USDA Releases New Hardiness Zone Map

The United States Department of Agriculture has just released a new zone hardiness map that reflects both a warming climate and new algorithms that take into account things like terrain, and proximity to bodies of water.  The map is also now searchable by zip code.

You can access the new map here: .

For the background on how this map is different from the previous (1990) version, the USDA has a press release

How To Design a Garden Step III: Pathways

So you’ve set your goals and have a scale drawing of the land you plan to garden. What’s next? Paths! Paths keep you from compacting soil and lend visual interest to your garden. Some tips:

Establish a path hierarchy
Create wide paths with smaller branching paths. Think of the human circulatory system:

Or fractal patterns found in nature, like tree branches:

Now our property is so small that, when I’m done re-doing the backyard it will only have two main paths and one or two branching paths, but the path hierarchy concept is scalable to any piece of land large or small.

Put paths where people walk
Avoid what’s called in the landscape architecture biz “vanity paths,” i.e. paths that look good but aren’t actually used. If people are taking a shortcut, make that a path!

Path size
A comfortable path is probably no smaller than 18 inches. If you’re designing a public garden where wheelchair accessibility is an issue make the path no smaller than 3 feet. For two people to pass each other you need 5 to 6 feet, though a path that big would be for a larger piece of land than we own. Consider the size of any tools or wheelbarrows you might need to accommodate.

I’m fond of mulch. It’s free, easy to maintain and breaks down into soil. I’ve used gravel in the past–it looks nice but it can be hard to keep clean over time. Stepping stones also work nicely. As for edging, I’ve been using river rock as it’s easy to find in my area.

Create gathering areas
Paths should open up in to larger seating areas. We have a deck area for entertaining visitors and a smaller spot that I use as an outdoor office in the summer months. A school garden might have an outdoor classroom off of a main path.

I can’t emphasize how important paths are, both aesthetically and for preventing soil compaction. Years ago Kelly suggested the path we just put in and it’s a real improvement to the garden. Perhaps listening to your wife is a design lesson for another post!

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for inspiring this post.

National Wildlife Federation Teams with Scotts

Time to take down those “certified wildlife habitat” signs as it seems the National Wildlife Federation has entered into a “partnership” with Scotts, manufacturers of a host of wildlife unfriendly synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Some thoughts:

Scotts products do grave injury to microbial and fungal life in the soil to say nothing of insects. The NWF has too narrow an idea of what constitutes “wildlife”.

And perhaps the era of big non-profit organizations like the NWF, that are little more than a mailing list, is over. We need more grass roots organizations at the community level that consist of actual people meeting face to face to do things like building school gardens, teaching permaculture and making our neighborhoods safer.

For more background on this controversy see Garden Rant.  And leave a comment on the NWF’s Facebook page.

Update: NWF has announced that they are giving up on this partnership citing Scott’s legal troubles  “related to events in 2008 that predate our partnership.” I’m still going to find an alternate use for my NWF wildlife habitat sign for even contemplating this partnership in the first place.

How To Design a Garden Step II: Using Google Earth to Draw Up a Plan

So you’ve set the goals for your garden, as we outlined in a post earlier this week, and you’re ready to start putting pen to paper. Google Earth makes it easy to quickly create a plan to scale.

Zoom in on the space you want to garden and print out an image. Next, take separate sheets of tracing paper and use them to map out:

  • your goals
  • existing conditions such as trees and buildings
  • future plantings
  • where water flows when it rains
  • sun and shade
  • problem areas
  • topography
  • future paths (more on this in tomorrow’s post)
  • permaculture zones

For a more accurate and sizable plan you can also use Google’s free 3D modeling program SketchUp. The drawback with SketchUp is that it requires a couple of evenings to learn.

If only we had taken the time to draw up a plan to scale when we first moved into our house back in 1998! Better late than never, and at least it’s easier now thanks to Google.

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for inspiring this post!

Growing Greens Under Fruit Trees

In the photo above is Scott Kleinrock showing off a section of the edible garden he designed at the Huntington Gardens. At first glace it looks like a lot of weeds, but it’s a clever idea: growing greens in the understory of fruit trees.

In this picture, which was taken last weekend, you see a field of:

  • mallow
  • daikon radish
  • arugula
  • mustard 
  • vetch
  • calendula
  • cabbage

Except for the vetch, which helps build soil, all are edible and nutritious. It was grown with almost no supplemental water. Labor involved removing unwanted grasses in the first year and spreading seeds. And all of these plants readily reseed themselves.

Depending on your climate, the plants you use for this strategy could vary, but the idea is the same: select hardy, reseeding greens that take little or no care. Weed out the things you don’t want. Use space that would otherwise go to waste. Lastly, sit back and let nature do her thing.

How To Design a Garden Step I: Identifying Goals

Food, beauty and habitat.

Garden design does not come naturally to me. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and continue to make them. One of the biggest of those mistakes is thinking of a garden as a collection of plants. Designing this way leads to lots of money wasted at the nursery and a garden that looks like a hoarder’s living room. Trust me, after years of misguided gardening design, your first step should be to identify goals.

Making a List of Goals

Sit down and think of what you want the garden to do. This applies to a residential space, a community garden plot, a school garden, anywhere. Include everyone who will use the space in the process. Kelly and I sat down a few months ago and came up with the following ideas about what our garden should provide:

  • solace and comfort
  • a place to meditate
  • food
  • habitat for insects and birds
  • beauty
  • a place to sit and hang out with friends
  • a place to sit and work with a laptop
  • space for our chickens
  • flowers for bees
  • space for native plants
  • areas that are semi-wild and not often visited 
  • space for the composting

Think and meditate on your goals before drawing up a plan.  And for those of us in the urban homesteading movement, I think it’s important to measure productivity in more ways than just the amount of food you get from your yard.  How will the garden provide peace and well being? Educational opportunities? Ways to commune with nature? Some goals aren’t obvious at first. As authors we have a lot of people who want to come over and take photos, something we have to consider as we re-do our backyard. And I’m definitely aiming for a garden that requires less maintenance!

So what are some of the goals you keep in mind for the gardens you tend? Share some comments . . .

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for an amazing class on Urban Ecological Agriculture that I had the privilege of attending. In this class I learned many important design concepts including the one in this post. We’ll share a bunch more in the next couple of posts.

Joshua Tree Earthen Finishes Class – March 2nd, 3rd & 4th

Another adobe workshop with Kurt Gardella–this one in Southern California. I’ll be at this one, so hope to see some of you there:

adobeisnotsoftware is pleased to have Kurt Gardella return to California for three days of intensive instruction in interior and exterior earthen finish practices.  Kurt developed much of the online curriculum for Northern New Mexico College’s adobe program, and has great expertise in both adobe construction and earthen plasters and finishes. Attendees will leave the class with knowledge of how to mix and apply earthen and lime plasters, lime washes and casein paints – the class is suitable for both building professionals and do-it-your-selfers.
  • Finish selection for conventional and earthen buildings
  • Soil and Material Selection, Sourcing and Testing
  • Vapor Permeability, Water Resistance and Stabilization
  • Tools and Application Techniques
  • Application around Doors, Windows and Other Openings
  • Pigments, and Finishing
  • Detailing
  • Conventional and Traditional Plaster Reinforcing Techniques
  • Code considerations

Instruction Type:
This is a hands-on class. Attendees will have the opportunity to get dirty and use tools and equipment typical of adobe construction. Due to the course format, enrollment will be limited to 14 individuals. Children under the age of 14 unfortunately cannot be accommodated. In the unlikely event of inclement weather, instruction will occur indoors.

Kurt Gardella teaches adobe construction at Northern New Mexico College, is Director of Education for Adobe in Action, and is certified as an earth-building specialist by the German Dachverband Lehm.
Ben Loescher is a licensed architect, founder of adobeisnotsoftware and principal of golem|la.

The class will be conducted about 12 miles outside of Joshua Tree National Park in Landers, California, some 40 miles from Palm Springs. Joshua Tree and the surrounding area have a wealth of great hiking, climbing, lodging and food options. Directions to the workshop site will be provided to attendees prior to the class.

The cost for the three day workshop is $190/person. Coffee and nibbles will be provided at the beginning of the day; lunch is included.  Register here!

Please do not hesitate to contact Ben at [email protected] or (760) 278-1134.

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 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 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.