The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta

Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay spent forty years creating his garden. He called it “Little Sparta,” a reference to the battle he fought with the town council who wanted to tax it, claiming that it was a gallery not a garden.

Little Sparta was a place of healing for the intensely agoraphobic Finlay. In the city, he could barely leave his room–at Little Sparta he could go outside.

This is one of my favorite gardens–I’m a sucker for classicism but I also like that it has a narrative, that it tells the story of the people who lived in it.

Here’s here’s another nice video about Little Sparta narrated by Finlay’s son:

I hope to visit it someday. In the meantime, I’ve got my own Little Sparta to work on.

Straw Bale Gardens

straw bale garden by Tasha Via

Tasha Via’s straw bale garden.

Michael Tortorello (who profiled us when Making It came out) is one of my favorite writers covering the home ec/gardening subjects we discuss on this blog. He had an article last week in the New York Times, “Grasping at Straw” on straw bale gardening. We’ve very tempted to give the practice a try in our backyard. Why?

  • We have lead and zinc contaminated soil so growing veggies in the ground is questionable.
  • We live on a hill and it’s easier for us to drag a straw bale up the hill rather than bulk or bagged soil.
  • Straw bale gardening is an old and tested practice.
  • Straw bale gardening comes with the endorsement of horticulture professor and noted garden myth debunker Linda Chalker-Scott.
  • The practice has been tested in dry climates like ours.
  • After the bale has decomposed you get compost you can use elsewhere in the yard.
  • I suspect that skunks will be less interested in digging in a bale (please correct me if I’m wrong here).

Now, if we had good soil I wouldn’t bother with the extra work of buying and prepping a straw bales garden. But, given the idiosyncrasies of our situation, it seems like a good solution. Frankly, I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner. Our thanks go out to Michael for reminding us of this possibility with his article.

The biggest possible downside with this method is that the straw may contaminated with a persistent herbicide, like Dow Chemical’s Clopyralid. This is a type of herbicide that is not broken down by composting. It’s not even broken down in an animal’s digestive track. It can linger in organic matter for a year or two, stunting the growth garden plants. (See Killer Compost).

Despite this risk, we’re going to go ahead and grow some food in bales anyway and see what happens. We’ll also be testing our straw.

So, off we go into another gardening adventure/research pit!

So have any of you tried, or are considering trying, straw bale gardening? How did it work?

Some resources on the topic:

strawbalegardens.com–the website of Joel Karsten, profiled in Tortorello’s article and the author of a book and a downloadable pamphlet on straw bale gardening.

Some tips from an experienced straw bale gardener at The Gardener’s Pantry

We’re going to bioassay (that is, test ) the straw from our local feed store. The Compost Gardener has good instructions for this. In our case, we’re doing the method where you plant beans in soil, and water them with tea made from the straw.

Washington State University–instructions for how to start a Straw Bale garden.

Is Urban Homesteading Over With?


It seems that we’re back in a period of irrational exuberance. I know because I keep hearing about people lining up to buy crumbling 1,000 square foot bungalows in dodgy Los Angeles neighborhoods for $1,000,000. History tells us that during these periods folks ditch their chicken coops and vegetable gardens and head to the mall to shop.

I hope I’m wrong, that during our next economic bubble people will be more sensible. And the fundamentals have not changed, specifically the uncertain future of fossil fuels. I’m not trading my trips to the feed store for a shopping spree at Hot Topic anytime soon.

So I thought I’d plug a few search terms relating to urban homesteading into Google Trends to see what is going on. This is, of course, highly unscientific–Google Trends may just reflect media generated interest, not what people are actually doing. Here’s what I found:

Backyard Chickens

Many urban homesteading activities are seasonal–in spring people start searching for information on chickens and vegetable gardens, so you’ll see upward spikes towards the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Judging from the results on “backyard chickens,” it looks like that it’s a trend that is growing in popularity. Some of this activity may be related to legalization efforts, but I’d like to think that it reflects a growing dissatisfaction with our industrial agriculture system.

Gardening

It seems that searches for gardening of all kinds–I tried “vegetable gardening,” “vegetable seeds,” “rose pruning” and “lawn care,” are down. I think this may reflect a demographic shift–an older generation dying off. We need to get young people gardening!

Bread Baking

No wonder I can’t seem to offer enough bread baking classes.

Bicycles


Cycling is down, but I’m sure this reflects disenchantment with Lance Armstrong and professional cycling.

Searches for “bike commuting” are up slightly.

It’s inevitable that media interest in home ec topics will decline when the stock market is up. Just remember how quickly vegetable gardens and chicken coops were abandoned in the 1980s. But I have a good feeling that the lessons of the last few years will stick better than they did in the 1970s. What do you think?

Extension Service Webinars on Organic Agriculture

extension service webinar home page

When it comes to doing research for articles and books I lean heavily on research based advice from our Cooperative Extension System. It’s a great resource. I just discovered a treasure trove of Extension Service webinars on organic farming practices that you can watch here: http://www.extension.org/pages/25242/webinars-by-eorganic. You can watch archived sessions or sign up to participate live.

While the webinars are aimed at small farmers, there’s a lot that gardeners can learn. Having co-founded a bread baking club, the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, I was particularly excited to watch theĀ  webinar on ancient grains. I’m also planning on watching “Linking Cover Crops, Plant Pathogens, and Disease Control in Organic Tomatoes” and “NRCS Conservation Practices, Organic Management, and Soil Health“.

Time to cancel that Netflix subscription!