Going Gray!



Got a nice note and some pics from Ben in Portland:

“I bought your book and it has become my mission manual. We own a house in Portland, OR, and I just today did my first project out of the book – routing the shower drain into the garden. It cost about $60 for all the pipe, glue, a 2″ hole saw to drill through the wall, and a new drain kit (my old drain was decroded as crap). Our house is only 750 sq. ft. (plenty for me, my gf, and our 3 dogs), and luckily our bathroom is right next to the garden plot I’ve had for about 3 years now. We’ve got a ton of squash going, which as you know takes a good bit of water, so I thought our not-so-gray shower water would be much appreciated by the little yellow bastards. Another benefit is that we won’t have to deal with the recurring shower clogs which have been forcing us to use drano.

The drain setup was super simple from a plumbing perspective, so all I did was cut off the old drainpipe, replace the drain assembly, and route a new pipe out to the garden. It took three 22 degree couplers, one 4 foot and one 10 foot section of pipe. the pictures sort of show what the finished piping looks like. I know it looks like I had to rip through the floor to get to the drain, but that’s just because whoever installed our shower years ago did a terrible job.

I drilled holes every 6 inches or so in the pipe that goes out into the garden. I may need to cover them with mesh (I’d appreciate your advice here) and dig some trenches to route the water into the rest of the garden, but for now it’s working great!

Thanks for your wonderful book and website. I will send you more pictures as i do more projects!

-Ben”

California’s New Greywater Code: Common Sense Legalized!

On the left is our yard which is irrigated by the washing machine. On the right, the neighbor’s yard which is never watered.

This Tuesday the California Building Standards Commission legalized our formally outlaw greywater system. For several years now, we’ve sent our washing machine waste water out to fruit trees in the front yard. The new regulations are a rare common sense moment for our otherwise troubled state government. Let’s hope our current hard times spur more innovation like this. Originally slated to go into effect in 2010, the plumbing code was updated as an emergency measure to deal with drought conditions that have plagued the southwestern US for years. Under the new California greywater code:

1. In most cases you won’t need a permit.

2. Allows discharge into a simple mulch basin rather than the expensive and complicated sub-surface emitters required under the old regulations.

3. No exspensive pumps or filters required!

Here’s the new code as amended (pdf).

Unfortunately the code can be superseded by local municipalities. Plumbers unions opposed loosening the code, no doubt fearing the loss of business. Combined with NIMBYs, they could put pressure on city governments to keep greywater illegal. It’s time for us Californians to be vigilant and start letter campaigns should cities try to restrict our new right to use our greywater.

As for the practical side of this new law, I’d suggest that anyone interested in installing a greywater system keep it simple and low cost. I can’t think of any better resource than Art Ludwig’s book The New Create an Oasis with Greywater: Choosing, Building and Using Greywater Systems and his website oasisdesign.net. Take note of Ludwig’s free open-source laundry to landscape plan.

And don’t forget, Homegrown Evolution is offering a DIY Greywater class on Sunday August 16th at 11 a.m. in Silver Lake (Los Angeles). Sign up here.

Hops in Containers

This spring I set out to answer the question, “can hops be grown in self-irrigating pots?” Answer, as you can see from the photo above: YES! For those of you not familiar with Self-Irrigating Pots or SIPs we have an earlier post on the subject.

Hops rhizomes, planted April 9, 2009

For our hops SIPs I modified a storage bin using Josh Mandel’s instructions (pdf). Back in early April, I obtained four hops rhizomes (two cascade and two nugget) from my local homebrew shop. You can also get rhizomes from many online sources. I chose cascade and nugget because I heard that they are two of the best varieties for Southern California. Both did well, with cascade being the most vigorous. The smell of the maturing cones is heavenly and the plant is quite beautiful, providing some much needed shade for the porch.

Nugget on the right, Cascade on the left

The only suitable place to grow this massive plant at our small house just happened to be by the front porch. This arrangement ended up being ideal–we’re on a hill and I simply attached some twine along the roof and put the SIPs down below the porch. I can simply stroll out on the porch and harvest the blossoms without having to balance on a tall ladder. Having the hops cones at eye level lets me access the cones when they are ready to pick and lets me monitor the health of the plant. I’ll also to be able to continuously harvest rather than having to cut down the entire plant. Alternately I’ve seen hops trellises rigged with pulleys so that you can lower the “bines”, as they are called, for harvesting.

Hops farmers in England demonstrating why you need to think about trellising.

With a western exposure the hops get morning sun and shade in the afternoon, which seems to be perfect in our sunny, dry and hot Southern California climate. The only problem I’ve had is a bit of rust, but it doesn’t seem to have spread too badly. Hops suck up a lot of water and, thanks to the SIPs, I only have to water once a day.

The SIPS are full of potting mix with a ring of organic fertilizer placed on top of the soil as specified in Josh Mandel’s directions. I have periodically added an organic liquid fertilizer to the water reservoirs as hops need a lot of nitrogen.

Cascade cones almost ready to harvest in late July

I don’t know how my hops will do in SIPs the second year, and I’m considering planting them in the ground if I can find a suitable place. I suspect that hops are a good candidate for pairing with a greywater source and I’m thinking about ways to do this.

Now that I’ve grown hops, I’m tempted to go to the next level. The local Rite Aid? How about we replace it with a field of barley? I’m anxious to swing a scythe again.

Stay tuned for info on a hops growing workshop with Boris Price and the folks at Silver Lake Farms to be hosted at the Homegrown Evolution compound this month. Look for the announcement on our blog this week.

The Austrian Scythe is the New Weed Whacker

Scott at the Huntington Gardens gave me a quick lesson on the Austrian Scythe, setting me l

oose to whack a stand of summer weeds. The scythe is to the weed whacker what the fixed gear bike is to the ten speed. Or, for you motor heads, it’s what a non-synchronized manual transmission is to an automatic. The scythe is all about technique, not technology and like riding fixed or “ten forward gears and a Georgia overdrive“, it’s the considered life, an exercise in attentiveness . . . and frustration.

There’s definitely a learning curve and after a few minutes of ineffectual flailing I traded the scythe for a hoe. Still, the act of swinging this tool is infused with symbolism. Someone hand me a black robe! With a little practice I’d be knocking down weeds and getting some exercise, never a bad thing in our sedentary modern world.

Like all journeys into the “manual” life there’s a fair amount of maintenance. The blade must be sharpened frequently and periodically “peened” (the term for using a hammer to smooth out nicks).

Scythes come in European and American styles. The European configuration is ergonomic and the American style is clunky and uncomfortable to use. There’s also several different blades for weeding and harvesting and, like a bicycle, it’s crucial that your scythe fit your height.

Scythe use is intellectual for me since years worth of mulching, a dry climate and a very small yard means that I don’t have any stands of weeds to knock down or wheat to harvest. But, if I had a large yard and grass to deal with, I’d dump the weed whacker in a heartbeat.

For more info see Scythe Supply’s Scythe faq

Drawing from www.thescytheshop.co.uk.

Keeping it Local

A depression ear local currency

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article, Cash-Strapped California’s IOUs: Just the Latest Sub for Dollars on the history of IOUs and local currencies. It seems that Depression 1.0 spurred quite a few improvised currencies, including the “Minneapolis Sauerkraut Note”, for a good reason. Just as today, a lot of people want the rewards for our labor tied to tangibles rather than monetizing it and sending it off to Wall Street’s abstract financial casino. Mutual fund or sauerkraut? I’ll take the kraut, please.



Several years ago I attempted to float the “Edendale Dinar” in our annual Christmas mailing. The front depicted a common scene here in Los Angeles, an abandoned mattress (could old mattresses be the new gold standard?). The back showed where you could spend one of your Dinars: at your local taco wagon. The Edendale Dinar failed to catch on, spoiling my fantasy of becoming a ghetto Ben Bernanke with the power to manipulate the carne asada rate.

Writer Douglas Rushkoff has been talking a lot about local economies in his new book, Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back and on his radio show The Media Squat. One of the topics Rushkoff mentions often is time banking, an alternative to currency and bartering where hours are exchanged instead of money or goods. I’ve joined up with our local Echo Park Time Bank and in the past month have moved a heavy tree sculpture, had my portrait taken and unsuccessfully attempted to unclog a tub. Not only did I participate in useful activities (except for the botched tub snaking), but I got to connect with some great folks. If you don’t have a time bank near you you can start one via timebanks.org.

Now that I’ve switched to time banking, Goldman Sachs has kindly agreed to take all my extra Edendale Dinars.

Author and Urban Farmer Novella Carpenter Rocks Los Angeles

Yesterday, Homegrown Evolution had the great privilege of meeting urban farmer and author Novella Carpenter who was in Los Angeles to deliver a lecture and sign her new book Farm City. She’s a phenomenal speaker, both hilarious and inspiring. What we like most about Carpenter is her honesty in describing the ups and downs of raising pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys, rabbits and more on squatted land next to her apartment in Oakland. As she put it, “I don’t like to sugarcoat things.” As owners of a garden that is often a little rough around the edges, we were inspired by this photo of her squated garden that she showed during her lecture. We could have listened for hours to her stories of dumpster diving for pig feed, gardening in a neighborhood where “crack zombies” and prostitutes come out at night and how the local Yemeni liquor store owner came over to show her how to slaughter her mean goat. If you have a chance to hear her speak, make sure to go!

We’ve read excerpts from Farm City and Carpenter is a terrific writer. In addition to her books and articles she blogs at ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com and offers workshops on raising and slaughtering animals for meat in the city. And like Carpenter, we also fantasize about trading the bicycle for a mule. Time to print up the “one less bike” saddle stickers . . .

World’s Skinniest Farm Planted in Brookline, MA

From 200footgarden.blogspot.com:

“The 200 Foot Garden is a community garden/art project, to create a commuter garden in Brookline, Massachusetts. Our hope is to add some beauty and delight to a very everyday stretch of sidewalk and chain-link fence. It’s also our hope to remind people that healthy vegetables can be grown in all sorts of environments, not just farms or big yards or community garden plots. The 200 Foot Garden is also a way to bring together neighbors in a project designed to share good things with the people around us.

The project is headed by Patrick and Tracy Gabridge. In our everyday lives, Patrick is a novelist and playwright, and Tracy is a librarian.”

California Agriculture Journal Online

The University of California has put 63 years worth of its journal California Agriculture online for convenient downloading at californiaagriculture.ucanr.org. There’s plenty of detailed (peer reviewed!) nuggets for the home gardener between the pages of this scientific journal. Make sure to check out the article and video of UC Berkeley entomologist Gordon Frankie explaining what kinds of plants are best for attracting bees in your urban garden.

Thanks to Los Angeles County Master Gardener Coordinator Yvonne Savio for the tip.

Humanure Dry Toilet Made From a Milk Crate


Modern toilets take two valuable resources, water and nitrogen rich human waste, and combine the two to create a problem: sewage. In a dry or “humanure” toilet, you cover your deposits with a layer of non-toxic sawdust. Once the toilet is full you dump the contents into your outdoor humanure pile and compost the waste at high temperatures for at least a year. You can then use that compost as fertilizer for plants. The ubiquitous five gallon bucket is the most commonly used humanure receptacle. Most humanure toilet designs I’ve seen such as the ones on Joseph Jenkin’s website make use of wood which I’m not crazy about in the wet environment of a bathroom. Even with a coat of paint wood gets grungy. Alternatively, you can buy plastic camping toilet seats that will clamp on to a five gallon bucket but they have, in my opinion, an unacceptable wobble when you sit on them. For these reasons I designed a sturdy dry toilet making use of a scavenged milk crate. Even if the idea of humanure grosses you out (and it’s definitely the most controversial subject in our book), our milk crate toilet would be great for camping, emergencies or your remote cabin.

Putting this toilet together takes just a few minutes. First, find a milk or beer crate and a five gallon bucket. Make sure that the crate you use is large enough to accommodate the bucket. And note, I know of someone arrested for scavenging beer crates behind a strip club, of all places, so be discreet or ask for permission. Incidentally, when the police finished booking the beer crate scavenger the officer placed the paperwork in . . . a scavenged beer crate doubling as an in box!

Attaching the Toilet Seat to the Crate

Next, find a toilet seat. Forage one or pick up a cheap seat at your local hardware store. In an emergency situation, you could also use the one on your regular toilet and simply bolt it back on when the zombie threat has passed and the sewage pipes are flowing again. To attach the seat to the milk crate simply position the plastic bolts and nuts that come with the lid in the center and on the short end of the bottom of the crate. Don’t over tighten.

Cutting Out a Hole in the Crate

Place the bucket so that it will be appropriately positioned under the seat. Mark the outline of the bucket on the crate with a knife and cut out a circle with a jigsaw or keyhole saw so that the bucket will fit through the former bottom of the crate.

Attaching Legs to the Crate with Cable Ties

Cut four pieces of scrap wood (we found some old table legs for a more finished look), and attach them to each corner of the crate so that the bucket projects about a 1/2-inch above the level of the crate. The legs will be approximately 13 1/2-inches. Make sure that the toilet seat will fit snugly against the top of the bucket. We attached the legs with cable ties, but you could also use screws or bolts.

Moving the Spacer

The last step is to move the spacer on the bottom of the lid, so that it does not hit the top of the bucket. Pop it out with a knife or chisel, drill another hole, and reposition.

Your humanure toilet is now done and ready for use. Simply lift the crate off the bucket when it comes time to empty the contents. Follow the detailed instructions on Joseph Jenkin’s website to learn how to properly compost human waste.


This toilet is simple to make, easy to clean, and is made of readily available materials. I think this particular design will be useful in emergencies and, when combined with Jenkin’s excellent humanure methods, would prevent the dangerous raw sewage nightmares of the sort we saw in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. There is a creative commons licence on all the text and photos on this website so feel free to translate and disseminate this post widely. We’re “open source” here at Homegrown Evolution. If you make an improvement in the design please let us know.