Gift Suggestions, from the Other Half

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Of course Mr. Homegrown didn’t ask me for input on “our” holiday gift guide. Not that I dispute his choices…but I do have some of my own.

These are the 4 most thought provoking books (in this topic area) I’ve read this year:

The first two are closely related, as they are about the horticultural practices of Native Americans in California. You might remember me writing about them earlier.  Apologies for the California bias:

Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, by Celia Garcia and James D. Adams, Jr., Abedus Press, 2009

Co-authored by a Chumash healer and a USC pharmacology prof., both of whom write for Wilderness Way magazine. A fascinating resource documenting both historical uses and current scientific opinion on our native plants.

My post on it is here.

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesTending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

I’m still fascinated with this book’s thesis: that California Indians actively managed the California landscape, shaping it into the verdant paradise that awed the first European settlers to arrive here. They were practicing food forestry in it’s most advanced form, as well as wild life management.

This book also introduced me to a concept I’m also still trying to wrap my head around: the idea that plants need us as much as we need them. Our relationship is symbiotic.  Paradise isn’t wild. Plants want to be tended, and they miss our hand. Seems these days we’re either entirely ignoring them or micromanaging them–mandating monocultures and whatnot.  My original review here.

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The second two suggestions are also related to one another, being about people who are passionate about DIY living. We’ve also talked about these on this blog. And yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, we know both authors and we’re mentioned in both books. It doesn’t make them any less inspirational for me.

Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway WorldMade by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, by BoingBoing co-founder and Make Magazine editor in chief Mark Frauenfelder

A quote from Erik’s reviewMade by Hand is not a how-to book it is, paradoxically, the most practical DIY book I’ve read in a long time. Why? Because it’s all about facing that fear of failure, the single greatest obstacle to actually getting out there and doing things.

Despite some internet flapage, the movement she describes is not about putting women back into a state of servitude, or about forcing everybody to wear hair shirts for the sake of abstract, green ideals. I think she does a fine job of showing that homemakers encompass both genders, and that these ideals are neither abstract nor trendy. Radical homemakers work from a place of deep passion and resolve. It’s not for everybody, but it’s probably for more people than we think. If that makes any sense at all. A good discussion-starting sort of book.

Our Holiday Gift Suggestions

That dreaded holiday seasons is just around the corner. With unemployment still high we hope that many of you have negotiated a family gift truce to limit tedious shopping. Or perhaps you’re making things to give away.

But if you still need to get a little something for that special homesteader on your shopping list, we’ve got a few suggestions from our Homegrown Evolution Amazon Store. Even if you just click through the store and buy something else, your purchases will help support this website with no additional cost to you. Here’s a few suggestions from out list:

Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy

Edible Landscaping


Rosalind Creasy just came out with a completely rewritten version of her classic book Edible Landscaping. The book is full of dazzling photos, helpful design suggestions and a long plant list with detailed growing and harvesting directions. I’ve been carefully reviewing this book as we redesign our yard. Especially helpful has been Creasy’s suggestion to draw a plan, to scale, and create lists of design ideas and problem areas. Going through this process helped me spot a few issues that I otherwise would have missed.

Haws Watering Can

Haws Practican Plastic Watering Can – 6 Liters 

The Haws Practican Plastic Watering Can – 6 Liters is the Cadillac of watering cans. I don’t know how I survived without this thing. For starting seedlings, nothing compares to the gentle rain this sturdy, well made can produces. Yes, it costs a lot more that most watering cans, but it will last a lifetime and pay for itself in healthy seedlings.

REOTEMP Compost Thermometer

At a raffle we recently attended at the Huntington Gardens a gasp actually went up from the crowd when this item, the REOTEMP Backyard Compost Thermometer, came up. It’s a handy tool to assess the health of your compost and judge when its time to turn. I use it all the time. 
The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

Then there’s our book, The Urban Homestead Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, now in a revised edition.  Enough said.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping


If you’d like to get started in beekeeping there’s only one book out there that I can recommend. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping by Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer. It’s the only beekeeping book that advocates a completely natural, no-treatment method of beekeeping.

Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier

Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles  by Eric Toensmeier is the perfect gift for the permaculturalist on your list. With it you can design a food forest of hardy, easy to care for perennials that provide food, medicine and habitat for beneficial creatures.
Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis
Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition 
When it comes to gardening, it’s all about the soil. Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis summarizes the pioneering work of Elaine Ingham who views soil not as an inert list of chemicals, but rather as a living “soil food web.” You don’t feed the soil, you feed the organisms that inhabit the soil that, in turn, form beneficial symbiotic relationships with plants.
The Modern Utopian
The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities Then and Now 
Our publisher, Process Media, has come out with a collection of writings from the 60s and 70s back to the land era, The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities Then and Now. The book is a collection of first person accounts and underground journalism from the period. Some communities are still around, but most failed. This book takes you inside this turbulent era to show what worked and what didn’t.
These books and garden items and many more are available in the Homegrown Evolution Amazon Store. Thanks for your support!

Behold the Western Electric 500

There’s much to love about the Western Electric 500 telephone. It’s easily serviceable and built like a tank. Why? When it was manufactured you didn’t own your phone, the telephone company leased it to you. This relationship served as a powerful incentive to manufacture a device that would last. In the 90s I went through three or four cheap cordless phones that broke after a few months of service. I switched back to an old touch tone phone (a Western Electric 2500) that has served us well and doesn’t put out potentially cancer causing radio frequency waves like cordless and cell phones do. My WE500, a thrift store purchase, sat around for years until I decided to fix a wiring flaw that silenced its bells.

The WE 500 should be the poster child for Mr. Jalopy’s Owner’s Manifesto as it adheres to all the tenets:  The case is easy to open, all connections are labeled and subassemblies dissemble with ease. Virtually all repairs can be done with a screwdriver. And phone companies, to this day, stick to backwards compatibility–you can still use a dial phone to make a call. Someone send a memo to Microsoft and Apple!

The WE500 does lack a few features. The dial doesn’t work with phone trees (but who likes phone trees anyways?). The WE500 has no GPS capability. It’s incompatible with apps from the iPhone store. Worst of all, you can’t take it with you on trips to the market or hardware store. It must remain plugged into the wall.

On the other hand, Starbucks will never be able to use the WE500 to suggest nearby locations. When I’m at the hardware store, contemplating threaded fittings, nobody can reach me. And I’ll not lose productivity with my WE500 since you can’t use it to play games or “Google” things.

Lest this turn into an anti-technology rant, let me praise the wonders of the interwebs for providing the schematics and instructions I used to get the bells of my WE500 ringing again. And I like contemplating the possibility of pairing the WE500 with Google Voice all in the service of a blog about getting in touch with the natural world. After all, why get lost in a dialectical struggle between iPhone addicted hipsters and the Amish? As Ted Friedman puts it, “we are all – human, animal, machine, plant, stone, wind — part of the same integrated circuit, inextricably enmeshed in multiple feedback loops.”

Still, it’s good to examine those loops critically, on occasion. I’m reaching a point where I can no longer deal with the volume of incoming emails and still have time to make and do things. I can remember the days before answering machines and call waiting. If you weren’t home the caller would just have to try again another time. But you can’t go back. At least I can still enjoy the electro-mechanical bells of the WE500.


The Western Electric 500 served from 1949 to 1984. The one I fixed was manufactured in 1961 and refurbished a decade later. Read more about the WE500 as well as excellent repair instructions for many different old phones here.

Oatmeal: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

(we’ve really gotta get us a live-in food photographer)

Mrs. Homegrown Here:

Okay, this is one is a little weird.  I’ll tell you right off that Erik won’t eat this stuff (it just seems wrong to him), but I love it.

I’m exploring the world of savory oatmeal. I’m sure there are savory oatmeal recipes on the web, but I haven’t looked because I’m enjoying working without a map.

What I’m doing right now is making oatmeal with seaweed in it, inspired by both my love of Japanese style breakfasts, and half remembered things about the Irish eating dulse in their porridge. I don’t like sweet cereal, so this suits me fine in the morning–but I also like it for lunch or dinner.

What I do is start the oatmeal water boiling and toss in shreds of dried seaweed. I’ve been using roasted nori, the sushi sheets, and also the flavored nori strips, because that’s all I have on hand. But there’s a whole world of more interesting seaweeds to try–including dulse. Anyway, after I shred a lot nori in the water, I add a dash of tamari and a dash of soy sauce, then the oatmeal. And finally I stir in a big pat of butter. This doesn’t jive with the Japanese thing so well, but I find butter just takes the whole thing up a notch in terms of savory, unctuous goodness.

I think this would be spectacular with a little salmon on top. And I’m going to move forward and try adding things like mushrooms, or cooking the oatmeal with stock.

Do any of you make savory oatmeal?

How to Process Carob

Before. Photo by Bill Wheelock.

Our neighborhood has an abundance of carob (Ceratonia siliqua) trees that, around this time of year, drop thousands of pounds of pods. Now many of us may have unpleasant associations with carob as a 1970s era chocolate substitute, but the tree has a long history in the Middle East, where it’s used to make a tea, as a source of molasses, as a vegetable and as animal feed. The “locusts” that John the Baptist dined on were not insects but, instead, the pods of the carob tree.

After. Photo by Bill Wheelock.

In the Middle East carob has a reputation as a famine food. According to the carob article in Wikipedia the people of Malta ate carob pods and prickly pear fruit during WWII. How appropriate then that my neighbor Bill Wheelock, who just dehydrated a huge batch of my prickly pear fruit (and faced the thorny consequences), took on the onerous task of figuring out how to dry carob pods and process then into a powder using common kitchen appliances. He has authored a handy step by step guide on Instructables on how to process carob.

As a drought tolerant tree that produces hundreds of pounds of pods each year, Ceratonia siliqua definitely should be included in any food forestry plant list for of our Mediterranean climate. So if that quantitative easing thing doesn’t work out, at lease we’ll have the carob and prickly pear.

Back to the Ranch

Ranch photo from the Huntington’s Ranch blog.

I’ve never had so much fun at a symposium as I did at the Huntington’s urban agriculture blow-out this weekend. The two day event launched the Huntington’s new experimental urban agricultural station known as the “Ranch” and featured a diverse bunch of speakers. The Ranch will provide much needed information on edible landscapes and food forestry, particularly for those of us in the southwest. Designed by Scott Kleinrock, the Ranch, with its combination of fruit trees, intensive vegetable plantings and California natives is already stunning–by next year it will be a paradise. The Ranch has a blog at http://huntingtonblogs.org/theranch/.

Some highlights from the symposium after the jump:

Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local FoodAuthor Gary Nabhan presented “Adapting Food Production to a Hotter, Drier World: Using Agricultural Stations to Train Future Farmers.” Nabhan stressed the dire situation those of us living in arid climates face with climate change and the importance of experimental stations such as the Ranch in figuring out next steps. You can read some of Nabhan’s articles on his website at http://garynabhan.com/.

Dr. Susan Mulley of Cal Poly Pomona presented the results of her research in a surprisingly engaging and amusing lecture, “Are Vegetables Private?” and Other Questions: Belief and Perception and Their Impacts on Urban Agriculture.” Mulley’s work involves surveying the general public and landscaping professionals on their aesthetic likes and dislikes. The data she presented during the lecture involved perceptions of residential and institutional edible and native landscapes. Not surprisingly, the general public tends to favor landscapes that are orderly and neat while landscape professionals are more comfortable with “wildness.” The take-away for me is that those of us in the “urban farm” movement need to be more cognizant of aesthetics. As Mulley put it, most people prefer landscapes that show, “the human touch.” I think it would be best to work with that human touch rather than fight it.

Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms told the story of her journey to make a living as an urban farmer growing and selling cut flowers. Kolla began by emphasising something most people don’t know, that most cut flowers you buy at markets are drenched in pesticides. Kolla’s entrepreneurial efforts were soon thwarted by NIMBY neighbors whose complaints to local inspectors resulted in the birth of the Urban Farming Advocates. The UFA went on to craft, along with the city’s planning department, the “Food and Flowers Freedom Act” which made it legal in the city of Los Angeles to grow fruits, nuts and flowers and resell them.

Kelly and I spoke next in a rambling and bizarre lecture that involved vegetables, barefoot running and humanure among other topics. Kelly kept things on track, as usual, and headed off my tendency towards pretentious quotes. I did get to use my favorite Marshall McCluhan saying, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.”

Darren Butler presented a talk entitled, “Food Forestry and Living Systems” that echoed Nabhan’s call for for food forestry research in our arid climate. I’m looking forward to taking Butler’s grafting workshop this winter.

Edible LandscapingThe day concluded with a dazzling presentation by Rosalind Creasy whose groundbreaking book Edible Landscaping has just been updated. As Mulley’s research proves, if we want to get more folks to replace their lawns with more useful plants we’ve also got to pay attention to aesthetics. Creasy, through her gardens and writing, has proven that useful and beautiful can be one and the same. My other thought on hearing Creasy’s lecture is that perhaps we’d be better off not using the phrase “urban farming.” “Edible landscaping” or “edible landscapes” would be more accurate and less likely to bring up bad associations some people have with agriculture.

I’ve left out a lot of details on this amazing conference and may write a few more blog posts to unpack what I learned. Congratulations to the hard working staff of the Huntington for pulling off an auspicious debut for the Ranch.

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.”

Ridiculous New Parkway Planting Rules for Los Angeles

Neatly mowed bermuda grass and weeds–no permit required!

The city of Los Angeles just announced new guidelines for parkway plantings. The new rules allow residents can plant ten different species of drought tolerant turf alternatives in addition to approved street trees and drought tolerant turf species. It sounds great . . . until you read the fine print.

Those drought tolerant turf alternatives, which include chamomile, yarrow and even strawberries, must be kept “mowed.” If you want to grow any of these plants taller than 2 inches or ones not on the list you’ve got to submit drawings, apply for a permit and pay at least $400, possibly more. Ironically, the cover of the guidelines shows a picture of a mature yarrow plant of the sort you’d have to go through the permit process to grow under the new guidelines.

If anything the city has it backwards. After all, I doubt many homeowners are going to get down on their knees with scissors to trim their turf alternatives. Instead it will be yet another chore for LA’s legion of gas powered mow and blow “gardeners.” Why not charge a permit and fees to have a lawn or lawn substitute and give a free pass to drought tolerant plants under 36 inches in height? Or, better yet, simply give a small property tax break to anyone who installs drought tolerant, plants that that provide habitat for beneficial wildlife. It’s a program that might pay for itself in reduced storm water runoff, just to name one benefit. And why can’t you grow edible plants?

Another concern the city has is liability. If someone trips on a tall plant I’ve put planted in the parkway the city could be sued. It’s a curious argument to make considering that Los Angeles has essentially given up on sidewalk maintenance. A landslide that closed a sidewalk on nearby Sunset Blvd has languished unrepaired for eight months. They’ve also given up on maintaining boulevard median strips–most are at least knee deep in weeds.

Alas, this is a typical policy move for Los Angeles. They jump on the bandwagon, but get all the details wrong.

The Big Apple

Homegrown Neighbor gave us this gigantic apple as a gift. The smaller one is for scale, and it’s your typical smallish (i.e. not grocery store large) organic apple.

We suspect Monster Apple is not for eating, only for marveling. It’s a Gordon apple, grown at the esteemed Eco-Home here in Los Angeles. According to HN, the other apples on the tree were large, too, but this one was the daddy of them all.