Appropriate Technology

Our rocket stove, pictured above, was mentioned on BoingBoing last week and we thought we’d use the occasion for a brief roundup of similar “appropriate” technology concepts. The term appropriate technology evolved out of political economist E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful and is easier to show rather than describe. While not always low-tech, appropriate tech concepts feature elegantly simple (but not simplistic) design, efficient use of energy and are usually aimed at poor countries. What Homegrown Evolution would like to prove is that these technologies have a place in developed western countries as well. Here’s three of our favorite appropriate tech ideas and websites:

1. Rocket Stoves: our brick rocket stove and a link to a video on how to make a simple metal version.

2. The glorious Solar Cooking Archive which has links to dozens of simple solar cooker plans that you can build yourself. We built our cardboard and aluminum foil Pavarti cooker with plans from the solar cooking archive.

3. AfriGadget. The subtitle of this blog says it all, “solving everyday problems with African ingenuity.”

Car Free in the City of Cars

Here’s an event that I wish I could make tonight, Friday, June 27, 2008 at 7:30 pm at L.A. Eco-Village (Directions) :

Pascal van den Noort — fresh from the Car Free Cities Conference in Portland gives a slide show and talk on Mobility & The City, where most people live. Pascal is the Amsterdam-based global bicycling advocate and Executive Director of Velo Mondial who does the stunning bike blog at http://velomondial.blogspot.com/ You will hear and see how other challenged cities have moved forward with bicycling infrastructure and the culture to match it. Bring your hardest questions on what is holding LA back from becoming one of the “best cycling cities in the world.” Other websites that Pascal is associated with include: www.velo.info and http://spicycles.velo.info

Fee: $5. No reservations required. More info: Joe Linton 213/220-1608

This talk is sponsored by L.A. Eco-Village in association with: CICLE, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and CRSP in support of the Los Angeles Bike Summit planned for the fall
by the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.

And a special thanks to Joe Linton and everyone at the L.A. Eco-Village for inviting us to speak last night!

June: National Bathroom Reading Month

By bikin’ friend Colin informed me last week that he had heard a report on National Public Radio about June being, “National Bathroom Reading Month”. Doing a little digging revealed that, sadly, it was just a publicity stunt for a series of un-funny bathroom humor books and did not have the backing of our congress, senate or president. Nevertheless we thought we’d celebrate bathroom reading month anyways with a look at what journals, catalogs and books grace the Homegrown Evolution throne room reading stack.

Water Quality Report ’07 from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Every year we get this and pledge we’ll study up on the science behind water quality. Another year has passed and all we can critique about this report is the fact that LA DWP doesn’t seem to know that Silver Lake is two words not one. We could also point out the odd choice of Echo Park Lake for the cover. It’s both heavily polluted and, thankfully, not a source of drinking water. While we proudly drink our L.A. tap water, we use bottled water for our home brewing projects due to the chlorine. Here’s a link to how you can compare a water quality report like this one to what kind of water is good for making beer.

Performance Bicycle Catalog. We get a lot of these catalogs since every few months we break a bike tail light and have to order a new one. They just don’t build bicycle accessories to last! These bike catalogs, aimed at recreational cyclists who drive somewhere to ride their bikes (note the cover) feature lots of god-awful candy-colored spandex outfits, $5,000 mountain bikes and nutritional supplements. Precisely the items you don’t want for getting around urban Los Angeles. This particular catalog featured something new, however, his and hers matching bikes from Schwinn called, we kid you not, “Sid and Nancy“. Sid and Nancy feature automatic shifting since either bike gears are too complicated for Americans to figure out, or folks want to do what they do while driving: talk on cell phones. But why do Sid and Nancy have gears at all? Wouldn’t brake-less fixed gear bikes be more appropriate given the punk rock (not to mention murder/suicide) reference?

Arthur Magazine. Homegrown Evolution, being cheap, can never pass up a free publication when we see one though we usually skip stooping to pick up the senior citizen rag Not Born Yesterday. Arthur is always worth picking up. Lot’s of great articles here from The Center for Tactical Magic, Erik Davis and our favorite media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. The May issue has a column by Chicago’s master forager and occasional resident in our humble casa, Nancy Klehm. Nancy explains how to make dandelion wine and extols the virtues of urine in your compost pile.

Real Goods Catalog. This is sort of a Sky Mall for environmentalists. Produced by the same folks who put out the worthwhile Solar Living Source Book, most of the items in this catalog are beyond our modest writing-derived income level. Some things look useful, but there’s a lot of dubious stuff such as solar hat fans and electric scooters. And we suspect you can get many of the items in the catalog cheaper elsewhere, though we’re intrigued with the solar attic fans.

Backwoods Home Magazine. We love Backwoods Home for its informative articles, unedited and rambling letters to the editor and for the outsider artist who does all the illustrations. Imagine Martha Stewart Living with columns on both vegetable gardening and tips on disassembling your AR15. We’re not libertarians ourselves but with both mainstream presidential candidates supporting warrantless wiretapping we’re beginning to see their points. Best of all, most of Backwoods Home is available free online.

Backyard Poultry Magazine. Poultry porn for small scale chicken, duck, guinea and quail enthusiasts. As most books about poultry are for big poultry farms, this magazine is a very useful resource for those of us with small backyard flocks. Backyard Poultry has everything from showing birds to eating them. This is where we learned how to build the portable run that is in our back yard that we’ll blog about soon. Plans for that run can be seen here.

Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply Catalog. A great source for seeds, bare root trees and many other items. We ordered our fig and pomegranate trees, our grape vines and our cover crop seeds from Peaceful Valley and have been happy with all of these items.

Of course, here’s a book that should be in every bathroom, the Humanure Handbook.

Moldy Grapes!

We had a nice conversation with BoingBoing blogger and Make Magazine editor Mark Frauenfelder about how important mistakes are in the DIY life, so here’s two more recent blunders for ya’ll, courtesy of Mrs. Homegrown Evolution.

Recent failure #1: Inedible Pickled Grape Leaves

We have grape leaves. Lots of them. Our two table grape vines are a little hesitant to really bust out, but our native grape (Vitus californica) has taken over the entire south facing wall of our garden, and is threatening the neighbor’s house. The chickens like grape leaves, fortunately, so I have something to do with the prunings, but I wanted to do more.

I’m a big fan of dolmas, so thought I’d try to pickle some grape leaves. Skimming the internet for recipes, I saw, as usual, many contradictions [Mr. Homegrown's editorial note here--first mistake--internet recipes are notoriously unreliable. I know this because I've promulgated bad recipes myself!]. I found a recipe attributed to Sally Fallon which called for no pre-cooking at all, just pickling in whey and salt. I saw others that recommended pressure canning and I don’t have a pressure canner.

What I ended up doing was blanching the grape leaves before I pickled them, hoping that would soften them up some, but not so much that they would disintegrate when rolled. I was sure to only pick the youngest, freshest leaves.

I should have done a small test batch, but went nuts and filled a half-gallon jar with many rolled up bundles of leaves, and covered it in a brine and whey pickling solution. A week later I tasted the leaves. They looked right, they tasted right, but no matter how much I chewed, the leaves didn’t break down. I ended up with a mouthful of cud.

Now the question is whether wild grape leaves simply aren’t edible, or if I should try it again, and this time boil the beejeezus out them. I think I’ll do a beejeezus test run, and report back.

Has anyone out there done this successfully?

A second level of grape leaf failure:

While fermenting, a mold developed at the top of the jar, because a couple of the rolls crested the surface of the brine. One way to keep veggies below the brine is to weight them down somehow. In this case, I had a baggy full of salt water (salt water so that if it leaked, it wouldn’t dilute the brine) sitting at the top of the jar. But I didn’t pay attention to the jar during the fermentation, and a couple of the rolls popped up at the sides and mold set in––a kind of fluffy, spider-webby black mold that crept from the exposed bundles up the sides of the jar.

The lesson to be learned here is to pay some minimal amount of attention to your pickles while they’re fermenting. But notice, the mold didn’t keep me off trying the leaves. I just extracted the bad bundles, cleaned the sides of the jar, and sampled leaves that were not touched by mold.

By the way, I don’t always weight down my pickling veggies. For quick ferments, like the daikon radish pickles which I make all the time, I just turn the jar on end every day, sometimes more than once a day, for the 5 days or so it takes to pickle. I just leave them out where I can see them so I don’t forget to turn them. After they go in the fridge, mold doesn’t seem to be a problem. But for a longer ferment, like sauerkraut, you really do have to keep the food below the brine with weight.

Recent Failure #2: Moldy Chamomile Tea

We had a bumper crop of chamomile this year, due to generous volunteerism on its part. Several large plants sprung up in unlikely spots and thrived with no help at all. I harvested lots of the flowers so I could have chamomile tea in the cupboard until next spring.

The mistake I made in this case was not drying the flowers enough before I transferred them to a jar. I thought they were dry, but they weren’t, and they went off in storage. I noticed the flowers looked a little strangely colored, and one whiff in the jar told me all I needed to know. Mold had set in. A jar of chamomile should smell like heaven.

This was another pantry disappointment, similar to, but not nearly as devastating, or disgusting, as the loss of our sun-dried tomatoes to pantry moths.

Like the moldy grape leaves, this was really a matter of not paying attention. Mold in general is a certain sign of not paying attention. I am also guilty of rushing. Certainly, you don’t want to leave your drying herbs out for so long that they lose flavor. Storage in glass, in the dark, is essential for protecting those volatile oils, but the herbs really have to be crumbly dry before they go in jars.

By the way, the secret to a good chamomile harvest is constant picking. Don’t be afraid to pick the flowers. The more you pick, the faster it will make more flowers. Like, overnight. I swear. Just pinch the heads off. And you use the whole flower, dry or fresh, to make tea. If a little stem gets in there too, it’s not going to hurt anything.

Grow the Soil

Above, proof of the adage that you grow the soil not the plants. On the left a vigorous eggplant growing in high-end potting soil in a self-watering container. On the right a spindly, nitrogen starved specimen of the same variety of eggplant, planted at the same time, in our parkway garden. The container eggplant on the left is larger, has greener leaves and is obviously more healthy. The stunted eggplant on the right is the victim of depleted soil.

There’s some irony here. With our book release and press folks coming around to see things we’ve been doing too much planting and not paying enough attention to soil quality. Here’s two options we should have taken to help out that sickly eggplant in the raised bed (other than the expensive route of new potting soil):

1. Sheet Mulch

A concept from the permacultural toolbox, sheet mulching involves making a soil boosting lasagna consisting of a layer of compost or manure, newspaper to hold in moisture, and a thick application of mulch consisting of hay, stable bedding, or other bulk materials. Full instructions here via Agroforestry.net. See Toby Hemenway’s introductory permaculture guide Gaia’s Garden for a similar sheet mulching technique.

2. Cover Crop

An alternate soil building method would have been to simply give the beds a rest for a season and plant a nutrient-building and soil-busting mix of clovers and legumes. Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply has a nice selection of annual cover crops here. We used their dryland mix to deal with the bad soil in our front yard and we’ll re-sow it again this fall. Cover crops send down roots that break up soil, with the legumes used to fix nitrogen–it’s a great way to amend a large area with almost no work involved.

Here at Homegrown Evolution we don’t believe in tilling soil. Tilling soil disrupts the natural balance of soil microbes and minerals and requires hard physical labor, thus interfering with other important activities such as cocktail hours and general laying about. It’s better to let nature do the work for you. Both sheet mulching and cover crops mimic the way forests and chaparral ecosystems take care of themselves. In natural settings, leaves fall and stay in place (no ‘mow and blow’ guys in the forest!) and weeds do the tilling.

Bookin’

Many thanks to all of you who have ordered books from us. We were able to get the books out yesterday via our wondrous Xtracycle with a boost from the US Postal Service. And also, a note to our contributors–thanks and your books are in the mail as well. For those of you thinking of ordering some we have more available!

Urban Homestead Book Signing and Lecture


We’ll be delivering a lecture and and book-signing on the theme of “Low-tech is the new high-tech” at the Eco-Village Thursday the 26th of June. Here’s the 411:

Los Angeles Eco-Village
CRSP Institute for Urban Eco-Villages
and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition
present

THE URBAN HOMESTEAD
Talk, Slide Show and Book-Signing
with Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
Thursday June 26th 2008 7:30pm
at Los Angeles Eco-Village
117 Bimini Place, LA 90004
Directions at www.laecovillage.org
Suggested donation $5, no one turned away for lack of funds
Books sold separately for $15

Come hear the authors of the Homegrown Evolution blog and get yourself a copy of their brand-new book ‘The Urban Homestead,’ which covers various topics from raising chickens, to carrying cargo on your bicycle, to canning produce from your garden, to harvesting rainwater, and much more! All very inexpensive and step-by-step instructions. The book is an important addition to the shelf of every Angeleno concerned about sustainability, self-sufficiency, and living a high-quality low-impact lifestyle.

For more information, email [email protected] or call 213.738.1254

Admission proceeds will benefit both the Eco-village and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

We’re Back!

I remember seeing the New York based planning and transportation website Streetsblog and wishing that we had something like it here in Los Angeles. Well we do thanks to the work of Damien Newton who we were honored to be interviewed by last month. Read his interview of Mr. Homegrown Evolution rambling about bike issues here on Streetsblog Los Angeles. Damien also interviewed us on the hot topic of growing food at home for the L.A. Times Emerald City blog. Thanks Damien!

Above, the backyard looking surprisingly decent for summer (of course I’ve framed out the area that the chickens made into a moonscape).

I don’t hear you singing in the wire . . .

AT&T has yet to restore our phone and Internet service. To those who have ordered books I apologize for the delay (we’re also waiting for a new shipment from our publisher). It looks like it will be Monday before we will have anything other than smoke signals to communicate with, unless we shift to HAM or pirate radio (perhaps a good idea considering AT&T’s repair service–I’d hate to see what they’d be like in an earthquake).

In the meantime we leave you with a song that seems appropriate under our circumstances, Wichita Lineman, often described as the “first existential country song”:

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