Compostable Holiday Decor

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Yesterday evening I was out in the back yard trimming our perennials (yep, it’s very California to be working in the yard the day before Thanksgiving) and afterward I twisted together a wreath out of what I’d cut: mostly lavender, with some strawberry tree branches, white sage and toyon berries. All I did was attach the green bits with wire to a thin branch I’d bent in a circle.

The wreath was spectacular last night. This morning it is a bit wilted, as the picture shows, but still nice. Properly, if a wreath is to last, it should be made of dried stuff and/or evergreen boughs. We’ll see what this one does over the next couple of days. I’m not bothered if it doesn’t work, as it only took about a half hour to make, and I made it more for the pleasure of the making than anything else.

It is worth remembering that you can throw together a wreath or swag or centerpiece out of whatever fresh plant matter you can find, and it will look fresh for the rest of the day. It’s really nice to have fresh, fragrant greenery on the walls and tables for parties. Here’s a thoughtstyling for you: maybe holiday decor should be as compost-able as the food, so we don’t end up burdened with boxes full of low-grade novelty holiday items which have no future outside a thrift store–kid art and family treasures excepted, of course!

The Future is Biomorphic

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One of Glen Small’s Biomorphic Biosphere Megastructures.

Thumbing through the June 1977 issue of The Futurist reminds me of the wisdom of what Nassim Taleb calls, “non-predictive decision making.” Why? Futurists and prognosticators are as accurate as a dead clock. Twice a day they get it right and the rest of the time they end up looking foolish. We can be especially thankful that the washing machine for people on page 179 of The Futurist never caught on.

That said, the point is not always to predict the future. Architects, artists and designers push the envelope of consensus reality to spark a dialog. Architect Glen Small, one of the founders of SCI-Arc and the subject of an entertaining documentary, “My Father, the Genius” is one such provocateur whose thoughtstylings appear in The Futurist. In an article in the magazine, Small describes his “Biomorphic Biosphere Megastructure (BBM):”

This union of nature and technology is what I am trying to achieve in my work. People say that the structures I draw look “alive.” They are alive–not in the sense that nature produced them independently of human control, but because they carry out all the different functions of living systems, respond to their environment, and grow. Certainly they are not “dead” as are many of today’s buildings which were constructed without regard for their surroundings or their effect on any form of life other than human beings.

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Inside a BBM life is a party.

Some of the ecological consciousness of Small’s work and other like minded architects of the 1970s later evolved into the environmental building standards of today. But Small is much more interesting. While my own architectural tastes lean towards the conservative Prince Charles end of the spectrum, I appreciate a  good harebrained idea when I hear one. Here’s Small describing life in one of his BBMs:

Your house is a self-contained personal flying module whose soft surfaces can be adjusted to any configuration from smooth planes to womb-like curves. These surfaces–walls, floors and ceiling–can also change in color and opacity. Are you feeling gregarious? Then live a while in completely transparent surroundings! Are you feeling reclusive? Dial walls of any color to shut out the world! You can even open your module like a flower to receive the sun, and close it tightly and inclement weather.

As Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “If you don’t like those ideas, I got others.” Among those other ideas, that have more of a chance of catching on, is Small’s passion to align the natural world with the build environment. Small says,

Too often in the past we have behaved like uninvited and unwelcome guests, looting and trashing our surroundings. . . We need a new global building code to insure that all future planning and construction will protect the natural environment and at the same time help establish a social environment that is truly responsive to man’s psychological and physical needs.

While we may not be soaring around in our own personal Barbarella-style floating pods, we do have LEED certification. I’m sure Small would say we could go much further than LEED. On a personal level we can help grow gardens in our cities. On a grass roots political level (pun intended) we can stop incentivizing AstroTurf and leaf blowers. Like Small, I hope the future is biomorphic!

Thanks to Anne Hars for lending me a copy of The Futurist.

Hundertwasser: Architecture as Spontaneous Vegetation

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One of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible, just did an episode about Austrian outsider architect Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (“Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters” in German).

Hundertwasser viewed straight lines as an affront to both God and creativity. He was also a big fan of humanure, mold (!) and, just like Alexandro Jodorowsky, did the occasional speaking gig completely nude.

Listen to the 99% Invisible podcast for more on Hundertwasser’s architectural thoughtstylings.

Is Diagonal the New Horizontal? The Evolution of the “Flipper” Fence

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We’re in the midst of what seems like a new real estate bubble here in Los Angeles. Houses get so many bids that buyers have to write letters to the owner to beg for the privilege of buying their dilapidated bungalow.

To take advantage of this market, house flippers have developed a new architectural vocabulary based, I think, on a kind of mash up of stuff from Home Depot and ideas from back issues of Dwell Magazine. One of the most persistent flipper memes is the horizontal fence:

Photo via The Eastsider.

Photo via The Eastsider.

I spotted a unique variation on the flipper fence a few weeks ago–the diagonal fence at the top of this post. I kind of like it but when I posted it in Facebook I got a mixed reaction. One thing I don’t like about it myself is the height. Personally, I think it’s unfriendly to the neighborhood to have a front yard fence higher than four feet (not to mention that it’s a code violation, as well). That said, I think this diagonal arrangement might look good in a backyard (though it does waste the bit of wood you have to saw off the top).

Some other Facebook comments noted the sad state of the parkway, a.k.a “hell strip.” To be fair to the owners I don’t think they are finished with the job (which, if they are actually house flippers, will involve gravel and agave).

What do you think? Should good fences be vertical, diagonal or horizontal?

A More Graceful Dome

Image: Adobe Alliance.

Image: Adobe Alliance.

Kurt Gardella, the gifted adobe builder and instructor who built our backyard earth oven, left a comment on our geodesic dome post pointing out that earth is a better material for dome building.

The problem with wooden domes is that plywood and other sheet-based building materials, in the US, come in 4 by 8 foot sections. You end up wasting a lot of wood to make a dome. Building with earth solves this problem.

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It’s also beautiful. Earth building offers the opportunity to do more graceful forms than can be accomplished with sheets of plywood. The example Kurt linked to is a house built by Simone Swan. You can see more photos of Swan’s house at the Adobe Alliance.

Trading our Home for a Dome

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Last week a local blog posted a real estate listing for an unusual dome house not far from where we live. There’s a few of these 70s-80s relics in the LA area. This one is worth about as much as our house. I pondered, for about ten minutes, the thought of trading out our stodgy 1920s bungalow for a geodesic fantasy.

Continue reading…

Fashion on the Homestead

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It’s about time I addressed, on this home economics/DIY/gardening blog, the importance of the way we dress. I’ve been bothered of late by my rumpled appearance. Like most Americans I wear in public what in an earlier era would have been considered pajamas. And I’m approaching fifty. The people I’ve met who have aged gracefully generally seem to dress well though not ostentatiously.

Knowing what to wear and finding that wardrobe on a budget is incredibly confusing in our schizophrenic consumer culture. I found some good advice recently from an unexpected source, the Chilean avant guarde filmmaker and mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky. He says,

Clothing used without consciousness is a mere disguise. Holy men and women do not dress in order to appear, but in order to be. Clothes possess a form of life. When they correspond to your essence, they give you energy and become allies. When they correspond to your distorted personality, they drain your vital forces. And even when they are your allies, if you do not care for them and respect them, they will retaliate by disturbing your mind. Now do you understand why we fold our garments so carefully, as we might fold a flag or a sacred vestment?

Jodorwsky is 85 and, from the photos I’ve seen of him he always seems to be wearing a simple black jacket and a black sweatshirt or dress shirt (except recently when he introduced a new film in the nude–one of the many NSFW moments in his long life). He also, almost always, has a smile on his face and a cat nearby.

Now I can’t cop Jodorowsky’s style. While Jodorowsky is reading tarot cards at a Parisian cafe I’m cleaning out a chicken coop. But the point of what he’s saying is that something of your true self must express itself sincerely through your clothes. Know thyself, in other words, and what to wear will be obvious. Does that mean a chicken coop casual Fridays?

And for part two of this post I need to cajole Kelly into blogging about her outré homesteading uniform idea. In the meantime, how do you approach the way you dress?

Creating a Moon Garden

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Believe it or not the photo above, a Encelia farinosa  San Diego Sunflower (Viguiera laciniata) shrub in full bloom, was shot under low light conditions long after sunset last night. The occasion was a lecture and walk led by Carol Bornstein, garden director at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Bornstein’s talk used the Natural History Museum’s garden to demonstrate the many reasons why we should consider how our gardens look at night.

Why create a moon garden? For many people, nighttime is the only chance to see the garden during a busy work week. And sometimes it’s more pleasant to avoid the heat of the day and enjoy a garden after the blazing sun goes down. But perhaps most importantly, our gardens can provide habitat for night pollinators and other wildlife.

Bornstein had a number of great tips for making a garden interesting at night:

  • Consider color. White flowers, of course, will pop out under moonlight. But yellow flowers stand out even more.
  • We’re lucky in Southern California to have a lot of native plants with silvery grey leaves (an evolutionary adaption of dry climate plants). Masses of silvery grey leaves stand out well at night.
  • Include a contrasting background. Light colored flowers and plants stand out better at night if they are in front of a dark background–a dark green bush or the shade of a large tree.
  • It’s not all about plants. Including light colored rocks, gravel, decomposed granite, stepping stones, water features and white walls can also create interest in a moon garden.
  • Creating an interesting nocturnal landscape means less reliance on lighting. As I’ve blogged about before, artificial light is not good for us or for wildlife.

That Bornstein considers the sound of leaves in the wind at night, should give you an idea of her appreciation for detail in garden design. And it’s nice to know that after we go to sleep our gardens can provide food and shelter for the creatures of this earth that work the night shift.

Angelinos should check out the NHM’s Summer Nights in the Garden series of events, as well as their many classes and activities.

How Can We Fix Our Public Landscaping?

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Yesterday Kelly blogged about the appalling landscaping in front of an Los Angeles Department of Water and Power facility. When Kelly first showed me the photo of that purple gravel and artificial turf I thought it might be some kind of conceptual art project.

Unfortunately, this poor attempt at a drought tolerant landscape is just another example of an attitude of indifference towards public space that’s all too prevalent in Los Angeles and many other cities. Sahra Sulaiman at LA Streetsblog has done a great job covering the many ways this indifference manifests in big piles of trash on LA’s sidewalks and horrible conditions for bus commuters.

This indifference is also apparent in the lackluster landscaping of most of our public spaces. This egregious LADWP “garden” is the last straw for me. It’s time we do something about it.

Two California based organizations come to mind: Daily Acts in Petaluma and the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. Daily Acts has landscaped public spaces such as libraries and schools as well as private homes. These gardens provide an example that others can follow. The Ecology Center has a spectacular garden that shows do simple water harvesting to create a beautiful landscape with drought tolerant plants that attracts beneficial wildlife.

We need similar organizations in Los Angeles. We have an immense pool of talent here that could fix that terrible purple gravel and artificial turf atrocity and go on to do so much more. Who’s in?

And to those of you reading this elsewhere in the word, feel free to leave a comment about how you changed your public space for the better.

Our Grape Arbor

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Several years ago I demolished a crumbling addition to the house (a room you had to go through the back bedroom to get to) and replaced it with an arbor. Our neighbor generously gave us the columns that used to be on her front porch and I added a plinth to make them taller. In the background are two apple trees that provide some privacy.

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It’s taken a couple of years for the grapes to cover the structure. One reason is that we lost two vines to Pierce’s disease. Now we have two resistant varieties: Vitus Californica “Rogers Red” and Vitis vinifera x V. lambrusca “Pearl River” from LA’s most quirky nursery, Papaya Tree. The Pearl River grapes are tasty and show no signs of Pierce’s.

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The adobe oven was the last addition. Pizza parties are a frequent occurrence underneath the arbor.

Do you have an arbor? What have you planted on it and how do you use the space underneath?