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.

Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not too Much

In the course of writing and researching our book, The Urban Homestead, coming out this June, we learned a lot about contemporary agricultural practices. And what we learned sure ain’t pretty. It has made our trips to the supermarket, to supplement the food we grow at home, a series of moral dilemmas. Where did this food come from? How was it grown or raised? What are these mysterious ingredients? Our book contains practical how-to advice for ways to deal with these supermarket conundrums by learning to grow your own food.

Journalist Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, recently wrote an editorial, “Why Bother” in the New York Times Magazine arguing that it’s time for us all to think about planting some vegetables. He has a new book, In Defense of Food an Eater’s Manifesto, that addresses the ethical decisions we face in our trips to the supermarket. In this engaging, hour long lecture at the Google headquarters, Pollan gives some practical advice for navigating those dreadful supermarket isles. Put it on while you cook dinner:

California Dreaming

Mr. Homegrown Evolution had a dream earlier this week in which we sold our crumbling Silver Lake bungalow (to an entertainment industry schmuck? see ad above) and moved into an apartment. The owners of the apartment building had torn up the parking lot and had converted every spare bit of space into a mini-farm. There were impressive rows of cabbage and other greens all planted in plowed rows. The crops took up so much room that there was, in fact, very little space left to even walk. It seemed, at first, a pleasant dream of a utopian future of efficient urban land use with an emphasis on growing tasty and healthy food. But when I awoke I realized that this idyllic vision was actually a nightmare. Those rows of crops were there because they had to be there. The proverbial shit had come down and desperation had set in.

The dream capped a week of gloomy news both personal and national. My 83 year old mom broke her sternum in an automobile accident, making her yet another victim of a city designed for cars that forces everyone to drive, even for distances of less than a mile. After the accident, many hours were spent dealing with doctors, auto body shops, insurance companies and the vile Automobile Club whose lobbyists, by the way, are busy in the state capital pushing for the auto-centric planning that ruins our cities and victimizes our children and parents.

While I dealt with the phone calls and paperwork, record breaking hot temperatures challenged our vegetables and chickens. A symptom of global warming perhaps? Yet another reason to suggest that the car-centric planning might not be a good idea?

To continue ranting, this played out against the background of rice rationing at Costco and Wal-Mart stores due to poor harvests and food price inflation in Asia. How about the continuing unraveling of Wall Street’s depraved casino, not to mention food riots and energy shortages?

Solutions? I’ve got some ideas, but after seeing this reprehensible ad from Farmer’s Insurance it’s obvious that there’s a hell of a lot of work to do. It will be hard to counter the status quo without, as James Howard Kunstler puts it, “appearing ridiculous, like an old granny telling you to fetch your raincoat and rubbers because a force five hurricane is organizing itself offshore, beyond the horizon.”

And yet I don’t want to fall into the gloomy, apocalyptic trap of some of the other folks in the urban homesteading movement. After a enjoyable evening last night at a fundraiser for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, my dark mood lifted as I was reminded that good things are happening out there. Change comes slowly, one step at a time, requiring great patience. Like gardening, bread baking and home brewing there will be mistakes and setbacks. But there will also be a slow accumulation of knowledge, a gradual revolution. Someday, perhaps, that apartment mini-farm seen in my dream will become reality for all the right reasons.

TV Turnoff week April 23 – 30, 2008

We don’t come from the sackcloth and ashes wing of the urban homestead movement. There’s no forced austerity around the Homegrown Evolution compound, no sufferfests, no “more-meek-than-thou” contests. It’s about pleasure not denial, after all. But, to use the “d” word, one thing we denied ourselves for many years was television. And during this TV Turnoff week, we thought we’d share our struggles with the tube.

Ten years ago, when we moved into our humble dump, we discovered that the cable tv company could not get past our neighbor’s bougainvillea, which fully ensnared the utility pole. The result–free cable. Unfortunately, that’s like leaving bowls of blow around Keith Richard’s party pad. Free cable meant many hours of channel surfing and, when Mr. Homegrown commandeered the remote, poor Mrs. Homegrown would be subjected to hours down in the video gutter viewing L.A.’s notorious public access (such as this – view at your own risk!).

At some point we decided to give up the TV cold turkey. For a week it seemed like a close friend had died, but soon all those evenings quickly filled with activities. We learned fencing, print making, bread baking and countless other skills. We never regretted exiling the TV to the garage.

Recently the tube’s come back into our lives with a certain DVD mail service, but we feel like we’ve tamed the beast and can heartily recommend living without TV (definitely without cable and broadcast). It’s become a shock to see cable or broadcast television when we visit relatives. It seems stupid, crass and violent, with the quick cutting particularly annoying, befitting a culture with no patience for the pleasures of the slow life. A friend of ours, who teaches at a Waldorf school, tells us that she can easily tell which kids live by the school’s no TV rule. In short, the TVless kids own their own imagination, rather than the entertainment industry. They’re better behaved, faster learners and more patient.

But with the explosion of the internets and gaming, TV Turnoff week has become a quaint reminder of the past, almost like opposing Selectric typewriters. The excesses of television, and the resulting consumer culture, seem fairly benign compared to a medium like the internet which allows governments and corporations to easily track our very move and target advertising on a deeply personal level. We’ve found that many of the hours we used to spend in front of the TV are now spent in front of the computer. While we heartily endorse TV turnoff week, it’s well past time for internet turnoff week.

How about we all turn the damn computer off for awhile, bake bread, make some beer, ride our bikes, or just go get into trouble?