Shelter

We’ve been huge fans of author Lloyd Khan ever since reading his seminal book Shelter. For many years Khan has traveled the world chronicling indigenous and extreme DIY architecture. He has an eye for buildings that have a sense of place and a connection with nature. Reading and viewing the photos in his books you’ll pick up both practical ideas and daydream of fantastical structures at once spiritual and playful.

Like the Whole Earth Catalog, Shelter’s wide ranging and inclusive topics anticipated the non-hierarchical structure of the Internet. On one page you’re looking at Turkish rock houses, and on another geodesic domes built out of scrap materials. The lessons I’ve learned from Khan’s work are the importance of context (site, cultural, weather etc.) and the joy of putting hammer to nail to build something yourself even if you don’t know what the hell you are doing. Sometimes the most ramshackled comedies of architectural errors evolve into home. But Kahn’s encyclopedic work also celebrates craft, with many examples of builders who gathered their knowledge through many years of experience.

I go through Shelter all the time for inspiration and was thrilled to find out that Kahn has a blog (and made a nice mention of us). Some recent posts include a 12′ diameter satellite dish made into a roof and the world’s most efficient school bus.

Real Estate Bubble Bananas

There’s a house in our neighborhood that’s been for sale for over a year. Two months ago the for sale signs disappeared, junk mail littered the front porch and the mow and blow guys stopped showing up, leaving the lawn to go wild. A busted sprinkler head creates a nightly fountain as the houses’ infrastructure lapses into a timer operated zombification. We knew the nice young family that used to live here and I hope that they were able to sell somehow, but it doesn’t look good.

I started picking up the junk mail to make the place looked lived in. I also remembered that the backyard had both figs and bananas, and ventured beyond the gate to see how the fruit was developing (fyi, picking up fallen fruit is important to keep down the rat population). The figs aren’t quite ready but the bananas, the ones the squirrels didn’t get, were the tastiest damn bananas I’ve ever eaten. It turns out that our national real estate bubble has a fruit filled silver lining. I imagine that all across America there are abandoned fruit trees yielding their bounty for a new generation of gleaners. Thank you Angelo Mozilo for creating a literal banana republic!

Bananas are not my favorite plant for Southern California as they take a lot of water and get somewhat rangy looking when the wind rips up their leaves. But they are one of the most greywater tolerant plants and a good choice for paring with the outflow of a shower or laundry machine.

Fruit score: 10 to the squirrels 2 to the people

I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what variety this banana tree is, but June is a good month to plant bananas here in Southern California. Figuring out when to harvest bananas is tricky. Some yellow and mature on the plant (like my subprime banana) and others stay green and only mature after you pick them. Gardening expert Pat Welsh in her book Southern California Organic Gardening recommends picking one banana to see if it’s ready. For the pick-while-green, varieties (the majority of bananas) Welsh says,

“Pick their fruit when they’ve lost their sharp edges and indented sides; wait until they lose their angularity. When the fruit is still green but has become rounded, filled out, and fat looking, it’s ready to pick.”

Cut off the whole stalk of bananas and let them turn yellow in a cool shady place.

The past few days the Financial Times has started showing up on the driveway of this house so perhaps our neighbors were able to sell the place and the banana republic days are over. Looks like we’ll have to camp out with the in-laws in Phoenix for the subprime citrus harvest this winter . . .

Fish Don’t Fart

Portable Farms founder Colle Davis

Earlier this week we posted about home-scaled fish farming coming to a Home Depot near you. Yesterday we came across mention of another aquaponics supplier, Portable Farms (www.portablefarms.com) that produces larger greenhouse-based cultivation/aquaponics setups ranging in size from 6′ x 8′ to 90′ x 120′. The greenhouse seems like a good idea since, even in our warm Southern California climate, common aquaponics fish such as tilapia need heated water. Portable Farms owner Colle Davis runs a two acre farm in Escondido California and has been working on his aquaponics system for over 37 years. The tag line “Fish Don’t Fart” refers to the benefits of fish over methane generating cattle.

We skipped over aquaponics in our book since we considered it too expensive and complicated for most people. But perhaps we should give it closer consideration. Aquaponics is profiled in the pioneering urban homesteading book, The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the Cityand Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guidewhich comes out of their work at Austin’s Rhizome Collective. What all of these efforts have in common is a permacultural design principle of turning a waste product into a resource and closing a loop. Fish make fertilizer and plants clean water, so why not combine the two?

I’d like to hear stories from ordinary folks who have tried aquaponics on a small scale. If that’s you, leave a comment!

Farm in a Box

Farm in a Box ‘Little Tokyo

I never thought I’d see “permaculture” and “Home Depot” in the same sentence, but an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (For a Green Thumb, Just Add Water) connects the dots between the two with a new product line called Farm in a Box Aquaponics from Earth Solutions.

Farm in the Box is a combined fish tank/planter box. Waste from the fish circulates into the planter box via a pump to provide fertilizer for the plants as well as removing nitrogen and ammonia from the water. From the Earth Solutions website:

“By integrating fish with vegetables, naturally balanced aquatic ecosystems are established making it unnecessary to add fertilizer, chemicals or remove nitrogen rich water.

As in nature, plants, fish and oxygen loving bacteria create a symbiotic relationship; Fish waste is converted by bacteria to a plant loving nutrient which helps maintain safe levels of ammonia without discarding waste and water.

Aqupaonics is an efficient, intensive gardening method with average of 3-6 fold greater yield per square foot. And even though water is everywhere in an aquaponic system, there is as much as 90% less water used than in-ground methods. Other advantages to aquaponics, is that it is fun, easy, most can be done anywhere, by anyone who shares a passion for locally grown food and herbs, without the challenges of in ground farming. Experiment with growing aquaponically raised fish and vegetables in your house on the patio in a greenhouse or community garden, and enjoy!”

Having never tried aquaculture I can’t say if Farm in a Box is a good idea or not, but it sure is interesting to see an advanced permacultural concept ending up in the isles of a big box store. If Home Depot wants to distribute a product like this or Nike wants to use fixed gear bike “culture” to sell shoes, I’m all for it. Let’s get the ideas out there. It’s up to us to take the next step and actually eat the fish.

The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles Over Motors

We’ve reviewed Tamara Dean’s new book The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles Over Motorsin this month’s issue of Yes Magazine. As we say in the review, don’t expect to be able to run your plasma screen with a bicycle (a lot of our favorite appliances take a hell of a lot more energy than pedal power can provide), but you will be able to grind grain, press apples, operate a sewing machine, and shell nuts. Dean’s book tells you how to harness human power in clear step-by-step instructions.

Read our complete review here.

Read excerpts from the book on Dean’s website.

Let’s Democratize Permaculture

When I heard that Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) has the number one country album, I fell into a dark spiral of despair. Isn’t this a clear sign of the end of the American empire? But wait, won’t permaculture save us from this petrochemical fueled Miley Cyrus soundtracked nightmare?

Don’t hold your breath. It might be awhile before everyone’s front yard is full of perennial vegetables and Merle Haggard is back on FM radio. Over at Club Orlov some controversy over permaculture has broken out in the comments. One poster, Morgan Emrich says,

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, for at least hinting that there might be a problem with the permaculture Movement in the US. The ratio of permaculture teachers/instructors, (and courses, certification programs, feel-good junkets to third world countries) to actual apple trees being planted seems woefully skewed in the wrong direction.

It’s starting to feel like Amway. Everybody’s selling Basic H but is anybody actually using the stuff to wash their clothes?”

I understand the frustration. I’ve seen, first hand, backstabbing, cliquishness and proprietary craziness in what should be a movement about joining together to make the world a better place. I’ve also witnessed the same skewed proportion of apple trees to thoughts about apple trees. At the same time, not a day goes by when I don’t think about, learn from or apply some of the principles of permaculture as described by Mollison and Holmgren. In fact my biggest failures have come from not following permaculture’s language of common sense.

Maybe it’s time to put down the pen and graph paper and pick up a shovel. It’s definitely the point at which we need to democratize permaculture and bring it to the mainstream. Fifteen hundred dollar permaculuture certificate courses are out of the budget and time constraints of backyard gardeners and rooftop apartment growers. Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture is a step in the right direction. We need more voices like Hemenway, who can explain the design principles of permaculture to the masses.

And let’s take these principles and apply them not just to gardening, but to the ways we arrange our schools, offices, homes and public spaces. Maybe we’ll get in the groove once we get past the term “permaculuture” and when its principles get reincorporated into the fabric of our lives.

Time to bust out the shovels and banjos.

The Homegrown Mailbox: How and Where Do I Get My Soil Tested?

When you write a book you get questions. In our case, due to the sinking economy in California, they are delivered by Kevin Costner on horseback rather than by email or regular federal postal trucks. No problem, we like questions. A caveat here: like Nancy Klehm, the Green Roof Growers and Black Swan author Nassim Taleb, we prefer the term “practitioner” to describe what we do as opposed to “expert”. We favor experience over speculatifyin’ and make no claims to accuracy. But, we’re happy to take the letters from Kevin, the horse poop for compost and try our best. Here’s one question we get a lot:

Q: Y’all know where I can get my soil tested? I’ve started HUGE garden in my side yard and it just occurred to me that it is where people used to park their cars. I’m concerned about Oil or other pollutants from the cars that might still be in the soil. Any experience with this? Can I test without it costing an arm and leg?

J.R., Los Angeles

A: See my updated response here. [Note update at bottom of this post!] There’s basically two groups of things to test for: contaminants and soil nutrient levels. There are cheap home test kits, but sending samples to a lab is much more accurate. To find a lab in the US, the best place to start is with your local Cooperative Extension Service. Find yours via this link. Some offer free or low cost soil testing.

Here in Los Angeles the Extension Service does not offer testing, but they were nice enough to provide a list of local labs. The lab I talked to, Wallace Laboratories, offered tests at $75 a sample–see their price list for specifics. Before you send a sample talk to the lab to find out what they test for and how much they charge for phone consultation in interpreting the results. If you’re worried about contaminants make sure to describe your situation.

Sampling is a DIY project. You put the soil in a bag and send it off to the lab (they’ll tell you how to dig for the sample and how much to send). You’ll probably need to do several samples since different parts of the yard might have different problems.

In the end I cheaped out and went with Peaceful Valley’s soil testing service for $29.99. No contaminant testing, but the results did tell me that I’m very low in nitrogen, with a soil ph that’s slightly alkaline. They charge for phone consultation, but I was able to interpret the results myself with their slightly overpriced booklet that you can order along with the test.

Another approach, especially if you live in an old house like ours, is to assume that your soil is contaminated, skip the test, and grow things in raised beds, containers or stick to ornamentals. You could also try bioremediation: each season plant a cover crop, let it grow, and then pull it up and dispose of it. Test the soil until it comes out clean. This works well, but it can take many years to get all the contaminants out.

For those of you in Los Angeles, our local Extension Service agent Yvonne Savio kindly sent me the following list of labs with comments.

Biological Urban Gardening Service
PO Box 76
Citrus Heights, CA 95611
(916) 726-5377
URL: www.organiclandscape.com
Email: [email protected]
Organic recommendations, very user-friendly
Owner Steve Zien and I co-author “Organic Matters” organic gardening column in Sacramento Bee for 20 years.

Wallace Laboratories
365 Coral Circle
El Segundo, CA 90245
(310) 615-0116
www.bettersoils.com
Test results very scientific
No recommendations

Soil and Plant Laboratory, Inc.
1594 N. Main Street
Orange, CA
(714) 282-8777

FGL Environmental
853 Corporation Street
Santa Paula, CA
(805) 525-3824

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
44811 N. Date Avenue
Lancaster, CA 93534-3136
(661) 945-2604

Here’s a dirt cheap (pun intended) test for soil ph that you can do yourself.

UPDATE: 7/7/09: Visiting journalist Michael Tortorello tipped us off to the University of Minnesota’s soil testing lab will test out of state samples for their regular (low) fee. It’s much cheaper than the services listed above. Their submission forms are located here.

Make Mag

Readers of this blog will really enjoy the current issue of Make Magazine.

“Volume 18: ReMake America! These challenging times have presented us with a rare chance to try out new ways of doing things. The opportunities for makers are terrific — we can start at home to remake manufacturing, education, food production, transportation, and recreation. In MAKE Volume 18 you’ll learn how to make an automatic garden, heat your water with the sun, monitor and share your home energy usage, and more.”

Here’s just a few of the many exciting projects:

  • Chicago comrade Nancy Klehm tells you how to compost human waste.
  • Homegrown Evolution has an article on how to install a drip irrigation system in your vegetable garden.
  • Eric Muhs tells you how to collect rainwater to use for flushing your toilet (very clever!).
  • Celine Rich-Darley tells you how to vermicompost in your apartment.
  • Michael Perdriel explains how to make an off-grid laundry machine.
  • Limor Fried and Phillip Torrone hook up a electricity monitor to a computer to twitter their energy usage.

You’ll have to buy a copy or subscribe online to see all this wonderfullness, but the magazine is well worth a subscription. Thanks to editor Mark Frauenfelder for including us and for sending a stack of back issues. I can’t say enough good things about Make’s high tech/low tech synthesis, DIY attitude and humor.