Self Irrigating Pot Patent from 1917

I’ve often blogged about the convenience of self irrigating pots (SIPs), containers that have a built-in reservoir of water at the bottom. They work well for growing vegetables on patios and rooftops. You can make your own or purchase one from several manufacturers. I had thought that Blake Whisenant, a Florida tomato grower and Earthbox company founder, had invented the SIP in the 1990s, but it turns out that the idea came much earlier. Reader Avi Solomon, sent me a surprising link to a patent for a SIP, dated 1917, by a Lewis E. Burleigh of Chicago. From the patent description:

“My invention is concerned with flower and plant boxes, and is designed to produce a device of the class described in which the proper moistening and aeration of the soil in it can be easily and cheaply effected by simply pouring water into the funnel with which it is provided until the proper amount is supplied, which amount will be indicated by the overflow from a suitably located aperture in the side thereof.”

Other than the use of gravel in the water reservoir, Burleigh’s SIP closely resembles the Earthbox and SIPs I have built out of five gallon buckets and plastic storage bins.

The interwebs reveal only one detail about Burleigh, that he owned a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. From this one factoid I infer that he had money and a progressive inclination. The SIP idea took another eighty years to finally catch on.

For more SIP information:

Read our many posts on SIPs

And visit our SIP gardening friends, the Green Roof Growers.

If SIP litigation history fascinates you, read a preliminary injunction and memoradum (pdf) between the manufacturer of the Earthbox (Laminations Inc.) and a company they accused of infringing on their patent, Roma Direct Marketing LLC, makers of the “Garden Patch.” SIP. I’ll also note that the Earthbox folks sent Josh Mandel a cease and desist letter related to Mandel’s DIY SIP website. My editorial: lets make the SIP open source as the 1917 patent suggests it ain’t a new idea.

Asian Citrus Psyllid Eradication Program Causes Outbreak of Citrus Leafminer

Florida citrus farmers have been blanketing their orchards with pesticides in an attempt to eliminate the Asian Citrus Psyllid, an insect that caries a fatal citrus disease. But the campaign has had unintended consequences, namely the eradication of the natural predators of another citrus pest, the leafminer. According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service,

“The leafminer moth, Phyllocnistis citrella, forms channels as it feeds inside citrus leaves and, as a result, often makes the plant more susceptible to canker disease. Further exacerbating the leafminer problem is the spraying of more insecticide to combat another pest—the Asian citrus psyllid. The insecticide is killing off the leafminers’ natural enemies, allowing the pest to increase in numbers.”

The moral, in my opinion, is the same for both nature and the economy: don’t tinker with complex systems and avoid putting all your eggs in one basket, i.e. crop monocultures. Doing so is asking for “black swans” and catastrophic failure. As Nassim Taleb says, “counter-balance complexity with simplicity.” The race to layer insecticides on top of insecticides and then search for pheromonal solutions is too complex for my taste.

Appropriate Tech is the New High Tech

On his blog, the Archdruid Report, John Michael Greer has a provocative essay, “Seeking the Gaianomicon” that includes a link to a collection of 1970s/80s era appropriate technology handouts. The 190 page pdf Greer mentions (accessible at http://www.culturalconservers.org/apptech.php) includes information and how-to advice on insulation, storm windows, solar water heaters, super-insulated homes, simple photovoltaic systems and more.Greer is asking that readers spread the word about this resource. He also suggests starting your own library of appropriate technology classics. Both are great ideas.

Our blog, in fact, was largely inspired by just this type of literature in the form of a book by Sim Van der Ryn The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City as well as other books such as Lloyd Kahn’s Shelter. Keeping with Greer’s idea of building an appropriate tech library we’ll dig up some more books and links. In the meantime, I can think of one other free downloadable book, David Bainbridge’s The Integral Passive Solar Water Heater Book, that you can access for free via the Build It Solar website at: http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/WaterHeating/ISPWH/ispwh.htm

If any of you know of more appropriate tech books, blogs or resources worth looking at, please leave a comment.

And thanks to the Homegrown Evolution reader who noticed our oddball interest in both appropriate tech and western esotericism and turned us on to the Archdruid.

Urban Permaculture Survey/Interview

Attention urban/suburban permaculturists. I’m writing an article for Urban Farm Magazine on “urban permaculture” and I need your help. I’ve created a survey/interview for the article: click here to take the Urban Farm permaculture article survey. Please forward this link/survey to all your permaculture friends–send it out far and wide–work that Facebook! If you’re critical of permaculture you are also welcome to take the survey. Thanks for your help!

Staking Tomatoes with Concrete Reinforcing Mesh

For years we’ve been using concrete reinforcing mesh to stake our tomatoes. It’s a 6-inch square grid of wire and is used to reinforce concrete slabs. I buy it in 3 1/2-feet by 7-feet sections at my local home improvement center. To make a tomato cage with it you find a flat stretch of patio or driveway and bend the wire into a tube. I overlap it a bit and tie it together with wire.

This year, thanks to a tip from Craig Ruggless, I decided to double the height of the cages using two per plant to make them 7-feet high. As the plant grows, you simply tuck the vines into the cage, with no pruning necessary. But you do have to stay on top of the tucking, otherwise you risk breaking off stems. Since a 7-foot cage can be very top heavy I staked them deep into the ground with some rebar I had laying around. Long wooden stakes would work just as well. You could also choose to grow shorter tomato varieties. The San Marzano tomatoes in the middle of the picture above are half the height of the other two and way more productive.

Another staking option is to buy Texas Tomato Cages for $99 for six 24-inch by 6-foot cages. The advantage with the Texas cages is that they fold flat when not in use. The disadvantage is the price. If you buy your concrete reinforcing mesh in bulk, on long rolls, the price would be significantly less than the Texas Cages and I think reinforcing wire is just as attractive if rolled carefully.

I would avoid the tiny, flimsy conical cages I’ve seen for sale at most nurseries as almost every tomato plant will easily outgrow them and stems will break as they spill over the top.

For a roundup tomato staking techniques see the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners website.

And leave some comments about your favorite staking and/or pruning methods.

Foreclosure Garden Foreclosed

Neighbor, artist and master gardener Anne Hars took over the front yard of a foreclosed triplex earlier this year and planted a vegetable garden. The triplex had fallen in to disrepair and had become notorious for housing a bunch of gang members.  The police evicted the gangsters and the building fell into disrepair.

The garden Anne planted in the spring had just begun to bring forth its bounty.

Then, this past week, an unpleasant man showed up claiming to work for Bank of America.

That was the end of the garden.

As Anne put it, “this is how the banks take care of their property…”

Read the whole saga on Anne’s blog, theforeclosuregarden.blogspot.com.

It ain’t “eco” if you can’t fix it

In the past month I had to repair two kitchen appliances–a 50 year old O’Keefe and Merritt Stove with a broken door spring and an expensive 1990s model “eco-refregerator” called a Conserv, with a torn freezer gasket. The winner: O’Keefe and Merritt! Why?

The torn freezer gasket of the Conserv, as it turns out, is an integral part of the door. After a painfully long call to the parts distributor’s Indian call center I found out that, to repair the gasket, I would have to buy a new door at a cost of $400.

My beef? The Conserv violates several of the tenets of Mr. Jalopy’s Maker’s Bill of Rights, a manifesto of design principles that, if manufactures abided by them, would make things a hell of a lot easier to repair. Here’s a few of the Maker’s Bill of Rights statues violated by the Conserv,

“Cases shall be easy to open.”

“Components, not entire sub-assemblies, shall be replaceable.”

“Ease of repair shall be a design ideal, not an afterthought.”

By way of contrast, the old O’Keefe and Merritt stove’s components are all easily dissembled with a screwdriver. It took just a few minutes to remove the side panels and replace the broken door spring.

In the end, I patched the Conserv’s gasket with glue and a piece of a bike tire inner tube. We’ll see if it holds. It would be a shame to junk this otherwise excellent and efficient refrigerator over a gasket worth pennies.

I propose an amendment to the Makers Bill for “green” manufacturers such as the Vestfrost company who manufactured the Conserv: “If you’re going to call something “green,” “efficient,” or “eco,” you have to abide by all the tenets of the Makers Bill.” In short, if you’re going to make eco claims you better be able to make repairs.

No garden space? Check this out

Follow this link to the Eastsider blog for a little profile piece on a man raising crops in a median strip. This is exactly what we should all be doing. Well, except maybe standing in traffic to water–if at all avoidable–but I do tip my hat to this intrepid fellow gardener.

There’s so much wasted space in this city. Yesterday Erik and I were walking down the sidewalk, admiring a flat stretch of dry, weedy ground betwixt sidewalk and street, 10 feet across and almost a block long, with perfect East-West sun exposure. We wondered how much food could be grown in that space. Probably enough to put veggies on the table of everyone living in the apartment building fronting that strip.

Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter

Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter (Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a. “tree spinach”) has reemerged in our garden via the compost pile. It’s a striking edible weed, part of the family that encompasses spinach, quinoa and epazote. Seeds of Change sells this beautiful variety, oddly named “Magenta Spreen.” Like other members of the Chenopodium family it has a fair amount of oxalic acid which could be a problem if it’s all you ate. Even though I’m prone to kidney stones I’m not concerned about oxalic acid in moderation. Cooking reduces oxalic acid as well as saponins that the leaves also contain.

The Plants for a Future database entry on Chenopodium giganteum has a few cultivation details,

“An easily grown plant, succeeding in most soils but disliking shade. It prefers a moderately fertile soil. This species is closely related to C. album, and was probably derived from it through cultivation. The tree spinach is sometimes cultivated for its edible leaves, there are some named varieties. ‘Magentaspreen’ is a vigorous plant growing 1.5 metres tall. It has large leaves, the new growth is a brilliant magenta colour. Tastiest when young, the leaves are eaten raw or cooked like spinach. A warm climate is required in order to ripen the seed.”

Chenopodium giganteum has a tendency to become invasive, but I prefer to think of it as what Craig Ruggless of Garden Edibles calls a “happy wanderer.”