Made By Hand

Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway WorldJungian analyst James Hollis speaks of two gremlins that meet us at the foot of the bed each day: fear and lethargy. As DIYers, gardeners, poultry keepers and fermentation fetishists, our worst enemy is a crippling fear of failure and the lethargy that results when we try to avoid challenges by surfing the Internet, watching TV, or just staring into space. To embrace failure is the only way to learn. Hollis quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, “our task is to be defeated by ever larger things.”

BoingBoing co-founder and Make Magazine editor in chief Mark Frauenfelder has a new book Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World that chronicles his quest to do the kinds of activities we cover on this blog: vegetable gardening, keeping chickens, fermentation, beekeeping and more. While Made by Hand is not a how-to book it is, paradoxically, the most practical DIY book I’ve read in a long time. Why? Because it’s all about facing that fear of failure, the single greatest obstacle to actually getting out there and doing things. In the book Frauenfelder quotes überDIYer Mister Jalopy,

“People are afraid that they’re going to screw something up, that they’re going to ruin something. And unfortunately, it’s valid–they will. You will screw up. Things will be broken. But that’s the one step to overcome to get on the path of living this richer life of engagement, of having meaningful connections to the objects around you. It’s that necessary step you have to take–the courage to screw things up.”

I picked up Made by Hand and couldn’t put it down. I’ve done most of the activities Frauenfelder writes about and made many of the same mistakes. In the past month I’ve had an especially frustrating series of DIY setbacks. I’ve also, directly because of reading this book, faced my fear of failure and had a series of creative breakthroughs.

The world does not need more “experts.” What we need are the brutally honest voices of  “practitioners” like Frauenfelder, people who do things and have the courage to fail. As Ulysses says in the Odyssey, “I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardship, and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then I will swim.”

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world

LA is the poster child for bad planning. While there are probably worse cities in the US, we’ve certainly got our work ahead of us here.Which is why I’m asking all of you for a favor. A local elementary school near our house on a ugly stretch of Sunset Blvd. is applying for a grant to create a garden and do some traffic calming. The grant is vote based and here’s the link:

http://www.justmeans.com/contestidea?ideaid=NTU5

The grant would provide $25,000 towards replacing a parking lot with a garden.

Why this is important

Yes, it’s a bit annoying to fill out the form, however I think that this particular project would be a shining example of how to turn what is essentially a traffic sewer into a place for PEOPLE. Even if you don’t live here, my hope is that this garden will inspire others across the country. If we can make it happen here we can make it happen everywhere. The deadline is June 14th, so act soon.

The Urban Homestead

“The contemporary bible on the subject” — The New York Times

The Urban Homestead (Expanded and Revised Edition): Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (Process Self-reliance Series) by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen  (Process, 2010)

ISBN: 978-1934170106

(The first edition, the one with the “American Gothic” cover, was released by Process on June 1, 2008)

Buy it at:  Amazon Abe Books • Barnes & Nobel Powell’s and your local indie bookstore

This celebrated, essential handbook for the urban homesteading movement shows how to grow and preserve your own food, clean your house without toxins, raise chickens, gain energy independence, and more. Step-by-step projects, tips, and anecdotes will help get you started homesteading immediately. The Urban Homestead is also a guidebook to the larger movement and will point you to the best books and internet resources on self-sufficiency topics.

Written by city dwellers for city dwellers, this copiously illustrated, two-color instruction book proposes a paradigm shift that will improve our lives, our community, and our planet. By growing our own food and harnessing natural energy, we are planting seeds for the future of our cities.

Update: Women’s Land Army


Last December, we posted about The Women’s Land Army. Christina Habberjam just left a comment on that post, pointing us to the resource page she’s compiled on that topic. It’s too nice a thing to be buried in the comments, so we’re posting the link to that page here. Also, her grandmother, Veronica Rattray, who was a “Land Girl”, wrote a book about her experience called My Land Girl Years, 1939-1948.

Recipe for Raising Chickens


Mrs. Homegrown here:

We were sent Minnie Rose Lovgreen’s Recipe for Raising Chickens for review, and have been enjoying it so much we thought we’d tell you about it. It was first released in 1975, and this 2009 version is the 3rd edition. It’s a charming little book, paper covered and staple bound, totaling only 31 pages. In fine 70s style, it is handwritten (in neat calligraphy) rather than typeset, and copiously illustrated with pen and ink drawings of hens and chicks.

I’ll say right off the bat that it is not The Definitive Chicken Book. It’s simply too short for that, and its focus is primarily on raising hens and chicks, with a side focus on bantams (because they’re such excellent brooders). As we can’t keep a rooster in our neighborhood, we’ll never see our hens raising chicks–so this information serves mostly to make us wish we lived somewhere where we could let the chickens follow their natural life cycle. However, if your situation allows a rooster, and you’re interested in breeding chickens, this might be a poetical resource that you’d enjoy.

I should add that she doesn’t talk about roosters much at all. They’re invisible players in this story, which is an interesting omission. Perhaps the fact of a rooster being present in the hen yard, doing his work, was so commonplace to her that she didn’t feel the need to mention it. Or perhaps she doesn’t mention breeding details out of delicacy–Lovgreen was born in 1888.


Yes, 1888! That means she wrote this book when she was 87. Her writing comes out of a long life raising chickens, and as such, her advice is wonderfully relaxed and commonsensical–and also joyous. Her love of her hens, and the pleasure she takes in watching them and learning their ways, is clear in every word. She won me over with a quote of the cover: “The main thing is to keep them happy.” That is so true. In fact, that might be all you really need to know.

Above all, its her voice that makes this book so charming. Here’s a sample:

The hen never leaves her chicks for any length of time to get cold. Soon as they commence to “peep peep” like they’re unhappy, she calls them under her. She spreads out her wings and they can all get under her. She spreads her wings real wide. The feathers of her wings are almost like little pages where they can get the air under. They can peek out from her wings, under the feathers, and then get back under her again. When the weather is warmer, the chicks will climb up on the hen’s back and ride piggyback. They have so much confidence in her.

One caveat: this book is $13.00. That’s 42 cents a page. For thirteen bucks you could buy a more comprehensive title, but if you like collecting chicken books, this would be a nice addition to your collection. I like simple books, myself. Books that give you a friendly push in the right direction, but don’t beat you about the ears with lots of confusing details and worrisome warnings. Like all of the home arts, you ultimately learn to keep chickens by keeping chickens, by paying close attention and using your head. Like Lovgreen did.

Seedling Disaster!

“No one talks of failure as anything but shameful; this is wrongheaded and foolish . . . Mistakes are synonymous with learning. Failing is unavoidable. Making is a process, not an end. It is true that deep experience helps avoid problems, but mainly it gives you mental tools with which to solve inevitable problems when they come up.”

-Tom Jennings, as quoted in Mark Frauenfelder’s excellent new book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World 

Oh, but those mistakes sure can be frustrating especially when they happen in the garden!  I’ve had nothing but bad luck germinating seeds this spring for our summer garden and, as a result, our vegetable beds are as bare as the Serengeti. What happened? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  • watering too much
  • watering too little
  • damping off 
  • unseasonably cold weather (we germinate outside here)
  • the occasional hot day on top of cold evenings
  • the mindset of the gardener: being in a hurried, stressed mood as we finished our next book

Nature being a complex system, you can often get stacking problems that make figuring out what went wrong difficult. I’m leaning towards the cold weather as I’ve noticed some of the seeds I planted starting to come up as it has warmed up. Lesson: you’ve gotta watch the weather reports even in a mild climate such as ours or invest in heating mats or a cold frame. 

Despite my pledge to grow vegetables only from seeds, panic over a summer without homegrown tomatoes prompted me to call Garden Edibles owner Craig Ruggless to see if he had any seedlings. Thankfully he had some heirloom tomato seedlings that he gave to me in return for helping him try to capture a swarm of bees that had shown up in his olive tree (unsuccessfully, it turned out–more on that misadventure in another post). At least I’m not alone. My friends in Chicago, the Green Roof Growers, had their own tomato seedling apocalypse.

I once saw Julia Child on Martha Stewart’s show demonstrating how to make an elaborate dessert called a Croqembouche, a pyramidal tower of cream filled pastry balls. Stewart and Child built separate Croqembouche towers. At the end of the demo Stewart’s was perfect and Child’s was, well, a big mess. Yet Julia soldiered on, laughing at her mistakes. My pledge with the garden is to try to do the same and have fewer of my notorious garden meltdowns when the inevitable crisis happens. So what if it ain’t perfect around here? Now Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown neighbor should make note of that pledge . . .

Readers, please feel free to share some recent disasters.

Food and Flowers Freedom Act Update

Yesterday the Food and Flowers Freedom Act passed the city council and awaits the mayor’s expected signature. It goes to show that revising outdated codes pertaining to local agriculture can be, at least here in Los Angeles, non-controversial. In fact, those of us at the meeting to support the act left before the vote was taken. It tuned out the council was pre-occupied with a contentious debate over rent control that ended in a fight breaking out and the council chambers being cleared. At least, it seems, we can all get behind locally grown fruit and flowers. For more information on the history of the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, see the website of the Urban Farming Advocates.

The Food and Flowers Freedom Act Needs Your Support

UFA supporters at a commission meeting back in March

Local food is coming to Los Angeles. Friday May 21st, the Los Angeles City Council will vote on amending city code to allow growing and selling fruit and flowers within city limits. If you live in the area, the Urban Farming Advocates can use your support at tomorrow’s meeting. From the UFA website:

We will assemble between 11 and 11:30am in the Council Chamber at City Hall.

Friday morning, May 21, 2010

Los Angeles City Hall
200 North Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 485-2121

If we’re gonna be called the “land of the fruits and the nuts,” we might as well live up to it! Hope to see some of you downtown tomorrow.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping

The Complete Idiot's Guide to BeekeepingWe’re very lucky, here in Los Angeles, to have the Backwards Beekeepers whose meetings are led by beekeeper Kirk Anderson, who teaches a radical form of beekeeping that includes:

  • Letting the bees form their own comb (most beekeepers use pre-made foundation).
  • Capturing feral swarms, rather than ordering bees.
  • Using no treatments of any kind.

The result is healthier bees with much more robust immune systems than their over-bred and drugged commercial sisters. But walk into most beekeeping clubs or supply shops, tell them you want to keep bees this way and they’ll think you’re crazy. And pretty much all beekeeping books have devolved into little more than timetables for applying chemical and biological treatments in the hopes of staving off all the problems that have plagued beekeeping in recent years. Even the organic beekeeping books are bad, substituting chemical treatments with gimmicks.

Finally, there’s a book that gets beekeepers off the treadmill of more and more drug treatments with ever diminishing returns. I heard that when the Idiots Guide publishers approached beekeepers Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer they said they’d write the book but only if they could base it on no-treatment beekeeping. The result is the excellent Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping which contains everything you need to know to get started keeping bees. It’s the first book to describe no-treatment beekeeping and it also clearly explains the basic biology of the hive, no easy task. The book’s approach is summed up on page 139, “We keep a bunch of bees, don’t use treatments on them, and we don’t breed from the ones that die.” While not the only cause, standard commercial beekeeping practices probably play a big role in recent bee colony losses. Funny how the kind of common sense delivered in this book can seem so radical.

You can also read more about no-treatment beekeeping on the Yahoo Organic Beekeepers group and the website of Michael Bush.