Can our landscapes model a vibrant future? Not according to the LA DWP.

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California is suffering from drought. In Los Angeles, we’ve experienced back to back two of the driest winters on record (winter is our rainy season). Last year’s rainfall total was under 6 inches. The governor has asked California residents to cut their water use by 20%.  Apparently, we’ve only managed to cut it by 5%.

There’s a strange sense of unreality about the drought. I think that’s because we’re just not feeling it in the cities. Our water is cheap, the taps are running, food prices aren’t terribly affected– yet.  So we keep washing our cars and hosing off the sidewalks and topping off our swimming pools and, of course, we water our lawns.

Lawns are a big liability in this region. I think they may not be such a crime in milder, wetter places where they grow happily (though there’s no getting around the fact that they are a sterile monoculture, not helpful to wildlife). But turf has no business whatsoever in the American southwest. It just doesn’t want to grow in this climate–which is why it’s always doing its level best to die. Here, our lawns live on life support.

There has been some movement toward lawn-free yards in the past several years, but the movement seems stalled. I’d expect to see more lawns being ripped out recently due to the drought, but I haven’t seen much activity in that direction, despite the fact the Department of Water and Power will actually pay Angelinos to remove their turf.

We hold onto our lawns, I think, because it is so hard to think beyond the lawn.

The average property owner is not a landscaper, nor a plant expert, and they have lots of other things to think about. The default setting of a lawn plus a few shrubs up around the house foundation takes no thought, causes no problems with the neighbors and is easily maintained by inexpensive gardening services. What’s not to love, really? And why not hold on to our lawns, because the drought will pass and we’ll be back to normal.

Asking people to re-imagine their yards is asking a lot. Yet it may be vital.

This drought may not end. Los Angeles and all of the southwest are looking at a hotter, drier present and future due to climate change. And regardless of water availability it would be a great service to nature, to our embattled birds and bees and small critters, to make our yards beautiful, changeable, welcoming sanctuaries. It would also be a gift to our own souls. Yards can be healing spaces.

To re-imagine our yards, we need to see examples of yards which work on a different paradigm, and we need to see so many of them that they become part of our shared visual vocabulary.

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Sorry about the dim photo–the sun was setting–but I think it gives the general idea.

This brings me to the new landscaping at our local Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) distributing station. I believe it used to have a typical sickly lawn in front of it, but last time I was in the neighborhood I saw it had been rejiggered to be a low water use landscape. And that’s good…really…a great idea, guys.  But…

The new landscape is mostly artificial turf, with a few swathes of D.G. and a strip of purple gravel mulch running along the foundation, and that gravel is studded with strangely trampled looking agave-ish plants, and a couple of random bougainvillea.

What goes on here? What is in your head, DWP? And how much did you pay for this redesign?

The artificial turf is particularly insidious because it seems to be a placeholder for better days when we can all go back to watering our lawns into emerald brilliance. We need to say goodbye to the lawn for good, write it off like a bad boyfriend.

And the purple gravel… I just don’t know what to say.

Note that the design consists of a lawn and foundation plantings. It’s the same old uninspired model, repeated on the institutional scale.

I suspect this landscaping will have some fans because it is “tidy” and “low maintenance.” True. It is also devoid of life and actively hostile to nature. Landscapes speak. This one denies our relationship with the natural world and declares any actual engagement with nature to be too much trouble. No doubt they’d replace those sickly plants with synthetics if they didn’t suspect they’d all get stolen in the night.

This is not the kind of model we need, DWP.

Next time you change up your landscaping, consider consulting one or more of the many brilliant plant people and designers in this city. Call us if you need numbers.

Consider using permeable surfaces and contoured landscaping to capture every drop of our rare rainfall and send it down to the thirsty soil. Show us how to use native and Mediterranean plants to make lush landscapes that call in the pollinators. Help us create landscapes we want to walk through and live in. Model this kind of smart landscaping for us, please.

Water-wise and ugly do not have to be synonymous.

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Some of the views remind me of something that might appear in an LA art installation. Which, all in all, is not praise.

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?

Hipster Compost

An updated, urban version of the soil food web.

An updated, urban version of the soil food web.

In the nearly sixteen years we’ve lived here we’ve seen our local stretch of Sunset Boulevard go from boarded up storefronts and auto body shops to restaurants, bars and cafes. Along with those new businesses and artisinal facial hair, comes a great new set of compost sources.

Some of my enterprising neighbors, one in particular, have been creating what could be called hipster compost or, at least, compost made from hipster sources. Interestingly these materials are often very high in nitrogen:

  • brew waste from a local brewery
  • coffee grounds
  • fruit pulp from a juice bar
  • coconut shells

My handy neighbor Ray has been shredding the coconut shells in his chipper to make a homebrew coir. Ray is also very consistent in picking up materials, something business owners appreciate.

Other than obvious sources such as yard waste and grass clippings, have you found a useful urban compost source? What did I leave out?

Is Purslane the New Kale?

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Salty, crunchy, nutritious and edible raw or cooked, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) could soon be ready for its fifteen minutes of vegetable fame. We planted some this year in our summer vegetable garden and I’ve used it in a lot of salads this week.

Purslane is a common weed in North America. We’d love to be able to forage it in the neighborhood but, for some reason, it only tends to appear in unappetizing locations: usually the gutter (I think it needs a bit more water than what falls naturally from the sky here). You can eat the whole plant: stems and leaves. It has a salty and slightly lemony flavor reminiscent of New Zealand spinach.

There’s always a huge bin of it at Super King, our local Armenian supermarket. In Armenia it’s gathered in the wild and used either raw in salads or lightly sauteed.

There’s even a World Cup tie-in. The color of the plant in South America is associated with green/white soccer uniforms.

Have you grown purslane? Foraged purslane? How do you like to eat it?

005 Amy and Vince of Tenth Acre Farm

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Image: tenthacrefarm.com

In the fifth episode of the Root Simple Podcast we talk to Amy and Vince Stross of Tenth Acre Farm in Cincinnati, Ohio.

We begin with the story of why Amy quit her job and how she began to radically transform their yard. Some of the first work they did involved constructing berms and swales in the front yard, the only part of their property that gets enough sun to grow edibles. Amy and Vince describe the trial and error process they went through to perfect this water harvesting system.

We also discuss the beautiful result you see above–a front yard that combines edibles as well as flowers that both please the neighbors and provide habitat for beneficial insects. The magic extends out into the parkway which is planted with a cherry tree guild.

Amy and Vince go on to discuss how belonging to a CSA inspired them to cook from scratch and learn how to preserve food. This knowledge came in handy once their garden got really productive. Amy shares why buying a pressure canner is a good investment.

We talked to Vince about his post on making a non-electric mason jar vacuum sealer with an automotive brake bleeder. This is a cool and low cost alternative to the electric Food Saver vacuum sealer.

And Amy discussed her provocative post on why they don’t keep chickens.

According to Amy, homesteading is “more of a marathon than a sprint.” They are in it for the long hall.

We conclude by having Vince and Amy answer a Listener question about living a sustainable life in a cold climate (something we know nothing about!). Amy mentions growing fruit trees and freezing fruit in one pound packages. Canning projects then take place in the winter when heating up the kitchen also heats the house. Vince talks about growing greens year round and references the books of Elliot Coleman.

You can visit their blog at tenthacrefarm.com. Amy also does a newsletter (see the sidebar on their website). When you sign up for you’ll get a free ebook describing a little more about all the amazing things they are up to. We could have chatted for hours.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store. Note that it takes a few hours for the new episode to show up in iTunes.

LA ecovillage: self-reliance in a car-free urban homestead

Johnny, who shot that nice video of us for faircompanies.com just made another video about our friends at the LA ecovillage. It’s well worth a view. Some of the most amazing folks in Los Angeles live there. And I like that fact that’s it’s an ecovillage smack dab in the middle of my beloved hometown.

Make sure to also check out Johnny’s blog Granola Shotgun.

Pakistan Mulberry Fever

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Let me just say Pakistan mulberries. Now let me say it again. Pakistan Mulberries.  Let’s all repeat that as a mantra.

What are they? The tastiest fruit in the know universe. Imagine a longish, very sweet but ever so slightly exotic tasting berry. The problem: they go bad so fast that you practically have to eat them off the tree. The other problem: we have no more room left to grow a Pakistan mulberry tree. Thankfully fruit tree guru Steve Hofvendahl sold me two small strawberry cartons full of them over the weekend.

Now I need a regular Pakistani mulberry fix. If I wanted to plant one Bay Laurel Nursery has several varieties. It’s mostly a warm climate plant but some varieties do better in lower temperatures.

Here’s what Steve had to say about his six year old tree which he thinks is the “Cooke” variety:

It has totally thrived and become huge.  I have to top back huge vertical branches every year after harvest season and tie limbs down laterally.
And the harvest goes on and on and is not easy, you cannot shake the tree without bringing down loads of green fruit and stubborn ripe berries won’t fall.  You have to hand pick and it takes about 2-3 hours of combing over the tree from all the different angles with the orchard ladder.
Then I soak ‘em in a vinegar water solution and rinse and lay in flats refrigerated and finally weigh the good ones up, the not so good ones get made into delicious juice for jellies and my Jamalade with cumquats and/or habanero.
So it would probably maybe still be worth it to you but know what you are maybe getting into!

Again, the taste is so amazing that if I had the room I’d say it’s worth the hassle of harvesting.

Note from Mrs. Homegrown:  I wanted to add that the odd things about these mulberries is that they have a green stem which runs all the way through the center of the fruit, so when you eat them your sort  of scrape the fruit (drupes?) off the stem with your teeth, then discard it. Not that this is a problem–they’re delicious! I guess the stem is necessary to support their length.

Adopt an Indigo Plant in Los Angeles

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Artist Graham Keegan is crowd sourcing an indigo project here in Los Angeles. You can help out by adopting indigo seedlings and growing them out–then harvesting the leaves and joining the other growers for a couple of indigo dyeing fiestas.

We realize this is a highly local post, but it’s a great idea, and we hope it might inspire some of you to do group growing/harvesting projects in your hometowns.

Here’s the 411 from his website, grahamkeegan.com:

Indigo pigment grows naturally in the leaves of a large number of plant species from around the world. This plant, Persecaria Tinctoria, also know as Polygonum Tinctorum, has been a staple source of blue in East Asia for millennia. It is known for being relatively easy to grow. All it needs is lots of sunshine, plenty of water, and some food.

indigo seedlings persecaria tinctoria graham keegan

As an experiment, I’ve germinated a bunch of indigo seeds and want to get the seedlings into as many people’s hands as possible! I hope to spread the wonder about the fact that color can be grown, to raise the consciousness of humanity’s original sources of pigment, and to get people to exercise their thumbs, green or otherwise!

The pigment can be extracted from the mature leaves and used to dye all types of natural fibers. As the season goes on, I’ll be posting harvest and processing instructions, as well as invitations to two separate harvest parties where we pool our collective leaves and do some dyeing!

These seedlings will be available for pickup from my workshop in Silver Lake (Los Angeles, CA) from June 6-8, 2014 (10 AM – 2 PM Daily). They will be ready to be (and should be) transplanted ASAP. I will also have a limited number of growing kits available for purchase for apartment dwellers that will include a suitable pot, soil, and plant food ($12) There is no charge to adopt an indigo seedling. However you must sign the pledge poster to properly care for your plant in order to receive your indigo seedling. You will also receive a copy of the poster to hang in a prominent place in your home, lest you forget about your little baby!

There are a limited number of seedlings available. Please reserve yours by filling out the form below.

For those of you not able to pick up a seedling here in Los Angeles, I am willing to experiment with shipping them directly to you in the mail for the cost of postage. I have zero real world experience with this but have been reading up on the process and believe that it is possible. There is no guarantee that the plants will arrive alive, but I’ll do all that I can on my end to ensure safe travel!

Remember, this is an experiment! If we fail this year, we’ll try again next year!

Please grow along with me!

Graham

We’re going to participate. If you want to, be sure to fill out the form at his website (linked above), and do so soon, because there are only so many seedlings. And make sure to check out Graham’s work and shibori dye workshops.

Direct Seeding vs. Transplants

How I used to plant my veggies.

How I used to plant my veggies. An 8 inch spacing guide and some seedlings back in 2009.

To direct sow or transplant, that is the question. I’m as indecisive as Hamlet when it comes to this question. Some caveats here: we live in a warm climate where you can direct sow almost anything unless you want to get an early start on tomatoes and peppers. And we don’t have to start seedlings indoors.

Another thing to note–I fell under the spell of John Jeavons and even took his class up in Willits a few years back. Jeavons transplants everything. One of the best vegetable gardens I ever grew was done following his instructions to the letter. But I’m not big on double digging, nor do I look forward to the twice a year transplanting chores.

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Look what’s growing in the new raised beds–nada!

This year I tried to direct sow the summer garden instead of growing trays of seedlings and I have to say I’m not getting good results. A week of temperatures over 100° F didn’t help. Nor did the long delay getting the vegetable garden planted while I attempted to evict skunks from the backyard. I know I sound like the president of an excuse factory. Let’s just say it’s good that we’re not trying to subsist on our home grown produce.

My conclusion? I’m going to have to go back to sowing seeds in flats and transplanting them out in the garden. It may not be the best practice from a horticultural perspective, but in terms of my own personality and the quirks of our little yard, it may still be the best option.

Dear readers, where do you come down on this question? Do you sow direct or do you transplant? How does your climate influence this decision?