Artificial Turf: Is It Ever a Good Idea?

Monsanto Astroturf ad

Another winning product from the folks at Monsanto.

In the midst of a drought, our local Department of Water and Power is offering a $3 a square foot rebate for residents and businesses who remove their lawn in favor of less water hungry plantings. Those dollars add up if you’ve got even a modest sized backyard.

But the devil is always in the details. While the LADWP has some very good information on lawn alternatives as well as training classes on water wise landscaping, why did they have to include “non-vegetative groundcover” a.k.a. artificial turf in the rebate program? And why did they landscape one of their own facilities with the stuff?

In this interest of keeping an open mind, I tried to think of circumstances in which artificial turf might be a good option. Maybe if it were used ironically? But I don’t really think its use can be justified. Why?

  • It’s a petrochemical product.
  • It will eventually break down and end up in a landfill or the  ocean.
  • There’s no wildlife benefit.

Practically speaking, it also gets really hot on a summer day and you’ve got to hose it down with water just to step on it. And if you have pets, it’s not easy to clean up after them on artificial turf.

And while we don’t have kids, I don’t buy the argument that kids need grass. I think kids would enjoy a garden that’s lush and a bit of a maze with places to play hide and seek. Same goes for dogs, really. They’re hard on grass, and do better with mulch. Kids and dogs and grownups as well enjoy the wildlife and rich scents brought in by diverse plant life.

As far as athletics are concerned, while there’s considerable debate on the subject, some studies have shown that sports injury rates are higher on artificial turf.

In short, I don’t think there’s an application for this stuff. And we certainly don’t need our government to incentivize it.

And just FYI, Monsanto developed AstroTurf.

Can our landscapes model a vibrant future? Not according to the LA DWP.

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California is suffering from drought. In Los Angeles, we’ve experienced back to back two of the driest winters on record (winter is our rainy season). Last year’s rainfall total was under 6 inches. The governor has asked California residents to cut their water use by 20%.  Apparently, we’ve only managed to cut it by 5%.

There’s a strange sense of unreality about the drought. I think that’s because we’re just not feeling it in the cities. Our water is cheap, the taps are running, food prices aren’t terribly affected– yet.  So we keep washing our cars and hosing off the sidewalks and topping off our swimming pools and, of course, we water our lawns.

Lawns are a big liability in this region. I think they may not be such a crime in milder, wetter places where they grow happily (though there’s no getting around the fact that they are a sterile monoculture, not helpful to wildlife). But turf has no business whatsoever in the American southwest. It just doesn’t want to grow in this climate–which is why it’s always doing its level best to die. Here, our lawns live on life support.

There has been some movement toward lawn-free yards in the past several years, but the movement seems stalled. I’d expect to see more lawns being ripped out recently due to the drought, but I haven’t seen much activity in that direction, despite the fact the Department of Water and Power will actually pay Angelinos to remove their turf.

We hold onto our lawns, I think, because it is so hard to think beyond the lawn.

The average property owner is not a landscaper, nor a plant expert, and they have lots of other things to think about. The default setting of a lawn plus a few shrubs up around the house foundation takes no thought, causes no problems with the neighbors and is easily maintained by inexpensive gardening services. What’s not to love, really? And why not hold on to our lawns, because the drought will pass and we’ll be back to normal.

Asking people to re-imagine their yards is asking a lot. Yet it may be vital.

This drought may not end. Los Angeles and all of the southwest are looking at a hotter, drier present and future due to climate change. And regardless of water availability it would be a great service to nature, to our embattled birds and bees and small critters, to make our yards beautiful, changeable, welcoming sanctuaries. It would also be a gift to our own souls. Yards can be healing spaces.

To re-imagine our yards, we need to see examples of yards which work on a different paradigm, and we need to see so many of them that they become part of our shared visual vocabulary.

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Sorry about the dim photo–the sun was setting–but I think it gives the general idea.

This brings me to the new landscaping at our local Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) distributing station. I believe it used to have a typical sickly lawn in front of it, but last time I was in the neighborhood I saw it had been rejiggered to be a low water use landscape. And that’s good…really…a great idea, guys.  But…

The new landscape is mostly artificial turf, with a few swathes of D.G. and a strip of purple gravel mulch running along the foundation, and that gravel is studded with strangely trampled looking agave-ish plants, and a couple of random bougainvillea.

What goes on here? What is in your head, DWP? And how much did you pay for this redesign?

The artificial turf is particularly insidious because it seems to be a placeholder for better days when we can all go back to watering our lawns into emerald brilliance. We need to say goodbye to the lawn for good, write it off like a bad boyfriend.

And the purple gravel… I just don’t know what to say.

Note that the design consists of a lawn and foundation plantings. It’s the same old uninspired model, repeated on the institutional scale.

I suspect this landscaping will have some fans because it is “tidy” and “low maintenance.” True. It is also devoid of life and actively hostile to nature. Landscapes speak. This one denies our relationship with the natural world and declares any actual engagement with nature to be too much trouble. No doubt they’d replace those sickly plants with synthetics if they didn’t suspect they’d all get stolen in the night.

This is not the kind of model we need, DWP.

Next time you change up your landscaping, consider consulting one or more of the many brilliant plant people and designers in this city. Call us if you need numbers.

Consider using permeable surfaces and contoured landscaping to capture every drop of our rare rainfall and send it down to the thirsty soil. Show us how to use native and Mediterranean plants to make lush landscapes that call in the pollinators. Help us create landscapes we want to walk through and live in. Model this kind of smart landscaping for us, please.

Water-wise and ugly do not have to be synonymous.

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Some of the views remind me of something that might appear in an LA art installation. Which, all in all, is not praise.

Induced Demand

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Image: Wikipedia.

I was on the phone the other day having a conversation about greywater with a person enrolled in an entrepreneurial program. She asked me an excellent question: did having a greywater system cause me to use more water?

She was alluding to a concept known as induced demand. In other words, when you have more of something you use more. Buy a hybrid car and you end up driving more miles since you don’t pay as much for gas. Build a four lane highway instead of a two lane one and so many more people end up driving that you end up with worse gridlock.

I’d never thought of induced demand when it comes to greywater, but it’s a good point. Did I plant more fruit trees because I had a greywater system? Has this caused more water consumption in our current drought? Honestly, I think the answer is yes.

You could probably find induced demand between the lines of David Homgren’s permaculture principles. But perhaps we should insert a thirteenth principle: acknowledge induced demand and work to prevent it. Simply being aware of the phenomenon is a good first step in avoiding its pitfalls.

My original greywater system consisted of a tank and a hose to drag around to a bunch of trees. I’ve since simplified the system. It’s now just a pipe leading from the laundry machine to one tree that needs just about as much water as we do in laundry each week. My second system is more of a 1:1 match between the waste water and the demands of the landscape.

Have you encountered induced demand on your homesteading path? If so where and how?

Tippy Tap, Beta Version

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A tippy tap is a water-saving handwashing device developed for use in areas where there is no running water, usually fabricated out of simple found materials. Erik and I both love appropriate tech, and this is a really good example of the form. The tippy tap literally saves lives by allowing people to wash up after visiting the bathroom.

Erik included a tippy-tap, a rather fancy version of one, it turns out, in one of our link roundups.  I’d never heard of such a thing, and, intrigued, promptly fell down a deep YouHole watching tippy-tap videos.

The basic idea is that a jug of water is suspended from a pole or branch by the handle–so it can tip. A string is then tied to the top of the jug to act like a lever to create the tip. A small hole punched in the front side of the jug allows a thin, controlled stream of water to flow when the jug is tipped. To keep cross-contamination from occurring, you don’t actually touch the jug or the string to use it. Instead, the string which tips the jug is tied to a stick on the ground, which acts as a foot pedal, so the jug is tilted by foot action alone.

I thought it would be cool to have a tippy tap hanging in the garden for hand washing — better than spraying water all over with the hose, especially in these times of drought. It would also be a good handwashing station for camping.  So I made a beta version to test the idea. Long story short, it works well. I made a few mistakes and want to work out some kinks. Also, for use in the garden, I want to design a more attractive tippy tap, perhaps using a gourd or ceramics.

For the how-to, and some links to other tippy tap instructions, read on.

Continue reading…

004-Egg Ethics, Solar Food Dryers and a Question about Earth Ovens

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On episode four of the Root Simple Podcast Kelly and Erik discuss the tricky ethics of eggs and mayonnaise, what kind of solar food dryer is the best and we answer a question from Ed about earth ovens.

Plans for the Appalachian Solar Food Dryer can be found in an article on Mother Earth News.

We have a detailed post on how we built our adobe oven here.

If you want to leave a question you can call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected].

The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho.

A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store. Note that it takes a few hours for the new episode to show up in iTunes.

What’s the Best Solar Food Dryer?

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Appalachian Food Dryer. Image: Mother Earth News.

Dehydration is a great way to put up food. Second to freezing, it’s the best way to persevere nutrition without adding sugar or salt. And if you use the power of the sun, you won’t need to spend any money on electricity.

In a desert climate you can just put your food out on screened trays. But just a bit of humidity in the air makes this approach risky. Food can spoil before enough moisture is removed. That’s why you should build a solar food dryer.

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Brace Direct Food Dryer. Image: FAO.

There are two basic designs for solar food dryers: direct and indirect. Direct dryers are just a box with a piece of glass on the top. Indirect dryers use a box to collect the heat of the sun and then, thanks to the fact that hot air rises, take that heat up into an enclosed box that contains the food you want to dry.

The Poistk Dryer

The Poisson Indirect Dryer. Image: Mother Earth News.

Which design works best? Dennis Scanlin, Coordinator of the Appropriate Technology Program and Professor of Technology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina has been studying solar food dryer technology for decades.  According to Scanlin, indirect drying is the way to go. Scanlin tested three dryers, the Appalachian Solar Food Dryer (an indirect dryer that he invented) against a direct dryer developed by the Brace Research Institute and the Poisson indirect dryer. In an article in Permaculture Activist, “Evaluating Solar Food Dryers: Stocking Up with Solar Power,” Scanlin says,

The Appalachian indirect dryer produced higher temperatures than the other two dryers and also removed more moisture from the tomatoes drying inside each day. In one test, the Appalachian dryer removed 32 oz. (0.95 L) of water during ta day, while the Brace direct dryer removed only 20 oz/ (0.59 L), and the Poisson dryer only 15 oz. (0.44 L). The Appalachian dryer was able to remove as much as 3.73 lb. (1.69 kg) of water in a single sunny day from tomatoes drying inside.

Scanlin also notes that direct dryers degrade the quality of the food and possibly nutritional value due to direct UV exposure.

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Our Appalachian Food Dryer, badly in need of a paint job.

We built a Appalachian Dryer several years ago and it works great. You do need to remember to bring in the food at night to prevent rehydration and spoilage (for some reason I often flake out and forget to bring in the food). For awhile I had an electric Excalibur Dehydrator on loan and it’s a lot more convenient. But, of course, it uses electricity and makes a lot of noise.

Since I built my Appalachian Dryer Scanlin has decided that it’s not necessary to use insulation. This makes the project even simpler. For just around $200 worth of materials you can easily make an Appalachian Dryer out of plywood nails and screws.

You can find plans for Scanlin’s dryer here.

Journal of the New Alchemists

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“Six-Pack” Backyard Solar Greenhouse, 1975. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

After reading an article by Paul Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!,” Nancy Todd turned to her husband John and said, “We must do something.” The year was 1969 and the Todds along with Bill McLarney went on to found the New Alchemy Institute.

History repeats itself. What the New Alchemists did, in response to the 1970s era energy crisis and political instability, sounds a lot like what people have been up to since the 2008 economic bubble: aquaculture, organic gardening, earth building, market gardens, no-till agriculture, old timey music, wind power, four season growing, permaculture, non-hierarchical leadership and goats. Only the 1980s era of appropriate technology amnesia separates current efforts from the work of the New Alchemists.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

By accident I discovered the Journal of the New Alchemists deep in the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library. As revealed by their journal, what distinguishes the New Alchemists from other efforts of the time is the Todd’s science background. The Journal has a refreshing research-based approach to its subject matter. The period I reviewed (their last decade of publication) covers mostly their agricultural experiments, but occasionally dips into urban planning and other subjects.

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Biodome. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

It’s interesting to look back at their work to see what ideas went mainstream and what faded away. What didn’t stick is what Nassim Taleb would call “top-down” approaches to design epitomized by the 70s fixation on geodesic domes and self contained ecosystems (though we’re starting to see a resurgence of the latter via a renewed interest in aquaponics). The more bottom-up work of refining conventional organic agriculture through no-till farming and integrated pest management had more long lasting influence. One could make a good argument that you need the domes and aquaculture schemes to inspire people to work on the more prosaic stuff. But another criticism of the appropriate technology movement of the 70s is that it focused on technology rather than social and political problems (see economist Richard S. Eckaus article “Appropriate Technology: The Movement Has Only A Few Clothes On“). We may be in the midst of repeating that mistake.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

One does not need to wander the closed stacks of the library to find the amazing Journal of the New Alchemy. Thanks to the internet you can download the New Alchemist’s publications as pdfs. Aquaponic enthusiasts will find much information. The Journals are a fascinating read and gave me a great deal of respect for the founders of the New Alchemy and their many contributors (one issue features a young Gary Paul Nabhan). They went far beyond talking the talk and walked the walk. They did something.

Dry Climate Vegetables

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Here in Arrakis, I mean California, we’re in the midst of a terrible drought. And unfortunately, most of the seeds we buy for our vegetable gardens are adapted to require lots of water. One solution is to find veggies that have reseeded accidentally without supplemental irrigation. Here’s a short list of reseeding rogue veggies from our garden that have thrived with just the small burst of rain we got last month.

Continue reading…

What the Internet Will Look Like After the Zombie Apocalypse

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Enterprising amateur radio operators in Texas, over the past several years, have created a wireless high speed data network, called HSMM-MESH or Broadband-Hamnet, completely independent of the internet. The map above is the network built by HAMs in Austin, Texas. Basically it’s a bunch of hacked Linksys routers connecting wirelessly over a wide area. Plug a laptop into any of the routers and you can trade messages, files and live video back and forth.

This is possible because it just happens that the frequency range of off the shelf wireless routers overlaps with amateur radio frequencies making it legal for HAMs to boost the range of these devices. That and the fact that several models of ubiquitous Linksys routers are cheap and easy to hack.

All you do is take your Linksys router, screw in a better antenna (note the one above made with a tin can), load some open source software on to it, scatter them around town and you’ve got a wireless data network. Note that the routers in this configuration are communicating with each other. To hook your laptop into the network you have to connect it via an Ethernet cable to one of the nodes or set up a wi-fi network at a node. The routers can even be powered by small 12 volt batteries or solar panels. To be clear, this is a wireless network that is independent of the internet (though you could route the internet over it). Such a network could be used in an emergency such as an earthquake or weather event to send digital messages. It’s also the means by which I could continue to send out cute cat photos even if things go full-on Cormac McCarthy

You could use this same hack, not exactly legally, to solve networking problems in a large house, business or rural property. And the same method has been used to set up data networks in developing countries. In practice it’s doubtful that the Man would ever get around to busting someone without a HAM license from setting up a network or routing the internet over it. As long as you’ve got line of sight between your antennas it’s possible to send information over impressive distances–with the right antenna, some HAMs have managed to get the signal out as far as ten miles with a stock router and no boost in power. And the network is self healing. If one router goes out the other routers take on the traffic.

For more info on how to set up a network like this see www.broadband-hamnet.org. or watch this series of videos. There’s also a free e-Book: Wireless Networking in the Developing World.

Cat photo kidding aside, this relatively simply hack has potential to help a lot of people.

This post was inspired by a lecture given by Gary Wong, W6GSW at the Pasadena Radio Club.

Free Laundry to Landscape Plans

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Judging from our blog comments, the drought here on the west coast has people thinking about greywater. We’ve blogged about it many times before, but it’s worth repeating. Greywater expert Art Ludwig has excellent free plans on his website for putting together a laundry to landscape greywater system. I put this same system in at my neighbor Lora’s house a few years ago and just finished replacing our older greywater system with the one on Ludwig’s website.  It’s easy to install, inexpensive and legal to do without a permit in California.