Kickstart the North Memphis Farmers Collective

Of the many vegetable gardens that sprung up in the wake of the 2008 econopocalypse, more than a few touched off neighborhood aesthetic disputes and visits from code enforcement officials. One such tempest involved Adam Guerrero, a high school math teacher in Memphis whose garden got him in trouble in 2011 (and whose cat allegedly damaged a neighbor’s 1991 Cadillac Seville–the horrors!).

As often is the case in these stories, there’s a happy ending. What began in one yard has grown into an urban farming movement transforming vacant lots into sources of food and jobs. There’s a Kickstarter:

The City of Memphis faces many challenges. Among them are blighted vacant lots, food deserts, health challenges, and unemployment. North Memphis Farmer’s Collective seeks to take these challenges and turn them into solutions by using what others see as waste as the fertilizer for vacant lots, thereby turning decay and blight into blossoming Urban Farms.

As we expand, we need the use of a tractor, chainsaw, wood chipper, other heavy equipment and garden tools to scale our operation and offer more naturally grown healthy local produce.  Currently our Collective grows fruits and vegetables by hand on over four acres of vacant property.

They have just seven days to go towards their $10,000 goal.

Our Grape Arbor is a Stacking Function Fail

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Grapes on an arbor over patio furniture: what could possibly go wrong? It’s the very embodiment of the permacultural notion of “stacking functions.” The grapes provide both shade and food. The fantasy was to spend the summers like a Roman emperor, reclining on a couch and occasionally reaching up to grasp a succulent cluster of grapes.

Let me, however, add a few a few unsavory slices to this permacultural sandwich (in addition to the delusions of grandeur): rats, mice and squirrels. All day and night hungry mammals rain down half chewed grapes. And the freak rain over the weekend, combined with a few days of heat and humidity, got some very funky fermentation going. It’s like something out of my inner Martha Stewart’s worst nightmare.

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A poster by Benjamin Dewey. Available in his Etsy store.

I wish I had a conclusion to this post with a miraculous solution, like say specially trained roof Chihuahuas. I don’t. I do wish that the non-fruit producing Vitis californica vine that grows along our northern fence could be swapped with the prodigious one on the arbor. If fruit grew on the fence vine I could more easily net or cage it, or it least thin it out without having to move a ladder and patio furniture around.

As always, I’m open to reader suggestions or just commiseration . . .

Emily, We’ll Miss You

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Baltimore, you are about to receive a gifted writer and journalist. Los Angeles, we’re losing Emily Green.

Green was on episode 20 of our podcast to discuss how to shift the mow, blow and go landscaping paradigm here in LA. Green wrote often about this problem as well as the consequences of climate change in our region. She’s was unafraid to take on LA’s corrupt and hypocritical politicians. Her voice here will be missed and there’s no replacement.

I hope she’ll keep up her blog Chance of Rain. If you haven’t visited lately, you should check out her excellent twelve part series, After the Lawn.

LA Observed has a tribute to Green, Goodbye to all this.

051 Toilets and Poultry

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On episode 51 we listen to a comment about toilets from Eric Rochow of Garden Fork TV. Eric mentions a podcast episode of Tiny House Chat where they talk about composting toilets. Then we discuss poultry biosecurity lessons that “West Coast” Erik learned at a recent conference. So, yes, toilets and poultry! Take that Elon Musk!

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

How do I keep squirrels and rats from eating my grapes?

My beautiful picture

I’m running an experiment this summer on our grape arbor. Using our CritterCam, I’ve photographed both squirrels and rats munching on grapes. I decided to see if either paper bags or plastic clamshell containers would deter the daily and nightly mammalian fruit buffet. Preliminary results:

  • Clamshells don’t work. The fruit fermented, and not in a nice way.
  • Paper bags seem to work, but probably only because I left a lot of the fruit exposed in the hopes that they would eat that first and leave the bagged fruit alone. It’s also hard to tell when the fruit is ripe when it’s in a paper bag.

I’m thinking the long term answer is to make custom fruit cages out of hardware cloth. If the grapes were neatly tended on a vine it would be much easier to net them. Netting is not an option on our arbor.

Look carefully in this image and you can see one of the “perps” reaching out to grab a tasty grape:

My beautiful picture

Have you tackled the mammalian grape buffet issue? How did you deal with it?

So Cal Alert: Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer

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Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer, from UC Riverside’s Eskalen Lab

Seems the greater LA area is ground zero for the introduction of yet another exotic beetle which is killing our our beautiful native oaks and sycamores, our landscape trees, even our beloved avocado trees.

The good news is that the fungal disease propagated by the beetle can be treated if detected early. You’ll need the services of a professional arborist, but the cost of treatment will likely be less than the cost of tearing out a mature tree.

Look at this link to UC Riverside’s Eskalen Lab. Here they have several PDFs on identifying and treating the disease. They also have a map showing the spread of the disease. Of course, these are only reported infections–it could be much more widely spread.

(Note: a separate invasion was recently detected in the commercial avocado groves of San Diego county, so folks further south should be on alert too.)

Continue reading…

Of paper wasps and scrub jays

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Another wasp colony, this one on our shed, probably related to the destroyed colony.  It’s a little blurry because I had no desire to get up in their business to take a better photo.

Stinging insects tend to send people into panic, especially if they’re yellow and black striped. After years of keeping bees, we’ve come to learn that many people can’t distinguish a honey bee from a yellow jacket from a wasp–and we won’t even start on the native bees. Yet it pays to be able to do so, because each is quite different, and we can interact peaceably with all of them if we know their ways.

Paper wasps, also called umbrella wasps, are those guys who build smallish, open celled nests in protected places, often the eaves of your house. Wasp stings are quite painful, but few people know that these wasps rarely  attack unless provoked. More, they are very beneficial in the garden, because they prey on insects which damage plants. So when they build nests under our eaves, we leave them alone, and never have any problems.

But keep in mind that they do have excellent facial recognition abilities, so if you ever hassle them (say with a hose set to the jet setting) they may not forget you so quickly.

With wasps, it pays to be diplomatic.

Unless you are a scrub jay.

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Western scrub jay, courtesy Wikimedia

I saw this amazing drama earlier this week. I wish I could have captured it on film. We had a small wasp nest in the corner of our patio roof. From my place on the living room sofa, I could see this corner through the front door. One fine morning a bold western scrub jay came to rest on our porch railing, then swooped upward and plucked a wasp off the nest and gobbled it up.

I was very impressed. I had no idea they ate wasps.

She ate a second wasp, delicately picking it apart on the railing, looking very self-satisfied. I thought the show was over, but it turns out she was just enjoying appetizers, because next she launched up and took the entire nest in her beak–random wasps still attached– and flapped off with it into the clear blue sky. Perhaps to enjoy the creamy center in privacy–or perhaps to feed her babies?

One wasp returned to sit forlornly in the place where the nest used to be.

I don’t often use the term bad ass, but that was bad ass.

And the moral? If you don’t want paper wasps in your eaves, do your best to attract birds to your yard. Especially brassy thieves like jays.

Here is a little bit more on paper wasps from the ever-useful Xerces society.

Extreme Measures: Squirrel Proofing Your Fruit Trees

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this fruit tree cage that Kelly spotted on the Theordore Payne garden tour this spring (see some more images of that lovely Altadena garden here). Squirrels just stripped our peach tree of every single fruit (though I’ve found that I can still eat the half-gnawed ones I find on the ground). Other options I’ve considered:

  • Bird netting. But this stuff is a real pain to work with. And it doesn’t always work. Squirrels are persistent!
  • Removing fruit and ripening it indoors. I did this last year with some success, but I was not on top of the situation this year.
  • Squirrel stew. I just don’t have the heart for this option.

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Robert Irwin, “Two Running Violet V Forms, UCSD” photo by Tktktk – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I think there’s a way to make aesthetically pleasing fruit tree cages. Crazy idea: what if they were as carefully crafted as Robert Irwin’s running fence piece at UC San Diego? It’s too late to fence the trees in our own garden, but I think if I were planning a new garden I might try to find a way to make those fruit tree cages look like 70s era land art.

How do you deal with the squirrel/fruit tree menace?

The Wonder of Worms

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[Another entry in the Back to the Garden series, which you can access by clicking the tag of the same name to the left.]

As I’ve been saying for the last couple of weeks, the key characteristic of the loving landscape is healthy, living soils which foster plant and animal health without artificial inputs. Compost, mulch and worms form the holy trinity of organic soil health.

Compost and mulch we’ve covered. Today I want to talk about worms, both worms in the wild and worms in your house.

Odd facts: Did you know there are about 4,300 species of earthworms world-wide? Did you know that the Australian Giant Gippsland earthworm can grow to be 3 meters (9.8 feet) in length? Shai-Hulud! I’ve also seen references to a 22 foot (6.7 meter) long worm discovered in South Africa, but can find nothing substantial to back it up, and have decided that it’s an Internet myth. What I do know, though, is that I’m glad I don’t live under water with the sea worms.

But I digress. The real wonders of this world are invisible, or so humble as not to be noticed. Like saints of the soil, garden variety worms pass through the world quietly, leaving miracles in their wake.

Continue reading…