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.

Integrated Pest Management: Compost Tea


Real Compost

WHY  Many of us now understand that healthy soil is the foundation of a healthy garden.  Beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil partner with plants to bring them water and nutrients in exchange for exudates–sweet carbs that the plants release from their roots. Micro-organisms may also provides protection for the the plant in the root zone, by out-competing, killing and warding off less beneficial organisms. These very same bacteria and fungi can be brewed up in a tea and used to protect the above ground part of the plant. Spraying compost tea  on the leaves (called foliar feeding) inoculates the plant with beneficial micro-organisms that colonize the leaf pores to protect from  pests and pathogens.  Through this action, these same micro-organisms ensure themselves first dibs at decomposition dinner when the plant dies.  Foliar feeding can be done safely on a regular basis as a preventative, or at the first sign of a problem.

HOW  Put about a gallon of finished  living compost in a 5 gallon bucket.  Add a goodly dollop of molasses. Fill will water that has had the chloramine removed (a product for fish tanks and ponds will work well for this or use rain water). Place an air stone bubbler in the bucket and  run it for 24-48  hours (chloramine remover, airstone and small aquarium pump can be purchased in the fish supply section of any pet store).  When ready it smells fresh like compost. Strain through a fine cloth and spray it onto your plants.You may also use this as a soil drench to inoculate the garden beds or compost pile with beneficial microbes.

K. Ruby Blume


Petaluma, circa 1970

A Home on the Range

Jewish Chicken Farmer in Petaluma, circa 1915

Here’s a song about where I live:

Petaluma Chicken Lovers

It’s not quite like this anymore, but then again, nothing’s much like 1970, anymore.

Did you know that Petaluma was once the biggest egg producing town on the west coast, supplying San Francisco and settlements further east with eggs. The incubator was invented in Petaluma. There was a huge community of Jewish communist chicken farmers in Petaluma at the turn of the last centuryt, and most of the falling down barns you see in the countryside nowadays once housed those chickens. They wreaked havoc on the water table and there are parts of town where the nitrates in the wells are a serious problem. The resurgence in chicken keeping in Petaluma is part of that lineage–and, I guess, so am I. It’s a sign of the times, though, that only 2 chickens are allowed in people’s backyards, and the Must Hatch Hatchery Building–still standing–houses tech startups and other business ventures.


Garden Planning and Book Review – Spring Has Sprung

Garden Planning: Crop rotation is the practice of moving crops around yearly or seasonally, rather than planting the same thing in the same place year in and year out. Rotating crops gives the soil a chance to cycle nutrients and minimizes build of of the pathogens to a particular plant in that area. For example, if you always plant tomatoes in the same spot, even with added compost, the tomatoes will tend to tap out the particular nutrients that tomatoes like. At the same time particular tomato pests and diseases will tend to gather in that spot The combination of diminishing nutrient and increasing potential for attack is a recipe for crop failure. Smart crop rotation alternates plants that build soil nutrients with those that are heavy feeders. A typical rotation would be to plant a soil builder every third rotation, with a heavy feeder and a light feeder in between. Soil building plants are all in the legume family, as they “fix nitrogen” from the air with the help of bacteria. Examples are fava beans, soy beans, pole beans and peas. A heavy feeder need extra nitrogen to perform. Examples of heavy feeders are basil, beets, corn, lettuce, squash and tomato. Examples of light feeders are carrots, leeks, onions, peppers and potatoes.

In a small garden it may not be possible to rotate everything in as grand a fashion as on a larger farm with copious sun. Perhaps you have only one sunny bed that tomatoes will work in for example. Still you can rotate your tomato planting with a winter crop of fava beans or other legume. To keep track of your rotations, create a small drawing of your garden each year and notate what went where.

Book Review The Vegetable Gardeners Guide to Permaculture by Christopher Shein with Julie Thompsen. The much anticipated new book by local permaculture hero Christopher Shein has hit the shelves. This is a gorgeous book filled with large full color pictures, diagrams and maps. The book is comprehensive, yet also spacious and easily digested. After a clear and simple introduction to the ethics and principles of permaculture, the book dives into how to design your garden using design elements from the permaculture vocabulary. Food forests, fruit tree guilds, zones, sectors, inputs and outputs are elegantly described along with easily understood diagrams and sample designs to put them into action–from a balcony garden to a large urban lot. The book goes on to offer techniques for soil building, a plant-by-plant compendium of perennial edibles, annual vegetables, edible flowers, herbs, seed starting and seed saving. The sections on animals for your backyard systems are slim and not well developed. But overall this is a lovely addition to your gardening library.

post by K. Ruby Blume, Institute for Urban Homesteading


Am I My Chicken’s Keeper?

This story has its roots in my degenerate relationship with my neighbors who let their chickens wander throughout the neighborhood,  into my gardens, and never really seem to feel much remorse or need to change the situation. “Degenerate” because one year I swooped up one of the chickens committing mayhem in the yard and stashed her with my own flock til my neighbor discovered the crime.

Check out this tale of righteous chicken-loving indignation on my partner’s blog. It’s funny.

Ten Minutes and Counting 

Here’s the embarrassing tale from Urban Homesteading:

[In the midst of writing this book]… I had a run-in with my neighbor’s chickens. I noticed that something had been digging and pecking in my front garden. I couldn’t tell what it was from the markings, but it was making a serious mess. A few days later, my partner told me he’d seen the neighbor’s chickens strutting down the driveway. I went to ask them to pen the chickens in and offered to help if they needed. They promised they’d do it, but a few days later, a chicken was back in the yard, pulling up the tender vegetable shoots. Did I go to my neighbor and ask her to get the chicken? I did not. I cornered the chicken in an alleyway alongside the house and flung her in an empty cage on the back patio. She sat squawking for many hours before I removed her and placed her with my own flock around the corner. Did I go tell my neighbor I had stolen her chicken? I did not. Here I was, Little Miss Community Homesteader, stealing chickens from my perfectly nice neighbors who were just too busy to pen in their birds.

I knew I’d done something wrong when I wouldn’t tell my daughter about the chicken, and I left the marauder with my flock for almost a full week before my chicken coop partner called and told me my neighbor had come to collect the chicken. How did she know where it was? What would she say now? I had to suck it up and apologize. I told myself I had been intending to return the chicken anyway, but I wasn’t sure if that was really true. Did I want to apologize to her? I did not. Was it the right thing to do? You bet. Did she give me hell? She sure did. Has it affected our relations? It certainly has. Are they repairable? Maybe, over time, but I truly wish I had taken a breath before I acted, rather than stealing that chicken.

I tell you this embarrassing tale to underscore the simple fact that it’s easier to get mad than it is to be good. It’s simpler to seek vengeance than justice. Protecting ourselves when we feel threatened is an automatic response, but this kind of reaction is the enemy of change. I can laugh about it now, but looking at this minor skirmish as just one small bit of the conflict between humans gives insight into how wars start and never end. Magnified one thousand times over hundreds of years, the weight of human conflict is almost too heavy to bear. We have to do better than this. Community change ultimately begins inside, with each one of us. Every day is an opportunity to confront our prejudices, our desire to control, and our fear of the other. A big challenge in front of us is the inside work we need to do, so that we can start looking at other people as assets, rather than liabilities.

Change begins at home, within each one of us. Learning to rig up a greywater system is important, but not if you’re running on the fumes of fear. Resolving conflict is as important as growing your food, and making relationships with the people and creatures around you is the ultimate practice of truly living in place.


Who’s Got the Time?

English: The face of a black windup alarm clockA 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-existant northern California winter. And I was thinking about time today as I planted 12 lettuce plants, 6 tatsoi, 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 which 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 – so I do have, quantatively 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, caultiflower, 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 two. If we count my time at the exorbitant rate of say $100/hour, a fee I dream of but rarely ever 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.


Make Your Own Seed Starting Mix

March is the perfect time to start seeding in six packs and flats.  For best results make sure your pots, flats or six packs are clean–if you are reusing last years six packs, wash them in hot soapy water before planting. Seeds will start best in a fine absorbent medium that gets good drainage.  Pre-mixed seed mediums are expensive and it is so easy to mix your own.

Here’s how:  3 parts fine coconut coir, 1 part perlite, 1 part worm castings.

Traditionally peat moss was used rather than coconut coir.  But peat moss is non-renewable while coconut coir is a product rescued from the waste stream.  It is available from many local nurseries and also online.  Be sure to get the fine grade–it also comes chopped coarsely and in that form is an excellent mulch.  Cocnut coir is the part of the mixture that holds and absorbs moisture so your wee seeds won’t dry out.  Perlite, also available at nurseries is a volcanite glass.  It helps with permeability and drainage in the mixture.  If you wanted you could just mix these two together 3:1 or so.  But you would need to start fertilizing your seedlings with a balanced dilute fertilizer once they have their first leaves as neither cocnut coir nor perlite contains any nutrients.  Another option is to add one part worm castings or well aged compost to the mixture.  There is some danger of introducing pathgens by this method, however it also greatly increases the seedlings strength and immune system.

Happy planting!

Urban Homesteading as Resilience Path

English: Two carrots (Daucus carota) which gre...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our culture is growing now into the next level of change, evidenced by social movements addressing the environmental crisis with direct actions toward revising how we live today. Urban homesteading is just one of many creative approaches to this problem. The Transition Town movement is another, as are the growing numbers of young people from all strata of society training to become organic farmers, solar installers, and water conservation experts. There will undoubtedly be setbacks along the path, but as the diagram illustrates, this kind of change is cyclical and continues to ripple outward, especially as new habits are created and maintained. Engaging in the cycle of change with compassion for oneself and acknowledging the magnitude of the problem will be necessary to successfully take on an urban homesteading lifestyle. No one can do all of this, but everyone can do something. Don’t worry about how or where to start. Just pick something you love, and do it.

In the wake of recent natural and man-made disasters like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, research has been done on human resilience that reveals interesting trends for recovery. Dr. Alicia Lieberman’s studies on the brain development of young people who witnessed trauma or violence show that their experiences of spirituality, animals, nature, and creativity were instrumental in sparking their recovery. Judith Lewis Herman’s research into trauma reveals the following resilience factors: the ability to help someone else during the trauma (taking action, rather than fleeing or freezing); the ability to make meaning and purpose out of the experience, to understand its history and context; and the ability to stay connected to at least one other person. Recent studies of resilient people reveal some additional working strategies for recovery, including optimism, a sense of playfulness and generosity, the ability to “pick your battle,” and the ability to focus on things over which you have some influence. Staying healthy is important, as is the skill of finding a silver lining. In a recent article on resilience, Beth Howard writes, “Resilient people convert misfortune into good luck and gain strength from adversity. They see negative events as opportunities for change and growth.

These strategies mirror basic homesteading practices as steps toward healing and change: our renewed relationship to animals and the earth; our sense of meaning and purpose in the work we do; our connections to one another in community; and a spiritual understanding of our actions.

A sense of creativity, play, generosity, and optimism are all activated as well. Urban homesteading is a battle that can be picked—actions bearing on our local economies and our homes have real influence, and are a wonderful example of converting adversity into possibility.

Resilience and Recovery

Resilience is the ability of a system to recover from shock, trauma, or change. The more resilient a system, the more shocks and impacts it can withstand and still recover. As systems—cultural or ecological—lose the strength of diversity, they become vulnerable to disruption or collapse. Nature is the ultimate example of resilience, with its systems of multiple planned redundancies and complex relationships between organisms responding in different ways to threat. Fungi have the ability to begin the regenerative processes within a landscape after fire, paving the way for other microorganisms and animals to return to the devastated area and continue the repair work. Animals contain population through the checks and balances of the food chain. Nature grows through an understanding of limits and through the conservation and recycling of resources. We must learn to do the same. Inevitably, nature will be our strongest teacher in the process of change, or the agent of our harshest consequences. To quote Paul Hawken, “There are no economies of scale; there is only nature’s economy.”

While individuals and sometimes communities possess resiliency in the face of difficulties, the more common human reaction to threat is a frozen or traumatized state of fight, flight, or freeze. People (and cultures) in this state can’t make good choices or think clearly through a problem or creatively get out of a box. This frozen reactivity keeps us repeating the nightmares of the past, unable to see what is really happening in front of us, doing the same things and imagining a different future. Yet the imperative is clear. We need to find a way beyond our terrifying possibility—the collapse of our environment and our civilization—and we need our thinking to be crystal clear, creative, and responsive to the challenge facing us.

Even as global consciousness about our situation rises, it remains difficult to harness our energies toward cultural regeneration. We see this especially when we look at our social institutions, but also when we look at ourselves. What is it that makes it so hard to change, especially when the problems we face are so serious, and have been so well articulated? Part of our limitation is our understanding of change as something that just “happens,” as opposed to a process that requires our participation, awareness, and agreement. Denial, addiction, and a lifestyle of affluence also insulate people from the need (or desire) to change. And finally, a pervasive sense of pessimism about the powerlessness of our actions immobilizes many of us. If we are to make sense of the situation we are in, each of us has to go through our own individual process, confronting our habitual mechanisms of avoidance and denial to overcome our fear and conditioned cynicism. This process can only happen in stages, and will require patience, cooperation, and a little bit of humor.

English: This is a graphic representation of t...

The writing my essay Stages of Change, highly successful with addicts in recovery, seems particularly apt for our relationship to fossil fuels and our inflated sense of planetary entitlement. The Stages include recognition of a problem, a willingness to contemplate change, planning for possible new behaviors, and a time for both activating a plan and integrating the changes. Within the process lies the inevitability of relapses and cycling back again. This model requires a shift in awareness and a personal desire to participate in making change happen. It works best within a context of community support, over time. An awareness of the cyclical nature of the process helps us keep renewing our commitment toward new behaviors, which cannot happen overnight. Change really is two steps forward, one step back.

In terms of the ecological and cultural problems we face, pre-contemplation on a social level began about forty years ago with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the emergence of a broader ecological movement. Contemplation of the problem followed, and beginning steps toward change were enacted: early attempts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel, the back-to-the-land movement, and the inevitable pushback from industry. The cyclical and recursive nature of the process is evident in the progression of these cultural movements.

Keeping Monsanto Out of Your Garden

To increase the genetic diversity of U.S. corn...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spring is on the way, and seed catalogs are arriving in the mailboxes of gardeners across the land. What will you plant? What will your summer harvest look it?

More and more people are choosing organic and heirloom seeds, but what many folks don’t recognize it that Monsanto owns approximately 40% of the US vegetable seed market.

If you want to keep your support, and your garden, withdrawn
from Monsanto and GMO seeds, here’s a few things you might want to be aware of:

Purchase your seeds in places that have not been clandestinely   purchased by Monsanto.

Avoid buying from seed companies affiliated with Monsanto. Here’s a list of these companies:

Consider buying from this list of companies which Monsanto has not bought:

Not only has Monsanto purchased seed companies, they’ve also purchased the names of certain heirloom seeds. Here’s a list of seeds to avoid because they fall under this Machiavellian category:

And finally, support companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge:

There’s no reason why your spring and summer garden can’t be GMO and Monsanto-free–just make sure you know who you’re buying from.