Picture Sundays: Makin’ Adobes

From the Library of Congress image archive “Spanish-American removing form shaped adobe brick. The adobe brick is next dried by the sun. Chamisal, New Mexico. July 1940.”

This is exactly what I’ve been doing in my spare time for a few weeks now in preparation for an upcoming earth oven workshop. I’m on adobe #50–45 more to go!

And, from the same archive, an adobe chicken coop:

“Scene in the adobe brick chicken house of Mr. Bosley, Bosley reorganization unit, Baca County, Colorado.”

Saturday Linkages: Audio Jars, Cutting Glass Bottles and Assorted Rants

E.B. White’s letter to the ASPCA responding to his failure to pay a dog tax: http://bit.ly/wKIq9L

Audio Jar – Open Source Speaker Housings: http://bit.ly/xV7II6

Bread geeks bring native wheat species back to Los Angeles | 89.3 KPCC http://www.scpr.org/programs/madeleine-brand/2012/03/08/25511/la-wheat via @KPCC

Working Undercover in a Slaughterhouse: an interview with Timothy Pachirat http://boingboing.net/2012/03/08/working-undercover-in-a-slaugh.html via @BoingBoing

Easy way to cut glass bottles: http://www.recyclart.org/2012/02/diy-easy-cut-glass-bottles/

Frugal food: 10 DIY tips to save money while eating better and healthier – Boing Boing http://boingboing.net/2012/03/06/frugal-food-10-diy-tips-to-sa.html via @BoingBoing

These, and more linkages, are from the Root Simple twitter feed

The Stages of Alchemy as a Metaphor for Composting

I’ve been struck, for a long time, at the connections between alchemy and composting. I thought it might be interesting to “thoughtstyle” on the alchemical process and what it has to teach us as a metaphor for composting. Though there’s not universal agreement on this, western alchemy is often divided into four stages identified by color:

Nigredo or blackening
“The ever deepening descent into the unconscious suddenly becomes illumination from above” as Carl Jung put it. In other words, you have to go down to go up. When you work with compost you’re literally working with poop, waste and trash.

Albedo or whitening
The nigredo stage is purified by the fire of thermophilic bacteria and transformed into the albedo or “whitening”. The dark night of the soul has concluded as the trash (poop!) in our compost pile are now a living, breathing collective entity.

Citrinitas, the yellowing
Connected with the symbolism of the sun it’s a reminder that all life, including the microbes, fungi and insect life of the compost pile are ultimately (somewhat tangentially in the case of fungi) connected to the solar power of the sun.

Rubedo, a reddening
At the final stage, the rubedo, a multiplication takes place – life pervades the compost pile in a highly concentrated form. Lead becomes gold and, in fact, everything the rubedo touches becomes gold. The same goes with our compost. Everything it comes in contact with is pervaded with microbial life.

At its heart, alchemy is a metaphor for spiritual change. When we compost, we’re participating with and accelerating one of nature’s miracles: the transformation of waste in to life. Compost, then, is the spiritual, life-giving transformation of the planet.

Earth Based Finishes for Walls

Kurt demos proper hawk and trowel technique.

I just spent a blissful weekend in the California desert learning earth based finish techniques from adobe master Kurt Gardella. Some observations:

  • Earth plastering is not something you can learn from a book. It takes practice and hands-on experience. In this excellent workshop we got three full days of learning the techniques both for indoor and outdoor surfaces.

Clay, sand, wheat paste and prickly pear juice as an exterior plaster.

  • There’s no simple recipe for earth based finishes since clay and sand have different properties depending on where they come from. You figure out the right proportions of clay/sand/straw by doing test patches. Too much clay and the surface will crack. Too much sand and it wont stick to the wall when you try to trowel it on. Straw can be used to strike a balance. We did a second scratch coat on the first day that ended up cracking badly. We tried to add more sand but that made the plaster too hard to trowel on. The solution was to add more straw, which allowed us to keep a higher clay content in the mix, while preventing the coat from cracking when it dried.

Kurt shows how to work over the final mud plaster coat.

  • Earth based walls have an indescribable, almost metaphysical presence. I had been in the small desert cabin we plastered when it had wood paneling. Once the walls were filled with cob and the plaster coats applied it had a weightiness that’s difficult to describe in words. Some other advantages: it absorbs sound, regulates humidity and is a good insulator. Drywall seems flimsy in comparison. There’s something about traditional plastering techniques (even the lath and plaster of our 1920s house) that give a room a comforting feeling. Of course, plastering with a hawk, trowel and darby take a lot of skill and time which is why they are seldom done anymore. It’s a pity.

Image from japanesetrowels.com

  • The Japanese make the best trowels. And, yes, there is a japanesetrowels.com. The flexible ones are especially nice for finish coats. But they ain’t cheap.

Fermenting prickly pear.

  • Rotted prickly pear cactus juice, combined with some wheat paste, makes an amazing stabilizer when mixed with adobe. The mucilaginous texture of prickly pear gives adobe a stability that helps it resist water penetration. To extract the cactus juice you chop up prickly pear, put it in a bucket with some water, and let it ferment for a few weeks. We used a prickly pear stabilizer in a mix that covered the top of a cob oven.

If you’re interested in learning adobe techniques Kurt Gardella will be coming to LA to teach a class on oven building. More info here. Some plastering will be done in the course of the oven class.  There’s also a nice book on the subject: Using Natural Finishes: A Step-by-Step Guide.

One last thought: Working earth plaster by day and sleeping in a cozy desert cabin with a copy of the Odyssey is just about as perfect a life as I could hope for. Thank you Meredith and Doug for your hospitality!

Solitary Bee Nests: Why Having Bare Ground is Good

Solitary bee nesting sites? Cat added for scale. Photo by Anne Hars.

Just as I was about to arrogantly suggest to my neighbor Anne that she mulch her garden paths, we spotted what I believe to be some sort of ground nesting bee activity. We found neat little holes scattered about the the middle of a dirt path. More appeared today.

According to Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat, 70% of solitary bees (not to be confused with honey bees) build their nests in open, dry spots of dirt. While I’m all for mulch to build soil and suppress weeds, the Xerces Society makes a good case for keeping a small part of your yard bare and thus open for native bee habitat.

In case these are the infamous Los Angeles sandworms, Anne plans on avoiding rhythmic walking in the backyard over the next few weeks.

Sunset Western Garden Book Winners!

Thank you all for your entries and your great tomato recommendations. I hope those gave some of you some good ideas for your summer garden.

We have five winners of The New Sunset Western Garden Book :

  • Bee Girl from Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Sara O. from Denver, Colorado
  • Tracey from Fairbanks, Alaska
  • Donna M. from Romona, California
  • PeckyCaw from Portland, Oregon

If that’s you, please send your mailing address to us: [email protected].  We’ll forward your address to the publishers of the book, who will send you the book directly.

The winners were chosen at random–we asked a random number generator to choose 5 numbers, and applied those numbers to the comments in the order they were entered.

Also, I neglected to mention in my review of this book that Sunset has a handy online plant finder. Well worth checking out.

Congrats to our winners and we’ll do some more giveaways in the coming year!

Root Simple Edible Gardening Classes at the Huntington Ranch

There are still some spots available for our edible gardening class at the Huntington that starts this Saturday. In the course of the three consecutive Saturday sessions, we’ll build a compost pile, dissect soil test reports, make a seed starting mix and discuss incorporating fruit trees and native plants into your edible landscape among many other topics. The class will be held at the Huntington’s spectacular Ranch. Here’s the details:

March 10, 17 & 24 (Saturdays)
9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Learn everything you need to know to start your own organic vegetable garden in this hands-on series led by Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne of Root Simple. Sessions will take place entirely outdoors on The Huntington’s Ranch site and will cover all the basics of planning, planting, composting, soil science, pest control, and harvesting.
Members: $120. Non Members: $135.
Registration: 626-405-2128