Row Covers in a Warm Climate

The aftermath of a skunk rampage.

Here’s an unintended organic gardening chain of events:

1. Scoop up multiple trash bags full of fruit scraps from Fallen Fruit’s jam making event at Machine Project.

2. Add this large bounty of organic material to the compost pile.

3. Watch as a bunch of beetle larvae hatch and devour the fruit and other goodies in the compost pile.

4. Sift compost and feed most of the larvae to a happy flock of hens.

5. Add compost to the vegetable garden.

6. Plant seedlings.

7. Wake up the next morning to find out that skunks have spent the night rampaging through the vegetable beds in search of the remaining grubs. Yell in frustration at the sight of all the uprooted seedlings that took a month to grow in flats.

Now I knew that skunks were a problem at our place, and I had covered the beds each night with some spare shade cloth to keep them out. But on this particular evening I had forgotten to cover the beds. PepĂ© le Peu had destroyed a month’s worth of work.

Setting about to find a solution, I considered everything from high powered weapons to peeing off the front porch to spreading batches of compost for the hens to pick through. Not wanting a visit from the LAPD, I settled on floating row covers, a light fabric that is used to exclude pests and protect plants from frost. Row covers would also take care of another persistent problem, cabbage worms. But here in USDA zone 10, where we have only occasional frosts, row covers have the potential to make growing conditions too warm. Thankfully I was able to get a roll of an extremely light row cover material called Agribon 15. Agribon makes a range of row covers in varying thicknesses. Agribon 15 is the lightest and is used mainly to exclude pesky insects. It has also worked with the skunks, who seem unwilling to poke through the flimsy fabric. Those of you in colder places should use a heavier cover to retain more heat.


I drilled holes in the corners of the beds and bent some scrap PVC pipe to create hoops to hold the row cloth above the plants. Agribon is so light that you can just put it on top of many plants without hoops.


Now I can sleep at night knowing that my beds are locked down in a kind of “vegetable Guantanamo”.


Johnny’s Seeds sells Agribon 15 in 250 foot rolls for $45. Seeds of Change sells it in 5o foot lengths for $26. It would make sense for most urban homesteaders go in with a few friends on a roll.

Watch a video on how to install row covers at Johnny’s Seeds.

Compost Field Trip

Homegrown Neighbor Here:

I recently had the opportunity to tour an industrial scale composting operation. I am a huge compost geek so I was pretty excited. I’ve seen a lot of piles in my day, but nothing like this. This facility, Community Recycling (a division of Crown Disposal), processes food scraps and organic wastes from most of the major grocery store chains in Southern California. They also collect food scraps from restaurants and other food vendors in the region as well as operate a recycling facility for metals, plastics, wood, paper, yard trimmings and anything else they can find a market for or a way to keep out of the landfill. I must say it was pretty impressive. But the most exciting part of course was the compost.

There were literally mountains of compost called windrows in rows perhaps twenty feet high by several hundred feet long. It’s a large scale operation with not just one windrow but dozens of them. And this is all stuff that otherwise would end up in landfills. Of course we should be composting all of our organic wastes close to home, but the sad truth is that a lot of this lovely organic material gets thrown away instead of returned to the earth. So I am glad that enterprises such as this exist.

When vegetables are going to go bad at the grocery store, they get tossed in a bin bound for these vast fields of degrading organic matter. The interesting part is that they get tossed in, plastic and all. There are bagged carrots, bagged salad mixes, plastic wrapped heads of cauliflower, all together. The compost windrows are just littered with plastic as you can see. Nothing like my backyard compost, where I would never allow any plastic or so much as a stray rubber band. On a commercial scale, they find it easier to sort the plastic out at the end of the composting process. Just how they do that, they won’t say–apparently it’s proprietary. But we got to drive around the hundreds of acres of compost and see the process for ourselves, start to finish. [Mr. Homegrown here: plastic combined with organics is one of the big problems in the world of municipal waste.]
The food waste is blended with wood chips or wood ‘fines’ as needed. Huge windrow machines straddle and churn the piles. They look like something out of Star Wars. Several months later the finished compost is sold to farmers. Community Recycling is a totally vertically integrated operation so of course they farm a little too–organic almonds, some row crops and some forage crops. That way, if they have too much compost on their hands at one time, they can always put it on their own land. The soil looked pretty good to me. I got to traipse around and get my hands in the earth. They also raise wild turkeys and other native birds to be released into the wild. It is part of a habitat and wildlife restoration project they are involved in.
This was better than any amusement park I’ve ever been too. I mean, they have compost, weird looking wild animals- yes, turkeys are very weird looking, organic almonds, a recycling facility and did I mention the mountains of compost? I’m pictured below, the happy queen of the compost heap.

When the Crate’s Better Than the Chair


Steve Badgett of the design/art/architecture collective Simparch tipped me off to Dutch furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld’s set of chairs built out of crates, done back in the 1930s. As Rietveld put it,

“A piece of furniture made of high-grade wood and manufactured completely according to traditional production methods is transported in a crate to avoid damage…no one has ever ascertained that such a chest embodies an improvised, highly purposeful method of carpentry…there must therefore at long last be someone who chooses the crate rather than the piece of furniture.”

You can bet our next book will have some Rietveld inspired DIY designs. In the meantime, for the industrious makers out there, the chair above would be a cinch to back-engineer with pallet wood. Rietveld sold pre-made kits for the volk to assemble themselves. You can still buy a crate chair kit for $450 produced by Rietveld’s grandkids, but a few hours with a sawzall, drill and some screws and scrap will be De Stijl in no time.

A special thanks to daddytypes.com for some info on this–oddly, Greg at daddytpes seems to share my interest in hippie building manuals and furniture made from junk.

Out Of The In Box

While my architectural tastes run closer to Prince Charles than Buckminster Fuller (those damn domes leak!), I have a soft spot for DIY hippie design manuals. I recently stumbled upon Ken Isaacs’ 1974 book How to Build Your Own Living Structures, which contains plans for everything from a simple chair to a multi-level home, all in a distinct modular style. Best of all, it’s available as a pdf for free here along with a couple of other interesting books from the period.

Above is Isaac’s clever cube crapper. Not much headroom in the head, but what a nice view.

Isaac’s work has a playful plywood-meets-the-moon lander vibe. I think I would have loved this modular bunk bed as a kid.

Dwell Magazine did an interview with Isaacs recently:

After I complained about hippie aesthetics in a previous post, an astute reader countered that hippies are the only people who have done grassroots building in recent memory. Good point. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, during the “great recession”, we’re revisiting books such as this one rather than heading to Ikea.

Cutting a Beehive Out of a Wall

Bees in a wall!

Last week, along with two other “backwards beekeepers” Russ and Sue, we relocated a hive of bees that had taken up residence in a garage wall in East Hollywood. It was a “cut-out” in beekeeping parlance. The property owners did not want to exterminate the hive and we were able to give them a new home in Sue’s idyllic garden. Backwards Beekeeping guru Kirk Anderson sent us some tips via email. It’s Kirk’s view that feral bees have more robust immune systems than the pedigreed bees that most beekeepers order through the mail. So with good intentions we got about to, as Kirk puts it, “save the world.” Here’s how we did it:

Kirk told us to smoke the hive when we got there and smoke again when needed. Smoke makes the bees think their house is on fire and they rush to stock up on honey. Preoccupied with their sweet food stockpile they ignore the homo sapiens tearing their house apart. Russ got one sting, but the hive was pretty calm under the circumstances.

Next, we got all our tools ready and suited up in our white bee suits. A cut-out is a delicate combination of building demolition and surgery on a living entity. Like surgery, once you start you can’t stop. With a long butcher knife and some crowbars we peeled back the paneling to reveal . . . more paneling underneath! Thankfully it was ancient fiberboard that disintegrated as we tugged on it. The comb was not attached to the panelling and we were able to easily access the hive. Kirk had warned us to have the butcher knife ready in case we had to separate comb from the wall as we peeled it back. With the wall off we could see a mass of several thousand bees who had neatly built comb between two studs.

Russ and Sue then began to carefully cut out the comb from the wall cavity with the butcher knife and put it into wooden frames, using string to tie it in place (see Kirk doing this at the end of this Backwards Beekeeping TV episode). We focused on saving the comb with brood (bee larvae). These frames were then placed into a “nuc” box, a cardboard box that holds five frames in which we could transport the bees to their new home. We also had two garbage bags: one for empty comb and the other for honey comb to feed back to the bees once they got to Sue’s garden. The next time I do this I’m going to get some buckets for this purpose as the trash bags tend get stuck together with honey. Another lesson I learned is to bring a tarp. Taking a hive out of a wall leaves a huge mess of spilled honey, construction debris and dead bees.

Once we had the brood comb in the nuc box we noticed worker bees returning from field massing where their hive used to be. We put the nuc box with the frames of brood in it next to the wall and took a break. Russ gave Kirk a call and he suggested we spray the mass of workers with sugar water and use our bee brush to push them into a dust pan. The sugar water occupies the bees with cleaning themselves and makes them easier to move. Once in the dust pan they are easy to dump into the nuc box where, we hoped, the queen had taken up residence.

After scooping up as many workers as we could we taped up the nuc box and got ready to put it in the back of Sue’s hatchback. Recalling the story of a friend of a friend who had a nuc box full of bees overturn while driving a sedan, Sue and I decided to drive the short distance home wearing our bee suits (a truck would be handy here!). Even on the streets of freaky East Hollywood, the sight of two bee suit clad folks in a car attracted curious stares and laughter. During the short drive I noticed, through the screen of my veil, public access TV star Francine Dancer, in her wheelchair, going through a box of junk on Virgil. It’s moments like these that reveal Los Angeles as far more like the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel than the celebrity spectacle the media disseminates.

Russ, Sue and property owner Jen

When we got back to Sue’s garden we put the frames into a hive box and dumped the loose bees in. While we won’t know for a while if the hive will take to its new home, we all felt a great sense of accomplishment. Hopefully, other urbanites around the world will take up beekeeping and put more exterminators out of work.

For more info on Kirk Anderson’s natural beekeeping methods see www.beehuman.blogspot.com.

Got a beehive that needs to be removed from your LA area residence? Get in touch with Kirk at kirksurbanbees.com.

Red Cabbage Kraut


Homegrown Neighbor here:

Red cabbage sauerkraut is my new favorite condiment. I put it on everything including stir-fry, pasta, eggs, salads and soups. The kraut is salty so it is a great addition. No need to add salt or soy sauce to anything- kraut will kick up the flavor.

Then of course there is the color. Sure, I could eat ordinary green cabbage kraut. But where is the fun and excitement in that? Green cabbage turns grey and colorless when it is fermented. Red cabbage however, turns a bright shade of purplish pink. The liquid around it dyes all of your food. I like to eat it on eggs. It stains the egg whites a lovely shade of blue and purple. Plus I’m sure the bright color represents some kind of potent cancer fighting compound. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are good for you. Artificially colored foods, not so much.
And of course sauerkraut is a naturally fermented food. This means it contains live bacteria. Don’t worry- bacteria are everywhere, you just have to cultivate the good kind. And kraut is full of lactobaccili, a beneficial bacteria in this case. I had never liked the sauerkraut I tried as a child. But now I am converted. I think if the kraut on my hot dog when I was a kid was bright pink, I would have liked it a lot better.
This is my weird and wonderful urban farmer breakfast: raw kale, pinto beans, a spoonful of homemade pesto, eggs and kraut. Trust me, its delicious. I need a nutrition packed breakfast to go clean the chicken coop and garden all day.
I got my kraut making ideas and recipes from Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.

Also, thanks to the neighbors for letting me use their sauerkraut crock. I have also made smaller batches in a simple glass bowl. So there is no specialized equipment required. Just try fermenting something delicious.

Events in Los Angeles This Weekend: SIP Workshop and Maria’s Garden

Saturday (i.e. TODAY!)

On Saturday November 14th Kelly and I will be doing a Self Irrigating Pot (SIP) workshop in Westchester at 3 p.m. SIPs are a great way for folks in apartments to get into small scale vegetable gardening. Best of all the workshop is FREE FREE FREE! Here’s the location:

Playa Del Oro at 8601 Lincoln Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90045

Sunday

Anne Hars, who lives a few blocks from us, helped save another neighbor’s garden from a management company that wanted to remove it. Tomorrow, Sunday the 15th, Anne has organized a work party to tidy up the garden and she’s looking for volunteers and a few donations of pots, mulch and soil. The fun begins at 9 am at 421 North Coronado Street.

“This is a great opportunity to help a Senior Citizen in need and spend the day puttering around in the garden! We need people of all skill levels from beginners to experts. Landscape Designer Maggie Lobl has kindly worked out a design approach and will help co-ordinate activities.”

For more info see Anne’s website.

Humanure Happens

Simparch’s dry toilet located in Wendover Utah

From the 1806 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac,

“Four loads of earth mixed with one load of privy soil, will be equal to five loads of barnyard dung. Let it lie for several months and occasionally turn it over with a shovel, and it will be of use as manure.”

The editors of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2010,where I found that quote, deemed it necessary to tack on a disclaimer, “Human waste, as well as that of dogs and cats, is not recommended as manure for fertilizer today.” But after fielding a couple of calls from journalists interested in the subject of composting human waste, I’m thinking that humanure is about to get serious consideration again. After all, why waste a good source of nitrogen in the middle of a recession?

Simparch’s striking Clean Livin’ compound

All this is a long winded intro to get you all to check out two fine examples of dry sawdust-based toilets. First is the one at the top of this post, designed by a collective known as Simparch, and located on the historic Wendover Air Force Base on the Nevada-Utah border. The facilities are simple: a toilet seat sits atop a 55 gallon drum. Each time you use it you add some sawdust. After composting, you’ve got rich soil. But what makes the Simparch crapper so amazing is the view. From the throne you look out on a landscape so flat you can see the curvature of the earth, punctuated by munitions bunkers dating back to World War II. The toilet facilities are part of a self-sufficient living project they call “Clean Livin‘”.

It ain’t the moon but close: the view from the Simparch Clean Livin’ crapper

The second example, nicknamed the “crap-cedral”, is featured on Lloyd Kahn’s amazing blog. Built by someone with the improbable name of Birchbarkbobananda, the crap-cedral features intricate woodwork and an equally stunning location. What both of these dry toilet facilities prove is the siting possibilities that can happen when you can put your crapper wherever you damn well please. No sewer line means you can have a nice view!

Rubber Sidewalks Rescue Trees

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I love trees and all of the things they do for us. They shade us, feed us, house us. Trees are something we just need more of here in Southern California.
I used to work at an urban forestry non-profit, TreePeople. So I am familiar with the challenges of the tree/sidewalk interface. I have fielded calls from people frantically trying to save trees that are being ripped out because they are lifting the sidewalk. I have also received calls from people eager to remove trees for the same reason. Sadly, I have also heard from people that would call just to complain about a tree being messy and littering their sidewalk or driveway. My personal take on that is it isn’t the tree that should be removed- it is the concrete. Leaves falling off of trees is a good thing. Leaves make glorious mulch or compost and that hardscape is just in the way of some healthy soil.
Nonetheless, in a city there are sidewalks. There are also commonly trees near sidewalks. The wrong species of tree or a tree that is too large for the available space, can lead to problems. Cracked or raised sidewalks can be hazardous or inaccessible for the disabled, people with strollers, cyclists, skate boarders and those of us who are just generally clumsy. Rubber tiles in place of concrete can be a solution. They allow the tree roots to grow yet they are flexible. They conform to the contours of the roots. This eliminates gaps and provides an even surface. They are safer than ordinary concrete and allow the tree to thrive as well. I have heard of these rubber tiles before but I had never seen them in person until just a few days ago. I came across this tree and the rubber sidewalk in a leafy, pretty suburb along a major boulevard with a lot of foot traffic. Viva el arbol!

More on this material via the Charlotte Observer,“When the rubber meets the sidewalk (at $80 a foot)”.

The company that makes them is called, not surprisingly, Rubber Sidewalks.

Apron Contest Winner

Homegrown Neighbor here:


We have a winner for our apron giveaway. I received a lot of great entries. It was fun to hear what each of you would do in an apron. I’m happy to say that we have a lot of interesting, witty and crafty readers. I even received some international entries. I wish we could give you all aprons.

But Katie Presley made me laugh, so I had to choose her as our winner. Lots of people cook and craft, but Katie cooks and crafts with an irreverent and sassy sense of humor. My kind of girl.

Her entry was rather long, so I’ll just give you the highlights. She said she would first roll around on the floor and wrap herself up in the apron like a “sexy burrito.”

She cooks, of course. She even makes her own recipe books of tasty treats. In addition to cooking she notes, I am also in printmaking, so this apron can come with me to my art classes to make the bindings for the recipe book for the recipes that Apron and I were JUST working on! It is an artistic, apron-centric circle of life.”

Congrats, Katie.

I’ve got a batch on jam on the stove, so I’d better finish this post and get to canning. I’m putting on my apron now….the jam is peaches with ginger, zero white sugar, a little maple syrup and unripe apples pieces for pectin. I’ll let you know how it turns out.