March 2009


Pomegranate Flower

Pomegranate Flower

As I mentioned in my last post, the spring gardens are getting down to business… Nature (or at least the somewhat-controlled version that we cultivate) doing her job, having lots of sex. Here’s a shot of the pomegranate out back in bloom.

Pomegranate is a desert plant, thrives on neglect and very little water. The most difficult thing about the plant (it’s nearly more bush than tree) is that it wants a pretty severe pruning seeming all the time, as it shoots up lots of sprouts.

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Here are some garden photos I took last week of some of the promising new developments to come along in March. Spring things are happening in the garden! Arranged in alphabetical order… apologies for my blurry cell phone pictures.

The distinctive maroon bloom of Amaranth

The Distinctive Maroon Bloom of Amaranth

Amaranth is one of plants that you grow once and it generates enough seeds to keep popping up in various places in your garden each year. This one is about 2-3 feet tall, but it can get taller than I am (6’3″) sometimes. I’ve never harvested the actual tiny grain (anyone out there have simple instructions for this?) but I do use the young leaves in salads. I’ve also heard (from Ysanne Spevack of Organic Foodee, whom I met through Erik Knutzen of Homegrown Evolution) that the flower itself is edible, too – just cut it up and put it in salads.

Baby Artichoke Begins to Emerge

First Baby Artichoke Begins to Emerge

I grow a lot of artichoke – one of those great perennials that just keeps giving. The first of the chokes are starting to develop… though it will still be another month or so before the early ones will be ripe enough to eat. The one in the photo is in the middle of the my biggest, seemingly nearly monster-sized plant. The fruit pictured though is only maybe 2-inches in diameter.

Bright Blue Borage Flowers

Bright Blue Borage Flowers

Borage is one of those old-fashioned companion plants that you’re supposed to grow somewhere in your garden (also in this group are rue and yarrow… and some others that I will remember as soon as I hit “publish”.) Like amaranth, borage comes back year after year, a bit more than I really want it to. Mine grows out of interstices in in urbanite bed-wall. It has little blue flowers that face downward. They’re edible, tasting like a mild drop of honey. I put them in salads to add a little color.

Yellow Calendula Flowers Starting to Bloom

Yellow Calendula Flowers Starting to Bloom

Calendula is just starting to bloom. Another simple-to-grow plant that keeps coming back year after year (do you detect a theme here?) It has some medicinal uses, though I just grow it for the bright yellow flowers.

New Jujube Growth

New Jujube Growth

In mid-January, we planted a jujube tree. At the time it was completely dormant, bare and a little spindly-lookin’. I just had to trust that it would happily re-emerge from its slumber. I was a tiny bit worried about it for a month and a half, while I built a fancy-looking, perhaps overly-eleborate and formal rainwater harvesting ring to direct water toward its roots… thinking that it would sad if my high expectations for the tree might be unmet. Now, as you can see from the photo, it’s leafing out nicely.

Peach Blossoms

Peach Blossoms

The peach tree that I was pruning in December is flowering and leafing out. The bees love it. Below it is California poppy and yarrow. A few times I’ve had to trim back broken branches as it gets abused by passers-by.

Yarrow A-blooming

Yarrow A-blooming

And how could it be an area that Joe stewards unless there was plenty of yarrow? The very earliest of the yarrow flowers are already in bloom, with plenty more about to burst open.

Bobby bringing the flat of Thyme to Eco-Village on the rack on the folding bike

Bobby bringing the flat of Thyme to Eco-Village on the rack on the folding bike

After today’s March for Water, neighbor Bobby Gadda and I dropped by Sunset Nursery today to pick up some plants for the bulbout. We got some plants for the existing planter – including sage, lavender, rosemary, Santa Barbara daisies, and another kind of daisy with a sort of pale purple center with yellow dots. We biked them all home and planted them right away.

We also got some plants for the planned next planter, which will go in the north end of the bulbout. These included a flat of ground-cover thyme to plant in the interstices of the next planter, which we’re planning to start work on next Saturday March 28th (tentatively starting at 9am – all welcome.) The last saturday of each month, L.A.Eco-Villagers hold a work party. Responsibility for organizing the work party rotates among those of us who volunteer.

Thyme growing in the interstices

Thyme growing in the interstices

Here is a shot of the same type of thyme as it grows in the walls of one of the urbanite raised beds in the garden I tend. The thyme grows slowly, but ultimately resembles a sort of splashing and dripping mortar between bricks. This is about one and a half years after I planted it. It definitely is happiest in the south-facing walls where it gets the most sunlight.

Now that I’ve got you excited to try this at home, I have to publish a couple of disclaimers… The best thyme for ground cover is not the best thyme to use as a spice. The thyme (I am pretty sure it’s called elfin thyme) that grows most tightly and covers most, has even tinier leaves that they typical already-very-small-leaf thyme (which I think is called wooly thyme.)  Wooly thyme grows more like a single-stem plant than a groundcover.  Wooly thyme does spread, slowy, too – though it doesn’t achieve the coverage the elfin thyme does.  The thymes I use most frequently is the lemon and lime thymes… though I use these only rarely anyway (mostly mashed up in salad dressing) because it’s cumbersome to deal with such small leaves.  As much as I like to grow elfin thyme for the way it makes the garden walls look… and I justify its presence in my garden as a spice… I’ve never actually used this elfin thyme as a spice. It’s also never seems to quite achieve perfect coverage… some areas proliferate, some decline. There’s a dead area about midway up the left edge of the photo above.

Anyhow, come help us plant more thyme at this Saturday’s work party!

Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire (Random House 2001)

Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire (Random House 2001)

I enjoyed this selection from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, so I figured I’d share it here, though it doesn’t specifically pertain to eco-village gardens.

The book explores the history and culture of four plants that humans have shaped and that have in turn shaped humans. The plants are the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato. This is a selection from the section on marijuana, starting from page 118:

I sometimes think that we’ve allowed our gardens to be bowdlerized, that the full range of their powers and responsibilities has been sacrificed to a cult of plant prettiness that obscures more dubious truths about nature, our own included. It hasn’t always been this way, and we may someday come to regard the contemporary garden of vegetables and flowers as a place almost Victorian in its repressions and elisions.
For most of their history, after all, gardens have been more concerned with the power of plants than with their beauty – with the power, that is, to change us in various ways, for good and for ill. In ancient times, people all over the world grew or gathered sacred plants (and fungi) with the power to inspire visions or conduct them on journeys to other worlds; some of these people, who are sometimes called shamans, returned with the kind of spiritual knowledge that underwrites whole religions. The medieval apothecary garden cared little for aesthetics, focusing instead on species that healed and intoxicated and occasionally poisoned. Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells” – in our vocabulary, “psychoactive” plants. Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), and the skins of toads (which contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen). These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based “flying ointment” that witches would administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.
The medieval gardens of witches and alchemists were forcibly uprooted and forgotten (or at least euphemized beyond recognition), but even the comparatively benign ornamental gardens that came after went out of their way to honor the darker, more mysterious face of nature. The Gothic gardens of England and Italy, for example, always made room for intimations of morality – by including a dead tree, say, or a melancholy grotto – and the occasional frission of horror. These gardens were interested in changing people’s consciousness, too, though more in the way a horror movie does than a drug. It’s only been in modern times, after industrial civilization concluded (somewhat prematurely) that nature’s powers were no longer any match for its own, that our gardens became benign, sunny, and environmentally correct places from which the old horticultural dangers – and temptations – were expelled.

The eco-village garden has a couple of dead trees… maybe we should do a grotto too?

El Muro del Jardin de Nuestra Senora de la Bulbout

El Muro del Jardin de Nuestra Senora de la Bulbout

Thanks to the hard work of quite a few LA Eco-Villagers and a few of our neighbors and even some folks from the city of Los Angeles… we’ve got a new raised garden bed in a space that just over a year ago was parking. Special thanks to one of our newest members, Bobby Gadda, for working on this from the start and seeing it through to completion last Saturday.

It’s in the bulbout – which you can read about here, here and here. It’s made of urbanite.

The urbanite is un-mortared, so we can change it around later if we want. The top layer is built out of concrete pieces salvaged from where we’re de-paving out back. We used a lot of large pieces because sometimes the youth walking home from the nearby Virgil Middle School like to do their job and fool around as they walk down our street and test out just how indestructible things are. Hopefully the big pieces will hold themselves in place. We’ll see how it does.

The walls double at seating/benches. I was happy to see them already being used as such by Virgil Adult School students last Monday night.

We planted some already, but it probably needs more. In the walls (between the urbanite layers) there’s mint, yarrow, oregano, strawberries and a few kinds of thyme. I like the way that these plants will spread to create a sort of green wall. In the bed itself, there’s artichoke, cardoon, poppy, onion, basil, California fuschia, and calendula. We’ll see what’s happy growing there… and what the neighborhood foot traffic allows to stay and thrive.

Here’s another shot of the new arrival. Looking forward to the plants growing in.

The garden bed wall facing the street will become greener as the plants grow in

The garden bed wall facing the street will become greener as the plants grow in

(Cross posted at LAEV Garden Blog and LAEV General Blog.)

That's my washwater, flowing out onto a mulch bed!

That's my washwater, flowing out onto a mulch bed!

A few weeks ago, the Greywater Guerillas visited the Los Angeles Eco-Village. They delivered a public talk, and held a workshop where we installed two basic greywater systems. Both systems pipe washing machine output water to water trees and plants.

What is greywater? It’s basically any waste water that we generate from our sinks, bathtubs or washing machines. (Blackwater is from the toilet – and that’s another story.) For most Angelenos, right now, all this water gets combined into our sewer which takes it to big energy-intensive “water reclamation” (aka: sewage treatment) “plants” (factories.) A few of these are along our local rivers: the Tillman Plant in the Sepulveda Basin, and the LA-Glendale Plant. The local plants discharge tertiary treated wastewater (nearly as clean as drinking water) into our rivers, creeks, and the Pacific Ocean. For the L.A. River it’s generally not such a bad thing – adding unpolluted water helps keep the river’s wetlands wetter. It makes up for missing natural flows that we’ve dammed and otherwise blocked.

Mostly we import this clean/fresh water from other regions at great costs (fiscal, environmental, energy), then we use it once and send it down the drain. One way to conserve water is to re-use greywater on-site. There are many ways to go with greywater… from simple to very complicated. For this blog entry, I’m going to tell one story: how my new system works. If you’re looking to do your own system, you might want to check out resources on the Greywater Guerillas website, or read Create an Oasis with Greywater: Chosing, Building, and Using Greywater Systems by Art Ludwig.

Joe's Washing Machine

Joe's Washing Machine

Here’s my washing machine today, sitting in the back room of my second story apartment at eco-village. It’s a front-loader, which is generally a bit more water and energy efficient than a top-loader. You can see the greywater piping at the top behind the machine – the end of the machine’s black flexible-pipe outlet has been hooked to a T-valve (see close-up and explanation below.)

Note also the piece of paper taped to the front. I had guests in town staying at my place last week, so I put up a small sign that reads: “GRAY WATER / Washwater drains to garden / No conventional soaps or toxins.” When you do a greywater system you can’t use regular detergent (not even your basic eco-detergent) because they can accumulate salts or other toxins in your soil. There are a few different biocompatible detergents available at local health food stores. I use Oasis laundry detergent which is specially formulated for greywaters systems.

One problem I’ve had is that the down-pipe (the connection to the sewer) doesn’t really work in my apartment. If we hook the washer up to the sewer, then it leaks into the apartment below me. What I did in the past to get around this was to set up a very rudimentary system – which is an example of how NOT to do greywater (and is not pictured here.) I set up the washer to drain into a 50-gallon plastic tub. From the tub, I used a hose with a quick-connect to siphon drain the water into the garden. The system basically worked, but has many drawbacks and hassles. Most notably that the water in the tub gets rather nasty and smelly after a while (needs to be washed out periodically, probably every month if you don’t want it to smell at all.) I lived with it for nearly 10 years. It was a bit more convenient and much more eco than toting my laundry to a laundromat, but right now, I am very happy to have a reliable eco-friendly system that I don’t have to actively siphon the last load’s water before starting the next load. I do suggest that “tankless” systems are the way to go… and never set up anything where you let greywater stand for any length of time.

Close-up of the 3-way Diverter Valve above the washer

Close-up of the 3-way Diverter Valve above the washer

Back to the new system. Here’s a close-up of the “T” that is right above the washing machine. The valve is called a 3-way diverter valve. Normally there would be one more pipe extending horizontally to the right in this image – which would allow me to send water to sewer when I wanted to (by just turning the red handle.) As I mentioned, the sewer connection leaks, so for now, we didn’t connect to it. We included the valve though, in case we ever repair the down-pipe. I used a black plastic-tie to wire the red handle into the only proper direction – sending the water that’s coming up the black pipe leftward into the white pipe. The water then leaves the building.

Greywater Pipe from the Second Floor to the Ground

Greywater Pipe from the Second Floor to the Ground

Outside, here’s what the pipe looks like. The washing machine is behind the window at the top left.

The pipe comes horizontally out through the wall, then makes a turn downward. There’s a little one-way air-vent device extending upward at that T (it’s white with a black top.) I have to confess that I don’t entirely understand what kind of vent it is, nor how and why it works, but it’s supposed to prevent an inadvertent siphoning that could suck water from the delivery pipe back into the washer.

There’s another T below that (it’s right below the wiring and above the door – with a red handle.) This valve is for a potential future container wetland that I fantasize about doing in this area someday.

The pipe continues between the back doors of my unit and my downstairs neighbor’s.

At that point we needed to get across a very tiny courtyard space. We sawed through the concrete to get below grade (so the pipe wouldn’t be trip hazard.) We ran the pipe across underground, then came back to the surface. This does create a small sump spot where some water collects and sits. The Greywater Guerillas suggest that this won’t be a problem because it’s a very small volume of water that won’t sit for too long before the next load of laundry completely flushes it. It might get somewhat gunky if I go on vacation and don’t do laundry for a few weeks.

Our excellent handyman, Dale Kreutzer mortared in over the pipe, adding a strip of tiles for decoration. I like that the tiles serve to draw attention to how the system works. One of my many missions in life is to reveal water processes that we generally tend to hide.

Greywater Pipe along base of wall

Greywater Pipe along base of wall

As the pipe resurfaces it makes a turn to run along the base of the wall of the building. (I’ve stepped across the small courtyard and am taking this photo from my back door – the tile over the underground pipe is visible in the bottom right corner of the picture.)

The pipe transitions from the rigid (and somewhat environmentally nasty) white pipe to the more flexible (and less environmentally nasty) back tubing. The real names for the materials are in the book and website referenced above.

Greywater Pipe continues around base of wall

Greywater Pipe continues around base of wall

The tube follows the base of the building, turning right at the opening of the courtard, continuing along the back of the building.

In the upper left corner of this photo, there’s another T-stub for a future project. We’re beginning to take up some of the concrete in this area, which was formerly dedicated to parking, but will soon be a garden.

The pipe then goes through a gate and below a sidewalk (not pictured, but imagine another tile strip, though we haven’t gotten to it, yet) to emerge into a garden space. The area watered is along a fence. We dug a very small trench there, filled that trench with mulch. We planted blackberries along it (they’ll grow up the fence.) There’s a also a pair of feijoa trees (sometimes called pineapple guava) there. The trees are actually pretty drought resistant and do fine with the rainwater available here, but they will be happier and will yield more with added water at their roots.

Greywater "Emitters" running along mulched trench

Greywater "Emitters" running along mulched trench

The “emitters” are small T-joints which you can see in this image (or in the close-up photo at the top of the blog entry.) There’s a fence to the left (where the blackberries are beginning to grow) and a path to the right. The mulch trench runs along the left half of the photo – between the fence and the mostly-exposed black pipe.

It’s most clear from the photo at the top of the entry, but the greywater is indeed discharged into the air, then immediately soaks into the mulch bed, so there’s no standing water. If the end of the pipe is underground, then you can have problems with roots growing into it. There are fancier ways to discharge below ground – again see the book and website listed above.

You don’t want to use greywater on things like potatoes (where you eat the roots) or lettuce (where you eat the leaves that grow very close to the soil surface.) It’s best for perennials like trees or vines or even tomatoes. There’s a small health risk which can result from eating something that’s been contaminated by directly exposure to greywater. If you set things up right and keep them maintained in working order the risks are negligible.

The system has been up and running for about a month now and is working great!

(In the spirit of those 3-way diverter valves, this entry has been triple-cross-posted at the L.A. Eco-Village Blog, the LAEV Garden Blog and L.A. Creek Freak. Apologies to folks like my mom, who I am sure reads all three.)