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): info@filmlainc.com
    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.