Mosaic Artist Jeffrey Bale

Jeffrey Bale is one of my gardening heroes and this video is, in my opinion, mandatory viewing. Bale’s artistic medium is the pebble mosaic and he’s taken his craft to levels not seen since the ancients. Bale spends three months every year traveling the world and searching for inspiration for his work. His astonishingly beautiful and insightful blog chronicles his travels and work.

Bale captures what I think is missing in a lot of contemporary art and landscape design, a sense of the transcendent and the search for what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “fullness”. Our gardens and cities could benefit from many more spaces like the labyrinth portrayed in this short mini-doc. Best of all, in the video, Bale demonstrates how he makes his mosaics. Bale has no trade secrets. He wants us all to participate in creating a more beautiful world.

How to Rodent Proof a Chicken Coop

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One morning I opened the metal trash can I used to keep the chicken feed in and plunged a scoop into the feed. In that cup of feed there was some additional protein in the form of a small, freaked-out mouse. I shrieked and the mouse jumped out of my hand and dashed off. Then I peered into the bag of feed. Like the plot of a rodent horror movie, I found two other mice running around along with a dead and bloody mouse. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the mysterious details of that story. But I knew it was time to deal with the problem.

Thankfully, like Dr. Maurice Pitesky mentioned in the podcast on Wednesday, most chicken pest problems can be taken care of with simple sanitation. In my case that meant putting the food away at night and investing in rodent proof feed containers.

Every night I put the entire feeder within the trash can you can see in the picture on the right (it has a much more secure lid than the larger can I used to keep the feed in). In the morning I put the food out again for our four hens. It means that I have to get up just a few minutes earlier than I usually do but that’s not a big deal as I’m one of those tedious and boring morning persons.

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Some folks use rodent proof treadle feeders. These feeders open when the hens step on a small metal platform. I was sent a treadle feeder like the one above but my skittish hens would not get anywhere near it even with the treadle kept open. I probably could have trained them to use it but I’ve found that putting the feed away at night is no big chore. I gave the treadle feeder away to some other chicken enthusiasts whose hens are less afraid of the contraption.

As to rodent-proof feed containers I’m using two Vittle Vaults, one for the feed and the other for scratch. They have a locking, rodent and water proof lid. The small trash can in the picture (that I put the whole feeder in at night) seems to be working.

For more information on controlling mice and rats see UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management information for rats and house mice. We used to have mice in the house but the cats have taken care of that problem. As to the issue of rodents eating fruit, I’m still working on that problem.

Avid Gardener Series: Responsible Water Usage for Edible Landscapes

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UPDATE: Sorry to say that this class has been cancelled due to lack of enrollment. We’re going to rework the content into a one day or afternoon class. Watch Root Simple for the announcement and we hope to see you at the Huntington!

Hey gardeners, we’re teaching a three part edible landscaping course April 2, 9, and 16 from 9 a.m.- 12 p.m. at the Huntington Ranch.

Learn creative ways to grow a delicious, drought-conscious garden in this hands-on series. Sessions will take place in The Huntington’s Ranch Garden and will address drip irrigation, greywater systems, plant selection, mulch and soil health, and more. The Huntington Ranch is a beautiful edible gardening demonstration area that is seldom open to the public.  The class will focus on growing food in our increasingly dry and challenging Southern California climate.

Best Practices for Gardening in Contaminated Soil

File this ad under "bad ideas."

File this ad under “bad ideas.”

The benefits of growing food in cities (nutrition, exposure to nature) outweigh the very low risks of lead contamination. This is the conclusion of a recent University of Washington study:

It is highly unlikely that urban agriculture will increase incidences of elevated blood Pb for children in urban areas. This is due to the high likelihood that agriculture will improve soils in urban areas, resulting in reduced bioavailability of soil Pb and reduced fugitive dust. Plant uptake of Pb is also typically very low. The exceptions are low-growing leafy crops where soil-splash particle contamination is more likely and expaneded hypocotyl root vegetalbes (e.g. carrot). However even with higher bioaccumulation factors, it is not clear that the Pb in root vegetables or any other crop will be absorbed after eating.

The paper outlines a set of best practices for dealing with contaminated soils. You should always:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables from your garden. Also wash your hands and don’t wear shoes in the house.
  • Compost, compost, compost! Compost dilutes the overall amount of lead in soil and encourages healthy plant growth which also dilutes the (usually small) amount of lead a plant will uptake. Apply compost annually since it breaks down over time.
  • Plant away from painted surfaces of old (lead paint era) buildings.

Some other things to consider especially if you garden with children under 5 years old:

  • Don’t eat a lot of carrots, radishes, redbeets or turnips grown in contaminated soil. The edible portion of these plants consist of xylem tissue that traps lead (potatoes are OK since they are phloem fed). That said, you’d have to eat a lot of contaminated root vegetables to elevate lead levels in your blood.
  • Adding phosphorus fertilizers will decrease the bioavailability of lead.
  • In general root vegetables uptake the most lead, leafy greens less and fruit almost none.
  • The most conservative approach is to grow in raised beds.

The main concern is for children under 5 years old. If your soil tests high in lead and you have young ones you should consider doing your edible gardening in raised beds and limit their exposure to garden soils to a few times a month. Mulch and ground covers will also decrease lead exposure in the other parts of your yard.

The paper concludes that for older children and adults, “There is little indication that growing or eating food from urban gardens will result in high Pb (lead) exposure.”

Is Lead Poisoning a Risk in Urban Gardens?

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Those of you who have followed our blog over the years know that our yard is contaminated with lead. This is, most likely, due to some combination of lead paint residue and car exhaust. For years we’ve grown vegetables in raised beds because of this issue.

But if the results of a University of Washington study on lead and urban agriculture are to be believed, we might not need to be as concerned. The researchers note that most vegetables don’t take up lead and that improving soil with compost greatly reduces the bioavailability of lead.

You can read a summary of the results of this research paper here.

Thanks to Joanne Poyourow of Environmental Change Makers for tipping me off to this research.