Alektyomancy: Divination by Rooster

We’ve blogged before about the Roman practice of using chickens to tell fortunes. It turns out the Greeks had their own chicken oracle method:

The Pythagoreans inquired about the posthumous fate of their recently dead by using an uncommon method of divination called alektyomancy. On a table were traced squares containing the letters of the alphabet, and in each square seeds were placed. After proper incantations, a white rooster was released, and the letters were read in the order in which the rooster pecked the seeds. The interpretation of the oracle is unknown.(1)

Thankfully you don’t need to own a chicken to practice alektyomancy. There’s an online version.

1) From I.P. Couliano’s book Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Couliano was, incidentally, a gifted scholar whose life was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet. His book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance completely changed my view of Western history.

Stencils as Garden Art


Seneca has a posse.

I’ve been looking at a lot of garden design books lately. These books always contain a photo illustrating the concept of the focus point, which is inevitably an 18th century marble bust of some ancient deity. Try to source one of those busts from your local big box store or Amazon and you’ll find some really scary stuff.

I can’t afford those 18th century busts, so I decided to try a two dimensional alternative: stencils. Above is my first primitive attempt–Seneca, spray painted on a chunk of concrete and propped up against a palm tree in the parkway.

A blog post over at Green Roof Growers alerted me to the far more impressive stencils of San Francisco street artist Jeremy Novy:

Photo by Dawn Endico

Photo by Dawn Endico.

Green Roof Grower Bruce was inspired by Novy’s work to make his own koi stencils on the sidewalk in front of his house. Now if enough of us adorn these edge spaces (in a neighborly fashion, of course) perhaps we’ll be able to reclaim our streets from the distant bureaucrats who hassle us over our parkway gardens. It’s precisely the kind of intervention on the permacultural “edge” that Mark Lakeman of Portland City Repair talks about.

So let’s make some stencils! Here’s how I do it:

Image processing
First step is to find a suitable image. This tutorial shows you how to use Photoshop to make your stencil.

Materials and tools
I used acetate, but it’s expensive. Bruce used old manilla folders. A cheaper alternative is freezer paper. I cut my stencil using an exacto knife.

First I spray the surface I’m stenciling with some Krylon Easy-Tack. This temporarily holds the stencil down. The rest is easy-peasy and the stencil can be used many times.

My next stencil will be a three color stencil. Here’s a tutorial on how to do this.

Update on Los Angeles’ Backwards Parkway Regulations

It looks like Councilman Wesson has temporarily suspended enforcement of parkway planting rules. This is in response to Steve Lopez’s LA Times column that profiled two parkway vegetable gardens that the city busted.

A tip of the hat to Mr. Lopez for his good deed. We will all need to keep our eyes on the council and the Bureau of Street Services to make sure that the changes they make reflect common sense.

And at the risk of tooting my own horn, I pointed out the foolishness of LA’s parkway regs back in 2010.

How To Stop Powdery Mildew

powdery mildew

My winter squash has what Mud Baron once described as “jock itch for plants:” powdery mildew. I’ve tried all kinds of notions and potions in the past, but this year I decided to see what the science says about powdery mildew. Our climate where I live in Los Angeles is, unfortunately, ideal for producing this vexing fungus.

Let’s begin with some condensed advice from UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management page:

Preventative measures:

  • grow resistant varieties
  • find a sunnier spot for the vegetable garden
  • back off on nitrogen

Non-chemical approaches

  • sprinkle plants with water mid morning–add soap for more effectiveness
  • remove infected leaves promptly and dispose of them


  • apply horticultural oil, neem oil or jojoba oil if the temperature is under 90° F. Do not apply any of these oils if you have used sulfur.

DIY Options
For home remedies I turned to advice from Washington State University horticulturalist Linda Chalker-Scott.

How about milk, widely touted as a powdery mildew treatment? According to Chalker-Scott the answer is yes it might work, but you may need to apply milk before powdery mildew appears. And the studies were done with whole milk, so the effectiveness of other kinds of milk have not been tested. Milk has not worked for me in the past, probably because I applied it too late.

How about baking soda? Chalker-Scott is skeptical. Baking soda has never worked for me.

Compost tea? I hate to bring it up as the topic is insanely controversial. I discovered a tempest in a compost tea pot when I tried to write a non-partisan magazine article about it. Let’s just say I ended up leaning towards the skeptical side when I looked at the evidence. Let me know if you think I’m wrong on this, especially if you can leave a link to a peer reviewed study.

What has definitely worked for me in the past is seeking out resistant varieties. I wasn’t smart enough to remember this fact so I’m going to try the soapy water approach and step up to something stronger if I have to. Part of my problem might also be too much nitrogen–my infected squash is in our straw bale garden and I had to apply a lot of blood meal to get it going. More sun would also help but that would involve cutting down a very large tree. I’ll update this post later in the season.

Let’s hear from you . . .
What powdery mildew treatment have you tried and how did it work? Leave a comment and join the conversation!

And I put the question out on the Root Simple twitter feed and got a few divergent opinions:

Christopher Kennedy ‏@ckpfunk Bonide’s Copper Fungicide for organic gardening. I spray every 14 days this time of year instead of every other w/ baking soda.

Alec ‏@Alec I’ve tried horsetail tea, sea-crop, baking soda, compost tea, and neem oil on mildew, but none compare to milk.

Alissa Walker ‏@gelatobaby I just sprayed with a baking soda solution seems to have done the trick so far. And removed all damaged leaves.

Alex Mitchell ‏@alexmitchelleg give the plants some air, water the ground not the leaves. Could spray diluted milk with water on leaves – never worked for me

What is Killing the Bees?

bees and poppies

What’s the cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD)? We may be getting closer with the release of a study from the University of Maryland about fungicides and other chemicals used in agriculture.

This study is more interesting than many others I’ve seen. It looked at how pesticides interfere with honeybee’s resistance to a common parasite Nosema ceranae. Bees exposed to a widely used agricultural fungicide, chlorothonatil, were more likely to succumb to nosema. The most provocative result for me was that bees exposed to fluvalinate, a miticide used by beekeepers on their own bees, were also likely to get nosema.

Perhaps the villain in CCD is the beekepers themselves. Don’t get me wrong, pesticides probably play a role in CCD. But we must also remember that commercial beekeepers:

  • Treat their bees with pesticides to control mites and these chemicals, as the study points out, harm the bee’s immune systems.
  • Move hives thousands of miles every year to provide pollination services.
  • Place their hives in monocropped areas where their bees can forage on only one kind of nectar/pollen such as almonds in California and citrus in Florida.
  • Use foundation (sometimes made of plastic sometimes made of wax that may be contaminated with pesticides) that does not allow the bees to build their own comb.
  • Regulate (through the use of foundation) the amount of drones the queen can make. Drones may be a sacrificial first defense against mites.
  • Use queen excluders to prevent the queen from moving freely through the hive.
  • Kill the queen and re-queen every year, often using artificially inseminated queens.
  • Import hives from other climates.
  • Feed hives high fructose corn syrup.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder warns about what happens when we prop up and interfere with complex systems like beehives or the economy. When we don’t allow failure (such as trying to prevent mites with chemicals) we set ourselves up for bigger disasters down the road. It’s very convenient to be able to point the finger at the pesticides farmers use. But just like Ben Bernanke, the big beekeepers can’t see the foolishness of their own practices. Point this out at most local beekeeping association meetings and you’ll be shown the door.

This cluelessness is why I recommend new beekeepers avoid most state beekeeping organizations. For a practical and wholistic approach to beekeeping see Michael Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper and look at the videos at the Backwards Beekeepers.

Are you part of a natural, no-treatment beekeeping group? Or is your local beekeeping club open to alternative methods? If so, leave a comment . . .