Pee on your Compost

Judging from comments and our web statistics you people out there love discussing poo. So it’s about time that we move on to pee. Why waste your perfectly good urine? Indeed, both Ghandi and Jim Morrison drank their own urine for it’s reputed health benefits. But we ain’t gonna go there.

Our suggestion for the day is to save that piss for your plants. Urine is a fantastic source of nitrogen and it’s estimated that we all produce enough urine to fertilize all the wheat and corn that we as individuals consume. And urine is sterile and safe unless you’ve got a bladder infection.

Urine should be diluted before applying directly to plants since salts in your pee can build up in the soil. Dilution should be at least 10 parts water to one part urine. Peeing directly on plants can burn them as anyone who owns a dog already knows about. Urine is easiest to apply to non-food crops, though it’s perfectly safe to use on fruit trees and bushes. Applying it to root crops is more controversial, and frankly seems like a practice best left to hippies, so if you try this at least cease application at a respectable interval before harvesting.

There is even a book called Liquid Gold on the subject of pee as fertilizer and the ever more resourceful Europeans have developed a number of urine diverting flush toilets similar to the one we profiled earlier to take the labor out of urine saving.

Perhaps the most convenient way to use urine is to simply pee on your compost pile. That way you don’t need to worry about saving it in a container and diluting it. As, no joke here, British conservative member of parliament Francis Maude puts it,

“If I share a tip with the audience it is that if you pee on your compost, it has a double environmental whammy – it speeds up its decomposition so you can get it on the garden more quickly, and it also saves water.”

Bucket Crapping

Those ubiquitous five gallon buckets we’ve used to make self-watering containers are good for another purpose– an improvised crapper.

When the shit hits the fan, you’ll need a place to shit and thankfully the fine folks at the World Toilet Organization have come up with a clever design for an improvised flush toilet using just a five gallon bucket, a coat-hanger, and a plastic bag. Now, not to be too graphic, but thanks to the Sierra Club we’ve had the opportunity to #2 in a five gallon bucket before and surplus stores even sell toilet seats for buckets. But the World Toilet Organization design has some distinct advantages, mainly keeping odors to a minimum. Advanced versions of the same five gallon bucket can even be used for composting and adapted for flushing with water.

Self Watering Containers


Today, something for our apartment homesteaders. If you’ve got a patch of sun and want to grow some food crops container gardening is the way to go.

But container gardening has several drawbacks. Containers dry out quickly and if you forget to water, especially with vegetables, you can easily kill your plants. In fact inconsistent watering is probably the number one cause of container plant failure. Container gardening also uses a lot of water and can be messy, as the excess water flows out of the bottom of your pots leaving muddy stains on decks and balconies.

Thankfully, there is an elegant solution in the form of self watering containers. The principle is simple. Rather than having a hole in the bottom of the pot, there is instead a reservoir of water. Potting soil is suspended above the water reservoir by means of a perforated barrier. Circular “wicking chambers” reach down into the reservoir and draw water up to the plant’s roots. The reservoir is refilled by means of a pipe that comes out of the top of the pot and the soil in the pot is covered with a layer of plastic that acts as mulch. Depending on how deep the water reservoir is, it’s possible to go many days without having to add water. This arrangement, combined with the mulch layer on top prevent wasteful over-watering that can occur with conventional pots.

Best of all, while commercially made self watering containers such as the Earthbox® are available, it’s possible to build your own with these detailed instructions (warning–long pdf) by Josh Mandel. Or take a look at our how-to video:

We built our self watering container with an old plastic storage bin. The ubiquitous five gallon bucket also makes an excellent choice. Clever and water-wise folks may want to pimp out their self watering containers with overflow tubes to carry excess water out of the drainage hole and into a plastic milk bottle. Instructions for doing this can be found here (another pdf), and this might be wise for those considering placing these things on a roof.

Speaking of roofs, one drawback to self watering containers is that they are heavy once filled, so make sure that what you put them on can support the weight. Also, fill them with soil and water only after you have placed them where they need to go, since they can be a bitch to move once full.

Now, we don’t have much sympathy for the aesthetically minded, but some might consider a bunch of five gallon buckets or plastic tubs ugly. Personally we like the meth lab/cannabis farm chic this type of gardening suggests, but for the yuppies out there it’s also possible to put your home brew self watering container within a larger and more attractive pot if you’ve got the dough to blow. Fill the extra space between your self watering container and the pot it’s sitting in with gravel. Check out our instructions on how beautify your self watering container.

Now, apartment homesteaders, get out there and grow your own damn food!

Free Introduction to Permaculture

Local permaculture expert David Khan will be presenting an introduction to permaculture on Saturday January 20th 2007 at 10:00 am at the Audubon Center at Debs Park:

4700 North Griffin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90031

After the lecture author Shay Salomon and photographer Nigel Valdez will do a slide show and talk about their book Little House on a Small Planet.

SurviveLA attended Khan’s introductory lecture last month and found it thought provoking and informative. Here is Khan’s description of this brief introductory talk:

Using ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food, shelter, renewable energy and community. Permaculture is the perfect solution for creating sustainable lifestyles in the city. Learn how to cope with peak oil and the energy descent society of the future. Become the solution! Learn how LA can be a model for sustainable cities.

This Free Introduction to Permaculture Class is an outline of the science and art of Permaculture. It will define the term, its history, its founders and the curriculum of the design course certificate, its ethics and foundations. It will describe the benefits and show some of the most important work undertaken by permaculture designers.

Reservations:

www.sustainablehabitats.org
323.667 1330
[email protected]

Leaf Litter


My people were entirely Nordic, which is to say idiots. Every wrong idea which has ever been expounded was theirs. Among them was the doctrine of cleanliness, to say nothing of righteousness. They were painfully clean. But inwardly they stank. Never once had they opened the door which leads to the soul; never once did they dream of taking a blind leap into the dark. After dinner the dishes were promptly washed and put in the closet; after the paper was read it was neatly folded and laid away on a shelf; after the clothes were washed they were ironed and folded and then tucked away in the drawers. Everything was for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came. The present was only a bridge and on this bridge they are still groaning, as the world groans, and not one idiot ever thinks of blowing up the bridge.
-Henry Miller Tropic of Capricorn

SurviveLA’s approach to our small patch of land has been slowly evolving over the past year towards integrating permaculture principles. One of our favorite notions in permaculture is the idea that “work makes work”. An example used to be the annual fall cleanup after our two large trees dropped their load of leaves in the back yard. Dave Jacke, author of the massive two volume permaculture guide, Edible Forest Gardens puts it this way,

Simply relinquishing a need for “order” and “tidiness” in your garden will make a huge difference. . Order and tidiness by definition reduce structural diversity in ecosystems. Structural diversity provides shelter for many animals for many purposes.

In short, when it comes to fall leaf raking, just say no, be a slob and be proud of it.

The mulch created by leaf litter serves multiple purposes. All those fallen leaves provide shelter for beneficial insects, reduce water usage by preventing evaporation, prevent weed growth, inhibit soil erosion and may even stop acid rain from penetrating soil. For these reasons SurviveLA says banish your leaf blower! In fact, when planning a garden around permaculture principles you may want to consider plants that produce mulch, and placing them where the mulch will benefit your landscaping. Remember though that some trees such as black walnut and eucalyptus produce so called alleopathic chemicals that kill neighboring plants and hence would not be good candidates for mulch production. With the exception of these alleopathic plants, there is simply no good reason to rake up leaves.

Blow up the bridge, let the leaves fall, let nature do its thing, and join the SurviveLA idleness non-revolution (as the folks at SoapboxLA would say, it would take too much effort to start an idleness revolution).

Polyculture


Here at SurviveLA we are experimenting with something called polyculture in the the garden. We read about it first in the worthy permaculture guide, Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway.

Polyculture is the practice of planting a community of interrelated, interdependent plants, mimicking in your garden (in our case a raised vegetable bed) the complex relationships that are found between plants in nature.

In the case of food crops, a polyculture tries to set up conditions where you can eat almost continually out of a garden bed filled with different varieties of plants maturing at different times. The faster growing plants protect the tender ones from the sun. The thickness of the planting virtually eliminates weeds, and also functions as a living mulch, keeping the soil moist and cool beneath a carpet of green. These beds look quite different than the tidy rows of carrots and cabbages one sees … well, one does not see vegetable gardens anywhere if one lives in LA. One remembers them from illustrations in Peter Rabbit.

Okay, you want specifics? Here is an example of a professional polyculture bed out of Gaia’s Garden, one which creates salads, cabbages, and beans. It is written for people who live places with cold winters (as are most gardening books, alas). So Angelinos wanting to follow his plan can start this earlier, perhaps in March. The SurviveLA polyculture that will be described after was started in October.

Polyculture from Gaia’s Garden, attributed to Ianto Evan:

After the last frost cover your garden bed evenly with a light broadcasting of the following seeds. Don’t mix them before broadcasting because they will fall differently according to their weight., and so separate out in the throwing. Spread one type of seed at a time, aiming for an even distribution of each type of seed all over the bed. Sow: radish, dill, parsnip, calendula and many types of lettuces, late and early harvesting types to extend the length of your season. Cover the seeds with 1/4 inch of soil.

Meanwhile, start cabbages from seeds in containers, early and late maturing varieties.

4 weeks after sowing you can pull some of the first radishes, because they grow fast. As you eat those, put the cabbage seedlings in the holes.

6 weeks after sowing you can eat the lettuce. First as a baby lettuce mix, later in its more mature leafing form. Pull out entire plants to make space, so things don’t get too crowded.

Continue this way until the soil warms up. As you eliminate lettuce plants, begin to put bush beans in their place. The dill and calendula will start coming into their own, and the early cabbages. The beans will be ready by midsummer, and the parsnips and the rest of the cabbages will follow in the fall.

So you see, the secret is in choosing plants with staggered harvesting times, so they don’t come in all at once, overwhelming you and competing with each other for space, and also in choosing plants that are not all from the same families, so they don’t compete for the same nutrients. The beans in the polyculture above help replenish the nitrogen in the soil that the other plants drain out. Very clever. With little effort compared to normal gardening, you will be harvesting veggies from one plot all year long.

SurviveLA’s Impetuous Salad Bed

Now the SurviveLA bed is not so well organized, because we don’t know as much as these permaculture folks, but it has been very successful so far, meaning no pests, no weeds, low watering, and tons of salad.

This bed was started in October, as soon as the weather had decidedly shifted toward the cool. In LA, it makes sense to grow tender salad greens and the like in the winter, when the the sun is low, the climate is gentle, and our only rains fall. Lettuce loves that kind of thing, and hates hot sun. If you plant lettuce in LA in the summer you are in for a world of sorrow.

As above, we broadcast the following seeds evenly over our 4′ x 8′ foot raised garden bed. It is set up with fancy new drip emitters for lazy watering. In the past, we’ve watered this bed with the more casual but quite functional soaker hose. Both are preferable to standing around with a garden hose, and the plants like it a lot better too. FYI, plants prefer occasional deep soakings to brief daily showers. However, while the seeds were sprouting and delicate we did water from above with a hose set on gentle sprinkle.

Not knowing all of the habits of these plants, many of which are from growitalian.com, we just threw them all in to see what would happen. When the coldest nights are over in a couple of months we will plants some beans, as above, for nitrogen fixing. For now, these things are growing in a riotous mix:

Green chicory
Red chicory
Radishes
Carrots
Wild fennel (non-bulbing variety)
Common cress
Arugula
Lettuce mix (various types in one package)
Rapa da Foglia (leaf turnip)
Green onions

We’ve been eating all of it in its infant form, except the radishes, which have markedly hairy leaves that you don’t want in your salad. Just lately the leafy plants have become easily distinguishable from one another, and are taking on their full flavor. To keep up with the thinning which is necessary at this stage SurviveLA must eat at least one salad a day. But it is no hardship to eat greens so fresh and tender–once you grow your own salad, you will feel cheated each time you have to eat salad from a bag.

In the photo you will see how tight the planting is in the bed. It is perhaps a tad too tight. We are eating as fast as we can, pulling whole plants for the most part, shooting for the ideal of giving each remaining lettuce and chicory a space about the diameter of a cereal bowl for itself.

When the lettuces are full grown, you can harvest leaves off the individual plants instead of harvesting the whole plant, thus just five or six mature lettuce plants can provide salad for two people a few times a week, leaving lots more room for other plants. Beans will come in the spring, and also some yet to be decided crops which we can expect will do well in the heat of early summer.

Free Permaculture Class

Today SurviveLA passes on an announcement for a free permaculture class taking place tomorrow – hope to see some of you there:

The next Free Introduction to Permaculture Class

Place: Audubon Center at Debs Park (http://www.audubon-ca.org/debs_park.htm)
4700 North Griffin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90031
(323) 221-2255

Date: Sat Dec. 2nd 2006

Time: 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM

We are living on a planet in crisis; often individuals feel powerless to effect change but Permaculture offers positive solutions to the problems facing the world; using ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, technology and community development, you can learn to create a self-sustaining environment, on a farm or in your urban backyard or apartment.

The Permaculture Design Course is for anyone interested in gaining skills and perspective for sustainable living and productivity. A Permaculture Design Course is a way to share
accumulated information with others.

This Introduction to Permaculture Class is an outline of the science and art of Permaculture. It will define the term and its history, its founders, the curriculum of the design course certificate, its ethics and foundations. It will describe the benefits and show some of the most
important work undertaken by permaculture designers.

For More Information contact:
David Kahn 323 667 1330 or [email protected]

www.sustainablehabitats.org

Rats

SurviveLA just sustained $198 worth of damage to one of our appliances due to an invasion of rats which brings us to the topic of how we deal with pesky rodents. As you can see in the photo to the right, the answer will burn our bridges with the PETA folks.

The classic rat trap is one of those inventions like the bicycle that is elegant, simple, cheap and effective. We recommend placing the business end of the trap (the part with the food) against a wall, as rats and mice tend to travel along walls. Put it in a place that can’t be accessed by nosy dogs, cats or kids. We’ve had the best success with using dried fruit as bait.

But let’s look at the alternatives. Yes there are so-called humane traps that capture the critters alive. We have two problems with these. First they just don’t work all that well. Secondly, what do you do with the critters once you catch them? We can think of some real estate agents we would like to give them to, but the rats would probably just run into some other poor sucker’s house.

Rat poison is a really bad idea. First of all it is deadly to pets and native animals that might find it. Secondly it can kill a predator such as a hawk or owl, that might prey on a poisoned rat. Lastly, poisoned rats have a bad tendency to climb into a wall and die leaving an inaccessible, stinky mess.

SurviveLA would get in big trouble if we failed to send a shout out to our cat friends. Some cats are good at catching mice and rats, but unfortunately those same cats are also good at catching native birds. Now if we weren’t in enough trouble for advocating bad-ass rat traps, we’ll get in even more trouble for suggesting that folks keep their cats indoors. Indoor cats will catch the rodents, they won’t kill the native wildlife and they’ll live longer by not getting hit by cars. We would have a cat ourselves if it weren’t for our doberman who would, unfortunately, prey on the cats, thereby setting up a predatory hierarchy we would rather avoid. Dobermans, incidentally, make lousy mousers though ours will follow rat scent for hours (dobermans are great, however, for deterring Jehovah’s Witnesses, but that’s another post).

As far as rat prevention goes, it’s really important to harvest all fruits from the garden before they drop on the ground. Our rat problem this winter may be due, in part, from our laziness and failure to harvest the fruit of our prodigious fig tree in addition to the foundation work we’re having done (thanks again to those realtors we want to sick the rats on). Other deterrents include not leaving food around and getting rid of wood piles. Rats are also one of the reasons not to put meat in the compost pile, though I’ve found them in our compost pile in spite of the fact that we only put vegetable material in it. It helps to turn the pile frequently and not add too many kitchen scraps at one time.

Of course, being SurviveLA, we need to mention the fact that rats are edible. Now it’s fashionable to make fun of French people for stuff like this but SurviveLA thinks applauds any kind of resourcefulness, particularly if it yields something tasty. From the Larousse Gastronomique:

Rodent, which was elevated to the rank of comestible during the siege of Paris in 1870, and which is eaten in certain regions. The flesh of well-nourished rats can be, it seems, of good quality, but sometimes with a musky taste. Rats nourished in the wine stores of the Gironde were at one time highly esteemed by the coopers, who grilled them, after having cleaned out and skinned them, on a fire of broken barrels, and seasoned them with a little oil and plenty of shallot. This dish, which was then called Cooper’s Entrecôte, would be the origin of the Entrecôte à la bordelaise.

Rapini!


This morning SurviveLA harvested our first crop of the winter, delicious broccoli rabe, from our illegal parkway garden.

Broccoli rabe or rapini, is often described as being bitter, but I think it would be better to describe store bought broccoli as band and rapini as “flavorful”. Actually rapini is not related to the broccoli plant and is instead more closely related to turnips. The variety we planted is called Cima di Rapa Quarantina and is available from growitalian.com.

Thanks Los Angeles for not enforcing your parkway codes! Sometimes LA’s lack of attention to sidewalks (at the current rate, no joke, it would take 200 years to fix LA’s crumbling pedestrian infrastructure) has its advantages.

Kent’s Composting Tips and Secret Weapon

Today in our continuing dialog on composting, a guest post from Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition board member, Kent Strumpell who we met up with at this week’s inspiring LACBC awards gala:

I’m sure there are more correct procedures, but this is what I’ve found works.

I use a compost bin that has direct soil contact. I think this allows the introduction of soil organisms and serves to drain the pile if it gets too wet. I’ve done this same process with free standing piles as well.

I start with a small pile of dry leaves and add a load of kitchen scraps. I also add a couple shovels-full of rich soil to get things started, particularly with some worms and bugs to propagate the new pile. I’m not fastidious about what goes in, so the occasional fish and chicken scraps and leftover cat food gets into the mix, even oily stuff, but mostly it’s the usual veggies, fruits, paper napkins, etc. Though experts say no fats should go in, I’ve yet to see (or smell) a problem.

Each time I add new kitchen scraps, I add 1-2 shovels-full of dry leaves and some water if needed, turning and mixing the old and new stuff with a cultivator or shovel to aerate the pile. The proportion of dry to wet material is important. There should be enough dry leaves so the compost is kinda’ fluffy and moist, not soggy, but the dry material shouldn’t overwhelm the wet either.

Now the secret. I cut a piece of black 6 mil vinyl to approximately cover the pile and lay this directly on top of the compost (anything similar will work). I’ve found this helps keep the pile moist when I’m not able to check on it (sometimes for a week or two) and the bugs and worms seem to thrive underneath this membrane. I got the idea after noticing that I’d find rich bug habitat under boards, etc. laying around my yard. My compost piles teem with worms, sow bugs and other critters, all working hard for me. If you do a free standing compost pile, cut the plastic big enough to cover to the ground and hold it in place with rocks or bricks.

I add my scraps about once or twice a week. I don’t use the pile to consume large quantities of leaves, I just add enough of them to keep things in balance. It easily keeps up with my kitchen scrap production and gives me a rich, dark compost about like coffee grounds when it is done. I draw finished stuff off at the bottom occasionally. Or, if I want to use the whole batch, I stop adding to it for a few weeks so it can digest everything.