Urban Permaculture Survey/Interview

Attention urban/suburban permaculturists. I’m writing an article for Urban Farm Magazine on “urban permaculture” and I need your help. I’ve created a survey/interview for the article: click here to take the Urban Farm permaculture article survey. Please forward this link/survey to all your permaculture friends–send it out far and wide–work that Facebook! If you’re critical of permaculture you are also welcome to take the survey. Thanks for your help!

Staking Tomatoes with Concrete Reinforcing Mesh

For years we’ve been using concrete reinforcing mesh to stake our tomatoes. It’s a 6-inch square grid of wire and is used to reinforce concrete slabs. I buy it in 3 1/2-feet by 7-feet sections at my local home improvement center. To make a tomato cage with it you find a flat stretch of patio or driveway and bend the wire into a tube. I overlap it a bit and tie it together with wire.

This year, thanks to a tip from Craig Ruggless, I decided to double the height of the cages using two per plant to make them 7-feet high. As the plant grows, you simply tuck the vines into the cage, with no pruning necessary. But you do have to stay on top of the tucking, otherwise you risk breaking off stems. Since a 7-foot cage can be very top heavy I staked them deep into the ground with some rebar I had laying around. Long wooden stakes would work just as well. You could also choose to grow shorter tomato varieties. The San Marzano tomatoes in the middle of the picture above are half the height of the other two and way more productive.

Another staking option is to buy Texas Tomato Cages for $99 for six 24-inch by 6-foot cages. The advantage with the Texas cages is that they fold flat when not in use. The disadvantage is the price. If you buy your concrete reinforcing mesh in bulk, on long rolls, the price would be significantly less than the Texas Cages and I think reinforcing wire is just as attractive if rolled carefully.

I would avoid the tiny, flimsy conical cages I’ve seen for sale at most nurseries as almost every tomato plant will easily outgrow them and stems will break as they spill over the top.

For a roundup tomato staking techniques see the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners website.

And leave some comments about your favorite staking and/or pruning methods.

Foreclosure Garden Foreclosed

Neighbor, artist and master gardener Anne Hars took over the front yard of a foreclosed triplex earlier this year and planted a vegetable garden. The triplex had fallen in to disrepair and had become notorious for housing a bunch of gang members.  The police evicted the gangsters and the building fell into disrepair.

The garden Anne planted in the spring had just begun to bring forth its bounty.

Then, this past week, an unpleasant man showed up claiming to work for Bank of America.

That was the end of the garden.

As Anne put it, “this is how the banks take care of their property…”

Read the whole saga on Anne’s blog, theforeclosuregarden.blogspot.com.

It ain’t “eco” if you can’t fix it

In the past month I had to repair two kitchen appliances–a 50 year old O’Keefe and Merritt Stove with a broken door spring and an expensive 1990s model “eco-refregerator” called a Conserv, with a torn freezer gasket. The winner: O’Keefe and Merritt! Why?

The torn freezer gasket of the Conserv, as it turns out, is an integral part of the door. After a painfully long call to the parts distributor’s Indian call center I found out that, to repair the gasket, I would have to buy a new door at a cost of $400.

My beef? The Conserv violates several of the tenets of Mr. Jalopy’s Maker’s Bill of Rights, a manifesto of design principles that, if manufactures abided by them, would make things a hell of a lot easier to repair. Here’s a few of the Maker’s Bill of Rights statues violated by the Conserv,

“Cases shall be easy to open.”

“Components, not entire sub-assemblies, shall be replaceable.”

“Ease of repair shall be a design ideal, not an afterthought.”

By way of contrast, the old O’Keefe and Merritt stove’s components are all easily dissembled with a screwdriver. It took just a few minutes to remove the side panels and replace the broken door spring.

In the end, I patched the Conserv’s gasket with glue and a piece of a bike tire inner tube. We’ll see if it holds. It would be a shame to junk this otherwise excellent and efficient refrigerator over a gasket worth pennies.

I propose an amendment to the Makers Bill for “green” manufacturers such as the Vestfrost company who manufactured the Conserv: “If you’re going to call something “green,” “efficient,” or “eco,” you have to abide by all the tenets of the Makers Bill.” In short, if you’re going to make eco claims you better be able to make repairs.

Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter

Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter (Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a. “tree spinach”) has reemerged in our garden via the compost pile. It’s a striking edible weed, part of the family that encompasses spinach, quinoa and epazote. Seeds of Change sells this beautiful variety, oddly named “Magenta Spreen.” Like other members of the Chenopodium family it has a fair amount of oxalic acid which could be a problem if it’s all you ate. Even though I’m prone to kidney stones I’m not concerned about oxalic acid in moderation. Cooking reduces oxalic acid as well as saponins that the leaves also contain.

The Plants for a Future database entry on Chenopodium giganteum has a few cultivation details,

“An easily grown plant, succeeding in most soils but disliking shade. It prefers a moderately fertile soil. This species is closely related to C. album, and was probably derived from it through cultivation. The tree spinach is sometimes cultivated for its edible leaves, there are some named varieties. ‘Magentaspreen’ is a vigorous plant growing 1.5 metres tall. It has large leaves, the new growth is a brilliant magenta colour. Tastiest when young, the leaves are eaten raw or cooked like spinach. A warm climate is required in order to ripen the seed.”

Chenopodium giganteum has a tendency to become invasive, but I prefer to think of it as what Craig Ruggless of Garden Edibles calls a “happy wanderer.”

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Buyer Beware

From the University of California Food Blog, a warning about fraud in the olive oil business:

“Researchers at UC Davis and in Australia discovered that 69 percent of the imported oils sampled, compared to just 10 percent of the California-produced oils sampled, failed to meet internationally accepted standards for extra virgin olive oil.

The imported oils tested were purchased from supermarkets and “big box” stores in three California regions: Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County. The California brands, however, were found only in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area.

Defects in those oils that failed to pass muster included oxidation from excessive temperature, light or aging and addition of cheaper refined olive oils.  Other flaws may have been linked to improper processing or storage and use of damaged or overripe olives.

Anecdotal reports of low-quality olive oils lurking behind extra-virgin labels have been floating about for some time but this is the first “empirical proof” to support those suspicions, according to Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center.”

 Read the full report on the website of the UC Davis Olive Center.

Love the Grub 2.1

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae, common in compost piles, are a free protein source for chickens and fish. It’s possible to create a composter to deliberately propagate BSF. Jerry (sorry I don’t know your last name) of the Black Soldier Fly Blog, has put together excellent and very detailed instructions on how to construct the BSF composter above. It’s a kind of Logan’s Run for larvae. Soldier fly females enter through the pipe on the top of the bucket and lay their eggs in food scraps you place in the bottom of the device. Larvae hatch and climb up a spiral tube and fall into a holding box.

You can buy a commercial BSF propogator, the Biopod, but it’s a bit over my price range. I’ll be putting together this BSF composter soon and will report back on my results.

Thanks to Federico of the Los Angeles Eco-village for the tip on this. See Federico’s blog http://eeio.blogspot.com/ for some other amazing DIY projects.

Also, see our previous post on the BSF.

Solar Light Hack

We wanted a solar powered light over our new entrance arbor. The problem is that most of the lights available are just plain ugly. And the solar panels on the cheaper models are usually mounted on the light itself making it impossible to place them in a shady spot.

I came up with a simple solution. First, I bought an inexpensive solar light intended to be mounted on a fence. I took it apart and desoldered the LEDs off the circuit board. Next, I soldered four wires to the former connections to the two LEDs. Basically, I created a extension cord to the LEDs. I mounted the LEDs on a small scrap circuit board and soldered the ends of the wires to them.

What I ended up with is a battery and solar power unit connected by wire to two LEDs that I could place in a more attractive enclosure. We had a candle lamp that Mrs. Homegrown found on the street that worked perfectly, but we could have used just about any fixture. We could now place the solar panel in a sunny location on top of the entrance arbor and then hang the light underneath.

Next on my agenda is to create lights from scratch that flicker like candles.

Here’s a primer on working with LEDs. Note that LEDs have positive and negative legs, so if you hack a solar light, remember to connect up the LEDs respecting the polarity.

Los Angeles School Board Cancels Tyson Contract

Thanks to the hard work of local food activists, including my neighbor Jennie Cook, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted this past week to withdraw its five year contract with Tyson Foods Inc. It’s a multi-million dollar loss for Tyson which provides chicken, or.what they refer to on their own website as “protein products” to the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Tyson was to have been a part of a contract divided between three other providers. All together Tyson and the other companies, who provide beef, potatoes and turkey, were to split a potential $284,450,000 over five years.

Rumor has it that Tyson representatives will attempt to win back the contract over the next month, with the activists promising to return to the next LAUSD board meeting on August 31st.

Looks like Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution” has come to LAUSD.

Clarification 7/20/2010: According to an email from Jennie Cook, LAUSD cancelled the Tyson contract because of labor practices not food quality. I’ll post more on this story later.