SunCalc: A Sun Trajectory Calculator

In attempting to figure out how to align a garden path with the sunrise of the summer soltice (that’s the way we roll at the the Root Simple compound), I came across a neat Google Maps hack: SunCalc, the creation of Vladimir Agafonkin.

According to the description on the site,

SunCalc is a little app that shows sun movement and sunlight phases during the given day at the given location.

You can see sun positions at sunrise (yellow), specified time (orange) and sunset (red). The thin orange curve is the current sun trajectory, and the yellow area around is the variation of sun trajectories during the year. The closer a point is to the center, the higher is the sun above the horizon. The colors on the time slider above show sunlight coverage during the day.

I can see SunCalc being useful for laying out a garden, window and solar panel placement, evaluating potential real estate, or for planning your own personal Stonehenge.

4 Vermicomposting Tips

Ecological landscape designer Darren Butler has been teaching a series of classes at the Root Simple compound this month (I think there may be a few open slots in his Intermediate Organic Gardening class if you’re interested. Click here for details). Darren dropped a few vermicomposting tips during the beginning class that we thought we’d share:

1) Worms don’t like empty space in their bin. They dislike voids. They appreciate it very much if you bury their entire working area under a very thick layer of light dry carbon material, like shredded newspaper or chopped straw. Yes, it’s standard practice to put a layer of cover material over the scraps–but the difference here is that Darren recommends that the cover layer should fill all the empty space in the bin, from the worm level to the lid.

To be clear, you never want the bin’s working material (worms, scraps, etc.) to get super deep. That’s just asking for problems, because the deeper that material, the more likely the bottom is going to turn nasty and anaerobic. What we’re talking about here is filling the empty air space with dry matter–sort of like an insulation layer.

2) Harvesting worm castings (separating the worms from the castings) is always a bit of a challenge. Well, not challenging as in hard, but challenging as in requiring patience. Our method has been to mound the castings into a pyramid outside on a sunny day. The worms instinctively work their way down to the base of the pyramid to avoid the light. Once they do, we take off the top and sides of the pyramid and transfer that to a bucket. That material will be mostly worm free. Then we reform the pyramid and do it all over again.

This method is fine, but Darren’s method is a little faster. It works on the same principle–the photosensitivity of worms–but instead of making pyramids he lays out softball sized mounds of castings. The worms will cluster at the bottom of the balls, allowing you to harvest off the tops and sides. This works faster than our pyramid method because the worms don’t have as far to move. You can harvest faster, and get it done all at once instead of forming and reforming the pyramid.

Of course when you’re doing either method you should remember the worms are very vulnerable when they’re out of their bin like this, vulnerable to heat and sun–you don’t want to forget about them!–and also to predators like chickens, birds and even dogs.

3) Some of you have worm bins with spigots for collecting “worm tea” aka leachate. Did you know it goes bad within 24 hours of production? If you use it, use it right away. Never use undiluted leachate on plants–it can harm them. To use it on plants, dilute it with 4 parts water, put it in a spray bottle, and spray on foliage. They’ll uptake the nutrients through their leaves. Alternatively, you can use it as a soil drench (for watering) when diluted with 16 parts water. In its straight form it can be used as an insecticide.

4) Darren’s favorite way of using worm castings is new to us and quite interesting. Castings are fertilizer, but more than that. They can help bring life to your soil. He takes golf ball sized plugs of fresh castings and buries them here and there in his garden beds (or pots). Used this way, they are little beneficial microbe arks that will help invigorate the life of your soil. A little bit goes a long way. You are, in effect, inoculating your soil with microbial life.

New to worm composting, or just vermi-curious? The classic book on the subject is Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System by Mary Appelhof.
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Rearranging the yard, yet again!

Backyard redesign, in progress.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This is all my fault. Last fall we re-did the back yard, but I decided it still needed a few refinements. I feel a little like a sitcom wife who can’t make her mind up about the draperies (cue Erik, the long-suffering husband, moaning in the background)–but we can’t be afraid to fix our mistakes.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say mistake. There was nothing wrong with the last design. It’s just that after a year of living with it I saw how it could be improved. These are the three things that the redesign addresses:

1) Flow. Movement within the garden. The old layout looked great but lacked flow. I think gardens should have paths. They should invite you to move through them, lead you on a small journey of discovery, rather than challenging you to make left-right decisions, as if you were playing Pac-Man. The primary change in our layout is that I’ve established a new curving path that will carry you through the garden. It connects with the pre-existing path to form a loop.

One advantage of establishing a path is that once the “people space” is established, all the rest of the garden becomes useable plant space. We actually have more growing space now.

2) Perennials: The last redesign put a lot of emphasis on growing space for annual plants. In turned out to be a little more space than we needed. Annuals are a lot of work, especially here, where we garden year round and a bed can cycle through 4 crops a year. We’ll still have dedicated annual beds, but I’m going to reassign some of the beds formerly given over to annuals to useful/edible perennials.

3) Experimentation. Of late we’re very intrigued with the idea of transitioning to a natural form of gardening that is hands-off—rather like our Backwards Beekeeping methodology. We’re greatly influenced by The Ranch edible garden at the Huntington Gardens, created by Scott Kleinrock, and Erik is currently taking a class with Scott and Darren Butler that expands on some of these ideas. It would take a whole post, perhaps two or three to explain this in detail. And we’ll write those! But suffice it to say for now that it will be useful for us to have more space to experiment with.

So above you see a preview of the garden. We’ve not done much but lay down the path, move the bird bath and pull up the summer crops. Most of the greenery left consists of tomatoes which haven’t yet given up the ghost and a sturdy stand of okra. 

Stay tuned for planting! We’ll talk about our perennial choices, our layout and this whole hands-off gardening experiment as we go along.

Root Simple and Edendale Farm on ABC-7

A local ABC affiliate did a nice, short piece on growing food in the city featuring us and our friend David Kahn of Edendale Farm. I’ll note that David runs a real city farm (he sells eggs) while I call what we do simply gardening, as we don’t grow/raise enough to sell.

It’s good to see vegetable gardening and keeping chickens going mainstream–it’s the bright side of the “great recession”.

Building With Adobe

Architect and Root Simple friend Ben Loescher, along with Kurt Gardella, is teaching a class on adobe construction. I’m going to attend the second day, November 6th, and hope to see some of you there. Adobe has a storied past and a promising future in the Southwest U.S., in my opinion. Here’s the info on the class:

adobeisnotsoftware is pleased to host Kurt Gardella for the first in a series of classes on adobe construction within California. Kurt developed much of the online curriculum for Northern New Mexico College’s adobe program, and has great expertise in both adobe construction and earthen plasters and finishes. Intended as an introduction to adobe construction for individuals and building professionals, the course will give attendees sufficient knowledge to make adobe bricks, build a garden wall, and understand typical building code and detailing challenges that confront adobe building projects in California.

Topics:
Advantages and Disadvantages of Adobe Construction
Soil Selection and Testing
Making Adobe Bricks
Water Resistance and Stabilization
Adobe Forms
Brick Laying Techniques
Doors, Windows and Other Openings
Detailing
Seismic Design
Permitting
Adobe for the Owner/Builder
Instruction Type:

This is a hands-on class. Attendees will have the opportunity to get dirty and use tools and equipment typical of adobe construction. Due to the course format, enrollment will be limited to 14 individuals. Children under the age of 14 unfortunately cannot be accommodated. In the unlikely event of inclement weather, instruction will occur indoors.

Instructors:

Kurt Gardella teaches adobe construction at Northern New Mexico College, is Director of Education for Adobe in Action, and is certified as an earth-building specialist by the German Dachverband Lehm.

Ben Loescher is a licensed architect, founder of adobeisnotsoftware and principal of golem|la.

Location:

The class will be conducted about 12 miles outside of Joshua Tree National Park in Landers, California, some 40 miles from Palm Springs. Joshua Tree and the surrounding area have a wealth of great hiking, climbing, lodging and food options. Directions to the workshop site will be provided to attendees prior to the class.

Registration:

The cost for the two day workshop is $250/person, a reduced rate of $150/person is offered for full-time students with valid ID. Coffee and nibbles will be provided at the beginning of the day; lunch is included. Register here!

Questions?:

Please do not hesitate to contact Ben at [email protected] or (760) 278-1134 .

End of Summer Photos

I’ve got a backlog of random photos that, somehow, never made it into full blown blog posts. Here’s some of those pics starting with our modest passion fruit harvest. Beautiful flowers and tasty fruit.

Kelly accidentally planted some potatoes amongst her sweet potato patch. We got a few potatoes and some pretty potato flowers.

My friends Gloria and Steve, who own a small herd of goats, did a goat milk tasting at the Institute of Domestic Technology comparing their backyard milk against a couple of store bought goat milks and some cow milk. Guess what? Fresh goat milk from the backyard is delicious and does not taste “goaty”. Store bought goat milk just doesn’t compare, though the Summer Hill brand at Trader Joes is passable.

Lastly, two of my favorite things: cats and corded telephones. 

Best wishes for a happy fall for all Root Simple readers.

Urine as a Fertilizer

How do I spend my Saturday mornings you ask? Answer: scanning the peer reviewed literature for articles about using human urine as a nitrogen source in the garden, i.e. taking a leak in the watering can. As we’re currently hosting some excellent classes at our house taught by Darren Butler, a big proponent of what he calls “pee-pee-ponics,” I thought I’d take a look at the science of urine use.

Urine offers a free and readily available (at least after a night of beer drinking) alternative to organic nitrogen fertilizers such as blood meal. We’ve got a perpetual nitrogen deficiency in our vegetable beds and I hate buying industrial ag sourced items like blood meal. Urine is a great alternative.

To use urine in the garden you’ve got to dilute it with water, at least ten to one. Straight urine will burn your plants. Thankfully we don’t worry about our sauerkraut taking on a urine flavor:

Use of Human Urine Fertilizer in Cultivation of Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)––Impacts on Chemical, Microbial, and Flavor Quality by Surendra K. Pradhan, Anne-Marja Nerg, Annalena Sjöblom, Jarmo K. Holopainen and Helvi Heinonen-Tanski

Human urine was used as a fertilizer in cabbage cultivation and compared with industrial fertilizer and nonfertilizer treatments. Urine achieved equal fertilizer value to industrial fertilizer when both were used at a dose of 180 kg N/ha. Growth, biomass, and levels of chloride were slightly higher in urine-fertilized cabbage than with industrial-fertilized cabbage but clearly differed from nonfertilized. Insect damage was lower in urine-fertilized than in industrial-fertilized plots but more extensive than in nonfertilized plots. Microbiological quality of urine-fertilized cabbage and sauerkraut made from the cabbage was similar to that in the other fertilized cabbages. Furthermore, the level of glucosinolates and the taste of sauerkrauts were similar in cabbages from all three fertilization treatments. Our results show that human urine could be used as a fertilizer for cabbage and does not pose any significant hygienic threats or leave any distinctive flavor in food products.

As the study above noted, too much nitrogen (from any source) can cause pest outbreaks. And we do need to be judicious in our urine application in alkaline soils such as here in Los Angeles as urine has a high pH:

From Human urine – Chemical composition and fertilizer use efficiency by H. Kirchmann and S. Pettersson:

Stored human urine had pH values of 8.9 and was composed of eight main ionic species (> 0.1 meq L–1), the cations Na, K, NH4, Ca and the anions, Cl, SO4, PO4 and HCO3. Nitrogen was mainly (> 90%) present as ammoniacal N, with ammonium bicarbonate being the dominant compound. Urea and urate decomposed during storage. Heavy metal concentrations in urine samples were low compared with other organic fertilizers, but copper, mercury, nickel and zinc were 10–500 times higher in urine than in precipitation and surface waters. In a pot experiment with15N labelled human urine, higher gaseous losses and lower crop uptake (barley) of urine N than of labelled ammonium nitrate were found. Phosphorus present in urine was utilized at a higher rate than soluble phosphate, showing that urine P is at least as available to crops as soluble P fertilizers.

With some common sense urine application (i.e. not too much), it clearly makes a good fertilizer:

Stored Human Urine Supplemented with Wood Ash as Fertilizer in Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) Cultivation and Its Impacts on Fruit Yield and Quality by Surendra K. Pradhan, Jarmo K. Holopainen and Helvi Heinonen-Tanski:

This study evaluates the use of human urine and wood ash as fertilizers for tomato cultivation in a greenhouse. Tomatoes were cultivated in pots and treated with 135 kg of N/ha applied as mineral fertilizer, urine + ash, urine only, and control (no fertilization). The urine fertilized plants produced equal amounts of tomato fruits as mineral fertilized plants and 4.2 times more fruits than nonfertilized plants. The levels of lycopene were similar in tomato fruits from all fertilization treatments, but the amount of soluble sugars was lower and Cl− was higher in urine + ash fertilized tomato fruits. The β-carotene content was greater and the NO3− content was lower in urine fertilized tomato fruits. No enteric indicator microorganisms were detected in any tomato fruits. The results suggest that urine with/without wood ash can be used as a substitute for mineral fertilizer to increase the yields of tomato without posing any microbial or chemical risks.

So go forth and pee (and dilute!). You can also, of course, just pee on the compost pile.

Many thanks to the always useful Google Scholar, one of my favorite gardening resources.

Derek Jarman’s Garden

Photo by angusf

Avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman spent the last years of his life, after an HIV diagnosis, tending a bleak, wind-swept patch of land opposite a nuclear power plant on the southern coast of England. With just a few hardy plants and some scavenged pieces of wood he put together a stunning garden. He wrote a book about it called, simply, Derek Jarman’s Garden. You can also view a flikr photo set here.

Photo by angusf

Jarman’s friend Howard Sooley, writing in the Guardian, described the garden and cottage:

Prospect Cottage sits more or less in the middle, parched by baking sun and drying winds in summer, with no shade to be had for miles in any direction. In winter, sea storms rage, while biting Siberian winds push through the shingle and up through the floorboards of the fisherman’s cottages strung out along the road to the lighthouse.

You can’t take life for granted in Dungeness: every bloom that flowers through the shingle is a miracle, a triumph of nature. Derek knew this more than anyone.

Gardens give us food, medicine, solace, and the best of them, like Jarman’s, remind us of the impermanence of our lives and the inevitability of change.

Scott’s Pepsi-G Stove

If you’ve ever backpacked any distance you’ll appreciate the need to reduce weight, taken to its logical extreme by the sort of folks who cut their toothbrushes in half. This ultra-light subculture, to our benefit, seems to be populated by engineering types who like to create useful lists and detailed instructions. And, even if you don’t backpack, these innovative ideas can be used in your emergency preparedness plans.

One of my favorite ultra-light backpacking gadgets is the Pepsi can stove, which has reappeared on the interwebs, after a prolonged absence, here.

To make a Pepsi stove you take the bottom of a 12 oz Pepsi can and the bottom of a Guinness Draught can and, after a series of precise cuts and pin pricks you end up with a nifty cooking stove that uses denatured alcohol or methanol (both easily obtained at any hardware store) as fuel.

Efficiency-wise, if you consider the ratio of weight to heat output, you’re better off with a commercial backpacking stove and fuel canisters. But such stoves are expensive and the fuel canisters are only available at camping and sporting goods stores. The nice thing about the Pepsi can stove is that it’s almost free to make and you can find the fuel at any hardware store. I keep both a Pepsi can stove and a MSR backpacking stove in my backpack. That way I’ve got a backup in case one fails to work.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I thought I’d toss in a little more detail for those of you unfamiliar with the concept. A Pepsi can stove is tiny and very light weight, good for two things–ultralight backpacking and as a simple cooking device for what some people call a bug out bag–emergency gear that is ready to grab and go.

I’ve taken one with me backpacking, as my only stove. It works fine, but it is limited in its capabilities. It can boil a cup or so of water at a time, enough to make one person a hot drink, or enough water to rehydrate a pouch of something. You certainly can’t make pancakes over one, and if you have a family to serve, you might want to consider carrying more than one of these stoves.

My camping set up included the stove, a sawed off Foster’s can (you know, those extra large beer cans) as a cooking pot, a circle of chicken wire to balance the Foster’s can upon over the stove, and a bit of foil to block wind. It all tucked inside the Foster’s can for transport and weighted hardly anything. Oh, and I kept the fuel in one of those plastic collapsible water bottles.

As Erik says, a lightweight camping stove and proper fuel canister is a much more flexible and powerful option, but little Pepsi can stoves can’t be beat for price or weight.

Here’s our 2006 post on the same subject–along with a nice photo of ours burning.