New Zealand Spinach is the New . . . Spinach

Spotted in a neglected corner of our backyard: New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides). What’s interesting is that it self-seeded and grew with no supplemental water in the middle of summer in lead and zinc contaminated soil.  We’ve never been able to grow regular (and unrelated) spinach here. But there’s no stopping the New Zealand spinach. Due to the heavy metal problem we won’t be eating this particular specimen, but when I build our new raised beds you can bet I’ll sow some New Zealand spinach for next year.

What Mountaineering Accidents Can Teach Us About Food Preservation

Would you eat pickles made by these two?

Each year the American Alpine Club publishes a book detailing all the mountaineering accidents in North America. The club’s goal is simple, as they put it, “to help you learn from the mistakes of others.”

I’ve often thought that the same approach should be applied to many of the activities we love in the homesteading movement, especially food preservation. Now, I think that home food preservation is very safe. Indeed, it’s much healthier than eating commercially processed foods. But I find mistakes to be one of the best ways to learn. In the case of food preservation, like mountaineering, I’d prefer to learn from the mistakes of others rather than experience them myself.

As it turn out, food safety scientists do keep a close eye on, especially, botulism. With the increased popularity of home canning there have been a few botulism outbreaks in recent years. Botulism is very rare, but you definitely do not want to get a case of it (just read about the symptoms and treatment here if you don’t believe me). Periodically, the Center for Disease Control publishes a review of all the cases. The last one looked at botulism incidents between 1990 and 2000.

The CDC’s botulism review is informative. The majority of cases in the US are related to traditional meat fermentation practices of the Inuit in Alaska, compounded by the inappropriate use of modern materials such as plastic and glass. The leading cause of botulism in the lower 48 is, however, improper home canning. All incidents were low-acid foods, such as asparagus, canned without following proper procedures. I suspect most of these cases were people using a boiling water bath instead of a pressure canner. Other home cases involved storing low acid foods at room temperature (which is just plain dumb).

Four cases that stand out are related to storing garlic in oil at room temeprature. The National Center for Home Food Preservation now recommends the following if you want to preserve garlic in oil:

Garlic-in-oil should be made fresh and stored in the refrigerator at 40°F or lower for no more than 7 days. It may be frozen for long term storage for up to several months. Package in glass freezer jars or plastic freezer boxes, leaving ½-inch headspace. Label, date and freeze.

The take home from the botulism review is that the problem is rare and that home food preservation is very safe assuming you follow standard procedures, most notably using a pressure canner to can low acid foods. None, zero, zilch of the incidents were related to high acid foods such as jams and jellies.

Now go pickle something (and you won’t need a pressure canner to do that!).

Five Lessons We Learned About Lead in Soil

As regular followers of this blog may recall, we did some soil tests last year that revealed elevated levels of lead and zinc in our backyard. The cause? Most likely, paint from our 92 year old house and nearly a hundred years of auto exhaust and dust from brake linings.

Applying a little alchemy to turn lead to gold, I think the most productive thing I can do is to help get the word out about lead soil and how common this problem is in urban areas. Towards that end I though I would share five things that we learned from our backyard lead crisis:

    1. Buyer Beware. When you are shopping for a house do multiple soil tests. Once you buy the house it’s too late. Real estate contracts in California (and I suspect elsewhere) have been loaded up with disclaimers about lead and old houses. I’m no legal expert, but I suspect it would be difficult to go after the seller given the lead clauses we signed in our ignorance.
    2. The dirt on soil labs. Choose a soil lab that gives detailed results and is willing to do some phone consultation. We used to recommend the cheap tests form UMass, but their results were significantly different than Timberleaf Soil Testing and Wallace Labs, which were more in line with each other. Both Wallace and Timberleaf give you more detailed reports and are both willing to chat on the phone. They cost more but are worth it.
    3. Raised beds.  Not much else to say other than those two words if you want to grow vegetables and have a lead problem. Right now I have a big compost pile going that I made with hay, straw and horse manure. I’ll use this compost along with imported soil to fill the raised beds that I’m going to build this winter. And you can bet that I’m going to test that imported soil first.
    4. Philosophical lesson. The future health of the human species requires us to be a lot more conservative in the use of chemicals. Lead was known to be a problem since the Romans, but we went ahead and used it anyways in paint and in gasoline and the results have been tragic. Nassim Taleb has written eloquently about the need to approach complex systems like nature and the economy with an attitude of humility and admit our ignorance. When we fool around with complex systems we’re asking for trouble.
    5. Rhetorical lesson. There should be a logical fallacy called the “appeal to technology.” It’s the idea that there just has to be a technological solution to every problem. This is a very common fallacy in our age. Some people have suggested that I try phytoremediation, the process of growing plants like sunflowers that accumulate lead. At the end of their growing cycle you pull the sunflowers and send them to a toxic waste dump.  Sadly, this is just not practical in a residential yard. I would have to pull every living thing, including a mature avocado tree, and grow nothing but sunflowers for the next 20 years. Others have suggested mushrooms as a remediation technique, but they don’t grow well in this dry climate.  Lead is an element and it simply doesn’t go away. Once it’s in the ground it’s in the ground. The best way to deal with it is not to use it in the first place. The city of Oakland is trying a more practical solution to deal with lead: applying fish bone meal to lead contaminated soil. Fish bones contain phosphates which bind up lead and make it less bioavailable to plants. Our soil tests indicate that we already have lots of phosphates in our soil, so I’m not sure if adding more would help.

    Of all of these points I think the first is the most important. I’ll repeat it again, if you are shopping for property get a soil test.

    Film Industry Blocks Bike Lanes, City of LA Doesn’t Care

    Film industry trucks block bike lanes all the time here in Los Angeles, particularly along busy and fast moving Sunset Boulevard. Shutting down a bike lane on Sunset forces cyclists to merge into traffic that is sometimes going as fast as 50 miles an hour. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

    Not much room between a fast moving bus and a film industry truck.

    As to the legality of blocking a bike lane I don’t have a good answer, but in my opinion it doesn’t matter. Even if it is legal, that doesn’t make it right or safe. Is a film production worth a traumatic brain injury or a death?

    Those of us who ride a bike in Los Angeles need your help. I want get the word out that:

    • Elected officials in the City of Los Angeles (in this case, Councilman Garcetti’s district) do not take the safety of cyclists and pedestrians seriously enough.
    • The film industry values profits over human lives.

    Please Tweet, Facebook and link to this post even if you don’t live here. Appeals to the police department and elected officials in the past have done nothing to fix this problem. All we get are excuses and, once LAPD calls the film crew, hand made signs like the one below:

    In Portland, Oregon cyclists get a detour:

    To contact those responsible for this situation please email the following:

    Film L.A. (the non-profit entity that coordinates and processes filming permits): [email protected]
    Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti: contact form 

    Like most cyclists here in LA, I also drive, walk and take public transportation so I understand this issue from all sides. We need equity in our transportation choices and we all need to stay safe.

    UPDATE: Looks like the city has “fixed” the problem with slightly more official looking signs:

    Too bad it’s still dangerous. I guess it’s going to take a death to fix this problem.

    UPDATE 8/29/12: More coverage in The Eastsider and Streetsblog.

    Saturday Linkages: From Plastic Bottle Kayaks to Canine Staircases

    Kayak made from plastic bottles. Via Lloyd’s blog.


    How To Turn A Mason Jar Into A Fermenting Crock – FARMcurious 

    Kayak Made from Recycled Bottles in Argentina 

    Paper Bag Flooring 

    Shadowy Profiles  

    Spicy Storage Solution Frees Up Stacks of Cupboard Space  

    How To Cover Up Dings in Wooden Furniture Home Hacks  


    Forget Doggie Doors: Home Remodel Has Canine Staircase  


    Happy Bees Equals Happy Beekeeper, and How To Treat Bee Stings. – 

    Whatever happened to common sense? 

    Not to be outdone by Canada, another city wants to ruin an urban garden. Please help! 

    What do USDA inspectors do? Undercover video shutters another dairy cull slaughterhouse in Calif. | barfblog 

    Bakers Green Acres vs. Michigan DNR – Family Farm Under Attack:

    Do companies really need babysitters? China stiff-arms FDA on jerky pet treat testing, reports show | barfblog  

    Letting Things Go in the Garden (on purpose) 


    A vivid account of life in The Late Suburban Age: 

    RT @theurbanologist: Tourists & Angelenos alike will find this 1907 map of streetcar routes in LA most helpful:

    For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:
     Follow @rootsimple

    Quebec Kitchen Garden Saved

    From BoingBoing, an update on the Drummondville, Quebec kitchen garden, seen in the time lapse video above. City officials have backed down on asking for the garden to be removed.

    Drummondville town officials announced the decision [Link is in French] this week during a special session of the Municipal Council to discuss the case. The decision could create a ripple effect in other cities worldwide as zoning laws are a constant debate in urban environments. Roger told us, “The Drummondville case was one of the highest profile examples of a local municipality challenging the right to grow food in one’s own yard. While it took place in Canada, it quickly attracted international media attention because of the garden’s beauty and productivity. The win is significant because it helps establish a precedent that other urban and suburban gardeners can refer to when similar challenges arise in other parts of the world.”

    Thrive: How Doughnuts Can Save The World

    I flipped on the car radio the other day just as some new age guru was discussing why he thought that so many people don’t have a lot of money these days:

    Host: There is not lack of resources?
    Guru: There is not. We will always be able to create more. And we don’t need to know how or why. I see poverty as being this incredibly dangerous disease. I mean, how many horrible things are happening in the world today because of poverty? How many crimes are being committed? How many people are being killed or injured?
    Host: Because of the belief in a lack of resources?
    Guru: Exactly. If we all believe that we can create whatever we need as we need it that would go a long way to stopping crime, stopping oppression, theft and many other terrible things that happen in this world.

    So apparently, according to this guru, we can imagine resources into being. This is precisely the sort of delusional thinking that John Michael Greer has warned will show up when oil and food start to get scarce. It’s also the same feel-good philosophy that Barbara Ehrenreich critiques in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.You can find this cult of positive thinking on all sides of the political spectrum, both left and right. And it has, apparently, survived the 2008 economic meltdown in which it played a big role.

    But the Nobel Prize for delusional thinking, however, should be awarded to Foster Gamble (of the Gamble family half of Proctor & Gamble) for being the auteur behind of one of the most bizarre documentaries I’ve ever sat through, Thrive What On Earth Will It Take? You can watch Thrive in its entirety on YouTube via the link. And if you’re a connoisseur of so-bad-it’s-good cinema and conspiracy theories, you really should take a look at this thing.

    Most of the film takes place on a kind of interview studio/spaceship inspired, perhaps, by the one Carl Sagan deployed in Cosmos. But unlike Sagan, Gamble is not one to let inconvenient facts like the laws of thermodynamics interfere with all that free energy we can just will into existence. The central thesis of Thrive is put forth by an outsider physicist (sporting a sort of new age mullet) who explains that there’s a form, resembling an oversized and transparent jelly doughnut that, when combined with one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic shapes, can create energy out of thin air. Or, at least, that’s what I think he said. Confirmation that this jelly doughnut energy thingy works is delivered by UFO abductees who witnessed (during anal probe sessions?) spaceships using the jelly doughnut energy vortex to fly around the galaxy. Further confirmation comes from crop circles, Nikola Tesla and a montage of perpetual motion machines.

    Of course, oil companies, international bankers and Freemasons have stomped down their collective jack boots on the free energy generating jelly doughnut. David Icke, British sportscaster turned reptilian conspiracy theorist, is brought on to flesh out the geopolitical segment of Thrive. This segment culminates, for me at least, in the amazing revelation that seed companies are working on a spermicidal corn to control the human population.

    Along the way we hear from Indian GMO activist Vandana Shiva and Deepak Chopra, which probably explains this disclaimer at the end of the film:

    Personally, I’m thanking my lucky stars that Kelly and I ended up on the cutting room floor of a 2012 doc that came out last year, but that’s another story.

    So how does Gamble suggest we fight off the evil bankers/one world government? Thrive concludes in the same way a lot of more mainstream environmental documentaries end these days, with tepid suggestions about shopping for organic food, buying recycled yoga mats, “organizing” and switching to credit unions.

    In a blog post entitled “Merlin’s Time,” John Michael Greer sums up what I wish mainstream eco-docs would conclude with (Thrive is so outre that, as a work of unintentional conceptual art, it should just stay as it is). Greer says that what we really we need to do is,

    learn, practice, and thoroughly master a set of unpopular but valuable skills – the skills of the old appropriate tech movement – and share them with their neighbors when the day comes that their neighbors are willing to learn. This is not a subject where armchair theorizing counts for much – as every wizard’s apprentice learns sooner rather than later, what you really know is measured by what you’ve actually done – and it’s probably not going to earn anyone a living any time soon, either, though it can help almost anyone make whatever living they earn go a great deal further than it might otherwise go. Nor, again, will it prevent the unraveling of the industrial age and the coming of a harsh new world; what it can do, if enough people seize the opportunity, is make the rough road to that new world more bearable than it will otherwise be.

    In that new world we’ll have to grow and fry up our jelly doughnuts from scratch and they won’t fly us around. Neither, thankfully, will they be made with spermicidal corn syrup.

    What Do Microbes Have To Do With Homesteading?

    So what are the activities that microbes make possible around the homestead? To name just four:

    • Fermentation
    • Beekeeping
    • Soil Fertility
    • Human beings

    Pretty important stuff. In fact, new systems thinking, applied to our natural word, is demonstrating that things like human beings are really just symbiotic sacks of microbial life. An article in the Economist, “Microbes maketh man” discusses just how important microbes are to human health:

    The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

    Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has made the same argument about bees. Elaine Ingham has emphasized the importance of microbes in soil.

    Mess with the complex interdependent relationships between microbes and people, soil etc. and you’re asking for trouble. This, for me, is the argument against things like GMOs, Miracle Grow or conventional chemical beekeeping. We don’t know enough, and probably never will know, how 100 trillion bacteria will react to our latest innovation. Best to be conservative when it comes to microbial life.

    Looking forward to seeing more of this microbial paradigm shift in science.