Monarch Butterflies and Bees – We Need You!

This (slightly scary) article about Monarchs and Bees can be a good reminder of how important it is to grow native plants to create and maintain pollination opportunities for our important pollinators.

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear
Published: November 22, 2013

On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.

“It does not look good,” said Lincoln P. Brower, a monarch expert at Sweet Briar College.

It is only the latest bad news about the dramatic decline of insect populations.

Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.

That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.

“There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”

A big part of it is the way the United States farms. As the price of corn has soared in recent years, driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes.

Another major cause is farming with Roundup, a herbicide that kills virtually all plants except crops that are genetically modified to survive it.

As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae, have been wiped out. One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed, andanother found 90 percent was gone. “The agricultural landscape has been sterilized,” said Dr. Brower.

The loss of bugs is no small matter. Insects help stitch together the web of life with essential services, breaking plants down into organic matter, for example, and dispersing seeds. They are a prime source of food for birds. Critically, some 80 percent of our food crops are pollinated by insects, primarily the 4,000 or so species of the flying dust mops called bees. “All of them are in trouble,” said Marla Spivak, a professor of apiculture at the University of Minnesota.

Farm fields are not the only problem. Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns. Meanwhile, the plants people choose for their yards are appealing for showy colors or shapes, not for their ecological role. Studies show that native oak trees in the mid-Atlantic states host as many as 537 species of caterpillars, which are important food for birds and other insects. Willows come in second with 456 species. Ginkgo, on the other hand, which is not native, supports three species, and zelkova, an exotic plant used to replace elm trees that died from disease, supports none. So the shelves are nearly bare for bugs and birds.

Native trees are not only grocery stores, but insect pharmacies as well. Trees and other plants have beneficial chemicals essential to the health of bugs. Some monarchs, when afflicted with parasites, seek out more toxic types of milkweed because they kill the parasites. Bees use medicinal resins from aspen and willow trees that are antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral, to line their nests and to fight infection and diseases. “Bees scrape off the resins from the leaves, which is kind of awesome, stick them on their back legs and take them home,” said Dr. Spivak.

Besides pesticides and lack of habitat, the other big problem bees face is disease. But these problems are not separate. “Say you have a bee with viruses,” and they are run-down, Dr. Spivak said. “And they are in a food desert and have to fly a long distance, and when you find food it has complicated neurotoxins and the immune system just goes ‘uh-uh.’ Or they become disoriented and can’t find their way home. It’s too many stressors all at once.”

There are numerous organizations and individuals dedicated to rebuilding native plant communities one sterile lawn and farm field at a time. Dr. Tallamy, a longtime evangelizer for native plants, and the author of one of the movement’s manuals, “Bringing Nature Home,” says it’s a cause everyone with a garden or yard can serve. And he says support for it needs to develop quickly to slow down the worsening crisis in biodiversity.

When the Florida Department of Transportation last year mowed down roadside wildflowers where monarch butterflies fed on their epic migratory journey, “there was a huge outcry,” said Eleanor Dietrich, a wildflower activist in Florida. So much so, transportation officials created a new policy that left critical insect habitat un-mowed.

That means reversing the hegemony of chemically green lawns. “If you’ve got just lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a leading organization in insect conservation. “But as soon as you create a front yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.”

First and foremost, said Dr. Tallamy, a home for bugs is a matter of food security. “If the bees were to truly disappear, we would lose 80 percent of the plants,” he said. “That is not an option. That’s a huge problem for mankind.”

Jim Robbins is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the author of “The Man Who Planted Trees.”

Rachel on Media Prepper Radio

Here’ another interview with Carolyn Evans-Dean, an urban homesteader and prepper in upstate New York. Her new radio spot features urban farm artists like Ruby and myself, doing what we can to respond to the moment with grit and grace.

Me and Dr. Prepper

Radio interview with Rachel Kaplan and Dr. Prepper, an old-time back to basics author and practitioner hailing from the hinterlands of Texas. We had a good talk about urban homesteading, heirloom skills and other practices of preparedness. And even though we live far from one another on the political spectrum, we found our common ground in the practices that support our lives. I appreciated the opportunity to talk with James Talmage Stevens, aka Dr. Prepper.

Check it out:

Tallking About Important Things

“It is time to talk about important things. Why have we come so close to the brink of extinction so carelessly and casually? Why do we still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? How can humankind reclaim the commons of atmosphere, seas, biological diversity, mineral resources, and lands as the heritage of all, not the private possessions of a few? How much can we fairly and sustainably take from Earth, and for what purposes? Why is wealth so concentrated and poverty so pervasive? Are there better ways to earn our livelihoods than by maximizing consumption, a word that once signified a fatal disease? Can we organize governance at all levels around the doctrine of public trust rather than through fear and competition? And, finally, how might Homo sapiens, with a violent and bloody past, be redeemed in the long arc of time?”

Is Urban Homesteading enough? OF COURSE NOT. But is it one of a series of solutions that help us rise to the challenges of our time? OF COURSE IT IS.

Check out this article for more thoughts on conducting ourselves in the years ahead:

Governance in the Long Emergency

I recently read a great article about governance during the “long emergency”.  It addresses questions of true participatory democracy, and how we might conduct ourselves in a civic way in the presence of ongoing resource shortages, economic hardship, corporate predation, et al. While not filled with simple solutions, it does clearly point in the direction of urban homesteading, and other DIY community-based solutions as one route forward.

to wit.. “Toward the end of his life, historian Lewis Mumford concluded that the only way out of [our current] conundrum is “a steady withdrawal” from the “megamachine” of technocratic and corporate control. [i.e. Urban Homesteading, and other DIY and Do It Together strategies.] He did not mean community-scale isolation and autarky, but rather more equitable, decentralized, and self-reliant communities that met a significant portion of their needs for food, energy, shelter, waste cycling, and economic support. He did not propose secession from the national and global community but rather withdrawal from dependence on the forces of oligarchy, technological domination, and zombie-like consumption. Half a century later, that remains the most likely strategy for building the foundations of democracies robust enough to see us through the tribulations ahead.

“In other words, the alternative to a futile and probably bloody attempt to forcibly redistribute wealth is to spread the ownership of economic assets throughout society. …We know that revitalization of local economies through worker-owned businesses, local investment, and greater local self-reliance is smart economics, wise social policy, smart environmental management, and a solid foundation for both democracy and national resilience.

“Simultaneously, and without much public notice, there have been dramatic advances in ecological design, biomimicry, distributed renewable energy, efficiency, ecological engineering, transportation infrastructure, permaculture, and natural systems agriculture. [THAT'S US, you guys.] Applied systematically at community, city, and regional scales, ecological design opens genuine possibilities for greater local control over energy, food, shelter, money, water, transportation, and waste cycling. (See Box 26–2.) It is the most likely basis for revitalizing local economies powered by home-grown efficiency and locally accessible renewable energy while eliminating pollution, improving resilience, and spreading wealth. The upshot at a national level is to reduce the need for government regulation, which pleases conservatives, while improving quality of life, which appeals to liberals. Fifty years ago, Mumford’s suggestion seemed unlikely. But in the years since, local self-reliance, Transition Towns, and regional policy initiatives are leading progressive changes throughout Europe and the United States while central governments have been rendered ineffective.

“One example of this approach comes from Oberlin, a small city of about 10,000 people with a poverty level of 25 percent in the center of the U.S. “Rust Belt.” It is situated in a once-prosperous industrial region sacrificed to political expediency and bad economic policy, not too far from Cleveland and Detroit. But things here are beginning to change. In 2009, Oberlin College and the city launched the Oberlin Project. It has five goals: build a sustainable economy, become climate-positive, restore a robust local farm economy supplying up to 70 percent of the city’s food, educate at all levels for sustainability, and help catalyze similar efforts across the United States at larger scales. The community is organized into seven teams, focused on economic development, education, law and policy, energy, community engagement, food and agriculture, and data analysis. The project aims for “full-spectrum sustainability,” in which each of the parts supports the resilience and prosperity of the whole community in a way that is catalytic—shifting the default setting of the city, the community, and the college to a collaborative postcheap-fossil-fuel model of resilient sustainability.

The Oberlin Project is one of a growing number of examples of integrated or full-spectrum sustainability worldwide, including the Mondragón Cooperative in Spain, the Transition Towns movement, and the Evergreen Project in Cleveland. In different ways, each is aiming to transform complex systems called cities and city-regions into sustainable, locally generated centers of prosperity, powered by efficiency and renewable energy. Each is aiming to create opportunities for good work and higher levels of worker ownership of renewably powered enterprises organized around necessities. The upshot is a global movement toward communities with the capacity to withstand outside disturbances while preserving core values and functions. In practical terms, resilience means redundancy of major functions, appropriate scale, firebreaks between critical systems, fairness, and societies that are “robust to error,” technological accidents, malice, and climate destabilization. In short, it is human systems designed in much the way that nature designs ecologies: from the bottom up.

Check out the full article. Interesting.


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.