Rain- The Best Gift of All

Homegrown Neighbor here:

It is Christmastime, I am stuffed full of food and my house is brimming with yet more stuff. I have enjoyed the holidays, but I’m even more excited about the rain we have had and that there is perhaps more in the forecast. When it comes to what really counts, well, rain is pretty high up there.
The past few years have been extremely dry here in the West. The year before last we literally had 3 inches of rain in L.A. So rain really feels like a gift from the gods.
We had a decent rain recently and I have been using the water I harvested. As you can see in the photo, my downspouts go into a rain barrel. A slight design flaw I have discovered in hindsight is that the spout doesn’t attach directly to the barrel. There is screening over the top of the barrel but it isn’t a very fine mesh. I meant for it to keep leaves and large debris out. I forgot about mosquitoes. It would be ideal if the spout was attached directly to the barrel and there was no point of entry for the bugs. But these are home made rain barrels and I have lived and learned from my mistakes. But I do get to harvest a decent amount of water and it feels very satisfying to see that barrel full after only a light rain.
So due to the mosquito issue, I use my harvested rain water as soon as possible. Once the soil has dried out, usually just a couple of days later, I attach a hose to the barrel and let it drain. I will set it in the garden and move it around to a few different spots. I have five 55 gallon barrels set up so far.
Rainwater really helps flush out salts that can build up in the soil (an issue here in the West) and unlike tap water there is no chlorine. The plants just love the rain water. I also planted beet, carrot and onion seeds right before the rain. They are now starting to sprout.
In the new year one of my projects is going to be upgrading the rainwater harvesting system. In addition to the existing rain barrels, I want to make sure that any excess water is absorbed by the landscape. Currently a lot of water runs down the driveway during a rain. This is made worse by a downspout that feeds directly into the driveway. The driveway of course channels the water straight to the street where it goes to the ocean. It would be better to have that water sink back into the earth. So I want to redirect that water into a detention basin instead. It will be a small depression planted with native plants adapted to our weather patterns. More water for me, less water wasted! Directing rainwater from your roof into the landscape is often simpler and lower in cost that harvesting in a barrel or cistern.

The small 55 gallon barrels I have are great, but they fill up very quickly even in a light rain. You would be amazed at how much water you can collect. There are many cistern options out there. They just tend to be very large and expensive. But I recently saw a display from Bushman Tanks who offer water harvesting and storage tanks suitable for the average homeowner. I thought the prices were reasonable and I love the slim line tanks that are designed to store a lot of water in a small footprint. I know what I want for Christmas next year…..

[Mr. Homegrown here--hopefully Santa will bring us a Bushman Tank too--in the meantime, see our rain barrel here.]

Happy Holidays from Homegrown Evolution

We didn’t get around to our annual Christmas missive this year so we’ll have to share some silliness via the interwebs. Here at Homegrown Evolution we like to combine the country and the city. Kinda like this:

Look out, this might get stuck in your head–what the Germans call “ohrwurm” (ear worm):

Fröhliche Weihnachten! May your coming year be full of homegrown veggies, bikes and bathtub booze!

Bottle Cap Wreath

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I love Christmas. I love eating cookies, getting together with friends and family and of course, an excuse to make things. I was inspired this weekend to get a little crafty. My front door needed a wreath and I have a huge collection of beer bottle caps so of course I made a bottle cap wreath. I used a simple piece of wire as a form and a lot of hot glue. I tied the wire around a ceramic bowl to shape it. That’s about it. It took me perhaps an hour to make.
I also made this little one as a gift for a friend who helped to consume the beer for the project. For the little one I used the rim of a coffee can (like the one’s from Trader Joe’s.) I just cut off the metal rim from the cardboard and hot glued the bottle caps. I found a little green ribbon to hang it with as an extra special touch.
Happy Holidays to all.

Raccoon Proof Chicken Coop

Homegrown Neighbor here again:

Things aren’t always idyllic in the world of urban farming. Actually, they rarely are. There is literally a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into what we do.

I’m still recovering from a scare we had a few days ago. After two years of trying, the other night at 2:30 a.m. a raccoon managed to break into my chicken coop. My housemate and I were up there in our pajamas shrieking while the hens flapped and clucked wildly. The raccoon was racing about in the coop and as I ran up I could see feathers flying everywhere. I opened the coop and shouted at the raccoon to get out. Somehow, we got up there in time, because there was no visible carnage. One chicken lost a lot of feathers trying to escape, so it did look like quite a horrific mess. While my housemate held a flashlight, I picked up the frightened hens two by two and put them inside the house in my bathroom. But I couldn’t find Joan, one of my silkie bantams. It was dark and she was nowhere to be found.
I spent the rest of the wee hours drinking beer and reading, since the adrenaline rush and worry over the missing Joan wouldn’t let me get back to sleep.
Joan the silkie woke me up with a frantic clucking at sunrise. She had spent the night outside alone and was upset that the rest of her flock wasn’t there when she woke up. Bleary eyed, I put all the chickens back together outside and they had a joyous reunion. I was filled with joy as well. I feel very lucky that I had no casualties in this event. I know many others who haven’t been as fortunate with raccoons. I did loose two chicks to raccoons last year, but that’s another story.
Since Mr. Homegrown regularly rises at dawn anyway, I called the neighbors as soon as I made a cup of coffee. Have I mentioned how much I love my neighbors? Mr. Homegrown came over and helped me try to figure out how the ‘coon had gotten in. He suspected the roof. I had to go to work for a while so we regrouped again in the afternoon to do some shopping and alter the coop to make it more raccoon proof.
The coop now has a new roof, several new layers of hardware cloth where there had previously only been chicken wire, and lots of new nails. The previous roof was corrugated plastic with chicken wire beneath. Now there is chicken wire, plywood and corrugated plastic on top.
When we first built the coop, we used a staple gun and heavy duty staples. Mr. Homegrown explained to me that this metal is rather flimsy and can rust and fall apart. So we picked up some u shaped nails that I spent the afternoon hammering in. According to Mr. Homegrown, u nails (galvanized poultry staples) are the way to go. So now you know.
The hens have been sleeping safely and soundly for a few days now and thankfully so have I.

The Skunk Whisperer

Normally I ignore the business related facebook pleas filling up the Homegrown Evolution in box, but one came today that I had to grant some free publicity. We’ve all heard of horse whisperers and TV’s dog whisperer. You may have even heard of the chicken whisperer. Step aside for the . . . skunk whisperer, a “no-kill, no-trap” pest control company based in Oklahoma which seems to consist of at least two skunk whisperers, each with their own cartoon avatar and territory.

From what I can tell from the Skunk Whisperer’s website, www.totalwildlifecontrol.com, they seem to practice a common sense integrated pest management (IPM) approach to critter control. In other words, work first on eliminating habitat. Studies have shown that if you trap and try to relocate animals such as skunks and raccoons, you’re just making room for a another one to take their place. If you poison them you risk killing predators up the food chain, not to mention pets and humans. And poisoned mammals have a nasty tendency to crawl into a wall to die leaving a stench that lasts for months.

As a chicken owner I’m sensitive to the raccoon menace. Following the IPM approach, just like the Skunk Whisperer, I made sure the chicken coop was well fortified and I got rid of a water feature that was a nightly raccoon attractant. Our Doberman is the icing on the anti-raccoon cake.

It’s easy to see how preventing points of entry into our homes is one important part of fending off critters. Judging from the voluminous photos on the Skunk Whisperer’s facebook page they focus on screening out critter access. The beehive relocation I helped with recently and the one I’m going to do in the spring are both because hives made their way into buildings with gaps in the woodwork. Close up the gaps and you exclude most non Homo sapiens. And can we please stop leaving pet food outside?

Possum whispering and bare handed trappin’.

It turns out that the Skunk Whisperer also uses a technique I just tried. The contractor who did our foundation work left the crawlspace access door open. I’m pretty sure something took up residence down there. If I just closed the access door I risked having a critter die under the house, or possibly killing someone’s cat. Instead, I got a cheap raccoon-sized trap and rigged it up as a one-way door. Critters can exit, but they can’t come back in. It seemed to work–the trap sprung and something either left or tried to get in and couldn’t. Now I can close off the access door and not worry about the scent of death wafting up through the house. Here’s what my skunk trap-out looks like–excuse the bad picture and remember that it’s not a trap as the exit end is always open:

I cut a board to fit around the trap-out and nailed it to the corners of the crawl space opening.

The next step is to get a cartoon of myself and I’ll be making the big money.

Here’s the Skunk Whisperer removing the Pepsi machine raccoons. As he put it, “They’d put money in and a raccoon hand would come out.”

A tasty Italian chard: Bieta Verde da Taglio

A few folks have written to ask what we’re growing in our winter vegetable garden and we’ve been late to reply. Since we’re in USDA zone 10 and seldom get freezing weather here in Los Angeles, we can grow year round. One of my favorites this winter has been a Swiss chard variety from Italy called Bieta Verde da Taglio or “Green cutting chard”.

Verde da Taglio has thin stems and thick leaves. It ain’t as pretty as the rainbow colored chards we are also growing, but it tastes better, in my opinion. Steam it, fry it up with some garlic and olive oil and you’re set.

Verde da Taglio is sold by the Franchi company, which I have a brand allegiance to as fanatical as the worst Apple computer partisan. Is Franchi the new Apple? I predict we’ll see folks tossing their iPhones for packs of rapini way before that Mayan calendar thingy comes to pass.

We got our Bieta Verde da Taglio seeds from growitalian.com a couple of years ago and they are still viable. But, thanks to Craig Ruggless, our local Franchi seed representative, you can now find these seeds in some nurseries and stores here in California. You can also order from Ruggless via the catalog on his Franchi Seeds USA Facebook page.

Great Seeds Grow Great Gardens

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I have a very exciting announcement to make. As you may recall, I volunteer at a school garden at North Hollywood High. Well, it is more than a garden. There is an orchard, a flower and herb garden, a pig and a goat. We are almost done with our chicken coop and hope to get some hens in there in the new year.

I have been trying to think of ways to raise money to support our school garden project. So we have partnered with one of my favorite seed companies, Botanical Interests, to fundraise for the school garden. If you click on the url above, or on the image in the sidebar and purchase seeds, a portion of the proceeds will go to support the garden project.
Botanical Interests is a family owned company. Their seeds are untreated and non-GMO. I have grown a lot of vegetables from their seed and I have always had great germination rates and healthy plants. They have a great selection of vegetables, herbs and flowers to choose from. My very favorite plant from their collection is the Italian Nero Kale. I eat huge, heaping kale salads from my garden on a regular basis. I didn’t used to like kale, now I love it.
And of course seeds make great gifts. Seed packets make great stocking stuffers, or cute adornments on packages. Botanical Interests also offers great collections of seeds such as a children’s garden collection and an heirloom tomato seed collection. What a perfect gift for any gardener or nature lover. So please, click through our website, tell your friends and buy some seeds!
Francine, our mascot pot-bellied pig, thanks you.

Nance Klehm at Farmlab Tomorrow

If you’re in So Cal tomorrow Nance Klehm will be doing a talk at Farmlab:

Metabolic Studio Public Salon
Nance Klehm
Friday, December 11, 2009, Noon
Free Admission

There are three fundamentals that guide this time of descent into northern-hemisphere darkness. The winter season is one of decline and decomposition, activity below ground and general shadowiness. The fundamentals that guide us are:

Everything comes into this world hungry.

Everything wants to be digested.

Everything flows towards soil.

This salon will discuss various methods of transforming what is perceived as waste and turning it into soil or building/healing existing soil.

Nance Klehm is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Her solo and collaborative work focuses on creating participatory social ecologies in response to a direct experience of a place. She grows and forages much of her own food in a densely urban area. She actively composts food, landscape and human waste. She only uses a flush toilet when no other option is available. She designed and currently manages a large scale, closed-loop vermicompost project at a downtown homeless shelter where cafeteria food waste becomes 4 tons of worm castings a year which in turn is used as the soil that grows food to return to the cafeteria.

She works with Simparch to create and integrate soil and water systems at their Clean Livin’ at C.L.U.I.’s Wendover, UT site. She uses decomposition, filtration and fermentation to transform post-consumer materials generated onsite (solid and liquid human waste, grey water from sinks and shower, food, cardboard and paper) as well as waste materials gathered offsite (casino food waste and grass clippings, horse manure from stables, spent coffee grounds) into biologically rich soil. The resulting waste-sponge systems sustain or aid: a habitat of native species of plants, digestion of the high salinity of the indigenous soils and the capturing, storing and using of precipitation.

She has shown and taught in Mexico, Australia, England, Scandinavia, Canada, the Caribbean, and the United States. Her regular column WEEDEATER appears in ARTHUR magazine.

Directions to Farmlab are here.

Also, Klehm and Mr. Homegrown are in Time magazine this week talking about humanure.

Klehm’s Website: www.spontaneousvegetation.net

They want to ride to school. So they do.

In Orlando Florida, one of the worst places to ride a bike in America, some high school students are taking back the streets:

High School Bike Bus from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo. Via Streetsblog.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, elementary and high school groups go on field trips to the auto show:

No doubt our educational dollars were well spent showing the kids the informative educational displays:

I noticed that some of the students at the car show had been given traffic safety pamphlets about how to safely ride bikes. Car companies have been producing pedestrian and bike safety info for years. At the risk of being somewhat conspiratorial, auto industry produced safety materials often carry a hidden message that walking and biking are dangerous, marginal activities. Actually biking to school together like the Florida students as well as walking school buses send a much better message, in my opinion.

The good news is that, in car-centric cities like Orlando and Los Angeles there is a growing awareness that alternative transportation arrangements need to be made quickly. Here in LA we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Thanks to Elon Schoenholz for scoring two free passes to the car show. It’s good to check out how the consensus trance is holding up.

Without Merit: poison in your compost

An image from Washington State University’s aminopyralid bioassay instructions.

Another thing to worry about! In the past two years farmers and gardeners in the UK and US have experienced the unintended effects of a powerful herbicide called aminopyralid, sold by Dow Chemical under the brand names Merit and Forefront. This herbicide is used to control weeds such as thistle, knapweed and yellow starthistle.

The problem is that aminopyralid survives the digestive systems of animals pastured on land sprayed with it, as well as compost piles made from their manure. Most other herbicides break down eventually, but this stuff sticks around. An organic farmer using compost contaminated by aminopyralid could lose crops and organic certification for years. If that isn’t enough to worry about, two other nasty herbicides, picloram and clopyralid have also contaminated compost piles around the world.

But what about us backyard gardeners? How can aminopyralid effect us? I’m fond of using a bit of horse manure in my compost pile. It’s free for the taking and helps heat up the pile. But if the horses were fed hay grown on land sprayed with aminopyralid I could lose my veggies, particularly tomatoes, lettuce and legumes which are highly susceptible to this chemical.

So what can we do? First the practical: test your compost. Washington State University has instructions for performing a simple test here (pdf). Basically, you plant three pea seeds in a 50/50 blend of compost and potting mix and compare their growth against a control group of three pea seeds grown in just potting mix. If you use manure in your compost pile and you don’t own the animal it came from, this test should be routine.

Secondly, a political solution: the Rachel Carson Council suggests writing two EPA officials to suggest banning a trio of deadly herbicides that includes aminopyralid: Kathryn Montague at [email protected], and Dan Kenny at [email protected].

For more information on aminopyralid, picloram and clopyralid see the Rachel Carson Council’s Killer Compost Q&A.

Read the articles in Mother Earth News by Barbara Pleasant that tipped me off to this problem, “Milestone Herbicide Creates Killer Compost” and “Contaminated Compost: Coming Soon to a Store Near You.”

Here’s a technical discussion of aminopyralid for those familiar with biochemistry.

From Ohio State University, a fact sheet on the equally bad clopyralid and some charts showing the persistence of other herbicides.

Lastly, beware of the recommendations of agencies tasked with the eradication of invasive weeds. The California Invasive Plant Council, in a 2006 publication on Yellow Starthistle management (availiable here as a pdf), recommends using both aminopyralid and clopyralid and fails to warn of their persistence. The USDA, Department of Defence and the Army Corp of Engineers assisted with that publication. Looks like these agencies need a little reflection on the laws of unintended consequences.