Pot o’ Goodness: Low, Low-Tech Water Conservation

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Continuing on the greywater theme, on big cooking days, when I’m doing a lot of boiling, steaming, soaking and rinsing, I collect all that used water in a big pot and take it out to the garden to water the plants. It’s full of nutrients, and won’t cause any blackwater* problems as long as you:

  • Use it immediately. It will turn foul if left to sit too long.
  • Pour it straight into the soil–don’t splash it all over edible leaves. Remember, soil purifies water.
  • Don’t use water full of food chunks or grease, as this will attract vermin and cause smells.

I know it’s only a little bit water that I’m saving by doing this, but to me it’s a symbolic act, almost a prayer. And heck, it hasn’t rained here since March, so every bit counts. Also, the plants really like the super-water. I think of it as a smoothie for them.

Another option is to re-use cooking waters as stock. This is something I don’t know much about. Sometimes I’ll take some nice bright green water leftover from steaming or blanching greens and use that to start a vegetable stock. But I’ve heard of people using pasta water as the base of soups. Have any of you tried that, or other techniques along those lines? Do tell.

And let us know if you have any quirky ways of saving water.

*What’s blackwater? It’s water which is dirtier than greywater, and therefore not usually recycled. Typically this is water coming from the toilet and the kitchen sink. Food particles from the sink turn septic quickly, and grease and heavy soap are not good for soil. However, our greywater guru, Art Ludwig, does say that kitchen sink water is nutrient rich, and suggests workarounds that allow sink water re-use, like grease traps or plumbing the sink so only the rinse water goes to the garden.

Greywater Fed Tomato Plant Takes Over The World

Homegrown Neighbor Here:

So a few months ago Mr. Homegrown helped me install a simple ‘laundry to landscape’ greywater system. Most of the plants that get watered by the system didn’t get much water before and were just barely surviving. There are several fruit trees, a rhubarb plant and an assortment of perennial herbs lining a narrow strip of land along the side of the house. Now, the plants getting fed by the greywater are going bonkers.

Last week the area became impassable it was so overgrown. The path along the side of the house had disappeared. I have the laundry water going to the sewer half the time because I don’t want to overwater. That and my roommate bought some non-greywater friendly soap. So I really only run one or two loads of laundry a week into the yard. But that has been more than enough.

Yesterday I hacked my way through the overgrowth and tried to train the rampant cherry tomato plant. The tomatoes are delicious. I eat them constantly when I’m in the yard and pawn them off on friends and family whenever I can. Still, there are tomatoes in areas that I can no longer get too. The tomato plant has killed my apple tree I think. I can’t see the apple tree under it anymore. The tomato plant is about eight feet tall and equally wide. It is reaching for the roof, using the poor buried apple tree as its support. I tried to photograph the madness, but it just looks like an indeterminable tangle and doesn’t really show what is going on.

But now I have reclaimed a path along the side of the house. If just an occasional load of laundry can provide such a boost to this little patch of land, I wonder what all of the other water used in the house could do. I would have to get rid of all of the low-water and native plantings and go tropical! It just goes to show how much water we use in our homes every day and don’t really think about where it goes. Eventually I would love for all of the water from our showers and sinks to go to the yard as well, but for now, the washing machine is creating a little tropical oasis and that’s plenty.

Behind the Scenes of a Euell Gibbons Grape Nuts Ad

Every decade has its celebrity forager. The aughts gave us Survivorman, but back in the 1960s and 70s Euell Gibbons stalked all that wild asparagus. This odd film, from the Academic Film Archive of North America, takes you behind the scenes of the creation of an iconic Grape Nuts ad staring Gibbons.

And the branding synergies between foragers and marketers continues–Survivorman pimps for auto insurer Geico–but, personally, I’ll take Gibbons and his wild cranberries, thank you.

Another gem from archive.org.

Hens Busy Dust Bathing

It’s difficult to capture the cuteness of this chicken behavior with a still camera–we really should try to make a  video.  Anyway, this is called “dusting” or “dust bathing.” The ladies have dug a hole in our yard and are gleefully rolling around in it, flicking loose dirt under their wings and driving it between their feathers. This is an innate behavior and an important part of chicken hygiene. Dusting suffocates skin parasites that prey on chickens, and it also seems to be pleasurable for the hens, judging by their blissful expressions.

After dusting they puff up and shake off, and settle in to do fine cleaning by preening. When they’re done, they’re all pretty and shiny.

It’s really important that chickens have constant access to dirt–loose, dry, sandy dirt–so they can dust at will. If for whatever reason your chickens don’t have this access, whether that’s because they’re being raised in a concrete floor, or are trapped inside because of bad weather, or your chicken run is swamped with mud, or whatever, it’s a smart thing to provide them with a tray of dirt so they can bathe. Dusting is nature’s favored method of insect control.

ETA: To give you some indication of size, a kitty litter tray would be a good size for a few hens to share, a cement mixing tray for a bigger flock.

Warning: Rant Ahead

We first got our own hens because we disagreed with the industrial style of raising chickens and farming eggs.  But at the time that disagreement was purely theoretical–now it’s stronger than ever, because it’s based on practice. The more we know, and experience the fundamentals of chicken life, the more appalling the industrial practices become.  One fundamental is that chickens are designed to live on dirt. They love to scratch, peck, dig and bathe in it. Take dirt away from them and you have to scramble to make up for that deficit in unnatural ways. Being unable to scratch, chickens get bored and peck at each other–so their beaks have to be cut off. Deprived of the ability to dust, they get mites and lice, and have to be treated with pesticides. It’s just sad.

Lloyd Kahn on Shelter


SHELTER from jason sussberg on Vimeo.

Jason Sussberg has made a nice film about author and publisher Lloyd Kahn. In this short film, Kahn sums up exactly what our dwelling places need, “Shelter is more than a roof overhead–it’s a feeling of warmth and security.”

And, incidentally, how many people do you know who can skateboard that gracefully at the age of 75?

For more inspiration head over to Lloyd’s Blog.

Evolution is Evolving

Mrs. Homegrown hard at work reconfiguring the Blog-O-Nator

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

We’re going to be doing some redecorating and redesign on this site over the next few weeks. The main reason we’re doing this is to make the blog more useful and accessible. This means, to start, that we’re going to clean up the tags and rearrange all the links and stuff on the right side of the page.

Then, a little bit down the road, we’re going to change our look. (!!!) I know it’s always a little traumatic when a blog you read regularly redesigns itself, but let’s face it, the place needs a fresh coat of paint. But again, that won’t be a for a bit.

In the meanwhile, forgive any weirdness that might occur as we figure out what we’re doing.

Bean Fest, Episode 5: Black-Eyed Pea Salad (Lubyi Msallat)

We still haven’t learned to take the picture before we start to eat–and were too impatient to keep eating to take a close-up! Chick pea salad, pita and sheep’s cheese.

Mrs. Homestead here:

This week’s Bean Fest installment comes from a cookbook we’ve been trying out over the last week called Vegetarian Dishes from Across the Middle East, by Arto der Haroutunian. These recipes really fit well with our kitchen just now, considering its emphasis on classic summer vegetables (like eggplants, cucumbers and tomatoes) and bulk bin foods like beans and grains.

This black-eyed pea appetizer (meze) is of Syrian-Lebanese origin and is easy to prepare. All you have to do is boil up the beans* and then make a dressing for them. Erik said it reminded him a little of a tabouleh, except it had beans instead of grains.

*Black-eyed peas (aka cow peas) are beans. Sometimes they are called black-eyed beans, in fact. What’s the difference between beans and peas? Both are members of the legume family, but pea plants have tendrils, while bean plants do not.  That’s the easiest distinction to make, though I’m sure it gets more complicated the more you know.

Lubyi Msallat

1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
1 clove garlic
1 tsp salt
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 small onion, finely diced
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tsp ground cumin
1/3 cup olive oil

Cook the beans:

Drain the soaking water off the beans and put them in a saucepan. Cover with a couple of inches of fresh water and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook until the the beans are tender (but not mushy), adding water as necessary.  As you do this, try not to be envious of people with pressure cookers.

Prep the dressing:

The book says “crush the garlic and salt together” so I used our mortar and pestle to grind the salt into the garlic clove.  (I imagine you might be able to do the same in a bowl with the bottom of a sturdy glass. Otherwise, I’d either mince or press the garlic and add the salt to the salad separately.)

Then, after the garlic and salt are crushed, mix the lemon juice into the garlic-salt paste. (Again, this could be added separately).

Combine everything:

Drain the beans well, maybe rinse them too, as black-eyed peas seem prone to generate some scum when cooking. Toss them with the chopped onion and parsley.  Now add the salt-garlic-lemon juice and the cumin. Mix everything thoroughly.  Pour the oil over the top.  Garnish with paprika, if desired, and lemon wedges.

Serve hot or cold or room temperature, along with pita bread. A great picnic food, or just to keep in the fridge for a quick lunch or healthy snack.

Tune in next week for another episode of Bean Fest!

Backyard Orchard Culture

How small can you go? An image from the Dave Wilson website demonstrating one way to keep a fruit tree a manageable size.

Damn. I wish I had heard this lecture twelve years ago when we bought our house. “Rock star orchardist” Tom Spellman, a sales manager with Dave Wilson nursery, gave a remarkable talk last night on how to create your own backyard orchard. He began by dismissing most advice on growing fruit trees, noting that it is intended for commercial orchards and is completely irrelevant for backyard fruit growers. Few of you reading this blog, after all, have to worry about having space to maneuver a tractor. Spellman outlined what he considers the three key components of a successful small scale backyard orchard:

1. Successive harvest. With careful choice of varieties you can create a mini orchard that produces consistently throughout the year (or growing season in colder climates). You don’t want a bunch of trees that all ripen in July. In his own yard Spellman planted four varieties of avocados, each of which produce fruit at different times, so that he can have a crop year round. You could also, say, plant three kinds of peaces that each mature successively. Or, plant a fig, an apple tree, a pomegranate and a lemon tree that will produce in different months. The Dave Wilson nursery has a handy ripening sequence chart, that you can use to plan what to plant.

2. Size control. Basically you don’t want fruit trees in a backyard orchard, you want fruit shrubs. Rather than one 30-foot tree in a 10 by 12 space, plant four or more and prune them vigorously so that their  branches are within easy reach. The possibilities for intensive fruit tree planting are endless: trees can be planted four or even six in one hole, espaliered, grafted, arranged into hedges, even braided together. But whatever the techinque, the goal is the same–tight spacing, short trees. You don’t want to have to go up on a ladder to harvest, and you don’t want 300 pounds of apples all at one time. Follow commercial standards and you’ll have huge, hard to manage fruit trees in your backyard. Follow Spellman’s backyard orchard guidelines and you’ll have many small trees and never be without fruit.

3. Grow what you will use. Spellman told the story of someone who went down to their local big box store and bought six trees for five dollars each. The problem was that he had bought six quince trees and did not know what to do with the fruit. Grow flavorful varieties that you can’t buy at the market. One quince tree is fine (we have one) but six is way too many.

Some other points Spellman made:

  • Pruning: Spellman suggests size control in the summer and detail work in the winter. (Note: this pruning advice is for our climate in California.)
  • Commercial growers focus on eye appeal over taste. You can’t buy decent stone fruit at the market, so stone fruit is a great thing to grow at home or buy at a farmer’s market.
  • It’s never too late to start a backyard orchard or to modify what you’ve got. Even huge fruit trees can be knocked back to a manageable size through radical pruning. You may lose a season or two of fruit, but you’ll have more room to squeeze in more trees. Don’t be afraid to bust out the chainsaw!
  • Be wary of most fruit tree growing advice as universities focus on research intended for commercial growers. In particular, the spacing suggested by many sources is way too far apart. Even many commercial growers are beginning to space tighter and keep trees shorter, a result of workman’s compensation lawsuits (workers falling out of those tall trees). More intensive growing has resulted in greater productivity as an unintended result of those lawsuits.
  • Pay attention to rootstock! Rootstocks are developed for varying soil and climate conditions. Every grafted fruit tree should have two tags on it–the tree and the rootstock–don’t buy a tree whose rootstock is unknown and make sure you grow trees with rootsocks developed for your climate and soil. Dave Wilson has a hand guide to rootstocks on their website, with their advantages and disadvantages here
  • Mulch like crazy! Mulching brings bioactivity to the soil, reduces weeds and saves water.Use 2 to 4 inches–according to research less than 2-inches is bad, more than 4 a waste of effort. 
  • Fertilize fruit trees with with organic fertilizer low in nitrogen and high in potassium and phosphorus. Nitrogen promotes vegetative growth at the expense of fruit and, again, you get a tree that’s too tall to manage. Fertilizers should also contain humic acid and micro nutrients. I’d add that a soil test is always a good idea. Our soil is already very high in potassium and phosphorus.
  • Make your first pruning cut knee high–i.e. chop that little tree off at the knee. This will be the start of a pruning strategy that keeps your tree small and manageable. 
  • When you get trees at the nursery buy small trees–don’t waste your money on large trees that have been sitting around in their pots too long. The small tree will quickly catch up to the large tree and you’ll save money.
  • When you plant four or more trees in one hole keep all the trees pruned to the height of the weakest tree.
  • In heavy clay soils, plant trees in raised mulch beds.
  • Fruit trees and berries work great in containers, just remember to prune them and keep them small.
  • Squirrel control: get a dog, use a have-a-heart trap or shoot-em!
  • Another reason to keep trees pruned small is so that you can throw bird netting over them. Use the netting for only a short time–2 to 3 weeks. Roll the netting up on a cylindrical object, like a piece of pvc pipe, for storage.
  • To get decent sized fruit, thin the fruit off the tree when it’s the size of a pea. Some trees you might have to thin upwards of 90% of the fruit.
  • Whitewash trees with sensitive trunks if you’re in a hot sunny climate. To make whitewash use a 2/3rds water to 1/3 cheap white paint mixture.

For extensive how-to fruit growing advice see http://www.davewilson.com/. Dave Wilson also has a “Fruit Tube” video channel here. I’m canceling Netflix!

Dave Wilson is a wholesale nursery. To order their trees, Tree People fruit tree expert Steve Hofvendahl recommends ordering through Bay Laurel Nursery. You can order trees now for January delivery.

A special thanks to Altadena Heritage who hosted this talk and put on an amazing series of lectures. Friend them in Facebook to get the lowdown on upcoming events.

We like this: Shovelgloving

cute cats shamelessly stolen from Shovelglove homepage

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Just a note to point you to a site rec’d by one of our commenters in our last post. It’s for a DIY exercise system based on swinging a sledgehammer around: http://www.shovelglove.com.

Swinging around a padded sledgehammer, that is, like the one the cats are inspecting above. (Though frankly I’m not too convinced that a sweater will do much to protect anything from a sledgehammer. Okay, maybe it will protect the floor from accidental scratches, but I think those cats better not be lulled into complacency by its fuzzy, friendly appearance.)

Generally I don’t like “exercise” as a concept. I avoid gyms the way others might avoid leper colonies or malls during the holiday season, because it seems inherently ridiculous to travel to a climate-controleld machine-space and pay to expend energy toward no particular purpose. Yeah, I know, the idea is that exercise makes you healthy, but isn’t life supposed to be full of free exercise? When did it become an isolated activity?

Anyhoo, this shovelgloving business (shugging, I think they call it) is, admittedly, still a bit on the abstract side for me, meaning the labor doesn’t produce anything, but heck, I’m an urbanite. My entire life is rather abstract.  I lack wood to chop, butter to churn, rails to drive &etc. — at least on a day to day basis.

On the good side, it’s free (as long as you have a sledgehammer–and if you don’t, you should–very handy things, sledgehammers), you can do it at home, it at least references useful body motions, and it looks like lots of goofy fun. It will make more sense when you go see it.

That one shovelglove page, minimal at first glance, leads to a whole world of videos and other time sucks, so be careful if you’re trying to get anything done. But speaking of procrastination, check out the author’s main page, Everyday Systems. The shovelglove is not his only idea. He also has a fiendishly simple diet plan and lots of other funny and commonsensical ideas to explore.

And yes, before any of you say it, it is potentially quite dangerous to swing a sledgehammer around. So if you try it, be sure not to knock yourself or your loved ones in the head. And start slow and move thoughtfully and with good posture to protect your back from injury.

I’m going to try it, and I’ll let you know how it goes. Unless I brain myself.

A New Fitness Craze: The Kayak Balance Stool

Gif Created on Make A Gif

Today I canceled my YMCA membership and started to put together my own home gym. Bored with the usual gym accouterments, I’ve set out to build some fitness equipment on my own starting with a kayak balance stool.

I discovered this idea in Christopher Cunningham’s book Building the Greenland Kayak. To make your kayak balance stool, find a piece of scrap wood. I used a 2 x 8 and cut it to fit my ass to toe dimensions. Cut two end boards, each a foot long. Attach the end boards to the sittin’ board with some bolts or sturdy screws. The deeper the curve on the bottom of the end boards, the more tippy it gets. Cunningham suggests a depth of 1 1/2 inches to start. I’d suggest making that curve a bit on the “pointy” side, as any flatness will lead to a lack of tippitude.

Why do this? I’ve been taking a few kayak lessons lately which have showcased my inflexible hamstrings. Mrs. Homegrown describes my flexibility as that of a ginger bread man and my swimming as being like, “throwing a 2 by 4 in the water.” I’m hoping spending a few minutes a day on the kayak simulator will improve flexibility and strengthen core muscles that keep you steady in the water while kayaking. I’ll note my bad form in the animation above. I’m guessing it’s better to use your core to stabilize, rather than moving your legs.

According to Cunningham Inuit children in Greenland got a meaty bone to nibble on while they practiced on one of these things. I’m going to skip the bone for some reading material and slowly increase my time on the board.

For a fancy kayak balance board tip yourself over here.

Note from Mrs. Homestead:

Came home last night to find Erik had made this highly attractive new toy on the porch. I was actually somewhat intrigued, because it looks like it could be used to build core strength whilst reading cheap novels. Top that, pilades!

A few observations from first use. First, only Skinny-Butt Erik could seat himself comfortably on an 8″ wide plank. I’m discomforted by the issue of…um…overhang. Most folks would be well-advised to make the plank more along the the lines of 10 -12″.  12″ boards are hard to find, but the seat could be made of a 3 2×4″s. 

Beyond that, I also found the 1 1/2″ rise a little too easy to master. But we’ve learned you can make it harder by putting your feet flat on the board, thus changing your center of gravity.  Nonetheless, we’ll probably be making the curve steeper very soon.