The Scary World of Garden Sculpture

 ”The Present Order Is The Disorder of The Future [Saint Just]” from Finlay’s Little Sparta. Photo by Michael Loudon

I’ve always been a big fan of the late Scottish artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. He’s probably best known for his enigmatic garden Little Sparta. As Finlay demonstrates, there’s nothing like a carefully placed bit of artwork to tilt one’s perspective on the landscape and make you see it in a different, and perhaps more perceptive way. But good luck finding said piece of garden sculpture unless, like Finlay, you can manufacture it yourself. Just for kicks, I took a look at Amazon’s garden offerings. They are so over the top bad that I think a clever garden artist could actually work with them. .

This one is my favorite Amazon sculpture offering. Looks like something Saddam Hussein would have installed by one of the shark ponds. Suggestive and creepy all at once.

There’s a lot of kids in the garden sculpture world, but this one seems to come with a Jeff Koons kitten. Or is that a Jeff Koons jackalope? A genetically modified puppy/kitten hybrid? I can’t tell.

Perfect for an age of “zombie” banks–a zombie for your garden. Also seen in the Sky Mall catalog, a favorite shopping resource for zombies.

Stick this on one of your trees and you’ll soon find hair sprouting on the tops of your feet.

Depicting smiles is always a tricky one in the world of sculpture. At least you get a stand with this masterpiece.

You could argue that greys are the malevolent elemental spirits of the 20th century. Unfortunately this one will set you back $100 if you’d like it to grace your garden.

 For some reason you can pick up a halfway decent Buddha. Now can we switch out the molds on the other stuff? There’s an opportunity for an entrepreneur here . . .

Update: As reader Paula points out, how could I have forgotten the garden gnome? Must be the terrible head cold I’ve got. Well, here goes:

Plantasia: Music for Plants Part II

Not only did Homegrown Evolution reader Avi, track down a downloadable copy of Dr. George Milstein’s 1970 album Music to Grow Plants, but  he also suggested two more cultural landmarks of the 1970s “chattin’ with plants” period.

Mort Garson’s Moog generated album Plantasia: Warm Earth Music for Plants and the People Who Love Them is pretty much what I would imagine a macramé suspended spider plant wanting to listen to. Its groovin’ Moog bleeps and blats seem more likely to enhance photosynthesis than Dr. Milstein’s orchestral wall of sound. Plantasia is pretty much guaranteed to add a foot of growth to your ficus plants.

Avi also provided a link to the entire 1979 documentary version of The Secret Life of Plants. It took me two evenings to make it through the endless time lapse and interpretive dance sequences. But there’s plenty of wackiness to enjoy, including a soundtrack by Stevie Wonder who appears at the end singing to, well, a bunch of plants. The highlight for me was seeing the laboratory equipment of Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, inventor of the cresnograph a device for measuring plant growth.

Seriously, though, the best thing I’ve heard on the relationship between humans and plants recently is a lecture by anthropologist Wade Davis, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World” that you can listen to via the always excellent Long Now Foundation’s lecture series and available as a free podcast in the Itunes store. Davis eloquently describes the Anaconda people’s intricate botanical knowledge and how they came to concoct ayahuasca.The plants, it turned out, talked to them.

Though, after listening to Plantasia, I’m hoping the ficus plants don’t start talking to me.

Ordo Ab Chao

There’s a lot of conflicting advice in the vegetable gardening world. You’ve got your square footers, biointensivists, permaculturalists and survival gardeners, just to name a few. The truth is these often conflicting techniques probably all work for someone. I’ve been thinking lately that the next book we write should be a version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders turned into gardening advice.Got attention deficit disorder? Well, here’s how ya mix up your own potting mix.

Face it, we’re all in the diagnostic manual somewhere. I suffer from a chronic lack of organizational ability. Square foot gardening has never worked for me–I just can’t keep up with the schedule. For some folks, I’m sure it works great. John Jeavons’ biointensive methods, however, have worked well for me. That is, when I actually follow his advice. I offer as evidence two beds from our winter garden. The one above, containing chard, carrots and beets turned out really well. It has produced an abundant and attractive harvest. The one below, on the other hand, is a mess.

The difference: planning. Whereas some people can probably improvise a vegetable garden, my unique place in the diagnostic manual means that I benefit from some degree of organization. With Jeavons, you project how much of a particular vegetable you’d like and plant with tight hexagonal spacing. Plan ahead and you get an abundant and attractive garden assuming you’ve taken care of your soil. At least it works for me.

My new commitment for our summer garden is to carefully choose what I’m going to grow, how much of it to plant, and stick with the program. No last minute improvising. And better note taking! I attempted to weigh vegetables this winter, earning the scorn of Mrs. Homegrown who deemed it too male an approach, too much about bragging rights. All that weighing took away note taking time from what would have been more useful information: when things were planted, transplanted and harvested.  That data could help prevent gaps in the garden in the future and clarify the best times to plant, information that’s hard to come by in our unique Mediterranean climate. Not to say that weighing is without merit–it would be a good way to compare  methods–but I’m going to leave that to academic researchers and Mr. Jeavons. I’m also trying to figure out a way to share my gardening diary with other people in the L.A., area via Google docs so that we can all compare notes. More on that once we get our next book done!

As for keeping track of planting times, simply hanging the Stella Natura calendar by the stove has done wonders. I now keep better records of planting and transplanting dates. Cooking while looking at the calendar prompts me to plan ahead and think about the things I actually like to eat. Less turnips next year and more arugula!

Leave a comment about your vegetable gardening methods and, if you’re so inclined, your place in the diagnostic manual!

What’s the dirt on soap nuts?

Sapindus mukorossi fruits, image from Wikimedia Commons

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’m trying to take a temperature reading on soap nuts. Have you used them? Did you like them? How do you use them–as laundry detergent, shampoo, soap? Do you use whole nuts or make a liquid? How long have you been using them? Do you find a big difference between brands?

If you could shoot me a comment, I’d really appreciate it.

On a more advanced level, I’m curious about their interactions with soil and compost, so if you have any thoughts on that, I’d love to hear them. I’m curious as to how they’re harvested, and if their growing popularity is impacting their local ecosystems.

If you’ve never heard of soap nuts, let me know that, too! I’m wondering where they sit in the general public awareness.

Soap nuts are saponin-rich fruits, usually of a tree called Sapindus mukorossi (though all Sapindus make soaping fruits), which can be used for laundry and other cleaning purposes. They’re usually sold only lightly processed: seeded and dried. A handful of these dried fruits, which look somewhat like small dates, are put into a cloth sack and thrown in with the laundry. The fruits release saponins, natural surfactants, which clean the clothes. Supposedly. I hear mixed things. I’m experimenting with Maggie’s Soap Nuts right now (and Erik is complaining about their…uh…rich organic smell…which doesn’t seem to linger after drying), but I’ve not used them long enough really judge how they work. The truth is, so much soap is embedded in the fibers of our clothing that you can wash the average garment a couple of times in nothing but water and it would still come out pretty clean. And, for better or worse, Erik and I don’t do that much wash. I feel like I need to adopt a Little League team or something to really test drive this stuff! So send your comments, or your ball teams, this way…

Music to Grow Plants

From the The Secret Life of Plants era, New York dentist and horticulturalist Dr. George Milstein’s 1970 album Music to Grow Plants. Apparently it came with seeds. From the back cover,

“As a result of present study, we were able to produce a sound which acts upon plant growth patterns. These sounds have been electronically embedded in this record. Every effort has been made to camouflage them, however, you may at times hear certain high frequency tones that could not be hidden completely. For best results this record should be played daily. The music which has been systematically selected and prepared is also most enjoyable for listening. Your plants and hopefully you will be brightened by the sounds of this album. (PATENT PENDING)”

I searched the interwebs for some mp3s for all of you but came up empty handed. Somehow I imagine the music isn’t that interesting, but I’m not a plant so how would I know?

Update. Thanks to reader Amy Morie, here’s a groovin’ mp3 from Music to Grow Plants:

http://www.robertkelleyphd.com/MusicToGrowPlants.mp3

Yet another update. Reader Avi just found a link to the whole thing via a file share service here:

http://basementcurios.blogspot.com/2008/08/corelli-jacobs-music-to-grow-plants.html

Read the rest of the back cover here.

Italy Questions Neonicotinoid Pesticides, California Department of Food and Agriculture Loves Them

Can I report the CDFA as a pest?

Responding to concerns about the safety of nicotine based pesticides, such as imidacloprid, the Italian government, last year, banned them as a seed treatment. According to the Institute of Science in Society, Researchers with the National Institute of Beekeeping in Bologna, Italy discovered that “pollen obtained from seeds dressed with imidacloprid contains significant levels of the insecticide, and suggested that the polluted pollen was one of the main causes of honeybee colony collapse.”[1] Since the Italian government’s ban last year bee colonies have sprung back. In some regions no hives have been lost at all with the exception of citrus groves in Southern Italy where neonicotinoids were sprayed.[2]

Which brings me to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, whose love for the neonicotinoid pesticide imidacloprid I got to experience first hand. Last year our neighborhood was one of the first targeted by the CDFA for treatment in Los Angeles county after the appearance of the dreaded Asian Citrus Psyllid, a carrier of a fatal citrus disease called Huanglongbing (HLB)–see my early post about the psyllid and HLB. During a brief treatment period last fall CDFA agents and their contractors TruGreen attempted to spray every citrus tree with Bayer Crop Science’s version of imidacloprid, brand name Merit. During that spraying in my neighborhood CDFA agents and TruGreen:

1. Entered private property without warrants or permission.

2. Left misleading notices (click on image at right to enlarge) which failed to note that the treatment was voluntary.

3. Acted in an arrogant, condescending and rude manner. They also lied. When I declined treatment and noted that I was particularly concerned about the use of imidacloprid one agent offered what he called, “an alternative.” Upon further questioning he admitted that the “alternative” was a pellet version of imidacloprid–not an alternative at all, just the same insect neurotoxin in another form.

4. Ran out of pesticide. There are so many citrus trees in our neighborhood that the CDFA ran out of their precious imidacloprid tablets. They never returned to finish the job leading me to conclude that the operation was a kind of pesticide theater, a way to both justify their funding and please their friends at Sunkist.

European beekeepers would like to see all neonicotinoids banned for good. I’d like to see the same here. While imidacloprid is probably not hazardous to humans, all the oranges in the world are not worth killing our pollinating insects. And fighting invasive species this way is a losing game. I believe that HLB is inevitable. It’s just like Pierce’s disease in grapes, which is now an unavoidable part of viticulture in Southern California.

To my neighbors: I suggest we organize. Let’s resist CDFA’s attempt to spray more imidacloprid should they come around again. I’ve created a form where you can leave your email address here. I promise not to share the email addresses you provide or to send out spam. The list I create will only be used in the event we need to organize as concerned citizens. Hopefully I’ll never have to send out an email. But let’s not let CDFA treat us in a rude or condescending manner again. The next time CDFA pays a visit they may come with warrants and be even more surly. I’d love it if we had a crowd to greet them.

Radical Homemakers

Last year we had the great privilege of meeting and being interviewed by farmer and author Shannon Hayes for her new book Radical Homemakers. Hayes is well known as an expert on cooking grass fed meat–see her website grassfedcooking.com for more on that. Radical Homemakers takes a look at the new domesticity of the past decade through a series of interviews with its practitioners. Touching on issues such as gender roles, food choices and finances, Radical Homemakers is the first book I know of to delve into the motivations of the unnamed movement that this blog and its readers are also a part of. I really like what Hayes says in the introduction about the subjects of this book:

“the happiest among them were successful at setting realistic expectations for themselves. They did not live in impeccably clean houses on manicured estates. They saw their homes as living systems and accepted the flux, flow, dirt and chaos that are a natural part of that. They were masters at redefining pleasure not as something that should be bought in the consumer marketplace, but as something that could be created, no matter how much or how little money they had in their pockets. And above all, they were fearless. They did not let themselves be bullied by the conventional ideals regarding money, status, or material possessions. These families did not see their homes as a refuge from the world. Rather, each home was the center for social change, the starting point from which a better life would ripple out for everyone.”

Now I have an excuse not to clean up the chicken poo I track into the kitchen! But seriously, I highly recommend Radical Homemakers, as well as Hayes’ other books. It’s about time somebody addressed the “why” of this movement and Hayes is the perfect person to do so.

You can pick up a copy of Radical Homemakers and read the introduction a radicalhomemakers.com.

Laundry to Landscape Legal in LA

Ludwig’s “Laundry to Landscape”
California’s new greywater code, passed in August of last year, was a big step in the right direction. The revised code legalized simple “laundry to landscape” systems of the sort promoted by greywater guru Art Ludwig and allowed their installation without a permit. Here’s a pdf from the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety confirming that you don’t need a permit within LA city limits for “a graywater system in a one or two-family dwelling that is supplied only by a clothes-washer and/or a single-fixture system.” Though, confusingly, it also goes on to say, “Any alteration to the building or plumbing, electrical or mechanical system
requires a permit.” I guess we shouldn’t expect clarity from a department that can’t seem to get around to regulating thousands of illegal billboards. But I digress. I’m calling my laundry to landscape greywater installation legal!
Hopefully all California cites will respect the state code. Ludwig says,
“Trying to sell permits to California graywater users is like trying to sell a $100 search engine that you have to register for to people who use google. Any standard that can’t compete with “free” and “zero time for compliance” is doomed to irrelevance.

The only way government agencies can compete is to offer “free”, “zero time for compliance” legal systems that are better, and can be installed by professionals instead of having to do it yourself.

This involves surrendering the illusion of control, in trade for actually making things better on the ground.”

By foregoing permits, city government can play a role in encouraging greywater. Legalizing the practice makes it possible for professional plumbers to do the installations in addition to plucky DIYers. Kinda like prostitution in Holland–keep it out in the open and you’l have less . . . shoddy plumbing.
See Art Ludwig’s excellent website to see how to install your own laundry to landscape system. His book, Create an Oasis with Greywater is also highly recommended. And, if you’ve got a laundry to landscape system, make sure to use Oasis Biocompatible Detergent.

Chicken Coop Architecture


I have a guest post over on re-nest.com on how to build a chicken coop:

“Architect meet your client: the chicken. You’re about to become a coop buildin’ Frank Gehry. Keeping chickens is mostly about figuring out their housing arrangement. The rest is easy—chickens are a lot less trouble than a dog. Now I wish I could offer a one-size-fits-all chicken coop plan, but living situations and climates vary. Instead, I’ll offer what the gifted architect Christopher Alexander calls a “pattern language,” a set of general guidelines you can use to get started building your coop.”

Read the rest here.

And a special thanks to David Kahn of Edendale Farm for the architect metaphor. Mrs. Homegrown was not happy that I used Gehry as an example (suggesting that he would build a flashy, twisty chicken coop out of titanium that would leak and get raided by raccoons). I just mentioned him because he’s the only architect most people can name. Come to think of it, most of the architects you can name are all kinda silly. A Rem Koolhaas coop would probably look great in the CAD program but also get raided by raccoons. But I digress.