Who’s Got the Time?

A dear friend of mine just wrote a spontaneous meditation on time entitled “A Curious Loss of Time”, which is all about how life is speeding up, how we are run by a linear, clockwork kind of time which colonizes our minds and our bodies and makes us inward slaves to an outward illusory master. It’s been a provocative read which, quite honestly, I haven’t had the time to finish…

So when the alarm clock rang this morning at 6:30 (which was really 5:30 because of the dastardly invention called “Daylight Savings Time”) I cursed, and rolled over for a good long time before I managed to pull myself out of bed to make my daughter’s lunch and breakfast. The morning was cool and grey with fog overhead – a beautiful relief from the early heat we are experiencing here in the butt end of a nearly non-existent northern California winter.

And I was thinking about time today as I planted 12 lettuce plants, 6 pac choi, 10 dino kale, 27 beets, 15 broccoli, 12 cabbage, 8 cauliflower, some spinach seeds, and watered the pea and beet seeds I had scattered the other day. I was thinking about time as I did some weeding and fed the greens to the chickens, and also gathered up some errant snails that were hiding under leave and fed those to the chickens too.

People ask me all the time how much time it takes to be an urban homesteader. They say, “Who’s got the time?” They say: “I don’t have the time.” They feel judged because they don’t make the time to grow more food, or save more water or energy, or do any of these more “time-intensive” “less convenient” tasks that are part of the homesteading lifestyle. I admit I have been challenged by the question because I’m not in this to guilt trip people, but I have found it so essential to my own sanity and way of living to take on these tasks, to find the time, and so I have thought a lot about the question.

I don’t work a 40-50 hour job away from home – I am lucky in lots of ways, and that is one of them, though it is a choice that also has real consequences – so I do have, quantitatively and objectively, “more time” than many people I know. But all in all, I spent about 2 hours in two different gardens, planting this early spring bounty. I spent about 35 minutes a few weeks ago moving some compost from the compost pile onto these beds to prepare them for these plants. And I’ve spent little tiny dribs and drabs of time all winter dumping kitchen scraps into the compost bin to let them turn into dirt. It doesn’t feel like it takes much time for me to get these beds ready for spring planting. The time I took today, turning over the soil, separating the starts, planting them in small holes alongside their own little drip irrigation spout will eventually yield my family many meals of salad, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, eventually some sauerkraut.

The total cost for all the plants I put in today was about $30.00, and some of those plants were gifted to the woman who loans me her backyard for one of my gardens. The cost of the food that I will eventually harvest will far exceed $30, probably at least by a factor of four. If we count my time at the exorbitant rate of say $100/hour, a fee I dream of but rarely get, the total “cost” of my time today is about $200. If we charge about $35/hour, which is more like it, we’re well under $100 of time and money to make this happen.

I’ve just made that connection between time and money that is one of the pernicious problems with time, and money, in our culture. But I am just trying to parse the value of my time, and come up with an answer to the question: Who has the time? It seems I do, and I venture to bet that you do too – 2-ish hours sometime during the first weeks of spring to plant the first garden of the year? That just doesn’t seem so much, on any kind of time scale, to me. And for what you get in exchange, well worth it.

Root Simple podcast

Also got the chance to talk with Erik Knutsen, co-author of The Urban Homestead and steward of the dynamic blog site Root Simple, about the work we’re up to with the 13Moon CoLab, Permaculture from the Inside Out. Erik and I have a lot of overlaps in our lives–from our commitment to urban homesteading, to our desire to spread the good word, and our constant inquiry into living the “good life” here at the end of the American empire. He’s funny and feeling-ful. We were joined by his partner Kelly Coyne, his partner in urban homesteading goodness, for a really nice talk about what we’re up to, what the movement’s up to, and how to get involved, wherever you are. Check it out.


A comfrey exchange

Had a nice visit from my fellow homesteader, Darshan Ahluwalla, yesterday morning. He was in search of comfrey to plant among his trees on his property in Butte County, CA. He wrote a nice blog post about our fruitful exchange.


Always feels good to have so much more than I need through no real work of my own, and to share it with others.  That’s one of the best things about the homesteading way — you plant a couple of plants, and years later, they make so many more plants that you can share them with your friends. Becoming a plant propagator is one of the surprising upsides of the homesteading way. Nature does its dance of fertility and when we participate in tending that cycle, everyone benefits.

Living with Roses

I had the opportunity to write an article for Taproot Magazine www.taproot.com, a beautiful, full color, ad-free, paper magazine put out by homesteaders living in the Northeast. This magazine has no significant on-line presence: they really want you to get the object, live with it, read it, love it.

I suggested one piece about water and one about “eco-somatics”, my personal blend of ecological and body-based consciousness (a favorite theme), and was surprised when they went for the latter.

Here’s how it starts:


Living with Roses

Walking up my neighborhood hill this morning, it is brisk, nearly November. The trees are turning yellow and red. My hands are cold. It feels good. Footstep after footstep, I join in the ascent. I walk this hill to get my dose of daily perspective—as I turn and face the down slope I see my little city coming to life for the day. I am aware of cars and people, houses, trees, the noise of the freeway, a red-tailed hawk circling overhead, how long it’s been since it last rained.

Burdened with a demonic and persistent awareness of the rapidly advancing depredations of climate change, questions run freely through my mind on my walks: How can we adapt to the changes of the 21st century? What is a resilient response? What do I know that is relevant to the world that is coming into a being—a harsher, more dangerous world, a world with different opportunities and limits? What actions make a difference? Am I prepared? Will we survive?

That’s me, always sweating the small stuff.

On a bad morning, the broken world lies in front of me, unfixable. It’s too late, the damage is done, our goose is cooked. I count every tree that’s been cut down, every extra car in the fast lane, every corporate-sponsored attack on the earth: another Target! another CostCo! another outlet mall! I am so tiny in the face of this juggernaut. I forget my connection to everything, that how I think and feel and act matters. Crouched in this stance, I am a cog in the wheel of the culture of despair.

On a good morning, I remember the daily practices that connect me to the world. I remember that as an ordinary mom living a local life, I have some power, but not much, to affect the dominant cultural mudslide, i.e., “doing the best I can” really is doing the best I can. I know that the small acts we take toward the healing of the world are the only steps we can take, and that the way change happens in this country is from the grassroots, a rhizomatic, perpetual motion, like the beautiful, pernicious bindweed in the garden. In this stance, I am a solutionary dedicated to the culture of life.



To Till or Not To Till

Seems like everyone is talking about no-till gardening these days.  This is the idea that if you inoculate your soil with bacteria and-fungi and layer enough enough compost and “duff”on the surface, that you can recreate the forest floor and avoid the tedium of digging our heavy East Bay clay.

While sheet composting, straw mulching  and shallow surface cultivation will work in the long run, it may not be the perfect choice for those who wish to garden in well amended clay soil in the next five years.  An integrated system of sheet composting,  double digging, single digging and amending with compost for the first few years will decrease the amount of time it takes to achieve an effective no-till system.

Here is a sample scenario:
Year 1:  Sheet mulch.

Year 2:  Double dig.  add compost and green manures, mulch with rotted straw, aged manures or other easily decomposable material.

Year 3 & 4.: Double or single dig with green manures or finished compost, mulch tops of bed with rotted straw,  aged manures or other easily decomposable material.

Year 4 or 5:  Start no-till gardening, continue to layer mulch on top of beds at each planting.

English: Photo of plant roots with striga plan...
Read more:   Roots Demystified  by Robert Kourik is a bargain at $8, shipping included.

Paradise Lot, Book review

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and The Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City

I’ve been aware of Eric Toenmeier’s work for some time – he authored a compendium on perennial vegetables (http://perennialvegetables.org/about/) as well as co-authored, with Dave Jacke, a simply gigantic book  called Edible Forest Gardens (http://www.edibleforestgardens.com/) which is the bible on  the ecology and design of home scale food forests.

Paradise Lot is the story of how Eric, along with his friend and ally Jonathon Bates, decide to test the theory of the home scale edible forest model put forth in Edible Forests Gardens by putting it into practice on a small, highly compromised inner city lot in post-industrial Holyoke, Massachusetts.

This easy to read book is the story of how these two men—proud and obsessed plant geeks—spend a few years observing, designing, mending, planting, digging, sheet mulching, experimenting with different cultivars, planting trees, cutting down trees, building greenhouses, and in every other way, testing the limits of the home scale edible food forest. They buy a duplex with the intention of not only growing a great garden, but of attracting their life partners. Happily, they succeed in both endeavors.

While choosing a site with deeply compromised conditions (“there was hardly any way we could have made conditions in our garden worse…”) they also note that this project was “an example of…. Regenerative design, which asks us how our designs can bring a site to life and bring us into a deeper relationship with it and each other through doing so. While sustainability is focused on maintaining things as they are, regenerative land use actively improves and heals a site and its ecosystems… It’s kind of an important topic for humanity this century.”

I liked how part of the story was about the creation of an alternative family and ownership structure, and I appreciated the successes and limitations of the small scale model which they were fairly honest about. I appreciate when people note the mistakes they make, and the good learning that comes out of them. I have run into some similar problems on my small urban lot—also about one-tenth of an acre—but as I am a renter, and a mother, and live in an entirely different ecosystem, my commitments, choices and outcomes have been different. Also, to be honest, I am not quite as geeked out about plants as these guys are!

A banana tree.

A banana tree — yes! in Massachusetts

This book is best for people who are already versed in the permaculture practice of regenerative agriculture, and it will most specifically serve those who live in the cold northeast of our country. I found myself reading about the plants they were growing and how they were interacting and knew that they were not plants that I would have easy access to in my drought-prone place.

But as a model of what is possible, Eric and Jonathon proved that the home scale edible forest garden can grow beyond theory and into practical application, no matter what ecosystem you inhabit. It’s just a matter of finding the right plants for your place, and working with them with conscious intent. This book is an inspiration to be part of the culture of repair, right in your own backyard.

Permaculture Principle # 7

 Design From Patterns to Details (“Can’t see the forest for the trees”)   From Institute for Urban Homesteading October 1 newsletter,  K. Ruby Blume

English: Forest garden diagram to replace the ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This principle asks us to step back and look at the big picture, observing patterns in nature and culture which we use as the backbone of our designs. For example, if we observe that in nature, water flows to the lowest point in the land, and we are in a dry climate, we may choose to put our most important and thirsty food crops in that area. Or, if we have no low points we might choose to dig swales to create low points for rain gardens. Once we’ve established that larger pattern, we’d fill in smaller details, such as exactly which plants we’ll choose and how they will be arranged. As another example, we might observe in society, that people tend to like to hang out in the kitchen. So we might decide to make the kitchen Yurt the center of our design. The details would be in exactly how the kitchen is laid out for best people flow. Or we might observe that people much prefer to hang out in small thoroughfares rather than huge open spaces (notice how the hallway is always packed when you want to walk through). So we might design our garden with lots of little hideaways for sitting and gathering with friends.


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Kitchen Botany Lesson #1: The Sex Lives of Plants

For some of you just hearing the word “botany” brings forth images of dreary classroom sessions and nerdy be-spectacled professors with wild unkempt hair. My experience of botany has been quite the opposite (well, except for maybe the unkempt hair). Botany is all about the sex lives of plants. Flowers, the sex organs of plants, are quintessentially beautiful and incredibly diverse. Pollination is an intricate a dance of plant insect wind and chance. If you have never taken a field study course, it is highly recommended. Heading down a mountain path in search of some obscure beauty, you never know what wonders nature will show you along the way. Botany classes for non-academics are available at the Jepson Herbarium, Sierra Nevada Field Campus and Tilden Botanic Garden (besides their public classes they also offer a 20 week docent training)

In the garden some knowledge of plant taxonomy is necessary of you want to take your sustainability and skills to the next level. Plants in the same family act similarly in how they reproduce and plants of the same species may or may not cross to produce something that resembles the parent. This is important if you want in on the tradition of saving and growing out your own seed. Seed is living gold; the genetic material of the flavours we love. Saving heirloom seed properly is the next step in true sustainability and independance from giants like Monsanto.

How Pollination Happens

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The female part of the flower is called the pistil which includes the stigma, style and ovary. The stigma has a sticky surface which will chemically “recognizes” only pollen of the same species. The ovary, is what will become the fruit and within it the seeds. The male part of the flower is the stamen which includes the filament and anther. The anthers produce the pollen. Some plants have male and female parts in the same flower and are self-pollinating within the same flower. Tomatoes are an example of this. Some have male and female parts in the same flower, but have evolved mechanisms to prevent self-pollination and ensure genetic diversity. Some plants have separate male and female flowers on the same plant, such as zucchini and other squash. Finally, some plants have male and female flowers on separate plants, thus requiring two plants to reproduce. Avocado trees are an example of this.

English: main parts of a mature flower Español...

So finally getting to the amazing part, here. The pollen grain is made up of 2 cells. When a pollen grain of the right type lands on the sticky stigma, the hard outer coat of the pollen grain starts to dissolve. The first cell, called the “tube cell” grows like a tube down the style to the ovary where the second cell fertilizes the ovule to make a seed. The tube cell can grow as much as 12 inches to reach it’s goal! In corn, for example, each silk is one style leading to one ovule which will become one kernel of corn. When the pollen from the tassels lands on the silks, the pollen tube grows all the way down the silk to fertilize the one ovule. Wow. This story will continue next month with a bit about plant families and beginning seed saving!

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K. Ruby Blume, Institute for Urban Homesteading

Principle #1: Observe and Interact

K. Ruby Blume reflecting on the permaculture principles, one by one.

Permaculture principles

Principle #1 Observe and Interact

This is just about my favorite and most easy to remember permaculture principle. And although it seems obvious, it is so often the step that is left out of the equation when we start a project. We can see this especially when we look at larger developments, which haven’t taken into consideration important features in a landscape like passive solar gain, or rainwater flows, or wind, or the neighborhood in general.

When you take the time to slow down and simply observe something—a plot of land, a group dynamic in your office or in your chicken flock, it gives you time to reflect on what is actually happening right in front of you. This gives you information that can be useful as you move forward in creating better, more efficient, and abundant designs for living.

The classic exhortation in permaculture is to observe your land for ONE YEAR before placing any permanent features (such as fruit trees or hardscaping). This gives you time to observe microclimates, the path of the sun, different types of soil in your plot, rainfall, neighbor impacts, and so on. When every action is a response to what you are actively observing, your efforts become more effective and there is less need to undo mistakes.

Here’s an example from my own farm: The first year I was here I placed a beehive in the back end of the garden. It was a great spot for humans because the bees were out of the way. But these bees only got direct sun for a couple of hours in the late afternoon. They were always more aggressive when I managed them and they never thrived. It took me a while, but finally I saw it—this was simply a bad spot for the bees. I moved them to a sunny west fence line and they thrived. That shady spot in the back is where my rabbitry now sits—a much better use for that back corner.

And finally here’s a tip from John Muir Laws, an amazing California naturalist who published a wonderful field guide to the Sierra: When you observe, allow yourself to notice out loud. Start with “I notice…” Then as you get more curious, try starting with “I wonder….” Verbalizing what you are seeing can deepen your capacity to see and move you more easily from observation into problem solving.

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