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.

And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma

The ducks of Petaluma Urban Homestead

A big thanks to Suzanne and Paul of Petaluma Urban Homestead for giving us a tour of their bit of heaven on earth. Root Simple forgot to bring the camera so you’ll have to check out their blog to see what they are up to. They make a damn good hard cider by the way.

We also had the privilege of meeting the inspiring Trathen Heckman of Daily Acts, publisher of the journal Ripples. If that wasn’t enough, Suzanne took us to an open house at the Center for Regenerative Design to see the wonders of permaculture applied to the breathtaking northern California landscape.

We’re back and fired up to work on our own humble plot here in Los Angeles which is looking a little neglected after a busy fall. More soon . . .

The Three Sisters

Due to the rigors of finishing our book The Urban Homesteader due out from Process Media next spring we were late getting around to planting our parkway vegetable garden. To review, the parkway is that space between the sidewalk and the street that belongs to the city but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. The city, of course, wants us all to plant a lawn so that fat people can easily plop out of their Escalades unimpeded. We decided to grow food instead and despite the presence of many building inspectors reviewing our expensive foundation work nobody seems to care about the two large raised beds we installed. In fact one of our neighbors has planted her own parkway vegetable garden just down the street.

Since it was so late (July) we decided to cultivate heat tolerant vegetables and upped the ante by planting the Native American three sisters–corn, beans and squash. The three sisters are textbook permaculture, the idea being that the beans nitrogenate the soil and climb up the corn while the squash provides mulch. All plants are useful and you end up with an interdependent, self-sustaining beneficial feedback loop. Some people add a fourth sister, Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) which attracts pollinating insects for the corn and squash.

We added a drip irrigation system on a timer (more on that in a later post) which has seemed to keep the plants healthier by preventing watering mishaps due to those flaky hung-over mornings. We planted corn seeds from the Not a Cornfield project, a variety of squash called Cucuzzi, and two beans from seeds we saved from last season (the tasty Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco and attractive but not so tasty scarlet runner bean).

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).