Least Farvorite Plant:–Heavenly Bamboo–Neither Heavenly nor Bamboo

Chickens assist in heavenly bamboo removal.

About a year ago, while searching for a spot for our new and larger compost pile, Mrs. Homegrown suggested ripping out a stand of heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) that occupied a shady spot in a corner of our backyard. My reaction? I think I said something like, “No way, it’s been there for twelve years and it took forever to reach three feet.”

Some time later Homegrown Neighbor came over and took a look at the yard. She said, “Why don’t you rip out that awful heavenly bamboo.” Once again I ignored the suggestion.

Last week Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms came over to rethink the garden. Eying the heavenly bamboo she scowled and demanded, “rip it out,” noting that it was ugly, diseased and caked with Los Angeles smog dust.

A few hour later I ripped it out. Needless to say Mrs. Homegrown is dismayed that it takes two experts to confirm something before I’ll listen to her advice.

Marital landscaping disputes aside, it’s not that this plant is inherently evil, it’s just not that interesting. Heavenly bamboo is not a bamboo It’s a member of the Berberidaceae or Barberry family. All parts of the plant are poisonous except to birds who can ingest the berries.While it’s draught tolerant (we never watered it), I don’t miss it. Typically, you see it tucked into forlorn plantings alongside 1960s era bank buildings. I suppose it provides some fodder for the birds, but that’s about it. Perhaps in some Japanese fantasy garden it would fit in next to the tea house, but we ain’t got no tea house.

I guess the lesson here, in addition to listening to your wife, is that gardens change and you’ve got to change with them. As Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Gardens, especially, should celebrate that impermanence. Now I have the beginnings of a big compost pile where it once stood.

We’ll detail some of the other changes we’re making in future posts and put up some before pictures. Stay tuned.

Farmers Markets: Buyer Beware

A local Los Angeles NBC news report “False Claims, Lies Caught on Tape at Farmers Markets” detailed something I’ve known about for a long time: some of the food sold at farmers markets comes not from local farms, but from wholesale sources. In short, some dishonest farmers market sellers are reselling the same inferior produce you get at the supermarket for a lot more money. And it gets worse. NBC also uncovered evidence of lying about pesticide use, also not surprising.

A farmer who runs an orchard visited us before this report came out and backed up what NBC later reported. She warned me never to buy from stands at farmers markets where the fruit is all the same size and looks too perfect. It’s a sign they just took the truck to a downtown wholesale warehouse and loaded it up.She also said that many farmers will mix their own produce with wholesale produce.

This report came out just after two supermarket chains, Safeway and Albertsons, created fake farmer’s markets inside and outside of their stores.

Yet more reasons to grow your own fruits and vegetables if you have space. Lying about the source of produce and pesticide use is so easy to pull off and the price incentive so rewarding that I’m sure this is happening everywhere. I’m interested in hearing other reports, so have at it in the comments.

Motuv-ated

We received a very nice letter from Amanda Lazorchack who, along with her partner Dane Zahorsky, are teaching a 7th grade sustainability class at the Kansas City Academy. They’re using our book The Urban Homestead as a textbook and sent a long a few pictures of what they are up to with their group, Motuv.

Lazorchack wrote, “It’s almost as if we woke up one day and realized that we didn’t know how to grow our own food and that that was a huge problem so we better get to teaching ourselves.” Amen!

We’re inspired by what they’re doing, and hope you might be, too.

Thanks, Motuv, for showing us what you’re doing!

Here’s some pics:

Pallets make great compost bins–I really like the paint job–much nicer than ours.
Motuv’s corn!
Motuv’s tomatoes!

Woman Fights Off Bear with Zucchini

Stop it, lady! Hey! Ouch!

Many thanks to Heather who left a link this in our most recent Squash Baby post, asking if we planned to use our Squash Baby to fend off bears.

It’s true! A woman bested a bear with a squash. Witness this article on the website of Montana television news station, KXLH. See photos of the very zucchini which smote the bear! Admire the heroic collie, who was wounded in the fray! (but will be okay.) Marvel at the sturdy jeans worn by the Squash Warrior, torn by the bear’s fearsome claws.

And to answer Heather’s question, I have no doubt that Squash Baby could lay a bear flat, the only problem is that I’m not sure I have the upper body strength to swing it around! Good thing the only bears in our neighborhood are found in bars.

Backyard Rebirth

Our shack as spied by Google.

Our yard is a disaster. There’s some randomly planted natives, vegetable beds lying fallow after a mediocre summer and large areas of, well, nothing. However, this ongoing landscaping disaster brought a valuable lesson: sometimes it’s best to bring in someone from outside the household for design advice, particularly if that person knows what they are doing. Thank you Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms for being that person.

Yards develop emotional baggage and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Kolla came up with a lot of simple ideas that we would never have thought of in a million years. We’ll document the changes we make as we begin planting and hardscaping over the next few months (our quirky Mediterranean climate means that late fall is one of our prime planting seasons). Now, I gotta go fetch the machete.

Hens Busy Dust Bathing

It’s difficult to capture the cuteness of this chicken behavior with a still camera–we really should try to make a  video.  Anyway, this is called “dusting” or “dust bathing.” The ladies have dug a hole in our yard and are gleefully rolling around in it, flicking loose dirt under their wings and driving it between their feathers. This is an innate behavior and an important part of chicken hygiene. Dusting suffocates skin parasites that prey on chickens, and it also seems to be pleasurable for the hens, judging by their blissful expressions.

After dusting they puff up and shake off, and settle in to do fine cleaning by preening. When they’re done, they’re all pretty and shiny.

It’s really important that chickens have constant access to dirt–loose, dry, sandy dirt–so they can dust at will. If for whatever reason your chickens don’t have this access, whether that’s because they’re being raised in a concrete floor, or are trapped inside because of bad weather, or your chicken run is swamped with mud, or whatever, it’s a smart thing to provide them with a tray of dirt so they can bathe. Dusting is nature’s favored method of insect control.

ETA: To give you some indication of size, a kitty litter tray would be a good size for a few hens to share, a cement mixing tray for a bigger flock.

Warning: Rant Ahead

We first got our own hens because we disagreed with the industrial style of raising chickens and farming eggs.  But at the time that disagreement was purely theoretical–now it’s stronger than ever, because it’s based on practice. The more we know, and experience the fundamentals of chicken life, the more appalling the industrial practices become.  One fundamental is that chickens are designed to live on dirt. They love to scratch, peck, dig and bathe in it. Take dirt away from them and you have to scramble to make up for that deficit in unnatural ways. Being unable to scratch, chickens get bored and peck at each other–so their beaks have to be cut off. Deprived of the ability to dust, they get mites and lice, and have to be treated with pesticides. It’s just sad.

Hipster Honeybear

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Erik puts molasses in his coffee and keeps the molasses in an old honeybear. I’m endlessly amused by the honeybear’s resulting mustache. Now, if he just had the handlebar mustache, I’d take him for a hip kid, one of those boys in tight jeans pedaling their fixie whips around the neighborhood. But it looks like he’s got a soul patch, too. So he’s either a refugee from the 90′s (Grunge being the last great soul patch era), or perhaps a jazz musician? Or, if you squint and pretend his cap is a beret, a Frenchman.

Changing Egg Habits

photo by Buzz Carter

Got the last word in an Associated Press article on the egg recall: Egg recall has some changing buying, eating habits. Basically, I said small is beautiful–better to have lots of  people with four hens each rather than a few people with hundreds of thousands. Too bad food safety laws winding their way through Washington are being crafted to favor the big guys who caused this recent outbreak. More on that anon.

Thoughts On the Egg Recall

An AP reporter just called to ask for my comment on the recent egg recall. He asked if I thought more people would start backyard chicken flocks. I said yes, adding that I believed that a “distributed” form of agriculture, i.e. many more people keeping small numbers of animals rather than small numbers of professionals in charge of tens of thousands of birds, would lead to greater food safety. Backyard flocks can get infected with salmonella. But if my birds get infected only two people get sick rather than 2,000. I can also keep a better eye on my flock’s health and rodent issues than can a minimum wage employee in charge of 10,000 hens. A small farmer has the same advantages–literally fewer eggs in one basket.

I went on to get up on my high horse and suggested that our current agricultural system goes against nature. As Heraclitus puts it, “Though the logos is common, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.” By the “logos” Heraclitus means the underlying, ordering principles of the universe. Applied to a chicken those underlying principles are that a chicken is a bird and that birds in nature have access to dirt, bugs, sunlight and vegetation. To keep them in battery cages under artificial light is a kind of arrogance, an assumption that we humans know exactly what a chicken needs, that we have a “wisdom of our own.” Admittedly, a chicken is domesticated animal, but that doesn’t give us the right to make the kinds of sudden, radical changes in animal husbandry that have been made in the past hundred years. To go against the logos is to court catastrophic failure.

All is Fire

Photo by Olivier Ffrench

Scholar, former Wall Street trader and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is in his native Lebanon this week shopping for olive groves, according to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal (enter “Taleb’s Pessimism Lures CIC” in Google to get around the pay wall). Taleb explains, “Healthy investments are those that produce goods that humans need to consume, not flat-screen TVs. Stocks are not a robust investment. Make sure you have a garden that bears fruits.”

Amen to that. Taleb’s book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable along with Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic and the fragments of Heraclitus are what I point people to when they ask, “so why do you do these things, gardening, pickling, brewing etc.” Invoking these stoic philosophers both ancient and modern is along winded and perhaps pretentious way of saying that I believe, along with Taleb, that the “highly improbable” is more probable than we think and that it’s best to do the things within our power to do and not worry about what’s going on beyond what we can change.

That China’s Sovereign-Wealth Fund is considering investing in the bearish (to put it mildly) investment fund Taleb advises worries me. Time to turn that RiteAid parking lot into an olive grove! I’ll rent the jackhammers–any volunteers?