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.

No Need to Knead

The Los Angeles Bread Bakers held their debut demonstration today thanks to the folks at Good. As you can see from the picture above some serious bakers showed up.

Teresa Sitz and Mark Stambler

Teresa Sitz demonstrated her wild yeast no-knead bread. You can read her recipe over on the LABB Facebook page.

Wild yeast breads have a number of advantages over breads made with commercial yeast. Due to higher acidity they keep longer and have a tangy, more complex flavor. Some say they are better for you. I love the magic of creating bread with just flour, water and salt.

Thanks again to Teresa and Mark Stambler for sharing their expertise.

Power of the Patch

Our littlest Ramshackler sits on a hand-me-down car seat whenever we venture for a drive. After six years of use, the cover started to show some wear.


I thought about buying a seat cover or making one from scratch. I decided against both. We don’t need a new $50 seat cover. And I would prefer to sew something else, like pants for the kids or even some skirts for me, rather than the intricate seat cover. Then I realized a patch was all that was needed.
My son and I went to my stash. He selected the fabric, a former footed sleeper that both he and his brother wore when they were infants. The severed footies became hand puppets while I sewed. Together we headed to my studio and created a solution in about twenty minutes.
Ready to ride.

Whistle Stop Book Tour of the Northwest

              Erik does in fact bear an uncanny resemblance to Pierre Trudeau. Credit: Duncan Cameron/National Archives of Canada, PA-136972

Rodale, the publisher of our new book, is sending us on a speaking tour of the Pacific Northwest to promote Making It. Bringing this sort of groovy, DIY info to all you hardcore locavores, transitioners, freegans, goat herds and urban hillbillies in SF, Seattle and Portland seems a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle. But heck, we’re not complaining– we’re thrilled to be able to head north into your gorgeous lands.

San Francisco Events:

Friday, April 29, 7 PM: Speaking at Book Passage
Corte Madera Book Passage Store–not the one at the end of Market, the one on the other end of the ferry line: 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925

Saturday, April 30, 12 PM: Meet us at 12 noon on the lookout point of Sutro Heights Park.

We’ll take a walk along the cliffs and forage a salad, then hang out and chat while we eat. BYOB and anything else you want to eat or share. Afterward we might retire to the Cliff House for cocktails. If it’s pouring rain that day, you’ll find us at the Cliff House bar instead of in Sutro.

Seattle Area Events

Sunday, May 1st, 2 PM: Speaking at the Elliot Bay Book Company  
1521 10th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98122

Sunday, May 1st, 7 PM: Speaking at the Land Trust Building on Vashon Island
This talk is brought to you by a partnership between Books by the Way and the Vashon Island Growers Association (VIGA)

Monday, May 2, 7 PM:  Speaking at  the University Place – Pierce County Library
3609 Market Place W., University Place, WA 98466

Portland Events:

Tuesday, May 3rd: Possibly will do a gathering in some public place this evening, to meet any of you who want to come out and chat. TBA. Suggestions welcome.

Wednesday, May 4, 6-7:30 PM: Lecture at The People’s Food Cooperative
3029 Southeast 21st Avenue, Portland, OR 97202

(And before you all ask why we’re not speaking at Powell’s, the answer is we’d love to, but they’re all booked up. The timing wasn’t right. We hope someday to speak there, and will definitely be visiting anyway just to look around.)

Los Angeles Bread Bakers Demo This Weekend

First off, along with co-founders Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz I’m proud to announce the Los Angeles Bread Bakers (LABB). Click on the link to join us via Facebook.

This Saturday April 9th at 2 p.m. LABB will demonstrate how to create a starter (levain) at Good Magazine’s Launch Weekend. The event will take place at:

Atwater Crossing
3229 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Looking forward to meeting new LABBistas. LABB’s goal is to share techniques, put on workshops and build wood fired ovens.  If you’re not in LA we hope you’ll consider forming bread baking groups all over the world!

Deep Bedding for Chickens

We’ve got about 5-6″ of loose stuff on the floor of our chicken run. Underneath that, it’s black gold.

Around this time of year, folks are getting chickens. Some for the first time. So I figured it was time to talk about deep bedding again. I know we’ve written about it before, in our book, or on this blog, but this advice bears repeating:

Nature abhors bare ground. 
Line your chicken coop and run with a thick layer of mulch.

Doing this is called “deep bedding.”

Deep bedding solves a whole lot of chicken-related problems in one easy step:

  • It goes a long way toward controlling odor. 
  • It reduces flies (it not only absorbs poop, it actually fosters parasites that kill fly eggs)
  • It makes the coop area much more attractive to look at. 
  • It gives the chickens more to do (ie scratch) which keeps them happy, which keeps them from developing bad behaviors
  • It saves you work, because you don’t have to clean it out very often. Maybe not at all. Depending on your set up.

(This is a little off topic, but in a similar way we also advocate thick mulch over any bare ground in your yard. It will improve the soil, encourage worms, discourage weeds, conserve water, etc. If we had lots of spare time, money and a big truck, we’d drive around LA dumping mulch on the many, many parched landscapes that desperately need it.)

    How deep? What do I use?

    The deeper the better. Say 4 or 5 inches to start, and you will add more to that as it breaks down. As to what to use, you can use any dry organic matter–leaves, husks, straw, dry grass clippings, pine needles. We use straw, and a lot of dead leaves fall into the run, too.

    If you want to use straw, try this: just toss a few flakes* of straw into the center of the coop, and the ladies will do all the work of distributing it for you. Scouts honor. Go away, come back in an hour, and it will be so level and even, it will look like you spread it yourself.

    Start to think about your chicken coop/run as a compost pile rather than as an animal enclosure. That is what it will become. The chickens break down the bedding material, all the veg scraps you give them, and their own manure, through their constant scratching. Over time, the floor of the coop and/or run becomes a deep soft deposit of compost. Ours is sort of like quicksand. We throw all sorts of stuff in there–kitchen scraps, huge stalks of bolted lettuce, armloads of nasturtium, squash rinds–whatever goes in vanishes within a day or two. The hens peck at it until all the good stuff is gone. Then they trample it. Then they bury it. It all becomes one.

    Wear and weather break down the bedding, so you will need to add fresh material every so often. You may also choose to harvest the compost that accumulates in the run. When you do so is up to you. We don’t harvest more than once a year, but your mileage may vary. When you do clean it out, replace what you took with lots of new bedding.

    You will probably want to transfer what you harvest into a compost pile to finish up before it goes into your garden.

    Note: The hen house is different

    Our hens don’t spend any of their waking hours in the hen house, except to visit in the laying box. This means they never scratch around in there, which means this whole “living compost” system just doesn’t work in the house. The poop remains where it falls beneath the roost, untouched. Because of this, we have to clean the house out regularly. To make clean up faster, we don’t use straw or leaves inside–though we could–instead we use wood shavings, because those scoop out fast and easy, like a cat box. The soiled litter goes into our compost pile.

    Hens so hot, they had to be put behind bars!

    *Flake, a vocab word: Straw bales are compressed in such a way that when they are unbound, they come apart in sections about 4 or 5 inches thick. These are called “flakes.”

    Urban Homestead, Urban Homesteading: These Terms Belong to All of Us


    Our attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the law firm, Winston & Strawn, have filed a petition to cancel the bogus trademark registrations for the terms “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading.”

    You may read the EFF’s press release here, and the actual petition here. It is a thing of beauty. We are very fortunate to have access to the talents of some of the best people in this business.

    We hope that this petition will prevail for everybody’s sake. It goes without saying that these trademark registrations are ridiculous and hurtful and an insult to the generosity of spirit which is integral to this movement. We help each other–we don’t hold each other back.

    Our lawyers tell us that the petitioning process takes a while, so don’t expect lots of news right off the bat. Just know that the wheels of justice are turning.

    (If this is all news to you, read this previous EFF post on the subject. And here’s our own original post.)

    Geoff Lawton Soils Video

    Help, I’m turning into a soil geek. I just spent an evening viewing a video entitled Soils featuring permaculturalist Geoff Lawton.

    What I like about this video is that it’s not just about soil, but Lawton actually shows you what you can do to improve your soil. In the DVD he demonstrates how to build a compost pile (lots of carbon material), contoured vegetable beds, a compost pile heated shower and a simple vermiculture system using an old bathtub to name just a few projects. You get practical tips in a professionally produced DVD. Here’s a trailer:

    Soils is available for around $40 US on the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia website, which also has an interesting blog. In an email the Institute said that they allow educational screenings of Soils as long as you don’t charge admission. So get some friends together, watch this video and then go shovel some manure! It would also make a nice addition to a school library.

    Thanks to Scott Kleinrock of the Huntington Ranch for the tip on this one. Scott said the Geoff Lawton Food Forest DVD is also worth viewing.

    Meet the drones

    Action shot! Check out those huge, beautiful eyes

    I found this drone scrambling around on the ground in our yard. I don’t know why he was there. Perhaps he was all worn out from nightclubbing. Perhaps the ladies in his hive had booted him out. It’s hard to say. But I enjoyed taking a close at him, to appreciate the difference between him and his sisters, the worker bees, first hand.

    Worker–Queen–Drone

    Drones are longer than the workers, and a lot thicker through the body. Not so large that they’d be mistaken for bumble bees, but they’re definitely big, husky boys. The queen is longer than a drone, but much more slender–and anyway, unless you happen to catch her mating flight, you’ll never see a queen out and about. So if you spot an extra-large honey bee, it’s a drone.

    The other dead giveaway for drones is their huge, shining eyes. Drones have one function only: to mate with a virgin queen. Should one come by. And should they be able to catch her. So they have to be on constant lookout, and moreover, they have to be looking up at all times, because she won’t be stretched out on a lounge chair, waiting for him to bring her a cocktail. She’ll be flying super-high up. He needs those huge eyes to spot her.

    (As an aside, I don’t know why drone has become a synonym for a mindless worker (e.g. office drones). Drone should be a synonym for a highly privileged but ultimately disposable male, a male who lives off the work of others, his sole function to continue his genetic line, i.e, an aristocrat. I read a P.G. Wodehouse novel in which a gentleman’s club–in the historical, English sense of the term, not the euphemistic strip-joint sense–was named the Drone’s Club. And that was the best use of drone I’ve yet encountered.)

    The last thing–and the coolest thing–you should know about drones is that they don’t have stingers. They cannot sting. Or bite. Or even wound you with a sarcastic remark. They’re lovers, not fighters. So if you’ve always wanted to pet a bee, don’t be afraid to pick one up.

    Erik has been reading up on the amazing, secret life of drones lately, and I hope he’ll post about that soon. It will blow your mind.