Looking for a Hardware Store Interview Subject

Image from the new CLUI Morgan Cowles Archive

Hey all, I’m working on an article for the May issue of Urban Farm magazine on the subject of businesses to patronize before they disappear. One of those businesses is your local independent hardware store. If you either own or work at a hardware store and have opinions, I’d like to interview you. Send me an email at [email protected]. For the rest of you, if you have an opinion about the types of businesses I should profile leave a comment.

Have any ideas? We’re rewriting the anniversary gift list

Okay, this has almost nothing to do with the post. But Anne, mentioned below, and her broody hen Big Wig, are fostering kittens. Yes, the hen sits on the kittens. You might die of the cuteness if you saw it. If you live in the LA area and need a fluffy, chicken-identified kitten, drop us a line.

Our neighbors Anne and Bill are about to have an anniversary. Anne was thinking about a gift for Bill and referenced the traditional anniversary gift list–you know, the inscrutable wood, paper, tin list, as well as the updated list which includes clocks and tablecloths–and was less than inspired. Instead, she’s thinking about taking a class that will be beneficial to Bill, and the relationship– a cooking class, perhaps. I hope I’m not spoiling any surprises! (She had other ideas, Bill…just in case you’re reading.)

Her instinct toward classes jives with an idea Erik and I have been kicking around for a while: that money should not be spent on objects, but on experiences.

We never regret money we shell out for experience, whether that be trips, workshops, lessons or strange adventures, while we often regret the acquisition of knickknacks and gadgets. Knowledge and experience are our most important possessions. They cannot be lost or broken. They form the stuff of our souls.

So we’re interested in rewriting the anniversary list in one or two ways, and would love it if you’d pitch in ideas for Anne and I to consider.

The first option is slightly more traditional. It would be a list of gift items, arranged per year, but we could try to rewrite it to be genuinely useful from a “homesteaders” point of view. I know I was just talking about the importance of experience, but we do need good tools in a functional household, and a list could be built around that.

The second option is the experience list. What sort of skills and knowledge make up a self-reliant household–and a good relationship? How would you prioritize that knowledge on a year by year time line? Can we think of 50?

And maybe there’s a third option–feel free to toss out anything you like.

The Barrier Method

Over the years we’ve lost countless plants to digging, chewing, trampling and sucking critters, mammals and insects both. We finally got smart. It makes sense to invest a little extra time and money to protect your crops and your livestock with physical barriers.

This practice started sort of piecemeal around here, with us only exerting ourselves over particularly problem-prone situations. Nowadays protection is standard for every bed we plant, for our seed starting boxes, and often for new perennials in the ground. The result is peace of mind, better results…and fewer gardening meltdowns from Erik (Squash Baby excepted).

We’ve written about all this before in various posts, but here’s some photos to give you an overview of some of the possibilities:

Our seedling trays are now contained within The Germinator ™: a large screened box. Prior to this invention, we arched chicken wire over our seedling trays to keep squirrels and loose chickens out.

All of our beds, whether raised or in the ground, are spanned with arches of wire which hold up aviary netting. The netting is held down around the edges with a variety of anchors, anything from bricks and boards to U shaped wire stakes. This keeps critters like digging skunks and birds out–but not insects.

Sometimes we cover our veg beds with a very light floating row cover (Agribon 15) instead of aviary netting. This not only keeps out critters, but also blocks many insects, particularly the cabbage worms that harass our brassica crops. It’s not pretty, but it keeps the plants pretty within. Heavier gauges of row covering can be used to ward off frost, or help jump start plants in cold weather.
Our chickens have a very secure coop. Connected to it is some extra play space, bounded by picket fence. This doesn’t protect the chickens from much, but they only use it during the day, when predators are few. It’s more to protect our garden from them. But I hope you can see the twine that stretches from picket to picket. These discourage the hens from flapping out of their run, and keeps hawks from swooping down on them.
We often protect newly planted perennials with circles of chicken wire staked to the ground. This young berry is protected from anything digging it up or stepping on it.  If I wanted to make sure critters couldn’t nibble on it, I’d pinch the top closed as well.

Medlar: The Best Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

This week we were luck enough to tag along with Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms on a jaunt to the hills near Tehachapi to help harvest an allusive fruit called the medlar.  Erik and I were just extra hands–the plan was hatched between Tara and Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. See, Craig has a place up in those hills, and just happened to know his neighbors had a little grove of medlars, and these neighbors agreed to sell them to Craig and Tara, provided Craig and Tara picked them. For us, it was a great excuse for a trip to the mountains with a bunch of friends for some laughs, fresh air and gorgeous fall scenery. Also along for the medlar hunt were Joseph Shuldiner and Graham Keegan. As a group we gathered 100 lbs of medlars in a couple of hours of easy work, which are going to be sold to foodies, rare fruit enthusiasts and perhaps some enterprising chefs at this weekend’s Santa Monica Farmers Market. There’s an article about medlars and this particular expedition in todays’s LA Times.

What is a medlar, you ask? It‘s Mespilus germanica, a small deciduous tree and member of the rose family. In fact, to me, medlar fruit look exactly like giant rosehips. The fruit is smallish, ranging from about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and ranging in color from rosy rust to dusty brown.

Medlars are native to Southwestern Asia and Southeatsern Europe. They were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, doted on by Victorians and mentioned by Shakespeare. I believe they are still popular in their native lands, such as Iran and Turkey. However, they’re almost unknown in the U.S. today, primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that they have to be eaten when almost rotten–a process properly called “bletting”–similarly to how you have to wait for Hachiya persimmons to soften before you can eat them. This leads to reason #2, because medlars have to be eaten when bletted, they either have to be eaten right off the tree, or they have to be picked early, then put aside for a few weeks to blet. Then, when they’re finally bletted, they’re have to be eaten immediately. There’s not a huge window of edibility. This level of persnickety-ness just doesn’t jive with our industrial food distribution system.

Beyond that, when they’re ready to eat, they look like they’re ready for the compost heap–brown, squishy, a little wrinkly. It takes some getting used to–well, it takes about as long for you to eat your first one before you figure out rotten=darn good.  I’d describe them as tasting like really good apple butter. People will describe them as holding delicate notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, wine, etc. I don’t know about that–I just tasted really, really good apple butter, delivered to me in a convenient skin instead of on toast. The flesh even looks like apple butter. Of course, like all persnickety fruits, they have a few big seeds that you have to work around as well–sort of suck clean and spit out later. It’s worth it, though.
 
We can’t grow medlars here in Los Angeles–it’s too warm. Otherwise I’d plant one right now. Medlars need hot summers and cold, frosty winters. If you live in a place like that, I’d highly recommend you plant a medlar. It’s a small, attractive tree, topping out at about 10 feet, and can be kept bush size. The ones we were harvesting were only 4-6 feet high. They are not widely available, but Raintree Nursery has a selection here.

After the jump is a little photo gallery from our trip:


Craig sorting medlars in the grand countyside

Is this bletted? Tara giving the medlar an evaluating eye
Medlars have beautiful fall foliage, and the fruit remains on the tree after the leaves fall, which is quite striking


There’s me. I’m shaking a branch. We picked up good looking ground fall, gathered what would fall when the branches were given a gentle shake, and picked any fully bletted fruits off the tree. The rest wait for a second harvest. 
Graham, looking more stylin’ than me as he works.


Here’s Joseph. He’s writing a cookbook. Notice how the trees are kept small for easy picking.
All sorted. Getcha medlars here!

medlars to market

Santa Monica Legalizes Beekeeping

Last night the Santa Monica city council voted to amend their municipal code to allow beekeeping on single family properties. Now, legalizing beekeeping is a bit like legalizing sunshine. Bees, after all, do their thing whether or not the government permits it or not. For every beekeeper in an urban area there must be hundreds of feral bee colonies living in walls, roofs and compost bins. Nevertheless, Santa Monica took a big step forward, joining cities around the world such as New York, Denver, Paris and London who have aligned their codes with the laws of nature.

Santa Monica’s amended code establishes a few rules:

  • Beekeepers are limited to two hives.
  • Hives must be registered with the City Animal Control Office.
  • Hives must be five feet from a property line.
  • Hives must have a six foot screen around them or be at least eight feet up (screening forces their flight pattern upwards).
  • Hives must be given enough space so they don’t swarm.
  • Hives must be requeened each year.
  • A water source must be kept nearby.
  • In addition, Santa Monica Animal Control officers were given new clarifications on their search powers when conducting investigations.

All of these requirements make sense to me except requeening and the arbitrary five foot distance (you have to screen them anyways so you’ve already got a six foot fence next to the hive box). And I can’t imagine how requeening, a practice I don’t agree with, will be enforced.  I also hope that the Santa Monica Animal Control officers have the proper level of law enforcement training needed with their new search powers. And it’s unfortunate that you still can’t keep bees on multifamily properties (assuming every tenant signed off on the idea).

Quibbles aside, the Santa Monica City Council did the right thing. Now, what other cities will jump on the common sense bandwagon?

Is Peat Moss a Sustainable Resource?

Two very different views on the ethics of using peat moss: one from garden writer Jeff Ball via Garden Rant,

Here are the simple facts. Canada has over 270 million acres of peat bogs which produce peat moss. Each year the peat moss industry harvests only 40,000 acres of peat moss mostly for horticultural use. If you do the math that comes to one of every 6,000 acres of peat moss is harvested each year. And here is the cherry on top. Peat bogs are living entities. The peat bogs grow 70% more peat moss each year than is harvested. With that data I consider peat definitely a renewable resource.

But Ball’s single source for these facts seems to be the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association. Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University in an article, “The Myth of Permanent Peatlands” (pdf), writes,

Peatlands degraded by mining activity do not revert to their former functionality; changes in hydrology and physical structure are hostile to Sphagnum re-establishment. Recently, degraded peatlands have been restored through the blockage of drainage ditches, seeding with Sphagnum, and application of a mulch layer to reduce water loss. When degraded peatlands are restored, the ability to hold water is improved but CO2 continues to be released by high levels of bacterial respiration, which represents the decomposition of mulch and other organic matter. It takes a number of years for the photosynthetic rate of new peatland plants to outpace the respiratory rate: until this happens, even restored peatlands represent a net loss of carbon to the atmosphere and thus contribute to greenhouse gas production.

Chalker-Scott goes on to list a number of peat moss alternatives including composted bark, coconut coir and paper sludge to name just a few. I use peat moss as part of a homemade seed starting mix. Reading Chalker-Scott’s article has convinced me that this is not an ethical choice.

The peat moss alternative I hear most often suggested is coconut coir. But I’ve heard an equally contradictory argument on the ethics of coir. And this study shows poor results for coir as a peat moss alternative in a seed starting mix. I tried my own comparison last summer and came up with the same results as that study. Oh, how this all gets so complicated!

So, I’m going to throw this open to you, our dear readers. I’m interested in hearing your opinions on peat moss. I’m also interested in hearing if any of you know a good peat-less, homemade seed propagation medium recipe, preferably from a reliable source. Leave some comments!

Your Questions Answered

Patching into our Google voice number.

Got behind in answering our questions by phone–sorry! Here’s our belated reply:

Question from Liz: Do we have bees?

A: Yes, but not on our property. We keep bees the “backwards” way, i.e. naturally, without the many treatments and gadgets most beekeepers use. Bees are probably the easiest of all our crazy home ec projects. They don’t really take much tending. For more information on backwards beekeeping see www.backwardsbeekeepers.com. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, the Backwards Beekeepers hold a monthly meeting and maintain a Yahoo group. See the website for details. If you’re not in the LA area the Backwards website has lots of how-to videos starring the always entertaining Kirk Anderson.

Question from Katie: How do you keep chickens on a small lot? In a run or with a chicken tractor? How do you keep the smells down?

A: From our limited experience with our first flock of four hens, they definitely are happier when they have space to run around. I guess it depends on the disposition of the flock.  I had to enlarge their run when I found them pecking at each other. Our backyard landscaping is not open enough to use a chicken tractor, but that might be an option, though I’d worry about predator proofing it. We have a wicked raccoon problem here. As for keeping smells down, we use a “deep bedding” method–we throw down a very thick layer of straw or leaves, 6 to 12 inches, that we get at the feed store. I keep throwing straw in the run as needed. It kind of composts in place. I rake it out once a year and throw it on the compost pile. It does a good job of keeping smells and fly populations down. The thick bedding also keeps them busy–they like to scratch around in it.

Accidental Garden Design: Pomegranate and Prickly Pear

Can good garden design be taught or is it something you’re born with? If it’s inherited I didn’t get that gene, unfortunately. But at least a garden can sometimes put on a good show despite the gardener’s lack of design sense. Above, the view out our front window of our pomegranate tree (Punica granatum ‘Wondeful’) against our overgrown prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica).

These two plants have a lot in common. They both produce abundant and nutritious food in a dry climate with little or no attention other than yearly pruning. They combine beauty and free produce with no work. Both are rich in symbolism. I could go on, but the photo says all that needs to be said.

Cohousing Talk Tonight at the LA Ecovillage

Sorry for the late notice, but cohousing coaches Raines Cohen and Betsy Morris will be speaking tonight at 7:30 pm at the LA Ecovillage. More information here. I’m planning on attending.

I predict a big growth in cohousing arrangements particularly as baby boomers age. We certainly need more community and less anonymity in a big city like Los Angeles. Hope to meet more of our readers tonight!