Mahonia gracilis – Mexican Barberry

One of the biggest challenges at the Homegrown Revolution compound has been finding useful plants that will grow in our shady backyard. Not having to provide supplemental irrigation would be another definite plus. Unfortunately very few plants fit those stringent requirements.

We came across some seeds recently for a plant called Mahonia gracilis or Mexican Barberry, but there’s very little information about this medium sized shrub, native to Mexico (or China depending on which source you believe). The Plants for a Future database report states that the plant grows in dry ravines of pine forests and produces an edible berry. But as usual most other sources don’t comment on the edibility of the fruit.

To add to the paucity of information and general confusion, some botanists argue that the family name is incorrect and that it should be called Berberis gracilis. Some sources place it on a deep shade list, while others say it needs dappled sun.

We’ll throw it open to all the Homegrown Revolutionaries out there. Do any of you have experience with this plant?

Out of Water!

There’s nothing like a utility outage to make one ponder the various Mad Max type scenarios that might play out when the power goes out for good and legions of zombified TiVo addicts stumble out onto the streets in search of the last remaining supplies of Doritos. Of all the utility outages we’ve experienced in our shabby 1920s bungalow, this weekend’s water outage was the most annoying. Other than the intenets, a couple of lights and our kitchen mixer, electricity is not something we’re big users of and, thanks to the many camping stoves we have, we’re prepared to go without natural gas for a while. But water is a different matter.

Late last Thursday night our water pressure began to drop. By Sunday night nothing more than a trickle of water would come out of any of our faucets. We checked the little spinning red triangle indicator on the water meter to see if water was flowing (and perhaps leaking somewhere) but the triangle was motionless. We checked the shutoff valve at the street, turning it off and on, also to no avail. One of the few sensible things the previous owners did was replace the galvanized pipe with copper so we knew that corrosion was not the problem. We asked our neighbors if they had a problem and they said no. Finally, we called the Department of Water and Power on Friday and it was Monday morning before anyone showed up. By that time, mysteriously, the water began flowing again. The DWP worker checked the pressure, said it was fine, and shrugged when we asked what the problem might have been. We welcome comments from readers who want to speculate on the cause of this outage as we like to know how things work or fail around here.

While we have a few gallons of water around in case of an earthquake this episode was a wake up call that we may need to keep more water than the couple of plastic tubs we have in the garage. We also don’t want to count on the water in the water heater and the back of the toilet. And when it takes three days to get service we can only imagine how long it would take in a large-scale disaster.

The whole notion of depending on our dysfunctional local government for anything in an emergency is foolish. Our friends at IlluminateLA helped run the emergency shelter at a local high school after the Griffith Park fire earlier this year. While it turned out that the emergency shelter was not needed, the Illuminaters discovered that the food supplies have to be trucked in from the San Fernando Valley, a not too promising scenario when you consider how bad the roads are here on an ordinary day not to mention when a couple of bridges come down in an earthquake.

This leaves us pondering keeping water in steel drums, which we first learned about in Aton Edward’s book Preparedness Now!, the first book in Process Media’s Self-Reliance series (our book the Urban Homesteader, due out in May, is the third in this series). It’s one of the more expensive options in water storage, with new drums costing several hundred dollars, but avoids the problem of an off taste that plastic can impart. But while there’s something to be said for avoiding all sources of potential crankiness when the shit cometh down, stainless steel drums are above our meager budget at this point. For now we’ll probably have to go with a new 55 gallon plastic drum, though if enough of you buy our book we’ll spring for the steel. Homegrown Revolution readers can hole up in the garage with us and share our water when those snack-crazed zombie hoards come stumbling down the street. Consider it a promise.

Safety Films Night

Homegrown Revolution, in support of the ongoing two-wheeled revolution, is putting on an evening of vintage bicycle and traffic safety films at the Echo Park Film Center on Sunday November 4th. It’s a special benefit for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Watch as little Jane and Johnny take to the streets for the first time to learn the rules of the road. But bring your motoring friends as well, since we’ll also serve up a selection of classic driver’s safety films. We’ll round out the evening with a few bicycle related shorts and oddities from the world of educational films.

The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) is a membership based advocacy organization working to improve the bicycling environment and quality of life in Los Angeles County through advocacy and education. The LACBC envisions a Los Angeles County that is a great place for everyday, year-round cycling with bicycles accepted as an integral part of our transportation system, culture, and communities.

Admission is $10 with all proceeds going to support the LACBC.

Sunday November 4th
Time 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm

The Echo Park Film Center is located at 1200 North Alvarado Street @ Sunset Blvd. Map

This ain’t a safety film and we won’t be showing this gem on Sunday, but it reminds us that we need to write about the aesthetics of urban homesteading. Something about the three-way nexus of Germans, country music, and “new wave” speaks to the notion of growing food and keeping livestock in the city:

Capparis spinosa – Capers

Capparis spinosa

When we changed the name of this occasionally updated string of musings from SurviveLA to Homegrown Revolution to make it more national, as the publisher of our upcoming book the Urban Homestead requested, we had one big challenge. While Mrs. Homegrown Revolution hails from the snowy mountains of Colorado, Mr. Homegrown Revolution has never lived anywhere else other than sunny Southern California. And neither of us have tended plants outside of this Mediterranean climate, one of the rarest types of climatic zones on the planet.

But if we’ve learned anything universal about growing food it has been to work with nature rather than against her, or as we prefer to say–don’t fuck with nature. For those of you who live where it gets cold, fucking with nature means trying to grow a fig tree. For us it meant trying to grow a lawn, a foolish water-wasting mistake we made in our pre-SurviveLA days. Working with nature means finding plants that belong in a climate similar to your part of the world. We’re not native plant fascists and will gladly source plants from other similar climates, but we don’t believe in nursing sickly plants that can’t take our heat, or need lots of water.

This season we’ve pledge not to be tempted by the allure of the seed catalogs. We’re going to grow edible and useful plants that thrive in Mediterranean places. Thankfully that includes a lot of interesting options, some of which we already have–figs, artichoke, grapes, prickly pear cactus, rosemary, thyme and lavender.

One new addition that we’re planting from seed is Capparis spinosa, commonly known as capers. Every year we make faux capers from nasturtium seed pods, but this year we thought we would start the real thing. The caper bush is an attractive plant that tolerates bad soil and dry conditions, in short perfect for the front slope of our little hilltop compound.

But nature could still screw with us. Capers are notoriously difficult to start from seeds (which we ordered from Trade Winds Fruit). According to Purdue University’s Center for New Crops and Plant Products,

“Caper seeds are minuscule and are slow to nurture into transplantable seedlings. Fresh caper seeds germinate readily – but only in low percentages. Dried seeds become dormant and are notably difficult to germinate and therefore require extra measures to grow. Dried seeds should be initially immersed in warm water (40°C or 105°F ) and then let soak for 1 day. Seeds should be wrapped in a moist cloth, placed in a sealed glass jar and kept in the refrigerator for 2 – 3 months. After refrigeration, soak the seeds again in warm water overnight.”

We’ll also need to wait a few years before we have a crop. But if our capers manage to establish we’ll be letting nature work for us.

UPDATE
It looks like we may be fucked, so to speak (sorry for the potty talk–too many cocktails tonight perhaps). Homegrown Revolution reader Brian writes:

“you are brave. but potentially foolish. this thing is one of the toughest plants i’ve ever grown in the south bay. i eventually ordered a tiny little plant, i think from papa geno. anyway, good luck with the seed, i know i wasted 2 years on them before i caved and went for the cutting. even now, this thing is fickle. so far, my little plant is on year 3, ( so, year 5 of my project ), is about a foot in diameter, and i get about 15 flowers a summer. about enough for one dinner of puttanesca. still, i persist! go forth and conquer!”

UPDATE II

Brian was right! Many months later I have an inch tall, very weak seedling. Lesson: plant first, blog later!

Tree Spinach – Chenopodium giganteum

For most of the country planting time is far off but for us, here in the Homegrown Revolution compound in Mediterranean Los Angeles, it’s time to start the winter garden. The billowing clouds of apocalyptic smoke from the fires ravaging the suburban fringes of our disaster prone megalopolis are the only thing that keeps us inside today, giving us time to contemplate one of the seed packets that has crossed our desk, Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a “tree spinach”.

The Chenopodium family encompasses what less enlightened folks call “weeds” such as lambs quarters (also edible we’ll note), but also contains cultivated crops such as Quinoa and Epazote. Tree spinach is a tall, hardy annual that easily reseeds itself and can become invasive–but we give extra points for the combination of invasive and edible.

Tree spinach contains saponins and oxalic acid, substances which the Plants for a Future database notes can cause nutritional and medical problems. Note to all the raw food fetishists out there–cooking takes care of both oxalic acid and saponins.

We ordered our tree spinach from Trade Winds Fruit but it’s also carried by Seeds of Change. We’ll post a full report if and when we get our first harvest.

See the update on our first harvest.

Homegrown Revolution at the Alt-Car Expo

Homegrown Revolution will be making an appearance at the Alt-Car expo this Saturday October 20th at 10:30 a.m. to pimp for the bicycle as an alternative to the electric and ethanol cars crowding the improvised showroom at the Santa Monica Airport. We’ll be joined on a panel discussion by Jennifer Klausner of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and Joseph Linton of Livable Places. The panel is entitled “Getting out of the Box”. He’s what we’re gonna say:

We don’t ride bikes because they are good for the environment–we ride them simply because they are fun and unlike a car, each mile we go makes us stronger physically and more alert mentally. Riding a bicycle puts us in touch with the spaces we live in and the people who inhabit those spaces. As the Situationist Guy Debord said,

“Traffic Circulation is the organization of universal isolation. In this regard it constitutes the major problem of modern cities. It is the opposite of encounter, it absorbs the energies that could otherwise be devoted to encounters or to any sort of participation.”

By riding a bike we break out of the isolation and anger that a box on four wheels stuck in traffic breeds.
The bicycle is the most elegant of all human inventions. Repair and maintenance are within the grasp of virtually everyone. Parts are understandable and, for the most part, interchangeable. With each pedal stroke, legs, heart, lungs and mind grow stronger.

Riding a bicycle is something you can do now. You need not wait for a future of expensive electric vehicles or technical innovations that may never come. The bicycle has a proven 150 year plus record of dependability.
You need not wear Lycra and, as the picture above proves, sometimes skin-tight clothes can be a very bad idea. You don’t need to be an athlete or have special clothing or equipment. Just jump on and roll.

In Southern California we don’t have the excuse of bad weather. Conditions are perfect for year-round cycling and the terrain is mostly flat. It’s a bit hilly in Homegrown Revolution’s neck of the woods, but these hills build character.

We’re what you might call “car-light”. Between Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown Revolution we still have a battered 1994 Nissan Sentra which spends the overwhelming majority of its time sitting in the garage collecting dust. Around the time we got rid of our second car we put together an Xtracycle. While it’s hard to improve on the basic design of the bicycle, the Xtracycle is a great way to haul cargo. We can easily pack just as many groceries on this bike as we used to in the Sentra.

The chief objection that we hear is that cycling is not safe. We used to use this excuse not so long ago before we hopped back on our bikes. We respond by saying no it isn’t safe, but neither is any other mode of travel. Cycling is definitely what Socrates would call, “the considered life”–it demands your full attention. But there are ways to minimize the danger and maximize the fun. Two good sources: the League of American Cyclists Road 1 class and Robert Hurst’s excellent book, The Art of Urban Cycling Lessons from the Street. Route choice, i.e. going out of the way if you have to to choose mellow streets, will also greatly reduce the hassle of dealing with impatient and distracted motorists.


We’ll close our brief presentation with this image of a Ghanaian welder who created this tall bike. To ride it he first pushes it to get it going, climbs up high enough to turn the pedals with his hands and, once he has enough momentum, jumps up in the seat. It symbolizes for us not only the shear joy of riding a bike, but a future that will be more about techniques than technologies. As Daniel Pinchbeck said,

“Instead of envisioning an ultimately boring ‘technological singularity,’ we might be better served by considering an evolution of technique, of skillful means, aimed at this world, as it is now. Technology might find its proper place in our lives if we experienced such a shift in perspective–in a society oriented around technique, we might find that we desired far less gadgetry. We might start to prefer slowness to speed, subtlety and complexity to products aimed at standardized mind.”

The bike is ready to go. That showroom full of electric cars, ethanol guzzling engines, and pie-in-the-sky fuel cells are all the dying gasp of a disastrous 20th century fixated on technology for technologies’ sake. It’s time to ride on.

An open letter to Trader Joes

Dear Trader Joes,

First off we’re not an animal rights activists, nor are we even vegetarians. We’re just people who like honesty in packaging. So let’s take a look at the carton for your Grade AA Cage Free eggs and assess the truthfulness of the illustration on its cover. Now conventional wisdom says that you are to be congratulated for selling only cage free eggs in contrast to many other food retailers who continue to sell eggs produced by hens living in cramped “battery cages“. Battery caged chickens do not have the ability to stretch their legs, run around, or roost–activities that come naturally to all poultry. But what exactly does “cage free” mean? Unfortunately the USDA does not regulate the term cage free so its definition in terms of the actual living conditions of the hens who laid the eggs is uncertain. Perhaps you could redesign your packaging to give us an actual representation of where these eggs came from to clarify a few issues for us.

To save your marketing folks some time we’ve done it for you:

First off we removed the chickens grazing in the open pasture since it’s highly unlikely that these eggs came from chickens freely wandering outdoors and feeding on vegetation and insects. This might be called “pasture raised”, though this is also a term not defined or regulated by the USDA (largely because the huge companies that control poultry farming in this country and whose political influence puts the USDA in their back pocket don’t want to acknowledge that pasture raised eggs are superior to factory farmed eggs). It’s a shame that your eggs aren’t pasture raised especially since, according to a study conducted by Mother Earth News, pasture raised eggs contain 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E and 7 times more beta carotene. It’s too bad that the “all natural feed” that your package advertises does not provide the nutrients of a real pasture. And FYI–we also removed the rooster since that would signify that these eggs are fertilized, making us think that your package design folks were snoozing during their high school biology classes.

We replaced the picturesque barn with a windowless industrial shed to show the most prevalent housing for poultry and, more than likely, where these cage free eggs came from. The family poultry farm alluded to in your cover art has long since been replaced by huge industrial operations housing thousands of chickens in enormous sheds. Our relatives, living on a nearly century old family farm in Missouri, can no longer make a living from raising livestock and must supplement their incomes with construction work.

While we’re happy these eggs do not come from hens dosed with antibiotics, when you pack that many chickens so close to each other you have to practice extreme bio-security. This is why we’ve added the image of the man in the clean suit which has replaced overalls as the modern poultry worker’s garment of choice. Ironically this worker (probably an underpaid immigrant) must be extremely careful since these hens don’t get antibiotics.

Here’s a picture of one of our four backyard hens. When she starts laying in a few months we will no longer be customers for your eggs. To use an old Italian expression, we like to “know our chickens”. We suspect many of your customers share our concerns and will soon be joining our homegrown poultry revolution.

Perhaps we’re wrong in our speculation about the conditions that produced these eggs. If so please send us a photo of the farm and we’ll post a correction.

Regards,

Homegrown Revolution

A Close Shave Part IV

There are a few advantages to living in ugly old Los Angeles. Homegrown Revolution contributor Hairy Picfair, in an email commenting on our post about switching to an old-fashioned safety razor, reminded us that we can find replacement blades at Ross Cutlery, the shop where O.J. Simpson picked up a folding knife while shooting a commercial next door, just a month before the murder of his ex-wife. Ross Cutlery is located in the Bradbury Building where Rutger Hauer had his showdown with Harrison Ford in the thrilling conclusion of Blade Runner. Celebrity gossip aside, cutlery shops are a promising place to find alternative shaving supplies.

Mark, another HGR reader, writes to ask about alternatives to shaving creams. We’ve been testing out Colonel Conk Products’ Almond Shave Soap with a cheap shaving brush. So far we’re happy with this product and while we’re disappointed that neither the container nor Colonel Conk’s website lists the ingredients, we’ve sent a letter to the company to see if they will let us know what is in the soap. We’ll report back when we find out.

Lastly, fellow bloggist and Starcrash scholar Doug Harvey writes to suggest a visit to a traditional barber for a professional straight-edge blade experience. We used to do this until a friend of ours started cutting our hair in exchange for lunches at pupusa joints. Perhaps we can get our volunteer hairstylist to take up the blade if we switch to three martini lunches at swankier digs.

To our international readers we apologize for the O.J. and pupusa references in this LA-centric post and we send our condolences to those about to undergo that thing called winter . . .


See Homegrown Revolution this Saturday!

Homegrown Revolution has never been to Burning Man, but we’re big fans of the movie The Wicker Man and we figure it’s probably similar, which is why we’re happy to announce that we’ll be doing a brief appearance at the Los Angeles Burning Man Decompression this Saturday October 13th in support of our book The Urban Homesteader, due out next May from Process Media. The Burning Man Decom will take place on Sante Fe between the 4th and 6th Street Bridges in the Artist District deep in the beating heart of downtown Los Angeles (map). We’ll be delivering a harangue sometime around 4 or 5 pm. Come out and see us and stay for the sacrifice!