The Big To-Do List

Robert Heinlein, in his book Time Enough For Love, suggests a list of skills everyone should know,

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

In the planning process for our first book The Urban Homestead we used a big piece of taped together paper to come up with our version of Heinlein’s skill set. Most of the subjects on that paper, everything from vegetable gardening to cargo bikes, ended up in the book or in our second book Making It. Now, we don’t expect everyone to master all the things in our books, but it doesn’t hurt to have a cursory knowledge of, say, greywater plumbing or compost pile construction, even if you live in a Manhattan apartment. You never know when you might have to roast a pig in a pit (that will be in our next book!).

One of my favorite list of things one should know is contained in the old Whole Earth Catalog. A few weeks ago I was leafing through my copy of the WEC and realized that I had done most of the things in it (not necessarily well, mind you). Well, everything except natural child birth, large puppets and mime.

I believe we’re entering the time of the self-taught generalist. But, looking at Heinlein’s list, I’ve got a lot of things I have yet to master. Which leads me to ask you, our dear readers, what topics and skills you’re interested in learning. What’s on that skill to-do list? Leave some comments!

Thanks to the Urban Survival Podcast for that Heinlein quote.

Urban Homesteading Mistakes: Landscape Fabric

Since you all seem to enjoy accounts of our many failures around the Root Simple compound, I thought I’d share what must be one of the worst mistakes I’ve made. It’s a error up in our great chandelier of failures along with buying a 91 year old house on a hill with a bad foundation.

Two words for you: landscape fabric–that plastic stuff sold in rolls at big box stores that allegedly blocks out weeds. Just after we bought our “crack” house I started constructing brick paths and decomposed granite walkways (another mistake we’ll blog about later). I thought it would be good idea to lay down landscape fabric to keep weeds from poking up. So why is landscape fabric a bad idea?

  1. It’s made of plastic.
  2. It rips.
  3. It just plain doesn’t work.

After a few years Bermuda grass will inevitably poke up through it and you’ll end up with what you can see in the photo above. To repeat: landscape fabric doesn’t work and is a waste of money.

My favorite alternative is a very thick (minimum 4-inch, but preferably more) layer of mulch. The added benefit with mulch is that you build soil over time. With landscape fabric you just add another piece of plastic to the landfill. I know some folks swear by cardboard, and in certain situations cardboard is probably OK, but I still prefer, when possible, just piling up the mulch. You get better water penetration with mulch and you don’t have the problem of bits of cardboard floating up to the surface.

So, my two cents: don’t add landscape fabric to your landscape.

City of Memphis Cites Front Yard Vegetable Garden

From Mr. Brown Thumb via Kitchen Gardeners:

“This week Adam Guerrero, a math teacher at Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis, TN., along with three students became lawbreakers after they continued to tend to a garden after it was deemed a neighborhood nuisance. Guerrero was cited for violating city ordinances 48-38 and 48-97. His crime, as reported by the Memphis Flyer, consists of failure to maintain “a clean and sanitary condition free from any accumulation of rubbish or garbage” at his Nutbush home.

Yet another city bureaucracy has decided to crack down on a front yard vegetable garden. What makes this particularly annoying is that the homeowner is a teacher who is using the front yard garden to show his students how to grow food.

The folks at Kitchen Gardeners put together the following ways you can help:
1. Write to Judge Larry Potter at larry.potter@shelb[email protected] in support of Adam Guerrero’s garden. Please be respectful. You are an ambassador for the kitchen garden cause.
2. Join the Facebook page called “Save Adam Guerrero’s Garden,” where you can show your support and receive updates about his case.
3. Sing your outrage from rooftops on Twitter using the #WarOnGardens hashtag.
4. Sign an online petition at change.org in support of the garden, which will be sent to the judge hearing Guerrero’s case.

Update: Memphis Root Simple Reader Bridgmanpotery sent a link to a local article that has more details on this story. It all started with a neighbor dispute involving a cat and a scratched 1991 Cadillac Seville!

Edible Landscaping and Gardening Classes With Darren Butler

Consulting Arborist and Ecological Landscape Designer Darren Butler will be teaching two classes at the Root Simple compound starting next month. I’m currently taking a class from Darren right now at the Huntington and to say it’s amazing is an understatement. If you’re interested in taking either of these two classes email Darren at [email protected]. Will be great to meet you all! Sign up soon as room is limited.


GROW LA VICTORY GARDENING BEGINNING CLASSES
In partnership with the LA County Master Gardener Program

In Silver Lake: hosted by Root Simple
Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Oct 4, 6, 11, 13, 6:00 to 9:00pm
$85 early registration for payments received by September 23, $95 thereafter
$25 per single class if available
Silver Lake series is filling up quickly

Recommended for those who have moderate organic gardening skills, are new gardeners, have moved to Southern California after gardening elsewhere, or who haven’t been satisfied with their garden yields.

Expected topics include seed starting, seasonality and what to do when, building raised beds, choosing containers, plant selection, transplanting, soil preparation, irrigation, wise water use, pest management (weeds, diseases, insects), beneficial insects, composting, harvesting, and seed saving.

INTERMEDIATE ORGANIC GARDENING FOR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Hosted by Root Simple in Silver Lake
Tuesday and Thursday evenings,Oct 18, 27, Nov 1, 3, 6:00 to 9:00pm
$115 early registration for payments received by October 7, $125 thereafter
$35 per single class if available
Special combined pricing for both courses hosted by Root Simple (if available):
$185 early registration for payments received by September 23, $200 thereafter

Class topics:
Session 1: Intermediate Vegetable Gardening and Nontoxic Pest Management, including methods to maximize year-round harvest in Southern California
Session 2: Soil Science, Intermediate Composting, and Aerated Compost Tea
Session 3: Drip System Construction and Best Practices
Session 4: Fruit-Tree Care, Planting, and Pruning

Broom Corn–or is it Broomcorn?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This summer I suggested we plant broom corn for no other good reason than I saw the seed pack at the nursery and thought it would be fun to make a broom. (This sort of temporary insanity often overtakes me in the seed aisle.) So without knowing anything at all about broom corn or broom making we planted a block of the stuff. Maybe I should have done a little research into broom making before planting, but I let it slide ’til harvest time. It’s not a disaster–I’m still going to try to make a broom. But now I know more and would do things a little differently if I was serious about the broom biz.

I’m going to share with you what I know about growing and harvesting broom corn to make brooms. Making the broom will have to be another post.

What is broom corn?

It’s a member of the very useful sorghum family: Sorghum vulgare var. technicum.  It’s a tall plant that closely resembles sweet corn, especially when young. However, when it matures it sports big, seedy tassel heads instead of corn cobs. 

As its name implies, it is an excellent material for broom manufacture. It really has no other purpose, except maybe in floral arrangements or as not-so-great animal fodder. As my favorite source, Broom Corn and Brooms: A treatise on raising broom corn and making brooms on a small or large scale (1908) says:

Like cork, Broom-corn is one of those natural products that are so perfectly adapted for the uses to which they are put, that no substitute has been, or is likely to be, found for it. In toughness, elasticity, sufficient, but not too great rigidity, lightness, and ease with which it is manufactured, it excels all other materials used for brooms.

The first recorded mention of it comes out of Italy in the 1500′s. Ben Franklin is credited with introducing the seeds to this country. But really, what innovation is that man not credited with?

Broom corn and broom manufacture was a big in the States, once upon a time. In the early 1900′s the US was the only country in the world exporting brooms. Of course that’s no longer the case–I assume our brooms come from China now–and most broom corn you buy probably comes from Mexico.

It was also not uncommon for folks with a bit of land to grow a stand of broom corn to keep them in brooms. Again, from the 1908 book:

…it is often cheaper to raise a patch of broom corn and have the boys make it up on rainy days, than to buy the brooms ready made. While home-made brooms may not be as handsome as the “boughten” ones, they will do quite as good work–provided the right person is at the other end of the handle.

 I think this says a lot about our general resourcefulness in past years–as well as something about the relative price of brooms.

Broom corn or Broomcorn?

I have no idea! My 1908 manual calls it Broom-corn. I tend trust the grammatical chops of people working a century ago for print. Broomcorn is just plain strange looking. But I’m sticking with broom corn as sort of a compromise, knowing that if anyone was searching the topic they’d probably use that form. And thus I contribute to the decline of literacy via the expediencies of the Internet.

ETA: It is broom corn, according to the OED.  You see broomcorn a lot though.

Can I grow it myself?

Yes. Apparently it can be grown almost anywhere. Certainly, if you can grow sweet corn you can grow it, but it’s less fussy than sweet corn, being tolerant of both drought and poor soil. However, the best broom material comes from big healthy plants raised on good soil with plenty of water and sunshine. The midwest used to be broom country.

You definitely want to plant your broom corn in blocks instead of long rows, so you get good pollination rates.

It’s really tall stuff (up to 15 feet), and needs some support if you let it ripen, because the heads get heavy.

Where do I get the seeds?

A quick search will give you several options. Mine were from Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a variegated color variety. The picture on the seed pack promised a huge variation in color. For the longest time I thought I’d been ripped off, because the tassels came out uniformly green and stayed that way til they ripened. Then they started to turn a uniform reddish-orange color. Only at the very end of the growing season did a bit of color variation begin to be evident–ranging from light orange to rust to red to burgundy, as you can see in the first picture. Very pretty stuff, but subtle. I think the seed packet illustration included the most extreme variations they could find, plus some unripe stalks for the lighter colors.

How much do I plant?

I finally found some good instructions on broom making (links later), long after planting, and those said that you need 45 nice big heads to make a standard flat broom. Each plant yields one head. My harvest was 50 heads total, including scrawny ones. This means I won’t be making a standard broom.

Keep that number–45–in mind, and then pad it to make allowance for small or malformed heads and your own mistakes while crafting. So I dunno how much exactly…lots? 60 or so plants per big broom?

Here’s something else you need to know: you have to use long heads to make full-sized brooms. The ideal tassel, or head, measures a cubit, which is the length from your elbow to the tips of your fingers. That’s the tassel alone, not the stalk to which is attached. None of my heads got that long. I’m not sure if this is because of our cultivation, or the variety, or what. From what I can glean, substandard sized heads are the part of every harvest–these were set aside for making whisk brooms. I will be making a whisk broom.

My harvest fit in a 5 gallon bucket. This is almost enough material to make a regular flat broom.

When do you harvest?

While waiting to see if the tassels would ever turn out to be variegated in color, I let my broom corn get completely ripe. The seeds are fully formed and heavy. This makes for pretty autumn bouquets, but is not ideal for broom manufacture. My 1908 manual says that the finest broom material is green and young. I don’t think I’m totally sunk, because those 1908 folks had very high standards re: brooms. Higher than mine, I don’t doubt.

Anyway, this is what they say about harvesting for brooms. This is the only info on this topic that I have been able to find:

Most successful growers say that the cutting should commence as soon as the “blossoms” begin to fall. After the flowers have been fertilized and the seed “set,” the antlers, or male organs and male flowers, fall away, and this is called the dropping of the “blossom.” At this time the seed has just begun to form and it is in a merely rudimentary condition, and the brush at this period is not only the best color, but it is heavier…and more durable.

How do you harvest?

For broom material, cut the stalks 6 to 8 inches beneath the base of the heads. If you want the heads for floral arrangements, the length is up to you. After cutting go ahead and peel away any leaves. The old manual has much advice as to how to do this systematically in the field–for instance, this charming illustration:

But alone in your backyard, and sadly lacking the dapper headwear, you will probably just have to wrestle with the tall stocks as you think best, bringing them down so you can lop of their heads. This will leave you with a ton of compost material–or useful compostable biomass in Jeavons-speak.

Her you can kind of see how the strands that form the heads come together at the stalk. You cut 6-8 inches below that point.

Curing the material

The heads have to be dried after harvest. No one is saying how long–’til dry, I assume. The stalks should be dried indoors or at least under cover, and they should be laid out flat, so they’ll dry straight. If I kept the stalks in the bucket, for instance, they’d dry with a definite curve to them. Not good.

The problem with taking on agricultural crafts in the city is the distinct lack of agricultural facilities, such as drying sheds. (A tobacco shed, apparently, would be perfect.) Not to mention a lack of space in the house. My broom corn is currently on the kitchen table, where it will be a nuisance for a week or two.

The cats were thrilled by the corn in the bucket, but as compelling as it was as a cat toy, I had to take it away from them and lay the heads out flat to dry.

Removing the seeds

Yep, the heads have to be stripped down so you have nice clean broom straw to work with. I haven’t done this yet, so will have to include what I learn in the next post where I tell you of my zany broom making adventures. But it sounds like you have to comb them off. For small batches, the 1908 book suggests either a long toothed curry comb (’cause we all have those around!) or sawing teeth into the end of a board to make a comb, and then fixing that board to something stable, so you can really tug the heads through. Go read the manual if you want more deets. I might just try a regular comb. You can also thresh it. If you have any idea how to begin threshing–which I don’t.

One last thing to think about:

If you want to make a broom with a long handle, you can use a dowel, or a re-purposed handle, or a hardwood branch. If you like the rustic branch look, keep in mind that the branch must be aged and dry. So if you’re planning on growing some corn to make brooms next summer, now would be a good time to gather your branches. Put them somewhere dry and let them cure for a year.




Resources

Broom Corn and Brooms: A treatise on raising broom corn and making brooms on a small or large scale (1908)  I love this little book for its illustrations and wonderful fuddy-duddy prose. I read it out loud until Erik begged me to stop. Its instructions on making brooms are hard to follow and mostly unillustrated, but the cultivation info is invaluable. This link will take you to Google Books, where you can download a pdf.

How to Make a Broom, by Little John Holzwart. This is a Mother Earth News article, and the best instructions I’ve found. He doesn’t talk about growing or harvesting at all, though. Be sure to look at the photo gallery. Pictures help a whole lot. Little John sells brooms at Moonwise Herbs.

There are a surprising number of broom handcrafters on the Internets. Seems they’ve been given a big boost by Harry Potter in general and specifically by Quidditch teams needing funky brooms. Seriously. So poke around and see what these things look like.

I like seeing all the forms laid out in one place here at Granville Island Broom Company. I’m tempted to make a turkey wing whisk, a cobwebber or a scrubber. A scrubber suits my skill level.


Seed Mania

Sea Buckthorn. Image by Maggi_94

I’m still hyperventilating from all the lectures and exhibitors at the National Heirloom Exposition in Sonoma that I attended last week. I resisted the urge to buy too many seeds. Well, I sort of resisted this urge. I ended up coming back with:

Early Stone Age Wheat from Bountiful Gardens, the seed company founded by John Jeavons. I’ve grew a few Bountiful Gardens seeds this summer with great success (particularly their summer, late to bolt lettuce). I’m looking forwards to growing the world’s smallest ancient wheat field (2 square feet) this winter. Ancient wheat is known for being difficult to thresh and clean. At least I won’t have much to harvest!

Perpetual Spinach Chard, also from Bountiful Gardens. From their catalog description, “Rare, fine old European strain of Swiss Chard. Smaller smooth dark-green leaves, small mid-ribs. Frost and bolt resistant, needs water in a dry spell.”

Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) from Bountiful Gardens. The fruit of this berry producing shrub can be found in Armenian and Russian markets here in LA. I was introduced to it by my friends at Tularosa Farms. It’s difficult to germinate so that plan is to gift the seeds to the TF folks and hope that they give us seedlings (an evil plan, I admit).

I also picked up some crimson clover and globe artichoke seeds from the Bountiful Gardens folks.

Desert Chia from Native Seed Search. Yes it is that chia, of Chia Pet fame. Chia is an ancient herb used by Native Americans for medicine and food.

Chadwick’s Sweet Pea from Seed Dreams out of Port Townsend, WA. I really like having some sweet peas in the garden and this variety caught my eye, for its dark purple color and the fact that it’s from the late Alan Chadwick.

Let me know if you’ve grown any of these oddball plants and how it went.

The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush

“There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention.”-Richard Taylor

Michael Bush, in his new book on natural beekeeping, The Practical Beekeeper Beekeeping Naturally, begins with Taylor’s quote, which could just as easily apply to gardening or many other areas of our lives. Yet doing nothing is one of the hardest things for us Homo sapiens to wrap our busy heads around. Nassim Taleb is fond of pointing out the huge number of medical mistakes that could easily have been avoided by the doctor having the courage to not intervene with some needless procedure or pharmaceutical. Up until some time in the 20th century, in fact, you were actually better off not going to see a doctor.

Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper is the new bible of natural no-treatment beekeeping. Bush’s non-interventionist approach is based on the work of Dee and Ed Lusby and is at odds with conventional (beekeeping associations and academics) reliance on chemical treatments, re-queening, artificial insemination etc. Beekeeping, in my and Michael Bush’s opinion, is one of those fields, like economics, where the experts have been thoroughly discredited by recent events–our current econopocolypse and, in beekeeping, colony collapse disorder. Of CCD, Michael Bush blames chemical treatments, directed at controlling mites and other issues, which throw off the microbial balance of the beehive. Bush’s emphasis in symbiotic microbial relationships puts his work in line with soil scientist Elaine Ingham and the pro-biotic movement in human health.

The Practical Beekeeper would benefit from an index (something said of our first book) and some editing for repetition, but those minor points aside, this is a must-have book for beginning and advanced beekeepers. There’s much good, practical information and I learned a lot reading this book on a long train trip. Bush has many interesting tips and tools that you can build yourself. And it’s the few books I’ve seen that tells you how to do swarm captures and cut-outs.

Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper also has an encyclopedia’s worth of handy info.

Loofah Sponges

We talk about the joy of loofah–or luffa– (Luffa aegyptiaca) all the time, but I don’t believe we’ve every blogged about it here. I was reminded of it when we received a letter from Candace, who heard us on a podcast talking about how much fun it was to grow loofah sponges. She said:

I wanted to thank you for that part of the interview in particular.  I decided to grow some this summer and it has been a great joy.  It is a beautiful vine, and the flowers are always loaded with bees, bumble and honey and all kinds of other insects. By the way, luffa are delicious.  Mine has been eatable at a diameter of 1 to 1.5 in and a foot long with no problem.  There are several recipes on line for them as well. They are a definite interesting grabbing item to share at get togethers, pulling the skin off and shaking out the seeds.  I’ve gotten several people interested in growing them that have never grown anything before by showing them the luffa.

Thanks for the feedback, Candace! And thanks for reminding us about this great plant. It’s just fantastic to be able to grow your own cleaning tools. They’re expensive in stores–too expensive to consider using on dishes and such–and just try to find one that’s organic and locally harvested!

Most people think loofah sponges come from the sea, but they are actually members of the cucumber family and grow on vines. With their skins on, they look like zucchini sized cukes. They’re quite attractive and fast growing. The vines can reach 20 feet if they’re happy, and the fruits form on big yellow flowers. They are so prolific and easy to grow (given the right conditions) that you only need a crop every few years to keep you in sponges.

We’ve never tried to eat loofah, mostly because we’ve been too greedy for sponges. But we’re going to chill on that next time around and eat a few. 

The only catch with loofah is that they need a long growing season: 4 months from sprouting to get a sponge, 3 months from spouting to harvest the fruits to eat. This does limit its cultivation to more southern latitudes, unless you can maybe get a jump start by sprouting indoors. 

Some tips:

  • The seeds need warmth to sprout–sort of like tomato seeds. They won’t start in cold soil. Start them indoors over heat if you have to. 
  • Basic growing requirements are lots of sun, lots of water, warm weather and time. Again, three months for food, for months for sponges.
  • Here in SoCal March is a good month to plant the seeds directly in the ground.
  • Provide support for the vine: it’s a climber. The vines are long and the fruit big.
  • Some people harvest for sponges after the skins turn brown. I find that if you wait that long the sponge itself can be blotchy/discolored. This is purely an aesthetic problem. Many people bleach their sponges in a mild bleach solution, so this doesn’t matter. I don’t bleach mine, so I like to harvest while they’re still green–though I think they might be a little harder to peel at that point.
  • It might help if you throw your harvest in a trash can full of water and let it sit overnight before you peel. Then you can peel in the can, in water, because it’s a messy business. Or do it however you want. You can’t really screw this up. Don’t worry too  much about how or when you peel them. You’ll get a sponge.
  • The seeds float out under water, or can be shaken out. The later is an excellent task for pesky children.
  • Each mature loofah yields tons of seeds, but be sure to save plenty because the germination rates aren’t high. Save seeds from the best specimens.

ETA: More info here: http://www.luffa.info/