Mulberries

The Mulberry trees (Morus nigra) along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou are producing their delicious fruit. The picture above is an immature berry–this particular tree produces a dark purple berry when ready to eat. Some sources on the internets, as well as Delena Tull’s excellent book Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest warn against consuming the unripe fruit, claiming that doing so produces an unpleasant, mildly psychedelic experience. Apparently you throw up, fall on the ground and become convinced you’re going to croak. We wonder if this is a myth, like the story about boy scouts roasting hot dogs on Oleander sticks (yes, Oleander is very poisonous, but apparently the boy scout story is an urban legend).

We found the Mulberries sweet and delicious. It’s a fruit that doesn’t ship well, hence its absence in our crummy supermarkets.

Cooling with Beer . . . Cans

Root Simple dropped by Houston’s famous Beer Can House, created by John Milkovisch in the 1960s and 70s. We won’t plumb the messy depths of the meaning of “visionary art”, the academic art Mafia’s euphemism du jour for this stuff–we’ll leave that to our art bloggin’ amigo Doug Harvey.

So sidestepping the whole debate over the intentions of its creator, we’ll point out that all of Milkovisch’s house mods have both aesthetic and practical benefits. The beer can cladding that covers the entire exterior of the house means never having to paint the underlying wood. The concrete yard means never having to mow a lawn (we’d prefer vegetation but Milkovisch’s concrete work is, like the rest of the house, magical).

But on to our favorite detail. It’s damn hot in Houston most of the year, and to deal with the blazing sun on the south side of his humble bungalow, Milkovisch crafted this intricate, shimmering screen made of beer can tops and bottoms that hangs from the roof line like an aluminum grass skirt. Not only does it shade the windows and walls, producing a dramatic decrease in cooling bills, but it also functions as a pleasing wind chime.

We’ve been thinking of doing something similar on the hot south side of our house, except with deciduous vines. That way, we’ll let light in during the winter and have a living shade wall during the summer. Perhaps we’ll grow beans and become Los Angeles’ Bean House.

The Beer can house is located at 222 Malone Street in Houston, Texas and is lovingly cared for by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.

Allium ursinum

Allium ursinum, a.k.a. Ramsons (in English), and Bärlauch (bear leeks, or wild garlic in German), are a member of the chive family so named because they are a favored food of bears and wild boar. People can eat em’ too, with both the bulb and leaves making a tasty addition to a number of dishes (see a detailed report on Allium ursinum in the Plants for a Future website).

Favoring semi-shade, Allium ursinum thrives in moist, acidic soil–forest conditions, in other words. In short, not appropriate for our climate in Los Angeles, but folks in the northwest might consider planting some. Like all members of the Allium species it’s toxic to dogs, but we’ve never had a problem with our dog eating onions (he prefers raiding our avocado tree and tomato bushes for illicit snacks).

Special thanks to Steve Rowell of the Center for Land Use Interpretation for the photos and report. Rowell spotted this tasty vegetable at a farmer’s market in Berlin where they are a popular seasonal addition to cafe menus and even to packaged items like pesto and ravioli. If only we’d catch on to the seasonal thing in America . . .

The Great Sunflower Project

Help determine the health of urban bees with a citizen science experiment called the Great Sunflower Project. It’s simple and free. Just register at the Great Sunflower Project website and you’ll be sent a package of wild annual sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus). Twice a month you’ll get an email to remind you to time how long it takes for five bees to visit your sunflowers.

Sounds like it has drinking game potential, though that might lead to inaccurate results . . .

A Seed Pokin’ Thingy

Planting seeds seems like a simple task, and yet when you’re faced with hundreds of tiny seeds and dozens of pots it can take a surprising amount of time. Thankfully there’s an elegant and simple tool that can make life easier during planting season.

To make this handy tool all you need to do is take a sick (something smaller than a chopstick is ideal) and stick it into a wine cork. You use the cork end to gently tamp down the soil and the stick end to make small indentations in which to pitch your seeds.

Homegrown Evolution learned about this tip thanks to a seed propagation class we took at Urban Harvest, a non-profit located in Houston, Texas dedicated to, “Working with gardens and orchards to build healthy communities.” A special thanks to instructor Jean Fefer, an organic gardening expert and a Harris County Master Gardener and Plant Propagation Specialist. We heartily recommend Urban Harvest’s programs and classes to anyone interested in learning how to grow your own food.

In Praise of Disorder

Loose chickens in Houston

A neighborhood whose demographics fall somewhere between the extremes of the crack den and the country club presents just the right level of civic inattention to allow the urban homesteader to get away with many of the illegal projects profiled in this blog: greywater, backyard poultry, and front yard vegetable gardening, to mention just a few. Ideally you have a balance between order and disorder–neither gunfire nor the prying eyes of city inspectors. Where I’m staying in Houston, with its flocks of loose chickens, packs of feral dogs, and broken down bungalows seems just about right. Our neighborhood in Los Angeles is seeming less ideal with the news from Mrs. Homegrown Evolution, that we’ve earned our first citation, an indicator that our neighborhood is tilting dangerously towards the country club side of the demographic equation.

Nine years of dog ownership have gone by with no problems until this week, when a new neighbor decided to report our dog and several others in the neighborhood to animal control for barking. We have to buy a $100 dog license (while not a Ron Paulista, I tilt libertarian enough to not want any stinking licenses), and wait fifteen days to see if we need to go to a hearing, all for an elderly and well behaved Doberman who spends most of his time indoors, has no access to the front yard and goes promptly to sleep at 10:00 p.m.

Thanks to an alert teen just down the block, we know the identity of the uptight yuppie who ratted us out. Now the neighborly and gentlemanly thing to have done would have been to come over, knock on the door and have talk to us face to face. We’d be happy to work something out–keep the front window closed perhaps. Most of us on the block know each other and have never had any problems getting along. But it’s also Los Angeles, a car-centric city where people lead lives of isolation and rage, locked in metal and glass cages, braving hellish traffic on the way to twenty hour a day shifts churning out sitcoms and bad movies. Los Angeles has the community spirit of an anonymous internet chat room, with meaningful dialog replaced by never ending flame wars.

It’s also America, where the majority of the population is clinically depressed. And one of the indicator behaviors for depression is an irrational fixation on minor annoyances, like barking dogs, leaf litter, raccoons and group bicycle rides. Go to any neighborhood meeting, and you’ll see medicated NIMBYs lashing at all of life’s minor indignities.

Our homes and neighborhoods need the liberation that comes with a creative and healthy level of chaos. Visionary Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who passed away recently, conceived his life’s work when faced with the task of making safer streets in a small Dutch town that had run out of money. He fixed the problem with the radical idea of removing almost all the traffic lights, signs, curbs even the lane stripes, creating a concept known as “shared space.” Monderman asks, “Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People . . . have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

When we have to think for ourselves, we cooperate, solve problems, and come up with creative solutions. A healthy dose of chaos is always the best place to start.

Nopales Season

It’s nopales (the pads of the prickly pear cactus for you Yankees) season at the Homegrown Evolution compound. Our prickly pear has thrown off so many leaves that a neighbor dropped by last week to ask for some. We filled a bag for her and declined the dollar she offered us.

To cook up our nopales we use a simple recipe found in Delena Tull’s book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. First scrape off the spines with a knife and chop a pad (one pad per person). Boil for 10 minutes. Next, put 1/3 cup whole wheat flour, 2/3 cup cornmeal, 1 teaspoon chili powder, salt and pepper in a bag and shake with the boiled chopped nopales. Fry up in a pan and you’ve got a delicious side dish.

One of the charms of the prickly pear cactus, in addition to the food it provides, is its ability to survive drought and fend off pests. Sadly, it’s not as indestructible as it seems. The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum was introduced into the Caribbean in the 1950s and has slowly worked its way to Florida and Mexico. It may soon reach Texas and California. The USDA is hoping to halt the spread by releasing sterile moths.

And speaking of Texas, for the next two weeks Homegrown Evolution will be in residence in Houston where it’s also nopales season. If we see any Cactoblastis cactorum, we’ll deal with them Texas style:

A Parvati Solar Cooker

Damn, is solar cooking easy! Put some rice in a pot, place the pot in this simple panel cooker, made with cardboard and aluminum foil, stick it out in the sun and two hours later you have lunch.

We built our “Parvati” solar cooker with plans designed by Shobha Ravindra Pardeshi that can be found here. Pardeshi, who runs an “appropriate technology” company with her husband in India has another design for a similar dish-shaped cooker here. We found both of these cookers (and many more) via the amazing Solar Cooking Archive.

For the Parvati cooker, we cut the cardboard according to the plans, and affixed the aluminum foil with spray glue. For our first pot of rice we used a black enamel pot to better absorb the heat of the sun’s rays, and wrapped it in a roasting bag to increase the efficiency of the cooker. A five gallon bucket made a convenient stand and did not have to be rotated in the two hours it took to cook the rice. Longer cooking times would require re-aiming the cooker as the sun moves across the sky. Temperature in the pot quickly went over 180º F, the point at which food begins to cook. The two hour cooking time is much longer than it would take on a conventional stove, but with a solar cooker there is no danger of burning, making the process, in our opinion, easier than stove-top cooking. Consider a solar cooker a kind of low-powered crock pot for lazy and cheap people–good for things like rice, beans, soups and stews, but not good for sauteing. Just remember the oven mitts–this thing gets hot!

When the sun gets higher in the sky, as we move into summer, this cooker will reach even higher temperatures. We don’t remember where we read this but some folks say that panel cookers like this one cook best when your shadow is shorter than you are which, here in Los Angeles, is right about now. We tried this cooker back in January and it performed well, but did not get above 140º F, which is not hot enough to cook.

Perhaps here around the Root Simple compound we’ll get around to turning our Parvati Solar Cooker into a low rent attraction. Just add some ostriches and we’ll repeat this early 20th century tourist trap in nearby Pasadena (click to biggify):

Planting a Mini-Orchard

Ignore the bucket in this illustration! See update below.

Update 3/13/2011: I met Brad Lancaster last night and he told me that he and Art Ludwig no longer use the upside down bucket described in this post. The reason is that detergents can build up in the hole. In my experience the bucket was also an unnecessary step. While I have a clay soil, the hillside drains fairly well. A properly sized mulch basin should suffice to allow greywater to infiltrate. Also, the new generation of washing machines use a lot less water than the old one that I still have. Other than the unnecessary bucket and the persimmon tree (died, for some unknown reason) this greywater application has worked very well. Our fruit trees are lush and happy.

With the news that Lake Mead could go dry by 2013 we figured it was about time to figure out how to grow food with very little water in a Mediterranean climate that gets on average 15 inches of rain a year (3 inches last year). Our water worries sparked the beginnings of our draught tolerant mini-orchard. Thankfully greywater and some tough, water sipping trees make it possible.

Step one was figuring out how to reuse our washing machine water (read our earlier post on the washing machine surge tank we built). Step two was matching that washing machine water output to the right kinds of plants for the mini-orchard. We settled on the three “Ps” — pomegranate, persimmon, and pineapple guava, plus a mission fig tree to replace the substandard one we cut down (even though God Hates Figs!). The advantage with these four trees is that they can survive, once established, should we find ourselves unable to use any water due to the aforementioned bad-ass draught scenarios.

Our house sits on a small hill, with the front yard sloping down towards the street. We placed the trees at the top of the slope and made mulch basins like the one illustrated above. The outlet chamber consists of a upside down three gallon bucket with a bunch of holes punched in it. The purpose of the outlet chamber, which is buried in the mulch basin, is to help the greywater infiltrate our heavy clay soil. To use it we simply place the hose coming from the surge tank into the hole in the top of the outlet chamber. We cover this hole with a brick when not in use. The photo below shows the digging of the mulch basin and the installation of the outlet chamber in progress:

The completed mulch basin and (hard to see) pomegranate tree to the right. We used straw for mulch We use wood chips for mulch (replaced the straw):
These craptacular photos don’t show the details very well, but the mulch basins were dug in such a way to also catch rainwater as it flows down the hill. Both rainwater and greywater work their way into the soil and slowly move down the hill over the course of many months. Since installing the greywater system we’ve seen previously sad plantings we did years ago of rosemary, wormwood and Mexican sage thrive. And we’ve got lots of nopalitos coming our way from the prickly pear plants.

For more information on these simple, water saving strategies see Brad Lancaster’s excellent book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands.