Made in the shade- Passive cooling

We just survived another major heat wave here. People and plants were positively melting. The sidewalks were veritable solar cookers. I’m sure I could have fried an egg on the sidewalk outside my house.

I prefer not to crank the air conditioning, so I have been thinking a lot lately about simple ways to cool ourselves and the spaces we inhabit.
Air conditioning is the main mechanical means by which we cool buildings these days. However, there are several ways that we can cool buildings without plugging in so much as a fan. These technologies are referred to as passive. They don’t require any kind of motor or electricity, just a some good planning and design.
If one were designing a building from the ground up there are myriad features that can help that building use a minimum of mechanical heating or cooling mechanisms. There is no one size fits all design. Passively heated and cooled buildings are adapted to local climate conditions. Current construction practices tend to favor the same type of ramshackle 2×4 and drywall buildings from California to Long Island, and all the climate zones in between. Just stick an air conditioner on top, put in a heating unit, and you’re done. Sadly, most buildings are an energy efficiency disaster. Poor design is so prevalent, it is shocking once you know what to look for. Have you ever leaned up against a stucco or brick wall on a hot day? Ouch! You can literally burn your skin off.
However, a passive building in the humid South, might feature carefully placed windows to maximize air flow. In the desert Southwest, where temperatures can be scorching in the summer and freezing in the winter, thick, heavy walls of adobe, strawbales or rammed earth provide protection from extreme weather conditions.
Here in the Homegrown neighborhood, most of us live in old houses that are not designed with passive solar features. The Homegrown Evolution house is practically a greenhouse. My house is about 20 degrees hotter at night than it is outside. All of the hot air gets trapped and has no where to go. The windows are poorly placed allowing for little cross ventilation. Hot air rises so we need windows up high. Do you hear me architects?
Yet there are simple things those of us with old houses can do. I already mentioned window placement. Vents up high could also work. Insulation is of course a must. I had my attic insulated a few years ago and now I don’t need to run the heater nearly as much in the winter. I’m not sure what effect it has on the summer heat, because it still feels pretty darn sweltering in here.
Shade is an easy way to keep things cool. Shade can be utilized inside and out. An outdoor seating area begs for shade. This can be achieved with trees and shrubs or vines trained over a trellis. A roof structure of some sort can also provide shade for outdoor areas. If you have pets that spend time outside, make sure to provide them with a cool, shady spot for hot summer days.
Trees can also provide valuable shade for your house. Leafy trees will protect your house from the direct rays of the sun. Shade prevents solar heat gain. Pure and simple. Deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the Winter can allow sunlight to enter your house in the cool season, making them ideally suited to passive heating and cooling.
You can also shade your windows. Solar shades project out over a window, thus blocking the highest angle of the sun. When the angle of the sun is lower and the heat and sun less extreme, in Winter and during sunset and sunrise in summer, sunlight can still get in the windows. A roof that projects past the walls of the house serves the same purpose by also blocking the highest angles of the sun.
I chose to employ this technology and give myself more growing space by building an arbor on the back of my house.
This shades the back of my house and makes it look much nicer at the same time. I have planted hardy kiwi on it. The kiwi will help to provide shade, give me tasty fruit, and because it is deciduous, it will die back in the Winter to allow in a little more light. Brilliant.
This of course is just a few of the things you can do to use less energy to heat and cool your home. But I hope it provides a little inspiration and gets some of you out there to reach for a shovel instead of a thermostat.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)


Every time we visit the nice folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead they send us home with some strange plant. Thanks to PUH, who are busy actually doing things as opposed to blogging about doing things, we now have a beautiful flowering mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus).

Verbascum thapsus is one of those plants that most people think of as a weed. Native to Europe and Asia, Verbascum thapsus was introduced to North America because of its many medicinal uses, almost too many to list. Most commonly used for respiratory problems, it also makes both green and yellow dyes and doubles as a fish poison! Tradition holds that it also wards off evil spirits,with some sources saying it’s the herb Ulysses took with him to deal with the treacherous sorcerer Circe.

It’s a useful, striking and beautiful plant. It’s also classified as an invasive. The Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA), a consortium of ten federal government agencies and 260 mostly non-profit organizations, has Verbascum thapsus in its cross hairs. How the non-profit “cooperators”, as the PCA terms the many native plant organizations in the PCA consortium, can get behind a program that suggests spraying glyphosate (e.g., RoundupĀ®) and triclopyr (Garlon) in wilderness areas is a great mystery to me. The PCA is also pondering the release of non-native biological controls for mullein such as the mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci). So, it seems, some non-native species are o.k. while others are not? Shouldn’t we be concerned about what else the mullein moth will munch on? Better, I think, to learn to get along. The non-natives are here and we ain’t going to get rid of them. Let’s find their uses rather than spray herbicides. We humans, after all, are notoriously invasive, a moral I’m reminded of as I read the narrative of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca. If Monsanto marketed a Conquistador control I’m sure the Indians would have spayed an ocean of it, but they only would have created pesticide resistant super-Conquistadors.

While I’d hesitate to plant this stuff if I lived on the edge of a wilderness area, I see no problem growing it in the city. A mix of edibles, natives, ornamentals, medicinals and especially some useful “weeds” makes for a more robust garden. So in the interest of getting along:

Read more about the medicinal properties of Verbascum thapsus on Alternative Nature Online Herbal.
More on the magical properties of Verbascum thapsus at alchemy-works.com.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage, just about to bloom.

Borage is an ugly sounding name for a beautiful and useful plant. The moniker is probably a corruption of the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq or “father of sweat”, a reference to it’s diaphoretic qualities1. Both the leaves and the blue flowers (sometimes white flowers) are edible and have a refreshing cucumber like taste. Borage is an annual herb that we plant in the late fall here in Los Angeles for an early spring bloom, but in most other parts of North America you’ll plant it in the spring after the last frost. Ours survived a winter outbreak of aphids, but is now thriving.

We toss the flowers and leaves into salads as a flavoring. In fact we enjoyed a memorable borage spiked salad on a recent Greyhound bus trip to Las Vegas we took for a book appearance. Thankfully for our fellow passengers, we did not break out into a borage induced sweat.

For more on the medicinal qualities of borage, including “dispelling melancholy” (useful for bus layovers in Barstow, incidentally) see the borage entry in the Plants for a Future database.

Nettle Mania

“out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety”
-Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common weed with a bad reputation–the plant has tiny spines that inject, as Wikipedia puts it, a “cocktail of poisons.” Miraculously when you boil the plant the spines lose their punch and you’re left with a tasty green consumed plain or incorporated in a number of dishes, from soups to ravioli, to the German cheese pictured above (thanks to Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell for the photo). When dried, the leaves make a damn good tea, with a rich, indescribable flavor. If that ain’t enough, nettles pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and are perhaps the vegetable with the highest protein content (10%).

At the risk of contradicting yesterday’s anti-media screed (After all, Marshall McLuhan once said, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.”), we’ll end with some links to an obscure sub-genre of youtube videos, nettle torture stunts. Mrs. Homegrown could drone on about the psycho-sexual implications of these clips, but that would be fodder for another blog. In the meantime, thanks again to Steve Rowell, here’s some nettling to fill your evening hours: here, here and here (just three of what may be hundreds).

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 . . .