Happy Holidays from Homegrown Evolution

We didn’t get around to our annual Christmas missive this year so we’ll have to share some silliness via the interwebs. Here at Homegrown Evolution we like to combine the country and the city. Kinda like this:

Look out, this might get stuck in your head–what the Germans call “ohrwurm” (ear worm):

Fröhliche Weihnachten! May your coming year be full of homegrown veggies, bikes and bathtub booze!

They want to ride to school. So they do.

In Orlando Florida, one of the worst places to ride a bike in America, some high school students are taking back the streets:

High School Bike Bus from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo. Via Streetsblog.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, elementary and high school groups go on field trips to the auto show:

No doubt our educational dollars were well spent showing the kids the informative educational displays:

I noticed that some of the students at the car show had been given traffic safety pamphlets about how to safely ride bikes. Car companies have been producing pedestrian and bike safety info for years. At the risk of being somewhat conspiratorial, auto industry produced safety materials often carry a hidden message that walking and biking are dangerous, marginal activities. Actually biking to school together like the Florida students as well as walking school buses send a much better message, in my opinion.

The good news is that, in car-centric cities like Orlando and Los Angeles there is a growing awareness that alternative transportation arrangements need to be made quickly. Here in LA we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Thanks to Elon Schoenholz for scoring two free passes to the car show. It’s good to check out how the consensus trance is holding up.

Without Merit: poison in your compost

An image from Washington State University’s aminopyralid bioassay instructions.

Another thing to worry about! In the past two years farmers and gardeners in the UK and US have experienced the unintended effects of a powerful herbicide called aminopyralid, sold by Dow Chemical under the brand names Merit and Forefront. This herbicide is used to control weeds such as thistle, knapweed and yellow starthistle.

The problem is that aminopyralid survives the digestive systems of animals pastured on land sprayed with it, as well as compost piles made from their manure. Most other herbicides break down eventually, but this stuff sticks around. An organic farmer using compost contaminated by aminopyralid could lose crops and organic certification for years. If that isn’t enough to worry about, two other nasty herbicides, picloram and clopyralid have also contaminated compost piles around the world.

But what about us backyard gardeners? How can aminopyralid effect us? I’m fond of using a bit of horse manure in my compost pile. It’s free for the taking and helps heat up the pile. But if the horses were fed hay grown on land sprayed with aminopyralid I could lose my veggies, particularly tomatoes, lettuce and legumes which are highly susceptible to this chemical.

So what can we do? First the practical: test your compost. Washington State University has instructions for performing a simple test here (pdf). Basically, you plant three pea seeds in a 50/50 blend of compost and potting mix and compare their growth against a control group of three pea seeds grown in just potting mix. If you use manure in your compost pile and you don’t own the animal it came from, this test should be routine.

Secondly, a political solution: the Rachel Carson Council suggests writing two EPA officials to suggest banning a trio of deadly herbicides that includes aminopyralid: Kathryn Montague at [email protected], and Dan Kenny at [email protected].

For more information on aminopyralid, picloram and clopyralid see the Rachel Carson Council’s Killer Compost Q&A.

Read the articles in Mother Earth News by Barbara Pleasant that tipped me off to this problem, “Milestone Herbicide Creates Killer Compost” and “Contaminated Compost: Coming Soon to a Store Near You.”

Here’s a technical discussion of aminopyralid for those familiar with biochemistry.

From Ohio State University, a fact sheet on the equally bad clopyralid and some charts showing the persistence of other herbicides.

Lastly, beware of the recommendations of agencies tasked with the eradication of invasive weeds. The California Invasive Plant Council, in a 2006 publication on Yellow Starthistle management (availiable here as a pdf), recommends using both aminopyralid and clopyralid and fails to warn of their persistence. The USDA, Department of Defence and the Army Corp of Engineers assisted with that publication. Looks like these agencies need a little reflection on the laws of unintended consequences.

Land Girls

Align Center

Mrs. Homegrown here:

During WWI, Great Britain instituted The Women’s Land Army, a civilian corps created to replace male agricultural workers called into military service. These women were generally known as “Land Girls.” Yep, the rural version of Rosie the Riveter.

By WWII, both Australia and the U.S. had their own Women’s Land Armies, too.

It seems in some cases the women took on full-time waged agricultural work, and in other cases they formed temporary voluntary emergency relief teams, helping short-handed farmers at harvest time and the like.

The images, both photos and graphics from the period are fantastic:

U.K. women in working the plow, and workin’ some fine style, too.

Women volunteering in an Oregon hops field. They look so happy (and stripey)! Were they paid in beer?

We’d never heard about the WLA prior to today–which is astonishing and a little sad–and stranger still, of all sources, we have the louche Chap magazine to thank for this increase in knowledge. They ran a Land Girl fashion spread titled “Britches & Hoes,” saying,

“The recession has led to endless talk of austerity measures, making-do-and-mending and growing your own vegetables on an allotment. But the big question is, of course, what to wear while mulching the compost on your carrots.”

It’s good point. The Land Girls prove there’s no need to look like a slob out in the garden, trailing your already disreputable bathrobe through the mire–as Mrs. Homegrown is wont to do.

Instead, as The Chap (and historical record) suggests, we could adopt sassy belted sweaters, crisp trousers and sexy Wellingtons. The fellows at The Chap also make some savvy suggestions for planting, captioning this photo, “Come along Tiffany, these tobacco plants, juniper berries and truffles won’t plant themselves!”

Rubber Sidewalks Rescue Trees

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I love trees and all of the things they do for us. They shade us, feed us, house us. Trees are something we just need more of here in Southern California.
I used to work at an urban forestry non-profit, TreePeople. So I am familiar with the challenges of the tree/sidewalk interface. I have fielded calls from people frantically trying to save trees that are being ripped out because they are lifting the sidewalk. I have also received calls from people eager to remove trees for the same reason. Sadly, I have also heard from people that would call just to complain about a tree being messy and littering their sidewalk or driveway. My personal take on that is it isn’t the tree that should be removed- it is the concrete. Leaves falling off of trees is a good thing. Leaves make glorious mulch or compost and that hardscape is just in the way of some healthy soil.
Nonetheless, in a city there are sidewalks. There are also commonly trees near sidewalks. The wrong species of tree or a tree that is too large for the available space, can lead to problems. Cracked or raised sidewalks can be hazardous or inaccessible for the disabled, people with strollers, cyclists, skate boarders and those of us who are just generally clumsy. Rubber tiles in place of concrete can be a solution. They allow the tree roots to grow yet they are flexible. They conform to the contours of the roots. This eliminates gaps and provides an even surface. They are safer than ordinary concrete and allow the tree to thrive as well. I have heard of these rubber tiles before but I had never seen them in person until just a few days ago. I came across this tree and the rubber sidewalk in a leafy, pretty suburb along a major boulevard with a lot of foot traffic. Viva el arbol!

More on this material via the Charlotte Observer,“When the rubber meets the sidewalk (at $80 a foot)”.

The company that makes them is called, not surprisingly, Rubber Sidewalks.

Digital Farming- What’s The Deal?

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So here in the world of urban homesteading things can get pretty busy. We can become so preoccupied with work, chickens, vegetable gardening, cooking, cleaning, blogging duties and email that we can miss some of the things going on in the world. I do like to occasionally check in with the world at large by reading the newspaper. I just read an article that I have to comment on.

A recent New York Times article titled, ‘To Harvest Squash, Click Here,‘ introduced me to the world on online farming. Apparently people spend a lot of time “farming” on line. Twenty two million a day in fact, according to the article. There are several farming games on Facebook, Farmville being the most popular. You can get seeds to plant, watch your crops grow and then harvest them. Some people are so addicted that they are eschewing real life responsibilities and social obligations to harvest their virtual soybeans.
It is even suggested that the popularity of these farming games is indicative of a collective yearning for a more pastoral life. I’m not sure I get this. I spend all day outside in the dirt making things grow. At sundown, I lock up the chickens. Then I harvest something to make into dinner or on a special evening, I’ll make a big batch of jam or sauce and spend hours canning. I’d rather spend as little time online as possible.
I can’t wrap my head around how a video game can in any way replicate the experience of farming. I may be an urban dweller, but I get my satisfaction by getting real, not virtual, dirt under my fingernails. Can any one explain this trend to a clueless non-gamer like me?

The modern woman-things to put in your apron pocket

Aprons are so cute and oh so functional. I’m often out and about in the yard and around the homestead and I find my apron a very useful accessory. An apron adds a flirty, feminine touch when worn over jeans and is a nice layer of protection for a dress. I tend to get very dirty and need a lot of pockets, so an apron is handy indeed. Whether I am at the farmer’s market, pulling weeds in the backyard or at the chicken coop, here are the top things you are likely to find in the pocket of my apron:

5. Money- small bills for the farmer’s market.
4. Seeds. I tend to collect seeds in my pockets.
3. My keys.
2. An egg. I certainly can’t put an egg in my jeans pocket.
1. My iphone. Very convenient place for this indispensable item.

The Original L.A. Urban Homestead

You know that band you saw play at your local dive bar back in the day that is totally popular now and playing in arenas? Well, the L.A. Eco-Home is kind of like that. Long before glossy magazines were doing “Green” issues, before hybrid cars and composting became hip, Julia Russell had been giving tours featuring the environmentally friendly aspects of her home and garden. Julia is pictured here in front of her Gordon apple tree which bore over 500 lbs. of apples last year. (We counted, seriously.)

The Los Angeles Eco-Home Network has been educating Angelenos about simple ways to conserve energy and other resources, grow their own food and live a happier, healthier lifestyle, since 1988. The house is a charming bungalow full of warm dark wood. It features a small solar array, a fabulous greywater system and many other features that make this cozy home worth a visit. The most educational part of the Eco-Home, in my humble opinion, is Julia’s actual lifestyle. Sure, technical features such as solar and greywater are great, but living lightly is more about how you live and small simple choices you make everyday. Julia is in her 70′s and doesn’t drive. She bikes. Pretty impressive. She has a nifty cargo bike that she uses to get groceries. The house is surrounded by mature trees that provide deep shade in the summer, keeping the house cool without the need for air conditioning.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson would be environmentalists can learn from Julia and the Eco-Home network is the absolute lack of pretentiousness and holier-than-thou attitude that can plague the green movement. Julia is down to earth and just wants to share her passion for living a green lifestyle. So if you are in L.A. check out one of their tours and bring a friend.
The Eco-Home Network- being green and keeping it real since ’88.

City Repair LA

Mark Lakeman stares down the new Bimini Street salamander.

Portland architect and activist Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair movement, is in Los Angeles for a week of lectures and activities. Lakeman believes in actions that correct what he believes is our disassociation from nature and our alienation from each other. He’s a passionate opponent of the grid, the imposition of street networks and regimented thinking that he traces back to Roman imperialism. He’s probably most famous for inspiring groups of like-minded neighbors in Portland to adorn their streets with furniture and elaborate murals, usually done without asking for permission (see examples on an interactive map). He wants to empower us all as “villagers”, in charge of our own collective fate, rather than as serfs subservient to distant bureaucrats and moneyed interests.

Author and Creekfreak Joe Linton executing a reverse Sistine Chapel maneuver.

What I like about Mark Lakeman’s actions is that they aren’t “actions.” There is none of the attention seeking, pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric that one finds in activities such as “guerrilla” gardening (or perhaps some of our own past activities!). Instead the focus is on problem solving through getting neighborhoods together and doing things rather than standing around and complaining. Yesterday I had the great privilege of participating in a city repair street mural painting with my friends at the Los Angeles Ecovillage and their neighbors. The Ecovillage folks who organized the event had knocked on doors and enlisted the help of their neighbors. They blocked off the street themselves without getting a permit, set up refreshments, put on some festive music and laid out a mural design in the intersection in front of the apartments that house the Ecovillage. Whole families came and the kids had a great time participating in what became a giant coloring book. At the conclusion of a day of painting under the bright LA sun, a piñata was hoisted, bashed apart and candy rained down across the colorful new street mural.

Jimmy Lizama operating the piñata.

The mural incorporates lizard and ocean motifs, and enhances the crosswalks in the intersection, which is adjacent to a public school. The mural will act as a traffic calming device and counter our Department of Transpiration’s usual ignorance of pedestrian safety. While not asking for city permission is provocative, this was not a Boston Tea Party moment. It was simple problem solving in the form of a neighborhood party. Everyone had fun, and the street will be safer and more attractive. Thinking about the day yesterday, I woke up this morning with an overwhelming sense of happiness and empowerment.

The new mural nearing completion in the early afternoon.

Can every neighborhood rush out and paint a street mural? Probably not. At Lakeman’s lecture on Friday, I could sense a familiar skepticism in the audience. He showed slide after slide of happy Portlanders creating cob benches, tea houses and street mandalas. The people of Portland have built one of the most livable and desirable communities in the US. But here in Los Angeles we have many obstacles and far less cohesiveness. And I was not alone in wincing at the aesthetics of many of the Portland projects. Lakeman himself acknowledged that a lot of people ask him why everything has to look like hippies built it. Here in Los Angeles and elsewhere we’re going to have to devise different city repair strategies and aesthetics. It’s easy to get hung up on street murals and cob benches. Like Lakeman says, we’ve got to look to nature and at each other to devise the form of our cities. The form these villager led interventions take in Los Angeles, Austin, Iowa City and Brooklyn are going to be different. What all our cities share in common is the need to get started immediately to undo a century’s worth of bad planning and disempowerment.

Thyrsus: the new hipster accessory

Ancient thyrsus on left, modern hipster version on right.

The traveling exhibition Pompeii and the Roman Villa, currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a few nice tchotchkes worth considering for those of us attempting to garden in Mediterranean places. One of the centerpieces of the show, a large fresco depicting a garden, includes many familiar plants: chamomile, oleander (who knew oleander existed before freeways!), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and date palms.

But what kept capturing my eye in multiple pieces, was a ceremonial stick carried in Bacchic processions called a thyrsus. Consisting of a stalk of giant fennel topped with a pine cone, occasionally accessorized with a grape or ivy vine, I realized that, here in Los Angeles thanks to our similar climate, I could step out the back door and make my own thyrsus, which I promptly did. For my modern thyrsus I drilled a hole in the pine cone and fennel stalk and inserted a metal pin to hold the pine cone to the stalk.

The combination of a pine cone and fennel stalk symbolizes the unity of farm and forest, of the cultivated and the wild. And you don’t need to be a Freudian to grasp, shall we say, the meaning of a long shaft topped by a bunch of seeds. Roman homes and gardens were, in fact, full of phallic fertility symbols that seem crass to our modern eyes. Exhibitions like Pompeii and the Roman Villa, sadly, censor this imagery. You’ve got to visit the secret cabinet in Naples to see this stuff (way not safe for work!).

Censorship of these ancient fertility symbols is related in my mind to modern fears of the fecundity of nature. It’s these fears that lead landlords to pour copious amounts of concrete and gravel to smother every living thing. It’s what causes neighbors to launch irrational tree and bush killing rampages over the property line lest any bit of foliage fall and mar their precious SUVs.

As rampaging forest fires send Vesuvian plumes of smoke over Los Angeles, it’s time to wave our freak thyrsi high to counter the naturefobic forces out there! As Euripides says, “To raise my Bacchic shout, and clothe all who respond/ In fawnskin habits, and put my thyrsus in their hands–/ The weapon wreathed with ivy-shoots.”