They want to ride to school. So they do.

In Orlando Florida, one of the worst places to ride a bike in America, some high school students are taking back the streets:

High School Bike Bus from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo. Via Streetsblog.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, elementary and high school groups go on field trips to the auto show:

No doubt our educational dollars were well spent showing the kids the informative educational displays:

I noticed that some of the students at the car show had been given traffic safety pamphlets about how to safely ride bikes. Car companies have been producing pedestrian and bike safety info for years. At the risk of being somewhat conspiratorial, auto industry produced safety materials often carry a hidden message that walking and biking are dangerous, marginal activities. Actually biking to school together like the Florida students as well as walking school buses send a much better message, in my opinion.

The good news is that, in car-centric cities like Orlando and Los Angeles there is a growing awareness that alternative transportation arrangements need to be made quickly. Here in LA we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Thanks to Elon Schoenholz for scoring two free passes to the car show. It’s good to check out how the consensus trance is holding up.

Without Merit: poison in your compost

An image from Washington State University’s aminopyralid bioassay instructions.

Another thing to worry about! In the past two years farmers and gardeners in the UK and US have experienced the unintended effects of a powerful herbicide called aminopyralid, sold by Dow Chemical under the brand names Merit and Forefront. This herbicide is used to control weeds such as thistle, knapweed and yellow starthistle.

The problem is that aminopyralid survives the digestive systems of animals pastured on land sprayed with it, as well as compost piles made from their manure. Most other herbicides break down eventually, but this stuff sticks around. An organic farmer using compost contaminated by aminopyralid could lose crops and organic certification for years. If that isn’t enough to worry about, two other nasty herbicides, picloram and clopyralid have also contaminated compost piles around the world.

But what about us backyard gardeners? How can aminopyralid effect us? I’m fond of using a bit of horse manure in my compost pile. It’s free for the taking and helps heat up the pile. But if the horses were fed hay grown on land sprayed with aminopyralid I could lose my veggies, particularly tomatoes, lettuce and legumes which are highly susceptible to this chemical.

So what can we do? First the practical: test your compost. Washington State University has instructions for performing a simple test here (pdf). Basically, you plant three pea seeds in a 50/50 blend of compost and potting mix and compare their growth against a control group of three pea seeds grown in just potting mix. If you use manure in your compost pile and you don’t own the animal it came from, this test should be routine.

Secondly, a political solution: the Rachel Carson Council suggests writing two EPA officials to suggest banning a trio of deadly herbicides that includes aminopyralid: Kathryn Montague at [email protected], and Dan Kenny at [email protected].

For more information on aminopyralid, picloram and clopyralid see the Rachel Carson Council’s Killer Compost Q&A.

Read the articles in Mother Earth News by Barbara Pleasant that tipped me off to this problem, “Milestone Herbicide Creates Killer Compost” and “Contaminated Compost: Coming Soon to a Store Near You.”

Here’s a technical discussion of aminopyralid for those familiar with biochemistry.

From Ohio State University, a fact sheet on the equally bad clopyralid and some charts showing the persistence of other herbicides.

Lastly, beware of the recommendations of agencies tasked with the eradication of invasive weeds. The California Invasive Plant Council, in a 2006 publication on Yellow Starthistle management (availiable here as a pdf), recommends using both aminopyralid and clopyralid and fails to warn of their persistence. The USDA, Department of Defence and the Army Corp of Engineers assisted with that publication. Looks like these agencies need a little reflection on the laws of unintended consequences.

Moonlight Medicine Foraging Expedition!


Our friend Nancy Klehm is in town, and next Wednesday she’s leading a wild medicine foraging expedition in Echo Park. If you live in LA, you shouldn’t miss this!

Re-posted from the Machine Project website. Go here to register:

http://machineproject.com/events/2009/12/02/echo-park-medicinal-forage-with-nance-klehm/

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Echo Park Medicinal Forage with Nance Klehm

Wednesday, Dec 9th, 2009
7-8:30pm

Cost: $15/person

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An after dark exploration of the sidewalk cracks around Machine Project for local medicinal plants, led by Nance Klehm. Get ready for the long winter dry, cold haul with simple knowledge on how to identify common wild plants that can be used in herbal remedies.

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Nance Klehm is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Her solo and collaborative work focuses on creating participatory social ecologies in response to a direct experience of a place. She grows and forages much of her own food in a densely urban area. She actively composts food, landscape and human waste. She only uses a flush toilet when no other option is available. She designed and currently manages a large scale, closed-loop vermicompost project at a downtown homeless shelter where cafeteria food waste becomes 4 tons of worm castings a year which in turn is used as the soil that grows food to return to the cafeteria.

More information on Nance can be found at her website, here: http://www.spontaneousvegetation.net/

Land Girls

Align Center

Mrs. Homegrown here:

During WWI, Great Britain instituted The Women’s Land Army, a civilian corps created to replace male agricultural workers called into military service. These women were generally known as “Land Girls.” Yep, the rural version of Rosie the Riveter.

By WWII, both Australia and the U.S. had their own Women’s Land Armies, too.

It seems in some cases the women took on full-time waged agricultural work, and in other cases they formed temporary voluntary emergency relief teams, helping short-handed farmers at harvest time and the like.

The images, both photos and graphics from the period are fantastic:

U.K. women in working the plow, and workin’ some fine style, too.

Women volunteering in an Oregon hops field. They look so happy (and stripey)! Were they paid in beer?

We’d never heard about the WLA prior to today–which is astonishing and a little sad–and stranger still, of all sources, we have the louche Chap magazine to thank for this increase in knowledge. They ran a Land Girl fashion spread titled “Britches & Hoes,” saying,

“The recession has led to endless talk of austerity measures, making-do-and-mending and growing your own vegetables on an allotment. But the big question is, of course, what to wear while mulching the compost on your carrots.”

It’s good point. The Land Girls prove there’s no need to look like a slob out in the garden, trailing your already disreputable bathrobe through the mire–as Mrs. Homegrown is wont to do.

Instead, as The Chap (and historical record) suggests, we could adopt sassy belted sweaters, crisp trousers and sexy Wellingtons. The fellows at The Chap also make some savvy suggestions for planting, captioning this photo, “Come along Tiffany, these tobacco plants, juniper berries and truffles won’t plant themselves!”

Kale, Pomegranate and Persimmon Salad

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Season’s Eatings.

I made this salad for a party recently and again for Thanksgiving. I had so many people asking for the recipe, I figured I might as well share it with everyone. I love the deep green of the kale with the bright orange of the persimmons. The colors feel very festive and seasonal. Kale may not be a vegetable you think about eating raw. If so, this salad will change your mind. All of a sudden, I can’t eat enough raw kale.
I feel fantastic after loading up on a big bowl.
The recipe:

1 bunch black kale (also called Tuscan or dinosaur kale)
2 medium sized fuyu persimmons
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

For the dressing:
1 tablespoon olive or grapeseed oil
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon, a dash of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. You can use soy sauce or tamari, but I think Bragg’s is best.
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

Wash and chop kale. Cut the tops off of the persimmons and cut into chunks, about 1/2″ cubes. To seed the pomegranate, place it in a bowl of water and cut in half. Then proceed to remove the seeds. This takes the mess out of the pomegranate. If you remove the seeds underwater, you never get stains on your clothes. The seeds float to the bottom and the white pithy part floats. Mix everything together in one big bowl, serve and enjoy.
Variations: You can always use apples instead of persimmons for that slightly sweet crunch. Shredded carrot
could also be nice and colorful. Adding a tablespoon of either tahini or peanut butter to the dressing adds flavor and makes it creamier. But if you are doing
the tahini or peanut butter dressing, I recommend mixing the dressing in a jar first so that everything
melds together. A little dash of mustard helps emulsify the dressing.

Basil all winter long


Mrs. Homegrown here:

Basil is a summer plant. When the nights get cold, basil turns unhappy. It yellows and loses flavor. Here in LA that doesn’t happen until quite late in the year. Erik just pulled out our summer basil a couple of days ago to make room for winter plants. I’m replacing it–in a culinary sense–with Italian parsley, which loves cool weather, but hates the heat. It seems our gardening year swings between the basil and parsley poles.

I made the last of our basil into basil cubes, which is my favorite way of preserving it. Just wash and coarsely chop your basil leaves and shove them into an ice cube tray, so that there’s a spoonful of basil in every cube. Cover with water and freeze. Pop them out of the trays and transfer them to a ziplock freezer bag. Throughout the winter, whenever you want a little fresh basil flavor, all you have to do is grab a few cubes. Toss the cubes straight into sauces, or let them melt to retrieve the leaves alone to use for toppings, salad &etc.

Happy Thanksgiving, Now Go Buy Something

We’re kidding. Well, sort of. Hopefully you’ll negotiate a truce with your family today to forgo expensive and wasteful holiday gift giving. Like us, you probably are also heavy users of the public library. But just in case you need to find the right gift for the fanatical urban homesteader in your life we’ve opened a Homegrown Evolution Amazon Store which contains books and tools that we actually own and use around our humble compound. Purchases made through the store and even other items you click through to will help support this website.

A few items in I’d like to call attention to:

Novella Carpenter’s Farm City
Carpenter is a phenomenal writer and anyone who’s involved in the activities profiled on this blog will love this book. The concluding section, where Carpenter describes raising two enormous pigs in the ghetto is both amusing and profound.

John Jeavons How To Grow More Vegetables
It’s the vegetable gardening bible around here. Since we started using Jeavons’ methods this fall I’ve noticed a significant improvement in the health of our garden. The only book on vegetables you need to own.

Haws Watering Can
Jeavons turned me on to this. The can produces a gentle spray that is perfect for watering flats of seedlings. I can’t believe I lived without this thing. It’s expensive but worth it.

The Urban Homestead
And, of course, there’s our own book. If you order directly from us on the right side of this page, we make a few more pennies then when you buy on Amazon. But either way, pick up a copy for the whole family! Help keep our doberman in kibble!

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.