Dry Farming

Jethro Tull–the agriculturalist not the rock flutist

According to a 2010 report by Ceres “Water Risk in the Municipal Bond Market,” Los Angeles ranks number one in water supply risk. But we’re not alone. Many other US cities including Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas also face a future of water insecurity.

Due to these water risks we’d all do well to consider ways to grow edibles without supplemental irrigation. This may sound absurd at first, but I’ll note that in our garden we’ve discovered, quite by accident, that many plants such as prickly pear cactus, cherry tomatoes, cardoon and pomegranates will do just fine in a climate where it doesn’t rain for six months out of the year.  Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch proved that you can grow chard in Southern California with almost no irrigation through a hot summer (the chard thrived in the Ranch’s food forest under almost complete shade).

As an avid gardener in a dry climate I certainly use a lot of water for my vegetables. Most modern vegetables are adapted to copious watering. But this was not always the case. A classic book Dry Farming by John Andreas Widtsoe, first published in 1911 and available as a free download in Google Books, describes how many farmers got along without the modern conveniences of supplemental irrigation.

A dry farmed wheat and alfalfa field in Wyoming from Dry Farming

Other than the advice to till frequently (tilling, among other things, destroys beneficial fungal networks), Dry Farming has some good tips:

  • Maintain soil fertility 
  • Plant deeply
  • Plant varieties adapted to dry farming
  • Know when to plant
  • Pay attention to soil structure

The main takeaway for us home gardeners will be the development of drought tolerant veggies. Native Seed Search is a good start, but seed saving will be the ultimate solution. We’re simply going to have to breed drought tolerance back into our water hungry vegetables. Combined with passive water collection techniques such as sunken rather than raised beds, those of us in arid climates can grow a surprising amount of food with a lot less water.

Clarification: dry farming is not growing during the rainy season (which is called “rainfed agriculture”). Dry farming uses strategies to store water in the soil during the rainy season and then grow during the dry part of the year. Though controversial, dry farming traditionally involves tilling.  It also requires much greater spacing of plants. For more information see the website of the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative.

Genetically-Engineered Organism Secretes Diesel

Image © Joule Unlimited, Inc.

It sounds like science fiction but according to an article by Jay Lindsay of the Associated Press, A Massachusetts company has a patent on a genetically modified organism that secretes diesel fuel from water, sun and CO2 inputs. Here’s an excerpt:
Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel per acre annually, over four times more than the most efficient algal process for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 a barrel.

Normally I am opposed to genetically modified plants but this would appear to be a contained situation. Would it be a good thing for the planet if we had unlimited diesel fuel? I would guess that the CO2 would be net neutral whatever escapes the exhaust pipe would have had to have gone into the fuel initially – right?

Mass. company making diesel with sun, water, CO2

I’m curious what other people think about this.

Skid Row Community Garden Gets SIPs

Novice gardeners + hot rooftop accessible only by many flights of stairs = perfect opportunity to use self irrigating pots.

Two master gardeners, Anne Hars and Maggie Lobl asked me to show them how to put together some SIPs (read more about what a SIP is here) for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which works with homeless and low-income residents on skid row.  Hars, Lobl, myself and a bunch of folks from LACAN put together a few SIPs and planted vegetables on the LACAN rooftop. The plants are thriving in a space where previous attempts at container gardening met with mixed success.

Gardening, like all the ways we humans interact with our surroundings is all about context. If you’ve got soil, as I’m lucky to have, work with that first. But if you have only a sunny rooftop or balcony and/or limited gardening experience SIPs are a great tool. They almost guarantee success, which is encouraging for people who have never gardened before. 

Read Jeff Spurrier’s article about the LACAN SIP garden in the LA Times, “Skid Row Community Garden: bounty by the bucket.”

Pot o’ Goodness: Low, Low-Tech Water Conservation

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Continuing on the greywater theme, on big cooking days, when I’m doing a lot of boiling, steaming, soaking and rinsing, I collect all that used water in a big pot and take it out to the garden to water the plants. It’s full of nutrients, and won’t cause any blackwater* problems as long as you:

  • Use it immediately. It will turn foul if left to sit too long.
  • Pour it straight into the soil–don’t splash it all over edible leaves. Remember, soil purifies water.
  • Don’t use water full of food chunks or grease, as this will attract vermin and cause smells.

I know it’s only a little bit water that I’m saving by doing this, but to me it’s a symbolic act, almost a prayer. And heck, it hasn’t rained here since March, so every bit counts. Also, the plants really like the super-water. I think of it as a smoothie for them.

Another option is to re-use cooking waters as stock. This is something I don’t know much about. Sometimes I’ll take some nice bright green water leftover from steaming or blanching greens and use that to start a vegetable stock. But I’ve heard of people using pasta water as the base of soups. Have any of you tried that, or other techniques along those lines? Do tell.

And let us know if you have any quirky ways of saving water.

*What’s blackwater? It’s water which is dirtier than greywater, and therefore not usually recycled. Typically this is water coming from the toilet and the kitchen sink. Food particles from the sink turn septic quickly, and grease and heavy soap are not good for soil. However, our greywater guru, Art Ludwig, does say that kitchen sink water is nutrient rich, and suggests workarounds that allow sink water re-use, like grease traps or plumbing the sink so only the rinse water goes to the garden.

Greywater Fed Tomato Plant Takes Over The World

Homegrown Neighbor Here:

So a few months ago Mr. Homegrown helped me install a simple ‘laundry to landscape’ greywater system. Most of the plants that get watered by the system didn’t get much water before and were just barely surviving. There are several fruit trees, a rhubarb plant and an assortment of perennial herbs lining a narrow strip of land along the side of the house. Now, the plants getting fed by the greywater are going bonkers.

Last week the area became impassable it was so overgrown. The path along the side of the house had disappeared. I have the laundry water going to the sewer half the time because I don’t want to overwater. That and my roommate bought some non-greywater friendly soap. So I really only run one or two loads of laundry a week into the yard. But that has been more than enough.

Yesterday I hacked my way through the overgrowth and tried to train the rampant cherry tomato plant. The tomatoes are delicious. I eat them constantly when I’m in the yard and pawn them off on friends and family whenever I can. Still, there are tomatoes in areas that I can no longer get too. The tomato plant has killed my apple tree I think. I can’t see the apple tree under it anymore. The tomato plant is about eight feet tall and equally wide. It is reaching for the roof, using the poor buried apple tree as its support. I tried to photograph the madness, but it just looks like an indeterminable tangle and doesn’t really show what is going on.

But now I have reclaimed a path along the side of the house. If just an occasional load of laundry can provide such a boost to this little patch of land, I wonder what all of the other water used in the house could do. I would have to get rid of all of the low-water and native plantings and go tropical! It just goes to show how much water we use in our homes every day and don’t really think about where it goes. Eventually I would love for all of the water from our showers and sinks to go to the yard as well, but for now, the washing machine is creating a little tropical oasis and that’s plenty.

Scarlet Runner Bean Stew

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Apparently a block away, Mrs. Homegrown has also been having bean cravings. Maybe there is something in the air. Maybe its just that beans are hearty, filling, inexpensive and all around awesome. I happened to get my hands on a bag of dried scarlet runner beans from Rancho Gordo specialty beans.

Scarlet runners are a favorite garden bean as they are great climbers and produce beautiful red flowers. If you want to grow a bean teepee or need to cover a chain link fence, they would be a good plant choice. In fact, my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown, grow them every summer.
 
I’ve never had scarlet runners as a dried bean before. But having lived in co-ops in Berkeley for many years, I am pretty experienced at cooking dried beans, other legumes and whole grains.
When it comes to dried beans I almost always do the overnight soak method. To soak beans overnight, simply place your beans in a large pot. Rinse them and pick out any stones or broken beans. Fill the pot up 3/4 of the way with water and let soak overnight or for at least five hours. After their soak you may need to add more water. The beans can soak up a lot. Then cook on medium to high heat for about an hour. Test a bean. How done you want your beans is rather subjective. If you want to use them in a salad, you may want them a little more firm. But if you want to make refried beans, they need to be extra soft. Just taste and see what you think. I like my beans nice and soft but not falling apart.
So to cook the scarlet runner beans I placed them in the 3 quart enameled pot that goes with my solar cooker, filled it the rest of the way with water and let the beans soak overnight. The next day I admired the fat, swollen beans. I threw in a few bay leaves and put the pot in the solar cooker around 9 a.m.. I arrived home around 4 p.m. and my beans were done.

They are big and meaty, but still rather bland. I’m going to eat them for dinner tonight and this is what I’m going to do to flavor them: I’ll keep the pot liquor (the water the beans cooked in). In a separate skillet I’ll heat some oil and saute onions, garlic, maybe a few pieces of celery then add some mushrooms. I really recommend cooking the onions and mushrooms in butter for extra flavor. But since I’m making tonight’s dish vegan, I’m going to cook them in coconut oil. Then I’ll add the cooked onions and mushrooms to the beans on low heat. Then add 1 -2 teaspoons of ground cumin and a dash of cayenne.Yum.

Summer of Solar Cookin’


Homegrown Neighbor here:

I was lucky to recently receive a really nice solar cooker from a family friend. Apparently it had been sitting in her garage for a while, and I was happy to take it off of her hands.
The model is called an SOS Sport. It is a box style cooker with a black interior and clear, insulated lid. It also has a removable reflector to help concentrate the light in the box. The reflector is helpful, but I’ve seen the temperature get up to nearly 200 degrees without it during the middle of the day. It came with two round 3 quart pots, so it can cook up quite a lot of food.
Summer is here and it is nice and sunny in Southern California. And way too hot to turn on an oven. So I am embarking on a summer of solar cooking fun. I’ve made a few peach cobblers in the solar cooker, but mostly I use it to cook beans.
I love beans. They are inexpensive, hearty and filling. I keep my pantry stocked with at least two or three different types of dried beans and lentils at all times. I’m usually away all day at work and too exhausted at the end of the day to do much cooking.
I often slump into a chair in the garden at the end of the day, gazing at the veritable cornucopia of vegetables before me, wishing someone would harvest them and make me dinner.
The solar cooker is perfect for someone like me because I can load it up in the morning, leave it all day, and when I come home I have a great meal hot and ready. So it is kind of like a crock pot or slow cooker, just using solar energy instead of electricity. I’ve made a lot of black beans in it, but I’ve also used it to cook pintos, adzukis, mung beans and white beans. I usually grab a sprig of an herb or a bay leaf from the garden to throw in the pot.
Here is what I made today:
Solar Powered Navy Beans

2 cups navy beans
a handful of celery leaves
5 garlic cloves, whole
1/4 cup pickled red onion (just sliced red onion soaked overnight in white wine vinegar- delicious with everything)
Lots of water- maybe 4-5 cups
You want to make sure to use plenty of water. Beans absorb a lot of water as they rehydrate and the solar cooker looses some moisture as it cooks. So err on the side of extra water.
I’m not much of one for measuring. The great thing about making beans, soups and stews is you can add a pinch of this and a sprig of that and adjust the flavoring as you go. It is very forgiving.
I put the pot in the solar cooker around 10 a.m. and got home around 6 p.m. The pot was still nice and warm but not too hot. The beans were the perfect eating temperature. I had a lovely dinner and I’ll have leftovers for several days. I love easy meals. I’m going car camping next week and I’m thinking of taking the solar cooker with me. I think I’ll try a vegetarian chili for the camping trip. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Laundry to Landscape 2.0

I just installed a “laundry to landscape” greywater system at the house of Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall using greywater guru Art Ludwig’s free open-source plans. It was a cinch. And, thanks to a revision in the California plumbing code last year, it’s legal with no permit required.

I started in the laundry room by rigging up a three way diverter valve so that Lora can route the greywater back to the sewer if it’s been raining too much or if she’s bleaching her Prada (not likey, by the way). The diverter, somewhat of an exotic plumbing part, was ordered off of Ludwig’s website. At $47 it was the most expensive part of the system, but it’s well built.

Next, I rigged up two check valves, essentially a one-way gate, one to prevent greywater from siphoning back into the washing machine and another to act as a vent. You could also just use a six foot section of pipe as a vent, but Lora’s overhanging roof made that impossible.

The most labor intensive part of the process was digging the trench for the pipe out in the garden. Lora decided how many outlets she wanted in the garden and we consulted the “calculator” on Ludwig’s site (more of a chart than a calculator, actually, since he’s done the math for you). The calculator basically gives a range of outlet sizes and numbers so that you can get an even flow to the outlets but not risk burning out the washing machine’s pump. With nine outlets Ludwig suggests a 3/8-inch hole. We simply drilled 3/8-inch holes in the bottom of the PVC pipe that we ran out into the garden. The outlets flow into mini-mulch basins along the side of some perennial shrubs and a few small fruit trees.

Altogether it took just a few hours. Lora ran a load of clothes immediately and it worked perfectly. It was one of the easiest home improvement projects I’ve done. No cursing whatsoever! Now Lora can’t wait to do the laundry. She, of course, uses only Oasis Biocompatible Laundry Detergent. Note that many “eco” detergents will kill terrestrial plants–I’ll do a blog post on this shortly, as I discovered one major manufacturer claiming that a detergent was safe for greywater only to discover that it contained several different sodium compounds, definitely bad for soil!

Ludwig gives both a version of this project in PVC and another in HDPE plastic. I chose to work with the politically incorrect PVC since I couldn’t find the groovier 1-inch HDPE in less than 300 foot rolls. If any of you know of a source where you can get 1-inch HDPE by the foot, please let me know in the comments.

If you’d like to do this yourself the plans are all on Ludwigs site under Laundry to Landscape. In addition to the plans there is a parts list for both the PVC and HDPE versions and the aforementioned calculator.  If you don’t think you can do it yourself (remember it’s easy!) you could conceivably hand the plans to a handyman. A plumber would be too expensive, in my opinion.

See also Ludwig’s book The New Create an Oasis with Greywater.

Sundiner

Beekeeper Dennis made one of those once in a lifetime garage sale finds earlier this year: a solar oven from the 1960s called the “Sundiner.” I couldn’t find much on the interwebs about it except for a brief mention in the  April 1963 issue of Desert Magazine,

“Here’s a new product that suits desert living as few others can—it collects and concentrates the heat of the sun and allows outdoor cooking without fuel or fire. They call it the Sundiner. The technical description is “Solar Energy Grill.” Sundiner is a compact unit, 17-inches square and 6inches tall. Fold-out mirrors are metalized Mylar plastic, supported by polypropylene holders. The mirrors focus the sun’s heat on the lower section of the cabinet, where heat slowly builds up to a maximum of about 450 degrees—plenty to cook with. Directly below the apex of the mirrors is an oven enclosure. Plastic foam insulation and a pair of glass plates prevent excessive heat loss. The solar energy grill works in this simple way: point the mirrors toward the sun for a few minutes until the right temperature is reached (built-in heat indicator dial) and pop a tray of food into the oven. There is no fire or fuel to handle. Sole source of cooking stems from the collected, concentrated rays of the sun. Here is a sample of how long various meats take to cook: Hamburgers, franks, and fish, 15 to 20 minutes. Steaks and fillets, 20 to 25 minutes. Quartered chicken, 25 to 30 minutes. Temperature variations are possible by turning the Sundiner toward or away from the sun. The advantage of the Sundiner is that it can be used as a safe substitute for a fuel-fired stove on beaches, parks, decks of boats, and other restricted areas. Carrying handles are standard. The price is $29.95. From Sundiner. Carmer Industries. Inc., 1319 West Pico Blvd.. Los Angeles 15. Calif.”

That price would be about $207.62 today, just under what the very similar Global Sun Oven Solar Cooker costs.

When collapsed the Sundiner resembles, unsurprisingly, a 1960s era portable record player.

Dig that groovin’ temperature dial.

 The instructions are printed on the inside cover.

I can almost taste the heavy nitrites in those 1960s hot dogs.

For more vintage solar thoughtstylings see Life Magazine’s “Solar Power Back in the Day.”