Kent’s Composting Tips and Secret Weapon

Today in our continuing dialog on composting, a guest post from Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition board member, Kent Strumpell who we met up with at this week’s inspiring LACBC awards gala:

I’m sure there are more correct procedures, but this is what I’ve found works.

I use a compost bin that has direct soil contact. I think this allows the introduction of soil organisms and serves to drain the pile if it gets too wet. I’ve done this same process with free standing piles as well.

I start with a small pile of dry leaves and add a load of kitchen scraps. I also add a couple shovels-full of rich soil to get things started, particularly with some worms and bugs to propagate the new pile. I’m not fastidious about what goes in, so the occasional fish and chicken scraps and leftover cat food gets into the mix, even oily stuff, but mostly it’s the usual veggies, fruits, paper napkins, etc. Though experts say no fats should go in, I’ve yet to see (or smell) a problem.

Each time I add new kitchen scraps, I add 1-2 shovels-full of dry leaves and some water if needed, turning and mixing the old and new stuff with a cultivator or shovel to aerate the pile. The proportion of dry to wet material is important. There should be enough dry leaves so the compost is kinda’ fluffy and moist, not soggy, but the dry material shouldn’t overwhelm the wet either.

Now the secret. I cut a piece of black 6 mil vinyl to approximately cover the pile and lay this directly on top of the compost (anything similar will work). I’ve found this helps keep the pile moist when I’m not able to check on it (sometimes for a week or two) and the bugs and worms seem to thrive underneath this membrane. I got the idea after noticing that I’d find rich bug habitat under boards, etc. laying around my yard. My compost piles teem with worms, sow bugs and other critters, all working hard for me. If you do a free standing compost pile, cut the plastic big enough to cover to the ground and hold it in place with rocks or bricks.

I add my scraps about once or twice a week. I don’t use the pile to consume large quantities of leaves, I just add enough of them to keep things in balance. It easily keeps up with my kitchen scrap production and gives me a rich, dark compost about like coffee grounds when it is done. I draw finished stuff off at the bottom occasionally. Or, if I want to use the whole batch, I stop adding to it for a few weeks so it can digest everything.

Build Your Own Furniture

We live in a 4 by 8 world. This is why we can’t get all that excited about things like geodesic domes, straw bale and rammed earth houses. All of these innovative architectural ideas may have great potential, but when it comes time to buy supplies at the lumber yard, the overly creative builder will soon realize the difficulty of utopian designs in a world of 4 by 8 sheets of plywood and drywall. That geodesic shape is hip, but what do you do with the rest of the plywood sheet once you cut it out?

The same limitation applies to making furniture. Thankfully a generation of designers back in the 60s and 70s left a few highly useful and groovy how-to books on making your own suburban-workshop-modernist furniture with a humble 4 x 8 sheet of plywood. The amazing art/architecture collective Simparch tipped us off to the world of plywood modernism how-to books and we at Homegrown Evolution recommend the stunning Sunset Magazine produced Furniture You Can Build, which is sadly way out of print and very expensive on Amazon, but available at the L.A. Public Library. Most of the designs in this book would work well with found materials and scraps. What we appreciate most about this book and others like it, that we will discuss in future posts, is the economical use of common materials.

A good example of this efficiency are these handsome stools — one sheet of plywood will make eight stools. Here are the instructions from the Sunset book:

Simple, versatile, and inexpensive — that’s the quickest way to summarize the virtues of these handy plywood stools, They could hardly be easier to build and are surprisingly inexpensive. Except for the nails and glue, every part of the eight stools shown in the picture at the top left came from one standard 4 by 8-foot panel of 1/2-inch plywood, the same as the panel shown behind them. As the cutting pattern shows, a 2-foot square of plywood yields one stool, and only the shaded areas are wasted.

Each stool is 17 inches square and stands approximately 10 1/2 inches high. If you wish to use a cushion, you can glue and nail a 1/2 by 1-inch hardwood frame around the top’s edges, which will give a 1/2-inch high rim to keep the cushion in place.

To start, draw the cutting pattern carefully on heavy paper and transfer it to each 2-foot plywood square with carbon paper or pin pricks. If making several stools, you can have the lumber yard cut your plywood to uniform 2-foot squares. Cut the legs and top from each square with a saw.

As the underside view shows, each leg abuts on and is nailed to the inner end of the next leg. Assemble with glue and just two 4-penny nails in each leg. Before the glue dries, turn the assembled legs right side up on a smooth surface and attach the top, As you glue and nail on the top (use 6-penny finishing nails), the legs will level themselves evenly. Finish the stools as you prefer: with paint, varnish, or stain wax.

Bitter Greens

Today we continued our winter planting in our illegal parkway garden adding arugula, a green that America has suddenly discovered after last month’s factory farming spinach nightmare. We also added a tough and bitter leaf chicory from our friends at Grow Italian. Hopefully, by succession planting we should have a winter and spring full of green, if somewhat bitter vegetables.

How do we prepare these bitter greens around the compound? Very simply — in a pan with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Sometimes we add some Parmigiano Reggiano. Fresh, strong tasting vegetables don’t need much else.

Getting Out

Walking back from our run this morning, we noticed a black mushroom cloud spreading out above our neighborhood, causing SurviveLA to briefly ponder the possibility that we might have to get the hell out of our beloved hometown. It turned out to be just your average hay truck fire on the 101 freeway, meaning there was no need to saddle up the Xtracycle for a long distance human powered escape.

Thankfully, if we did have to get the hell out we now have a handy guidebook. The fine folks at Process Media, publishers of Preparedness Now have just released a sequel for those who choose to run rather than prepare called Getting Out, Your Guide to Leaving America. We completely understand the sentiment of wanting to get the hell out of this proto-fascist banana republic we live in and we endorse this book for those who don’t want to hunker down and do the homestead thing. SurviveLA even has a former colleague in Chanai India who got out of the US several years ago and now has an interesting job and his own ultra low-cost homestead.

Despite the allure of more exotic places, Survive LA has decided to stay put and it’s time to get to work!

The Boy Scouts Suck


SurviveLA did not get a wink of sleep last night while staying in the Joshua Tree National Park campground due to a bunch of Boy Scout dads who stayed up talking and laughing until 2:30 am in spite of the presence of dozens of other nearby campers. Thanks Boy Scout dads for setting a nice example for your kids, some of whom also stayed up until 2:30 engaged in a loud multi-player game boy tournament while others chased desert mice, and a special thanks to the Scout who accidentally kicked out the supports of our tent at midnight causing it to collapse upon us.

While we applaud the dads for getting the kids out in the wilderness for the weekend, we at SurviveLA just can’t get behind the vile and outdated Boy Scouts, whose ongoing attempts at being more relevant backfire so pitiably and whose founder, Robert Baden-Powell, was an anti-semitic, fascist, pedophile.

If we had kids around the SurviveLA compound, in keeping with our self-sufficiency goals, we’d form our own SuriviveLA Scout troop. Here’s how the SurviveLA Scouts would differ from the Boys Scouts:

1. SurviveLA Scouts are coed. Men and women have gotta learn to work together and you might as well start early. As Barbara Ehrenreich once said, “Men alone in groups are bad company”. It’s also no fair that the girls have got to whore themselves selling cookies.

2. Let’s teach our kids to make the world a better place without the Norman Rockwell fascist veneer.

3. Hipper uniforms. We suggest something like this.

4. An urban cycling merit badge.

5. All activities are outdoors. Lots of nature experiences. No computer merit badges and certainly no copyright merit badges.

6. Lastly, the SurviveLA Scout mission statement, borrowed from Edward Abbey:

One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast… a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.

Roughin’ It

SurviveLA is off to Joshua Tree this weekend for the graduation ceremonies of the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Travel Course. We took the WTC class earlier this year both for tips on backpacking and for gaining general self-sufficiency. The Sierra Club’s approach to roughing it is to, well, not really rough it but to go down to REI and load up on all the latest stoves, tents and “technical” fabrics. This contrasts starkly with the mountain-man-live-off-the-land approach epitomized by survivalist types like Christopher Nyerges and Eustace Conway.

At SurviveLA we like our comfort and believe that the best way to train for a survival situation is to studiously avoid survival situations by making sure to always have extra food, extra water, extra clothes, a map and a compass. In short, we like the WTC way. And the nice thing about having the backpacking gear around is that should an earthquake or other disaster strike our urban compound we are prepared to camp out in the backyard and, if necessary, head out on the Xtracycle.

The Wilderness Travel Course starts up this January and we highly recommend it. The class includes ten classroom sessions, two day trips, and two overnight trips all for a very reasonable price. The class ends with a challenging weekend of snow camping in the high Sierras. Take this class and your urban homestead will be ready for most contingencies.

And speaking of camping, the velorutionaries at C.I.C.L.E. are hosting a weekend camping trip on November 11-12 that will feature a wild food hike with the aforementioned LA survivalist Christopher Nyerges.

Suntracker

Brief linkage today. While Homegrown Revolution doesn’t like to overdo the technology thing, we think this natural light collecting skylight device called the Suntracker One has promise. Similar in principle to the Solatube, the Suntracker, as the name implies, has an additional feature that the Solatube lacks — it tracks the sun with a built-in electronic brain and mirrors. Both the Solatube and the Suntracker direct the light down a tube, thus replacing the heinous blocks of fluorescent fixtures that typically light most commercial buildings with a more aesthetically pleasing natural light. Solatubes are available for residential use, but the Suntracker is oriented towards larger commercial applications.

LED Light Bulbs

The geeks over at BoingBoing have jumped on the LED light bandwagon with a post about the C. Crane Company’s CC Vivid and CC Vivid+ LED light bulbs. While it’s great that folks are beginning to think about conservation, it’s disappointing that this interest seems to be about chasing the latest new techno-gadget. As concerns about impending climate and ecological disaster increase, it’s prudent to greet all new technical solutions with skepticism. After all, why replace one kind of over-consumption with a new “green” consumerism?

Now back to the topic of LED lights. The price of LED lights continues to fall as the their light output increases. However the technology, in SurviveLA’s opinion, is not quite ready for general lighting applications. One way to measure efficiency of light bulbs is a ratio between the light output measured in lumens and power usage measured in watts. Most compact fluorescents have a lumens to watts ratio of about 50 lumens per watt. The CC Vivid light lumens to watts ratio is 24 and the CC Vivid+ ratio is 34 according to the specifications we obtained from the C. Crane Company web site. The spotlight profiled by BoingBoing, which we assume is also the C. Crane spotlight also has a lumens to watts ratio of 34. For more on these issues see the Department of Energy’s FAQ on LEDs.

As the DOE notes in the FAQ, it’s not entirely fair to directly compare compact fluorescents to LED lights, since LED bulbs have a more directed light making them perhaps better for applications such as bedside reading lights, where you don’t want to bother a dozing partner. LEDs, due to their exceptionally long life — upwards of 60,000 hours — are also great for installation in hard to reach locations where the lights will be on continuously.

LED lights, however, still bust the wallet with their high price. This issue reminds us of all the yuppies in our ‘hood tooling around in their expensive new Toyota Priuses. It’s 19th century technology, but a bicycle is still a hell of lot more efficient . . .

Far Side of the Stairs

The folks over at SoapboxLA have tossed down the stair climbing gauntlet with their participation in this weekend’s alley cat race and fundraiser for injured bike messenger Orlando Godoy. The race, entitled “Thus Climbed Zarathustra” in honor of Nietzsche’s birthday involved miles of racing around Echo Park and Silver Lake interspersed with climbs of the region’s many horrendous staircases. SurviveLA had important business to attend to and was not able to attend, though even if we had been free the idea of combining “alley-cat” with our “middle-age” we feared might lead to a trip to the “emergency-room”. But the brave folks at SoapboxLA were clearly up to the challenge and took first place in the categories of non-crocodile wrestling Australian and fiery high-horse Hungarian.

But seriously, part of this urban homesteading thing is about whipping our communities into shape and LA needs a serious thrashing, and I don’t mean the sort delivered by the ladies in the back of the LA Weekly. We need to make LA a walkable, bike-able and livable place just like the folks in the other great cities of the world have done. Why is it that LA suffers from low self-esteem and low expectations? Why is it that when our downtown skyline appears in a movie, the image is shorthand for crime infested ghetto hell-hole? Why is it that when you point out the pedestrian and cycling amenities of cities like Portland and San Francisco the immediate response is, “that will never work in LA”?

We urge all revolutionaries out there to join with SoapboxLA to call our city officials on their complacency and make this city a great place to live. SoapboxLA had an important victory in helping insure bicycle and pedestrian access to the Griffith Observatory and they are also fighting for a safer bike lanes on the soon to be constructed Santa Monica Boulevard Transit Parkway. Brothers and sisters, it’s time to saddle up the high-horses and ride off with the Soapboxers!

The Green Cone

SurviveLA contributor and neo-country singer Corey Travis, currently on tour with his band in London, Malta, and Tunisia, sends us word of a “kitchen waste eliminator” called the Green Cone, that he bought after seeing a review in that modernist porn magazine Dwell. The cone part of the Green Cone sits on top of a basket buried in the ground. You put your kitchen waste in the cone, add some “accelerator powder” provided by the company, and let the waste dissolve into the ground. The system is similar to dog waste disposal products such as the “Doggie Dooley” and is basically a primitive septic tank, that turns solid waste into liquids which then, if all goes well, percolate into the soil.

The Green Cone, supposedly digests all kitchen waste including meat, fish, bones, animal waste, and dairy products, items not recommended in most compost piles due to the fact that they smell bad while decomposing, attract pests, and could possibly transmit Salmonella and E. coli bacteria if used on food crops. The green cone is, however, not a composter and the end result should not be used as garden compost due to the fact that home compost piles usually can’t generate enough heat to kill the bad bacteria in meat and animal waste. For the reasons you shouldn’t put meat products in compost piles check out the excellent composting safety tips found at the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

The Green Cone could work as a good solution for folks who don’t have much of a garden, have access to a small bit of soil, and want to lesson the amount of waste going to the landfill. The key thing will be to see how well the waste dissolves, since most septic systems have to be pumped out occasionally. We’re also curious to see if any bad smells or critters manage to break into the cone. Once again the Green Cone is a septic system and not a solution for anyone who wants to create compost for a food garden.

Lastly, we don’t know if this will work in a Green Cone, but a town in Sweden has an even more advanced waste disposal plan, which involves a new kind of funeral rite, where bodies are freeze-dried, ground up and spread on trees as compost.