Yet Another Lawn Rant

As if there weren’t enough reasons not to have a lawn, especially in the dry parts of the world where we live, let’s add another: gruesome accidents. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that over 117,000 folks in the United States made trips to the emergency room in 2007 because of lawn mowers.

We’ve witnessed first hand the power of lawn mowers. A neighbor of ours had his windshield shattered by a rock propelled by a mower blade. As the Orthopedic Surgeons note, “The energy transferred by a typical lawn mower blade is equivalent to being shot in the hand with a .357 Magnum pistol. A lawn mower can eject a piece of metal or wood up to 100 miles per hour.”

And manual push mowers? Surprisingly they resulted in 7,159 emergency room visits.

So remove the lawn. How? Two words for ya: sheet mulch.

June: National Bathroom Reading Month

By bikin’ friend Colin informed me last week that he had heard a report on National Public Radio about June being, “National Bathroom Reading Month”. Doing a little digging revealed that, sadly, it was just a publicity stunt for a series of un-funny bathroom humor books and did not have the backing of our congress, senate or president. Nevertheless we thought we’d celebrate bathroom reading month anyways with a look at what journals, catalogs and books grace the Homegrown Evolution throne room reading stack.

Water Quality Report ’07 from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Every year we get this and pledge we’ll study up on the science behind water quality. Another year has passed and all we can critique about this report is the fact that LA DWP doesn’t seem to know that Silver Lake is two words not one. We could also point out the odd choice of Echo Park Lake for the cover. It’s both heavily polluted and, thankfully, not a source of drinking water. While we proudly drink our L.A. tap water, we use bottled water for our home brewing projects due to the chlorine. Here’s a link to how you can compare a water quality report like this one to what kind of water is good for making beer.

Performance Bicycle Catalog. We get a lot of these catalogs since every few months we break a bike tail light and have to order a new one. They just don’t build bicycle accessories to last! These bike catalogs, aimed at recreational cyclists who drive somewhere to ride their bikes (note the cover) feature lots of god-awful candy-colored spandex outfits, $5,000 mountain bikes and nutritional supplements. Precisely the items you don’t want for getting around urban Los Angeles. This particular catalog featured something new, however, his and hers matching bikes from Schwinn called, we kid you not, “Sid and Nancy“. Sid and Nancy feature automatic shifting since either bike gears are too complicated for Americans to figure out, or folks want to do what they do while driving: talk on cell phones. But why do Sid and Nancy have gears at all? Wouldn’t brake-less fixed gear bikes be more appropriate given the punk rock (not to mention murder/suicide) reference?

Arthur Magazine. Homegrown Evolution, being cheap, can never pass up a free publication when we see one though we usually skip stooping to pick up the senior citizen rag Not Born Yesterday. Arthur is always worth picking up. Lot’s of great articles here from The Center for Tactical Magic, Erik Davis and our favorite media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. The May issue has a column by Chicago’s master forager and occasional resident in our humble casa, Nancy Klehm. Nancy explains how to make dandelion wine and extols the virtues of urine in your compost pile.

Real Goods Catalog. This is sort of a Sky Mall for environmentalists. Produced by the same folks who put out the worthwhile Solar Living Source Book, most of the items in this catalog are beyond our modest writing-derived income level. Some things look useful, but there’s a lot of dubious stuff such as solar hat fans and electric scooters. And we suspect you can get many of the items in the catalog cheaper elsewhere, though we’re intrigued with the solar attic fans.

Backwoods Home Magazine. We love Backwoods Home for its informative articles, unedited and rambling letters to the editor and for the outsider artist who does all the illustrations. Imagine Martha Stewart Living with columns on both vegetable gardening and tips on disassembling your AR15. We’re not libertarians ourselves but with both mainstream presidential candidates supporting warrantless wiretapping we’re beginning to see their points. Best of all, most of Backwoods Home is available free online.

Backyard Poultry Magazine. Poultry porn for small scale chicken, duck, guinea and quail enthusiasts. As most books about poultry are for big poultry farms, this magazine is a very useful resource for those of us with small backyard flocks. Backyard Poultry has everything from showing birds to eating them. This is where we learned how to build the portable run that is in our back yard that we’ll blog about soon. Plans for that run can be seen here.

Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply Catalog. A great source for seeds, bare root trees and many other items. We ordered our fig and pomegranate trees, our grape vines and our cover crop seeds from Peaceful Valley and have been happy with all of these items.

Of course, here’s a book that should be in every bathroom, the Humanure Handbook.

Urban Homestead Book Signing and Lecture


We’ll be delivering a lecture and and book-signing on the theme of “Low-tech is the new high-tech” at the Eco-Village Thursday the 26th of June. Here’s the 411:

Los Angeles Eco-Village
CRSP Institute for Urban Eco-Villages
and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition
present

THE URBAN HOMESTEAD
Talk, Slide Show and Book-Signing
with Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
Thursday June 26th 2008 7:30pm
at Los Angeles Eco-Village
117 Bimini Place, LA 90004
Directions at www.laecovillage.org
Suggested donation $5, no one turned away for lack of funds
Books sold separately for $15

Come hear the authors of the Homegrown Evolution blog and get yourself a copy of their brand-new book ‘The Urban Homestead,’ which covers various topics from raising chickens, to carrying cargo on your bicycle, to canning produce from your garden, to harvesting rainwater, and much more! All very inexpensive and step-by-step instructions. The book is an important addition to the shelf of every Angeleno concerned about sustainability, self-sufficiency, and living a high-quality low-impact lifestyle.

For more information, email [email protected] or call 213.738.1254

Admission proceeds will benefit both the Eco-village and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

I don’t hear you singing in the wire . . .

AT&T has yet to restore our phone and Internet service. To those who have ordered books I apologize for the delay (we’re also waiting for a new shipment from our publisher). It looks like it will be Monday before we will have anything other than smoke signals to communicate with, unless we shift to HAM or pirate radio (perhaps a good idea considering AT&T’s repair service–I’d hate to see what they’d be like in an earthquake).

In the meantime we leave you with a song that seems appropriate under our circumstances, Wichita Lineman, often described as the “first existential country song”:

Dookie in the Tomatoes

Our first tomatoes of the season are just beginning to ripen, coinciding nicely with the multi-state cow poo in the roma scare. Allow me to speculate wildly about the cause of the current epidemic, tracing the cause step by step from the beginning:

1. We begin not with the tomato farm, but instead with manure from that wonder of industrialized agriculture, the concentrated feed lot, where thousands of cattle stew in their own filth. Immunosuppressed cattle on these feed lots act as ideal Petri dishes for all kinds of diseases including salmonella. At these massive operations, cattle feed on corn even though, biologically, they were meant to eat grass. To counter the deleterious effects of feeding them the wrong food, they are pumped full of antibiotics which, due to the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest, creates new generations of antibiotic resistant infections. Concentrating them so close together further facilitates the spread of exotic strains of all manor of nasty things including salmonella.

2. Manure from the feed lot either runs off accidentally onto a neighboring tomato farm or is exported as fertilizer intentionally. At some point, manure gets on a tomato, either on the farm or after being shipped.

3. A salmonella infected tomato arrives at a centralized packing facility where it is loaded into a massive water bath by underpaid workers to mingle with thousands of other tomatoes. The water bath acts as our second salmonella Petri dish along the tomato’s path to our table. Alternately, a blade used to automatically slice tomatoes gets infected with salmonella, thereby spreading the bug to all the other pre-sliced tomatoes headed to the food assemblers (a more accurate term than “chef”) at America’s fast food establishments.

4. After leaving the packing facility, Salmonella infected tomatoes get shipped all over the country and perhaps the world, thereby sentencing thousands of people to multi-day commode-sitting hell. Some immunosuppressed folks, sadly, die.

5. The government announces, acting in the interest of the big agricultural players, “our food system is actually safer than ever”, and congratulates themselves for their quick diagnoses of the exact strain of salmonella and its source–in this case, tomatoes processed by careless workers at a packing facility. Hearings ensue, and a few months later they announce a new series of bizarre regulations. Tomato packing facility washing equipment must now be maintained at the precise temperature of 163º F for 5.375 minutes minimum. Problem solved. Mainstream journalists move on to the next hot topic.

Now I could be completely incorrect in my assumptions about this month’s tomato scare–it’s just a guess. But let me offer a few solutions that would take care of the problem no matter what caused this most recent outbreak:

1. If you can, grow your own tomatoes and make your own fertilizer. Yes, it’s possible (but a lot less likely) to get salmonella from your own home grown produce, but at least you and your family will be the only one infected.

2. Support small family farms. Again, a small family farm could cause a salmonella outbreak, but it would effect far fewer people. Decentralization at all points in the agricultural supply chain is the solution to greater food security, not further concentration. Unfortunately our government is on the take from the big players and promulgates regulations that make it impossible for small family farmers to make a living. Read Joel Salatin’s book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal” for more on how agricultural regulations are at the heart of our food safety problems.

3. Don’t wash produce until just before it is prepared. At it turns out, washing upsets the natural balance of harmful and beneficial bacteria present on fresh produce. Food microbiologist Keith Warriner has found that a beneficial bacteria called Enterobacter keeps salmonella in check. Wash off the Enterobacter and salmonella thrives (read more on this theory at New Scientist). The same holds for washing eggs–bad idea.

I count myself very fortunate to have a bit of land to grow some tomatoes and feel sorry for those who don’t have this luxury. I wish more journalists would spin this story as a reason to build more community gardens and allow apartment dwellers to grow some food on the roof. It leaves me eating that big juicy roma tomato, pictured above, with all the smugness of a Prius driver in the HOV lane.

Staycationing

Due to some sloppy utility work (thanks for the outsourcing DWP!), our phone and internet service are out for the next few days. Mrs. Homegrown Evolution is in San Francisco with our only cell phone.

To those of you who have ordered books I apologize for the delay.

Casting out the lawn

One technique for learning to draw is to study the negative space, the empty space around the subject you’re trying to capture. Doing so shortcuts our mind’s tendency to distort and stereotype the subject, say a building or a face. Draw the negative space, and you’ll be more likely to realistically capture the outline of your subject rather than ending up with the stick figures and child-like representations our mind naturally tends to portray.

In our cities negative space, the open spaces between buildings, consists of vast seas of parking and empty, unused lawns. We all tend to filter out these spaces, failing to comprehend their size and ubiquitousness. Thankfully there’s a growing awareness that our city’s negative spaces are in fact negative, that they contribute to blight, profligate use of resources and our general unhappiness.

But a consciousness shift is underway led by forward thinking folks like the parishioners of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in West Los Angeles who have teamed up with the non-profit organization Urban Farming to rip up their entire 1,200 square foot south lawn to plant vegetables for the congregation and the LAX Food Pantry. From their press release:

“Holy Nativity is a strong community center with focus on faith, hope, diversity, community and environment. The new Community Garden garden provides solutions to the issues of food insecurity, access to fresh produce, education on healthy eating, greening the environment, rising food costs and the importance of donating to those in need. Urban Farming and Holy Nativity, along with the project’s partners, will have a celebration event on Sunday, June 8. This garden is a partner in the Urban Farming campaign, “INCLUDE FOOD™ when planting and landscaping”.

During World War II, twenty million people planted “victory gardens” at their homes. They grew 40% of America’s produce. We did it then, we can do it again.”

Kudos to Holy Nativity and Urban Farming for this initiative and we hope the idea spreads to other churches, synagogues an mosques across the land–I wish I could attend the opening, but I’ll be assisting with the Bike Coalition’s annual River Ride fundraiser (not to late to sign up for that LA cyclists!). To those who can make it to Holy Nativity, the festivities run from 2 t0 5 p.m. this Sunday June 8th. Holy Nativity is located at:

6700 W 83rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(310) 670-4777

I had wanted to make a clever biblical reference at the beginning of this post and suggest that now, in 2008, Jesus would rip up the lawn, with the same fervor that he chased away the inappropriate money changers who did business in the temple. Dusting off the bible, however, I discovered that Jesus also shooed off some livestock during that episode. But with our increasing food troubles, I’d like to think that today, in addition to the vegetables, Jesus would welcome livestock back to the church grounds (cathedrals were used in the Middle Ages as barns, after all).

For more info and photos, see Holy Nativity’s Community Garden page.

An Apology

Sometimes, in a lame attempt at humor, I paint groups of people with an overly broad brush. I owe a dear friend an apology for a May 23rd post “Mistakes we have made”. My friend is a real estate agent and, quite rightly, she took offense at my insulting comments about her profession, pointing out that it was simply not fair of me to cast dispersions on all for the sins of a few. Looking back at this post I can see her point–it was inflammatory and juvenile.

To the list of “Mistakes we have made” I can now add a lapse of journalistic ethics. Please accept my apologies.

I’ve re-edited the original post to better represent our experience, minus the hurtful rhetoric.

Steal this Book!

Our book has been released! It’s available wherever books are sold, or you can get an autographed copy from us over on the right side of this page. Tell your friends and family! Blog, twitter, friend, digg and yell! From the press release:

The Urban Homestead is the essential handbook for a burgeoning new movement: urbanites are becoming farmers. By growing their own food and harnessing natural energy, city dwellers are reconnecting with their land while planting seeds for the future for our cities.

Whether you’d like to harvest your own vegetables, keep heirloom chickens, or become more energy independent, this smartly designed handbook has step-by-step instructions to get you homesteading immediately wherever you may live. It is also a guidebook to the larger movement, pointing you to the best books and internet resources on self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Learn how to:
• Grow food on a patio or balcony
• Preserve or ferment food and make yogurt and cheese
• Compost with worms
• Keep city chickens
• Divert your grey water to your garden
• Clean your house without toxins
• Guerilla garden in public spaces
• Create the modern homestead of your dreams

Written by city dwellers for city dwellers, this illustrated, two-color guide proposes a paradigm shift that adds joy to our lives, strengthens our communities, and supports our planet. Includes copious illustrations, project ideas, resources, and first person anecdotes from urban homesteaders across the country.

Authors Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen happily farm in their Echo Park bungalow and run the urban homestead blog: www.homegrownevolution.org.

By the way, that’s not us on the cover–those be models. Since we’ve just about given up on privacy here’s a photo of us on the right (by Caroline Clerc). And, for the record, we don’t have a modernist house!

A special thanks to all our contributors–you’ll be getting a complimentary copy soon.

Mistakes we have made . . .

There’s a kind of boastful blogging style that, I’m afraid, we here at Homegrown Evolution have been guilty of. Simply put, we’ve failed to detail all our blunders. These mistakes and accidents, some funny, others painfully disappointing, have more instructional value than our successes. And oh, how many blunders there have been in the past ten years. It’s about time to round up the top 6. I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten, but here’s a start.

1. Installing a water garden.

That water garden looks great in the picture above. That was before the neighborhood raccoons spent several nights a week treating it like rock stars used to treat hotel rooms, and before scum and slime clogged up the pump. While the pump was solar powered, the profligate use of water was not the best example to set here in draught prone Los Angeles. After a few months we gave up, filled it in with soil and now strawberries grow there happily. We hear that Materials and Applications, a neighborhood landscape architecture firm that runs an amazing outdoor gallery, has stopped designing water features unless they are supplied by rainwater. Sounds like a good idea to us! And with the chickens we did not want to provide habitat for raccoons.

2. Mixing Chicken Breeds

Speaking of chickens, a friend of ours who grew up on a farm confirmed that “chickens are racists”. Like talk radio hosts, hens will pick on anyone who is different. In our case, our green egg laying and weird looking Araucana gets the crap beaten out of her by the Rhode Island Red and one of the Barred Rocks. If I had it do do all over again, I’d get four Barred Rocks. They’re dependable layers and don’t make much of a fuss.

3. Planting stuff that doesn’t grow in our Mediterranean climate

As our permaculture friend David Khan likes to say, “work makes work.” Plants that need lots of tending and attention, nine times out of ten, end up unhappy. When they croak it leads to a downward spiral of disappointment and frustration. Just recently a hops plant I tried to grow up and died on me. I stormed around the kitchen cursing for a few minutes before I realized that, once again, I had failed to follow my own advice–plant in season and in respect of place. Hops belong in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, the heat loving prickly pear cactus in our front yard provides both tasty nopales and fruit reliably every year while growing in terrible alkaline soil with no added water or fertilizer. The problem with the prickly pear is that it is too prodigious, and that’s the kind of problem you can hope for as an urban homesteader.

3. Newspaper seed pots

Those newspaper seed starting pots we linked to earlier this year . . . well, there seems to be a problem with them. I think the newspaper is wicking the water away from the soil. While in Houston recently, I took a class from a master gardener in plant propagation and we used regular plastic pots, a thin layer of vermiculite over the potting soil and a plastic bag over the pot. It seems to work better. The other blunder here is posting about something before testing it.

4. Pantry Moths!

A few years ago, using our solar dehydrator (we’ll post about that soon), we dried a summer’s worth of tomatoes to use during the fall and winter. We put the entire harvest in one large jar. Several months later we had a jar full of pantry moth larvae. This is the entomological version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, a mistake we won’t soon repeat. Now we split dried goods into multiple jars so that in case some critters get it to one we’ll still have others.

5. Buying a wonky house with poor professional guidance

Be careful choosing a Realtor–pick one who has been recommended to you by someone you trust. Be especially careful picking a home inspector–pick an independent one–not one recommended by the seller or buyer’s agent. Our inspector spent a very short time in our house and ignored large problems, in my opinion, because it was in his favor for the house to sell so that he could continue his relationship with our agent. It’s an inherent conflict of interest for the inspector to have a connection to either real estate agent.

6. Planting a lawn

We weren’t always the Molotov cocktail tossing vegetable growing radicals that we are now. Just after we bought this place ten years ago we planted a lawn in the backyard. With some temporary fencing, we roped it off from the Doberman to allow it to grow. After a month the lawn matured into a lush green carpet . . . but it only lasted five minutes. That was the time it took for the Doberman to gracefully leap over the barrier and run in circles, causing chunks of turf and newly amended soil to fly all over the yard.

Let’s do the math–in a dry place like Los Angeles–lawn=crime. On top of the waste of water they simply don’t look good here without massive inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and gas powered lawn mowers. Sorry, but I hate lawns and will not ever be convinced otherwise. Got kids? That’s what mulch is for. Fuck the lawn. Fuck all it stands for.

The Conclusion

I guess the lesson here, with all of these missteps, is persistence. Push through the blunders and the light will shine. And a promise–we here at Homegrown Evolution we will do a better job detailing our mistakes.