Bottle Cap Wreath

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I love Christmas. I love eating cookies, getting together with friends and family and of course, an excuse to make things. I was inspired this weekend to get a little crafty. My front door needed a wreath and I have a huge collection of beer bottle caps so of course I made a bottle cap wreath. I used a simple piece of wire as a form and a lot of hot glue. I tied the wire around a ceramic bowl to shape it. That’s about it. It took me perhaps an hour to make.
I also made this little one as a gift for a friend who helped to consume the beer for the project. For the little one I used the rim of a coffee can (like the one’s from Trader Joe’s.) I just cut off the metal rim from the cardboard and hot glued the bottle caps. I found a little green ribbon to hang it with as an extra special touch.
Happy Holidays to all.

Made in the shade- Passive cooling

We just survived another major heat wave here. People and plants were positively melting. The sidewalks were veritable solar cookers. I’m sure I could have fried an egg on the sidewalk outside my house.

I prefer not to crank the air conditioning, so I have been thinking a lot lately about simple ways to cool ourselves and the spaces we inhabit.
Air conditioning is the main mechanical means by which we cool buildings these days. However, there are several ways that we can cool buildings without plugging in so much as a fan. These technologies are referred to as passive. They don’t require any kind of motor or electricity, just a some good planning and design.
If one were designing a building from the ground up there are myriad features that can help that building use a minimum of mechanical heating or cooling mechanisms. There is no one size fits all design. Passively heated and cooled buildings are adapted to local climate conditions. Current construction practices tend to favor the same type of ramshackle 2×4 and drywall buildings from California to Long Island, and all the climate zones in between. Just stick an air conditioner on top, put in a heating unit, and you’re done. Sadly, most buildings are an energy efficiency disaster. Poor design is so prevalent, it is shocking once you know what to look for. Have you ever leaned up against a stucco or brick wall on a hot day? Ouch! You can literally burn your skin off.
However, a passive building in the humid South, might feature carefully placed windows to maximize air flow. In the desert Southwest, where temperatures can be scorching in the summer and freezing in the winter, thick, heavy walls of adobe, strawbales or rammed earth provide protection from extreme weather conditions.
Here in the Homegrown neighborhood, most of us live in old houses that are not designed with passive solar features. The Homegrown Evolution house is practically a greenhouse. My house is about 20 degrees hotter at night than it is outside. All of the hot air gets trapped and has no where to go. The windows are poorly placed allowing for little cross ventilation. Hot air rises so we need windows up high. Do you hear me architects?
Yet there are simple things those of us with old houses can do. I already mentioned window placement. Vents up high could also work. Insulation is of course a must. I had my attic insulated a few years ago and now I don’t need to run the heater nearly as much in the winter. I’m not sure what effect it has on the summer heat, because it still feels pretty darn sweltering in here.
Shade is an easy way to keep things cool. Shade can be utilized inside and out. An outdoor seating area begs for shade. This can be achieved with trees and shrubs or vines trained over a trellis. A roof structure of some sort can also provide shade for outdoor areas. If you have pets that spend time outside, make sure to provide them with a cool, shady spot for hot summer days.
Trees can also provide valuable shade for your house. Leafy trees will protect your house from the direct rays of the sun. Shade prevents solar heat gain. Pure and simple. Deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the Winter can allow sunlight to enter your house in the cool season, making them ideally suited to passive heating and cooling.
You can also shade your windows. Solar shades project out over a window, thus blocking the highest angle of the sun. When the angle of the sun is lower and the heat and sun less extreme, in Winter and during sunset and sunrise in summer, sunlight can still get in the windows. A roof that projects past the walls of the house serves the same purpose by also blocking the highest angles of the sun.
I chose to employ this technology and give myself more growing space by building an arbor on the back of my house.
This shades the back of my house and makes it look much nicer at the same time. I have planted hardy kiwi on it. The kiwi will help to provide shade, give me tasty fruit, and because it is deciduous, it will die back in the Winter to allow in a little more light. Brilliant.
This of course is just a few of the things you can do to use less energy to heat and cool your home. But I hope it provides a little inspiration and gets some of you out there to reach for a shovel instead of a thermostat.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)


Every time we visit the nice folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead they send us home with some strange plant. Thanks to PUH, who are busy actually doing things as opposed to blogging about doing things, we now have a beautiful flowering mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus).

Verbascum thapsus is one of those plants that most people think of as a weed. Native to Europe and Asia, Verbascum thapsus was introduced to North America because of its many medicinal uses, almost too many to list. Most commonly used for respiratory problems, it also makes both green and yellow dyes and doubles as a fish poison! Tradition holds that it also wards off evil spirits,with some sources saying it’s the herb Ulysses took with him to deal with the treacherous sorcerer Circe.

It’s a useful, striking and beautiful plant. It’s also classified as an invasive. The Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA), a consortium of ten federal government agencies and 260 mostly non-profit organizations, has Verbascum thapsus in its cross hairs. How the non-profit “cooperators”, as the PCA terms the many native plant organizations in the PCA consortium, can get behind a program that suggests spraying glyphosate (e.g., RoundupĀ®) and triclopyr (Garlon) in wilderness areas is a great mystery to me. The PCA is also pondering the release of non-native biological controls for mullein such as the mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci). So, it seems, some non-native species are o.k. while others are not? Shouldn’t we be concerned about what else the mullein moth will munch on? Better, I think, to learn to get along. The non-natives are here and we ain’t going to get rid of them. Let’s find their uses rather than spray herbicides. We humans, after all, are notoriously invasive, a moral I’m reminded of as I read the narrative of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca. If Monsanto marketed a Conquistador control I’m sure the Indians would have spayed an ocean of it, but they only would have created pesticide resistant super-Conquistadors.

While I’d hesitate to plant this stuff if I lived on the edge of a wilderness area, I see no problem growing it in the city. A mix of edibles, natives, ornamentals, medicinals and especially some useful “weeds” makes for a more robust garden. So in the interest of getting along:

Read more about the medicinal properties of Verbascum thapsus on Alternative Nature Online Herbal.
More on the magical properties of Verbascum thapsus at alchemy-works.com.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage, just about to bloom.

Borage is an ugly sounding name for a beautiful and useful plant. The moniker is probably a corruption of the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq or “father of sweat”, a reference to it’s diaphoretic qualities1. Both the leaves and the blue flowers (sometimes white flowers) are edible and have a refreshing cucumber like taste. Borage is an annual herb that we plant in the late fall here in Los Angeles for an early spring bloom, but in most other parts of North America you’ll plant it in the spring after the last frost. Ours survived a winter outbreak of aphids, but is now thriving.

We toss the flowers and leaves into salads as a flavoring. In fact we enjoyed a memorable borage spiked salad on a recent Greyhound bus trip to Las Vegas we took for a book appearance. Thankfully for our fellow passengers, we did not break out into a borage induced sweat.

For more on the medicinal qualities of borage, including “dispelling melancholy” (useful for bus layovers in Barstow, incidentally) see the borage entry in the Plants for a Future database.

Nettle Mania

“out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety”
-Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common weed with a bad reputation–the plant has tiny spines that inject, as Wikipedia puts it, a “cocktail of poisons.” Miraculously when you boil the plant the spines lose their punch and you’re left with a tasty green consumed plain or incorporated in a number of dishes, from soups to ravioli, to the German cheese pictured above (thanks to Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell for the photo). When dried, the leaves make a damn good tea, with a rich, indescribable flavor. If that ain’t enough, nettles pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and are perhaps the vegetable with the highest protein content (10%).

At the risk of contradicting yesterday’s anti-media screed (After all, Marshall McLuhan once said, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.”), we’ll end with some links to an obscure sub-genre of youtube videos, nettle torture stunts. Mrs. Homegrown could drone on about the psycho-sexual implications of these clips, but that would be fodder for another blog. In the meantime, thanks again to Steve Rowell, here’s some nettling to fill your evening hours: here, here and here (just three of what may be hundreds).

A Close Shave Part IV

There are a few advantages to living in ugly old Los Angeles. Homegrown Revolution contributor Hairy Picfair, in an email commenting on our post about switching to an old-fashioned safety razor, reminded us that we can find replacement blades at Ross Cutlery, the shop where O.J. Simpson picked up a folding knife while shooting a commercial next door, just a month before the murder of his ex-wife. Ross Cutlery is located in the Bradbury Building where Rutger Hauer had his showdown with Harrison Ford in the thrilling conclusion of Blade Runner. Celebrity gossip aside, cutlery shops are a promising place to find alternative shaving supplies.

Mark, another HGR reader, writes to ask about alternatives to shaving creams. We’ve been testing out Colonel Conk Products’ Almond Shave Soap with a cheap shaving brush. So far we’re happy with this product and while we’re disappointed that neither the container nor Colonel Conk’s website lists the ingredients, we’ve sent a letter to the company to see if they will let us know what is in the soap. We’ll report back when we find out.

Lastly, fellow bloggist and Starcrash scholar Doug Harvey writes to suggest a visit to a traditional barber for a professional straight-edge blade experience. We used to do this until a friend of ours started cutting our hair in exchange for lunches at pupusa joints. Perhaps we can get our volunteer hairstylist to take up the blade if we switch to three martini lunches at swankier digs.

To our international readers we apologize for the O.J. and pupusa references in this LA-centric post and we send our condolences to those about to undergo that thing called winter . . .


A Close Shave Part III

Kurt Cobain once said, “The only way I would wear a tye-died T-shirt would be if it were soaked in the blood of Jerry Garcia.” Being born around the same year as Cobain, our generational bias prevents us from donning tie-dye, friendship bracelets, or sandals. It also prevents us from cultivating a flowing beard, leaving us desperately hooked on shaving products.

As the alleged developer of the “loss-leader” business strategy King Gillette figured out that if you sold folks a cheap razor handle customers would have to come back for disposable razors for which you could charge an exorbitant price. Like desperate crack addicts we’ve been patronizing Gillette for years, plopping down ever more ridiculous sums for the latest “Mach-whatever” plastic multi-blade gimmick.

We finally decided to opt out of the Gillette trap and order up a retro safety razor from Lehmans. Here’s a comparison of costs:

Gillette Mach 3: four blades for $10.59 or $2.64 a blade
Package of double-edged, stainless steel blades: ten blades for 4.95 or 49 cents a blade.

So far so good, but there’s a catch. The fine folks at Gillette are a monopoly, as rapacious as the rail barons of the 19th century and completely dominate the shaving products industry. In a practice known as “slotting” large companies pay fees, sometimes as high as $25,000 per item, to reserve space on supermarket shelves and essentially eliminate the competition. The supermarket I checked did not have any blades other than Gillette–not even even Schick, and certainly not old-fashioned safety razors. So it appears that we may have to mail order replacement blades, and with shipping fees this will make the traditional safety razor gambit less appealing.

But we’re stubborn and just can’t give Gillette, now owned by Proctor and Gamble, any more of our money. The real way out of this dilemma is to take up the even more traditional straight razor but we’ve been warned about the learning curve on that strategy, not to mention the need to keep the blade sharp. Opinions dear readers? Any straight-edged razor types out there?

Looking for the Union Label

We’ve got a bad case of Ohrwurm, a German expression translated as “earworm” and used to describe a song stuck in your head. Our earworm came after a search for union made socks and underwear on the internets recalled a highly catchy ad jingle from the roller disco era, “Look for the Union Label” (youngsters can watch it on youtube here).

We looked for the union label and we were surprised to find it via a company called Union House which carries a functional, if unexciting line of apparel. Unless hipsters take to golf shirts in an ironic fashion judo move, these offerings will never be cool like the domestically made clothes made by the union busting folks over at American Apparel. The socks and underwear we ordered from Union House arrived promptly and are of superior quality. Homegrown Revolution hecklers will, no doubt, shout us down for not sewing our own underwear and socks, but we’ll save our time for more complicated sewing projects such as the shirt we sewed a few years ago.

We’ve all got a lot of moral geometry to perform in this globalized world–the keyboard we’re tapping this missive out on was assembled in Malaysia by workers who, it’s safe to say, probably don’t toil in the best of conditions. But, taking out the moral ruler, we’ve got to draw a line somewhere and last week that was with the clothing we chose. It’s better to mark that line somewhere than not to mark it at all.

Though we prefer this more soulful rendition, we feel the need to spread the earworm around and here’s another version of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union song (with a few inexplicable bleeps):

Bubble Wrap Your Windows


Photo by Nick Lowe

From the remarkable folks at Build It Solar comes this heating conservation tip – bubble wrap your windows. Simply cut sheets of bubble wrap to fit your windows, apply some water with a spray bottle and before it dries stick the bubble wrap on the glass. While you can buy special bubble wrap designed for greenhouses, according to Build It Solar, regular bubble wrap will probably work just as well. If you number the pieces you use, you can stick it up again next year.

Bubble wrapping the windows cuts down on visibility, so it’s a strategy best left to back rooms of your house or apartment. Of course, LA’s so ugly it may not matter . . .

Airing Our Dirty Laundry

Let’s face it folks, clothes dryers suck and even Martha Stewart agrees with SurviveLA that the way to go is the old-fashioned clothes line. SurviveLA put a retractable line up in the back yard this week to replace our hated Kenmore dryer. May the bastards at Sears suffer Pharaoh’s plagues sprinkled with Job’s scabies for designing this ugly, awkward and inelegant machine. Besides, with the blazing hot sun of Los Angeles, it makes perfect sense to use our region’s free solar power.

So why air dry? Let’s do the math. Assuming our (gas powered) dryer uses an average of .22 therms of natural gas per load at our gas company Sempra Energy’s August rate of 59 cents per therm, by using our clothes line we achieve the admittedly not too impressive savings of 17 cents per load. If we had an electric dryer we figure that the cost would be about 44 cents per load if the dryer consumed four kilowatts for a 45 minute spin. And remember that when you use electricity in Los Angeles, thanks to the Department of Water and Power, you are burning coal in Utah.

Now we would continue with the math, but that would involve amortizing the cost of the dryer and math is a shaky subject for us. Suffice to say, that gas is not the only cost. We think the greatest savings over time may be that air drying is simply better for our clothes. Besides, it’s another excuse to get outside and get in touch with the natural world i.e. the weather.

For those folks pressed for time and unable to enjoy the blessed idleness that pervades the SurviveLA compound, another drying alternative exists — the Spin X dryer. Made by the Krauts, this thing is sort of like those small spinning machines you stick your bathing suit into at the swimming pool. The Spin X spins at 3,300 rpm, and according to the manufacturer will remove 50% of the moisture of a ten pound load in three minutes. You will still need to air dry your clothes after they come out of this thing. The Spin X might be a good option for apartment homesteaders as it just hooks up to a regular 110 outlet and does not need a drain line. Water from the clothes is sent out the front of the unit into a small container that you must empty. A Spin X will set you back $469.

No discussion of dryers would be complete without mentioning the recent scandal in Britain wherein three bored firemen nearly lost their jobs for filming a member of their department taking a ride in a dryer. A hearing ensued and the firemen involved in the incident had to issue an apology, “We recognize that our behaviour was totally irresponsible and we are genuinely ashamed and would stress that no one should try to copy the stupid act.” For the idle out there you can watch the video here. Just don’t try this stunt in the Spin X, as the manufacturer also promises “1,340 G forces”.