Novella Carpenter Harassed by City of Oakland

Urban farmer and author Novella Carpenter is getting harassed by city of Oakland employees. From her blog Ghost Town Farm:

Here’s the deal: After getting off the plane from Salt Lake City and making my way home to a cup of tea, I sit down at my kitchen table and I see this guy in a City of Oakland car taking photos of my garden. I go down and he said I’m out of compliance for “agricultural activities”. I’m supposed to get a Conditional Use Permit for growing chard. The annual fee: $2500.

My two cents. Get involved in local politics to change outdated planning codes. We did it in LA with the Food and Flowers Freedom Act. In the meantime let’s lend Novella our support and best wishes.

Newsflash: Thift shop where rich people live

Some newsflash, huh? Los Angeles has plenty of rich people, but many more poor people, and legions of dedicated thrifters. I’ve pretty much given up hope of finding bargains here. Your chances of happening on a really good find in this city is equivalent to being struck by lightning. But I’m learning that it pays to take little jaunts out of town now and then, to find better hunting grounds.

Case in point, I visited the idyllic town of Ojai with a friend recently. While we admired their copious public parks, clean public bathrooms, and shops filled with a vast selection of sensible shoes and flowing linen outfits for well-heeled ladies of a certain age, we also checked out their thrift stores. In one, I found a baking dish. I needed a new baking dish because I destroyed our Pyrex dish doing experiments for Making It. Yep, I warped a Pyrex. Didn’t think it was possible, did you?

This dish I spotted was oval–not ideal, but workable. It also turned out to be a Le Cruset pan. “Le Cruset?” I said to myself. “That there’s one of them classy brands I done seen down at the Sur le Table.” So I bought it for a few bucks and brought it home. Once home, I looked it up online. It’s actually an enameled cast iron “au gratin” dish. Who knew you needed a dedicated pan for cheesy potatoes? Market value? $150. 

Sure, I’d never pay so much for such a pan, and that’s a crazy price for a baking pan under any circumstances, so it’s sort of a hollow triumph–but still. I got me one helluva fancy pants pan.

Still need something to bake brownies in, though.

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?

The binoculars are always close at hand

A typical breakfast scene: Erik surveys the neighborhood from our “hilltop aerie.” What’s he looking at? Perhaps a lithesome jogger? Actually, no. When I took this picture he was admiring something poking out of a recycling bin over on Coronado Terrace.

I’ve never quite got used to my man’s propensity to snatch up the binoculars, but I don’t really disapprove either. Erik is a peculiar peeping tom. His viewing interests fall into 3 categories:

1) Scavenge opportunities
2) Happily spotting people and/or dogs we know on the street. Sort of as a sport. (“There goes Blackie!”)
3) Foiling wrongdoers. Because he’s so nosy, he knows who lives here, and has interfered with nefarious activities in the past (casing, tagging, etc.).

Our sky, post-storm

I’m just putting this up as a memorial to winter. It’s over, and I already miss it. From now on the Southern California skies will be relentlessly azure, unmarred even by clouds, except for a brief period of chronic overcast called “June gloom.” We may not see rain again for 9 months.

Content Mills: Pimples on the Information Superhighway

Yes, there really is a “How to Get Rid of Pimples on the Buttocks” video on eHow. If only they had a how to get rid of eHow article.

Google’s powerful search engine has become an essential component of the urban homesteading toolbox. From diagnosing tomato diseases to cooking Ethiopian injera Google has the answers.

In recent years, unfortunately, low quality “content mills,” such as ezinearticles and suite101 that pair dubious information with advertising, have replaced more respectable sources in search rankings.  An article in Wired Magazine, “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model” details how these content mill scams work. Authors and video producers for these companies get next to nothing to produce shoddy work that is then tied to keywords used to generate click through advertising.

I actually got an email a few months ago from content mill king Demand Media asking if we’d contribute video. I replied with a terse email message, “Sorry to say that we don’t generate material for content mills.” I got an astonishing response,

Hi Erik,

Thank you for your timely reply. I think you have a point about the content mill, however should you ever reconsider, and would like for us to produce high quality How To videos for you and Ehow, which you can use on your own web site, please don’t hesitate to contact me. All the videos on Ehow include links to your website, a bio of the expert, and Google Search result optimization.

Google adjusted its algorithms last week to bump down content mill sites. A study, released this past weekend by Sistrix, shows how that adjustment has changed search results. The results are mostly positive. In Sitrix’s “visibility index” exinearticles.com is down 90% and suite101.com is down 94%. But at least one content mill slipped through the cracks. EHow.com actually rose in Sistrix’s index.

So Google has more algorithm tweaking to do that runs somewhat counter to their financial interests in selling more ads. But I’ll repeat what Amy Stewart says over at Garden Rant, dear eHow: please go away.

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.

My mental glitch: hay vs. straw

Photo by David Shankbone

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So I went to the feed store to get some stuff for the chickens and at the counter I made a mistake. When the clerk said, “Anything else?” I said, “Oh yes. One bale of hay, please.”  She rang me up. The bill seemed more than usual, but being in my usual fog, I didn’t pay that much attention. The heavy lifting guys bring the hay bale to my car. It’s green and fragrant…it’s….HAY.

I meant straw.

This is not my fault. I’m a city kid. I was not taught the difference between straw and hay as a wee child, and as an adult, while I’ve learned the difference via the school of hard knocks, somewhere deep in my brain hay and straw remain synonyms. This problem shows no sign of going away.

I also persistently call my ipod my Walkman. This is even worse, because it shows my age. It’s like I’ve become one of those middle aged people who in my youth called the stereo “the hi-fi”.

*

Homegrown Evolution readers are all savvy folks, and know this already, but in case some poor soul is cast on this shore by Google, this is the difference between hay and straw:

Hay refers to grasses or legume plants cut down fresh and baled for animal feed. Hay bales are usually greener than straw bales, the plant material finer. Hay smells really nice, too. You would not want to use this stuff as mulch, or you’d end up sprouting a yard full of alfalfa or whatever. It’s also more expensive than straw, about three times as much, depending on the grass type. No one would use hay as bedding.

Straw is the dried stalks of cereal plants, like wheat. It’s a by-product of harvest. If any seeds remain on the stalks, it’s by accident. Therefore, straw is nutritionally void, and is not animal feed. However, that lack of seeds makes it a fine mulch, and an inexpensive bedding material. We line our chicken coop with it, and recommend it for weed suppression projects.

So I had this dream

Here I am, with the soon-to-be-forgotten worms and a fantastic class of Waldorf kids

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So last night I had this dream that I was sitting at a kitchen table with someone (don’t know who it was) and I noticed something that looked like a dried out worm coiled on the edge of one of the dishes. I pointed it out to this other person, and she reached out and crushed it with her fingertip. It crumbled to pieces on the tabletop. I laughed and said, “I sure hope that’s not one of my worms!” She laughed, too, and mischievously blew the crumbs in my direction.

And thus does one’s subconscious work. I woke with a start, remembering that, after showing off my worms to class of visiting school kids, I’d left the bin out on the back porch for a night, and day, and half of another night. Usually the worms live in the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and brought them back in.

The problem with worms is that they’re so darn quiet.

The worms are fine. They’re tough, and our weather is mild. But I was a little worried about them  because they are house-worms, acclimated to room temperature, and I’d left them out in the open, on concrete, and in a shallow bin.

See, worms can take care of themselves just fine if given the room and resources they need to cool themselves down, warm themselves up, and regulate their moisture. However, when they’re in a shallow little bin, they just don’t have much latitude for adjustment. It’s our responsibility as worm keepers to regulate their environment.

Luckily for us and our forgotten worms, even though it was unseasonably warm yesterday,  the sun is low on the horizon, so our back porch wasn’t baking in the western sun, like it does most of the year. Otherwise, the worms, being unable to hide deep in the soil, might have steam cooked in the bin during that long, forgotten day. 

Of course, worms can be kept outdoors in all but the most extreme temperatures, but their bins need to be sited correctly–kept in nice shady spots, protected from the rain, and elevated from cold-conducting cement surfaces. (Maybe some of you folks who live in snow country could chime in on what you do with your worms when it’s freezing out?)