Out Of The In Box

While my architectural tastes run closer to Prince Charles than Buckminster Fuller (those damn domes leak!), I have a soft spot for DIY hippie design manuals. I recently stumbled upon Ken Isaacs’ 1974 book How to Build Your Own Living Structures, which contains plans for everything from a simple chair to a multi-level home, all in a distinct modular style. Best of all, it’s available as a pdf for free here along with a couple of other interesting books from the period.

Above is Isaac’s clever cube crapper. Not much headroom in the head, but what a nice view.

Isaac’s work has a playful plywood-meets-the-moon lander vibe. I think I would have loved this modular bunk bed as a kid.

Dwell Magazine did an interview with Isaacs recently:

After I complained about hippie aesthetics in a previous post, an astute reader countered that hippies are the only people who have done grassroots building in recent memory. Good point. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, during the “great recession”, we’re revisiting books such as this one rather than heading to Ikea.

Cutting a Beehive Out of a Wall

Bees in a wall!

Last week, along with two other “backwards beekeepers” Russ and Sue, we relocated a hive of bees that had taken up residence in a garage wall in East Hollywood. It was a “cut-out” in beekeeping parlance. The property owners did not want to exterminate the hive and we were able to give them a new home in Sue’s idyllic garden. Backwards Beekeeping guru Kirk Anderson sent us some tips via email. It’s Kirk’s view that feral bees have more robust immune systems than the pedigreed bees that most beekeepers order through the mail. So with good intentions we got about to, as Kirk puts it, “save the world.” Here’s how we did it:

Kirk told us to smoke the hive when we got there and smoke again when needed. Smoke makes the bees think their house is on fire and they rush to stock up on honey. Preoccupied with their sweet food stockpile they ignore the homo sapiens tearing their house apart. Russ got one sting, but the hive was pretty calm under the circumstances.

Next, we got all our tools ready and suited up in our white bee suits. A cut-out is a delicate combination of building demolition and surgery on a living entity. Like surgery, once you start you can’t stop. With a long butcher knife and some crowbars we peeled back the paneling to reveal . . . more paneling underneath! Thankfully it was ancient fiberboard that disintegrated as we tugged on it. The comb was not attached to the panelling and we were able to easily access the hive. Kirk had warned us to have the butcher knife ready in case we had to separate comb from the wall as we peeled it back. With the wall off we could see a mass of several thousand bees who had neatly built comb between two studs.

Russ and Sue then began to carefully cut out the comb from the wall cavity with the butcher knife and put it into wooden frames, using string to tie it in place (see Kirk doing this at the end of this Backwards Beekeeping TV episode). We focused on saving the comb with brood (bee larvae). These frames were then placed into a “nuc” box, a cardboard box that holds five frames in which we could transport the bees to their new home. We also had two garbage bags: one for empty comb and the other for honey comb to feed back to the bees once they got to Sue’s garden. The next time I do this I’m going to get some buckets for this purpose as the trash bags tend get stuck together with honey. Another lesson I learned is to bring a tarp. Taking a hive out of a wall leaves a huge mess of spilled honey, construction debris and dead bees.

Once we had the brood comb in the nuc box we noticed worker bees returning from field massing where their hive used to be. We put the nuc box with the frames of brood in it next to the wall and took a break. Russ gave Kirk a call and he suggested we spray the mass of workers with sugar water and use our bee brush to push them into a dust pan. The sugar water occupies the bees with cleaning themselves and makes them easier to move. Once in the dust pan they are easy to dump into the nuc box where, we hoped, the queen had taken up residence.

After scooping up as many workers as we could we taped up the nuc box and got ready to put it in the back of Sue’s hatchback. Recalling the story of a friend of a friend who had a nuc box full of bees overturn while driving a sedan, Sue and I decided to drive the short distance home wearing our bee suits (a truck would be handy here!). Even on the streets of freaky East Hollywood, the sight of two bee suit clad folks in a car attracted curious stares and laughter. During the short drive I noticed, through the screen of my veil, public access TV star Francine Dancer, in her wheelchair, going through a box of junk on Virgil. It’s moments like these that reveal Los Angeles as far more like the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel than the celebrity spectacle the media disseminates.

Russ, Sue and property owner Jen

When we got back to Sue’s garden we put the frames into a hive box and dumped the loose bees in. While we won’t know for a while if the hive will take to its new home, we all felt a great sense of accomplishment. Hopefully, other urbanites around the world will take up beekeeping and put more exterminators out of work.

For more info on Kirk Anderson’s natural beekeeping methods see www.beehuman.blogspot.com.

Got a beehive that needs to be removed from your LA area residence? Get in touch with Kirk at kirksurbanbees.com.

Events in Los Angeles This Weekend: SIP Workshop and Maria’s Garden

Saturday (i.e. TODAY!)

On Saturday November 14th Kelly and I will be doing a Self Irrigating Pot (SIP) workshop in Westchester at 3 p.m. SIPs are a great way for folks in apartments to get into small scale vegetable gardening. Best of all the workshop is FREE FREE FREE! Here’s the location:

Playa Del Oro at 8601 Lincoln Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90045

Sunday

Anne Hars, who lives a few blocks from us, helped save another neighbor’s garden from a management company that wanted to remove it. Tomorrow, Sunday the 15th, Anne has organized a work party to tidy up the garden and she’s looking for volunteers and a few donations of pots, mulch and soil. The fun begins at 9 am at 421 North Coronado Street.

“This is a great opportunity to help a Senior Citizen in need and spend the day puttering around in the garden! We need people of all skill levels from beginners to experts. Landscape Designer Maggie Lobl has kindly worked out a design approach and will help co-ordinate activities.”

For more info see Anne’s website.

Humanure Happens

Simparch’s dry toilet located in Wendover Utah

From the 1806 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac,

“Four loads of earth mixed with one load of privy soil, will be equal to five loads of barnyard dung. Let it lie for several months and occasionally turn it over with a shovel, and it will be of use as manure.”

The editors of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2010,where I found that quote, deemed it necessary to tack on a disclaimer, “Human waste, as well as that of dogs and cats, is not recommended as manure for fertilizer today.” But after fielding a couple of calls from journalists interested in the subject of composting human waste, I’m thinking that humanure is about to get serious consideration again. After all, why waste a good source of nitrogen in the middle of a recession?

Simparch’s striking Clean Livin’ compound

All this is a long winded intro to get you all to check out two fine examples of dry sawdust-based toilets. First is the one at the top of this post, designed by a collective known as Simparch, and located on the historic Wendover Air Force Base on the Nevada-Utah border. The facilities are simple: a toilet seat sits atop a 55 gallon drum. Each time you use it you add some sawdust. After composting, you’ve got rich soil. But what makes the Simparch crapper so amazing is the view. From the throne you look out on a landscape so flat you can see the curvature of the earth, punctuated by munitions bunkers dating back to World War II. The toilet facilities are part of a self-sufficient living project they call “Clean Livin‘”.

It ain’t the moon but close: the view from the Simparch Clean Livin’ crapper

The second example, nicknamed the “crap-cedral”, is featured on Lloyd Kahn’s amazing blog. Built by someone with the improbable name of Birchbarkbobananda, the crap-cedral features intricate woodwork and an equally stunning location. What both of these dry toilet facilities prove is the siting possibilities that can happen when you can put your crapper wherever you damn well please. No sewer line means you can have a nice view!

Another Panel Solar Cooker

Poyourow demoing her solar cooker design

There’s no one size fits all solution when it comes to the world of solar panel cookers. All have their advantages and disadvantages. I got an email from author Joanne Poyourow, leader of the amazing Los Angeles Environmental Change Makers, with a simple and effective design she came up with.

Pouyourow’s cooker comes together much faster than the CooKit design that I blogged about earlier this week. There’s hardly any cuts to make and no glue needed. Her design makes use of a car sunshade which can be picked up cheap at your local 99ยข store. The sunshade is more durable than aluminum foil glued to cardboard. While you can also fashion a sunshade alone into a solar panel cooker, I’ve found that they don’t stand up well in even a moderate wind.

Plans for Poyourow’s cooker can be found here (pdf).

She also has a list of solar cooking resources here.

And yes, for most North Americans this is the wrong time of year to be blogging on this topic since, as the sun gets lower in the horizon, solar panel cooking season is almost over. But I’ve got a backlog of summer R&D to share. Stay tuned for the ups and downs of our summer gardening, a bike accident story and a taste test of beer made with our homegrown hops . . .

CooKit Solar Panel Cooker


I’ve been experimenting with a nice panel solar cooker for the past week and, so far, the results are impressive. Called the CooKit, it was developed in 1994 by a group of engineers and solar cooking enthusiasts associated with Solar Cookers International and based on a design by Roger Bernard.

It has a couple of nice features:

  • It produces ample heat to cook rice and simple casseroles.
  • When you fold it up it takes up no more space than an album (do I have to explain what an album is for the youngsters out there?).
  • A flat area on the base of the CooKit makes weighting it down with rocks easy. This is really important in windy places.
  • All you need to build it is a knife, cardboard, aluminum foil and glue.

As with all panel solar cookers you need an black enamelware pot wrapped in a turkey roasting bag to hold in the heat. You ain’t gonna deep fry things with a panel cooker, but they are great for slow-cooked crock pot type dishes. The only disadvantage to this design is having to cut curves, but with a sharp knife it wasn’t difficult. The other improvement would be a stand to lift the pot off the aluminum foil for more efficiency and to keep the cooker un-scuffed. When panel cooker season returns to LA in the springtime, you can bet I’ll be making a lot of rice with this thing.

Detailed instructions for how to build a CooKit can be found here.

Also, Mrs. Homegrown and I are writing a new book and we’d like to include some plans for solar cookers (any kind). If you’ve got a favorite DIY model, leave a comment with a link.

Another view with curious Doberman in the foreground:

Quince: the “Poster Child of Slowness”

Oops–I think they mean “quince

A year ago I planted a “Karp’s Sweet Quince” tree from Raintree Nursery and blogged about it, saying that I’d like to hear from fruit expert David Karp for whom the tree is named. Karp called me a few weeks ago to say that he was working on a quince article for the LA Times, “There’s a new taste for quince“. In the article Karp discusses varieties that can be eaten raw as well as how our Southern California climate is an ideal place to grow quince. Karp asked how my tree is doing and I had to say that it’s not doing all that well. In a fit of mad, rare fruit tree planting fever, I put it in a crappy location, in bad soil too close to a large prickly pear cactus that is probably competing with it. We’ll hope it does better in the next season.

Filling in for my lack of backyard quince, Homegrown Neighbor was nice enough to pop by with some she bought local Asian market. The label must have lost something in translation, but refers to a variety called “Pineapple quince”. Karp points out in his article that this is the most prevalent commercial variety. When picked fresh it could conceivably be eaten raw, though the commercial stuff ain’t fresh.

Quince is indeed, as one of Karp’s sources notes, “the poster child of slowness.” I tried to make some jelly with it and greatly underestimated how long it takes to cook. The jelly did not set, so I’ll have to try again. But the fruit did fill the entire house with a heavenly scent. Definitely a fruit worth slowing down for.

A Warning About Straw

Claude Monet used straw (or is that hay?) for art. We use straw to catch chicken droppings!

Straw is a very inexpensive and useful material for composting, mulching and animal bedding (we use it for all of these purposes). If you use it for mulch you’ll probably get some seeds that will germinate, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in a small vegetable garden. I get my straw from the feed store, but you can often get it for free from yuppies on Craigslist who have bought it to give their parties the Hee Haw ambiance we enjoy 24/7 at the Homgrown Evolution compound. If you buy it from the feed store remember to ask for straw, not hay. Hay is green and a lot more expensive. You feed hay to your horses.

But one warning from my friend, permaculturalist David Kahn. It’s tempting to pick up bales that stores have used after Halloween, but make sure they weren’t treated with fire retardant. Fire retardant has some nasty chemicals in it you don’t want in your garden. When in doubt, just go to the feed store–straw it ain’t expensive!

Addendum 10/27/09: Reader Polyparadigm raised another potential issue with using straw in your garden or compost pile: halogenated pesticide/herbacide residues. Clopyralid is an example–while banned for use in lawns in many places it’s still allowed on hay and grain crops . All the more reason to grow your own mulch and carbon materials if you can–don’t throw out those fall leaves! Here’s what Polyparadigm says:

“I’m glad I read through to the end! I was thinking this would be a warning about clopyralid and its close cousins. Which bears some mention: Halogenated pesticides aren’t broken down by any but a few soil organisms.

Clopyralid and aminopyralid mimic the hormones in broad-leaf plants, causing them to grow un-evenly and die from wrong-facing, crinkled leaves and other symptoms. Grasses are un-affected, so fields of grain and lawns have been sprayed with this sort of chemical, as a cheap way of keeping broad-leaf competitors at bay for a few years.

These chemicals have a half-life of 11 months in hot compost, and are often applied at such high rates that certain plants won’t grow in garden soil dressed with finished compost from a mix of sources, if one of those sources is a treated lawn or field.

A quick bioassay will test for this in straw: peas sprouting from soil mixed with that straw will look deformed if the field that grew the straw was treated. Browns of a similar texture from a source you know to be clean should probably be used for a control group.”

Stirred, Not Shaken


“Matter is never without spirit and spirit is never without matter.” – Rudolf Steiner

This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending an amazing workshop in biodynamic gardening taught by master gardener Dory Rindge. For those of you unfamiliar with biodynamics, it’s a system of agriculture based on the work of early 20th century philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

In the 1920s, at just the point when chemical fertilizers where catching on, Steiner proposed a radical return to organic farming. Biodynamic agriculture combines common sense practices such as composting with strange esoteric rituals. The oddest aspect of biodynamics involves the “preparations”, a specific set of substances made of manure, silica and herbs that are buried in cow horns, bladders and skulls. After a few months they are unearthed, ritually stirred and applied to soil and compost piles. Steiner has the biodynamic farmer spray these preparations on soil, plants and compost piles to act as a kind of homeopathy for the land.

While we did not make our own preparations in class (it’s complicated!) we did a ritual stirring with pre-made preparations in buckets of water. Using sticks we created vortexes in the buckets, alternating in clockwise and counterclockwise motions. We then divided the mixture and rushed home to spread it on our gardens.


I was excited and inspired by the class, a feeling which deepened when manure filed horns appeared to me in a dream. In my dream I interpreted the symbolism of the horns–that they represented a higher world unified with the earth by being buried and containing manure. It’s a symbol that recalls the ouroboros, the snake chasing it’s own tail, representing the cycles of nature, combined with the “as above, so below” gesture the magician in the tarot deck is making below. All this makes more sense if you compost!

Now I’m a big fan of the scientific method (yea soil tests!) but I’m increasingly dissatisfied with our modern culture’s overly materialistic world view. As the subtitle of this blog hints at, “cultural alchemy”, I’m interested in symbolism. But I agree with our our instrutor Rindge that it’s important not to get dogmatic about this stuff.

And I could care less about the science of the preparations. If you are, here’s a study that says its hokum and here’s another one that says they work (pdf). To focus on the biochemistry of the preparations seems to me to be asking the wrong questions. What I like most about biodynamics is its sense of intention. It’s an intention that ties us to the land, to the elemental spirits of plants and animals that were tangible to our ancestors. We could all use ritual that ties us to nature and I look forward to stirring preparations and perhaps making them with a few close friends. In fact, I’m much more excited about making preparations than it buying a package through the mail. Steiner’s set of herbs all grow well here and many of them I have already. But a cow is kinda hard to come by in Los Angeles. While it may be heresy to some, perhaps we’ll have to come up with some modifications to the rituals that make sense in this particular place and time.

More on biodynamics, specifically planting by the cycles of the moon and planets, when Mr. Homegrown gets back from San Antonio next week.

Let’s Get Biointensive

I picked up a handy tip on plant spacing from John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. Jeavons dislikes rows and instead uses the triangular spacing of the French biointensive method. You can view a nice diagram of biointensive spacing on the LandShare Colorado website. And see some images of the way Jeavons’ spaces his garden on This Girl’s Gone Green. Triangular plantings squeeze more veggies into small spaces. The tight spacing, with leaves allowed to just touch each other when the plant is mature, also creates a living mulch which shades the soil and saves water.

Jeavons suggests cutting out some triangles in different sizes to assist in planting. Using scrap wood, I made triangles in 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 15-inch sizes, taking the spacing suggestions in Jeavons’ charts for the seeds I had planted in flats. When it came time to transplant the seedlings I used the triangles to create hexagonal blocks of tightly spaced veggies. Cutting a notch in the corners of the triangles would be a slight improvement and allow for easier planting.


I could end this post leaving you all to admire my pretty little seedlings planted in neat biointensive rows. But here at Homegrown Evolution we believe in telling the truth. Growing vegetables has its frustrations. The day after I planted our winter vegetable garden (we have two growing seasons here in Southern California), we had a freak October heatwave, causing a panicked run to the nursery to buy some shade cloth. This was followed by one of Mr. Homegrown’s notorious gardening meltdowns, dreaded by the very patient Mrs. Homegrown. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that I got that shade cloth up in time.