The Miraculous Lavender

lavender growing out of concrete

When it first appeared, I almost pulled it as a weed. Then I thought, “Is that a lavender plant? Growing here?”

Curious to see what would happen, I let it go. I assumed it would not live long. It’s growing out of a crack. It may have sprouted on the back of our last pathetic winter rain, but we’ve had no precipitation for months now. I don’t water it. I don’t send water down the stairs. The soil off the stairs is dry, because that slope is planted with natives, which are getting no irrigation. There’s no plumbing beneath the staircase, either. Yet the lavender keeps getting bigger.

I’m going to have to pull it soon, before it ruins our stairs. But I don’t want to, because it’s so determined to live.

And this goes to show that when a plant wants to grow somewhere, when it establishes itself according to its own rules, it is unstoppable. Soil type, recommended water, sun exposure– all these things mean little in comparison wonderful alchemy which allows plants to grow exactly where they want to grow, even if they are breaking all of our rules.

Help! Small birds are eating us out of house and home!

bird feeder with lesser goldfinches

So–we thought it would be a nice idea to get a bird feeder.

We had resisted up ’til now because we figured any bird feeder we got would end up a squirrel feeder. Then we discovered this particular type of feeder, which is enclosed in a fine mesh, and meant to hold tiny seeds, like thistle seeds. This sort of feeder attracts small, seed-eating song birds, like finches, but doesn’t feed the mice and rats and squirrels.*

What could possibly go wrong?

We installed the feeder about a month ago, and were delighted to see house finches and tiny lesser goldfinches come to visit. (So were our indoor kitties, I might add!)

And then more lesser goldfinches came, and more, and more… and still more.

Apparently, lesser goldfinches are “gregarious.”

At this point we are hosting a continuous goldfinch convention from dawn to dusk. They’re cute as the dickens, but they are beginning to cost some serious money, because there’s so many of them as of this week that they are now plowing through a full feeder every day. As I type this, I can hear the squabbling outside the window which starts when the seed levels are low.

Now we have guilt–as well as pocketbook pangs. Have we created a monster? Are the goldfinches now dependent on our feed? Was it wrong to feed them like this in the first place? Are impressionable young goldfinches learning to live on handouts? Are we sparking a goldfinch obesity crisis?

Our yard does have more natural food sources, like native sunflowers and white sage gone to seed. Perhaps we should have left it at that? ( I suspect we’re not going to win any permaculture awards for our feeder.)

Bird people, help!

What are your thoughts on feeders?

Is it okay to leave the feeder empty sometimes? Does that encourage foraging, or is it just not very nice to be random about the filling?

Is there a cheaper alternative to Nyjer ™ seed that finches like? Perhaps something that doesn’t come from Africa? (argh!)

cat watching birds

Buck watching finches, thinking unkind thoughts.

*Seed drops, which could feed rats and mice, but sparrows are on clean-up crew

Flowers from Vegetables

flower of an Italian dandelion

Whenever possible I let vegetables go to flower, sometimes to save the seed, but more often to share the bounty with insects and birds. The usefulness comes in two waves: the first being the pollinators attracted to the flowers, and once the flowers go to seed the birds will move in. Of course this means that I’m “wasting space” and making my garden “unproductive” but the rewards outweigh any inconvenience.

New gardeners are often surprised to see what amazing flowers different vegetables make. People with no connection to food plants whatsoever may not even know that vegetables make flowers, so it’s fun to show them a carrot flower, a squash blossom, a bean flower.

My new favorite garden flower comes off an old Italian chicory plant left to go riot. I’m not sure which chicory it is, but it’s one of those  long-leaved, bitter greens beloved in Italy and sold by Franchi seeds. It’s easy to grow, pest proof, and we like the strong, bitter flavor. The flowers, though, are amazing. The greens send up narrow stalks 8′ tall or more (approx. 2.5 meters) and the stalks are covered from top to bottom with beautiful periwinkle blue flowers which are about 2″ (5cm) across– classic chicory flowers.

The bees adore these flowers. What’s more, this plant has been blossoming continuously for months now–at least 3 months. Unfortunately I didn’t mark down when it started, but it’s been at least 3 months by now, maybe 4. It’s given me lots of joy.

In our yard the flower stalks have interwoven with grape and bean vines, adding a lot of color to a corner of our patio. The situation is impossible to to photograph, because the flowers are both high and low and tangled up with everything, but trust me, in person it’s charming in its wild way.

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Have you ever wanted a uniform?

1920" russian avant garde school uniform

On the heels of Friday’s fashion post, Erik has encouraged me to share my current uniform fantasy with you all.

See, I’ve always wanted a uniform. I love the idea of never having to decide what I’m going to wear again. The older I get, the more I want to keep things simple. I don’t want a closet packed with potential decisions. The less choices I have to make on a daily basis, the better. I think I’d be okay living in a cave with nothing but a robe and a wooden bowl.

As of now, my wardrobe is limited in both type (practical) and color (cool neutrals), which helps, but its not as simple as it could be. I still end up standing in front of the closet wondering “Black short sleeved shirt? White long sleeved shirt? Or is this a t-shirt day?”

I want even fewer options.

The uniform fantasy has been with me for a long time, although the uniform type changes. I’ve never taken the leap into wearing a uniform, though, for two reasons. The first is simply that I’ve been too lazy to construct a uniform. The second is that it is a rather eccentric move– adopt a uniform, and you become known for wearing that uniform more than anything else.

I suppose that if you’re super famous, like Tom Wolfe (white suit) or Erik Satie (identical velvet suits) you can wear the same thing every day and nonetheless your work and your personality will rise above that eccentricity. But I’ve feared that if I wore a uniform I’d become one of those strange local characters, like “the kilt guy” or “the bathrobe lady.”

Still, I do like the idea of fashioning a garment which suits all of my needs (fit, comfort, pockets, good fabric etc.) and making it my very own.

I also like to think that having a uniform would eventually save in laundry and reduce material waste over time. It would harken back to the days when people simply didn’t have more than a handful of outfits to wear, but those outfits fit them well and lasted a long time because they were made of quality materials.

Lately I’ve been obsessing over the outfit at the top of the post, which dates from Russia (or rather, the newborn USSR) in the 1920′s and various Internet attributions say it was designed by Nadezhda Lamanova and Vera Muhina, or perhaps designed by Lamanova and illustrated by Muhina, or perhaps even designed by Muhina alone–although she was primarily a sculptor. To make things more confusing, to me, this outfit seems very much like something Varvara Stepanova would design. It was a small community of people collaborating and doing similar things, so it’s easy to get confused.

I’ll be going to the library for both information and a higher quality image. So, take this all with a big grain of salt. If I find out more, I’ll amend the post.

Anyway, I’ve always been very fond of the Russian avant-garde and the Constructivist movement. In the 1920′s they were very much into designing clothes for an idealized workers utopia. The pattern itself is dubious from a sewing perspective, because it’s obviously more about the Constructivist love of geometry than the realities of hanging fabric. What isn’t visible in this picture but typical of the movement is use of folk embroidery/weaving on the garments, so they were modern yet spoke of place and history and identity.

This particular design is for a school uniform, I believe. I didn’t know that when I first glommed on to it– I thought it was a factory worker’s uniform. But whatever — I like it. I like the red and black combo–very iconic, commie chic. I like her little boots, I like the Mandarin collar (it seems to have a black band at the front, like a negative priest’s collar!) and I especially like the black apron.

I’ve a real fondness for aprons, which has only developed recently. In the past, aprons seemed a symbol of oppression to me, but I’ve grown to appreciate their utility–and I especially love aprons with deep pockets (since, as we’ve discussed, women’s clothing is lacking in pockets.)

Nowadays I often wear an apron in both the kitchen and the garden, mostly because of the pockets, and also so I can wipe my hands on the apron, rather than my butt, which is a real step up in the world. Also, I’ve come to associate the apron with craft, the apron of the cobbler or the blacksmith, for instance, rather than the frilly ornamental aprons of June Cleaver.

And let’s face this: Just as the Constructivists, a bunch of arty intellectuals  developed many of their design concepts around their notions of the nobility of work, I–a keyboard-pecking “knowledge worker”–also fetishize the symbols of manual work, like aprons. (And I’m not alone– witness the artisanal axe.)

I’d like to make this dress in several versions, from a lightweight sleeveless form for summer, to a sturdy workday version, to a fancy version with embroidery for going out. Of course, I do happen to be the world’s worst seamstress, as Erik will relate to you, between the tears of laughter, as he remembers my previous attempts at sewing. However, there is a sewing school very near my house, 8-Limbs, and if I make the decision to go forward, they may be able to help me draft a pattern.

And then I can become yet another colorful neighborhood character (and believe me, my neighborhood is not short on characters.)  I just hope I don’t end up looking like a goth Laura Ingalls Wilder!

Should I do it?

Do any of you have a uniform which works for you? Or do you also fantasize about a uniform, as I do?

Can our landscapes model a vibrant future? Not according to the LA DWP.

dwp landscaping

California is suffering from drought. In Los Angeles, we’ve experienced back to back two of the driest winters on record (winter is our rainy season). Last year’s rainfall total was under 6 inches. The governor has asked California residents to cut their water use by 20%.  Apparently, we’ve only managed to cut it by 5%.

There’s a strange sense of unreality about the drought. I think that’s because we’re just not feeling it in the cities. Our water is cheap, the taps are running, food prices aren’t terribly affected– yet.  So we keep washing our cars and hosing off the sidewalks and topping off our swimming pools and, of course, we water our lawns.

Lawns are a big liability in this region. I think they may not be such a crime in milder, wetter places where they grow happily (though there’s no getting around the fact that they are a sterile monoculture, not helpful to wildlife). But turf has no business whatsoever in the American southwest. It just doesn’t want to grow in this climate–which is why it’s always doing its level best to die. Here, our lawns live on life support.

There has been some movement toward lawn-free yards in the past several years, but the movement seems stalled. I’d expect to see more lawns being ripped out recently due to the drought, but I haven’t seen much activity in that direction, despite the fact the Department of Water and Power will actually pay Angelinos to remove their turf.

We hold onto our lawns, I think, because it is so hard to think beyond the lawn.

The average property owner is not a landscaper, nor a plant expert, and they have lots of other things to think about. The default setting of a lawn plus a few shrubs up around the house foundation takes no thought, causes no problems with the neighbors and is easily maintained by inexpensive gardening services. What’s not to love, really? And why not hold on to our lawns, because the drought will pass and we’ll be back to normal.

Asking people to re-imagine their yards is asking a lot. Yet it may be vital.

This drought may not end. Los Angeles and all of the southwest are looking at a hotter, drier present and future due to climate change. And regardless of water availability it would be a great service to nature, to our embattled birds and bees and small critters, to make our yards beautiful, changeable, welcoming sanctuaries. It would also be a gift to our own souls. Yards can be healing spaces.

To re-imagine our yards, we need to see examples of yards which work on a different paradigm, and we need to see so many of them that they become part of our shared visual vocabulary.

dwp landscaping

Sorry about the dim photo–the sun was setting–but I think it gives the general idea.

This brings me to the new landscaping at our local Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) distributing station. I believe it used to have a typical sickly lawn in front of it, but last time I was in the neighborhood I saw it had been rejiggered to be a low water use landscape. And that’s good…really…a great idea, guys.  But…

The new landscape is mostly artificial turf, with a few swathes of D.G. and a strip of purple gravel mulch running along the foundation, and that gravel is studded with strangely trampled looking agave-ish plants, and a couple of random bougainvillea.

What goes on here? What is in your head, DWP? And how much did you pay for this redesign?

The artificial turf is particularly insidious because it seems to be a placeholder for better days when we can all go back to watering our lawns into emerald brilliance. We need to say goodbye to the lawn for good, write it off like a bad boyfriend.

And the purple gravel… I just don’t know what to say.

Note that the design consists of a lawn and foundation plantings. It’s the same old uninspired model, repeated on the institutional scale.

I suspect this landscaping will have some fans because it is “tidy” and “low maintenance.” True. It is also devoid of life and actively hostile to nature. Landscapes speak. This one denies our relationship with the natural world and declares any actual engagement with nature to be too much trouble. No doubt they’d replace those sickly plants with synthetics if they didn’t suspect they’d all get stolen in the night.

This is not the kind of model we need, DWP.

Next time you change up your landscaping, consider consulting one or more of the many brilliant plant people and designers in this city. Call us if you need numbers.

Consider using permeable surfaces and contoured landscaping to capture every drop of our rare rainfall and send it down to the thirsty soil. Show us how to use native and Mediterranean plants to make lush landscapes that call in the pollinators. Help us create landscapes we want to walk through and live in. Model this kind of smart landscaping for us, please.

Water-wise and ugly do not have to be synonymous.

dwp3

Some of the views remind me of something that might appear in an LA art installation. Which, all in all, is not praise.

Tippy Tap, Beta Version

tippy tap1

A tippy tap is a water-saving handwashing device developed for use in areas where there is no running water, usually fabricated out of simple found materials. Erik and I both love appropriate tech, and this is a really good example of the form. The tippy tap literally saves lives by allowing people to wash up after visiting the bathroom.

Erik included a tippy-tap, a rather fancy version of one, it turns out, in one of our link roundups.  I’d never heard of such a thing, and, intrigued, promptly fell down a deep YouHole watching tippy-tap videos.

The basic idea is that a jug of water is suspended from a pole or branch by the handle–so it can tip. A string is then tied to the top of the jug to act like a lever to create the tip. A small hole punched in the front side of the jug allows a thin, controlled stream of water to flow when the jug is tipped. To keep cross-contamination from occurring, you don’t actually touch the jug or the string to use it. Instead, the string which tips the jug is tied to a stick on the ground, which acts as a foot pedal, so the jug is tilted by foot action alone.

I thought it would be cool to have a tippy tap hanging in the garden for hand washing — better than spraying water all over with the hose, especially in these times of drought. It would also be a good handwashing station for camping.  So I made a beta version to test the idea. Long story short, it works well. I made a few mistakes and want to work out some kinks. Also, for use in the garden, I want to design a more attractive tippy tap, perhaps using a gourd or ceramics.

For the how-to, and some links to other tippy tap instructions, read on.

Continue reading…

The canning lid conundrum

canning lids

How do you guys store your used canning lids and rings?

We keep a lot of them around because we use canning jars for so many things other than canning: dry goods, leftovers, food-to-go, body care, etc.  My collection is driving me crazy.

Never was there a set of more awkward objects than a pile of slippery, jangly rings and lids.

Ideas?

[Mr. Homegrown in my Master Food Preserver mode chiming in here--as per USDA advice we use two piece canning lids only once for actual canning]

How to Make Stock

painting of a kitchen scene

The Old Kitchen by Hendrik Valkenburg, 1872 (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

By reader request, we’re going to cover the basics of making soup stock today: how to make it and how to use it.

Let’s start with the why you’d make it and how you use it.

Why you make stock:

  • It is the basis of good cuisine: everything tastes better with stock
  • It boosts the nutritional value of anything you cook with it.
  • It’s thrifty: it puts all your odds and ends and slightly past-prime veggies and leftover meat and bones to good use.
  • Because boxed and canned stock is foul. Seriously. It’s terrible. In an emergency you’d be better off using a bouillon cube than that stuff.
  • It’s easy.

How do you use it?

Think of it as super water. Substitute stock for water whenever you can. Use it:

  • As the basis of any soup or stew
  • To make sauces and gravy
  • To cook beans
  • To cook rice
  • To cook any whole grain
  • To cook pasta and couscous
  • To make risotto
  • To make polenta
  • For braising vegetables or meat
  • For sauteing vegetables
  • Straight, as a broth

Preparing for stock:

Stock is traditionally made with scraps. So you may want to start a scrap bin for stock in your fridge or freezer. Save those parsley stems, that half onion, those carrot stubs and celery tops!  Similarly, meat stocks are made with scraps and bones. Chicken stock can be made with a whole chicken carcass. Fish stock is made with fish bones, shellfish stock is made out of shrimp, lobster or crab shells. Save it all!

How to make vegetable stock:

Continue reading…

Chicks, Mayonnaise and Personal Responsibility

handsome in poppies

Recently, an email from Farm Forward (which I believe is tied to PETA somehow) appeared in the Root Simple mailbox, saying, “I thought you and your readers might be interested in a new campaign Farm Forward just launched called BuyingMayo.com. We’re letting consumers know that baby chicks are killed in the process of making America’s #1 condiment: Best Foods & Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.”

Following the link, I found an emotional video pairing sentimental, sun-drenched images of a mom making a sandwich for her toddler with factory farm footage of dead chicks jostling down conveyor belts.

The website says,

Most of us don’t consider the treatment of baby chicks when we purchase mayo. And we shouldn’t have to: we should be able trust companies when it comes to preventing cruelty to animals.

Best Foods and Hellmann’s use millions of eggs each year to create their products. Since only female chickens lay eggs, Best Foods and Hellmann’s don’t have any use for the male birds. Their solution is to treat these chicks like garbage: they’re either ground up alive, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags.1

Nobody wants to see animals suffer, but some of the worst abuses occur where we least expect them. If we care about preventing cruelty to animals, we have to shine a spotlight on abuses that otherwise would be hidden. We’re calling on Best Foods and Hellmann’s to stop treating animals like they’re trash.

I agree with the broad facts. Male chicks are destroyed just out of the shell because they come from breeds developed specifically for heavy egg production, not for quality meat. Only the girls have value to us, but nature insists on giving us 50% boys. The practice of culling newly hatched males is appalling. It is wasteful, in the darkest meaning of the word. It is a blatant disregard of life. It denies that we have any relationship to, or responsibility for, these animals.

Nonetheless, my first impulse was to ignore this email, because I don’t understand why they are targeting mayonnaise makers specifically. I mean, I do, on one level, because OMG! Dead baby chicks in my mayo??!!!!  After all, what’s more sacred or beloved than mayo? These campaigns are fueled by emotion.

But the focus on mayonnaise alone seems to muddy the waters overall. The fault is not with the mayonnaise producers. The fault is with us. All of us who eat eggs.

Yet it seems that the activists are hesitant to point the finger at us, potential donors that we are, and say, “If you really care about this, change your behavior.” Instead, they give us a scapegoat to point our finger at and cry, “Chick murderer!”

They want us to convince Hellmann’s and Best Foods to solve the problem for us (or rather, one small slice of the problem), perhaps by reformulating their mayonnaise to be eggless (likely by adding weird stabilizers or–joy–monocropped GMO soy) or figuring our how to humanely source eggs on a vast industrial scale…er…somehow? My response to this is one big big eye roll.

It’s time to point fingers toward ourselves. But instead of letting the guilt gnaw at us, or living in denial, we can take positive action–such as:

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