Michael Tortorello on Urban Homesteading

Michael Tortorello, who wrote that nice piece about us a few months ago, “Living Large, Off the Land,” is one of my favorite writers on gardening and “urban homesteady” topics. He’s critical without being curmudgeonly and manages to separate the truth from the hype (and there’s an awful lot of hype in this movement!). Plus he managed to get an entire paragraph about my thyrsus into the New York Times. Thyrsus hype?

Since he’s far too busy writing kick ass columns to have a website, I’ve collected a few of his articles here in one place for your reading pleasure:

Heirloom Seeds or Flinty Hybrids?
Yes, hybrid seeds are o.k. and I agree.

The Permaculture Movement Grows From Underground
The wonders of permaculture plus a jab at aerated compost tea.

Finding the Potential in Vacant Lots
Recent boom and bust cycles have left us with a lot of room to grow stuff.

Food Storage as Grandma Knew It
Tortorello actually tracked down some folks who have functioning root cellars.

The Spotless Garden
On aquaponics. Don’t name those fish!

Making Flowers Into Perfume
 Build that still!

Seeds Straight From Your Fridge
On planting seeds from the pantry.

CooKit Solar Cooker Made Out of Wood

The nice folks at Solar Cookers International gave us permission to reprint plans for their CooKit solar cooker in our book Making It. You can access those plans, as well as many other solar cooker projects, for free, on their website here.

I’ve made CooKits out of cardboard and aluminum foil a couple of times. One problem is that I eventually bang up the cardboard and I’ve got to make a new one. This summer I had a lot of  1/4 inch plywood leftover from fixing up Mrs. Homegrown’s writin’ shed. Rather than send that plywood to the dump I decided to make a more permanent CooKit.

I blew up the CooKit pdf from the SCI website using Adobe Illustrator.  I did a tiled printout and taped the pieces together to create a life sized pattern. I used this pattern to cut out the plywood pieces.

I spray glued the aluminum foil to the plywood. Next, I drilled holes in all the pieces and inserted twist ties to, essentially, create little hinges so that I could fold up the CooKit when not in use.

The plywood CooKit folds much better than my cardboard versions did.

This type of “panel” solar cooker works best for things like polenta and rice. Now I’ve got a convenient folding panel cooker for backyard use and camping trips.

Sunflowers and Squirrels

It’s a losing battle, the one we gardeners face against the squirrel menace. As the mammoth sunflowers we planted this summer approached the harvest stage, I tied some paper bags over the flower heads to prevent squirrels and birds from eating all the seeds. Mostly, it has worked. But, as you can see from the animation above, one pesky squirrel managed to figure out how to open one of the bags. Perhaps he used the adjacent tomato cage for extra leverage.

Maybe this bag worked because the Whole Foods logo scared the squirrels away with the thought of high prices and angry Pruis drivers.

I thought I had solved the problem by putting one of those ubiquitous and annoying cloth eco bags over the sunflower. Not even the City of LA logo on that eco bag scared them off.

So what to do about the squirrels? Tight bird netting on fruit trees works but is a pain in the ass to attach and remove. Commercial orchardists trap and kill. Hmmm. Along those lines it looks like we have yet another excuse to link to that squirrel melt video . . .

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Computer modeling of complex systems has gotten us in a whole world of trouble in recent years. Filmmaker Adam Curtis has directed a superb series, about this issue, for the BBC called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”. The second episode “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts” will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. It details the errors that occur when we try to model natural systems. I can’t reccomend this program highy enough. Set aside an hour today to watch this program before the BBC copyright police take it down.

Episode 2  “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”:

Here’s the first episode “Love and Power” about what happens when computer algorithms and, shall we say, overly confident philosophers gain control over our economic life.

Episode 1: “Love and Power”:

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace from science2art on Vimeo.

U-Dig-It Folding Shovel

I came across this nice little folding hand shovel called the “U-Dig-it” at a surplus store. It measures 5 3/4 inches when folded and weighs six ounces with the convenient belt holster. I used it this morning to transplant some okra seedlings and I can also see taking this tool camping.

I dig the U-Dig-It design, and I already prefer it to the hand shovel that got buried in the yard somewhere a few months ago. I can see this tool becoming part of my gardening “EDC“.

Mongolian Giant Sunflower

Nothing much to say about the Mongolian Giant Sunflower other than, “wow”. I got these seeds from Seed Savers Exchange and they have lived up to the “giant” in the name. I’m going to have to climb a ladder to harvest the seeds.

Though I don’t see the need to get competitive with my sunflowers, Renee’s Garden has some good harvesting advice,

As the petals fall off, the center florets dry up and the seed kernels begin to swell in the disks, carefully climb a stepladder and cover your flower head with a mesh onion bag or loose burlap or paper bag. This keeps marauding birds from robbing your seeds so that the heads look perfect and complete when you are ready to show them off to friends or proudly display them on their long stalks at your local county fair. Cut the stalks at the base when the ripened seeds develop a hard shell. If you plan to eat your sunflower seeds or preserve them for your bird feeder, wait until the seeds are completely dry; then remove them by hand or by rubbing them over wire mesh into a basket. Store in tightly closed containers to keep rodents away.

In addition to the native sunflowers that reseed themselves every year I think I’ll plant a few Mongolian Giants each summer. If you’ve got a favorite sunflower variety, either ornamental or edible, please leave a comment.



Mrs. Homestead here: Turns out sunflowers can also help clean up radioactive contamination. Good to know! They’re planting them in Fukushima. (via Boing Boing)

Winter Squash Disaster

Those of you who follow this blog may recall last summer’s “squash baby” fiasco.  This year I planted a few Marina di Chioggia squash plants (technically a pumpkin) in one of my vegetable beds located in a more secure location. Instead of some homo sapien making off with my squash bounty, it looks like the neighborhood raccoons are having a gnocchi party somewhere. All I’ve got to show for three Chioggia plants is one small squash and the one pictured above.

Household animal tracking expert Mrs. Homegrown assures me that the nearby scat pile belongs to some raccoons.

My thoughts after another year under a squash curse: winter squash takes up too much room to devote precious vegetable bed space if, like me, you don’t have a lot of room. In previous years I’ve tucked it in unused corners of the yard and let it sprawl around. That’s what I’ll do next year.