Let’s Democratize Permaculture

When I heard that Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) has the number one country album, I fell into a dark spiral of despair. Isn’t this a clear sign of the end of the American empire? But wait, won’t permaculture save us from this petrochemical fueled Miley Cyrus soundtracked nightmare?

Don’t hold your breath. It might be awhile before everyone’s front yard is full of perennial vegetables and Merle Haggard is back on FM radio. Over at Club Orlov some controversy over permaculture has broken out in the comments. One poster, Morgan Emrich says,

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, for at least hinting that there might be a problem with the permaculture Movement in the US. The ratio of permaculture teachers/instructors, (and courses, certification programs, feel-good junkets to third world countries) to actual apple trees being planted seems woefully skewed in the wrong direction.

It’s starting to feel like Amway. Everybody’s selling Basic H but is anybody actually using the stuff to wash their clothes?”

I understand the frustration. I’ve seen, first hand, backstabbing, cliquishness and proprietary craziness in what should be a movement about joining together to make the world a better place. I’ve also witnessed the same skewed proportion of apple trees to thoughts about apple trees. At the same time, not a day goes by when I don’t think about, learn from or apply some of the principles of permaculture as described by Mollison and Holmgren. In fact my biggest failures have come from not following permaculture’s language of common sense.

Maybe it’s time to put down the pen and graph paper and pick up a shovel. It’s definitely the point at which we need to democratize permaculture and bring it to the mainstream. Fifteen hundred dollar permaculuture certificate courses are out of the budget and time constraints of backyard gardeners and rooftop apartment growers. Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture is a step in the right direction. We need more voices like Hemenway, who can explain the design principles of permaculture to the masses.

And let’s take these principles and apply them not just to gardening, but to the ways we arrange our schools, offices, homes and public spaces. Maybe we’ll get in the groove once we get past the term “permaculuture” and when its principles get reincorporated into the fabric of our lives.

Time to bust out the shovels and banjos.

The Homegrown Mailbox: How and Where Do I Get My Soil Tested?

When you write a book you get questions. In our case, due to the sinking economy in California, they are delivered by Kevin Costner on horseback rather than by email or regular federal postal trucks. No problem, we like questions. A caveat here: like Nancy Klehm, the Green Roof Growers and Black Swan author Nassim Taleb, we prefer the term “practitioner” to describe what we do as opposed to “expert”. We favor experience over speculatifyin’ and make no claims to accuracy. But, we’re happy to take the letters from Kevin, the horse poop for compost and try our best. Here’s one question we get a lot:

Q: Y’all know where I can get my soil tested? I’ve started HUGE garden in my side yard and it just occurred to me that it is where people used to park their cars. I’m concerned about Oil or other pollutants from the cars that might still be in the soil. Any experience with this? Can I test without it costing an arm and leg?

J.R., Los Angeles

A: See my updated response here. [Note update at bottom of this post!] There’s basically two groups of things to test for: contaminants and soil nutrient levels. There are cheap home test kits, but sending samples to a lab is much more accurate. To find a lab in the US, the best place to start is with your local Cooperative Extension Service. Find yours via this link. Some offer free or low cost soil testing.

Here in Los Angeles the Extension Service does not offer testing, but they were nice enough to provide a list of local labs. The lab I talked to, Wallace Laboratories, offered tests at $75 a sample–see their price list for specifics. Before you send a sample talk to the lab to find out what they test for and how much they charge for phone consultation in interpreting the results. If you’re worried about contaminants make sure to describe your situation.

Sampling is a DIY project. You put the soil in a bag and send it off to the lab (they’ll tell you how to dig for the sample and how much to send). You’ll probably need to do several samples since different parts of the yard might have different problems.

In the end I cheaped out and went with Peaceful Valley’s soil testing service for $29.99. No contaminant testing, but the results did tell me that I’m very low in nitrogen, with a soil ph that’s slightly alkaline. They charge for phone consultation, but I was able to interpret the results myself with their slightly overpriced booklet that you can order along with the test.

Another approach, especially if you live in an old house like ours, is to assume that your soil is contaminated, skip the test, and grow things in raised beds, containers or stick to ornamentals. You could also try bioremediation: each season plant a cover crop, let it grow, and then pull it up and dispose of it. Test the soil until it comes out clean. This works well, but it can take many years to get all the contaminants out.

For those of you in Los Angeles, our local Extension Service agent Yvonne Savio kindly sent me the following list of labs with comments.

Biological Urban Gardening Service
PO Box 76
Citrus Heights, CA 95611
(916) 726-5377
URL: www.organiclandscape.com
Email: [email protected]
Organic recommendations, very user-friendly
Owner Steve Zien and I co-author “Organic Matters” organic gardening column in Sacramento Bee for 20 years.

Wallace Laboratories
365 Coral Circle
El Segundo, CA 90245
(310) 615-0116
www.bettersoils.com
Test results very scientific
No recommendations

Soil and Plant Laboratory, Inc.
1594 N. Main Street
Orange, CA
(714) 282-8777

FGL Environmental
853 Corporation Street
Santa Paula, CA
(805) 525-3824

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
44811 N. Date Avenue
Lancaster, CA 93534-3136
(661) 945-2604

Here’s a dirt cheap (pun intended) test for soil ph that you can do yourself.

UPDATE: 7/7/09: Visiting journalist Michael Tortorello tipped us off to the University of Minnesota’s soil testing lab will test out of state samples for their regular (low) fee. It’s much cheaper than the services listed above. Their submission forms are located here.

Make Mag

Readers of this blog will really enjoy the current issue of Make Magazine.

“Volume 18: ReMake America! These challenging times have presented us with a rare chance to try out new ways of doing things. The opportunities for makers are terrific — we can start at home to remake manufacturing, education, food production, transportation, and recreation. In MAKE Volume 18 you’ll learn how to make an automatic garden, heat your water with the sun, monitor and share your home energy usage, and more.”

Here’s just a few of the many exciting projects:

  • Chicago comrade Nancy Klehm tells you how to compost human waste.
  • Homegrown Evolution has an article on how to install a drip irrigation system in your vegetable garden.
  • Eric Muhs tells you how to collect rainwater to use for flushing your toilet (very clever!).
  • Celine Rich-Darley tells you how to vermicompost in your apartment.
  • Michael Perdriel explains how to make an off-grid laundry machine.
  • Limor Fried and Phillip Torrone hook up a electricity monitor to a computer to twitter their energy usage.

You’ll have to buy a copy or subscribe online to see all this wonderfullness, but the magazine is well worth a subscription. Thanks to editor Mark Frauenfelder for including us and for sending a stack of back issues. I can’t say enough good things about Make’s high tech/low tech synthesis, DIY attitude and humor.

Least Favorite Plant: Yellow Oleander (Thevetia peruviana)


Thumbing through a book of toxic and hallucinogenic plants, I finally manged to i.d. the neighbor’s shrub that looms over the staircase to our front door. The popular name given for this plant in the book was “suicide tree”, so named for its use in Sri Lanka, though I’ve found other plants with this same moniker. The scientific name is Thevetia peruviana, and it’s also known as “lucky nut” (can we change that to unlucky nut please?), Be Still Tree (presumably because you’ll be still if you eat any of it), and yellow oleander (it’s a relative of Southern California’s favorite freeway landscaping flower). I was able to dig up a research study on what the authors described as an “epidemic” of yellow oleander poisoning in Sri Lanka,

“Accidental poisonings occur throughout the tropics, particularly in children. Adults have died after consuming oleander leaves in herbal teas. However, deliberate ingestion of yellow oleander seeds has recently become a popular method of self harm in northern Sri Lanka. There are thousands of cases each year, with a case fatality rate of at least 10%. Around 40% require specialised management and are transferred from secondary hospitals across the north to the Institute of Cardiology in Colombo”

Native to central and south America Thevetia peruviana made its way to Sri Lanka only recently, with the suicides starting up within the last 25 years, according to an article in Bio-Medicine. Apparently news accounts of suicides have fueled its use. The Bio-Medicine article describes a typical incident, “I remember one girl said her mother wanted her to get up and do the shopping. She said no, her mother scolded her and she took a yellow oleander seed.”

A semi-popular landscaping plant, it grows without any water or care here in Los Angeles, though a hard frost would kill it. The elderly neighbor who used to live next door told me that she brought it with her from Mexico. I’ve seen it growing in vacant lots and by the freeway, so it seems to be able to spread on its own. So why put it on the least favorite plant list? It’s neither beautiful nor useful (unless you want to kill someone or hate shopping) nor does it seem to provide habitat or forage for beneficial wildlife. Why plant something that can accidentally poison a toddler?

Thank You Chicago!

Some unfinished Chicago business:

Thanks again to Nancy Klehm for hosting me. If you aren’t familiar with Klehm’s work you can read her articles at Arthur Magazine (note especially her take on the swine flu), view some video of a foraging walk she conducted, or take one of her classes.

Also, thanks to Chicago Reader reporter Martha Bayne for writing a nice article about me. Bayne’s also the force behind Soup and Bread, a pot luck which takes place during the winter at a tavern. Folks bring soup and everybody chips in a donation that benefits a Chicago food bank. It’s a Depression 2.0 idea that needs to be cloned in other cities.

And, of course, thanks to the Green Roof Growers, who prove that you can grow food without a yard.

Altadena Heritage of Abundance

Our backyard last week (some ugly stuff framed out of the picture!)

We’ll be doing a talk tomorrow morning as part of a sustainability series in Altadena, CA. We’re going to talk about self irrigating planters, chickens, bees and vegetable gardening. Here’s the 411:

Saturday, May 30 from 9 to 11 a.m at the Altadena Community Center First in a series of events, workshops, and home tours on sustainable living. Reserve your place at this free series kickoff event for members ($5 non-members). More info here.

To RSVP, please leave your name, email or phone contact, number of reservations, and event name at [email protected].

Chicago’s Urban Bees


Founded in 2004, the Chicago Honey Co-op tends over a hundred hives on a former Sears and Roebucks site. The Co-op provides job training to under-employed folks and sells a variety of products. I didn’t get a chance to visit it on my trip to Chicago, but hope to the next time I’m there.

In other Chicago bee news, the Green Roof Growers just got a hive. Urban rooftops and abandoned industrial sites make a lot of sense for beekeeping, as many agricultural areas are contaminated with pesticides. Keeping bees in cities might be an important strategy towards bringing back healthy hives. So best of luck to the GRGers and their new hive! And make sure to sign up for their May 30th self irrigating planter workshop.

Washing Machine Greywater Resources

Pantyhose filter

For those of you attending our Wednesday night greywater workshop at Good and for those of you who can’t, here’s a list of resources for using your washing machine as a irrigation source:

The New Create an Oasis with Greywater: Choosing, Building and Using Greywater Systemsby Art Ludwig. This is the bible of greywater. Follow Ludwig’s instructions and you can’t go wrong. Buy a copy via the link, and you’ll help support Homegrown Evolution.

Ludwig’s open source Laundry to Landscape system.

1″ polyethylene tubing–an alternative to PVC pipe.

Oasis Biocompatible detergent, the only laundry detergent we can find that’s appropriate for greywater use. It works great and, again, click through the link and we get a little support.

A selection of three way diverter valves. Note the 1″ brass model for laundry systems. Use these diverters to shift between sending your greywater outside or back to the sewer. Great if you have to do a load of diapers. We don’t have one, but we’re both cheap and kinda extreme.

A local Los Angeles source for drums, the Apex Drum Company: www.apexdrum.com. Phone number: (323) 721-8994. Located at 6226 Ferguson Drive in the picturesque city of Commerce. You can also scavange drums, but make sure they didn’t have nasty chemicals in them. See our greywater surge tank post for what kind of barrel we like to use. Note that you can also turn a surge tank into a rain barrel.

A description of our greywater fruit mini-orchard.

Our greywater surge tank version 1.0. We’ve since added a pantyhose filter as seen above to catch lint that can clog the tank and garden hose. It’s just some threaded ABS waste pipe fittings screwed together with used pantyhose.

A liquid fertilizer of the type that you could add to your greywater surge tank during a wash cycle to fertilize your garden. You could also get a fish emulsion or sea kelp based liquid fertilizer from your local nursery.

Oaktown’s Greywater Guerrillas, another source for inspiration.

Welcome to the Summer Fruit Season

Homegrown Neighbor here again. I just picked the first peaches of the summer from a tree in my backyard. They are an early variety called Florida Prince. One was so ripe it immediately started oozing fresh peach juice onto my hand which I readily licked off. It was intensely sweet and full of peach flavor. The peaches all have the most wonderful aroma. Grocery store fruit never has a smell that intense and lovely. Yesterday I ate my first plum of the season as well, a variety called Beauty. It was super sweet and delicious. I am very happy to begin the summer fruit season. I will continue to gorge myself on these sweet treats while they are at their peak over the next few months. And now for the shameless plugs- I’ll be at the Old L.A. Farmer’s Market in Highland Park this afternoon selling veggie seedlings and fruit trees. So come and visit and pick up your very own peach tree and some growing tips. And did you know fruit trees are excellent for irrigating with greywater? Learn how you can irrigate your home orchard with your old laundry water at the greywater workshop tomorrow night with my Homegrown neighbors. Soon you will have an abundant and water-wise garden.