Made in the shade- Passive cooling

We just survived another major heat wave here. People and plants were positively melting. The sidewalks were veritable solar cookers. I’m sure I could have fried an egg on the sidewalk outside my house.

I prefer not to crank the air conditioning, so I have been thinking a lot lately about simple ways to cool ourselves and the spaces we inhabit.
Air conditioning is the main mechanical means by which we cool buildings these days. However, there are several ways that we can cool buildings without plugging in so much as a fan. These technologies are referred to as passive. They don’t require any kind of motor or electricity, just a some good planning and design.
If one were designing a building from the ground up there are myriad features that can help that building use a minimum of mechanical heating or cooling mechanisms. There is no one size fits all design. Passively heated and cooled buildings are adapted to local climate conditions. Current construction practices tend to favor the same type of ramshackle 2×4 and drywall buildings from California to Long Island, and all the climate zones in between. Just stick an air conditioner on top, put in a heating unit, and you’re done. Sadly, most buildings are an energy efficiency disaster. Poor design is so prevalent, it is shocking once you know what to look for. Have you ever leaned up against a stucco or brick wall on a hot day? Ouch! You can literally burn your skin off.
However, a passive building in the humid South, might feature carefully placed windows to maximize air flow. In the desert Southwest, where temperatures can be scorching in the summer and freezing in the winter, thick, heavy walls of adobe, strawbales or rammed earth provide protection from extreme weather conditions.
Here in the Homegrown neighborhood, most of us live in old houses that are not designed with passive solar features. The Homegrown Evolution house is practically a greenhouse. My house is about 20 degrees hotter at night than it is outside. All of the hot air gets trapped and has no where to go. The windows are poorly placed allowing for little cross ventilation. Hot air rises so we need windows up high. Do you hear me architects?
Yet there are simple things those of us with old houses can do. I already mentioned window placement. Vents up high could also work. Insulation is of course a must. I had my attic insulated a few years ago and now I don’t need to run the heater nearly as much in the winter. I’m not sure what effect it has on the summer heat, because it still feels pretty darn sweltering in here.
Shade is an easy way to keep things cool. Shade can be utilized inside and out. An outdoor seating area begs for shade. This can be achieved with trees and shrubs or vines trained over a trellis. A roof structure of some sort can also provide shade for outdoor areas. If you have pets that spend time outside, make sure to provide them with a cool, shady spot for hot summer days.
Trees can also provide valuable shade for your house. Leafy trees will protect your house from the direct rays of the sun. Shade prevents solar heat gain. Pure and simple. Deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the Winter can allow sunlight to enter your house in the cool season, making them ideally suited to passive heating and cooling.
You can also shade your windows. Solar shades project out over a window, thus blocking the highest angle of the sun. When the angle of the sun is lower and the heat and sun less extreme, in Winter and during sunset and sunrise in summer, sunlight can still get in the windows. A roof that projects past the walls of the house serves the same purpose by also blocking the highest angles of the sun.
I chose to employ this technology and give myself more growing space by building an arbor on the back of my house.
This shades the back of my house and makes it look much nicer at the same time. I have planted hardy kiwi on it. The kiwi will help to provide shade, give me tasty fruit, and because it is deciduous, it will die back in the Winter to allow in a little more light. Brilliant.
This of course is just a few of the things you can do to use less energy to heat and cool your home. But I hope it provides a little inspiration and gets some of you out there to reach for a shovel instead of a thermostat.

A Cheap Soil Testing Service

I’ve started a new method in the garden: test the soil, amend according to the recommendations and grow. Lather, rinse, repeat. In many parts of the U.S., you can get free or low cost soil tests from your county extension service, but not here in Los Angeles. Some time ago I answered a reader’s question about where to get soil testing done, only to have to correct my response several times. Last week, Homegrown Evolution pal and the editor of Cool Tools, Elon Schoenholz, gave me a definitive answer on where to send soil for testing: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory. A standard soil test is $9, $4 more for the standard test plus organic matter. The standard tests includes heavy metals. That’s a bargain, and you don’t have to be a resident of Massachusetts. They also offer compost, fertilizer and plant tissue tests at reasonable prices.

Read a review of UMASS soil testing by master gardener Amy Thompson at Cool Tools.

New Chicken!

I just couldn’t wait to announce the arrival of my new hen. The Chicken Enthusiasts club I started had our first meeting on Saturday. Twenty five people attended. Not too bad for a group that just started a month ago. The meeting was really fun, much chicken knowledge was exchanged and we all got to enjoy meeting other like minded folks.

At the meeting, this chicken arrived in need of a new home. Since I recently lost a hen, it made sense that I offer her a new abode. She is in a cage inside the coop for a few days, at the recommendation of a more experienced chicken keeper in the group. Today I let her out for a bit and the other chickens instantly attacked. Even my tiny silkie bantam got in on the
aggression. So back to the little cage she went. I’ll let her out again tomorrow when I can spend more time supervising. Hopefully they will establish the pecking order and everything will calm down.
She is an araucana type chicken and seems very sweet and mellow. She lets me pick her up and seems to enjoy being hand fed. Upon being attacked by the others, she instantly submitted, crouching in a corner.

She laid an egg yesterday and it was a pretty pale green color. I’m very excited about the new addition to the flock.

The Original L.A. Urban Homestead

You know that band you saw play at your local dive bar back in the day that is totally popular now and playing in arenas? Well, the L.A. Eco-Home is kind of like that. Long before glossy magazines were doing “Green” issues, before hybrid cars and composting became hip, Julia Russell had been giving tours featuring the environmentally friendly aspects of her home and garden. Julia is pictured here in front of her Gordon apple tree which bore over 500 lbs. of apples last year. (We counted, seriously.)

The Los Angeles Eco-Home Network has been educating Angelenos about simple ways to conserve energy and other resources, grow their own food and live a happier, healthier lifestyle, since 1988. The house is a charming bungalow full of warm dark wood. It features a small solar array, a fabulous greywater system and many other features that make this cozy home worth a visit. The most educational part of the Eco-Home, in my humble opinion, is Julia’s actual lifestyle. Sure, technical features such as solar and greywater are great, but living lightly is more about how you live and small simple choices you make everyday. Julia is in her 70′s and doesn’t drive. She bikes. Pretty impressive. She has a nifty cargo bike that she uses to get groceries. The house is surrounded by mature trees that provide deep shade in the summer, keeping the house cool without the need for air conditioning.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson would be environmentalists can learn from Julia and the Eco-Home network is the absolute lack of pretentiousness and holier-than-thou attitude that can plague the green movement. Julia is down to earth and just wants to share her passion for living a green lifestyle. So if you are in L.A. check out one of their tours and bring a friend.
The Eco-Home Network- being green and keeping it real since ’88.

My Big Fat Greek Squash


Every time I visit my mom, her Greek neighbor pops over the fence to offer me seeds and plants. He visits Greece each summer and comes back with seeds for plants whose names he can’t translate into English. As a result I always have a few mystery Greek vegetables growing in the garden. This spring he gave me a squash seedling he had propagated. It grew into a massive vine and produced two winter squashes whose weight exceeded the capacity of my kitchen scale. I harvested them last month and we’ve been eating a lot of squash!

The skin turned a kind of manila envelope color and the flesh was a deep orange. It kind of looks like a butternut squash on steroids. The flavor resembled pumpkin, but tasted a lot better than most pumpkin I’ve had. We roasted one squash to make squash tortellini among other dishes. The best recipe, however, was for a savory winter squash pie (galette) out of Mark Bittman’s book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (thanks to Bruce of the Green Roof Growers for suggesting this book). Bittman’s spicy winter squash galette recipe is here on MSNBC along with a video of him making it. I’ll note that the online recipe is different from the one in the book which calls for a longer baking time. My galette was in the oven for over an hour, but I did not cook the squash as long in the frying pan as Bittman does in the video. I’m sure either way will work, and this has to be, seriously, one of the best things I’ve ever cooked. It would make a great substitute for the always dry Thanksgiving turkey.

And I’ve made a mental note to myself to grow more winter squash next year. I like the taste better than summer squash and you can store it in the pantry for later use (hence the “winter” in the winter squash).

If you’d like to hazard a guess as to what this squash is called (especially if you’re Greek), please leave a comment.

City Repair LA

Mark Lakeman stares down the new Bimini Street salamander.

Portland architect and activist Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair movement, is in Los Angeles for a week of lectures and activities. Lakeman believes in actions that correct what he believes is our disassociation from nature and our alienation from each other. He’s a passionate opponent of the grid, the imposition of street networks and regimented thinking that he traces back to Roman imperialism. He’s probably most famous for inspiring groups of like-minded neighbors in Portland to adorn their streets with furniture and elaborate murals, usually done without asking for permission (see examples on an interactive map). He wants to empower us all as “villagers”, in charge of our own collective fate, rather than as serfs subservient to distant bureaucrats and moneyed interests.

Author and Creekfreak Joe Linton executing a reverse Sistine Chapel maneuver.

What I like about Mark Lakeman’s actions is that they aren’t “actions.” There is none of the attention seeking, pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric that one finds in activities such as “guerrilla” gardening (or perhaps some of our own past activities!). Instead the focus is on problem solving through getting neighborhoods together and doing things rather than standing around and complaining. Yesterday I had the great privilege of participating in a city repair street mural painting with my friends at the Los Angeles Ecovillage and their neighbors. The Ecovillage folks who organized the event had knocked on doors and enlisted the help of their neighbors. They blocked off the street themselves without getting a permit, set up refreshments, put on some festive music and laid out a mural design in the intersection in front of the apartments that house the Ecovillage. Whole families came and the kids had a great time participating in what became a giant coloring book. At the conclusion of a day of painting under the bright LA sun, a piñata was hoisted, bashed apart and candy rained down across the colorful new street mural.

Jimmy Lizama operating the piñata.

The mural incorporates lizard and ocean motifs, and enhances the crosswalks in the intersection, which is adjacent to a public school. The mural will act as a traffic calming device and counter our Department of Transpiration’s usual ignorance of pedestrian safety. While not asking for city permission is provocative, this was not a Boston Tea Party moment. It was simple problem solving in the form of a neighborhood party. Everyone had fun, and the street will be safer and more attractive. Thinking about the day yesterday, I woke up this morning with an overwhelming sense of happiness and empowerment.

The new mural nearing completion in the early afternoon.

Can every neighborhood rush out and paint a street mural? Probably not. At Lakeman’s lecture on Friday, I could sense a familiar skepticism in the audience. He showed slide after slide of happy Portlanders creating cob benches, tea houses and street mandalas. The people of Portland have built one of the most livable and desirable communities in the US. But here in Los Angeles we have many obstacles and far less cohesiveness. And I was not alone in wincing at the aesthetics of many of the Portland projects. Lakeman himself acknowledged that a lot of people ask him why everything has to look like hippies built it. Here in Los Angeles and elsewhere we’re going to have to devise different city repair strategies and aesthetics. It’s easy to get hung up on street murals and cob benches. Like Lakeman says, we’ve got to look to nature and at each other to devise the form of our cities. The form these villager led interventions take in Los Angeles, Austin, Iowa City and Brooklyn are going to be different. What all our cities share in common is the need to get started immediately to undo a century’s worth of bad planning and disempowerment.

The End of California Citrus?

As small as an ant, the Asian citrus psylid is big trouble!

When I spotted state agriculture agents on our street I knew something was wrong. It turns out that a specimen of the dreaded Asian citrus psylid showed up in our neighborhood. The Asian citrus psylid is not a problem in itself, but carries an incurable bacterial disease called huanglongbing (HLB). HLB, first reported in Asia in 1919, renders citrus fruit inedible and eventually kills the tree. Parts of Africa, Asia and South America are infected with HLB and in some regions of Brazil the disease is so bad that they’ve given up growing citrus altogether. HLB is in Florida and is adding to a nightmarish collection of other diseases afflicting citrus in the Sunshine State. Now California growers are panicking with the appearance of the psylid.

So far the psylids found in California do not carry HLB. However, according to an article in the Journal of Plant Pathology (pdf), HLB inevitably follows the citrus psylid within a few years. In several ways HLB resembles Pierce’s disease which has killed most of my grape vines and basically made growing table or wine grapes in Southern California impossible without copious pesticide application. Both diseases are bacterial and both are spread by phloem sucking insects. The pesticides used to control the Asian Citrus Psyllid and the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter (the insect that spreads Pierce’s disease) are also the same, and include a ground application of imidacloprid, marketed under the brand name Merit and manufactured by Bayer Environmental Science. State agricultural officials that I spoke with at an informational meeting on Wednesday in Echo Park hope that applications of imidacloprid and pyrethroids will slow the progress of the psylid and, “buy some time”, as they put it, to come up with a strategy to deal with the possible appearance of HLB. California agriculture officials hope that their proactive approach combined with lessons learned from missteps in psylid control in Florida and the rest of the world will slow the progress of the insect and minimize the damage of an emergence of HLB in California.

Compliance with the residential pesticide application program is voluntary. State agriculture officials will knock on the doors of residents in three areas in Los Angeles where the psylid has appeared to ask for permission for a foliar application of pyrethroid and a ground application of imidacloprid to any citrus trees a homeowner might own.

While I understand the gravity of the situation–we really are looking at the possible end of citrus in California if HLB gets a foothold–the use of imidacloprid gives me cause for concern. Imidaclopred is highly toxic to honey bees and has been banned in several European countries for its likely connection to colony collapse disorder. When I told an employee of the Department of Pesticide Regulation at the meeting on Wednesday that people in my neighborhood keep bees he paused and said, “you’ve got a problem.” Another official said to me that our bees (and presumably other pollinators in the neighborhood) will be sacrificed for the greater good of preserving the state’s citrus industry.

As with Pierce’s disease the best long term solution to this problem will be to breed trees resistant to HLB. This is easier said than done as, unlike Pierce’s disease and grapes, no HLB resistant citrus cultivars have been found. It may be that the only way to breed for resistance soon enough to head off the HLB will be through the development of transgenes with antimicrobial properties. This approach is already being funded by the USDA and the citrus industry.

As a backyard gardener and rabble rousing blogger, I could lose a lot of sleep pondering all the thorny questions this crisis brings up. Are there situations where genetic modification is warranted, or do antimicrobial transgenes pose unintended consequences? Will localized applications of imidacloprid kill our pollinators in significant numbers or will strategic applications head off more widespread use later on if nothing is done? What are my responsibilities as a backyard gardener to large scale growers? Do the benefits of international trade outweigh the inevitable appearance of invasive species? Should we close the downtown flower markets and produce distribution warehouses where state entomologists suspect the psylids might have come from?

Rather than try to answer the unanswerable, I’m going back to two of my favorite books books that don’t have anything to do with plants. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a meditation on the logical fallacies of economists and Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic have all the strategic wisdom a gardener needs. Seneca would say, do what is in your power to do and don’t worry about what you can’t fix. Taleb would advice always maximizing upside potential while minimizing exposure to the downside. My unsentimental conclusion: don’t try to grow citrus. If I had a mature tree I’d leave it in place and rip it out at the first sign of HLB. Despite the state’s offer to replace any HLB infected tree with a free citrus tree I wouldn’t take them up on the offer. In our case we have three small, immature citrus trees that are already chewed up by citrus leafminers. I’m pondering pulling them up and replacing them with fruit trees unrelated to citrus. This follows our stoic, get tough policy in the garden. Planting a tree entails a considerable investment in time. It can take years to get fruit. Why not plant pomegranate instead and let other people worry about citrus diseases? If a pomegranate disease shows up, rip it up and plant something else. Following this approach will eliminate habitat for the psylid and negate the need for pesticides.

Orange v. Tuna ¿Quien es Más Macho?

The first consideration with any domestic plant or animal should be choosing species with robust immune systems and then following that up with an objective selection process. This is an approach that mimics one of the fundamental laws of evolution: survival of the fittest. True, there is often a trade off between the flavor and yield of a fruit and strength of its natural defenses. Oranges are juicier and easier to peal than the spiny and seed filled fruit of the prickly pear cactus. But the long term odds of having a reliable supply of prickly pear fruit are a lot higher than a steady flow of orange juice. I may get a few spines in my fingers, but it will be the citrus farmers who will be losing sleep. As Seneca says, “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”

View a video on how to recognize Asian citrus psylids here.

Prickly Pear Fruit Chips

Prickly pear fruit chip–some specimens are purple, our produces orange fruit

It’s prickly pear fruit season. I know this both by the view out our front window and from the comments trickling in on an old post on how to make prickly pear fruit jelly. Thanks to a tip from Oliva Chumacero at the Farmlab, I now have another way of dealing with an over-abundance of this spiny fruit: slice it and dry it to make prickly pear fruit chips.

  1. First remove the nasty spines (technically glochids, which are barbed and much more painful than the spines on the pads). I disarm the glochids by burning them off over a burner on the stove.
  2. Cut the fruit into thin slices and hack off the skins.
  3. Place in a dehydrator. We have a solar dehydrator, but a commercial one will also work, of course. If you live in a dry desert climate you can dry fruit in the sun under screens, but here in Los Angeles the air has too much moisture in it. Fruit would mold before it would be dry enough to store. I’m not a fan of oven drying either since there’s not enough air flow and you run the risk of cooking rather than dehydrating. A dehydrator, either electric or solar, is a great investment if you’ve got food to put up.
  4. When the prickly pear fruit has a leather-like consistency, enjoy. You swallow the hard seeds, making prickly pear fruit somewhat an acquired taste for some.
  5. Chumacero also mentioned that the young pads, “nopalitos” in Spanish, can also be dried for later use.

A note to the permaculturalists out there. It’s worth emphasizing that the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica, in my personal experience, is the single most productive plant in our small lot. It’s also the easiest to propagate, and thrives on neglect. It provides a tremendous amount of food for no work and no supplemental irrigation. We’d all do well with more of it around. In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying a winter of Opuntia chips.

KRAUT FEST!!!!

Limited edition Kraut Fest poster–click to enlargulate

There’s been way too many Los Angeles based event announcements this week and not enough blogging! So sorry–one last announcement and we’ll be back to our regular programming:

Kraut Fest 2009! September 6, 2009
11am – 3pm

Taught by Mark Frauenfelder, Erik Knutzen, Kelly Coyne, Jean-Paul Monsche, and the winner of Critter’s 2009 Kimchi Competition, Oghee “Granny” Choe (www.GrannyChoe.com)

Come learn how to make your own sauerkraut, kimchi, and choucroute garni, the signature dish of Alsace (described to us as a ridiculous meat fiesta).

11am – Making Sauerkraut – click HERE for a list of ingredients to bring!

12pm – Making Kimchi – click HERE for a list of ingredients to bring!

1pm – Choucroute Garni presentation & sampling

Participants will need to bring their own ingredients (shopping lists are linked above).

You can register to make either kimchi or sauerkraut for $10, or both for $15. Registration gets you a “kraut kit” consisting of a bucket (for sauerkraut class) or a jar (for kimchi class), and a limited edition, hand-silkscreened poster (see here). You can also buy the poster separately through our online store, here. Funded in part by a grant from Slow Food LA. Thank you Slow Food LA!

Sauerkraut Workshop registration $10

Register at Machine Project

30 Years of Farmer’s Markets in Los Angeles


Join Homegrown Evolution and an amazing group of LA food pioneers as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of farmers’ markets in Los Angeles. We’ll be in Good Magazine’s booth at noon this Thursday September 3rd doing a free self irrigating pot (SIP) demo. Learn how to use a SIP to grow your own food even if you have no land to call your own. Best of all there will be a whole lot more to enjoy–see the amazing lineup here. The event will take place downtown at the Arts District/Little Tokyo Market at City Hall–1st and Spring Street. Chef demonstrations, a salsa contest and speeches kick off at 10:30 a.m. If you like food and live in Los Angeles don’t be anywhere else on Thursday!