Seedling Disaster!

“No one talks of failure as anything but shameful; this is wrongheaded and foolish . . . Mistakes are synonymous with learning. Failing is unavoidable. Making is a process, not an end. It is true that deep experience helps avoid problems, but mainly it gives you mental tools with which to solve inevitable problems when they come up.”

-Tom Jennings, as quoted in Mark Frauenfelder’s excellent new book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World 

Oh, but those mistakes sure can be frustrating especially when they happen in the garden!  I’ve had nothing but bad luck germinating seeds this spring for our summer garden and, as a result, our vegetable beds are as bare as the Serengeti. What happened? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  • watering too much
  • watering too little
  • damping off 
  • unseasonably cold weather (we germinate outside here)
  • the occasional hot day on top of cold evenings
  • the mindset of the gardener: being in a hurried, stressed mood as we finished our next book

Nature being a complex system, you can often get stacking problems that make figuring out what went wrong difficult. I’m leaning towards the cold weather as I’ve noticed some of the seeds I planted starting to come up as it has warmed up. Lesson: you’ve gotta watch the weather reports even in a mild climate such as ours or invest in heating mats or a cold frame. 

Despite my pledge to grow vegetables only from seeds, panic over a summer without homegrown tomatoes prompted me to call Garden Edibles owner Craig Ruggless to see if he had any seedlings. Thankfully he had some heirloom tomato seedlings that he gave to me in return for helping him try to capture a swarm of bees that had shown up in his olive tree (unsuccessfully, it turned out–more on that misadventure in another post). At least I’m not alone. My friends in Chicago, the Green Roof Growers, had their own tomato seedling apocalypse.

I once saw Julia Child on Martha Stewart’s show demonstrating how to make an elaborate dessert called a Croqembouche, a pyramidal tower of cream filled pastry balls. Stewart and Child built separate Croqembouche towers. At the end of the demo Stewart’s was perfect and Child’s was, well, a big mess. Yet Julia soldiered on, laughing at her mistakes. My pledge with the garden is to try to do the same and have fewer of my notorious garden meltdowns when the inevitable crisis happens. So what if it ain’t perfect around here? Now Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown neighbor should make note of that pledge . . .

Readers, please feel free to share some recent disasters.

Food and Flowers Freedom Act Update

Yesterday the Food and Flowers Freedom Act passed the city council and awaits the mayor’s expected signature. It goes to show that revising outdated codes pertaining to local agriculture can be, at least here in Los Angeles, non-controversial. In fact, those of us at the meeting to support the act left before the vote was taken. It tuned out the council was pre-occupied with a contentious debate over rent control that ended in a fight breaking out and the council chambers being cleared. At least, it seems, we can all get behind locally grown fruit and flowers. For more information on the history of the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, see the website of the Urban Farming Advocates.

The Food and Flowers Freedom Act Needs Your Support

UFA supporters at a commission meeting back in March

Local food is coming to Los Angeles. Friday May 21st, the Los Angeles City Council will vote on amending city code to allow growing and selling fruit and flowers within city limits. If you live in the area, the Urban Farming Advocates can use your support at tomorrow’s meeting. From the UFA website:

We will assemble between 11 and 11:30am in the Council Chamber at City Hall.

Friday morning, May 21, 2010

Los Angeles City Hall
200 North Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 485-2121

If we’re gonna be called the “land of the fruits and the nuts,” we might as well live up to it! Hope to see some of you downtown tomorrow.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping

The Complete Idiot's Guide to BeekeepingWe’re very lucky, here in Los Angeles, to have the Backwards Beekeepers whose meetings are led by beekeeper Kirk Anderson, who teaches a radical form of beekeeping that includes:

  • Letting the bees form their own comb (most beekeepers use pre-made foundation).
  • Capturing feral swarms, rather than ordering bees.
  • Using no treatments of any kind.

The result is healthier bees with much more robust immune systems than their over-bred and drugged commercial sisters. But walk into most beekeeping clubs or supply shops, tell them you want to keep bees this way and they’ll think you’re crazy. And pretty much all beekeeping books have devolved into little more than timetables for applying chemical and biological treatments in the hopes of staving off all the problems that have plagued beekeeping in recent years. Even the organic beekeeping books are bad, substituting chemical treatments with gimmicks.

Finally, there’s a book that gets beekeepers off the treadmill of more and more drug treatments with ever diminishing returns. I heard that when the Idiots Guide publishers approached beekeepers Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer they said they’d write the book but only if they could base it on no-treatment beekeeping. The result is the excellent Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping which contains everything you need to know to get started keeping bees. It’s the first book to describe no-treatment beekeeping and it also clearly explains the basic biology of the hive, no easy task. The book’s approach is summed up on page 139, “We keep a bunch of bees, don’t use treatments on them, and we don’t breed from the ones that die.” While not the only cause, standard commercial beekeeping practices probably play a big role in recent bee colony losses. Funny how the kind of common sense delivered in this book can seem so radical.

You can also read more about no-treatment beekeeping on the Yahoo Organic Beekeepers group and the website of Michael Bush.

More Furniture in 24 Hours

With our stained and Doberman-thrashed thrift store furniture about to end up on the sidewalk, my thoughts have turned to what to replace it with on a limited budget. Naturally, I’m thrilled when the interweb answers my conundrum with yet another 1970s era plywood furniture building manual. This one comes courtesy of a design blog called Ouno, who put up a flickr set of a few pages and plans from a book called More Furniture in 24 Hours by Spiros Zakas and students at the Parsons School of Design.The space bench looks kinda not-so comfortable, but one shouldn’t be sitting around when there’s a chicken coop to clean or a possible trip to Studio 54.

Urban Homestead on Craigslist. Act Now!

I’ve always been uneasy with the moniker “urban homestead.” It’s the title of our book (what else could we have called it?), but it’ not really accurate. The activities we describe are also practiced by suburbanites and people in rural places. And “homestead” is not technically accurate–all the readers of our book, I’m fairly certain, either own or rent their property. The term is also loaded with some not so nice cultural baggage as this blog post points out.

The earliest reference I can find to an “urban homestead” is a 1976 article in Mother Earth News describing Berkeley California’s Integral Urban House.

I’m fairly certain the term has caught on and is here to stay after discovering a Craigslist real estate listing in Livingston Montana using the term:

$269500 / 4br – Urban Homestead (524 S. 10th,)
It’s the best of both worlds…you can be self-reliant and live in town. Inside, this home features 3+ bedrooms, 2 baths, an office or hobby room, reading area, and large family room, plus cold-storage for canned goods. Outside, there are raised organic garden beds, a chicken coop, a koi pond and apple, cherry and plum trees for sustainable food production. There is an efficient furnace and a low-emissions woodstove for auxillary [sic] heat. This wonderful home is located across from the city water works park and just 2 blocks from schools, the clinic, Sacajawea Park and the Yellowstone River. This property is perfectly set up for those with a green thumb or those who wish to live a greener lifestyle! For more photos and a downloadable pdf brochure go to http://www.ecorealestatesource.com/urbanhomestead.pdf. Call Mary 406-599-9889 or Dixie 406-223-1225 to preview. MLS#168742 ”

Does the sofa double as a composting toilet?

O.K., I see a microwave, but where the hell is the pickle crock?

Can we keep the Buddha if we eat the koi?

If any of you buy it, I’ll throw in a free copy of our book but you gotta take down that Thomas Kinkade print.

Kidding aside, it’s kind of amazing to see a real estate agent touting a chicken coop rather than demanding it to be removed in order to sell the house. Maybe things have changed.

Barefoot Running: No Shoes, No Problem

Beekeeper Kirk Anderson has a simple message, lets bees be bees. Let them form their own comb, raise their own queens and generally go about doing what they want to do. In short, work with nature rather than try to control her. “Duh,” one might say, but Kirk’s beekeeping method just so happens to run counter to a hundred years of conventional beekeeping practices and “expert” advice. Kirk calls his method “backwards beekeeping” after Charles Martin Simon’s eloquent essay, “Principles of Beekeeping Backwards.” Simon’s essay is essential reading, in my opinion, even if you have no interest in bees. It gets you thinking about what other things the so-called experts might be wrong about.

How about shoes for instance?

I was addicted to running throughout my 30s until a series of injuries in recent years, arthritis in the knees and plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of connective tissue on the bottom of the foot, effectively ended my happy morning runs. In the case of plantar fasciitis the doctors and physical therapists I consulted all said the same thing, that I should wear shoes with arch supports at all times, even around the house. A routine of stretching, incessant shoe wearing and abstaining from running beat back the pain for a year or so. But then it returned for no good reason.

Time to take those feet “backwards”

All the interventions of conventional beekeepers, the pre-built comb and endless treatments, have produced weak bees. It may seem crazy, but I began to see an analogy to our feet. We ain’t born with shoes on, after all. So why do we think we need to improve on nature’s design? Could it be that shoes, by atrophying our muscles, cause plantar fasciitis? Could the ever more massive cushioning of running shoes cause biomechanical changes that damage knees? For several years I’d been fascinated with barefoot running, but was always too chicken to try it. Two videos, done as part of a research project on barefoot running at Harvard, convinced me.

The first shows a runner in shoes with a graph of the impact forces. When you run in shoes you tend to slam down your heel first. Note the spike in the graph indicating the force of this heel impact::

When you run barefoot you tend to strike with the ball of the foot first instead of the heel, which eliminates that initial impact spike:

Desperate and with nothing to lose, I decided to VERY slowly adjust to not wearing shoes. I gradually wore them less and less around the house. I began to feel a noticeable difference immediately. My feet felt stronger. In the past few weeks I’ve begun to carefully transition to running barefoot. I’m using a program adapted from a book, Run Less, Run Faster:  minus all the advice about shoes: I only run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, resting on all other days.

Week 1: (run 1 minute walk 2 minutes) x 4
Week 2: (run 2 minutes walk 2 minutes) x 3
Week 3: (run 2 minutes walk 1 minute) x 4
Week 4: (run 3 minutes walk 1 minute) x 4
Week 5: (run 4 minutes walk 2 minutes) x 4 
Week 6: (run 4 minutes walk 1 minute) x 6
Week 7: (run 5 minutes walk 1 minute) x 6  
Week 8 run one mile
Week 9: run 1.5 miles
Week 10: run 2 miles
Week 11: run 2.5 miles
Week 12: run 3.1 miles

While I’m fairly certain I’ll have setbacks, I’m hoping this conservative program will minimize my chances of injury and get me back to running modest distances. So far is seems to be working. I just have to contain my enthusiasm for being free of shoes and keep myself from running too much, too soon. Barefoot running really is liberating. It feels like being a kid again.


Everything we’ve been told is wrong

Dr C Richards, of the University of Newcastle in an article, “Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based?” discovered that there is not a single peer reviewed study proving the need for running shoes. He issued a challenge to shoe makers,

“Is any running-shoe company prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes will decrease your risk of suffering musculoskeletal running injuries? Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their running shoes will improve your distance running performance? If you are prepared to make these claims, where is your peer-reviewed data to back it up?” 

He was met with a resounding silence.

That is, until Nike came out with the “Free,” a shoe that simulates barefoot running. In other words, caught with absolutely no evidence to justify their existence, Nike attempted to sell a shoe that’s not a shoe. Now that’s marketing in action! There’s also the Vibram Five Fingers, an odd looking slipper-type non-shoe. While the Vibram has it’s adherents, especially when it comes to preventing cuts from sharp objects, I feel that one of the points of running or walking barefoot is that it forces you to be more careful about the way you put your feet down.

A paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear” attempted to explain why wearers of expensive shoes have a 123% greater injury rate than wearers of inexpensive shoes. They showed,

“(1) deceptive advertising of protective devices may represent a public health hazard and may have to be eliminated presumably through regulation; (2) a tendency in humans to be less cautious when using new devices of unknown benefit because of overly positive attitudes associated with new technology and novel devices.”

The point about “overly positive attitudes associated with new technology” is a lesson well worth remembering, it seems to me. I could go on and on. I think this poetic video of a young man from Kenya, who has never worn shoes in his life, says it all:

As Kirk Anderson says, “Backwards is the new forwards.” It ain’t about nostalgia for some mythic past, the point is we’re actually going forwards here by working with nature rather than arrogantly trying to control her. And don’t worry dear readers, my hair won’t get “long and shaggy” and I’ll keep the leather boots for beekeeping duties, but you can bet I’ve bought my last pair of $100 running shoes.

For more information on barefoot running see http://therunningbarefoot.com/

It’s Elementary

I’m writing another article for Urban Farm Magazine, this time on elementary school gardens. If you have a hand in running or organizing an elementary school garden, outside of California, send me an email at [email protected]. I need another interview or two, though I can’t guarantee I’ll talk to everyone.

I took the picture above at a volunteer work day at the 24th Street Elementary School in the West Adams district of Los Angeles yesterday. It’s run by the Garden School Foundation. I can’t tell you how amazing this garden is, but I think the picture above says it all. It’s about the future, and that future is going to have more mulch and a lot less asphalt! The 24th Street Garden contains vegetables, a mini orchard and two native plant gardens, which are used as part of the school’s California history curriculum. A cooking class happens in the garden once a week, overseen by TV chef Gino Campagna.

Obviously, we need more gardens like this–the Garden School Foundation’s website asks the question, “Why does a school need to look like a prison?” For some school garden resources see the website of the Chez Panisse Edible Schoolyard at http://www.edibleschoolyard.org/. If you’ve got other resource suggestions, please leave some comments.

Least Favorite Plant: Euphorbia tirucalli

When we bought the glorified shack which is our house, it came with a collection of trees I’d never plant including a twenty foot tall, multi-trunk, Euphorbia tirucalli also known as the “pencil tree.” In most places Euphorbia tirucalli, which hails from tropical Africa, is only a house plant, but here in frost free Los Angeles, the damn thing can grow to massive proportions. Merely cutting a limb of this toxic tree produces drops of sticky white latex capable of raising welts, should it contact the skin, and clouds of eye searing sawdust. We had our eccentric tree trimmer, who would sometimes show up as late as 9 pm, chainsaw in hand, take the sucker out. I’m especially glad I removed this living Superfund site after hearing a story neighbor Pilar told me this morning.

A woman, getting out of a car, caught part of the Euphorbia tirucalli tree on her car door, breaking a branch and causing some of that toxic sap to fall into her eyes. She started screaming in pain immediately and could not see. Pilar rushed her to the emergency room where she spent several hours hooked up to apparatus that flushed out her eyes. Thankfully she escaped any permanent injury.

Ironically, for such a toxic plant, it has many uses, both historical and proposed:

  • Plant blogger Mr. Subjunctive included it in his list of useful houseplants to fend off zombies with over at Plants are the Strangest People.
  • It’s been proposed as a cancer cure, I suppose because it’s so nasty that you’ll forget you have cancer.
  • Africans use it as a mosquito repellent and fish poison.
  •  Petrobas, the Brazilian national petroleum company, is investigating the use of the latex as a fuel source. Tap into the trunk and perhaps we can propel one our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood’s many Priusi. 
  • The Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plants Products lists off dozens of uses for the plant including this gem: “In Tanganyika, the latex is used for sexual impotence (but users should recall ‘the latex produces so intense a reaction … as to produce temporary blindness lasting for several days.’”

Using temporary blindness to cure sexual impotence, ain’t exactly a compliment to one’s partner. Spammers take note: you’ve got a new plant product to push.

For medical information on the eye damage caused by Euphorbia tirucalli  see a case study here:: http://www.hkcem.com/html/publications/Journal/2009-4/p267-270.pdf. And, as that case study points out, remember to wear eye protection when you take this plant out of your garden.