Genetically Modified Oranges Coming to a Store Near You

The ACP via UC Riverside

A tiny insect known as the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP for short) spreads a incurable bacterial citrus disease known as huanglongbing (HLB) or “greening.” Once a tree is infected with HLB there is no cure–you have to cut down the tree. HLB and a host of other problems, including thousand of acres of abandoned citrus groves, have devastated the Florida citrus industry. The psyllid made its way to California and the industry here is alarmed that HLB will soon follow. A Reuters story on HLB, “A day without genetically altered orange juice” has a number of astonishing revelations,

The bacterium that causes citrus greening is so lethal that the U.S. government classified it among potential bioterror tools known as “select agents” until about two years ago, severely limiting the scientific community’s ability to conduct research into the organism.

Yet another example of terrorism fears getting in the way of common sense.

The Reuters story goes on to discuss the development of genetically modified orange varieties resistant to the disease. Calvin Arnold, Laboratory Director of the U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory in Fort Pierce, Florida, reacting to possible consumer push back on the issue of GMO oranges, suggests,

I think especially here in the U.S., they’re understanding transgenics a lot better. Just like people go to Taco Bell, they know they’re eating crops that have been produced transgenically,” Arnold said.

I try to stay open minded about GMO. It may indeed be the case that if we want either bananas or oranges we may have to resort to GMO. But I think our energies might be better spent on preventative pest management strategies. Our large scale agricultural system leaves us vulnerable to unexpected “black swan” events like HLB, colony collapse disorder and SARS. We may enjoy the efficiencies that come with globalization and huge monocultures, but Mother Nature doesn’t work that way, and she will, ultimately, defeat our intentions with tragic results. A more biodiverse and distributed agricultural system with far less international and interstate shipment of goods is less vulnerable. It’s too late to deal with HLB this way, but perhaps we can head off other catastrophes. In the end, more of us will have to to plant our own vegetable gardens and run small farms.

A last, ironic tidbit in that Reuter’s story–for a disease whose spread was facilitated by globalization–some of the labor intensive research necessary to deal with HLB is being . . . outsourced to China.

Moving Bees Out of a Meter Box

Nuc box (new home) on left–utility box enclosure (old home) on right.

I got an email the other day from someone who had a beehive in his electric meter box, a popular destination for bees in this area. It was a very small hive that had taken up residence just a few weeks ago. The house was about to be put up for sale so I had to get them out pronto.

I brought along a cardboard nuc box–a temporary hive box used to transport bees. I smoked the electrical box (actually a wooden enclosure that surrounded the actual electrical box) to calm the bees. I cut out the small piece of comb and tied it in a frame which I placed in the nuc box.

Now came the hardest part of these hive “cutouts,” as they’re called: convincing the hive to move out of their old home and into the nuc box. Normally I would spray them with sugar water to immobilize them, brush them into a dust pan and dump them into the nuc box. But these bees scampered up into the inaccessible upper part of the electrical box enclosure.  I discussed demolishing the enclosure to get at the bees, but the homeowner was, understandably, reluctant to do that just before putting the house up for sale.

In desperation, I remembered something that organic beekeeper Michael Bush suggested, that you could use your smoker to herd the bees to where you want them to go. Sure enough, a few puffs of smoke brought the bees to where I could flick at them with a paint brush and catch them with a piece of newspaper as they fell, covered in sticky sugar water. After a few minutes of desperate flicking and sugar water spraying, much to my astonishment, down plops the queen. She landed, gracelessly, upside down and alone on the newspaper. Thankfully, she was uninjured. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just a few minutes earlier I thought that the homeowner would have to call an exterminator.

I put the queen in the nuc box and flicked the rest of the bees out of wooden enclosure–most of them took flight. I quickly plugged up all the entrances to the electrical box with painter’s tape and steel wool and put the nuc box on a ladder near their old hive entrance.

The moral of the story? Wherever the queen is, the rest of the bees will follow. Within minutes worker bees began fanning the entrance to their new home to alert the others to head into the nuc box. I took a long break to give foraging workers in the field a chance to join their queen in her new home. After the sun went down, I plugged up the entrance to the nuc box and taped it up carefully as the bees were to travel with me in a hatchback (not the ideal automotive choice for beekeeping duties). After an epic freeway journey the hive arrived at its new home in Altadena.

This hive is so small that their odds for survival at this time of year aren’t good. But at least they have a chance. Hold this young colony in your thoughts.

Is Kombucha Safe?

We love to ferment things, with one notable exception: kombucha. During the last kombucha craze, in the mid-90s, we picked up a “SCOBY” blob and dutifully fed it tea and sugar until we stumbled upon an article written by mycologist Paul Stamets, “The Manchurian Mushroom: My Adventures with “The Blob.” In that article Stamets tells a convoluted story of having a kombucha culture tested by a lab. He didn’t tell the lab what it was.The lab was very excited about the results on this mystery substance, and Stamets soon finds himself “sitting in a board room of a pharmaceutical company with lawyers and contracts discussing the particulars of patents, sub-licensing agreements, market territories, and dollars running into the millions—if FDA approval was granted for a novel drug.

Then the folks in the meeting turn to Stamets and ask him to reveal the identity of this culture:

I told them that, as best as we had been able to determine, from analyses by several independent mycologists, that the Blob was a polyculture of at least two yeasts and two bacteria, living synergistically.

The silence was deafening.

“Say what?”

Perplexed looks crossed their faces, soon followed by exasperated expressions of deep disappointment. Which of the organisms are producing the potentially novel antibiotic? Was it one or several? Was it one in response to the presence of another organism? Was it one in response to several organisms? The sheer numbers of permutations would complicate trials and given the FDA’s disposition, a polyculture is de facto contaminated.

The meeting was abruptly adjourned.

So kombucha does indeed have medicinal properties–including “novel antibiotic” properties– but therein lies the problem. Stamets concudes,

Those who might benefit from Kombucha need a credible and experienced professional who could best prescribe and administer it. I do not see the advantage of taking Kombucha by people in good health. Given the detrimental effects seen from prolonged exposure to antibiotics, the repeated, long term use of Kombucha may cause its own universe of problems. I wonder about those people who have adverse reactions to antibiotics? What about those with sensitivity to the microorganisms in Kombucha? I personally believe it is morally reprehensible to pass on this colony to sick or healthy friends when, to date, so little is known about its proper use. At present there are no credible, recent studies as to the safety or usefulness of Kombucha, despite decades of hype.

Stamets also expreses concern over contamination. A German study found three out of 32 samples of kombucha cultures taken from German households to be contaminated with Penicillium spp. and Candida albicans. While describing the contamination rate as “low” (nearly 1 out of 10 samples seems high to us) it goes on to recommended that immunosuppresed individuals buy commercial kombucha instead of making it at home. A literature review conducted by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the UK concludes, “the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha,” said risks including, “suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections.”

We’re all for fermented foods, and support the home fermentation of classic pro-biotics like yogurt, sourdough and lacto fermented vegetables. The last thing we want is for people to get spooked away from home fermentation. But kombucha is different. The problem, as Stamets notes, is that kombucha’s sugar and tea medium is a kind of open house for cultures, some good, some bad. Yogurt, sourdough and salt brines are very selective mediums in which to ferment things. With komucha it’s much more of a crap shoot.

Basically, like Stamets, we’re intrigued with the notion of kombucha being tested as a medicine and used with care by both western medical types as well as herbalists. And even if we were guaranteed a pure culture and a solid methodology for keeping the culture uncontaminated, we’d still be too leery its antibiotic properties to consider it a casual beverage. So we just don’t do the kombucha thing.

City of LA Shakes Down Community Gardens

The City of Los Angeles Department of Rec and Parks just announced fee increases for community garden plots. The rental of a 10 by 20 space will go from $25 to $120 a year. In the midst of an economic crisis, when the city should doing everything it can to encourage growing food in the city, we get this.

The good news is that, unlike national politics, we can make a difference by getting involved at a local level. I was alerted to this shortsighted fee increase by my friend Stephen Box who is running for city council in district 4. It’s about time that we got rid of the machine politicians that run Los Angeles and who oversee a vast and incompetent bureaucracy. It’s time for a change. If you live in district 4 vote for Stephen Box next March. If you live elsewhere, attend meetings, write letters and run for office.

Read Stephen Box’s editorial on community gardens here.

Winter Vegetable Gardening with Winnetka Farms

What the Winnetka Farms folks have done with a typical San Fernando Valley backyard is truly amazing. They’ll be sharing that knowledge by teaching a vegetable gardening class this Saturday December 4th from 9 am to 12 pm in Pasadena, CA. More info here. The class will conclude with a lunch of salad greens and homemade bread, all for $20. If you’re interested in vegetable gardening in Southern California I highly recommend this class.

Our Winter Vegetable Garden

Favas n’ peas

It’s a blessing and a curse to live in a year round growing climate. Winter here in Southern California is the most productive time for most vegetables. It also means that there’s no time off for the gardener or the soil. In the interest of better note keeping, what follows is a list of what we’re growing this winter in the vegetable garden. We’ll do an update in the spring to let you know how things grew. For those of you in colder climates these would be “cool season” vegetables and it’s never to early to start planning.

For just about the tenth season in a row we’ve sourced all of our seeds from two venerable Italian companies, Franchi and Larosa. Why? You get a ton of seeds in a package and they’ve always, without exception, germinated well and yielded beautiful vegetables most of which can’t be found in even the fanciest restaurant in the US. Frankly, every time I try another seed source I’m disappointed. I also like Italian cooking with its emphasis on flavorful ingredients prepared simply–no fussy sauces or complicated recipes.

Salad Makings

First off an endive and escarole mix from Franchi Seeds recommended and sold to us by our friends at Winnetka Farms. Looking forward to this one.

“Cicoria Variegata di Castelfranco”
A  bitter and beautiful chicory, also recommended by our Winnetka pals along with:

“Lattuga Quattro Stagioni”
A butterhead type lettuce.

Arugula “Rucola da Orto” from Larosa seeds.
You can never plant enough arugula, in my opinion.

Greens

Rapini “Cima di Rapa Novantina”
I grow this every year. It’s basically my favorite vegetable–much more flavorful and easier to grow than broccoli.

Spigariello broccoli.
A large plant resembling kale. You eat the leaves and flowers. Used in “Minestra Nera” or “Black Soup,” which consists of this vegetable and cannelini beans. More info here.

Fava and bush peas
I’ve rotated in legumes in the bed we grew tomatoes in during the summer. The fava came from seeds saved by the Winnetka farm folks and from our own garden. The bush peas are “Progress #9″ from Botanical Interests.

Chard “Bieta Verde da Taglio”
A tasty, thick leaved chard from Franchi seeds.

Dandelion greens, “Cicoria Selvatica da Campo”
A truly idiot proof vegetable. Bitter and easy to grow.

Parsnips “Prezzelmolo Berliner”
The first time I’ve ever tried to grow parsnips.

Radishes “Rapid Red 2 Sel. Sanova”
Mrs. Homegrown complains that I never plant radishes. This year I addressed that grievance.

Beets “Bietolo da Orto Egitto Migliorata”
A repeat from last year, these are tasty red beets.

Buck’s horn plantain also known as “Erba Stella”
An edible weed.

Stinging nettles
One of my favorite plants. It’s begun to reseed itself in the yard. Useful as a tea and a green.

For more information on when to plant vegetables in Southern California, see this handy chart. And let us know in the comments what you’re growing or plan to grow during the cool season.

DIY Wall Mounted Wine Bottle Vases

These wine bottle wall vases (via Dude Craft) are proof that the interwebs occasionally echo with good ideas. A variation on the wine bottle tiki torches I linked to earlier, you can make the hangers with parts from the plumbing isle. See Design Sponge for instructions on the torch version. Having seen two houses catch on fire in our neighborhood this year, I’d recommend the flower vase.

Our Holiday Gift Suggestions

That dreaded holiday seasons is just around the corner. With unemployment still high we hope that many of you have negotiated a family gift truce to limit tedious shopping. Or perhaps you’re making things to give away.

But if you still need to get a little something for that special homesteader on your shopping list, we’ve got a few suggestions from our Homegrown Evolution Amazon Store. Even if you just click through the store and buy something else, your purchases will help support this website with no additional cost to you. Here’s a few suggestions from out list:

Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy

Edible Landscaping


Rosalind Creasy just came out with a completely rewritten version of her classic book Edible Landscaping. The book is full of dazzling photos, helpful design suggestions and a long plant list with detailed growing and harvesting directions. I’ve been carefully reviewing this book as we redesign our yard. Especially helpful has been Creasy’s suggestion to draw a plan, to scale, and create lists of design ideas and problem areas. Going through this process helped me spot a few issues that I otherwise would have missed.

Haws Watering Can

Haws Practican Plastic Watering Can – 6 Liters 

The Haws Practican Plastic Watering Can – 6 Liters is the Cadillac of watering cans. I don’t know how I survived without this thing. For starting seedlings, nothing compares to the gentle rain this sturdy, well made can produces. Yes, it costs a lot more that most watering cans, but it will last a lifetime and pay for itself in healthy seedlings.

REOTEMP Compost Thermometer

At a raffle we recently attended at the Huntington Gardens a gasp actually went up from the crowd when this item, the REOTEMP Backyard Compost Thermometer, came up. It’s a handy tool to assess the health of your compost and judge when its time to turn. I use it all the time. 
The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

Then there’s our book, The Urban Homestead Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, now in a revised edition.  Enough said.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping


If you’d like to get started in beekeeping there’s only one book out there that I can recommend. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping by Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer. It’s the only beekeeping book that advocates a completely natural, no-treatment method of beekeeping.

Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier

Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles  by Eric Toensmeier is the perfect gift for the permaculturalist on your list. With it you can design a food forest of hardy, easy to care for perennials that provide food, medicine and habitat for beneficial creatures.
Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis
Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition 
When it comes to gardening, it’s all about the soil. Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis summarizes the pioneering work of Elaine Ingham who views soil not as an inert list of chemicals, but rather as a living “soil food web.” You don’t feed the soil, you feed the organisms that inhabit the soil that, in turn, form beneficial symbiotic relationships with plants.
The Modern Utopian
The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities Then and Now 
Our publisher, Process Media, has come out with a collection of writings from the 60s and 70s back to the land era, The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities Then and Now. The book is a collection of first person accounts and underground journalism from the period. Some communities are still around, but most failed. This book takes you inside this turbulent era to show what worked and what didn’t.
These books and garden items and many more are available in the Homegrown Evolution Amazon Store. Thanks for your support!

Behold the Western Electric 500

There’s much to love about the Western Electric 500 telephone. It’s easily serviceable and built like a tank. Why? When it was manufactured you didn’t own your phone, the telephone company leased it to you. This relationship served as a powerful incentive to manufacture a device that would last. In the 90s I went through three or four cheap cordless phones that broke after a few months of service. I switched back to an old touch tone phone (a Western Electric 2500) that has served us well and doesn’t put out potentially cancer causing radio frequency waves like cordless and cell phones do. My WE500, a thrift store purchase, sat around for years until I decided to fix a wiring flaw that silenced its bells.

The WE 500 should be the poster child for Mr. Jalopy’s Owner’s Manifesto as it adheres to all the tenets:  The case is easy to open, all connections are labeled and subassemblies dissemble with ease. Virtually all repairs can be done with a screwdriver. And phone companies, to this day, stick to backwards compatibility–you can still use a dial phone to make a call. Someone send a memo to Microsoft and Apple!

The WE500 does lack a few features. The dial doesn’t work with phone trees (but who likes phone trees anyways?). The WE500 has no GPS capability. It’s incompatible with apps from the iPhone store. Worst of all, you can’t take it with you on trips to the market or hardware store. It must remain plugged into the wall.

On the other hand, Starbucks will never be able to use the WE500 to suggest nearby locations. When I’m at the hardware store, contemplating threaded fittings, nobody can reach me. And I’ll not lose productivity with my WE500 since you can’t use it to play games or “Google” things.

Lest this turn into an anti-technology rant, let me praise the wonders of the interwebs for providing the schematics and instructions I used to get the bells of my WE500 ringing again. And I like contemplating the possibility of pairing the WE500 with Google Voice all in the service of a blog about getting in touch with the natural world. After all, why get lost in a dialectical struggle between iPhone addicted hipsters and the Amish? As Ted Friedman puts it, “we are all – human, animal, machine, plant, stone, wind — part of the same integrated circuit, inextricably enmeshed in multiple feedback loops.”

Still, it’s good to examine those loops critically, on occasion. I’m reaching a point where I can no longer deal with the volume of incoming emails and still have time to make and do things. I can remember the days before answering machines and call waiting. If you weren’t home the caller would just have to try again another time. But you can’t go back. At least I can still enjoy the electro-mechanical bells of the WE500.


The Western Electric 500 served from 1949 to 1984. The one I fixed was manufactured in 1961 and refurbished a decade later. Read more about the WE500 as well as excellent repair instructions for many different old phones here.