Problems Part I


The road to urban homesteading ain’t smooth and involves more than a few potholes along the way. Some of those potholes will swallow a bike tire while others are big enough for a Hummer. But with persistence it becomes easier to deal with the occasional bump, lessons can be learned and future mistakes avoided. With the popularity of our earlier blunders post, I’d like to begin regularly sharing problems as they develop. Here’s problem #1 for this troublesome July:

A Sick Chicken

Our Araucana hen became listless and depressed over the weekend, just sitting around, avoiding food and not engaging in the usual hen chatter. She also stopped laying eggs. At first we thought she might be egg bound, a condition in which an egg becomes stuck on the way out the cloaca. Warm baths and lubricants (I’m going to resist a cheap joke here) ensued with no results. The thought of inserting a finger into the cloaca, or worse, attempting to break an egg seemed foolish for inexperienced chicken owners such as ourselves. As of today we can feel no swelling in the abdomen, or butt dragging, both signs of an egg-bound chicken.

We began to think that our ill tempered Rhode Island Red, who had pecked the Araucana pretty badly last week, may have caused an infection to develop. On Sunday we borrowed some antibiotics from a fellow backyard chicken keeper, specifically a product called Terramycin which we added to her drinking water. As of today she is substantially improved, but not completely back to normal. As a friend of ours who grew up on a farm says, “chickens are either on or off.” Once they get sick they often don’t come back “on”. We’ll hope for the best.

This problem brings to mind two lessons we’ve learned in the past year of backyard chicken keeping:

1. When you build your coop think about creating an isolation ward. A real farmer would just cull a sick bird to keep the flock safe. For those of us with just a few hens this is more difficult and it’s great to have a place to separate, at a distance, a sick bird just in case they have something communicable. It’s better to figure out how to configure this ahead of time rather than at 8 p.m. on a Sunday. Thankfully we’ve got a large dog pen for our Doberman that can double as a small chicken run. We’ve also got a small dog/cat crate that works well for bringing a chicken indoors at night to keep her warm.

2. Have medications on hand before you need them. A chicken first aid kit is a good idea. Here’s an article on what that kit should include. If our hen recovers we’ll have to follow up the Terramycin with a probiotic supplement to restore beneficial gut bacteria killed by the antibiotics. It would have been great to have these medications on hand rather than having to run to a feed store, rely on a friend, or pay to have them shipped overnight.

Stay tuned for July’s problem #2–an old friend–blossom end rot.

UPDATE: The Araucana (actually, probably a “Americana”) made a full recovery.

Bike Porn

As the Bicycle Film Festival wraps up here in Los Angeles I’m reminded of how exciting it is to feel a part of a subculture not yet discovered by the masses. Perhaps $4 a gallon gasoline will bring a few more converts, but I’m not holding my breath. The joy of riding a bike is a far greater incentive than economic necessity. I’d rather crest a steep hill with a sense of accomplishment rather than a winded desperation. The bike film fest is a celebration of an everyday physical virtuosity that will become more important as the crack-like cultural high of fossil fuels proves increasingly expensive and destructive. This is a film fest that sings the body acoustic.

After leaving LA the festival travels to San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Tokyo, Austin, London, Vienna, and beyond. Check the Bike Film Festival calendar to see if it comes to a city near you. Thanks to the wonders of youtube, if you can’t make it to the festival you can watch a lot of the films online. Here’s a few:

Macaframa
“SF’s most talented street track riders.”

Tico Jam 5
BMX bike porn in Costa Rica. I could watch these folks do their thing for hours.

D.I.Y. Emancipation 101
A nice animation about how the bicycle brought freedom to women.

Orange Bikes Take Manhattan
All about a misguided viral marketing campaign from DKNY.

The Way Bobby Sees It
A gripping story about a blind mountain bike rider.

Wolfpack Hustle: The Midnight Drag Race
2nd Street Tunnel single speed and fixed gear drag races in Los Angeles.

Waffle Bike
From the same demented duo who did a nice video about bike thievery in New York a few years ago.

Whiteflies

The upside to garden pests and diseases is getting to do a little amateur backyard science. Any excuse to mix up a martini, pull out the microscope and take a close look at things and we’re all over it. This week’s happy hour entomology comes thanks to a infestation of white flies living on the underside of our tree collards.

I believe the specific culprit pictured above is the greenhouse whitefly, Trialeurodes vaporariorum which, despite the name, does not only inhabit greenhouses. Moving the leaf around under the microscope revealed thousands of tiny eggs pictured on the right. These eggs hatch and pass through several stages on the way to the winged adults seen above. At all stages, whiteflies suck sap from the host plant (brassica family members like collards are a favorite) and exude honeydew. Some whitefly species are tended and protected by ants acting like miniature cattle ranchers in return for the sweet, sticky honeydew–yet another remarkable example of symbiosis among nature’s many cycles of interdependence.

Control of our whitefly interlopers was simple: we washed them off with a hose. If we had a huge row of collards we might have had a bigger problem on our hands, but biodiversity in our tiny backyard means that the whiteflys don’t have many other options for feeding. What we could have done better is to have kept a closer eye on our plants. Daily inspection of more sensitive vegetables is always a good idea, but something we’ve been lax about lately. Keeping intensively planted annual vegetable beds close to places of daily activity means being able to stay on top of pest and disease problems. Raised beds we recently installed by the front door are on the path of our early morning amble down to the street to pick up the newspaper. A quick glance is sometimes all that’s need to spot a problem.

Permaculturalist Bill Mollison and David Holmgren suggest conceiving of our living spaces in a series of concentric zones, numbered one through five, with the first zone being our house and kitchen gardens and the outer zones being less cultivated and more wild spaces. Mollison and Holmgren’s zones are easily miniaturized for small urban yards. Trees that don’t need much attention can go towards the back, the chickens a little closer and the vegetables and herbs can benefit from being close at hand.

For additional information on whiteflys see the Colorado State Extension service’s whitefly quick facts.

Greywater Guerrillas in LA this Weekend

With the prospect of at least ten more years of drought here in California, greywater is a hot topic. This weekend Oak-town’s fabulous Greywater Guerrillas are heading down to Los Angeles for a weekend of talks and workshops. If you’re not in Southern California, make sure to check out their informative website and their new book Dam Nation. We especially enjoy the GG’s project examples.

Here’s the 411 on their LA appearances:

Saturday July 19th: Hands-On Greywater Installation Workshop.

Time: 11am-3pm
Location: Silver Lake (You’ll get an email with directions once registered)
Cost: $30-$40 sliding-scale
To register: email Matt Moses Space is very limited so register early!

Workshop will include a presentation on greywater reuse, the design process of the system we’ll be building, and the construction of a greywater system from the washing machine to ornamental of plants. Activities will involve digging, measuring, cutting pipes, observing, and more!

Sunday July 20th: Presentation: How to Disengage from the Water Grid: With Greywater, Rainwater, and Composting Toilets.

Time: 7:30- 9:00
Location: LA Ecovillage 117 Bimini Place, Los Angeles, 90004
Cost: $10 (no one turned away)
For more info contact Lois at the LA Ecovillage 213/738-1254 (www.laecovillage.org)

How to Disengage from the Water Grid- with Rainwater, Greywater, and Composting Toilets. We will connect the water in our lives to local and global water struggles, look at rainwater as a resource, explore options of reusing greywater, and contemplate waterless (composting) toilets. From the apartment, to the house, to the city, ecological sanitation offers a path to a sustainable and just water future.

Monday, July 21; Greywater Design Workshop.

Location: 3983 East Blvd. Mar Vista, CA 90066
Time: 7-9pm
Cost: $25
To register: email Ray Cirino 818-834-7074

Greywater Design Workshop; Interested in reusing your greywater? Want to learn more about it and how to build your own system? Come to our design workshop. We’ll present you with information on the most common, low-tech, low-cost, effective, residential greywater systems. Then we’ll break into groups and help you plan a system for your own home. Participants will be emailed a greywater planning sheet, that you’ll fill out and bring to the workshop.

Monday and Tuesday (July 21st and 22nd) Greywater Consultations.

If you are interested in having a consultation and/or system design for your own home, please contact Laura Allen at least one week before the consultation dates.

Gardening in an Apartment Windowsill

Photo courtesy of Helen Kim

Without exaggeration, this is the most amazing garden I have ever seen. It’s easy if you’re the king of France to create the gardens of Versailles, but a much greater achievement to bring nature’s abundance to an apartment windowsill in Los Angeles. It’s the handiwork of a talented photographer named Helen Kim who, in this tiny space, grows cucumber, basil, lemon verbena, alfalfa sprouts, leeks, tarragon, beans, endive, dill, arugula, oregano, parsley, stevia, green onions, thyme, strawberries, mustard greens, lemon grass, and what Helen describes as “a curryish plant that is awfully nice for smelling but underwhelming for cooking.” Read an interview with Helen about this garden here.

Gardening is not about the quantity of space one controls or the weight of the food harvested. It’s about a love for beauty, an attention to detail and an appreciation of good food. Imagine if all our unused or neglected urban spaces were as beautiful and useful as Helen’s garden. We’d live in a world transformed, one windowsill at a time.

Boulder man faces $2000 fine/day for guerilla garden fencing

Via BoingBoing (complete with video):

“[L]ast month, an enforcement officer from Boulder’s Environmental and Zoning Enforcement office showed up and said a neighbor had complained about the garden.

“She said to take it all down — the tomato cages, the trellises, the posts, the basketball hoop, everything,” Hoffenberg said.

Hoffenberg has until July 14 to take down the trellises and fencing. At that point, Arthur said, he could be cited, and a judge could impose a fine. Or the city could remove the impediments, since they’re on public property, Arthur said, if they’re not able to reach a compromise.”

Myself and three other neighbors here in my Los Angeles neighborhood are doing exactly the same parkway vegetable planting Hoffenberg is doing. All it takes is one disgruntled and unhappy neighbor. We gotta change the paradigm folks–food not lawns!

Terror of Tiny Town

The Homegrown Evolution in-box overfloweth this week with news of the cute and the tiny. Yesterday’s post about our miniature Red Currant tomatoes prompted Bruce F of Chicago to inform us that he’s working on the world’s smallest kale plant. He’s growing them in self-watering containers made with old pop bottles (more info on how to make a pop bottle self-watering container here and here). These pop bottle containers look like they’d work well for starting seeds, as they provide a constant source of water.

Nance Klehm, another intrepid Chicago resident, informed us that someone just gave her two bantam chickens for her backyard, the perfect compliment to her chihuahuas. Some say that bantams are better for smaller backyards due to their diminutive size. Readers with bantam experience please let us know what you think about keeping bantams vs. normal chickens as we only have experience with SUV sized poultry.

The photo above is, incidentally, a scene from Werner Herzog’s brilliant and inexplicable film “Even Dwarfs Started Small”.

Tomato Review #1 Red Currant–The World’s Smallest Tomato

Due to poor planning in our garden this year we’ve had a bit of a “need to get produce at the supermarket” gap. Ironically, the first bit of homegrown produce to appear this summer came in the form of what we’re calling the world’s smallest tomato: an heirloom variety Mrs. Homegrown Evolution picked up at this year’s Tomato Mania sale called Red Currant (Solanum pimpinellifolium). This is a domesticated version of wild tomato plants originating in Mexico, and produces fruit measuring about one centimeter across. Red Currant is an indeterminate tomato, with a delicious, sweet taste. A malfunctioning drip line has has meant that our specimen probably did not get enough water, but nevertheless it has managed to produce fruit despite looking unhappy. If we had more than the paltry number we’ve produced, they’d make for a tasty addition to a salad. That malfunctioning drip line means that all we have is enough for the world’s smallest BLT. If only we could find a pig the size of a cellphone.

Bugs Ate My Garden

A letter from one of our readers:

“I just read the article on growing your own food. I have tried this but have had great difficulty with insect damage. I have tried some of the “natural” insecticides but they don’t seem to work very well. Two of the major problems I have are cutworms that snip off seedlings before they can get started, and a plague of small white snails which invade later in summer and devastate everything. I cannot use chemical pesticides due to my wife’s chemical sensitivities (nor would I want to pollute my garden with them). Any suggestions?”

Read the rest of the article at Reality Sandwich

Yet Another Lawn Rant

As if there weren’t enough reasons not to have a lawn, especially in the dry parts of the world where we live, let’s add another: gruesome accidents. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that over 117,000 folks in the United States made trips to the emergency room in 2007 because of lawn mowers.

We’ve witnessed first hand the power of lawn mowers. A neighbor of ours had his windshield shattered by a rock propelled by a mower blade. As the Orthopedic Surgeons note, “The energy transferred by a typical lawn mower blade is equivalent to being shot in the hand with a .357 Magnum pistol. A lawn mower can eject a piece of metal or wood up to 100 miles per hour.”

And manual push mowers? Surprisingly they resulted in 7,159 emergency room visits.

So remove the lawn. How? Two words for ya: sheet mulch.