Toby Hemenway On How Horticulture Can Save Us

What I like about author and permaculturalist Toby Hemenway is that he does a lot better job, frankly, of explaining permacuture than do the founders of the movement, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Hemenway is a better writer and demonstrates how permaculture’s abstract designs principles can apply at the household and neighborhood level. His book, Gaia’s Garden, A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture ought to be on everyone’s bookshelf.

Last Thursday at the National Heirloom Exposition Hemenway gave a talk entitled “Redesigning Civilization: How Horticulture Can Save Us.” What he meant by “horticulture” is not, say, propagating begonias. Rather, he defined horticulture as gardening, the kind of gardening some indigenous people did when they influenced the landscape to produce useful and edible plants. In other words, what we in the West would call permaculture. This is in contrast to agriculture which Hemenway considers to have a destructive influence on ecosystems, human health and culture.

Hemenway also, justifiably, critiqued some corners of the urban homesteading movement for promoting an egocentric self-sufficiency–”MY food on MY land” as he put it–a kind of industrial farming on a household level. While “self-sufficiency” appears in the subtitle of our first book (our publisher’s idea), it’s not a term we use. Kelly and I always emphasize, like Hemenway, the importance of community. We are much more comfortable with the title “gardener” rather than “farmer”. We need farmers, of course, but I’d like to think of urban homesteading as being more about small scale, permacutural type projects that involve both individual and group efforts.

The takeaway from Hemenway’s talk for me was the importance, especially in urban areas, of integrating community in any permacultural design project. After showing what everyone reading this blog knows, that our modern world is in big trouble, Hemenway ended on a positive note. With small scale, thoughtful design we can go a long way to solving some pretty big problems.

The Ecology Center of San Juan Capistrano

Kelly and I had the privilege of doing a short talk this weekend at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. If you’re interested in Southern California food forestry, greywater, chickens, you name it, this is the place to visit. They have an amazing garden, classes and a well curated gift store. When people ask us how to design garden and house systems in SoCal, we’re going to send them to the Ecology Center.

Introducing Nancy Klehm With Tips on Growing Jerusalem Artichokes

Photo by Ann Summa

We’re very proud to welcome to the blog our good friend Nancy Klehm. Nancy is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Most importantly, unlike Kelly and I here in Los Angeles, she lives in a place subject that odd meteorological condition called “winter”, namely Chicago. We asked her to write posts for us for on gardening in a four-season climate and to add her expertise to Root Simple. Nancy’s website, where you can find listings for her upcoming classes and events is http://spontaneousvegetation.net/.

She keeps a garden in her yard, an empty lot next to her house and on her roof in addition to lots of indoor seedlings. She has 5 chickens (one is rooster) and 7 quail (5 bobwhite and 2 coturnix). She also grows and gathers in her neighborhood and maintains a half acre food forest west of the city. In her first post for Root Simple Nancy introduces her climate and offers some tips on growing Jerusalem artichokes:

Welcome to Zone 5
I live in what is known by the USDA as Cold Hardiness Zone 5. Chicago is 5B and my food forest is in 5A. If you don’t know, the map is based on minimum average temperatures and helps as a guideline for first and last frost dates: http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/ushzmap.html. In the Midwest, where winter is a serious endeavor, a zone 5 growing season’s frost dates are May 15 and Nov 1, meaning that is the bracket for growing more tender annual plants such as basil, tomatoes, melons, etc. We have had a mild winter and a very early Spring this year – almost a month ahead according to any record. As a true farmer said: ‘This is the warmest April on record.’ And it was still March when he said it.

In the past 10 days, dodging rain and wet soil, I have planted out potatoes, asparagus, peas, collards, chard, kale, radishes, carrots, beets, turnips, salsify, and cress. I have many vegetables, fruits, culinary and medicinal herbs sown and growing under lights indoors that have weeks ahead of them under 14 hours of artificial sun. But thankfully, I have already been eating out of my garden which is a loose collection of the cultivated and the forageable: asparagus, stinging nettle, dandelion, chickweed, dock, wild and French sorrel, parsley, pea shoots, garlic mustard, ground ivy, wild onion, horseradish leaves, wild carrot, hawthorn flower and burdock root. The hops are almost four feet high, the fruit trees are in heavy bloom and my pawpaw birthed 14 blossoms for the first time since I planted its seed seven years ago!

The problem with this early spring is that it is likely to freeze between now and may 15. Everyone I know who grows tree fruit commercially is a bit worried about the fast blooms so early in the season. We could lose our fruit if the weather snaps to 30 degrees.

Jerusalem artichokes – PLANT NOW!
I was given a lunch bag full of dirty Jerusalem artichoke roots a handful of years ago and now I have a stand that is at least 500 square feet. It is in the center of my food forest. The stand acts like a giant sponge to absorb the extra water that floods my growing area now that the natural hydrology has been interrupted by a nearby housing developer. The stand provides shade for toads and in wet times, muddy crayfish tunnel into the mud around its tubers. In August, the flowers are 10 feet tall. Every spring, I dig out 30-50 pounds of chokes from my ever expanding bed to keep them from overwhelming my young quince and apple trees, which they would if I didn’t.

Muddy chokes and a few worms.
Chokes are a delicious wild perennial food. Darn easy to grow, but can be a lot of work to dig and wash and are really tough to store well. They either mold or dry out quickly once out of the ground and, even if I keep them nice and muddy, I haven’t had the luck or skill to store then over two weeks. In other words, use them or process them immediately.

Washed chokes and wild carrots drying.
I almost broke my mother’s Kitchen Aid when I tried to make Jerusalem artichoke flour, an answer to my father’s diabetes and new anti-gluten faddists. I sliced them, dried the slices and then tried to use the Cuisine Art to chop them up. Wrong tool, so I went to the mixer. It beat on and on for 10 minutes. I threw a towel over the top of the entire machine to keep the fine clouds of dust down. I got flour as well as some hard bits which I sifted out. It was tasty, but given the work I had to do, I had to think of another approach. And this is coming from someone pretty intrepid athlete with food processing. Making sunchoke flour takes second place for me just after creating my own dried pectin from wild crab apple skins.

Note from Kelly for folks in dry climes: Jerusalem artichokes grow in LA, too. We blogged about them here, where you can see a picture of one growing (they look like small sunflowers on enormous stalks). Our patch didn’t grow for more than one year because we decided we didn’t want to water them.  I believe in a wetter place they can grow without inputs–indeed, they’re hard to stop once they get going!– but in a dry climate they do need some water.

Growing Greens Under Fruit Trees

In the photo above is Scott Kleinrock showing off a section of the edible garden he designed at the Huntington Gardens. At first glace it looks like a lot of weeds, but it’s a clever idea: growing greens in the understory of fruit trees.

In this picture, which was taken last weekend, you see a field of:

  • mallow
  • daikon radish
  • arugula
  • mustard 
  • vetch
  • calendula
  • cabbage

Except for the vetch, which helps build soil, all are edible and nutritious. It was grown with almost no supplemental water. Labor involved removing unwanted grasses in the first year and spreading seeds. And all of these plants readily reseed themselves.

Depending on your climate, the plants you use for this strategy could vary, but the idea is the same: select hardy, reseeding greens that take little or no care. Weed out the things you don’t want. Use space that would otherwise go to waste. Lastly, sit back and let nature do her thing.

Look To Mother Nature

While this clip is about the economy, I often think about it in relation to our burgeoning urban homesteading movement. Whenever I’m asked why we are engaged in the disparate activities chronicled on this blog, I point to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of one of my favorite books, The Black Swan.  In this clip he talks about how nature isn’t centralized. Nothing in nature is “too big to fail.” Nature depends on built in redundancy. It’s adaptable, flexible, built to withstand shocks–Taleb’s term for this is robustness.

He’s talking about reforming financial systems, but we apply the same ideas when considering our overly centralized food system. All of us who grow a little food, bake, brew, keep small stock and bees–what have you–are part of the solution. By building community ties and practical knowledge we’re creating a robust food production and distribution able to withstand shocks.

This is reason enough to do it, but as you all know, it’s a whole lot of fun, too.

Just another reason why urban homesteading rocks.

The Pinnacle of Permaculture: Tending the Wild

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesBook review: Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

When the white man came to California, he found a verdant paradise: meadows thick with wildflowers and clover, stately groves of nut trees, abundant, healthy game and rivers full of fish. It was a land of endless bounty. The natives, often derogatorily called “Diggers” by the whites, seemed to live off this bounty in a lazy, hand-to-mouth sort of way.

Tending the Wild, a highly readable dissertation, takes this mythology apart. Anderson’s argument is that the native people of California were active stewards of the land.

Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.

Through extensive practical experience, the Indians had found a “middle way” between exploitation of the land and hands-off preservation of the land. They made use of the land, and in so doing, made the land better for all other creatures as well. They used resources, but managed to give back more. And in so doing, they shaped California.

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view and California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of the Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy visas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb and green gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting and seed scattering.”

Our favorite idea to come out of this book is the notion that plants and animals need people. This is the philosophy of the Native American elders Anderson interviews. Rather as plants need birds to scatter their seeds, plants rely on humans to thin and prune them, protect them and spread them. The elders imagined an active, reciprocal relationship of use between humans, plants and animals. For them, “wilderness” is a pejorative term. When land is untended, it turns feral and declines. In a thriving land there is physical and spiritual intimacy between man, plants and animals.

All this is to say that California, at first European contact, was a garden–a garden that had been loved, tended and built up for generations. And the first settlers and explorers couldn’t see it. They saw a gift from God, one which they stripped bare in short order.

There is sadness in reading this, sadness in thinking of all that has been lost. But as Anderson contends, there is still a chance to preserve some of this knowledge. It lives on in the elders who remain whose grandparents remembered California before the gold rush. This book collects some of that knowledge, and talks about Indian management of certain species. While it cannot teach us everything, it provides a tantalizing vision of a non-exploitative yet productive relationship between man and nature, providing us a path for the future, if we can find the will to take it before it is too late.

Highly recommended read, especially for Californians, conservationists, gardeners, wild plant enthusiasts and those studying permaculture.

Urban Permaculture Survey/Interview

Attention urban/suburban permaculturists. I’m writing an article for Urban Farm Magazine on “urban permaculture” and I need your help. I’ve created a survey/interview for the article: click here to take the Urban Farm permaculture article survey. Please forward this link/survey to all your permaculture friends–send it out far and wide–work that Facebook! If you’re critical of permaculture you are also welcome to take the survey. Thanks for your help!

The Sami Way

What’s more impressive? That humans figured out how to live in the arctic or that we figured out how to collateralize debt obligations? As we deal with the consequences of the latter it’s nice to reflect on those thousands of years spent herding reindeer. It’s also comforting to know that there’s still some folks left who know how to take care of reindeer even if they now use snowmobiles.

Homegrown Evolution had the privilege of meeting Nils Anders Kuhmunen today, along with a bunch of art students, in an arctic village in northern Sweden. Kuhmunen is a Sami, an indigenous people populating the northernmost parts of Scandinavia and part of Russia. The Sami tended reindeer for thousands of years. The pictures of our visit speak for themselves (though you won’t be able to taste the delicious reindeer meat Kuhmunen served).


A wooden form of the traditional circular Sami hut.


Kuhmunen speaking eloquently about what can only be called arctic permaculture, life in touch with the cycles of life and the importance of context specific design.


And speaking of context, the smoke of the fire rising up through a hole in the roof. The dirt floor is insulated with a layer of burnt twigs, followed by moose skins and a top layer of reindeer fur. It works. It was bitter cold outside and toasty in the hut.

Kuhmunen and grandchild feeding the reindeer some lichen.

Not only does Nils Anders Kuhmunen herd reindeer, he also has a website.

Mistakes we have made . . .

There’s a kind of boastful blogging style that, I’m afraid, we here at Homegrown Evolution have been guilty of. Simply put, we’ve failed to detail all our blunders. These mistakes and accidents, some funny, others painfully disappointing, have more instructional value than our successes. And oh, how many blunders there have been in the past ten years. It’s about time to round up the top 6. I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten, but here’s a start.

1. Installing a water garden.

That water garden looks great in the picture above. That was before the neighborhood raccoons spent several nights a week treating it like rock stars used to treat hotel rooms, and before scum and slime clogged up the pump. While the pump was solar powered, the profligate use of water was not the best example to set here in draught prone Los Angeles. After a few months we gave up, filled it in with soil and now strawberries grow there happily. We hear that Materials and Applications, a neighborhood landscape architecture firm that runs an amazing outdoor gallery, has stopped designing water features unless they are supplied by rainwater. Sounds like a good idea to us! And with the chickens we did not want to provide habitat for raccoons.

2. Mixing Chicken Breeds

Speaking of chickens, a friend of ours who grew up on a farm confirmed that “chickens are racists”. Like talk radio hosts, hens will pick on anyone who is different. In our case, our green egg laying and weird looking Araucana gets the crap beaten out of her by the Rhode Island Red and one of the Barred Rocks. If I had it do do all over again, I’d get four Barred Rocks. They’re dependable layers and don’t make much of a fuss.

3. Planting stuff that doesn’t grow in our Mediterranean climate

As our permaculture friend David Khan likes to say, “work makes work.” Plants that need lots of tending and attention, nine times out of ten, end up unhappy. When they croak it leads to a downward spiral of disappointment and frustration. Just recently a hops plant I tried to grow up and died on me. I stormed around the kitchen cursing for a few minutes before I realized that, once again, I had failed to follow my own advice–plant in season and in respect of place. Hops belong in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, the heat loving prickly pear cactus in our front yard provides both tasty nopales and fruit reliably every year while growing in terrible alkaline soil with no added water or fertilizer. The problem with the prickly pear is that it is too prodigious, and that’s the kind of problem you can hope for as an urban homesteader.

3. Newspaper seed pots

Those newspaper seed starting pots we linked to earlier this year . . . well, there seems to be a problem with them. I think the newspaper is wicking the water away from the soil. While in Houston recently, I took a class from a master gardener in plant propagation and we used regular plastic pots, a thin layer of vermiculite over the potting soil and a plastic bag over the pot. It seems to work better. The other blunder here is posting about something before testing it.

4. Pantry Moths!

A few years ago, using our solar dehydrator (we’ll post about that soon), we dried a summer’s worth of tomatoes to use during the fall and winter. We put the entire harvest in one large jar. Several months later we had a jar full of pantry moth larvae. This is the entomological version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, a mistake we won’t soon repeat. Now we split dried goods into multiple jars so that in case some critters get it to one we’ll still have others.

5. Buying a wonky house with poor professional guidance

Be careful choosing a Realtor–pick one who has been recommended to you by someone you trust. Be especially careful picking a home inspector–pick an independent one–not one recommended by the seller or buyer’s agent. Our inspector spent a very short time in our house and ignored large problems, in my opinion, because it was in his favor for the house to sell so that he could continue his relationship with our agent. It’s an inherent conflict of interest for the inspector to have a connection to either real estate agent.

6. Planting a lawn

We weren’t always the Molotov cocktail tossing vegetable growing radicals that we are now. Just after we bought this place ten years ago we planted a lawn in the backyard. With some temporary fencing, we roped it off from the Doberman to allow it to grow. After a month the lawn matured into a lush green carpet . . . but it only lasted five minutes. That was the time it took for the Doberman to gracefully leap over the barrier and run in circles, causing chunks of turf and newly amended soil to fly all over the yard.

Let’s do the math–in a dry place like Los Angeles–lawn=crime. On top of the waste of water they simply don’t look good here without massive inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and gas powered lawn mowers. Sorry, but I hate lawns and will not ever be convinced otherwise. Got kids? That’s what mulch is for. Fuck the lawn. Fuck all it stands for.

The Conclusion

I guess the lesson here, with all of these missteps, is persistence. Push through the blunders and the light will shine. And a promise–we here at Homegrown Evolution we will do a better job detailing our mistakes.