Nitrogen Deposition

Thanks to the millions of SUV driving knuckleheads out there we may not have to take a whizz in our compost pile after all. It turns out we have ample free nitrogen fertilizer in the form of air pollution which settles back down to the earth in a process science types call nitrogen deposition.

According to Edith Allen, a professor of botany at UC Riverside,

“Nitrogen deposition occurs at high levels in southern California, and is fertilizing our wildlands . . . While growers and gardeners may appreciate this free fertilizer, it promotes the growth of weedy species in our forests, shrublands, deserts and grasslands. The invasion of weeds is a huge problem for maintenance of our fragile biodiversity, which is already impacted by development.”

The photo above shows the leaves of some of the bean plants at the SurviveLA compound. We believe that the dark droplets are diesel particulate and other crap that comes out of the tailpipes of all those trucks that lumber through our neighborhood carrying cheap crap from China from the Port of Los Angeles to all the Wal-Marts in flyover country.

Thanks must go in part to our new Los Angeles Department of Transportation chief Gloria Jeff for insisting that those trucks must keep moving and doing everything she can to keep LA the smog-spewing auto-addicted poster child for bad urban planning. So Gloria-will you be joining us for salad tonight? Don’t bother bringing any dressing.

Pee on your Compost

Judging from comments and our web statistics you people out there love discussing poo. So it’s about time that we move on to pee. Why waste your perfectly good urine? Indeed, both Ghandi and Jim Morrison drank their own urine for it’s reputed health benefits. But we ain’t gonna go there.

Our suggestion for the day is to save that piss for your plants. Urine is a fantastic source of nitrogen and it’s estimated that we all produce enough urine to fertilize all the wheat and corn that we as individuals consume. And urine is sterile and safe unless you’ve got a bladder infection.

Urine should be diluted before applying directly to plants since salts in your pee can build up in the soil. Dilution should be at least 10 parts water to one part urine. Peeing directly on plants can burn them as anyone who owns a dog already knows about. Urine is easiest to apply to non-food crops, though it’s perfectly safe to use on fruit trees and bushes. Applying it to root crops is more controversial, and frankly seems like a practice best left to hippies, so if you try this at least cease application at a respectable interval before harvesting.

There is even a book called Liquid Gold on the subject of pee as fertilizer and the ever more resourceful Europeans have developed a number of urine diverting flush toilets similar to the one we profiled earlier to take the labor out of urine saving.

Perhaps the most convenient way to use urine is to simply pee on your compost pile. That way you don’t need to worry about saving it in a container and diluting it. As, no joke here, British conservative member of parliament Francis Maude puts it,

“If I share a tip with the audience it is that if you pee on your compost, it has a double environmental whammy – it speeds up its decomposition so you can get it on the garden more quickly, and it also saves water.”

Bucket Crapping

Those ubiquitous five gallon buckets we’ve used to make self-watering containers are good for another purpose– an improvised crapper.

When the shit hits the fan, you’ll need a place to shit and thankfully the fine folks at the World Toilet Organization have come up with a clever design for an improvised flush toilet using just a five gallon bucket, a coat-hanger, and a plastic bag. Now, not to be too graphic, but thanks to the Sierra Club we’ve had the opportunity to #2 in a five gallon bucket before and surplus stores even sell toilet seats for buckets. But the World Toilet Organization design has some distinct advantages, mainly keeping odors to a minimum. Advanced versions of the same five gallon bucket can even be used for composting and adapted for flushing with water.

Self Watering Containers


Today, something for our apartment homesteaders. If you’ve got a patch of sun and want to grow some food crops container gardening is the way to go.

But container gardening has several drawbacks. Containers dry out quickly and if you forget to water, especially with vegetables, you can easily kill your plants. In fact inconsistent watering is probably the number one cause of container plant failure. Container gardening also uses a lot of water and can be messy, as the excess water flows out of the bottom of your pots leaving muddy stains on decks and balconies.

Thankfully, there is an elegant solution in the form of self watering containers. The principle is simple. Rather than having a hole in the bottom of the pot, there is instead a reservoir of water. Potting soil is suspended above the water reservoir by means of a perforated barrier. Circular “wicking chambers” reach down into the reservoir and draw water up to the plant’s roots. The reservoir is refilled by means of a pipe that comes out of the top of the pot and the soil in the pot is covered with a layer of plastic that acts as mulch. Depending on how deep the water reservoir is, it’s possible to go many days without having to add water. This arrangement, combined with the mulch layer on top prevent wasteful over-watering that can occur with conventional pots.

Best of all, while commercially made self watering containers such as the Earthbox® are available, it’s possible to build your own with these detailed instructions (warning–long pdf) by Josh Mandel. Or take a look at our how-to video:

We built our self watering container with an old plastic storage bin. The ubiquitous five gallon bucket also makes an excellent choice. Clever and water-wise folks may want to pimp out their self watering containers with overflow tubes to carry excess water out of the drainage hole and into a plastic milk bottle. Instructions for doing this can be found here (another pdf), and this might be wise for those considering placing these things on a roof.

Speaking of roofs, one drawback to self watering containers is that they are heavy once filled, so make sure that what you put them on can support the weight. Also, fill them with soil and water only after you have placed them where they need to go, since they can be a bitch to move once full.

Now, we don’t have much sympathy for the aesthetically minded, but some might consider a bunch of five gallon buckets or plastic tubs ugly. Personally we like the meth lab/cannabis farm chic this type of gardening suggests, but for the yuppies out there it’s also possible to put your home brew self watering container within a larger and more attractive pot if you’ve got the dough to blow. Fill the extra space between your self watering container and the pot it’s sitting in with gravel. Check out our instructions on how beautify your self watering container.

Now, apartment homesteaders, get out there and grow your own damn food!

The Tiny House

One of the ongoing struggles of eking out a living in any of the world’s big cities is the shortage of affordable housing. Houses and condos are out of reach of many, and apartments are expensive rent plantations run by greedy and evil landlords. Meanwhile, in rural America, most new housing consists of trailers, euphemistically known as “manufactured housing”. Trailers offer interesting possibilities, even for urbanites. But while it’s possible to pimp out an old trailer and make a decent living space, it’s hard to escape the fact that these structures were meant to be hauled down a highway and used for camping. Trailers often have a transient and less than homey vibe.

Between the extremes of conventional housing and trailers there is an interesting, and revolutionary alternative. In 1997 Jay Shafer took it upon himself to try an experiment in radical simplicity and create the smallest possible living space he could. Measuring just 100 square feet, his tiny house violated local building codes for the minimum amount of living space required for each occupant. So Shafer attached wheels to it and called it a trailer. But unlike a trailer, his house and subsequent houses he designed have an attention to detail, and a coziness not found in your typical Winnebago. His first tiny house has a kitchen, bath, and upstairs sleeping loft. Subsequent designs even have room for stacking laundry.

His passion for living on a very small footprint became a business, the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, which now sells both competed units and plans for do it yourselfers. We particularly like the look of the X-S and the X-T house.

While certainly not for everyone, we like the flexibility that these building have. Put wheels on them and you can move your house with you. They are small enough to fit behind someone else’s house allowing for the possibility of both renting a small space and owning your own building all in one cozy package. If you can find a vacant lot, such a small house could be the ideal start of your urban homestead, leaving plenty of yard space for growing your own food.

And these small building literally sip utilities making them ideal for hooking up to solar power and very cheap to heat and cool. They are also expandable as your needs or family grows. And perhaps most importantly, they prevent expansion of all the things we don’t need, the giant plasma screens, the inflatable Christmas decor and all the other clutter causing detritus of our consumer culture.

For more information on the tiny house movement, author Shay Salomon and photographer Nigel Valdez will do a free slide show and talk about their book Little House on a Small Planet as a part of local permaculture expert David Khan’s introduction to permaculture on Saturday January 20th 2007 at 10:00 am at the Audubon Center at Debs Park:

4700 North Griffin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90031

Salomon and Valdez will also be appearing at the L.A. Eco-Village on Sunday January 21st at 8:00 p.m. ($10 sliding scale okay). For reservations for the talk at the L.A. Eco-Village call (213) 738-1254 or [email protected]
. The L.A. Eco-Village is located at 117 Bimini Place.

Buddy Burner

An easy craft project for the family survivalist, taken from the brilliant 70’s Mormon classic: Roughing it Easy, by Dian Thomas.

A buddy burner is a heat source for camping or emergencies made out of a tuna can, candle stubs and cardboard. It acts like a Sterno can, will burn for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, and can be recharged and reused.

To make a buddy burner you need to gather: a clean tuna can, a piece of corrugated cardboard, a bunch of candle stubs, and a soup can or something similar to melt the wax in so you don’t get wax on your cookware.

Cut the cardboard into strips as wide as the can is deep. Cut across the corrugation, across the ridges, so that when you look at the edge of the strip you see the open channels. Capiche? You are going to coil the cardboard in the can, so you will need maybe 3 or 4 feet of cardboard. One Amazon mailer made 3 BB’s here at Survive LA. Roll your strips up like a sweet roll and tuck them into the can. It does not have to be tight, but you do want to fill it up.

Pile your candle stubs next to the tuna can to get a sense of how much you need. The wax soaks into the cardboard, so you always seem to need more than you expect. Don’t worry about the wicks, dust, soot, those little metal things–the purity of your wax doesn’t matter.

Melt the wax. If you melt your candle stubs over direct heat the wax will burst into flame if it gets too hot. Therefore it is safest and best to use a double boiler set up. Now, if you own a double boiler you probably don’t want to coat it with wax, so use a tin can to hold the wax, and place the can in a saucepan of simmering water. Here we balance the can on a metal cookie cutter to keep it off the bottom of the saucepan.

When the wax melts it will liberate bits of old wick. Fish these out first and tuck one or two or three between the cardboard layers to help with lighting the burner. Then pour the hot wax slowly into the can. It will fill up fast, then the wax level will sink as the cardboard soaks up the wax. Keep adding wax–you want to be sure the can is absolutely full of wax and the cardboard completely saturated.

To cook with your buddy burner, all you have to do is figure out how to elevate your cooking pot above it. You could use your fondue set up, or perhaps stack up some bricks on either side, or best of all, make a stove for it out of a big #10 can. That will be the subject of another post.

To light the BB, light the wicks and turn the can up on its side so that the cardboard catches fire too. The cardboard is a huge wick. That inferno effect is what you want. Control your flame by making a damper out of a piece of aluminum foil folded into a long rectangle three or four layers thick and as wide as the can, but much longer so that you can use the excess as a handle. Slide the foil back and forth to expose or repress the flame as needed.

To recharge the BB, place chunks of wax on top of the BB while it is burning. The wax will melt down and refuel it. The wax will always burn at a lower temperature than the cardboard, so the cardboard should last a long time.

UPDATE – 7/1/08

Reader Michael writes:

“Hey! I love your site. But some thoughts on Buddy Burners! I made SOOOO many of these as a kid growing up (Mormon, y’know?), but they are not safe anymore. Most aluminum cans are now fully lined with plastics and other coatings (to prevent botulism, yay!) but they cannot be burned (boo!). Please please please do not suggest people make these as burning the coatings can be TOXIC.”

I’m beginning to wish we had a science lab here at the Homegrown Evolution compound to test these sorts of problems. I’d add to Michael’s concern that these plastic coatings leach estrogenic compounds into our food. BooII! See this alarming article from Cornell University on the connection between plastics and breast cancer.