Local Bite Challenge Starts Today

Local-Bite-featured-basic

Sorry for the last minute notice, but I thought some of you might be interested in a project that our internet neighbor, Melissa, at Ever Growing Farm is launching her Local Bite Challenge today, and is hoping some of you will join her. She and her partner will be eating locally for 100 days on a budget of 100 bucks a week.  There’s all sorts of activities and mini-challenges over the 100 day period to keep you inspired.

So if you’ve considered eating more locally, but haven’t quite found the gumption to embrace it yet, this would be a fun way to take the plunge, and see what you learn about your local foodscape.

This introduction page gives an overview of the project: Local Bite Challenge

Meet our book & web designer: Roman Jaster

making it cover

Roman Jaster is the gifted designer who designed both Making It and this very website for us. He recently gave a Visiting Designer talk about his work at his alma mater, CalArts and made that lecture public on YouTube. In it, he talks about his childhood in East Germany, the decisions he made early-on which determined his career, his working methods (which are really interesting, combining coding with design) and talks about the concepts behind some of his projects, including Making It.

This all may be a little off-topic for the blog, but I’m sure some of you out there are designers, or who know someone who is interested in a career in design, or maybe, like us, you’re just curious about other people’s jobs. Roman is a charming guy and a good speaker.

The talk is available as a PowerPoint lecture in several short installments over on YouTube. This link should take you to the first video in the playlist. You’ll see the lecture is divided thematically so you can focus in on what you’re interested in — but we’d recommend you watch the first segment, about his early life, so you can see him 1) dressed as an Indian princess, 2) modeling German swimwear and 2) going to prom. ;)

DIY Funerals Part 2: Swine Composting

composting diagram

This image from “Composting for Mortality Disposition” by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. I have no idea what’s going on there, exactly–I meanm wouldn’t that pile be as big a house? — but I like that it looks like the  Noah’s Ark of Death.

In the comments on my last post, several people pointed out that farm animals are often composted. I did not know this!  I’m from the city, so there’s lots of stuff I don’t know. Like the difference between hay and straw. Anyway, this is exciting, because it brings me closer to being composted. (In my funereal fantasy world, at any rate)

One of the commenters, Raleigh Rancher, kindly sent along a link to Composting Swine Mortalities in Iowa, a publication of the Iowa State University Extension Program. Thank you, Raleigh!  What a trove of information! It has how-to’s, and a FAQ.

I also googled “swine composting” and found that there is in fact a ton of information out there, and most of it from respectable university extension services, not crazy DIYers like me.  And now  I truly am confused. If farm animals are getting composted all the time, and that compost is being spread on cropland, why can’t we be composted and put to good use?

Who Wants Seconds? Winner Announced

WhoWantsSeconds_JennieCook

What a great response we’ve had on this one! Thank you all for entering, and thanks to Jennie for giving us this book to share with you all.

We’ve also enjoyed seeing how you all self-identify. Eating has become such a complex, even fraught activity. My grandmother would boggle at discussions like this, I suspect. I don’t think she even knew the word vegan.

Since we’ve heard from you all, we’ll share our preferences: We eat mostly vegetarian, but will eat meat if it comes from an impeccable source. Preferably we will actually know the farmer. This kind of meat is hard to come by and very expensive, so we eat it rarely–maybe six times a year. Though we eat dairy, we do our best to eat grass fed dairy, and mostly our own eggs, and this limits availability and raises costs as well, so many of our meals are actually vegan.

Okay! I know! Enough blathering. This morning we generated a number at random.org and counted down the comments until we got to our winner.

And the winner is….

Siri!

Congratulations, Siri!

We have Siri’s email address since she didn’t comment anonymously. We’ll be sending her an email right now, so we can exchange mailing information.  So look for our email, Siri!

Again, thank you all for entering!

Grubs in your acorns? Meet Curcuio, or the Acorn Weevil

I’m pretty fascinated with acorn weevils these days, since I’m seeing a lot of them while processing my acorns. I finally looked them up, and it turns out they have a fascinating life cycle.

There are two types of acorn weevils (beetles), long snouted and short snouted, Curculio and Conotrachelus, respectively. They both plant their eggs in acorns, but the short snouted one seems to do this in cracked acorns once they are on the ground. The long snouted variety is the one that you’re going to run into acorn processing, because unless you’re drinking your bathwater for breakfast, you’re not going to be picking up cracked acorns.

The female weevil, whose snout is as long as her body (about 3/8″), digs a hole in a green, developing acorn with tiny appendenges on the end of her snout. She sucks the oily nutritious juice out of the acorn, and thus fortified, lays her eggs in the hole, and plugs the hole with her own poo. The grubs hatch in the continuous buffet which is the acorn, and snuggled up in there, snacking, until the acorn falls from the tree. By this time (as Nature is smart) they are ready to leave the acorn, and they take the fall to the ground (which must be quite a shock) as a signal to start chewing their way out of the acorn. How fast this happens depends on how thick the acorn’s shell is — anywhere from a few hours to three days.

The grubs always chew a perfectly round, 1/8″ hole. It’s just big enough for their head, and they have to squeeze and wiggle their fat, shiny acorn-stuffed body through the hole to escape. Once they fall to the forest floor, they hurry to bury themselves in the soil before something comes along and eats them. If they make it, they take a multiyear nap underground (I’ve read anywhere from 1-5 years). They don’t eat, but they somehow metamorphose into their adult beetle form. When they wake one fine summer day, they crawl out of the soil, mate soon after, and start the process all over again.

There’s some points to be taken here for the forager. The first is that just because there’s no hole in the acorn doesn’t mean that there’s not a grub in it. A hole means a grub has already emerged. It may have siblings which will also be emerging soon. Or not. Or if the acorn has been on the ground for a while, another insect may have moved in. No hole means nothing.

However, if you’re collecting fresh acorns, you’re going to know that you’ve got about a 3 day window in which you may see larvae emerge from your stash, leaving their distinctive holes behind. (You may even see individual acorns in your stash wiggling, like giant jumping beans!) This is not a problem, just something to know, for the sake of storage, or squeamish loved ones.

The acorn they emerge from may or may not be useable. You can open it and check it out–or opt not to. It will be likely to be at least 50% spoiled, in any case. It may also have more fresh grubs in it, trying to make their way out. You may well chop them in half with your knife, and feel oddly bad about the whole thing.

Gardening Resources in Los Angeles County

Opuntia illustration

Perhaps because the real estate market is heating up again, we’re getting a lot of requests for gardening resources in the Los Angeles area. It thought I’d list our favorite resources in this blog post that I can refer people to. But I need your help–please let me know in the comments if you know of a resource that I should have included.

Soil Testing
Wallace Labs. When you fill out the form check off the box for “Standard Agricultural Soil Suitability Analysis.” All healthy gardens start with a soil test and Wallace Labs will have your results delivered by email within a few days.

Arborist
Tree Care LA (Nick Araya, ISA Certified Arborist and Oscar Sanchez). Nick and Oscar did a great job with our trees. If you care about your trees, hire a certified arborist not just some dude with a chainsaw. It costs is nothing when you consider how much you’ll pay to fix the damage from a limb falling down on your roof in the next big winter storm.

Fruit Trees/Berries
Bay Laurel Nursery (mail order bare root). Order in the fall for January/February delivery. Get your order in soon as they often sell out of popular trees. Get trees with low chill hour requirements. Look up your chill hours here.

Check out Dave Wilson Nursery’s handy guide to backyard orcharding,

Do not plant any grapes that aren’t Pierce Disease resistant. And personally, I would not plant citrus.

Vegetable Gardening
When to plant: http://www.scribd.com/doc/154952660/What-to-Plant-When-in-Southern-California

Our favorite seeds, Franchi Seeds, are available at http://theheirloomseedstore.com/ and at Sunset Nursery in Silver Lake.

Vegetable gardening classes: Grow LA Victory Gardening Initiative.

Visit the Huntington Ranch for ideas and inspiration.

The Environmental Change Makers offer a number of great classes and publications: How to Get Rid of Bermuda Grass, and How to Make Your Garden GMO-free http://www.scribd.com/EnviroChangeMakers/. Booklets about high-yield organic vegetable gardening in SoCal’s unique year-round growing season http://envirochangemakers.org/publications/. Monthly organic vegetable gardening classes at the two community gardens in Westchester http://www.EnviroChangeMakers.org

Monthly vegetable gardening classes at The Learning Garden at Venice High School.

Seed Library of Los Angeles SLOLA.org (meetings and seed saving classes).

Keeping Chickens
Los Angeles Urban Chicken Enthusiasts

Beekeeping
Honeylove.org.

How to videos starring Kirk Anderson at the Backwards Beekeepers blog.

Greywater/Rainwater Harvesting
DIY option: Art Ludwig’s free laundry to landscape plans at Oasis Designs. Or buy his books, Create an Oasis with Greywater: Choosing, Building and Using Greywater Systems – Includes Branched Drains and Water Storage: Tanks, Cisterns, Aquifers, and Ponds for Domestic Supply, Fire and Emergency Use. Brad Lancaster’s book: Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond (Vol. 2): Water-Harvesting Earthworks

Greywater Corp (design, installation and classes)

Retail Nurseries
Apartment Therapy has a good list.

Annie’s Annuals (mail order from SF Bay area).

Garden Design/Maintenance
Help me out here readers–if you know of some good folks leave a comment . . .

Getting my Ham Radio License

1955-how-to-become-a-radio-amateur

I often find myself doing a kind of cultural dumpster diving, searching for forgotten activities waiting to be rediscovered. Most of this scavenging takes place at Los Angeles’ massive central library on lower level two, where all the how-to books are shelved.  This month I’m finally acting on something I’ve contemplated for years: getting my amateur radio (i.e. Ham) technician’s license. I’ll be taking the test in the middle of the smart phone era.

Curiously, when I’m deep in the cultural dumpster I often run into fellow scavenger John Michael Greer, a.k.a. the Archdruid. When I met him at the Age of Limits conference he held court on some of my favorite forgotten ideas: appropriate technology, fraternal societies and Ham radio. A Ham himself, Greer recommended I read an amazingly odd book, Instruments of Amplification, which actually has directions for building your own transistors from junk. I’ll probably never get around to any of those projects, but I of A may be the ultimate DIY text.

But I’m not just being contrarian. I’m looking forward to being of service to my community in the event of a disaster such as an earthquake.

I’m curious to know if any of our readers are Hams? Leave a comment . . .

How to save tomato seed

tomato seeds rotting in water

Seeds fermenting in water. Not pretty, but pretty important! The jar got shaken up while walking it outside for its photo op., so it looks a little cloudy and messy. In your jar, you should see a layer of scum on top of the water.

I can’t believe we haven’t posted about this before–it seems like we have, but I can’t find the post if this is so. Perhaps we wrote about it in one of our books…the old brain is getting foggy.

It’s easy to save seed from your favorite tomatoes. Seed saving in general is actually a little tricky. You can’t just save the seed from any old vegetable in your garden and hope that it will yield plants like the parent. Cross-breeding is an issue. Professional seed savers use all sorts of sacks and screens and boxes to ensure that busy bees or flirtatious winds don’t make romance happen where it ought not. Otherwise you get acorn squash crossing with melons and who knows what not. It depends on the type of vegetable you want to save seed from–as well as what else you’re growing around it.

Tomatoes, however, are a pretty safe bet for seed saving. They are self-fertile, and the structure of their flowers makes cross pollination difficult. Our seed saving Bible, Seed to Seed, says that there are only three types of open pollinated tomatoes that you can’t save seed from (without putting them in isolation):

  1. Currant tomatoes (L. pimpinellifolium)
  2. The potato leaved varieties of L. lycopersicum
  3. Any fruit born from double blossoms on Beefsteak-type tomatoes. Double blossoms are prone to cross-pollination.  You can save seeds from fruit that came from a single blossom

Odd, but simple! You can basically save seed from almost any heirloom/open-pollinated variety you’re likely to  be growing. You cannot save seed from hybridized plants. These are the type you are most likely to find in the nursery–plants bred for performance, not seed saving. This would include popular breeds like Early Girl and Better Boy and Sun Golds.  If you’re not sure if your tomatoes are hybrids or not, just Google the name. The Internet is wonderful that way.

The process of saving tomato seed is simple. All you have to do is rot off the protective gel sack which surrounds each seed. This gel inhibits germination, keeping the seeds from germinating while still in the tomato. In nature, the gel rots off while the fallen tomato sits on the ground. Here, you will speed the process along with some water. In addition to removing the gel sack, this fermentation process also kills many seed-borne tomato diseases.

How to Save Tomato Seed

  1. Choose your best, tastiest tomatoes for seed saving.
  2. Scoop out the seed pulp and drop it into a jar. Or just squeeze a whole tomato over the jar.   It’s best to just squeeze cherry tomatoes. (You can use food processor, too, if you’re doing big batches.)
  3. Pour a little water over the pulp. It should cover the pulp by say, 2-3  inches or so.
  4. Cover the container and let it sit for a few days (3 days, roughly–weather makes a difference), until white or grey mold forms on the surface of the water. If you do a big batch, you will smell the rot. Don’t worry about it–just keep the dogs away! Watch for the mold to form and continue on to the next step. The mold may be impressively fuzzy, or it may just be a slight opaque slick on top of the water. Don’t let it sit in this state too long, or the seeds will start germinating in their bath.* If you’re in doubt as to whether it is ready, it’s ready. Far better to stop a little early than to let the seeds accidentally germinate.
  5. Pour off the moldy water, reserve the seeds.
  6. Add clean water back to the seeds and give the water a swirl. Let it settle. Any bad seeds will rise to the top. If they do, pour them off.
  7. Strain the seeds with a fine strainer (a teas strainer is fine for small batches) and spread them out to dry. They need to dry on something which will wick water away, because it is important that they dry quickly–otherwise they might germinate. Coffee filters work well, as do pieces of window screen, or paper plates. Tomato seeds stick to paper towels, so if you use those you may end up having to plant the seeds on their little bits of towel.
  8. Once they are bone dry, transfer to envelopes or glass jars for storage. Be sure to label!

*I just lost a batch to germination. I blame the heat. It didn’t seem like they’d be fermenting that long, but after I drained my seeds I saw the tiny little white nubbins poking out of the seeds. Now I have to begin again. This is one reason why you should not wait ’til your last tomato to think about saving seeds. Also, this is a reminder to keep a close eye on your projects!

ETA: We’ve had some comments from what I’ll call the Paper Towel School of seed saving, and I thought I’d amend this post to point out that another method is to just spread some tomato pulp on a paper towel and let it dry out. The seeds will stick to the towel, so you store the whole towel and when planting time comes next year, you tear the towel into tiny pieces and plant the pieces. This does save steps. The method described above is the Official Method, and the method I’ve always used. I’ve not tried the paper towel thing myself, but it seems sensible. However, as  I understand it, the fermentation process in the water bath method kills diseases, so it is considered good etiquette to put your seeds through this process if you plan to share them with others.

Also check out the comments for more on the mystery of cross-pollinating tomatoes!

Picture Sunday: Amazon’s “Rasta Imposta” Squirrel Costume

Screen shot 2013-08-10 at 9.42.40 AM

If I get one of these and run around the yard would squirrels be so confused that they’d leave my fruit trees alone?

From the Amazon reviews:

it even comes with nuts
By squirrelman
When I first saw this squirrel costume, I went a little nuts (pun intended :) ). I starting buying one for everyone I knew. My wife, kids, lawyer, dentist, family practitioner, our local barista, and even my boss. Needless to say, we all suited up for halloween and went out as a dray (for those of you not as into squirrels as I am, a dray is what a group is called!)

It was the most amazing time ever. Almost everyone said that our costumes were the bomb. Well everyone except Ted. That guy’s a real jerk!

And:

Not well made
By Jaime
Got this product for Halloween…. Wore it out and blowing up the tail alone took over 30 minutes of continuous blowing. Got light headed and had to take multiple breaks in fear of passing out. The back velcro holding it together was super cheap and didn’t stick or hold well. The hat/hood/top/head was very difficult and continuously slid down over my eyes throughout the night and I was quite annoyed. The nuts….. well just throw those in the trash because they stick to your hands for about 1 minute and fall off, and no one wants to hold nuts all night. I would recommend you get a different squirrel suit elsewhere and not this one.

And what exactly makes this squirrel costume “rasta?”

Maintaining a Worm Bin

worm bin 1

This image might represent a new low in aesthetics from the Root Simple Photo Department. And that’s saying something.

I freshened up our big worm bin today and I thought I’d report on what I did because I get a lot of questions about worm bin maintenance.

First, I want to say this is just how I go about it. Other people will have different methods and habits. Worms are forgiving and reasonably adaptable, so you have a whole lot of leeway in keeping a bin. As long as you don’t let the worms dehydrate, drown, bake, or utterly starve, you’re going to be okay.

Our worm bin is pretty big (5 feet long), and made of pine boards.  It bears an unfortunate resemblance to a coffin, but it works wonderfully. I used plastic storage totes for my worm bins before we built this, and while those worked fine, I really like my big bin for two main reasons. The first is the size. It can take whatever I throw at it. It takes all my kitchen scraps, except for the really choice stuff that goes to the chickens. The second selling point is that the wood breathes, and that seems to make the worms happy.

Maintaining the Bin

The Conceptual Divide

I divide my bin into two areas, left and right. There’s no physical barrier between the sides, just a conceptual distinction. Usually one side is working and the other side is resting. This division is easy to make in a long, skinny bin like mine, but can be managed in a smaller bin as well.

Basically, once you’ve got a worm bin going, there will come a time when you’ll need to harvest some of the castings. Those castings are valuable in the garden, and the worms don’t want to live in their own waste. You’ll know its getting close to harvest time when you see pockets of scraps here and there, but mostly the texture of the contents looks like soil or coffee grounds. Or maybe fudge, if it’s more wet and compact. Fudge is a less than ideal environment for worms.

In the picture at the top you’ll see my most recent working side. There’s a lot going on in there still, some big food pockets, wood shavings everywhere, but the texture is becoming too black and dense overall. Compost worms like a little air, a little “wiggle room” and a diversity of habitat. It was past time to change this working side to a resting side.

Resting comes before harvest. This is where dividing the bin in two comes into play. Resting means no more feeding, so that the worms will finish up whatever bits of food are left around. But of course you can’t starve out your worms, so you only rest half of the bin at a time.  To do this, you put your food scraps on one side only. The worms on the resting side will finish up whatever food pockets remain and then migrate over to the active side for the fresh grub.

This doesn’t happen quickly. I’ve never made note of how long migration takes–it will vary, depending on many factors. I just poke around in the resting side whenever I happen to think about it. If I don’t see anything recognizable beyond non-digestibles, like avocado pits, fruit stones and egg shell shards, and I know it’s ready for harvest.

There will also be a few worms left, no matter how long you wait. More on them later. If your bin is outdoors, other insects like sow bugs might be in there too, but are harmless.

This is the process in a nutshell:

When your bin is looking mostly done, ie full of castings, rest one side of it. This means you feed only on the opposite side. When all the recognizable scraps are gone from the resting side, you harvest the castings. Then you can put fresh bedding in the empty space, and start encouraging the worms to move to that side.  Soon, you will be able to rest the opposite side of the bin, and eventually harvest it. And so it goes, back and forth.

Continue reading…