Accidental Garden Design: Pomegranate and Prickly Pear

Can good garden design be taught or is it something you’re born with? If it’s inherited I didn’t get that gene, unfortunately. But at least a garden can sometimes put on a good show despite the gardener’s lack of design sense. Above, the view out our front window of our pomegranate tree (Punica granatum ‘Wondeful’) against our overgrown prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica).

These two plants have a lot in common. They both produce abundant and nutritious food in a dry climate with little or no attention other than yearly pruning. They combine beauty and free produce with no work. Both are rich in symbolism. I could go on, but the photo says all that needs to be said.

Fading into the Soft White

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Honeybees congregate on our floating row covers to die. Every day, two, three, four or five will choose to land one last time on this billowing white fabric that covers one of our garden beds. There they will cling while their strength wanes, until they fall off to be lost in the mulch.

I know worker bees don’t live very long. They work so hard that by the end of their lives, their wings hang in shreds. Their little bodies just give out. And I know that I should not think of them as individuals, but as expression of the will of the Hive. Still, there’s something melancholy about the way they ride these white waves. Perhaps their fading senses lead them to the brightest place they can find.

Is Kombucha Safe?

We love to ferment things, with one notable exception: kombucha. During the last kombucha craze, in the mid-90s, we picked up a “SCOBY” blob and dutifully fed it tea and sugar until we stumbled upon an article written by mycologist Paul Stamets, “The Manchurian Mushroom: My Adventures with “The Blob.” In that article Stamets tells a convoluted story of having a kombucha culture tested by a lab. He didn’t tell the lab what it was.The lab was very excited about the results on this mystery substance, and Stamets soon finds himself “sitting in a board room of a pharmaceutical company with lawyers and contracts discussing the particulars of patents, sub-licensing agreements, market territories, and dollars running into the millions—if FDA approval was granted for a novel drug.

Then the folks in the meeting turn to Stamets and ask him to reveal the identity of this culture:

I told them that, as best as we had been able to determine, from analyses by several independent mycologists, that the Blob was a polyculture of at least two yeasts and two bacteria, living synergistically.

The silence was deafening.

“Say what?”

Perplexed looks crossed their faces, soon followed by exasperated expressions of deep disappointment. Which of the organisms are producing the potentially novel antibiotic? Was it one or several? Was it one in response to the presence of another organism? Was it one in response to several organisms? The sheer numbers of permutations would complicate trials and given the FDA’s disposition, a polyculture is de facto contaminated.

The meeting was abruptly adjourned.

So kombucha does indeed have medicinal properties–including “novel antibiotic” properties– but therein lies the problem. Stamets concudes,

Those who might benefit from Kombucha need a credible and experienced professional who could best prescribe and administer it. I do not see the advantage of taking Kombucha by people in good health. Given the detrimental effects seen from prolonged exposure to antibiotics, the repeated, long term use of Kombucha may cause its own universe of problems. I wonder about those people who have adverse reactions to antibiotics? What about those with sensitivity to the microorganisms in Kombucha? I personally believe it is morally reprehensible to pass on this colony to sick or healthy friends when, to date, so little is known about its proper use. At present there are no credible, recent studies as to the safety or usefulness of Kombucha, despite decades of hype.

Stamets also expreses concern over contamination. A German study found three out of 32 samples of kombucha cultures taken from German households to be contaminated with Penicillium spp. and Candida albicans. While describing the contamination rate as “low” (nearly 1 out of 10 samples seems high to us) it goes on to recommended that immunosuppresed individuals buy commercial kombucha instead of making it at home. A literature review conducted by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the UK concludes, “the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha,” said risks including, “suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections.”

We’re all for fermented foods, and support the home fermentation of classic pro-biotics like yogurt, sourdough and lacto fermented vegetables. The last thing we want is for people to get spooked away from home fermentation. But kombucha is different. The problem, as Stamets notes, is that kombucha’s sugar and tea medium is a kind of open house for cultures, some good, some bad. Yogurt, sourdough and salt brines are very selective mediums in which to ferment things. With komucha it’s much more of a crap shoot.

Basically, like Stamets, we’re intrigued with the notion of kombucha being tested as a medicine and used with care by both western medical types as well as herbalists. And even if we were guaranteed a pure culture and a solid methodology for keeping the culture uncontaminated, we’d still be too leery its antibiotic properties to consider it a casual beverage. So we just don’t do the kombucha thing.

Ramshackle Solid is on Etsy

Photo by Ramshackle Solid

Those of you who follow the goings on at Ramshackle Solid know they have a really simple, graceful way with crafts, and with making new and making do around their place. Now they’re selling some of their stuff. Their debut offering is a line of these super cute bamboo flatware caddies that you can take with you to school or the office or on a picnic. Say goodbye to nasty plastic utensils, and hello to good living.

We’re looking forward to seeing what comes next!

Check out the Ramshackle Solid Store at Etsy.

Our Happy Foot/Sad Foot Sign

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Nothing about growing or making today–sorry to go off topic (Erik is wincing a bit as I post this), but I want to talk about our Foot.  It’s a very local sort of story, but isn’t localism what it’s all about?

The podiatrist’s sign above marks the entrance to our neighborhood. It charmed us the first time we saw it: It’s a foot–with feet!  And we immediately named it the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign. Soon we learned that other people called it The Happy Foot/Sad Foot Sign as well. The name seemed predestined and universally applied, and it was recognizable enough that we could pinpoint our location off of Sunset Blvd. by saying, “You know the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign?”

The Foot rotates slowly, unless it’s broken, which it often is of late. But when it’s rotating, you are always tempted to check out which side is facing you when you first come into sight of it.  A happy, smiling foot is portends a good day, or at least a general thumbs up from the universe. We’ve always thought so, and come to find out, many other people also practice this form of primitive divination.

It’s even immortalized in fiction. Our friend, Anne, resident of this same ‘hood, tipped us off that The Foot is featured in You Don’t Love Me Yet  by Jonathan Lethem (2008):

Lucinda’s view took in a three quarter’s slice of the sign as it turned in its vigil over Sunset Boulevard: happy foot and sad foot suspended in dialog forever. The two images presented not so much a one-or-the-other choice as an eternal marriage of opposites, the emblem of some ancient foot-based philosophical system. This was Lucinda’s oracle: once glance to pick out the sad or happy foot, and a coin was flipped, to legislate any decision she’d delegated to the foot god.

A quick Google search shows the Foot is acknowledged (it shows up in Flickr sets and odd comments here and there) but not famous, outside this locale. However, I was delighted to find an animation called Happy Foot vs. Sad Foot. Instead of seeing the Foot as a marriage of opposites, as Lethem does, the animator portrays the Feet as two characters engaged in an endless, existential binary feud. For Sad Foot, life will always suck, while Happy Foot will always gets his way. (Note in the comments for this animation that someone steps forward claiming to be the designer of the sign’s graphics.)

Lately we’ve been hearing that our neighborhood has been dubbed “HaFo SaFo” in tribute to The Foot. This isn’t as strange as it sounds, because our neighborhood is wedged between the villages of Silver Lake and Echo Park, but technically it belongs to neither. It’s real name is Edendale, but no one knows it by that name, even though Edendale was the home of the first motion picture studios. If we claim we live in Edendale, we get blank looks, so we’re forced to either assert our property value by claiming we live in Silver Lake, or our cool quotient, by claiming Echo Park. Usually we just mumble instead. Anyway, we predict that this HaFo SaFo business is going to stick, because it is so very silly and insidery.  I can’t find any HaFo SaFo mentions on Google yet, so you heard it first right here.

Do you all have special, beloved signs or divination systems local to the place you live? Share them!

ETA: One of out commenters points out there’s an Eels song dedicated to this sign, too, called Sad Foot Sign: Sad foot sign/Why you gotta taunt me this way?/The happy side is broken now/It’s gonna be an awful day

Behold the Western Electric 500

There’s much to love about the Western Electric 500 telephone. It’s easily serviceable and built like a tank. Why? When it was manufactured you didn’t own your phone, the telephone company leased it to you. This relationship served as a powerful incentive to manufacture a device that would last. In the 90s I went through three or four cheap cordless phones that broke after a few months of service. I switched back to an old touch tone phone (a Western Electric 2500) that has served us well and doesn’t put out potentially cancer causing radio frequency waves like cordless and cell phones do. My WE500, a thrift store purchase, sat around for years until I decided to fix a wiring flaw that silenced its bells.

The WE 500 should be the poster child for Mr. Jalopy’s Owner’s Manifesto as it adheres to all the tenets:  The case is easy to open, all connections are labeled and subassemblies dissemble with ease. Virtually all repairs can be done with a screwdriver. And phone companies, to this day, stick to backwards compatibility–you can still use a dial phone to make a call. Someone send a memo to Microsoft and Apple!

The WE500 does lack a few features. The dial doesn’t work with phone trees (but who likes phone trees anyways?). The WE500 has no GPS capability. It’s incompatible with apps from the iPhone store. Worst of all, you can’t take it with you on trips to the market or hardware store. It must remain plugged into the wall.

On the other hand, Starbucks will never be able to use the WE500 to suggest nearby locations. When I’m at the hardware store, contemplating threaded fittings, nobody can reach me. And I’ll not lose productivity with my WE500 since you can’t use it to play games or “Google” things.

Lest this turn into an anti-technology rant, let me praise the wonders of the interwebs for providing the schematics and instructions I used to get the bells of my WE500 ringing again. And I like contemplating the possibility of pairing the WE500 with Google Voice all in the service of a blog about getting in touch with the natural world. After all, why get lost in a dialectical struggle between iPhone addicted hipsters and the Amish? As Ted Friedman puts it, “we are all – human, animal, machine, plant, stone, wind — part of the same integrated circuit, inextricably enmeshed in multiple feedback loops.”

Still, it’s good to examine those loops critically, on occasion. I’m reaching a point where I can no longer deal with the volume of incoming emails and still have time to make and do things. I can remember the days before answering machines and call waiting. If you weren’t home the caller would just have to try again another time. But you can’t go back. At least I can still enjoy the electro-mechanical bells of the WE500.


The Western Electric 500 served from 1949 to 1984. The one I fixed was manufactured in 1961 and refurbished a decade later. Read more about the WE500 as well as excellent repair instructions for many different old phones here.

Ridiculous New Parkway Planting Rules for Los Angeles

Neatly mowed bermuda grass and weeds–no permit required!

The city of Los Angeles just announced new guidelines for parkway plantings. The new rules allow residents can plant ten different species of drought tolerant turf alternatives in addition to approved street trees and drought tolerant turf species. It sounds great . . . until you read the fine print.

Those drought tolerant turf alternatives, which include chamomile, yarrow and even strawberries, must be kept “mowed.” If you want to grow any of these plants taller than 2 inches or ones not on the list you’ve got to submit drawings, apply for a permit and pay at least $400, possibly more. Ironically, the cover of the guidelines shows a picture of a mature yarrow plant of the sort you’d have to go through the permit process to grow under the new guidelines.

If anything the city has it backwards. After all, I doubt many homeowners are going to get down on their knees with scissors to trim their turf alternatives. Instead it will be yet another chore for LA’s legion of gas powered mow and blow “gardeners.” Why not charge a permit and fees to have a lawn or lawn substitute and give a free pass to drought tolerant plants under 36 inches in height? Or, better yet, simply give a small property tax break to anyone who installs drought tolerant, plants that that provide habitat for beneficial wildlife. It’s a program that might pay for itself in reduced storm water runoff, just to name one benefit. And why can’t you grow edible plants?

Another concern the city has is liability. If someone trips on a tall plant I’ve put planted in the parkway the city could be sued. It’s a curious argument to make considering that Los Angeles has essentially given up on sidewalk maintenance. A landslide that closed a sidewalk on nearby Sunset Blvd has languished unrepaired for eight months. They’ve also given up on maintaining boulevard median strips–most are at least knee deep in weeds.

Alas, this is a typical policy move for Los Angeles. They jump on the bandwagon, but get all the details wrong.

Volvo Camper by John Ross

Volvo Camper (in front of a vintage Spartan trailer)

Spotted in the Museum of Jurassic Technology’s parking lot–a Volvo-based camper created by über tinkerer/genius John Ross. Ross started with a 1,200 gallon underground water cistern like the ones below:

He insulated the tank with polyisocyanurate foam-board and covered the whole thing with a $70 tent to block out light. You access the tank through a hole in the roof of the Volvo. A vented heater doubles as a stove. Ross told me how easily it went together–just two hours to secure the tank to the car–much faster than building something from scratch.And no mortgage!

You can watch the Volvo camper in action here.

Organic Egg Scorecard

Chino Valley hen houses, identified by the Cornucopia Institute as “ethically deficient.”

The Cornucopia Institute has released an “Organic Egg Scorecard” to assist in the ethical minefield that is shopping for a dozen eggs. The scorecard identifies 29 “exemplary” and, not surprisingly given recent news, a whole bunch of “ethically deficient” organic egg producers. The study used a 0 to 2200 point scoring system, rating farmers on hen’s access to outdoor spaces, pasture and the quality of housing among other factors.

And, a memo to Trader Joe’s–take a look at that scorecard–you guys get a big “0.”

Via the Official Poultry Bookstore Blog.

Colony Collapse Disorder “Solved”

Russell Bates of the Backwards Beekeepers keeping bees naturally.

Media coverage of beekeeping, particularly colony collapse disorder gets me a bit frustrated. This week saw the release of a study from the University of Montana, Missoula and Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, linking CCD to a co-infection of a previously unreported virus and a common bee parasite called nosema. As usual, most reporters failed to do their due diligence, except for Katherine Eban at Fortune magazine who explored the ties between the lead researcher in this study, Jerry Bromenshenk, and pesticide manufacturer Bayer Crop Science. See her work in a provocative article, “What a scientist didn’t tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths.”

Aside from the glaring conflicts of interest (Bromenshenk is also developing a hand held device to detect bee diseases including the ones in this study), I think what’s missing in bee research, in general, is a whole systems approach to the problem. Not only are commercial beekeepers trucking their bees thousands of miles, but they are using miticides, not allowing the bees to form their own comb, limiting the numbers of drones, breeding weak stock and exposing the bees to pesticides such as imidacloprid (manufactured by Bayer!) to name just a few questionable practices. All of this bad beekeeping promulgates bees with weakened immune systems. The researchers may find a “solution,” but with weak bees some other problem will come along in a few years and we’ll be right back where we started. Meanwhile the big commercial beekeepers cling to pesticides as the cause of CCD since this thesis allows them to carry on without addressing all of the aforementioned practices.

CCD is nothing new–it’s happened before and will happen again until we start keeping bees in a more natural manner. To “solve” CCD with some kind of treatment regimen or a hand held detection gadget is a bit like the government propping up those “too big to fail” banks. Everything works fine until the next bubble comes along. I believe that the long term solution lies with folks like the Backwards Beekeepers, Dee Lusby and in the words of the late Charles Martin Simon. In short, work with nature not against her.