Tame the Email Beast and Have Time To Run Your Urban Homestead

The original smart phone?

When Kelly and I do a book appearance one of the most common questions is, “How do you have time for all this stuff?” Our response is two parts. The first is to say that we don’t recommend people try to do everything in our book but, instead, focus on the things you like to do most. The time will appear as your interests and priorities shift. The second is that we don’t watch TV.

That being said, there are many places in modern life from which to “harvest” some time other than from evening TV-viewing hours. Email is where I’ve begun my time harvesting lately. While incredibly useful, email has become a daily, herculean task. It’s also a medium that’s as addictive as crack (there has been debate about including email addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Like lab rats waiting for a treat to shoot down a slot, we get rewarded via stimulation for for checking it constantly.

This is where a suggestion in a book I otherwise strongly dislike1, Timothy Ferris’ The 4-Hour Workweek,  comes in handy. Ferris suggests checking your email twice a day, at 11 AM and 4 PM. Why these two times? He believes that we get our best work done early in the morning and that it’s best to have that morning period uninterrupted by distractions such as email. Ferris suggests that if you were to map out a day in which you checked email constantly you would see a huge amount of time wasted just through the short but high frequency of interruptions.

By checking email once at 11 and 4 you have a chance of getting a response before the end of the day. To do this you “train” your family, friends and co-workers by placing a footer at the bottom of your email to inform them when you check your email. Mine reads,

I check my email at noon and after the sun sets. If your needs are more urgent please give me a call at [HOME NUMBER]. Bloggin’ at www.rootsimple.com. Co-author (with Kelly Coyne) of the Urban Homestead (Process Media) and Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World (Rodale).

It would be cranky, but I’ve thought about reminding people that my phone number connects you to this device:

I may have to add on to that email footer:

I check my email at noon and after the sun sets. If your needs are more urgent, lease give me a call at [HOME NUMBER]. Regarding my communication device, the Western Electric 500 desktop telephone: It does not allow me to see what your number is, so do not be surprised if I don’t know who is calling. It is wired to the wall and, thus, not “mobile”. If you hear a “busy signal” (oldsters can tell you what that sounds like) it means I’m talking to someone else and don’t even know you’re trying to call. You should call again later.  The Western Electric 500 does not function as a map, camera, meat thermometer or allow me to update my Facebook page.  But it has a nice ring, and I do love hearing the sound of your voice. Bloggin’ at www.rootsimple.com. Co-author (with Kelly Coyne) of some books printed on paper.

But that would be rude.  Plus I do have a “mobile” communicator though I don’t give that number out, because I hate getting calls on it while I’m out and about and doing things.

But I digress. I’ve also worked on reducing email before it gets to me by sending many a newsletter and press release to my crack spam detection unit. And I deleted my email-generating Linkedin account (someone please explain Linkedin to me). If I could delete my Facebook profile I would, but I still find it useful for keeping in touch with friends and readers. And if I could shorten my emails to the length of the typical Morse code transaction I would, but that strategy, I fear, would get misinterpreted as brusqueness.

My new email twice a day regime seems to be working. I’m getting a lot more work done. Now I want to be clear that I’m not anti–technology. I like email and find cellphones useful in many circumstances. I just think that we need, as Douglas Rushkoff put it, a “time out” to sort out what’s useful and what is a time suck. I’d rather use email and cellphones as a tool to help other people, to garden, to do all the things I love to do. Taming the email beast has been a useful first time management step for me.

Leave a comment and tell us how you deal with email!


1. Why do I dislike The Four Hour Work Week? I think with this book and The 4-Hour Body, Ferris simply sat down and asked, “how do I write a best selling book?” Let’s see, what topics should I cover? What do people care most about? Flat abs? check. Money? check. Sex? check, etc. Sort through the hyperbole in these two hefty tomes and you’re left with a few sentences of decent advice.

Learn to Build With Earth: Adobe in Action Workshops

Adobe master Kurt Gardella has announced a series of both hands-on and online adobe classes for the spring. I had the great privilege of taking a hands-on adobe brick making workshop as well as an online adobe oven building workshop with Kurt last year. We did a blog post about the brick making workshop.

You can see a listing of Kurt’s online classes, which cover everything from foundations to building permits, here. He is also teaching an AIA certificate program that is both live (in New Mexico) or online that you can sign up for here.

I’m also pleased to announce that we’ll be hosting an adobe oven class with Kurt here in Los Angeles in May. Details to follow. 

Is This Egg Good?

From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.

Stop SOPA and PIPA

We don’t normally do politics on this blog but today we’re making an exception. It’s our belief that two bills working their way through congress, SOPA and PIPA, will significantly impact freedom of speech on the Internet. For more info on these two bills see a blog post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation,  How PIPA and SOPA Violate White House Principles Supporting Free Speech and Innovation.

Sunset Magazine’s Take on Zones

A Sunset Magazine zone map

Yesterday we posted a USDA zone based vegetable gardening planting guide. But the problem with USDA zones, as many readers pointed out, is that they aren’t specific enough. For instance, all of the city of Los Angeles is in USDA zone 10, but the difference between where we live and the coast is significant.

This is where Sunset Magazine’s more detailed zones maps come in handy. Sunset has divided the entire country into more finely delineated micro-climates. You can find your Sunset zone here. With your Sunset zone you can then use their handy online plant finder or one of their many books.

While an excellent resource, unless I failed to find it, I couldn’t locate any vegetable planting schedule based on Sunset zones. Perhaps its an impossible question, proof of the adage that “all gardening advice is local.”

USDA Zone Based Veggie Planting Schedule

Knowing when to plant vegetables is one of the big keys to edible gardening success. Unfortunately, many gardening books, websites and the back of seed packages assume you’re in a place with easily delineated seasons. What about those of us in Alaska, Southern California, Texas, Florida or Arizona? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a web-based vegetable planting calendar based on zip codes?

While it’s not down to the zip code level, there’s a USDA zone based web tool on a site called the Vegetable Garden. Now I have to say that this website, with all those contextual ads, looks like a scraper site at first glance. But the info on our zone 10, here in SoCal, was accurate.

I’d be interested in hearing what those of you in other USDA zones think of this tool. Give the Vegetable Garden planting schedule a spin and leave a comment. I’m hoping to post tools like this on a resource page that will appear on this blog later this year and would appreciate your input.

Thanks to Root Simple reader Kristen of the Urban Farm Blog for this tip. You can also scroll to the bottom of a post we did on the 6th for planting schedules for Texas, Montreal and Southern Nevada.

The CDFA’s Pesticide Theater

In the fall of 2009 a citrus pest called the Asian Citrus Psylid showed up in our neighborhood. It’s a major concern to commercial citrus growers since the pest spreads an incurable and fatal plant disease called huanglongbing (HLB).

The California Department of Food and Agriculture commenced a futile effort to suppress the psylid by hiring a contractor, TruGreen, to spray residential backyards in Southern California with a combination of imidacloprid (deadly to pollinating insects) and pyrethroid.

As I expected, it didn’t work. The state’s strategy has now shifted to releasing a parasitic wasp (Tamarixia radiata) imported from Pakistan. Citrus farmers will continue heavy applications of pesticides to keep the psylid at bay. UC Cooperative Extension biological control specialist Mark Hoddle explained to KQED (italics mine),

Hoddle says Tamarixia radiata won’t eradicate Asian citrus psyllid. Commercial citrus producers in California will still continue to apply insecticides to prevent the spread of Huanglongbing. But, he says, state regulators have already determined backyard pesticide applications are too expensive ($10-11 million so far) and too ineffective to bother with.

Frankly, I’m inclined to conclude that the original eradication program was a make-work program for CDFA officials and TruGreen all made possible by a big infusion of cash from our tax dollars and the citrus industry.

During their backyard spraying campaign in our neighborhood in the fall of 2010, the CDFA and TruGreen showed up at a neighbor’s house who, at the time, had over 50 citrus trees in pots (she was operating a mini-nursery and selling the trees).  CDFA and TruGreen were overwhelmed by the amount of trees and ran out of imidacloprid. They promised to return but never did, leading me to believe that they weren’t really interested in eradicating a pest but were, instead, engaged in a kind of “pesticide theater”. It’s a bit like the security theater that goes on everyday at our nation’s airports courtesy of the TSA.

Even with the parasitic wasps I’m not planning on planting any citrus or recommending that citrus be planted in Southern California backyards.  Everywhere in the world the psylid has shown up, HLB has followed within a decade. I strongly suspect that growing citrus in SoCal will be like trying to grow table or wine grapes here. With grapes, Pierce’s disease, spread by a very similar insect called the glassy winged sharpshooter, makes it impossible to grow anything but resistant varieties unless you use a lot of pesticides. Until a HLB resistant citrus tree shows up (probably by means of genetic modification, never a great option IMHO) I’d stick to pomegranates and figs.

A Sonora and Kamut Wheat Field in Los Angeles County!

Sonora wheat

The Los Angeles Bread Bakers, of which I’m a co-founder along with Teresa Sitz and Mark Stambler, have teamed with farmer Andrea Crawford, of Kenter Canyon Farms, to plant what I think may be the first wheat field in Los Angeles County in many years.

Wheat used to be widely grown here, especially Sonora wheat, a drought tolerant variety originally bought to the Southwest by the Spanish. Along with Sonora, we planted an ancient wheat variety called Khorasan, better known under the trade name Kamut. An American airman obtained Kamut from a street vendor in Cairo in 1949. Researchers are studying ancient wheats like Kamut to see if people with wheat allergies can tolerate them better. We purchased both varieties (certified organic) from the Sustainable Seed Company.

Discing the field

The field was prepared by discing it with a tractor. We sowed the wheat by hand and then covered it temporarily with shade cloth to keep the birds out until the seeds germinate. The seeds were watered in with an overhead sprinkler, but the plan is to pray for rain. If it turns out to be a dry year, monthly waterings will be necessary.

Mark, Andrea and Nathan sowing.

Andrea plans on sowing in some red poppies to help keep the weeds down. If all goes well, a harvest party (get ready to thresh and winnow!) will take place when the grains mature. Sign up for the LA Bread Bakers Meetup (free to join) to find out when the harvest fest will take place.

The wheat field covered with shade cloth.

Speaking for the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, we’re really excited to be a part of this agricultural experiment. A big thanks goes out to Andrea and her son Nathan who have made this possible. We’ll post some updates on the blog as the field progresses.

Note: A quick clarification because we’ve had some questions. The poppies that Andrea plans to plant are not Somniferum poppies (that’s a different kind of cash crop!). They are red poppies, also called Flanders poppies, Papaver rhoeas.

Low Tech Solar Heating with a Thermosyphon Collector

Yet another great post from the folks at Build It Solar: a simple and low tech solar heating system called a thermosyphon collector mounted in the wall of a garage. It uses the same principle as the solar dehydrator we have on our garage roof–basically it’s just some clear plastic and a heat collector made out of black window screen. If your climate is cold and sunny (think Colorado) this would work nicely.

Read the post to see a review of its performance over the past nine years here.