My Sooper Seekrit Compost Pile

Welcome to the Lucy and Ricky show!

As some of you know, Erik is a complete and utter compost wonk. A heavy book about the science of decomposition is pleasure reading for him. He has a really, really big thermometer and knows how to use it.

We’ve kept a compost pile for years and years, but only in the last two years has it become an obsession for him. One of his more recent projects has been to make an gigantic bin in our back yard. This is the sort of bin you could use to dispose of bodies. He became so persnickety about the proper usage of the Wonder Bin that I was afraid to take scraps out there. Emptying the compost pail became his duty.

Then, one day, something went wrong in compost nirvana. You’d have to ask him for the details of his crisis, but the upshot was that he didn’t want anything new to go in the bin.

“But…but…” I said, pointing at the full compost pail on the counter.

“I’ll deal with it,” he said.

One day passed, and the next. He put a big mixing bowl on the counter next to the overflowing pail and started throwing his scraps in there. Flies gathered. 10 lbs of rotting scraps on the counter bothers Erik not a whit.

Of course the notion of putting it all in the trash never crossed our minds. At this point, it’s unthinkable, like driving around without a seat belt.

“This can’t go on,” I said, when a second mixing bowl of scraps joined the first, and the fruit flies started passing out party fliers to the whole neighborhood.

“It will have to go in the green bin,” he said with an air of grim decision.

The green bin is the dedicated wheelie bin given us by the city to collect green waste. We use it only for green waste we can’t compost, partially because we need as much compost as we can make, and partially because I hear the city often uses the green bin material as landfill covering.

I just couldn’t put it in the green bin, so I went out in the back yard, collected a couple of the old tires rolling around back there (we’re classy that way), stacked them up under the avocado tree and started my own alternative compost pile.

I did not tell Erik about the AlternoPile because I knew he’d squawk about it. “There’s not enough mass!” he’d protest. Or maybe he’d cry, his face blanching with horror, “Your nitrogen inputs are way too high! For God’s sake, stop this madness!”  

Sometimes things just gotta rot without you thinking about them, you know?

I also was not worried he’d discover my sooper seekrit pile because Erik has a particularly advanced form of man blindness. He couldn’t find a boa constrictor in the fridge. I don’t have to hide his Christmas presents. And I figured a couple of tires under the tree were not going to attract his attention for a long while

To his credit, he did notice it, after a couple of weeks, and asked, “Did you plant something in the tires?” Because I was in the bathroom and didn’t have to look him in the face I was able to say, “No honey, I didn’t plant anything in the tires.”

He investigated no more, and the secret pile continued. Yesterday he finally rebuilt his compost pile, and now it’s accepting scraps again. The game is up.  I’ll let the tires sit and stew. In a few months I can move them and will leave behind nothing but a little pile of compost.

The moral:

If you’ve been thinking you can’t compost because you don’t generate much green waste, or you don’t have space for a big bin, or just don’t want to screw with it,  I’d say try it anyway. My two tires absorbed our green waste for weeks, and would have continued to do so. That’s kitchen waste for two people who cook a lot, but no yard trimmings, obviously.  I’d dump the pail in there, and cover the scraps with handfuls of hay or dry leaves.

Sometimes the level would raise high, but this stuff shrinks fast, so it maintained a level one tire deep most of the time, and would have done so until compost started building up at the bottom. Eventually I would have put the top tire on the ground and shoveled the contents of the bottom tire into the top tire, basically turning everything upside down. This would speed things along a bit, and would reveal any finished compost at the very bottom.

Caveats: This system doesn’t generate heat through mass, so will be much slower than a real compost pile. It is best used when the weather is warmer to help things along. And again, this isn’t what you do if you want compost for your garden. This is just one way to quietly return your kitchen waste to the earth.

When Erik sees this post he’s going scream, “Luuuuuucy!!!!” and proceed to write a rebuttal explaining why a tiny compost pile is a bad idea, but no matter what he says, I believe composting can be as simple as this.

I like my chamomile stressed

This poor, abused little seedling is flowering like crazy.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I made a mistake–I predicted a while ago that this would happen, and here it is. When we remodeled the yard and I set aside space for The Phan of Pharmacy ™ my goal was to maximize the production of herbs and flowers.  I prepped the ground in the fan like a fine flower or veg bed: double dug and richly amended. It was only after I planted my chamomile starts in it that I realized the soil was way too rich for chamomile. Not that it wouldn’t grow, but it wouldn’t grow the way I wanted it to grow.

See, chamomile is a tough, scrappy plant. In our dry climate, it pops up with the winter rains, and lives a fast, hard life, like a beautiful young self-destructive celebrity. It shoots up overnight and throws off blossoms like crazy, its one goal being to spread seed before it dies.

In the past, I’ve harvested chamomile from volunteer plants in my yard. I never planted or tended them, but one or two would get about knee high, and from those one or two plants I’d gather all the flowers I needed by remembering to pick a handful every time I went in the back yard. The thing about chamomile is the more you pick, the more it produces.

But I was greedy–and somewhat lazy, as usual. I thought, why be out there every day milking some scrappy chamomile plant, when you could plant a chamomile crop and harvest a ton of flowers in just a couple of days? So I planted I don’t know how many plants–20, maybe? More? The chamomile thrived in the rich, fertile soil, putting all it’s energy into making lots of feathery green foliage–not flowers. My entire chamomile crop is presently netting me less flowers than one or two abused volunteers would. That sad little plant in the top picture may have to become my harvest plant.

Uh, very pretty. But where are the flowers?

The lesson here is to know your plant, and to pay attention when you’re prepping your garden. I amended that soil on auto-pilot, when I could have left one fan wedge un-turned and un-amended and the chamomile would have flowered all the better for it. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily the case for other herbs and flowers. The calendula I planted in the fan is doing very well, producing huge, hearty blooms. All I’m saying is that you can’t generalize.

My next step is to withhold water from the chamomile and try to stress it into flower production. Of course, we’re heading into another rainy period, so it will be a while before that chamomile is feeling any stress at all.

Our ladies are also well practiced in stressing chamomile

Oops! Sorry!

Thank you for your kind comments, but condolences are not necessary. Chickenzilla passed a few years back.

See, I’m cleaning up the labels or tags on our old posts so that we can have a more effective search system, and somehow I republished 3 old posts as new posts, including one about the sad death of Homegrown Neighbor’s friendly rescued chicken, Chickenzilla. The other two were on figs and bike fashion, respectively. I’ve just taken all those posts down, but those of you reading this on a feed will probably still see them, and I’m sorry about that.

Cleaning the Sink with Baking Soda and Lemons

  
Our sink, freshly cleaned and so darn photogenic!
This is because you can’t see all the clutter just out of view.
 

A little green cleaning review here. It is possible to keep a sink white and shiny without bleach or other toxic cleansers. I took pictures this week while I was cleaning to prove it.

Below is our grungy sink. A photo can’t quite capture that particularly scuzzy quality a dirty sink has, that gunky bacterial record of all the dishes and greasy pans that have sat in it over the week. In the lower right corner you can see my homemade scrubby–just a few of those red plastic net bags that fruits and veg are sometimes sold in, wadded up and tied into a yellow one.

The more usual state of our sink. That is, minus the piles of dishes.

Step one: baking soda scrub

A few quick things about baking soda:

  • Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is an inexpensive, non-toxic, mild abrasive. You can use it safely on enamel, stainless and fiberglass sinks. 
  • While you can find baking soda in the baking aisle of most stores, search it out in bulk, both for savings and because you’ll go through quite a lot of it. We buy it in huge boxes or bags at our local restaurant supply chain. I expect it would also come in bulk at grocery warehouse stores.
  • Make a shaker for it out of a jar with holes punched in the lid,  repurpose some other shaker, or buy a sugar shaker from a restuarant supply place. I’d used an old jar for several years before seeing a metal sugar shaker at an Asian market for all of $1.99 and decided to splurge. You can see it in the windowsill of the top picture. You know, it was totally worth the $1.99.

Using baking soda:

  • The trick to using it effectively is to not use it in a very wet environment. Baking soda dissolves quickly in water, unlike some scouring cleansers. Don’t try to use it in standing water, or even with a very wet sponge.  For it to work well, it has to be on the dry side. If my sink is wet, I’ll run a towel over it to get most of the water out before scrubbing.
  • Use a generous amount of baking soda. 
  • See the lumps and clumps forming in front of my scrubby in the picture below? You can actually see the line between dirty and clean, and the lumps of barely damp baking soda that are picking up the dirt. In my experience, if you’re not producing these sort of lumps, deep cleaning isn’t going to happen. Look for these lumps. They only happen when a) you use enough baking soda, and b) when the cleaning surface is just damp. Not too wet, not bone dry.

These are the magic clumps. I like to imagine myself a snowplow.

Step two: bleaching

Baking soda is an abrasive–it has no bleaching properties. If your white sink remains yellowed or stained after the scrub, you can bleach it with lemon juice. I always set aside unused lemon halves or withered lemons from the back of the fridge for this purpose.

  •  Dry the sink. Again, the less water the better.
  • Cut the lemon into wedges. I find a half lemon will usually do the job on my single sink, but lemons vary.
  • Scrub the sink with the wedges, using both sides. Smear the insides around to spread pulp and juice evenly all over the sink. Use the skin sides to scrub problem areas. I find the wedges do a good job of cleaning around the edges of the drain. I also rub lemon all around the border of the sink and counter, in the tile grout there. It never fails to loosen hidden dirt.
  • By the way, lemon juice is very effective at removing rust stains. For serious stains, combine it with salt to make a paste.
  • Leave the lemon juice to do its work. Leave it sit until dry, at least a half hour. Overnight is fine.

The sink coated with lemon juice and pulp, the drain edge scrubbed.

When you come back to rinse I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how bright the sink is. As a bonus, the lemon rinds can go down the disposal to freshen it:

Look Ma! No toxins!

Yes, this requires a little elbow grease, and a little attention to detail, but the scrubbing with baking soda doesn’t take any longer than scrubbing with a toxic scouring powder, and you’re spared from breathing that junk in, getting it on your hands, and adding it to our water supply–not to mention the danger of having it around the house. The lemon bleaching is an extra step, but one I always enjoy. Maybe it’s the scent, or maybe because I like playing with my food.

Extra tough situations:

  • If the baking soda isn’t cutting it as a scrubber, try scrubbing with table salt or Borax, or a combo of baking soda and salt or Borax. 
  • Borax is a laundry additive, and sold in the laundry aisle. It isn’t as safe a baking soda. It will dry out your skin if you use it with bare hands, and you definitely don’t want to snort the stuff or feed it to your pets and babies, but it’s not bad for the water supply. I harshed on it a bit in our first book, but have softened my opinion about it of late. It has its uses. What’s interesting about Borax is that it releases hydrogen peroxide when mixed with warm water, so it not only is a sturdy scrubber, but also will have some bleaching properties if your sponge is moistened with warm to hot water. 
  • If I have a stain that lemon juice can’t address, I turn to the laundry room again. There I keep a little box of powdered oxygen bleach–Ecover’s, to give them a free plug. Others would work the same, I suspect. This is basically powdered hydrogen peroxide. I can either plug up the sink and soak it in a strong solution, or make a paste of the powder and leave it sit. 

Bathtubs/Showers:

I scrub our enamel clawfoot tub/shower with baking soda, too. The only difference is that tubs and showers accumulate soap scum, and I find you need soap to dissolve soap scum. So to clean the tub I’ll usually spritz it with diluted castile soap. (I keep a bottle of this around for general cleaning.) Then I’ll lay down the baking soda and scrub with a scrubby. The scum comes right off.

I think the persistence of soap scum has much to do with the kind of products you use in the shower. We use homemade soap, and very mild shampoo, and nothing else. These don’t form much scum, and it cuts easily with liquid castile soap and baking soda.

If you use more detergent based products, body washes and advanced hair products, and big brand drugstore soap, which has a very different formulation than homemade, you might have trouble dissolving the scum. I’d advise you cut around the problem by using simpler body products. But in the meanwhile, you might find Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds, their detergent alternative, with cut through that scum better than castile soap.

We’re Changing

You might recall that several months ago we said we were going to do a website redesign. Well, we’re finally getting around to it. Over this weekend we’re going to be monkeying with things, so if you check in, you might encounter strangeness. When it’s all done, we’re going to have a new name and a new look.

“Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good” is a favorite saying around here, frequently repeated because we so frequently forget it. We’d planned to make lots of changes to this blog and lay them out with a big “Ta Da!” But that didn’t turn out to be practical. As you’ll soon see, this redesign is pretty minor. It’s just the first step of what will be a slow evolution that we’ll undergo through tiny tweaks and additions as we figure things out. And really, that’s the best way to change.

“What kind of changes?” you ask? Well, those ideas are still developing, but our overarching goal is to offer our readers more: more posts, more resources, more information, more voices. 

This weekend, though, all we’re doing is changing our background to white, adding some navigation tabs, and changing our name. What’s our new name? Like the lady in the picture above, we’re going to keep our secret under wraps–at least until tomorrow.

Bringing Blossoms Inside

It’s such a simple thing to do, and so beautiful. If you’re trimming your fruit trees while they’re in bud, as they are now here in SoCal, keep all those twigs and bring them indoors. Stubby little ones can go in jam jars. Long thin whips in a vase make for instant elegance. They’ll keep blooming for a while. For me, no store-bought cut flower can compare.

Dumpster Herb Score

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Scored big at Trader Joes yesterday. Love a good dumpster find, almost as much as finding good feral fruit.  It looks like they were clearing out their plants and flowers for Valentines Day, because out by the cardboard piles we found a grocery cart heaped full of wilted flowers and random potted mums. (Joes really needs to start a composting program, don’t you think?)

We sorted through the cart and found four potted herbs, only slightly distressed. One was a lemon balm, which I’ve wanted for some time. The others, I admit, I don’t really need (because I already have them), and don’t have any space for–but I’ll squeeze them in somehow. In this way, I’m like a crazy cat woman.

ETA: This morning two complimentary bits of information came in regarding TJ’s and composting. The first came in an email from our friend Anne, a Master Gardener. She tells us that: “Master gardeners encourages gardeners to arrange pick up times with TJ’s for plants. They will tell you when they are putting out the plants so you can get them. Lots of mg’s do this and bring them to various garden projects all around LA county.”

So that’s cool. And then in the comments there’s an anon comment from a TJs employee explaining the issues around composting for the stores, and giving some dumpster diving tips!

Sun Bleaching Really, Really Works

Line drying in the sun is a time honored means of brightening whites. But I had never guessed how effective it can be.

I have a pair of white bath towels which developed mysterious, spreading yellow stains all over them, stains which I could not remove no matter what I tried (Borax, oxygen bleaches, stain removers), and which I may have actually worsened by a final, desperate flirtation with chlorine bleach a few years ago.

The towels were in good condition otherwise, but I wouldn’t hang them in the bathroom because– seriously–they made us look incontinent. I downgraded them to “slop towel” status, and didn’t think about them much again, until lately, when I was considering getting rid of them, to save room. But how to do that? I have too many rags, Goodwill wouldn’t want them, and throwing them in a landfill would be beyond the pale. I pondered composting them as an experiment, but figured they’d need to be shredded.

Finally, I decided to hang them off the side of our porch for a couple weeks (in good weather, of course!), just to see what happened. Day and night, I just left them there. Turned them whenever I thought about it, then forgot about them entirely.

Today I pulled them off the porch, and they look a whole lot better. I’m shocked they’re not counter-stained by diesel particulate. There are a few intractable stains from their days as slop towels, but 95% of that nasty yellow splotching is gone. They will be rotated back into bathroom use.

Mr. Sun, I’m impressed.

Max Liebermann, The Bleaching Ground, 1882, Wallraff-Richartz Museum

Sun was once the primary way women used to keep their whites white–urine and lye were other less pleasant alternatives, as well applying bluing to counteract yellow. All of these may have been combined with sun exposure. Villages had designated, communal areas for spreading out laundry. Do an image search for “bleaching ground” and you’ll find lots of old paintings on the subject. Linen manufacturers also used to bleach linen in the sun, so you might find pics of huge operations as well as ordinary laundresses.

• Some nice factoids on old fashioned laundry techniques can be found here, at Old and Interesting.

• I’ve read that to rid yourself of perspiration stains on white shirts you can mix lemon juice and water–maybe at a 50/50 ratio? Soak perspiration stains in that and then lay shirts out in the sun to bleach. I’ve not tried that myself, since Erik and I have totally given up on wearing white.

My mental glitch: hay vs. straw

Photo by David Shankbone

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So I went to the feed store to get some stuff for the chickens and at the counter I made a mistake. When the clerk said, “Anything else?” I said, “Oh yes. One bale of hay, please.”  She rang me up. The bill seemed more than usual, but being in my usual fog, I didn’t pay that much attention. The heavy lifting guys bring the hay bale to my car. It’s green and fragrant…it’s….HAY.

I meant straw.

This is not my fault. I’m a city kid. I was not taught the difference between straw and hay as a wee child, and as an adult, while I’ve learned the difference via the school of hard knocks, somewhere deep in my brain hay and straw remain synonyms. This problem shows no sign of going away.

I also persistently call my ipod my Walkman. This is even worse, because it shows my age. It’s like I’ve become one of those middle aged people who in my youth called the stereo “the hi-fi”.

*

Homegrown Evolution readers are all savvy folks, and know this already, but in case some poor soul is cast on this shore by Google, this is the difference between hay and straw:

Hay refers to grasses or legume plants cut down fresh and baled for animal feed. Hay bales are usually greener than straw bales, the plant material finer. Hay smells really nice, too. You would not want to use this stuff as mulch, or you’d end up sprouting a yard full of alfalfa or whatever. It’s also more expensive than straw, about three times as much, depending on the grass type. No one would use hay as bedding.

Straw is the dried stalks of cereal plants, like wheat. It’s a by-product of harvest. If any seeds remain on the stalks, it’s by accident. Therefore, straw is nutritionally void, and is not animal feed. However, that lack of seeds makes it a fine mulch, and an inexpensive bedding material. We line our chicken coop with it, and recommend it for weed suppression projects.

Kelly’s “EDC”

Erik challenged me to post about my EDC. I had to laugh. What I Carry Every Day is my bag. My bag is huge. Isn’t an EDC supposed to be worn on the hip or carried in the pocket?

For that matter, isn’t this whole EDC thing a boy’s game–since womens’ clothing is notoriously lacking in pockets? Even my jeans have tighter, shallower pockets than Erik’s. (Once Erik put on my jeans by accident and immediately cried in horror, “What happened to my pockets!?!”)

And as far as belt mounted hardware goes, most women don’t wear a belt, a practical belt, every day of their lives.  Sometimes I ponder the idea of constructing some sort of pocketed belt-like-thing that I could wear on my hips (not a fanny pack), to leave my shoulders unburdened, but it would take some fashion adjustment to wear a utility belt every day.

For now, though, my bag is my EDC. And while it can devolve into a giant pit of flyers, receipts, misplaced business cards, crushed snacks and sometimes even plant matter, I do carry a few items that would be useful in an emergency.

At Erik’s challenge, I unpacked my bag for the camera, editing only the garbage.

The laptop (far right) is often in the bag, and was when I unloaded it, so it’s in the picture, but I don’t consider it an EDC and leave it at home as much as I can. The notebook on top is usually with me, though.

Row 1 (closest to the bag): This row I think of as my true EDC, in that I’d find these things useful in emergencies and unusual situations. All of it, except the phone, lives in a small dedicated pocket.

Left to right: Phone, multi-tool, mini first aid kit, lighter, LED light

Row 2: The items in this row all fit in the red pouch on the left. These are my personal comfort items. I admit I could survive with just the lip balm if I had to.

Left to right: Pouch, lipstick, homemade lip balm (which is also gets used for hand cream and hair control), a small mint tin which carries analgesics of all sorts, comb, flash drive, tampons, and my titanium spork, purchased long ago for backpacking, but which now I use to avoid plastic utensils.

Row 3: Wallet, notebook and pens, keys, ipod (I don’t carry it every day, but it was in the bag this day), and my sunglasses.

Erik shakes his head at how much I carry, but typing this up, I’m actually thinking it’s not all that bad. I could shed some of it, sure, but the items here are actually all things I use consistently and miss when I don’t have them.

Since Erik showed you his, I’ll show you mine. This is the Leatherman I carry. It’s the Juice S2, and has served me well for several years. I like it better than Erik’s model. It feels better in the hand, and never pinches the palm. It’s got screwdriver heads, a knife, scissors (which I actually use, believe it or not), can opener, and of course the pliers. This is the tool I use for most small jobs around the house. It’s more convenient to use this than trying to find one of our scattered tools.

There’s a smaller Juice called the Squirt, and sometimes I wish I had that instead, because of the weight factor. But the Squirt doesn’t have a Phillips screwdriver, so that’s sort of a deal breaker. If we were organized people and I knew I could find a Phillips screwdriver when I needed one, then I could do with less multi-tool.

What’s more interesting to me than fetishizing the EDC is the fetishizing of the emergency backpack, to which I plead guilty. I’ll unpack my backpack for you soon.