The Pinnacle of Permaculture: Tending the Wild

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesBook review: Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

When the white man came to California, he found a verdant paradise: meadows thick with wildflowers and clover, stately groves of nut trees, abundant, healthy game and rivers full of fish. It was a land of endless bounty. The natives, often derogatorily called “Diggers” by the whites, seemed to live off this bounty in a lazy, hand-to-mouth sort of way.

Tending the Wild, a highly readable dissertation, takes this mythology apart. Anderson’s argument is that the native people of California were active stewards of the land.

Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.

Through extensive practical experience, the Indians had found a “middle way” between exploitation of the land and hands-off preservation of the land. They made use of the land, and in so doing, made the land better for all other creatures as well. They used resources, but managed to give back more. And in so doing, they shaped California.

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view and California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of the Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy visas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb and green gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting and seed scattering.”

Our favorite idea to come out of this book is the notion that plants and animals need people. This is the philosophy of the Native American elders Anderson interviews. Rather as plants need birds to scatter their seeds, plants rely on humans to thin and prune them, protect them and spread them. The elders imagined an active, reciprocal relationship of use between humans, plants and animals. For them, “wilderness” is a pejorative term. When land is untended, it turns feral and declines. In a thriving land there is physical and spiritual intimacy between man, plants and animals.

All this is to say that California, at first European contact, was a garden–a garden that had been loved, tended and built up for generations. And the first settlers and explorers couldn’t see it. They saw a gift from God, one which they stripped bare in short order.

There is sadness in reading this, sadness in thinking of all that has been lost. But as Anderson contends, there is still a chance to preserve some of this knowledge. It lives on in the elders who remain whose grandparents remembered California before the gold rush. This book collects some of that knowledge, and talks about Indian management of certain species. While it cannot teach us everything, it provides a tantalizing vision of a non-exploitative yet productive relationship between man and nature, providing us a path for the future, if we can find the will to take it before it is too late.

Highly recommended read, especially for Californians, conservationists, gardeners, wild plant enthusiasts and those studying permaculture.

No garden space? Check this out

Follow this link to the Eastsider blog for a little profile piece on a man raising crops in a median strip. This is exactly what we should all be doing. Well, except maybe standing in traffic to water–if at all avoidable–but I do tip my hat to this intrepid fellow gardener.

There’s so much wasted space in this city. Yesterday Erik and I were walking down the sidewalk, admiring a flat stretch of dry, weedy ground betwixt sidewalk and street, 10 feet across and almost a block long, with perfect East-West sun exposure. We wondered how much food could be grown in that space. Probably enough to put veggies on the table of everyone living in the apartment building fronting that strip.

Taut-line knot

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Knot tying is a skill that’s long been on my to-acquire list. I’ve finally learned how to tie a fancy knot, and it’s pretty exciting. This won’t impress ex-Boy Scouts and hardcore knot wonks, but if your knot skills are pretty much limited to shoelaces (as mine were until today), you might enjoy learning this one.

The taut-line hitch is an adjustable knot. It slides to adjust tension, but stays where you put it. So cool! If you’ve ever struggled to tie a line between two objects–say a laundry line–only to have it sag morosely, you’ll get my excitement. It’s also a useful for staking out tents and tarps.

I’m not going to show you how to do it here, but I’m going to save you the trouble of squinting at lots of poorly drawn diagrams and unclear videos, by sharing the the video that did it for me, one offered by a joint called The Art of Manliness. Official disclaimer: I haven’t read that site, so I don’t know what their program is, but I must say, I do feel rather manly.

It’s actually a very easy knot, though until I found this set of instructions, the procedure baffled me. Apparently there’s a few variations of this knot, but this version does work.

ETA: One of our commenters brought up the advantages of variations of this knot. If you’re new to knots, as I am, I’d recommend you learn one variation of this knot, so you get the general gist of it planted in your brain, and then venture into the Wikipedia page on the Tautline Hitch to look at the variations. The one shown here is #1857. Also important, I learned from Wikipedia that these knots may not be secure when made with slippery synthetic rope.

The glass is half full–even if it’s full of greywater


Mrs. Homegrown here:

In this blog and in our books, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of accepting failure as part of the process of living a more homegrown lifestyle. Disasters of different sorts are inevitable. Sometimes they’re part of the learning process. Other times they’re acts of nature that you just have to shrug off. This year we’ve had lots of failures in the agricultural line. It’s been the theme of the year.

For instance, we lost the grape which covers our back porch to Pierce’s disease. No shade for us this summer. Then we had to pull out our citrus trees because there’s a new citrus disease in California, very similar to Pierce’s disease. We blogged about the crookedness and incompetence of the teams sent by the CDFA to intimidate people in our neighborhood into allowing them to spray our yards. Rather than allow them to apply imidacloprid to our vehemently organic garden, we’ve pulled the trees. They were young in any case, barely giving fruit yet. For all the Safety Theater going on, this citrus disease is not going to be stopped by spraying, only by breeding disease resistant varieties. So we figured we may as well pull trees which are doomed to die a few years from now anyway and replace them with non-citrus trees. Nonetheless, that left us with holes in our yard.

Then we had root nematodes in one of our garden beds, and crappy results in another for reasons still unknown. Our first batch of summer seedlings did not thrive, and had to be restarted, which has put us far behind. It’s almost July and our tomatoes haven’t even fruited. We planted our front yard bed with amaranth seeds, and a stray dog dug them all up. We planted a back bed with beans, and the chickens got loose and dug those all up as well.

But the other day I was looking at the photos stored on our camera, and realized that for all this, there were successes this year, and moments of plenty, beauty and grace. It’s far too easy to focus on the failures and forget what goes right. So from now on we’re going to document our yard and other projects more diligently, so that we can look back on both the failures and the successes with a clear eye. It did me good to see these photos, which I’m going to share with you:


The front yard isn’t looking bad. Not organized, but at least not barren.

Lesson the First: make weed-like plants the backbone of your yard, meaning edible plants that grow no matter what–which kind of plants will vary by region. Grow fussy annuals too, if you want, but have these survivors as back up. And learn how to cook them. For instance, we get nopales from that huge cactus that is swamping our hill. The cucumbers may refuse to set fruit, but the cactus pads offer reliable eating for several months, and then the cactus fruit forms, and we have a second harvest. Nopal is the gift that won’t stop giving.

Another fail-proof crop in this region is artichoke. I really don’t know why every house in SoCal doesn’t have one in its yard. Every year we eat artichokes until we’re sick of them, and the only downside is that they spread like mad, as you can see below:


But is that really such a problem? Too many artichokes? Oh noes! Ours grow happily entwined with fennel (which was too small at the time to be seen in the shot above). Fennel is another weedy survivor here. We can harvest the bulbs, or eat the flowers and fronds, or do nothing and just let the pollinators have at it. Today I was sitting by the fennel patch. The flowers are full of pollen, and the air above it looked like LAX: honeybees, wasps, orchard mason bees, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name, butterflies, ladybugs…. I’d need a fancy camera to capture all that action, but here’s a shot from the spring:


And then there’s always the reassurance of a sturdy old fruit or nut tree. Most of our trees are young–planted by us. They have yet to reach their productive days, but we have an old avocado tree. It bears fruit every year, but every 3rd year it gives a bumper crop. And this was one of those years. They’re the best avocados, too–buttery to the extreme. We literally do nothing for this tree, and it gives us this:


We had plentiful greens this year during our winter growing season, mostly turnip and beet greens, bitter Italian greens and Swiss chard. The hoops you see support light row cover material to keep insects away. Our beds look like covered wagons a lot of the time!


We’ve had some nice food this year, too, some of which was documented. Good to look back on.

A salad made with our greens, our pomegranates, and Erik’s notorious pickled crosne:


Or this salad of greens, avocados, nasturtium and arugula flowers, all from the yard:


Ooh..there’s this. Our carrot crop wasn’t big, but it was good. Yellow carrots. They got chopped up and roasted and tasted like candy:

And then there’s the creature comforts. Our chickens are doing well, still laying and haven’t been pecking on each other so much. I took this picture during one of their outings, when they were patrolling the herb bed:

Our dog is very old, so every day with him counts. There’s lots of pics of him on the camera, because he’s such a sexy senior citizen:


And there’s no comfort like a good Neighbor. Particularly one who carries a huge knife and knows how to use it:

And when the going gets tough, we can remember to take pleasure in the ephemeral. Blueberry flowers are worthy of haiku:


It doesn’t rain much in LA, and even when it does, rainbows are a rarity. But we had this one:


Life’s not so bad.

The Urban Homestead

“The contemporary bible on the subject” — The New York Times

The Urban Homestead (Expanded and Revised Edition): Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (Process Self-reliance Series) by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen  (Process, 2010)

ISBN: 978-1934170106

(The first edition, the one with the “American Gothic” cover, was released by Process on June 1, 2008)

Buy it at:  Amazon Abe Books • Barnes & Nobel Powell’s and your local indie bookstore

This celebrated, essential handbook for the urban homesteading movement shows how to grow and preserve your own food, clean your house without toxins, raise chickens, gain energy independence, and more. Step-by-step projects, tips, and anecdotes will help get you started homesteading immediately. The Urban Homestead is also a guidebook to the larger movement and will point you to the best books and internet resources on self-sufficiency topics.

Written by city dwellers for city dwellers, this copiously illustrated, two-color instruction book proposes a paradigm shift that will improve our lives, our community, and our planet. By growing our own food and harnessing natural energy, we are planting seeds for the future of our cities.

Update: Women’s Land Army


Last December, we posted about The Women’s Land Army. Christina Habberjam just left a comment on that post, pointing us to the resource page she’s compiled on that topic. It’s too nice a thing to be buried in the comments, so we’re posting the link to that page here. Also, her grandmother, Veronica Rattray, who was a “Land Girl”, wrote a book about her experience called My Land Girl Years, 1939-1948.

Recipe for Raising Chickens


Mrs. Homegrown here:

We were sent Minnie Rose Lovgreen’s Recipe for Raising Chickens for review, and have been enjoying it so much we thought we’d tell you about it. It was first released in 1975, and this 2009 version is the 3rd edition. It’s a charming little book, paper covered and staple bound, totaling only 31 pages. In fine 70s style, it is handwritten (in neat calligraphy) rather than typeset, and copiously illustrated with pen and ink drawings of hens and chicks.

I’ll say right off the bat that it is not The Definitive Chicken Book. It’s simply too short for that, and its focus is primarily on raising hens and chicks, with a side focus on bantams (because they’re such excellent brooders). As we can’t keep a rooster in our neighborhood, we’ll never see our hens raising chicks–so this information serves mostly to make us wish we lived somewhere where we could let the chickens follow their natural life cycle. However, if your situation allows a rooster, and you’re interested in breeding chickens, this might be a poetical resource that you’d enjoy.

I should add that she doesn’t talk about roosters much at all. They’re invisible players in this story, which is an interesting omission. Perhaps the fact of a rooster being present in the hen yard, doing his work, was so commonplace to her that she didn’t feel the need to mention it. Or perhaps she doesn’t mention breeding details out of delicacy–Lovgreen was born in 1888.


Yes, 1888! That means she wrote this book when she was 87. Her writing comes out of a long life raising chickens, and as such, her advice is wonderfully relaxed and commonsensical–and also joyous. Her love of her hens, and the pleasure she takes in watching them and learning their ways, is clear in every word. She won me over with a quote of the cover: “The main thing is to keep them happy.” That is so true. In fact, that might be all you really need to know.

Above all, its her voice that makes this book so charming. Here’s a sample:

The hen never leaves her chicks for any length of time to get cold. Soon as they commence to “peep peep” like they’re unhappy, she calls them under her. She spreads out her wings and they can all get under her. She spreads her wings real wide. The feathers of her wings are almost like little pages where they can get the air under. They can peek out from her wings, under the feathers, and then get back under her again. When the weather is warmer, the chicks will climb up on the hen’s back and ride piggyback. They have so much confidence in her.

One caveat: this book is $13.00. That’s 42 cents a page. For thirteen bucks you could buy a more comprehensive title, but if you like collecting chicken books, this would be a nice addition to your collection. I like simple books, myself. Books that give you a friendly push in the right direction, but don’t beat you about the ears with lots of confusing details and worrisome warnings. Like all of the home arts, you ultimately learn to keep chickens by keeping chickens, by paying close attention and using your head. Like Lovgreen did.

Be a question. Be an answer.

Kotex Ad from 1971.
Is that Susan Dey Cybill Shepherd? And what’s that oddly eroticized blur in the foreground?

Okay, time to wrest the blog out of Erik’s hands. He’s gone crazy with the geek-boy subject matter of late. I’m going to bring this baby down to earth with a resounding thud. Let’s talk menstruation.

We’re writing a new book, as we may have mentioned. It’s a project book focused on making some of the basic necessities of life yourself, whether that be a compost pile, a bar of soap, or a breath mint. It’s almost done (thank mercy), but at this late date I’ve realized one subject we haven’t covered is The Ladies Only Subject. Periods do necessitate accouterments, and you can easily make cloth pads. I’ve made them and used them on and off for years. I think I sort of pulled a mental block on the subject for this book because I’ve had a number of “Ewwww, gross! That’s totally medieval!” conversations with other women about reusable pads. But our readers aren’t wusses like that, are you?

So I wanted to ask, do you think a cloth pad project should be in our book? Would it be useful? Or is it sort of done already, making it a ho-hum idea? Eco-minded women probably already know they have the option and are doing it, or not, according to their choice. Is it more obscure than I think? Is this something you’d like to see? Give me some feedback.

For those of you who haven’t thought of them, cloth pads are a great way to minimize your landfill contributions. If you make them yourself, you can save a lot of money, too. They also minimize the exposure of your delicate parts to plastics, bleach and those insidious gel crystals in the high tech pads. Cloth pads are surprisingly comfy and effective–at least I find them so.

Here’s a nice link to Ask Pauline with a pattern and instructions for making your own. As Pauline says, “Sometimes a lady finds herself a little short on cash. Better to spend what you have on good bread and good books.”

By the by, I’ve also discovered two charities which give cloth pads to African schoolgirls. It seems that some girls in Africa miss school for a few days every month because their families can’t afford to buy them disposable pads. Obviously this puts them behind in their studies and leads to high drop out rates, low self-esteem, and even sexual harassment. This a basic example of how simple things pile up into a big case of oppression. The aforementioned charities, Sister Hope and Huru, give girls a kit which includes a set of re-useable pads, panties and hygiene items and brochures on HIV-AIDS and other sex ed stuff. Huru is more slick and corporate sponsored, Sister Hope more home-spun. Huru supports pad manufacturing as a village industry in Africa, while Sister Hope collects donations here, and ships them over. Both will donate a kit to a girl in your name for small fee. I’ve not done lots of diligence on these charities, or given to either, yet, so proceed with all ordinary caution.

What’s the dirt on soap nuts?

Sapindus mukorossi fruits, image from Wikimedia Commons

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’m trying to take a temperature reading on soap nuts. Have you used them? Did you like them? How do you use them–as laundry detergent, shampoo, soap? Do you use whole nuts or make a liquid? How long have you been using them? Do you find a big difference between brands?

If you could shoot me a comment, I’d really appreciate it.

On a more advanced level, I’m curious about their interactions with soil and compost, so if you have any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them. I’m curious as to how they’re harvested, and if their growing popularity is impacting their local ecosystems.

If you’ve never heard of soap nuts, let me know that, too! I’m wondering where they sit in the general public awareness.

Soap nuts are saponin-rich fruits, usually of a tree called Sapindus mukorossi (though all Sapindus make soaping fruits), which can be used for laundry and other cleaning purposes. They’re usually sold only lightly processed: seeded and dried. A handful of these dried fruits, which look somewhat like small dates, are put into a cloth sack and thrown in with the laundry. The fruits release saponins, natural surfactants, which clean the clothes. Supposedly. I hear mixed things. I’m experimenting with Maggie’s Soap Nuts right now (and Erik is complaining about their…uh…rich organic smell…which doesn’t seem to linger after drying), but I’ve not used them long enough really judge how they work. The truth is, so much soap is embedded in the fibers of our clothing that you can wash the average garment a couple of times in nothing but water and it would still come out pretty clean. And, for better or worse, Erik and I don’t do that much wash. I feel like I need to adopt a Little League team or something to really test drive this stuff! So send your comments, or your ball teams, this way…

Gideon Lincecum Virtual Herbarium

–click to biggify–

(If you still can’t read it, it says “Erigeron canadensis, the common hogsweed, bruise and press out the juice from the green plant and take it in tablespoonful dose as often as the stomach will bear, for bleeding lungs, bleeding from the stomach, bowels or womb. It is a powerful agent in stopping hemorrhage from any organ.”)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Our friend Nancy gave us some salve made up of calendula, plantain and a plant I was unfamiliar with, something I vaguely remembered her referring to as horseweed or fleabane. Actually, I mis-remembered the name as colt’s foot, and then discovered another kind of plant called fleabane, two more actually. All these plants have their uses, but the plant I was looking for had astringent properties–enough to stop bleeding in small cuts. Our salve is for thrashed gardeners’ hands, and I remembered that this …uh…horse…colt…flea…weed…plant was in the salve for that purpose.

This is why scientific names are so important–common names overlap. But thank the good lord for Mr. Google. I found the plant I was looking for: Conyza canadensis, formerly Erigeron canadensis. When I saw the picture, I said, “Oh, you!’ for it is a very common summer sidewalk weed. Recognize it?

Conyza canadensis
(image courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

And along the way I found a charming resource to share with ya’ll: The Gideon Lincecum Virtual Herbarium, a project hosted by the University of Austin, Texas.

Dr. Lincecum was a 19th-century naturalist and “botanic physician” who lived in Mississippi and Texas. This virtual herbarium includes scans of more than 200 pressed specimens of medicinal plants and his hand-written notes on each specimen. The image at top is his note on horse weed.

Here’s another card of his, this one on opium, where he not only condemns the plant, but other physicians for misusing it:


Go take a gander. But just beware it’s a real time suck for plant geeks.