Bees will love your Coyote Brush Hedge

800px-Coyote_brush

Image: Wikipedia (our picture of the NHM’s coyote brush hedge came out blurry–which really is a shame because they were good looking hedges. You wouldn’t guess it from this pic).

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

Baccharis pilularis, called coyote brush, or chaparral bloom, is an unassuming Western native plant with a secret super-power: native and non-native pollinators love, love, love! its tiny little flowers. If you want to lavish affection and care on the pollinators in your garden, plant one of these babies, if you can. It really is one of the best plants for the purpose. (For more info on coyote brush, here’s a nice post at the Curbstone Valley Farm blog with lots of pictures. And here’s its page at Theodore Payne Foundation.)

What I didn’t realize until our recent garden tour at the Natural History Museum, though, is that coyote brush makes a perfectly lovely hedge if it’s pruned up right. I’d never even thought about it. Most of the talk one hears about coyote brush is that it is sort of ho-hum in appearance but can be used to provide a background to the more showy native plants. I never even thought about how its small, sturdy, bright green, evergreen leaves make it a perfect hedge plant.

So, the lesson here is that you can have a more formal/tidy/traditional garden, and still serve the pollinators– as long as you lay off the clippers for a couple of months in the summer and let the hedge bloom. No excuses now!

For those of you in other parts of the country, can you name a good hedge bush that pollinators like for your area? And be sure to name your area, so folks around you can use the information.

On that theme, here’s a link to beneficial plant lists, organized by region, created by the Xerces Society.

Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder

birdfeeder

Bird feeder in the LA Natural History Museum garden.

One of a series of posts inspired by our recent tour of the new gardens at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

The Nature Gardens at the NHM are not large by the usual standards of botanical gardens, and they are only about a year old, but they are already rich with bird and insect life. (A poorwill even visited, which apparently caused quite a bit of excitement in the birding community.) This is because the designers chose plants to serve wildlife, and the wildlife responded. Build it and they will come.

Off in one shady corner of the garden, I watched two bird feeders being merrily ransacked by more types of birds than I’ve ever seen in one place. It reminded me that I had once wanted a bird feeder–partly for the birds, and partly to provide “TV” for our indoor cats, or Kitty Convicts, as I like to call them. They really love watching the birdbath out the window. I imagined a bird feeder would be doubly exciting. After doing some window shopping and reading, though, I convinced myself that any bird feeder I bought would just end up feeding our pernicious tribe of squirrels, so I gave up the idea, figuring that in our climate, the bird bath was more critical to the birds.

So, with this in the back of my mind, I asked head gardener, Richard Hayden, how the staff kept squirrels away from the bird feeders.  He said simply, “Thistle seed. There’s just thistle seed in there and squirrels don’t eat thistle seed.”

Ohhhhhhh.

Some things become so easy once you get the right information. We just have to buy a feeder built to hold thistle seed. Which we’re doing.

Kitty TV just got a new channel.

Meet our book & web designer: Roman Jaster

making it cover

Roman Jaster is the gifted designer who designed both Making It and this very website for us. He recently gave a Visiting Designer talk about his work at his alma mater, CalArts and made that lecture public on YouTube. In it, he talks about his childhood in East Germany, the decisions he made early-on which determined his career, his working methods (which are really interesting, combining coding with design) and talks about the concepts behind some of his projects, including Making It.

This all may be a little off-topic for the blog, but I’m sure some of you out there are designers, or who know someone who is interested in a career in design, or maybe, like us, you’re just curious about other people’s jobs. Roman is a charming guy and a good speaker.

The talk is available as a PowerPoint lecture in several short installments over on YouTube. This link should take you to the first video in the playlist. You’ll see the lecture is divided thematically so you can focus in on what you’re interested in — but we’d recommend you watch the first segment, about his early life, so you can see him 1) dressed as an Indian princess, 2) modeling German swimwear and 2) going to prom. ;)

Village Homes: A Model for Sustainable Suburbs

I’ve recently discovered a truly inspiring housing development in Davis, California. This is not new news–it was built in the 1980′s, but it’s new to me and worth sharing.

Village Homes is the brainchild of architect/developer Michael Corbett. It encompasses 70 acres and 200-some homes. It has all the space and privacy that brings people to the suburbs, but it’s designed with considerable intelligence. For instance, the homes are all designed according to passive solar principles, so their heating and cooling bills are considerably reduced. Some have even have green roofs. But more interesting is the landscaping, the massive network of bike/walking paths and the creative use of public space.

The entire development is essentially a big food forest. All of the rainfall is captured and instead of being directed to the sewer system, it runs to swales between the houses, to nourish fruit trees. The resulting space is a lush park full of edibles, from exotic jujubee trees to grapes to almonds. Residents can stroll around in the abundant shade and pick fruit at will. Only the almond crop is off limits–the almond crop is harvested every year and sold to support the the gardening services for the entire development. There are also community garden space available for those who wish to raise more food crops than their own yard space allows.  The lush growth coupled with the reduced asphalt surfaces makes the whole development 10 degrees Farhenhiet cooler in the summer than the surrounding suburbs.

I could go on and on, but perhaps the best way to get a feel for it is to watch the 10 minute video above. It’s hosted by Permaculture guru Bill Mollison, who’s a big fan of the development.  It’s well worth the time to watch it all the way through.

Also, here’s a short paper on the development, which gives all the pertinent facts, friendly for quick skimming: Village Homes: A model solar community proves its worth.

And finally, here is a video someone took during a site tour given by Michael Corbett, the developer. It doesn’t have as many visuals as Mollison’s video, but has some good insider tidbits in it, as well as discussion of some of the other features of the development, like office rental space and day care.

My Brand New Homebrew Soda Carbonator

a present? 4me?

Erik won the good husband award this Valentine’s Day. He surprised me with my very own soda making machine. This is not a SodaStream–it’s better. It’s an industrial strength CO2 tank topped with sturdy dials and valves and whatnot, all sourced from the local homebrew shop. He’s going to do a how-to post soon (tomorrow maybe?) on how to put together the parts, and how to use it. So hold on for those details! Right now, I’m just going to gush.

Continue reading…

The tale of the tub scrubber

white and purple bath puffs

I’ve used the purple bath puff on the left in the photo above to scrub my bathroom sink and tub for eight years. Eight years! It’s a little shocking now that I count back. (Puff n’ me, we’ve done a lot of scrubbing. Good times.)

I received this puff has part of a gift set of bath items. I don’t enjoy using puffs in the bath, personally, so decided to try it out on the shower scum instead, and found it worked amazingly well in conjunction with the vinegar, soapy water and baking soda I use to clean the bathroom. It didn’t hold dirt or get grungy. Only now, after all this time, has it started to deteriorate and leave little purple bits of itself behind after a scrub.

This is not a deep post — I just wanted to point out that sometimes we can make good use of things which would otherwise end up in the garbage. Purple Puff is finally going to the trash, and will live out its sad, eternal half-life compressed in a landfill, but at least it served a purpose for a while, and did some good work. While I try to avoid buying plastics myself, it feels right to make good use of the plastic jetsam which tumbles into our lives.

At this point I could switch to biodegradable cleaning implements–like cotton rags and loofah sponges (which you can grow, if you have a long growing season!) — but in the back of my bathroom cabinet I have another gift puff, a white one, waiting to be called into service.

Do you have any plastic recycling tales to share?

A viewing suggestion from the media arm of Root Simple

I really enjoy learning about technologies that are basic enough that I feel like I can understand them–and maybe even replicate them. The technology of Tudor-era in England is by no means primitive, but it also is not as complex and machine-based as the tech which takes off in the 19th century and accelerates so quickly into the present era. I would be hard pressed to explain how anything around me works–from this machine I’m typing on to communicate with the outside world, to the electric light burning beside me.

Bless the BBC for making Tudor Monastery Farm (a title which I believe would not fly on American television). This is a quiet series showing three historians/archeologists at play in the Weald & Downland Open Air History Museum, trying out some of the skills they’d need to be tenant farmers to the local monastery. It has some of the structure of a reality show, but it seems that no one really wants to go that direction much, so with the exception of a bit of camera confession about the urgency of getting the peas planted before Easter, there is none of that annoying reality show faux drama. Instead, it’s just full of juicy nuggets for the appropriate tech geek.

The series is on YouTube. I pray the BBC doesn’t take it down before I get to finish it.

In the first episode alone, they cover goodies like:

  • Coppicing
  • How to make two type of fences: a hazel wattle fence and a dead hedge fence, both of which can be made with a machete and a club
  • Treadwheels: Giant human powered hamster wheels which, along with water wheels, were the engines of their time.
  • How to make rush lights out of sheep fat and rushes.
  • An almost forgotten food plant called Alexanders, which is a Mediterranean plant related to parsley, which I’ve never heard of but now want to plant in my garden.
  • Tips on calligraphy done with quills. Did you know the quill has to be almost horizontal in the hand?
  • And how to make a paintbrush out of a feather and a stick. Marvelously clever, and the secret to the fine lines in illuminated manuscripts.
  • How to make a magnifying glass out for working the detail in said illuminated manuscripts.
  • How a Tudor gentleman literally sewed himself into his clothes each day, & the mysteries and marvels of the codpiece. (I suppose that if I were transported to that era I’d eventually stop staring at the distracting cords dangling from gentlemen’s crotches. You’ll see what I mean.)
  • You get to meet one of the last working teams of oxen in England (sad!), and see what it takes to plow a field.
  • How to build and wattle and daub pig house
  • And finally, very exciting, there’s a cameo by Robin Wood, the last professional wooden dish carver in England. I’ve seen his videos (where he looks much less dorky than he does in Tudor gear) and actually have one of his bowls. He carves beautiful bowls and spoons, his only tools his hatchet, his carving knives, and a foot operated pole lathe. The foot operated lathe was in use for nearly 1000 years, but now is almost extinct. It’s a wonderful piece of technology. Robin makes it look simple, but I’m sure it takes mad skills to use.

And that’s just the first episode. Ale and cheese, blast furnaces and sheep shearing to follow!

One last take away: Because my undergraduate degree is in art history, one thing that really struck me was how much everyone in this show looked like characters out of a Bruegel painting. If you know Pieter Bruegel’s work, you might remember how all his people have this particular stocky, stuffed, oddly jointed, funny-footed sort of look. I thought this was an artistic affectation.  Turns out it’s just the way the clothes fit. Pieter, I did you wrong. You were just painting what you saw.

pieter bruegel's painting, The Peasant Wedding

What laundry detergent should I use for greywater applications?

oasis

When your laundry water is going to the soil instead of to the sewer (or a septic tank) you need to make sure that detergent is friendly to soil life. Your big brand detergents are a no-go. And even the various eco-detergents, even ones marked “biodegradable”, are not appropriate for the soil because they are essentially salt-based. They play well with aquatic life, bless them, and they’re a great alternative to more toxic detergents if your laundry water is going to the sewer, but they aren’t good for soil microorganisms. Surely you’ve heard that salting the land is a bad idea? You don’t want to salt your garden. Those salts will build up in the soil and can cause salt burn on tree leaves. (This appears as leaves with browning tips, as if they’ve been sunburned.)

It’s worth adding that the drier your climate, the saltier the soil, because there is not enough rain to help percolate it away–so if you live in a dry climate it’s even more important to be careful with salts.

Homemade detergents–the ones based on soap and washing soda–are also not an option, again because of their salt content.

This leaves you with two options, at least as far as we know. If you know another detergent which is specifically formulated for greywater use, please let us know.

1)  The first is a laundry detergent called Oasis Biocompatible, sold by Bio Pac. This is what we use. It’s a basic, colorless, odorless, super concentrated liquid detergent, specifically formulated for greywater use.  It works very well, but doesn’t have the bells and whistles of “whiteners” and “brighteners” found in grocery store brands. To me, this is a plus.  It is not found on supermarket shelves. I have seen it in some health food stores, but we order it online. This is not too bad of a deal because it is concentrated, so a gallon bottle lasts a long time.

2)  The second option is soap nuts. Soap nuts are the dried fruit of the soap nut tree–they look a little like a cross between a date and a hazelnut. They are full of natural saponins (soaping agents) which are released in the wash. These saponins have been tested and don’t harm soil life.

You just drop 3 or 4 of the nuts into a little muslin bag (which comes in the box), and throw that bag in the wash with your clothes. They activate better in hot water, so some people will opt to soak the bag in a cup of hot water first–like making tea–and then dump the water and the bag into the wash.  Other people stew the nuts in water and make soap nut tea, which can then be used like liquid soap, for both hand washing and laundry. There’s lots of info online about soap nuts if you poke around a bit.

I just remembered that I posted here back in 2010, asking for feedback on the nuts, and got lots of it. So you might want to check that out.

If you’ve never heard of soap nuts, the whole idea might seem strange. But remember, all soap really does is help water work better, and they release soap. The real washing power is the agitating water in your machine.

Incidentally, both Oasis and soap nuts are fine for HE washing machines.

ADDENDUM: Option #3:  Thanks to commenters Kay and Matt, I’m going to add a 3rd product to this list: Ecos  Laundry Detergent. It claims to be greywater safe, I checked the ingredients and saw no salts, and Matt says he’s used it for a year successfully. Sounds good to me! Also in the plus category, this Ecos seems easier to find in stores than Oasis. Addendum to the addendum: Ecos contains sodium coco sulfate which some folks do not consider biocompatible.

Also:

Pure castile soap, like liquid Dr. Bronners, is okay for the soil, but it doesn’t really work as a laundry detergent. You can use it as such for the occasional load, but you will find your clothes turning grey with extended use. Sometimes, however, if I’m dealing with a musty or stinky load of laundry, I’ll put a squirt of scented Dr. Bronners into my machine along with my Oasis or soap nuts, since Oasis is odorless, and soap nuts have a bit of an organic scent (which doesn’t linger on the clothes).

Laundry additives:

You also need to be careful with laundry additives when your laundry water is going to the garden. No bleach, obviously. Bleach alternatives, like OxyClean, are also suspect because they are often based on sodium percarbonate. Check the ingredients and scan for the word sodium. If you see it, it’s best to avoid the product. For this same reason, no baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) either, or washing soda (a sodium salt of carbonic acid).

Vinegar is okay, lemon juice is okay, and I don’t see how small amounts of hydrogen peroxide would hurt anything, though I’d want to do more research if I made it a regular part of my laundry rituals.  I’m suspicious of the various specialty stain removers. If you’re just squirting one spot on a shirt, obviously it will be greatly diluted in the wash water, but really, who knows what is in these stain formulas? When you use greywater you really learn the meaning of “closed loop” — you have to live with what you put out there. So, the decision is yours in the end.

So how do you use your “nuclear option” type laundry additives? Read on, dearies.

The Importance of a Three Way Valve:

It is well worth the time to install a diverter valve by your machine which allows you to choose whether your wash water will go to the sewer or the garden. If you have one of these, you can do loads with bleach or what-have-you and send that water to the sewage treatment plant.

Also, if you are washing diapers, this valve is an absolute necessity. All diaper wash water should go to the sewer. Soil is a great cleanser, but you don’t want to push your luck by depositing fecal matter around your garden.

(Addendum here, too: I spoke a little too absolutely above. It is possible to reuse that water, but you need to do so very carefully.  Diaper water is blackwater, not greywater, and needs to be handled in specific ways  Perhaps we’ll do a separate post on that later.)

Finally, during periods of heavy rain you may just prefer not to send any more water to the garden, and this allows you to make that choice.

A few words about other greywater applications:

If you’re using greywater from your shower, most soaps and shampoos are okay. Though again, I’d remember the closed loop principle and try to use soaps and shampoo from the more natural end of the spectrum.  Again, good ol’ Dr. Bronners, soap or liquid form, is something I’d feel good about sending out to the landscape.

Bio Pac also makes a concentrated soap which is a sister to the Oasis Detergent called Oasis Dishwash/All Purpose Cleaner. This is an all purpose soap that you can even use in the shower. This would be a good product to use for more casual water recycling–so when you’re cleaning house, say, you can safely dump a bucket of dirty water outside and know that it won’t harm your garden.

Fantastical Garden Images

File:Sudama bows at the glimpse of Krishna's golden palace in Dwarka. ca 1775-1790 painting.jpg

Sudama bows at the glimpse of Krishna’s golden palace in Dwarka,. ca 1775-1790

Not to contribute to the dreaded analysis paralysis, but this Pintrest collection images of fantastical gardens– from medieval sources to contemporary artists–may inspire your own garden, or at least give you a good dose of winter inspiration.  Well worth a peek. Thanks to BoingBoing for the lead.

Ask Lowes and Home Depot to Stop Killing Bees

Vintage Valentines -"Won't-cha BEE my lovin' honey?"

If you haven’t heard, Friends of the Earth is swarming (ahem) Home Depot and Lowes with cards around Valentines Day, asking these retailers to “show the bees some love” and stop selling bee-killing pesticides (neonicotinoids) and garden plants which have been pre-poisoned with such pesticides.

In our opinion, systemic pesticides, like Imidacloprid (which is a neonictinoid) should preferably not be used at all, and certainly should not be sold casually to uninformed consumers in big box stores.  If you want to read more about the relationship between these poisons and bees, check out this Wikipedia article: Imidacloprid Effects on Bees

The Valentine’s Day stunt is just that, a stunt, but a cute one, and a worthwhile one, too. We’re going to send our Valentines off this year, and we hope you’ll join us.

If you give Friends of the Earth your email address, they’ll send you a reminder, a printable valentine, and further instructions about where to mail your cards.  Go here for that.

Oh, and here’s a petition on the subject to the two stores’ CEO’s as well.