pile is located too far from the kitchen, so in our laziness stinky piles of rotting fruits and vegetables often gather on the kitchen counter.

The presence of maggots in our pile indicates that we have an overabundance of kitchen scraps and a pile that is not hot enough. Turning the pile – much easier to do in the three pile system, increases the temperature and kills off the larvae. Another option is to put the kitchen scraps in a worm composter and use the big outdoor compost pile for leaves and other materials that flys are not attracted to. Worm composting is the best option for apartment dwellers.

But let’s get to the real reason we’ve brought up the topic of maggots. It’s really just to mention an exotic cheese from the island of Sardinia called formaggio con vermini, a pecorino cheese infested with live maggots. It’s apparently somewhat of a macho thing to eat this stuff and connoisseur insist that the maggots be active and wiggling. Like compost, cheese is a living system and formaggio con vermini may be the ultimate expression of life expressed in a food. Americans, unfortunately, both in their choice of presidents and their eating habits reject such exuberant expression of life. The French marketing guru Clotaire Rapille made this observation about how to sell cheese to Americans:

“In America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge. I know the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is the way you market cheese in America.”

Paradoxically the life in the compost pile – the unwanted maggots- are there because we neglected our duties and treated the pile as a morgue for our unwanted food scraps, without properly aerating it, without giving the pile water and attention.

SurviveLA Food Review: Mary Jane’s Farm Organic Buttery Herb Pasta

This guest review from one of the SurviveLA compound sistas, is the first in a look at long term food storage options. Freeze dried food like this is marketed both towards backpackers and holed-up-in-the-bunker paranoid types. Exceptionally long shelf life makes freeze dried food a good, though expensive, option for your emergency pantry.

Field Tested July 22, 2006 on Mt. Silliman

The name of this dehydrated entree is somewhat misleading. It is in fact a form of your classic boxed mac n’ cheese: elbow pasta in cheesy powder sauce, only sans the bright orange coloring. It is good, being similar to the upscale Annie’s Mac & Cheese. Maybe Annie and Mary Jane smoke pot together somewhere in OrganicVille?

I did not notice the herb flavoring, and did not miss it, because I find when you are exhausted and camping at 10,000 feet your palette is not as adventurous as it might be ordinarily. This is comfort food, and works very well in that capacity.

That said, it is ripe for doctoring, because it is so very basic. I brought along a handful of chopped sun-dried tomatoes from the SurviveLA gardens (and dehydrated in the compound’s solar dehydrator – more on that in a future post), and that added the perfect amount of interest. Nuts, canned tuna, fresh veggies if you wanted to carry them, all would work well too.

You cook this entree in its own bag (a paper bag instead of a foil pouch, which is nice). All you do is add 3/4 cup of boiling water, reseal the bag and wait for ten minutes. I used a Pepsi can stove to boil the water, incidentally. It cooked well, with only a couple of the elbow noodles escaping hydrating and ending as crunchy surprises on my fork.

The pouch claims that it holds 1.5 servings: a Mary Jane’s Organics eccentricity. I scarfed the whole thing down without difficulty and I’m a girl. I think Mary Jane intends us to buy more than one dish and share them on plates like civilized beings, rather than selfishly wolfing them out of the bag. Oh well.

Worm Composting

Today’s tip comes from neo-country singer and South Pasadena-by-way-of-Texas resident Corey Travis (web site under development). Corey brings up the topic of worm composting, suggesting a book called “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary “Worm Woman” Applehof. Now we haven’t read this book, but having tried worm composting you will definitely need some advice either from the “internets” or from a book.

We tried worm composting here in the compound garden a few years ago and found the process somewhat difficult. Unlike our present lazy composting methods, worm composting requires a certain amount of time and effort. When you start a worm composting system you are acquiring pets – worm pets, that need just the right amount of water (too much and they’ll drown, too little and they will be unhappy), and food (if all your meals are at In and Out Burger they won’t get enough grub or if you are some kind of hippie vegan they won’t be able to keep up with the waste). You must also sift and separate the worm casings from the worms themselves from time to time. One advantage to worm composting is that you can theoretically locate the worms under your sink, providing a close destination for disposing of your kitchen scraps. However, you can find yourself with unpleasant smells and fruit flies if you add too many scraps for the little buggers to digest. We had problems maintaining the correct moisture level in the bin and ended up drowning a bunch of the hapless critters when we accidentally left the worm composter out in the rain. In the end we released our worms into our large compost pile, where they live very happily, occasionally humming the tune “Born Free.”

There’s been some grumbling that SuriviveLA has not offered any advice to our apartment livin’ brothers and sisters. Worm composting is an excellent an option for apartment dwellers looking to recycle their kitchen scraps. The whole set up is isolated in a plastic bin which can live in the kitchen or in a cool, shady spot on the balcony. The worm castings (poop, if you will) are odorless and make an outstanding fertilizer that you can use on your own potted plants or give to friends with gardens. Believe us, they will be very happy with your gift of worm poop. Do not let SurviveLA’s failure discourage you from giving this excellent technology a try. Just be sure to study up on it first.


A neighbor stopped me while I was walking the dog last night to tell me that they had an intruder the night before who crept around the house Manson family style but did not steal anything. This comes a week after another neighbor found some crackhead in their side yard. Now before having a yuppie-style freakout here, it’s important to note that Los Angeles’ crime rate is down significantly since the early 90s and is much lower than many other large cities in America. In fact the crime rate in LA is on a par with Denver and nowhere near the high rates of cities like Detroit and Washington D.C. But while we ain’t the gun-toting survivalist types here at the Homegrown Evolution homestead, we do have a security system. It’s a security system developed in the 19th century by tax collector and dog pound proprietor Louis Dobermann – the notorious Doberman Pincher.

Last popular with coke dealing pimps and players in the late 1970s, Dobermans are powerful, fast, hyperactive, and combine occasional bad-assness with extreme sensitivity. Our Doberman, “Spike” a.k.a “Dieter”, has a bark so loud that it vibrates our poorly constructed compound and his hackles go up at the drop of a hat, or the visit of the particularly hated UPS deliveryman. At the same time, fireworks and sprinklers can send him cowering. Now, we strongly advice against running out and getting any kind of big protection dog. So-called “working dogs” like Dobermans and Rottweillers require a tremendous amount of training and are a great responsibility. We would have been in big trouble raising this beast without the assistance of a friend who is an experienced dog trainer and dog show handler. That being said, things feel pretty secure around here with a 95 pound Doberman and his presence seems worth it despite those moments when we find ourselves dealing with the smelly results of the annual backyard skunk hunting season.

So here’s the SurviveLA home security advice. First of all don’t own anything valuable. Get all your stuff at thrift stores and, like the Buddha, lose your attachment to material things. If you decide to get a dog, make sure that you have the time to invest in obedience training. And I don’t mean shipping them off to some overpriced con-man who charges thousands of dollars to train your “dangerous” dog. You, the owner, are the one that actually needs the training. You must be the one to learn to handle and communicate with the dog. Find a local obedience club like Pasanita, which has classes outdoors at the Rose Bowl. It’s difficult to get the hang of working with a big spirited dog and Dobermans, like other large protection dogs, require an owner who is confident, and both firm and gentle all at once.

More advice: Make sure to socialize your dog with lots of different kinds of people, young and old. A dog like this will always guard the house – what you don’t want is one that is psycho with guests and people on the street. A Doberman belongs indoors, not chained up in the back yard. And lastly, please – no more fat dogs – you don’t want a Doberman that looks like most Americans.

Survival Chic

It would seem that preparedness is now hip, with SurviveLA’s mention in a Los Angeles Alternative article entitled “Duck and Cover”. While the article correctly states that we at SurviveLA are on the more eco-crunchy side of things, we think it’s important to restate what we are not – we are not part of what Setha M. Low, an environmental psychology professor calls the “new emotions of home: fear and paranoia and insecurity.” You see, the Man wants us to live in fear. And in response to that climate of fear we think it’s important to prepare ourselves and our communities, so that we can be free to stick it to the Man. To fear we offer fun – to paranoia we say party – to insecurity we say independence!