Friday Pop Quiz

Our pantry. So what’s the main thing wrong with this picture? Hint–we’re in California. Leave a comment. We’ll provide an answer tomorrow.

Wish we could offer a prize, like an all expenses paid trip to Vernon, CA. But, alas, we have a tight budget here at Root Simple. You’ll get bragging rights.

Survival Gardening

One of many survival garden pitches.

Listen to AM radio for more than a few minutes and you’re bound to hear an ad touting seeds and “one acre survival gardens.” The implication is that hordes of foreclosed zombies will soon empty the shelves of the local Walmart and leave us all bartering for gas with our carefully stored heirloom pole bean seeds.

But it does raise the question of how much space you need to grow all your own food. It’s been on my mind since attending John Jeavons’ three day Grow Biointensive workshop where we spent a fair amount of time, calculator in hand, figuring out how many calories you can squeeze from small spaces.

What gets left out in the “survival garden” sales pitches is that, if you want real self-sufficiency, you’ve also got to maintain the soil fertility that you deplete by harvesting. To do that you need to grow all your own compost. For this, Jeavons suggests what he calls “carbon and calorie crops” things like corn and wheat where you get both something edible and a lot of biomass for your compost pile. In Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot “sustainable one person mini-farm” scheme, 60% of your growing area is devoted to these compost and calorie crops. The remainder is planted in 30% high calorie root crops, such as potatoes, with just 10% of the garden devoted to the usual tomatoes and greens.

The residents of Biosphere 2, using Jeavons’ techniques claimed that enough food could be grown for one person on as little as 3,403 square feet. Jeavons has shown that you could use less space, but you better like eating a lot of potatoes.

In reality, there’s probably too many variables, such as climate, to get an exact figure on how much space you need to grow enough food for one person. And let us not forget the novice survival gardener’s experience (I’m amused at the thought of those one acre survival gardeners busting open that paint can full of seeds for the first time having never gardened before). And if you want livestock, the acreage requirements jump considerably.

But considering that it takes, according to Jeavons, between 15,000 and 30,000 square feet for commercial agriculture to provide the same calories as Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot mini-farm, we’d do well to pull out those calculators on occasion. With just 176 square feet of vegetable beds at the Root Simple compound, our goal is self-reliance, not self-sufficiency. Do you think our post-apocalyptic overlords will feed us in exchange for blogging for them?

Kelly’s “EDC”

Erik challenged me to post about my EDC. I had to laugh. What I Carry Every Day is my bag. My bag is huge. Isn’t an EDC supposed to be worn on the hip or carried in the pocket?

For that matter, isn’t this whole EDC thing a boy’s game–since womens’ clothing is notoriously lacking in pockets? Even my jeans have tighter, shallower pockets than Erik’s. (Once Erik put on my jeans by accident and immediately cried in horror, “What happened to my pockets!?!”)

And as far as belt mounted hardware goes, most women don’t wear a belt, a practical belt, every day of their lives.  Sometimes I ponder the idea of constructing some sort of pocketed belt-like-thing that I could wear on my hips (not a fanny pack), to leave my shoulders unburdened, but it would take some fashion adjustment to wear a utility belt every day.

For now, though, my bag is my EDC. And while it can devolve into a giant pit of flyers, receipts, misplaced business cards, crushed snacks and sometimes even plant matter, I do carry a few items that would be useful in an emergency.

At Erik’s challenge, I unpacked my bag for the camera, editing only the garbage.

The laptop (far right) is often in the bag, and was when I unloaded it, so it’s in the picture, but I don’t consider it an EDC and leave it at home as much as I can. The notebook on top is usually with me, though.

Row 1 (closest to the bag): This row I think of as my true EDC, in that I’d find these things useful in emergencies and unusual situations. All of it, except the phone, lives in a small dedicated pocket.

Left to right: Phone, multi-tool, mini first aid kit, lighter, LED light

Row 2: The items in this row all fit in the red pouch on the left. These are my personal comfort items. I admit I could survive with just the lip balm if I had to.

Left to right: Pouch, lipstick, homemade lip balm (which is also gets used for hand cream and hair control), a small mint tin which carries analgesics of all sorts, comb, flash drive, tampons, and my titanium spork, purchased long ago for backpacking, but which now I use to avoid plastic utensils.

Row 3: Wallet, notebook and pens, keys, ipod (I don’t carry it every day, but it was in the bag this day), and my sunglasses.

Erik shakes his head at how much I carry, but typing this up, I’m actually thinking it’s not all that bad. I could shed some of it, sure, but the items here are actually all things I use consistently and miss when I don’t have them.

Since Erik showed you his, I’ll show you mine. This is the Leatherman I carry. It’s the Juice S2, and has served me well for several years. I like it better than Erik’s model. It feels better in the hand, and never pinches the palm. It’s got screwdriver heads, a knife, scissors (which I actually use, believe it or not), can opener, and of course the pliers. This is the tool I use for most small jobs around the house. It’s more convenient to use this than trying to find one of our scattered tools.

There’s a smaller Juice called the Squirt, and sometimes I wish I had that instead, because of the weight factor. But the Squirt doesn’t have a Phillips screwdriver, so that’s sort of a deal breaker. If we were organized people and I knew I could find a Phillips screwdriver when I needed one, then I could do with less multi-tool.

What’s more interesting to me than fetishizing the EDC is the fetishizing of the emergency backpack, to which I plead guilty. I’ll unpack my backpack for you soon.

EDC Part I: Multi-tool and Knife

Photo by Jonas Bergsten

Your “everyday carry” or EDC is whatever you always have on hand–everything from your multi-tool to your cellphone to your credit cards. And, as it turns out, entire websites detail the fetishistic search for the Platonic ideal EDC. I especially like the EDC porn on everyday-carry.com.

In part I of our EDC review I’m going to describe my multi-tool which I’ve worn on my belt everywhere I go for almost 20 years. Subsequent posts will detail the other things I tote and the complex contents of Mrs. Homegrown’s purse.

For years the centerpiece of my EDC was the original Leatherman “Pocket Survival Tool” like the one in the picture above, a gift from Mrs. Homegrown back when I worked in video in the early 90s. Last year I broke the file off of it and finally lost the tool while re-doing our greywater system. I replaced it with the cheapest Leatherman I could find, the Leatherman Kick:

Leatherman 830018 Kick Pocket Multi-Tool with Leather Sheath

I have to say that I like my old Leatherman better and, thankfully, it turned up again. The Kick works fine but I prefer my old Leatherman’s all metal construction, its superior leather belt case and that fact that it’s ever so slightly smaller. That old Leatherman also has a tiny flathead screwdriver I find handy. With both, I use the pliers more than any of the other tools.

Now the Leatherman is to the Swiss Army knife what, say, Robert Johnson is to prog rock. One is direct and the other has, well, too many notes. The designers of the original Leatherman tool apparently felt that it’s fine to pop open a beer bottle after a hard days work but far too Eurotrashy to uncork a bottle of wine, at least that’s what I assume from the lack of a corkscrew. Though I just met someone who carries a tool I didn’t know existed, the Leatherman Flair:

The Flair,  Leatherman’s obvious attempt to imitate the Swiss Army knife, has a corkscrew, scissors and a fork like thingy. It’s been discontinued, though Leatherman still makes similar tools (though without the odd fork–how to skewer that olive?). And, of course, there’s Leatherman’s gardening, hunting, bicycling and even military and law enforcement multi-tools.

Leatherman is the Budweiser of multi-tools. There’s a whole array of other companies that make higher quality products but, alas, we don’t sell enough books for me to peruse the finer offerings at our local Ross Cutlery shop. Again, my basic Leatherman seems to have enough tools for most situations.

Of course a multi-tool is just part of one’s EDC. On days that I’m removing a beehive from a wall I’ve taken to carrying a Bushman knife to cut out the comb.

Cold Steel Bushman Black SK-5 Steel Cordura Survival Sheath


 It’s all metal, durable and easy to clean. And the hollow hilt can accept a stick to turn the knife into a spear should you need to “harvest” a feral pig for lunch, let’s say. But the Bushman is too bulky and sinister for my EDC, at least in urban areas. I wore it around the house one day, but Mrs. Homegrown said she thought I was acting like a preschooler and, frankly, what do I need a big knife like this for blogging, answering emails and trips to the post office? Plus this sucker is a one way ticket to junk touching and a Mr. Toad’s wild ride through the porno scanner should you get within a square mile of an airport or other secure facility. Bushman aside, the right to carry a small multi-tool is, incidentally, one of the reasons I prefer rail to the indignities of flying these days.

Stay tuned for what else is in my EDC, as well as Mrs. Homegrown’s EDC musings. Perhaps I’ll get around to a full-on EDC centerfold photo like the ones on everyday-carry.com. In the meantime, what’s in your EDC? Leave some comments . . .

A special thanks to Phil Noyes (author of an amazing book  Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America) for introducing me to the concept of EDC.

Skid Row Community Garden Gets SIPs

Novice gardeners + hot rooftop accessible only by many flights of stairs = perfect opportunity to use self irrigating pots.

Two master gardeners, Anne Hars and Maggie Lobl asked me to show them how to put together some SIPs (read more about what a SIP is here) for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which works with homeless and low-income residents on skid row.  Hars, Lobl, myself and a bunch of folks from LACAN put together a few SIPs and planted vegetables on the LACAN rooftop. The plants are thriving in a space where previous attempts at container gardening met with mixed success.

Gardening, like all the ways we humans interact with our surroundings is all about context. If you’ve got soil, as I’m lucky to have, work with that first. But if you have only a sunny rooftop or balcony and/or limited gardening experience SIPs are a great tool. They almost guarantee success, which is encouraging for people who have never gardened before. 

Read Jeff Spurrier’s article about the LACAN SIP garden in the LA Times, “Skid Row Community Garden: bounty by the bucket.”

A Fishy Mountaintop

We considered putting an aquaculture project in our next book but ultimately decided a against it, because we felt it’s too complicated a subject for most people.Aquaculture/aquaponics also seems to require just the right context. Even here in sunny Los Angeles we’d have to figure out a way to keep the fish warm during the winter, not to mention the use of lots of  water in a very dry place.

Austrian permaculturalist Sepp Holzer has developed an innovated aquaculture system.While, obviously, Holzer’s mountaintop setup is very unique, his problem solving through sophisticated but low tech means is universal. There’s something to learn from his methodology, even though few of us will be able to recreate his specific innovations..

I haven’t read it, but Holzer has a book: Sepp Holzer: The Rebel Farmer.

Via BoingBoing.

A silly note, but I had to point it out. Judging from the video, kudos to Holzer for being a proponent of traditional Austrian alpine clothing. Can we make that a trend? Nice to see.

Passport to Survival

One of the dusty corners of the Homegrown Evolution reference library holds two examples of a book genre I always look out for: the Mormon survival manual. As far as I can tell, these tomes assume we’re, “in the last days,” a period for which the Latter Day Saints hierarchy suggests keeping a two year supply of food for your household. Having just seen the grim Cormac McCarthy/Viggo Mortensen vehicle “The Road” and not wanting to have to resort to cannibalism (those folks at the Wal-Mart sure don’t look appetizing!), I cracked open my Mormon survival books starting with Esther Dickey’s Passport to Survival.

The astonishing thing about the 110 recipes in Dickey’s book is that they make use, almost exclusively, of only four ingredients: wheat, salt, honey and powdered milk. This makes Passport to Survival one of the most unusual cookbooks ever written. From these easily stored and inexpensive raw materials Dickey makes everything from tacos to ice cream. The fake meat that forms the centerpiece of her suggested meals is made by extracting gluten from flour and then making seitan. Your greens come from sprouting wheat. Here’s a few recipes and meals:

“#26. Mock Tater Tots

1/4 cup dry milk
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup thick starch #14a

Combine, and drop mixture from a teaspoon onto a cookie sheet Bake until brown. (Make tater tots miniature size).”

Ever resourceful, Dickey’s thick starch is the leftover water made from extracting the gluten from the wheat.

“#83. Soft Ice Cream (Emergency Flavor)

1 cup dry milk
3 cups water
3 tbs.honey

Mix, put in shallow tray, and freeze solid. Break in small chunks and beat with electric mixer, bender or juicer. Serve in miniature cones made from dough #51.”

Dickey whips up some lavish meals for the bunker, again, with just flour, salt, honey and powdered milk:


“Tuesday supper: “Hors d’oeuvres #27, green cream soup #70 and #73, thin sticks #9, wheatburgers #36, oven-cracked wheat #46d, soft ice cream #83 with caramel syrup #84, barber pole sticks #90, cold milk.”


“Monday dinner: green drink #73, emergency stew #20, noodles #27, bread sticks #38, criss-cross cookies #91.”

Dickey slept outdoors into her 90s and passed away in 2008. From her obituary,

“Nobody could say Esther had not practiced what she preached. As a young couple, Russell and Esther lived in a campground for more than two months, baking bread with a reflector oven. In her own east Multnomah County backyard, she once comfortably lived in a 15-by-4-by-6-foot cave, as an experiment. She once pushed a loaded two-wheeled metal cart to Oxbow Park along the Sandy River to live in a campsite by the river for several days.

There was one notable Thanksgiving with gluten drumsticks.”

I have the 1969 edition of Passport to Survival that I picked up on Amazon. There’s a more recent edition written by two of her daughters, but I haven’t seen it.

Should you be inspired to try your hand at wheat gluten cookin’, here’s some step by step instructions on making your own seitan from scratch on the Forkable blog.

Update 1/15/2010: I was just thumbing through my copy of the 1980 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and found a page devoted to Mormon survival manuals including a review of Passport to Survival. The review even included the same photo I chose for this post. This proves that:

1. The Whole Earth crew invented the internets.

2. There’s nothing I can blog about that the Whole Earth folks didn’t already cover. I owe them a tremendous debt and continue to admire their work each time I open my old copy of the catalog.

StoveTec’s Hot Rocket Stoves

StoveTec’s wood burning rocket stove on the left, charcoal and wood on the right.

A reader comment alerted me to a very cool product, the StoveTec Rocket Stove, offered by the “not-just-for-profit” wing of the Aprovecho Research Center. Profits from sales of the stoves benefit the Center’s research. StoveTec sells two rocket stoves, one for wood and the other for both wood and charcoal. While I haven’t tested one, the $37 to $40 price is a bargain.

Rocket stoves are a simple “appropriate” technology that burns small pieces of wood and charcoal efficiently. We’ve blogged about them before and even constructed our own out of a vent pipe and bricks. Instead of burning a log to cook you can use trimmings from trees, bushes and even agricultural waste. According to StoveTec,

“StoveTec Stoves, rocket stoves invented by Dr. Larry Winiarski, use 40-50% less fuel and reduce emissions by 40-75% while reducing green house gas (GHG) emissions an estimated 60% or 1-2 tons per year. These stoves are preferred over other improved cook stove and three stone fires by 95% of users in Uganda. High adoption and preference reported in India, South Africa, Ethiopia and Chile proves the stoves great versatility among many different users.”

Looks like they could find a nice home in North American as well. Do some pruning and then cook dinner. How about a rocket stove tailgate party?

Fish Don’t Fart

Portable Farms founder Colle Davis

Earlier this week we posted about home-scaled fish farming coming to a Home Depot near you. Yesterday we came across mention of another aquaponics supplier, Portable Farms (www.portablefarms.com) that produces larger greenhouse-based cultivation/aquaponics setups ranging in size from 6′ x 8′ to 90′ x 120′. The greenhouse seems like a good idea since, even in our warm Southern California climate, common aquaponics fish such as tilapia need heated water. Portable Farms owner Colle Davis runs a two acre farm in Escondido California and has been working on his aquaponics system for over 37 years. The tag line “Fish Don’t Fart” refers to the benefits of fish over methane generating cattle.

We skipped over aquaponics in our book since we considered it too expensive and complicated for most people. But perhaps we should give it closer consideration. Aquaponics is profiled in the pioneering urban homesteading book, The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the Cityand Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guidewhich comes out of their work at Austin’s Rhizome Collective. What all of these efforts have in common is a permacultural design principle of turning a waste product into a resource and closing a loop. Fish make fertilizer and plants clean water, so why not combine the two?

I’d like to hear stories from ordinary folks who have tried aquaponics on a small scale. If that’s you, leave a comment!

Farm in a Box

Farm in a Box ‘Little Tokyo

I never thought I’d see “permaculture” and “Home Depot” in the same sentence, but an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (For a Green Thumb, Just Add Water) connects the dots between the two with a new product line called Farm in a Box Aquaponics from Earth Solutions.

Farm in the Box is a combined fish tank/planter box. Waste from the fish circulates into the planter box via a pump to provide fertilizer for the plants as well as removing nitrogen and ammonia from the water. From the Earth Solutions website:

“By integrating fish with vegetables, naturally balanced aquatic ecosystems are established making it unnecessary to add fertilizer, chemicals or remove nitrogen rich water.

As in nature, plants, fish and oxygen loving bacteria create a symbiotic relationship; Fish waste is converted by bacteria to a plant loving nutrient which helps maintain safe levels of ammonia without discarding waste and water.

Aqupaonics is an efficient, intensive gardening method with average of 3-6 fold greater yield per square foot. And even though water is everywhere in an aquaponic system, there is as much as 90% less water used than in-ground methods. Other advantages to aquaponics, is that it is fun, easy, most can be done anywhere, by anyone who shares a passion for locally grown food and herbs, without the challenges of in ground farming. Experiment with growing aquaponically raised fish and vegetables in your house on the patio in a greenhouse or community garden, and enjoy!”

Having never tried aquaculture I can’t say if Farm in a Box is a good idea or not, but it sure is interesting to see an advanced permacultural concept ending up in the isles of a big box store. If Home Depot wants to distribute a product like this or Nike wants to use fixed gear bike “culture” to sell shoes, I’m all for it. Let’s get the ideas out there. It’s up to us to take the next step and actually eat the fish.