UMass Soil Testing

I finally got around to trying out the University of Massachusetts’ soil testing service and can report that it’s fast and cheap. I tested two areas of my yard for both nutrients and heavy metals and found out, more or less, what I expected, that I need to add a small amount of nitrogen. Surprisingly, for having such an old house, I don’t have a lead problem. It costs just $9 for the basic test and $13 for the basic test + heavy metals. The order form and instructions can be found at http://www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest/. Why test? UMass sums it up nicely:

  • to optimize crop production.
  • to protect the environment from contamination by runoff and leaching of excess fertilizers.
  • to aid in the diagnosis of plant culture problems.
  • to improve the soil’s nutritional balance.
  • to save money and conserve energy by applying only the amount of fertilizer needed.
  • to identify soils contaminated with lead or other heavy metals.

The brochure they send with the results is geared towards New England soils, but beggars can’t be choosers. This test is a bargain, but I’d check first with your local extension office to see if they offer free or low cost soil testing first. Should you want the Cadillac of soil tests, vegetable gardening expert John Jeavons recommends Timberleaf Soil Testing. I’ve seen some Timberleaf reports and they are quite detailed and informative.

The cutting edge of soil testing is about the living inhabitants of the soil, all those microorganisms, fungi and other critters rather than just old “NPK.” Dr. Elaine Ingham is a pioneer in this field. She offers “Soil Foodweb” testing via her website. I’ve read some grumbling from academics about some of her ideas and her commercial endeavors, particularly related to aerated compost tea. However, soil foodweb testing makes intuitive sense to me, though I have not tried it. You can read her interesting Soil Biology Primer here, and make up your own mind. There’s also an excellent book based partially on her research, Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.

Thanks to Cool Tools for the tip on UMass.

A Fishy Mountaintop

We considered putting an aquaculture project in our next book but ultimately decided a against it, because we felt it’s too complicated a subject for most people.Aquaculture/aquaponics also seems to require just the right context. Even here in sunny Los Angeles we’d have to figure out a way to keep the fish warm during the winter, not to mention the use of lots of  water in a very dry place.

Austrian permaculturalist Sepp Holzer has developed an innovated aquaculture system.While, obviously, Holzer’s mountaintop setup is very unique, his problem solving through sophisticated but low tech means is universal. There’s something to learn from his methodology, even though few of us will be able to recreate his specific innovations..

I haven’t read it, but Holzer has a book: Sepp Holzer: The Rebel Farmer.

Via BoingBoing.

A silly note, but I had to point it out. Judging from the video, kudos to Holzer for being a proponent of traditional Austrian alpine clothing. Can we make that a trend? Nice to see.

Update on the Food and Flowers Freedom Act

Some thirty people showed up today for a Planning Commission meeting in support of the Food and Flowers Freedom Act. The commissioners loved us and approved the Planning Departments suggestions that the code be amended to allow “truck gardening” and off-site resale of produce and flowers grown in residential zones in the City of Los Angeles.

The tide is turning. Once the poster child for urban blight and bad planning, Los Angeles may just take the lead the in access to local, healthy food. I almost cried when I heard a Planning Commissioner lovingly describe the taste of a homegrown tomato.

There’s still two more steps, however, before these changes become official policy. The clarification to the code must still pass through another committee and be approved by the city council. Your continued support at these next two meetings, which have not yet been scheduled, will be appreciated.

Legalize Flowers and Fruit!

Believe it or not, under current zoning laws, it’s illegal in Los Angeles to grow flowers or fruit in a residential neighborhood and sell them. Tomorrow the Los Angeles Planning Commission will review this outdated rule at a meeting in Van Nuys. If you’re in Los Angeles you can help by attending this meeting. For some talking points see the website of the Urban Farming Advocates.

Positive change is coming to Los Angeles. The smog chocked wasteland of my youth is suddenly seeing a lot of talk of bicycles and local food. But we’ve got some work ahead of us–please come to the meeting tomorrow! From the UFA website:

SUPPORT LOCAL FOOD & FLOWERS! SUPPORT THE FOOD & FLOWERS FREEDOM ACT!

The urban farming movement needs your support at the public hearing tomorrow in Van Nuys.
Your voice and support for the MOVEMENT is critical.
The hearing will take place tomorrow: Thursday March 25. Come at 8:30am. Expect to be there a few hours. When you arrive, please fill out a speaker’s card.
Address:
Van Nuys City Hall
Council Chamber, 2nd Floor
14410 Sylvan Street, Van Nuys, 91401

The Food & Flowers Freedom Act is about allowing Angelenos to sell homegrown fruit, flowers and seedlings offsite, at local farmers’ markets for example.

See more coverage of this issue at the LAist and the Huffington Post.

Vegetable Gardening Series Starts This Weekend!

We’re teaching a three part series on vegetable gardening at the Hutington Library and Gardens starting this Saturday and there’s still some room in the class. In the course of this hands-on series we’ll reveal the secret to vegetable gardening: it’s all about the soil! To that end we’ll show you how to build a compost pile, how to interpret a soil report, how to amend the soil, how to set up a drip irrigation system, what to plant and when to plant it.

Here’s the 411:

March 27, Apr. 3 & Apr. 10

(Saturdays) 9 a.m.–noon

Learn everything you need to know about creating an organic, edible garden in this three-part series led by Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, authors of The Urban Homestead. The class will cover planning, planting, maintaining, and harvesting. Members: $130. Non-Members: $145. Registration: 626-405-2128.

Yet More Tasteless Garden Statuary

 Photo by Anne Magnér

Photos of shocking garden statuary continue to pour into the Homegrown Evolution in-box. Anne Magnér sent these amazing photos all the way from Denmark. The crass garden gnome, apparently, cuts across all European cultures from north to south.

 Photo by Anne Magnér
Photo by Anne Magnér

I wonder what’s up with the confident and smiling Danish woman statues to the right of the kids. Wouldn’t mind one of these for our garden. But I wonder what she would think of the gnomes that follow after the jump. Warning: very NSFW!

Look out!

Photo by Anne Magnér

I’ve noticed regional differences in European garden gnomes, but I’ve never seen the flashing Danish ones. Thanks Anne!

A Caganer in Every Garden

Reader Adrienne has kindly alerted us to some intriguing cultural information on the pooping gnome seen in our post on scary garden sculpture. In Catalan these figures, which date back at least to the 17th century, are known as “Caganer” and there’s a tradition, tolerated by the Catholic church, of placing them in nativity scenes during the holiday season. They’re also a symbol of earth fertility. Wikipedia notes:

“In 2005, the Barcelona city council provoked a public outcry by commissioning a nativity scene which did not include a Caganer. Many saw this as an attack on Catalan traditions. The local government countered these criticisms by claiming that the Caganer was not included because a recent by-law had made public defecation and urination illegal, meaning that the Caganer was now setting a bad example. Following a campaign against this decision called Salvem el caganer (Save the caganer), and widespread media criticism, the 2006 nativity restored the Caganer, who appeared on the northern side of the nativity near a dry riverbed.”

Other European cultures have their own versions. The Dutch have “Kakkers / Schijterkes,” (Pooper”/Little Pooper). The French have “Père la Colique,” (Father Colic). The Germans have “Choleramännchen” or “Hinterlader,” (Little Cholera Man” or “Breech-loader).

The Telegraph has an slide show of Caganers in the form of world leaders. Now that’s what I call garden sculpture!

The Scary World of Garden Sculpture

 ”The Present Order Is The Disorder of The Future [Saint Just]” from Finlay’s Little Sparta. Photo by Michael Loudon

I’ve always been a big fan of the late Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. He’s probably best known for his enigmatic garden Little Sparta. As Finlay demonstrates, there’s nothing like a carefully placed bit of artwork to tilt one’s perspective on the landscape and make you see it in a different, and perhaps more perceptive way. But good luck finding said piece of garden sculpture unless, like Finlay, you can manufacture it yourself. Just for kicks, I took a look at Amazon’s garden offerings. They are so over the top bad that I think a clever garden artist could actually work with them. .

This one is my favorite Amazon sculpture offering. Looks like something Saddam Hussein would have installed by one of the shark ponds. Suggestive and creepy all at once.

There’s a lot of kids in the garden sculpture world, but this one seems to come with a Jeff Koons kitten. Or is that a Jeff Koons jackalope? A genetically modified puppy/kitten hybrid? I can’t tell.

Perfect for an age of “zombie” banks–a zombie for your garden. Also seen in the Sky Mall catalog, a favorite shopping resource for zombies.

Stick this on one of your trees and you’ll soon find hair sprouting on the tops of your feet.

Depicting smiles is always a tricky one in the world of sculpture. At least you get a stand with this masterpiece.

You could argue that greys are the malevolent elemental spirits of the 20th century. Unfortunately this one will set you back $100 if you’d like it to grace your garden.

 For some reason you can pick up a halfway decent Buddha. Now can we switch out the molds on the other stuff? There’s an opportunity for an entrepreneur here . . .

Update: As reader Paula points out, how could I have forgotten the garden gnome? Must be the terrible head cold I’ve got. Well, here goes:

Plantasia: Music for Plants Part II

Not only did Homegrown Evolution reader Avi, track down a downloadable copy of Dr. George Milstein’s 1970 album Music to Grow Plants, but  he also suggested two more cultural landmarks of the 1970s “chattin’ with plants” period.

Mort Garson’s Moog generated album Plantasia: Warm Earth Music for Plants and the People Who Love Them is pretty much what I would imagine a macramé suspended spider plant wanting to listen to. Its groovin’ Moog bleeps and blats seem more likely to enhance photosynthesis than Dr. Milstein’s orchestral wall of sound. Plantasia is pretty much guaranteed to add a foot of growth to your ficus plants.

Avi also provided a link to the entire 1979 documentary version of The Secret Life of Plants. It took me two evenings to make it through the endless time lapse and interpretive dance sequences. But there’s plenty of wackiness to enjoy, including a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder who appears at the end singing to, well, a bunch of plants. The highlight for me was seeing the laboratory equipment of Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, inventor of the cresnograph a device for measuring plant growth.

Seriously, though, the best thing I’ve heard on the relationship between humans and plants recently is a lecture by anthropologist Wade Davis, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World” that you can listen to via the always excellent Long Now Foundation’s lecture series and available as a free podcast in the Itunes store. Davis eloquently describes the Anaconda people’s intricate botanical knowledge and how they came to concoct ayahuasca.The plants, it turned out, talked to them.

Though, after listening to Plantasia, I’m hoping the ficus plants don’t start talking to me.