LA’s Parkway Garden Dilemma: Not Fixed Yet

parkway garden on Sunset Blvd.

A parkway vegetable garden on Sunset Blvd..

The City of Los Angeles’ crackdown on parkway vegetable gardens made international news thanks to an article by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez was reporting on two parkway gardens that were issued citations by the LA Bureau of Street Services. This crackdown came two years after Ron Finley was busted for being a vegetable gardening outlaw.

Over the weekend I started seeing articles, Tweets and Facebook posts (some of which I’m guilty of spreading) stating that the city council had approved parkway vegetable gardens. This is not technically correct. The city council has just suspended enforcement of parkway planting regulations while they await a report from the Bureau of Street Services.

While I suspect the council will ultimately allow vegetables in the parkway (it’s political suicide to oppose healthy food, after all), we also have to remember that the devil is in the details. I’m willing to bet that the Bureau of Street Services will allow “edible” plants but leave in place their short list of ornamentals as well as their requirement to keep those ornamentals mowed unless you apply for an expensive permit.

While I’m all for vegetable in the parkway, I also think that the city should be encouraging the planting of native and Mediterranean plants. My advice for the Bureau of Street Services for their new regulations:

  • Consult the community: activists, landscape architects, non-profits and individuals like Ron Finley. If you had done this the last time we would not be wasting time and money to re-craft the parkway regulations.
  • Throw out your plant lists. There are a lot of species of plants on the planet! Why can I plant Achillea millefolium but not Danthonia californica?
  • Avoiding plant lists also goes for using the word “edible.” Most “weeds” are edible. Marijuana is edible (but would probably not last long in the parkway!). A lot of plants are “edible” but not necessarily something you’d want to eat. If a neighbor complains about my set of parkway plants can I just make a salad to prove they are “edible?”
  • Allow growing plants over 4-inches without permit fees. If plants are not allowed to go to flower they have little benefit to pollinating insects and birds. And we don’t need more lawn mowers and leaf blowers in this city.
  • Get rid of the permit fees. Why should someone be charged to do the right thing, i.e. plant an attractive set of either edible or drought tolerant plants? There’s currently no permit fee to plant a water hungry lawn that needs to be “mowed and blowed” every week.

It gets down to the simple fact that a human being has to decide what is a “nuisance.” Untended Bermuda grass with a couch and busted up bookcase: that’s a nuisance. But you can’t specify in the municipal code what a garden should look like. All you can do is offer suggestions. To that end I would suggest that the Bureau of Street Services collaborate with the community to come up with a web site showing some good examples. But, again, let’s back off on the lists and permit fees.

And a suggestion for those of us on the receiving end of these future regulations. We have to pay careful attention to what they are crafting. If we don’t like it we need to press back. If the city council goes ahead with another set of ridiculous guidelines we need to actively ignore them. That is, if they let us plant edibles but not drought tolerant plants without a permit, we need to plant a lot of drought tolerant plants until they realize that our neighborhoods belong to us, not the paper pushers in City Hall.

And if you haven’t seen Finley’s Ted Talk yet, please get with the program.

Before and After Permaculture

suzzanebackyard

An aspirational alternative to the future of jetpacks and space colonies I blogged about yesterday, came to me via the folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead. Noting that I said I was going to sit in on Larry Santoyo’s Permaculture Design Course (PDC), Suzanne of Petaluma Urban Homestead sent me before and after photos of her backyard saying, “This is what happened after I took my PDC!”

Horticultists

Screen shot 2013-08-13 at 8.08.58 PM

Michael Tortorello has written another great article for the New York Times, “Marriage is Yard Work.” The article details the San Diego garden of Ryan Benoit and his wife Chantal Aida Gordon. The two have created a DIY oasis worthy of dwell magazine. What’s noteworthy about this couple’s garden is that neither of them are professionals, the hardscaping is done largely with salvaged materials and it’s all portable since they are renters not homeowners.

Benoit and Gordon also have a blog I’m looking forward to following at thehorticult.com.

Cat Litter Compost, Installment #3

troutsitting

No, our cats aren’t privileged or anything.

A gentle reader reminds us that it’s been too long since we updated you all on the cat litter compost.

For background, see Installment One and Installment Two

Long story short, cat litter composting can work (under the care of an experienced composter, mind), especially in conjunction with a worm bin–but I’ve found a method I like better.

On the composting experiment:

In our last episode of Cat Box Madness, I discovered my kitty litter wasn’t breaking down very quickly, so I added nitrogen to the mix. That seemed to work well. All except the first 7 inches or so is really nicely broken down all the way through. I still wouldn’t put it as it is anywhere near food crops, even though it is two years old, just to be safe.

To make it extra safe — and useful — I’ve been letting the worms have at it. I’m using it as part of the mix that forms the worm bedding, so cat poo will become worm poo and the garden will be delighted.

That’s how I plan to dispose of all of it, bit by bit. If I didn’t have the worm bin, I’d call it done and spread it under fruit trees or ornamental plantings.

Lessons Learned:

1) Make sure your pile is accessible and easy to turn. Due to lack of yard space, I put my litter in a 50 gallon drum in a narrow, hard-to-access–and hot!–side yard. This meant I never wanted to tend it, and when I forced myself out there, I was pretty unhappy. There wasn’t even enough room to wield a shovel comfortably.

2) A big pile is a good pile. While I made this work in a 50 gallon drum, the best compost comes from a bin which is about 1 cubic meter/yard in size. Smaller bins just don’t heat up sufficiently, and are invariably pokey and hard to work with. If you want to do this, do it big.

3) Careful with the litter you choose. Not many litters make the grade. You can’t use clay litter, or any litter made with deodorants or coloring or “magic crystals” or tiny unicorns. It must be made of 100% plant based material. I approve of both World’s Best and S’wheat Scoop. Pine pellet litter, like Feline Pine, is much less expensive than the clumping brands, and suitably plant based, but under ordinary circumstances, since its not scoopable, you have to dump the whole tray rather often, which leads to a fast build up of material. If you have room for it, this might be okay.  (I’ll have more to say about pine litter further down, though.)

4) You have to add extra nitrogen to your pile to make it work. Even though it’s plenty stinky, the nitrogen present in cat waste can’t balance the heavy carbon loads of the litter by itself.

(Note: You should be an experienced composter before you try composting cat litter, as I’ve warned before, and so you will of course know what I mean by all this talk of carbon and nitrogen–but for those of you who are incorrigible, or simply curious, nitrogen sources you might add to your pile include urine, natural seed meal fertilizers, dried alfalfa, fresh grass clippings and other plant material, fresh chicken, horse, or cow manure, and vegetable trimmings.)

Other than those caveats, cat litter composting works pretty much like regular composting. Keep the pile moist. Keep an eye on it, fix it as necessary. Let it sit for two years at least before you spread it. And then spread it around non-edible plants, or under fruit trees. The fruit trees won’t uptake anything nasty.

It’s totally do-able and I’d do it again. But I’d rather do it again in a larger yard, where I could have a big, accessible compost bin. So now I’m doing something new.

Continue reading…

Stencils as Garden Art

senecastencil

Seneca has a posse.

I’ve been looking at a lot of garden design books lately. These books always contain a photo illustrating the concept of the focus point, which is inevitably an 18th century marble bust of some ancient deity. Try to source one of those busts from your local big box store or Amazon and you’ll find some really scary stuff.

I can’t afford those 18th century busts, so I decided to try a two dimensional alternative: stencils. Above is my first primitive attempt–Seneca, spray painted on a chunk of concrete and propped up against a palm tree in the parkway.

A blog post over at Green Roof Growers alerted me to the far more impressive stencils of San Francisco street artist Jeremy Novy:

Photo by Dawn Endico

Photo by Dawn Endico.

Green Roof Grower Bruce was inspired by Novy’s work to make his own koi stencils on the sidewalk in front of his house. Now if enough of us adorn these edge spaces (in a neighborly fashion, of course) perhaps we’ll be able to reclaim our streets from the distant bureaucrats who hassle us over our parkway gardens. It’s precisely the kind of intervention on the permacultural “edge” that Mark Lakeman of Portland City Repair talks about.

So let’s make some stencils! Here’s how I do it:

Image processing
First step is to find a suitable image. This tutorial shows you how to use Photoshop to make your stencil.

Materials and tools
I used acetate, but it’s expensive. Bruce used old manilla folders. A cheaper alternative is freezer paper. I cut my stencil using an exacto knife.

Painting
First I spray the surface I’m stenciling with some Krylon Easy-Tack. This temporarily holds the stencil down. The rest is easy-peasy and the stencil can be used many times.

My next stencil will be a three color stencil. Here’s a tutorial on how to do this.