The Mystery of the Zero-Irrigation Squash

squash chairs

We can’t sit down until we eat our squash.

You guys might remember that last year our entire back yard was swamped with squash vines, as we were growing two types of large squash: Tromboncino and “Long of Naples”.  They were both tasty as juveniles, but our long wait for them to ripen was disappointing. Both were rather bland. Bland yet remarkably plenteous. We tried many things to make this stuff useful and/or tasting: pies, pickles, soups, but in the end we felt like we were always trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Though we had almost no rain this year, a couple of volunteer squash vines popped up out of the mulch near our raised beds, and we let them grow, because we wanted to eat the baby squash as we would zucchini–it’s good that way. We also didn’t think the vines would last very long without water. Well, they did. We couldn’t keep up with the baby squash (they’re so good at hiding) and ended up with a harvest of big, bland squash.

Again.

(The squash is a hybrid, by the way. They look like Tromboncino, but are bigger than the Tromboncinos we had last year. Squash cross-breed like crazy. Volunteers are rarely like their parents.)

I bring this up mostly because I am amazed how well this squash did without irrigation. And to be clear, that means they’ve had no water for months. The chairs in the picture above are holding over 100 lbs (45+ kilos) of food grown with zero water inputs! To top that, this was one of the healthiest squash plants we’ve ever “grown” or rather allowed to grow. How did that work? And more importantly, how can we make it happen again?

I have three thoughts:

1) Perfect timing. Volunteers know exactly when to come up. They’re rarely wrong. We humans schedule planting by when we finally buy our seeds and find time to trundle out into the garden. It’s not good enough. Masanobu Fukuoka had a good thought when he went out and just tossed seed all over the place and waited to see what grew. I really need to figure out how to work that man’s ideas into our garden. In times of stress and hard conditions, it seems best to turn to Nature as a teacher.

2) Mulch/compost basins may work well for some types of plants, and do a good job of retaining water. The area where the squash grew is the site of a huge hole which Erik dug out to harvest clay to make our oven. That pit has been filled with compost and the remains of last year’s straw bale beds, and topped with lots of mulch. The squash seems to really like this compost-y growing medium. We’ve not had many volunteers of other types, though, so I don’t think the appeal is universal. However, it may lead to hints of how to grow squash crops here successfully with little water.

3) Cheating. I do wonder if Mr. Squash stretched his roots under the nearest raised bed (about 2 feet/.5 meter away) and siphoned off some of the water. Certainly if I’d planted a seedling that far from the bed, and told it “Okay, you’re on your own. Just get what you need from that bed over yonder” that plant would never have made it. But volunteers are canny. And it may come down to timing. The squash might have used what little rain we had as a jump start, and got its roots over into the wet zone before the real heat set in.

Have you ever been amazed by a volunteer’s hardiness? Anyone from a dry place have any favorite squash/melon growing strategies?

Shoemaking workshop in Los Angeles, Oct. 16-19

turnshoes

The kid’s shoe is made of salmon skin.

If you’re a loon like I am, and want to make your own shoes, I have great news for you. This October, my friend Randy Fritz is coming down from Santa Barbara to teach a small 4 day class here in LA from Thursday 10/16 to Sunday 10/19  on how to make turnshoes, a medieval shoe style so called because it is stitched wrong side out and then turned to hide the seams.

As far as I know, no one else is teaching this kind of class in the greater LA area. This is deep North Coast hippie technology, imported guerrilla style to the land of tottering platform heels.

The shoes are made from custom patterns modeled on your own feet, so the shoe will fit you like no other. It’s a pricey class-but keep in mind how many hours of instruction you’re getting–and you’ll walk away with a pair of custom shoes and the know-how to make more.  In the end, it’s actually a great deal.

I’ll be there, and there’s only room for 4 more people. So save the date and register now! Email Randy at [email protected]

Here’s the official description:

You are about to embark on a journey back in time where everyone’s shoes were custom made because they made them for themselves.  We will start by making a 3D pattern of our foot and transferring it to the leather you select. Once the upper and sole are attached we move onto turning and hammering, closure and finishing and finally gooping the soles. You will get experience with patterning, cutting, skiving and various stitching methods you can transfer to future leather projects and of course, you will be leaving with a pair of handmade shoes. 

Class begins at 9 am Thursday, October 16 and runs till Sunday, October 19. The location is the Silver Lake area. We’ll end at roughly 5pm with a 1 hour-ish lunch break each day, and we’ll celebrate our shoes with a pizza party on the last day!

All of the tools and materials are included in the price but if you have a favorite pair of fingerless gloves, leather working scissors or an awl please feel free to bring them along.

The cost of the class is $325.00, half of which is due when you register. I’m really looking forward spending time together and I suggest  you all get a good nights rest before class begins… standing around the table using what will most likely be  “new to you” tools and focusing very intently on your work can be really exhausting!

For more information, and to reserve your space, please email Randy directly:  [email protected]  Please don’t try to register via the comments! Email Randy directly to reserve your space.
I don’t know how many people will be interested in this class, but if you know in your heart that you really want to do it, be safe and register right away. If there’s lots of interest, Randy might come back to teach a second class.

Turnshoes2

Movie recommendation: DamNation

This weekend, Erik and I went to a screening and discussion of DamNation, hosted at the Natural History Museum. DamNation is beautiful environmental documentary about the history and impact of dams on our watersheds, and the growing movement to decommission “deadbeat dams.”

I don’t know if it was the PMS, but I was teary-eyed through much of it, moved by the beauty of the waters, the struggles of the salmon, and the passion of the people who love the fish and their rivers. Days later, I keep thinking particularly of one man who for the last twelve years (if I recall correctly) has lived in a camper six months out of the year to guard a special resting place for trout on their migration. He has Parkinson’s disease, and knows he will not be able to carry on his mission as long as he had hoped, but has faith he’ll find someone to take his place when the time comes.

I also learned a lot about dams–starting with the simple fact of how many of them we have. Holy cow! Like “No Child Left Behind”, it seems we had a “No River Left Undammed” policy for quite a few years. I also never understood how fish hatcheries work, but I now see them as a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to manage nature.

At any rate, Erik and I both give it the thumbs up. According to the producer who spoke at the screening, DamNation is available for sale as a DVD and Blue Ray. It’s also in the iTunes store, and the cable On Demand services, and will be on Netflix within a couple of weeks. It has been doing the festival circuit in the U.S., and will be doing more tours abroad. Finally, they also have a program to help community groups host a screening.

Quick Tip: DIY Decaf Tea

cat and tea cup

EDITED  8/6/2014

It appears we have been taken in by a popular Internet myth.  A reader comment  (Thanks, Laura!) brought alerted me to an excellent post on tea myths and includes findings from (apparently) the only two studies to every test this methodology of reducing caffeine levels in tea.  These show that the reduction from a short steeping would be more in the 9-20% range, as opposed to 80%. To achieve 80% the steep would have to be over 5 minutes. It’s an interesting article, worth a read–it also addresses the complex subject of how much caffeine black and green teas actually have.

I’m not sure if this is common knowledge or not– my acupuncturist told me about it years ago–but you can decaffeinate your own tea.

As someone who loves (loves loves) hot black milky tea, even in summer, but who no longer gets along well with caffeine, this is a very good thing. Commercially decaffeinated tea is indistinguishable from dishwater. The DIY version doesn’t taste as good as “real tea”–the undiluted kind– but it’s better than the store bought stuff.

An additional advantage is that you don’t have to stock two types of tea–one type becomes two, saving shelf space. Note that this works best with loose leaf tea, but can be used with bagged tea, too.

All you have to do is brew your tea as you normally would, but start counting as soon as you pour the hot water. After at least 30 seconds but no more than 1 minute you pour off all of what has brewed so far. And yes, that’s all the good stuff. But by doing so, you are pouring off about 80% of the caffeine. It’s sad, but being all headachey and jittery is sad too, so I do it. Then you top off the tea leaves with fresh hot water and start the brew again. This one you drink.

Commercially decaf tea is lower in caffeine than this homebrew–just to be clear.  According to the Mayo Clinic, one cup of commercial decaf black tea can contain anywhere from 0 to 12 mg of caffeine. A regular cup of black tea ranges from 14 to 70 mg.  With this DIY process, a 70 mg cup would be reduced to 14 mg. A cup of regular green tea ranges from 25 to 45 mg, and can be decaffeinated by this method as well.

Toilet paper in the woods: a rant and some advice

tp stream 2

What’s wrong with this picture?

Ladies.

Sisters.

I have a rant for you.

It’s an appeal to women, because this is pretty much a woman-centered problem. It’s about leaving toilet paper behind after peeing outdoors, and menfolk don’t leave toilet paper behind after they pee. (Yes, there is #2, but that is less often seen in recreation areas. Backpackers know how to Leave No Trace and daytrippers mostly hold it.)

This means 95% of nasty clumps of toilet paper I find festooning our precious wild spaces were left there by women. So I’m talking to you, Ladies Who Litter.

It is s a form of litter, you know. Just as bad as throwing your Starbuck’s cup on the ground and walking away. People might say it’s “biodegradable” and yes, it will break down…eventually.

Eventually can be a long time, especially in dry places. Like, a year. Or more. Not a week or so, if you’re thinking that. If there’s no rain, the paper just sits and sits, flapping in the breeze, basically immortal. Paper lasts a long time! Think about it. There’s probably toilet paper dating back to WWII floating around Joshua Tree.

If it gets wet and dries up again, toilet paper turns into this sort of crusty papier mache, clinging to the land like a contagious skin disease. Eventually, with enough water and time and maybe some helpful trampling by animals, it will darken and break down enough to be unnoticeable from a distance. But it is still there.

I might notice this problem more than some people, because I’m often off-trail. And everywhere I go, there’s the toilet paper. I squat down to look at a deer track, and realize there’s some under my heel. I settle down in a nice place to admire the view, and then end up focusing on a white blob of paper caught on a bush, ten yards down the hill. I go to the stream to cool my feet and almost step on someone’s nasty leavings (i.e. the picture above).

It drives me bonkers. I clean it up when I can, just like I pick up the empty water bottles and beer cans and pint bottles of booze and cigarette butts and those damn plastic flossing devices and everything else people see fit to leave behind whenever they visit nature.

I suppose we all have our different priorities and beliefs, but to me, the wilderness is sacred, all of it. Not just pristine wilderness, but parks and roadsides and beaches. I’d no more throw toilet paper or other garbage around in nature than I would do so in a church.

And that sense of the sacred is above and beyond my basic obligations toward other humans, who I can safely assume do not want to see my piss soaked toilet paper and other miscellaneous garbage.

But enough ranting.

All this is not to say you should avoid peeing in nature.

Far from it. It’s very, very important to stay well hydrated while outdoors. You should drink lots and pee lots. I’ve heard that the most common call for mountain rescue is for women who collapse on the trail because of dehydration, because they weren’t drinking because they didn’t want to pee outdoors. Don’t let this be you.

I want all women to be comfortable peeing outdoors, for safety and fun and convenience. I just wish that there was some more education about how to properly pee in the woods. It’s not hard to take care of your own needs and take care of the land at the same time.

To whit:

4 tidy ways to pee in the woods

  1. Carry a zip lock baggie in your pocket. Put your used toilet paper in the bag and carry it until you get to the next garbage can. It won’t smell, it’s not that gross. It’s that easy.
  2.  Bury the toilet paper in a hole. This is not ideal. I’d far rather see it packed out, because it will likely get dug up or exposed. But it’s better than nothing. If you forget your baggie, this is the least you can do.
  3. Skip the toilet paper. You don’t really need it, you know. We didn’t evolve with toilet paper rolls attached to our behinds. You can develop your outdoor peeing technique so you can pee clean, mostly drip free. I don’t use TP when I pee in the woods–all I leave behind is a gift to the forest of water and nitrogen, and yes, I’m pretty darn smug about that. Soon I’ll do a separate post on outdoor peeing technique, but in the meanwhile, consider wearing a panty liner when you’re out in nature, then just sort of “dripping dry” for a moment before you pull up your pants. The pad will catch any stray drops.
  4. Carry one of the several urine director devices on the market for women, like this one which is well rated at REI. These not only allow you to pee standing up, with minimal disrobing, but you don’t use TP with them either.

When it is so very easy to keep our wild spaces clean and beautiful, why not do it? Teach your daughters–and your mothers. Offer baggies and panty liners to your friends. Pass it on.

(By the way, I’m trying to think up a good term for toilet paper litter –some of my ideas include “trail warts” or “forest tinsel” or “bush bunting”  Does anyone know one that’s in use? There must be a term in general use among the outdoorsfolk, but I’ve never heard one.)

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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