Looking for a Hardware Store Interview Subject

Image from the new CLUI Morgan Cowles Archive

Hey all, I’m working on an article for the May issue of Urban Farm magazine on the subject of businesses to patronize before they disappear. One of those businesses is your local independent hardware store. If you either own or work at a hardware store and have opinions, I’d like to interview you. Send me an email at [email protected]. For the rest of you, if you have an opinion about the types of businesses I should profile leave a comment.

Have any ideas? We’re rewriting the anniversary gift list

Okay, this has almost nothing to do with the post. But Anne, mentioned below, and her broody hen Big Wig, are fostering kittens. Yes, the hen sits on the kittens. You might die of the cuteness if you saw it. If you live in the LA area and need a fluffy, chicken-identified kitten, drop us a line.

Our neighbors Anne and Bill are about to have an anniversary. Anne was thinking about a gift for Bill and referenced the traditional anniversary gift list–you know, the inscrutable wood, paper, tin list, as well as the updated list which includes clocks and tablecloths–and was less than inspired. Instead, she’s thinking about taking a class that will be beneficial to Bill, and the relationship– a cooking class, perhaps. I hope I’m not spoiling any surprises! (She had other ideas, Bill…just in case you’re reading.)

Her instinct toward classes jives with an idea Erik and I have been kicking around for a while: that money should not be spent on objects, but on experiences.

We never regret money we shell out for experience, whether that be trips, workshops, lessons or strange adventures, while we often regret the acquisition of knickknacks and gadgets. Knowledge and experience are our most important possessions. They cannot be lost or broken. They form the stuff of our souls.

So we’re interested in rewriting the anniversary list in one or two ways, and would love it if you’d pitch in ideas for Anne and I to consider.

The first option is slightly more traditional. It would be a list of gift items, arranged per year, but we could try to rewrite it to be genuinely useful from a “homesteaders” point of view. I know I was just talking about the importance of experience, but we do need good tools in a functional household, and a list could be built around that.

The second option is the experience list. What sort of skills and knowledge make up a self-reliant household–and a good relationship? How would you prioritize that knowledge on a year by year time line? Can we think of 50?

And maybe there’s a third option–feel free to toss out anything you like.

Is Peat Moss a Sustainable Resource?

Two very different views on the ethics of using peat moss: one from garden writer Jeff Ball via Garden Rant,

Here are the simple facts. Canada has over 270 million acres of peat bogs which produce peat moss. Each year the peat moss industry harvests only 40,000 acres of peat moss mostly for horticultural use. If you do the math that comes to one of every 6,000 acres of peat moss is harvested each year. And here is the cherry on top. Peat bogs are living entities. The peat bogs grow 70% more peat moss each year than is harvested. With that data I consider peat definitely a renewable resource.

But Ball’s single source for these facts seems to be the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association. Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University in an article, “The Myth of Permanent Peatlands” (pdf), writes,

Peatlands degraded by mining activity do not revert to their former functionality; changes in hydrology and physical structure are hostile to Sphagnum re-establishment. Recently, degraded peatlands have been restored through the blockage of drainage ditches, seeding with Sphagnum, and application of a mulch layer to reduce water loss. When degraded peatlands are restored, the ability to hold water is improved but CO2 continues to be released by high levels of bacterial respiration, which represents the decomposition of mulch and other organic matter. It takes a number of years for the photosynthetic rate of new peatland plants to outpace the respiratory rate: until this happens, even restored peatlands represent a net loss of carbon to the atmosphere and thus contribute to greenhouse gas production.

Chalker-Scott goes on to list a number of peat moss alternatives including composted bark, coconut coir and paper sludge to name just a few. I use peat moss as part of a homemade seed starting mix. Reading Chalker-Scott’s article has convinced me that this is not an ethical choice.

The peat moss alternative I hear most often suggested is coconut coir. But I’ve heard an equally contradictory argument on the ethics of coir. And this study shows poor results for coir as a peat moss alternative in a seed starting mix. I tried my own comparison last summer and came up with the same results as that study. Oh, how this all gets so complicated!

So, I’m going to throw this open to you, our dear readers. I’m interested in hearing your opinions on peat moss. I’m also interested in hearing if any of you know a good peat-less, homemade seed propagation medium recipe, preferably from a reliable source. Leave some comments!

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.