Row Covers in a Warm Climate

The aftermath of a skunk rampage.

Here’s an unintended organic gardening chain of events:

1. Scoop up multiple trash bags full of fruit scraps from Fallen Fruit’s jam making event at Machine Project.

2. Add this large bounty of organic material to the compost pile.

3. Watch as a bunch of beetle larvae hatch and devour the fruit and other goodies in the compost pile.

4. Sift compost and feed most of the larvae to a happy flock of hens.

5. Add compost to the vegetable garden.

6. Plant seedlings.

7. Wake up the next morning to find out that skunks have spent the night rampaging through the vegetable beds in search of the remaining grubs. Yell in frustration at the sight of all the uprooted seedlings that took a month to grow in flats.

Now I knew that skunks were a problem at our place, and I had covered the beds each night with some spare shade cloth to keep them out. But on this particular evening I had forgotten to cover the beds. PepĂ© le Peu had destroyed a month’s worth of work.

Setting about to find a solution, I considered everything from high powered weapons to peeing off the front porch to spreading batches of compost for the hens to pick through. Not wanting a visit from the LAPD, I settled on floating row covers, a light fabric that is used to exclude pests and protect plants from frost. Row covers would also take care of another persistent problem, cabbage worms. But here in USDA zone 10, where we have only occasional frosts, row covers have the potential to make growing conditions too warm. Thankfully I was able to get a roll of an extremely light row cover material called Agribon 15. Agribon makes a range of row covers in varying thicknesses. Agribon 15 is the lightest and is used mainly to exclude pesky insects. It has also worked with the skunks, who seem unwilling to poke through the flimsy fabric. Those of you in colder places should use a heavier cover to retain more heat.


I drilled holes in the corners of the beds and bent some scrap PVC pipe to create hoops to hold the row cloth above the plants. Agribon is so light that you can just put it on top of many plants without hoops.


Now I can sleep at night knowing that my beds are locked down in a kind of “vegetable Guantanamo”.


Johnny’s Seeds sells Agribon 15 in 250 foot rolls for $45. Seeds of Change sells it in 5o foot lengths for $26. It would make sense for most urban homesteaders go in with a few friends on a roll.

Watch a video on how to install row covers at Johnny’s Seeds.

Compost Field Trip

Homegrown Neighbor Here:

I recently had the opportunity to tour an industrial scale composting operation. I am a huge compost geek so I was pretty excited. I’ve seen a lot of piles in my day, but nothing like this. This facility, Community Recycling (a division of Crown Disposal), processes food scraps and organic wastes from most of the major grocery store chains in Southern California. They also collect food scraps from restaurants and other food vendors in the region as well as operate a recycling facility for metals, plastics, wood, paper, yard trimmings and anything else they can find a market for or a way to keep out of the landfill. I must say it was pretty impressive. But the most exciting part of course was the compost.

There were literally mountains of compost called windrows in rows perhaps twenty feet high by several hundred feet long. It’s a large scale operation with not just one windrow but dozens of them. And this is all stuff that otherwise would end up in landfills. Of course we should be composting all of our organic wastes close to home, but the sad truth is that a lot of this lovely organic material gets thrown away instead of returned to the earth. So I am glad that enterprises such as this exist.

When vegetables are going to go bad at the grocery store, they get tossed in a bin bound for these vast fields of degrading organic matter. The interesting part is that they get tossed in, plastic and all. There are bagged carrots, bagged salad mixes, plastic wrapped heads of cauliflower, all together. The compost windrows are just littered with plastic as you can see. Nothing like my backyard compost, where I would never allow any plastic or so much as a stray rubber band. On a commercial scale, they find it easier to sort the plastic out at the end of the composting process. Just how they do that, they won’t say–apparently it’s proprietary. But we got to drive around the hundreds of acres of compost and see the process for ourselves, start to finish. [Mr. Homegrown here: plastic combined with organics is one of the big problems in the world of municipal waste.]
The food waste is blended with wood chips or wood ‘fines’ as needed. Huge windrow machines straddle and churn the piles. They look like something out of Star Wars. Several months later the finished compost is sold to farmers. Community Recycling is a totally vertically integrated operation so of course they farm a little too–organic almonds, some row crops and some forage crops. That way, if they have too much compost on their hands at one time, they can always put it on their own land. The soil looked pretty good to me. I got to traipse around and get my hands in the earth. They also raise wild turkeys and other native birds to be released into the wild. It is part of a habitat and wildlife restoration project they are involved in.
This was better than any amusement park I’ve ever been too. I mean, they have compost, weird looking wild animals- yes, turkeys are very weird looking, organic almonds, a recycling facility and did I mention the mountains of compost? I’m pictured below, the happy queen of the compost heap.

Events in Los Angeles This Weekend: SIP Workshop and Maria’s Garden

Saturday (i.e. TODAY!)

On Saturday November 14th Kelly and I will be doing a Self Irrigating Pot (SIP) workshop in Westchester at 3 p.m. SIPs are a great way for folks in apartments to get into small scale vegetable gardening. Best of all the workshop is FREE FREE FREE! Here’s the location:

Playa Del Oro at 8601 Lincoln Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90045

Sunday

Anne Hars, who lives a few blocks from us, helped save another neighbor’s garden from a management company that wanted to remove it. Tomorrow, Sunday the 15th, Anne has organized a work party to tidy up the garden and she’s looking for volunteers and a few donations of pots, mulch and soil. The fun begins at 9 am at 421 North Coronado Street.

“This is a great opportunity to help a Senior Citizen in need and spend the day puttering around in the garden! We need people of all skill levels from beginners to experts. Landscape Designer Maggie Lobl has kindly worked out a design approach and will help co-ordinate activities.”

For more info see Anne’s website.

Humanure Happens

Simparch’s dry toilet located in Wendover Utah

From the 1806 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac,

“Four loads of earth mixed with one load of privy soil, will be equal to five loads of barnyard dung. Let it lie for several months and occasionally turn it over with a shovel, and it will be of use as manure.”

The editors of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2010,where I found that quote, deemed it necessary to tack on a disclaimer, “Human waste, as well as that of dogs and cats, is not recommended as manure for fertilizer today.” But after fielding a couple of calls from journalists interested in the subject of composting human waste, I’m thinking that humanure is about to get serious consideration again. After all, why waste a good source of nitrogen in the middle of a recession?

Simparch’s striking Clean Livin’ compound

All this is a long winded intro to get you all to check out two fine examples of dry sawdust-based toilets. First is the one at the top of this post, designed by a collective known as Simparch, and located on the historic Wendover Air Force Base on the Nevada-Utah border. The facilities are simple: a toilet seat sits atop a 55 gallon drum. Each time you use it you add some sawdust. After composting, you’ve got rich soil. But what makes the Simparch crapper so amazing is the view. From the throne you look out on a landscape so flat you can see the curvature of the earth, punctuated by munitions bunkers dating back to World War II. The toilet facilities are part of a self-sufficient living project they call “Clean Livin‘”.

It ain’t the moon but close: the view from the Simparch Clean Livin’ crapper

The second example, nicknamed the “crap-cedral”, is featured on Lloyd Kahn’s amazing blog. Built by someone with the improbable name of Birchbarkbobananda, the crap-cedral features intricate woodwork and an equally stunning location. What both of these dry toilet facilities prove is the siting possibilities that can happen when you can put your crapper wherever you damn well please. No sewer line means you can have a nice view!

Digital Farming- What’s The Deal?

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So here in the world of urban homesteading things can get pretty busy. We can become so preoccupied with work, chickens, vegetable gardening, cooking, cleaning, blogging duties and email that we can miss some of the things going on in the world. I do like to occasionally check in with the world at large by reading the newspaper. I just read an article that I have to comment on.

A recent New York Times article titled, ‘To Harvest Squash, Click Here,‘ introduced me to the world on online farming. Apparently people spend a lot of time “farming” on line. Twenty two million a day in fact, according to the article. There are several farming games on Facebook, Farmville being the most popular. You can get seeds to plant, watch your crops grow and then harvest them. Some people are so addicted that they are eschewing real life responsibilities and social obligations to harvest their virtual soybeans.
It is even suggested that the popularity of these farming games is indicative of a collective yearning for a more pastoral life. I’m not sure I get this. I spend all day outside in the dirt making things grow. At sundown, I lock up the chickens. Then I harvest something to make into dinner or on a special evening, I’ll make a big batch of jam or sauce and spend hours canning. I’d rather spend as little time online as possible.
I can’t wrap my head around how a video game can in any way replicate the experience of farming. I may be an urban dweller, but I get my satisfaction by getting real, not virtual, dirt under my fingernails. Can any one explain this trend to a clueless non-gamer like me?

Quince: the “Poster Child of Slowness”

Oops–I think they mean “quince

A year ago I planted a “Karp’s Sweet Quince” tree from Raintree Nursery and blogged about it, saying that I’d like to hear from fruit expert David Karp for whom the tree is named. Karp called me a few weeks ago to say that he was working on a quince article for the LA Times, “There’s a new taste for quince“. In the article Karp discusses varieties that can be eaten raw as well as how our Southern California climate is an ideal place to grow quince. Karp asked how my tree is doing and I had to say that it’s not doing all that well. In a fit of mad, rare fruit tree planting fever, I put it in a crappy location, in bad soil too close to a large prickly pear cactus that is probably competing with it. We’ll hope it does better in the next season.

Filling in for my lack of backyard quince, Homegrown Neighbor was nice enough to pop by with some she bought local Asian market. The label must have lost something in translation, but refers to a variety called “Pineapple quince”. Karp points out in his article that this is the most prevalent commercial variety. When picked fresh it could conceivably be eaten raw, though the commercial stuff ain’t fresh.

Quince is indeed, as one of Karp’s sources notes, “the poster child of slowness.” I tried to make some jelly with it and greatly underestimated how long it takes to cook. The jelly did not set, so I’ll have to try again. But the fruit did fill the entire house with a heavenly scent. Definitely a fruit worth slowing down for.

A Warning About Straw

Claude Monet used straw (or is that hay?) for art. We use straw to catch chicken droppings!

Straw is a very inexpensive and useful material for composting, mulching and animal bedding (we use it for all of these purposes). If you use it for mulch you’ll probably get some seeds that will germinate, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in a small vegetable garden. I get my straw from the feed store, but you can often get it for free from yuppies on Craigslist who have bought it to give their parties the Hee Haw ambiance we enjoy 24/7 at the Homgrown Evolution compound. If you buy it from the feed store remember to ask for straw, not hay. Hay is green and a lot more expensive. You feed hay to your horses.

But one warning from my friend, permaculturalist David Kahn. It’s tempting to pick up bales that stores have used after Halloween, but make sure they weren’t treated with fire retardant. Fire retardant has some nasty chemicals in it you don’t want in your garden. When in doubt, just go to the feed store–straw it ain’t expensive!

Addendum 10/27/09: Reader Polyparadigm raised another potential issue with using straw in your garden or compost pile: halogenated pesticide/herbacide residues. Clopyralid is an example–while banned for use in lawns in many places it’s still allowed on hay and grain crops . All the more reason to grow your own mulch and carbon materials if you can–don’t throw out those fall leaves! Here’s what Polyparadigm says:

“I’m glad I read through to the end! I was thinking this would be a warning about clopyralid and its close cousins. Which bears some mention: Halogenated pesticides aren’t broken down by any but a few soil organisms.

Clopyralid and aminopyralid mimic the hormones in broad-leaf plants, causing them to grow un-evenly and die from wrong-facing, crinkled leaves and other symptoms. Grasses are un-affected, so fields of grain and lawns have been sprayed with this sort of chemical, as a cheap way of keeping broad-leaf competitors at bay for a few years.

These chemicals have a half-life of 11 months in hot compost, and are often applied at such high rates that certain plants won’t grow in garden soil dressed with finished compost from a mix of sources, if one of those sources is a treated lawn or field.

A quick bioassay will test for this in straw: peas sprouting from soil mixed with that straw will look deformed if the field that grew the straw was treated. Browns of a similar texture from a source you know to be clean should probably be used for a control group.”

Stirred, Not Shaken


“Matter is never without spirit and spirit is never without matter.” – Rudolf Steiner

This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending an amazing workshop in biodynamic gardening taught by master gardener Dory Rindge. For those of you unfamiliar with biodynamics, it’s a system of agriculture based on the work of early 20th century philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

In the 1920s, at just the point when chemical fertilizers where catching on, Steiner proposed a radical return to organic farming. Biodynamic agriculture combines common sense practices such as composting with strange esoteric rituals. The oddest aspect of biodynamics involves the “preparations”, a specific set of substances made of manure, silica and herbs that are buried in cow horns, bladders and skulls. After a few months they are unearthed, ritually stirred and applied to soil and compost piles. Steiner has the biodynamic farmer spray these preparations on soil, plants and compost piles to act as a kind of homeopathy for the land.

While we did not make our own preparations in class (it’s complicated!) we did a ritual stirring with pre-made preparations in buckets of water. Using sticks we created vortexes in the buckets, alternating in clockwise and counterclockwise motions. We then divided the mixture and rushed home to spread it on our gardens.


I was excited and inspired by the class, a feeling which deepened when manure filed horns appeared to me in a dream. In my dream I interpreted the symbolism of the horns–that they represented a higher world unified with the earth by being buried and containing manure. It’s a symbol that recalls the ouroboros, the snake chasing it’s own tail, representing the cycles of nature, combined with the “as above, so below” gesture the magician in the tarot deck is making below. All this makes more sense if you compost!

Now I’m a big fan of the scientific method (yea soil tests!) but I’m increasingly dissatisfied with our modern culture’s overly materialistic world view. As the subtitle of this blog hints at, “cultural alchemy”, I’m interested in symbolism. But I agree with our our instrutor Rindge that it’s important not to get dogmatic about this stuff.

And I could care less about the science of the preparations. If you are, here’s a study that says its hokum and here’s another one that says they work (pdf). To focus on the biochemistry of the preparations seems to me to be asking the wrong questions. What I like most about biodynamics is its sense of intention. It’s an intention that ties us to the land, to the elemental spirits of plants and animals that were tangible to our ancestors. We could all use ritual that ties us to nature and I look forward to stirring preparations and perhaps making them with a few close friends. In fact, I’m much more excited about making preparations than it buying a package through the mail. Steiner’s set of herbs all grow well here and many of them I have already. But a cow is kinda hard to come by in Los Angeles. While it may be heresy to some, perhaps we’ll have to come up with some modifications to the rituals that make sense in this particular place and time.

More on biodynamics, specifically planting by the cycles of the moon and planets, when Mr. Homegrown gets back from San Antonio next week.

Gathering of Community Gardeners

This weekend is the third annual Gathering of the Gardens in Los Angeles. While the event is put together by the non-profit L.A. Community Garden Council, it is open to all interested parties. You don’t have to be a member of a community garden to attend, just interested in community building and gardening.

There will be workshops and discussions on topics such as vegetable gardening, composting, native plants, beekeeping and even a workshop on urban chickens co-taught by yours truly, Homegrown Neighbor. The entire day Saturday is free, but a $10 donation is requested to cover operating expenses. I recommend you go and pay them $100, because that is what this event is worth. You’ll meet the coolest people in L.A., learn about gardening, eat great food and contribute to a great cause. The tour of community gardens on Sunday is already booked up so you’ll just have to make the most of Saturday.

When I lived in an apartment after college I had a plot in a local community garden. Being a part of that garden was perhaps the only thing that kept me sane during that time. I had a series of mind numbing jobs followed by periods of depressing unemployment. Having access to that little plot of land allowed me to meet members of my community and to get my hands in the soil. I harvested some fantastic artichokes, kale, onions and chard from that plot.

I have a lot of love for community gardens so I am thrilled to be a part of this event. The event takes place at Farmlab, 1745 N. Spring St., L.A. 90012. It is just slightly North of Chinatown, near Downtown. It runs from 8-4 on Saturday and you won’t want to miss the breakfast provided by Homegirl Cafe.

For more information visit www.lagardencouncil.org.

Let’s Get Biointensive

I picked up a handy tip on plant spacing from John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. Jeavons dislikes rows and instead uses the triangular spacing of the French biointensive method. You can view a nice diagram of biointensive spacing on the LandShare Colorado website. And see some images of the way Jeavons’ spaces his garden on This Girl’s Gone Green. Triangular plantings squeeze more veggies into small spaces. The tight spacing, with leaves allowed to just touch each other when the plant is mature, also creates a living mulch which shades the soil and saves water.

Jeavons suggests cutting out some triangles in different sizes to assist in planting. Using scrap wood, I made triangles in 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 15-inch sizes, taking the spacing suggestions in Jeavons’ charts for the seeds I had planted in flats. When it came time to transplant the seedlings I used the triangles to create hexagonal blocks of tightly spaced veggies. Cutting a notch in the corners of the triangles would be a slight improvement and allow for easier planting.


I could end this post leaving you all to admire my pretty little seedlings planted in neat biointensive rows. But here at Homegrown Evolution we believe in telling the truth. Growing vegetables has its frustrations. The day after I planted our winter vegetable garden (we have two growing seasons here in Southern California), we had a freak October heatwave, causing a panicked run to the nursery to buy some shade cloth. This was followed by one of Mr. Homegrown’s notorious gardening meltdowns, dreaded by the very patient Mrs. Homegrown. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that I got that shade cloth up in time.