Essential System #3 – Sew Your Own Damn Clothes

Working down the list of essential systems that we began in an earlier post, we get to the topic of clothes. Now we could talk about layering and all the new “technical” fabrics, but that’s just about going to REI and busting out the credit card — not very interesting.

The problem with laying down the credit card at any or our nation’s retail clothing establishments is the simple fact that when you get home you have to wash off the blood of the Chinese slave laborers who sew the shit. There are two possible solutions to this moral dilemma, shopping at thrift stores, in which case you have second-hand slave laborer blood and sewing your own clothes. The big problem with the latter solution is that sewing is a bitch — it’s time consuming and at times incredibly frustrating. Nevertheless this homesteading revolution we propose won’t be a cake walk, and will be as much about rediscovering old techniques as it will be about new technologies. Fellow crackpot Daniel Pinchbeck in his funky new book The Return of Quetzalcoatl says,

Instead of envisioning an ultimately boring technological singularity, we might be better served by considering an evolution of technique, of skillful means, aimed at this world, as it is now. Technology might find its proper place in our lives if we experienced such a shift in perspective–in a society oriented around technique, we might find that we desired far less gadgetry. We might start to prefer slowness to speed, subtlety and complexity to products aimed at standardized mind. Rather than projecting the spiritual quest and the search for the good life onto futuristic A.I.s we could actually take the time to fulfill those goals, here and now, in the present company of our friends and lovers.

In short it’s time to step away from the virtual world of the computer for a few evenings every month and fire up the very non-virtual Singer sewing machine. We did this a few years ago and managed to produce the rather unattractive and two sizes too big shirt that you see above. It’s the kind of shirt that when worn will often get the comment, “did you . . . sew that yourself?” Note that this is not a compliment.

Still, we think that sewing has promise, particularly in Los Angeles where every imaginable fabric can be found in the colossal fabric district (unless, of course you decide to take truly radical action and start spinning and weaving your own fabric). Some recommendations for brave urban homesteaders who want to take up sewing. Don’t start with stretchy fabric. Don’t even think of using velvet (we learned this the hard way). Choose patterns carefully so you don’t end up looking like, well, folks who sew their own clothes. Consider purchasing a used serger, which cuts the fabric and finishes the seam all at once, which folks in the know tell us makes life considerably easier. Dress forms can also help – here’s how you can make one yourself.

Most importantly we need to reclaim sewing from the old ladies of the Midwest and make it . . . revolutionary. We think the best way to jump start this new sewing revolution would be to bring back brother Eldridge’s radical “Cleavers”.

Parkway Plantings

The cow dookie in the spinach scandal of the past month (for more on that read this excellent article) should prompt everyone to consider planting your own garden.

Hopefully Homegrown Evolution won’t be buying any bagged vegetables this winter since we just planted our parkway garden this afternoon after installing a drip irrigation system (more on the drip system in a later post). Winter is the best growing season for vegetables here in Los Angeles, and now is the time to start planting.

Our parkway garden consists of two 1.8 x 1.8 meter raised beds with a central wire frame obelisk in each bed to support beans. We ordered all of our seeds this winter from Seeds from Italy and have begun succession planting seeds every two weeks.

North Bed as of October 2, 2006

In the north bed we have:

Broccoli Rabe – Cima di Rapa Novantina, which matures in 55 to 80 days and Cima di Rapa Quarantina, which matures in 32 to 35 days. Broccoli is somewhat difficult to grow and requires vigilance to keep pests under control, and frequent fertilizer applications (organic, of course). The faster growing Quarantina, is easier to grow since the crop is produced faster and bugs have less time to munch on it. We grew both of these varieties last year and marveled at the taste of fresh broccoli, which is nothing like the bland crap in our supermarkets.

Cauliflower – Cavolfiore di Sicilia Violetto. This purple Sicilian cauliflower is stunning and tasty. Again, far superior to the tasteless white stuff our country’s factory farms crank out.

Beets – Bietola da Orto Cylindra. We actually like the leaves better than the roots and this variety is supposed to produce a nice beet green.

Radicchio Rossa di Treviso. Homegrown Evolution has yet to produce decent radicchio. We’re giving it another try this winter.

South Bed as of October 2, 2006

In the south bed:

Agretti – a trendy vegetable with some blue state types. We’ve never had it, probably because we don’t haunt expensive Italian eateries in the yoga mat totin’ and Lexus drivin’ sectors of our fair metropolis. We suspect that Agretti is going to be extremely bitter, just like the Italian dandelion greens we grew a few years back. You cook these bitter greens in olive oil and garlic and you get used to the strong taste. It’s a reminder that the bastards who control what passes for agriculture in this country have taken all the flavor out of our vegetables.

Rapa da Foglia senza Testa, i.e. rabe without a head. Yet another bitter vegetable, this is a kind of turnip green that looks kind of like broccoli rabe, except that you eat the leaves. A bit susceptible to bugs, but we had a successful crop last year.

Carrots – Carota Pariser Market. This is a small round carrot that French folks apparently like.

Around the wire obelisks, that give our street garden a certain gravitas in addition to supporting climbing plants, we have planted a very exotic looking bean called Borlotto lingua di Fuoco or “Tongue of Fire” (a reference to Pentecost we suspect rather than the cheesy 1970s Italian thriller). This is a pole bean with a brilliant red color that, sadly, disappears after cooking.

One of the nice things about planting the seeds in our street garden this afternoon was chatting with the folks who come by. Sadly, we found out that one neighbor is breaking up with his wife and needs to find an apartment. But on a happier note, another neighbor reminisced about his Italian grandfather who grew lots of vegetables and even made his own wine in the Bronx. Hmm, wine . . .

Life Can Be So Car Free

SurviveLA headed out on our Xtracycle sports utility bike yesterday to help the velorutionaries over at C.I.C.L.E. carry swag and propaganda to the new Los Angeles State Historic Park (formerly the Not a Cornfield site) for the first annual happening, Life Can Be So Car Free. We were pretty impressed with our ability to use human power to carry stuff until we were put to shame by one of members of the band Telematique who arrived pulling a bike trailer with a home-welded tall bike!

Speaking of moving stuff with bikes, for those who missed the fantastic Life Can Be So Car Free, here’s a video from groovy Portland that was shown last night.

Build a Ghetto Solar Cooker

Using crap we had laying around the homestead, SurviveLA fashioned a solar cooker based on plans from Backwoods Home Magazine, the Dwell of the Ted Kaczynski set. We just substituted an old cooler for the cardboard boxes, and we finished it off by using one of Los Angeles’ ubiquitous abandoned car tires as a cradle to keep the cooker oriented towards the sun. It ain’t pretty but it works. In our first test we reached 160º inside the oven, but we think we can do better with some refinements such as finding a black pot with a lid.

Yesterday we cooked up a somewhat disappointing batch of “chocolate pudding” which ended up with the consistency and taste of warm cake batter. We’ll test out some other recipes in the next few days, sun permitting, and keep you, our loyal readers, informed.

For more information on solar cookers check out the superb Solar Cooking Archive. You can also purchase a commercially made solar oven called the Global Sun Oven, but why do that when you can make one with cardboard, aluminum foil, and a black pot?

Crapper Livin’


Your house should be like this National Park Service bathroom. Located on remote Santa Rosa Island, forty-six miles off the coast of Ventura, this handsome building features a solar water heater and a 12 volt electrical system to power the lights. Built of durable materials such as cedar and recycled plastic decking, this building should see many years of service.

SurviveLA advocates the virtues of living small. Why not, for example, live in the Santa Rosa Island campground bathroom? The average American house has been super-sized to a gut busting 2,400 square feet and living in a structure the size of this bathroom would probably violate city codes in many places which mandate a minimum square footage for habitable dwellings. The nice thing about a small house is that it discourages the accumulation of crap and requires a lot less energy to maintain.

Sure, there is less convenience with a building like this. With a very simple solar water heating system showers need to be taken at the end of the day and the very modest solar panel would not be able to power any major appliances. But these are minor sacrifices compared to the enormous benefits of self-sufficiency, namely one’s freedom.

An aside here – SurviveLA encourages a trip out to beautiful Santa Rosa Island to enjoy the natural wonders and to visit this bathroom of the future. Unfortunately the vile and corrupt San Diego congressman Duncan Hunter wants to restrict access to the island so that fat cats can continue to go on $16,000 trophy hunts while drinking beer on the back of a truck. Read more about his plan to turn Santa Rosa into a retreat for disabled vets (an excuse to keep the fat cat hunt going) in the Washington Post. Please fax Hunter at this address ASAP and tell him that Santa Rosa Island belongs to the people, and should be run by the National Parks Service: Rep. Duncan Hunter, 2265 Rayburn HOB, Washington, DC 20515-0552. Fax is 202-225-0235. Let’s give Duncan the flush!

Escape from LA

Sometimes in order to survive LA you’ve gotta escape it, which is why we are headed to Santa Rosa Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park, tomorrow for a weekend of backpacking and general self-sufficiency. We’re going in part to experience what the landscape of Southern California would have been like had it not been fucked up by freeways, strip malls and Spearmint Rhino billboards to name just a few of the many indignities we face each day.

We’re also going to Santa Rosa to experience a place which was home to the Chumash Indians who lived for 13,000 years off the bounty of the land and the sea without needing to load up the kids in the mini-van and head to the 99 cent store.

Santa Rosa Island is also a land of mystery that once was home to the paradoxical combination of pygmy mammoths and giant prehistoric rats.

Sadly, in order to commence this journey we will be commemorating World Carfree Day by . . . driving, as we have to get to the Ventura pier early in the morning to catch the boat. We suggest that those of you who are stuck in LA this Friday to consider not driving if you can, and attending the vigil for Ilia Pankin, a cyclist who was killed earlier this week by a hit-and-run driver.

Garden Like a Pirate

“Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by Laws which rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery.”
- Captain Bellamy from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson

In honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, we at Homegrown Revolution would like to introduce the concept of Pirate Gardening. Pirate Gardening involves claiming unused land that does not belong to you for growing food crops. The first bit of land we hijacked was our own parkway, that bit of dirt between the sidewalk and the street that technically belongs to the city, but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. It’s yet another space, like the vast asphalt hell of parking lots, garages, freeways, car lots, auto repair shops, and junkyards in our car-obsessed city dedicated to the needs of the personal automobile.

We decided to flaunt the city’s strict rules about this space which dictates the kind of things that can be planted (basically nothing that would inhibit someone from getting out of their Hummer), and plant a vegetable garden instead. The idea was twofold: to provide vegetables for ourselves and our neighbors, and to do it in a way that would be aesthetically pleasing. Now, if we lived in some tight-ass place like Beverly Hills or Glendale some bureaucrat would, no doubt, have busted us by now, but in the City of Los Angeles, where code, building and traffic enforcement are non-existent, nobody seems to care. If we were Republicans we could probably have dug our own open pit mine or built our own miniature coal fired power plant without any City of LA official giving a damn.

For our piratical parkway garden we built two six by six foot raised beds, filled it with quality garden soil, and stuck in two matching wire obelisks for growing beans and tomatoes. Much to our surprise it has been a big success – we had a bumper crop of carrots, beans, turnips, garlic, onions, and beets in the winter and our summer crop was cherry tomatoes. Currently the beds are empty as we wait for this incredibly hot summer season to cool down (thanks for the global warming everyone!) and we are just about to plant an assorted winter crop of beans, broccoli, and assorted greens.

We’ve encouraged neighbors to help themselves to vegetables from the parkway garden, though few have. What has been nice has been the conversations We’ve had with neighbors while watering and tending the space. Several neighbors have said that it encouraged them to plant their own vegetables, albeit in their back yards. With more people growing vegetables our neighborhood becomes more self-sufficient and a wasted space has been reclaimed.

If all such marginal spaces, parkways, freeway embankments, vacant lots, and median strips were claimed by piratical gardeners and used for growing food, nobody would ever need to buy crappy supermarket produce. It’s time to seize all unused urban land matey and remember the words of Captain Bellamy as you do so, “I am a free prince”.

A Close Shave Part II: The Rolls Razor

Shaving authority and Root Simple Toronto correspondent Nicholas Sammond sent these handsome pics of a unique shaving system called the “Rolls Razor”. It looks like a safety razor, but instead of using disposable blades, the blade is permanent and re-sharpened on two stones contained in the case. One stone is used for occasional re-sharpening and the other stone is a “strop” used to sharpen the blade after each use. A detailed description of the operation of this unique razor can be found on this web site.

In effect the Rolls Razor is a compromise between a straight razor and a safety razor. We say it’s time to bring back the Rolls Razor so we all can stop handing Gillette and Schick, who have the same business models as crack gangs any more money, and stop filling all those landfills with more plastic.

La Alternativa

Today’s Wall Street Journal (paid subscription required) has an article on the Cuban equivalent of Martha Stewart, Margarita Gálvez Martinez who writes a column for the Pinar del Rio dioscecan bulletin Vitral and if tough times are coming, SurviveLA would rather have Margarita on our side than Martha. While Martha is out fretting over terry pillows and Halloween cupcakes, Margarita is surviving.

Cuba has faced some very tough years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the loss of trade (oil for sugar) from the former Soviet Union. Gálvez’s advice falls under what Cubans call la alternativa, or alternatives for the luxuries we in the US take for granted. As the Wall Street Journal article notes, Gálvez’s advice has included everything from salad dressing that doubles as hair conditioner, beauty treatments that consist of soaking in bread crumbs and warm milk, a flan made with fruit or vegetables rather than scarce corn starch and eggs, and laundry soap made from the jaboncillo tree. What we like most about Gálvez is that she is a strong proponent of urban gardening, maximizing every available space for food, a contrast to Martha Stewart’s useless pesticide and fertilizer drenched flower gardens. See the the film Power of Community How Cuba Survived Peak Oil for more on Cuba’s inventive urban gardening.

While we hope that the US does not face a Cuban style economic crisis, we at SurviveLA believe that it’s time for la alternativa for other reasons, namely reducing our environmental impact and rampant consumption.

If you speak Spanish, please enjoy Gálvez’s recipe for vinegar made from pineapple rinds or banana peels. There is an recipe in English (not quite the same) here.

Moringa!


Photo by Harvey McDaniel

One of the big inspirations for starting our front yard urban farming efforts at the SurviveLA compound is a Philippino neighbor of ours who has turned his entire front yard and even the parkway into an edible garden featuring fruits and vegetables from his native land, most of which we have never seen before. This morning, while walking the dog, I found him cutting hundreds of long seed pods off of a small attractive tree. He didn’t know the English name of the tree, but he told me that he likes to slice the seed pods and cook them with chicken.

Thanks the the “internets” I was able to figure out that the tree is the “Moringa oleifera”, a truly miraculous tree that, in addition to producing edible seed pods, is also used by indigenous people for regulating blood pressure, dealing with joint pain and treating inflammation. The seed pods can be pressed to produce a high quality cooking oil. The leaves are also edible and the plant is drought tolerant and will grow in poor soil. Native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas, the Moringa tree is cultivated in many parts of Asia as well as Mexico and Africa.

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The immature green pods, called “drumsticks” are probably the most valued and widely used part of the tree. They are commonly consumed in India, and are generally prepared in a similar fashion to green beans and have a slight asparagus taste. The seeds are sometimes removed from more mature pods and eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. The flowers are edible when cooked, and are said to taste like mushrooms. The roots are shredded and used as a condiment in the same way as horseradish, however it contains the alkaloid spirochin, a potentially fatal nerve paralyzing agent, so such practices should be strongly discouraged.

The leaves are highly nutritious, being a significant source of beta-carotene, Vitamin C, protein, iron and potassium. The leaves are cooked and used as spinach. In addition to being used fresh as a substitute for spinach, its leaves are commonly dried and crushed into a powder, and used in soups and sauces.

The seeds may be crushed and used as a flocculant to purify water. The Moringa seeds yield 38–40% edible oil (called Ben oil, from the high concentration of behenic acid contained in the oil) that can be used in cooking, cosmetics, and lubrication. The refined oil is clear, odorless, and resists rancidity at least as well as any other botanical oil. The seed cake remaining after oil extraction may be used as a fertilizer.

The bark, sap, roots, leaves, seeds, oil and flowers are used in traditional medicine in several countries. In Jamaica, the sap is used for a blue dye.

The flowers are also cooked and relished as a delicacy in West Bengal and Bangladesh, especially during early spring. There it is called Sojne ful and is usually cooked with green peas and potato.

Some organizations are promoting this miracle plant as a way to deal with malnutrition, since its ability to tolerate drought while still producing edible leaves makes it highly desirable.

We like plants like this that have multiple purposes, since in addition to food and medicine the attractive Moringa tree also provides shade. The goal that we have set for the new SurviveLA landscaping is that every plant must have multiple uses with priority given to stuff that is edible. We suspect there may be a Moringa Tree in our future.