Lessons


Yarrow plants I propagated just before the last series of rainstorms. They're doing really well. It's for a project that I will write about soon.

With more wonderful rain on the forecast for tomorrow, I was out in the garden weeding today. One of the very nicest problems we have in the Southern California garden is that there’s a huge amount of flexibility in what seasons we can grow various plants. My friend Erik at Homegrown Evolution, in a post about Stella Natura calendar planting, alluded to this:

But here in Los Angeles, where we have a four month time span to plant most things, following the Stella Natura calendar is a good way of avoiding procrastination.

I call this sort of strategy “punctuation.” To belabor the analogy, in the run-on sentence that is L.A. gardening, we need to find places to put in commas and periods. Some use an external calendar like Stella Natura, I’ve never tried it though. My favorite garden-anti-procrastination strategy to garden in advance of forecasted rain.

When there’s rain predicted, that’s a great time to go out and get something done in the garden. These are kind of obvious, but here are my suggestions:

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I recommend a couple of videos that I think are really inspiring for gardeners and farmers to grow our food in harmony with nature. They’re both from a site called Ted.com which features lots of really informative talks about science, technology, creativity, brains, art…

Eduardo Sousa and his Geese

Eduardo Sousa and his Geese

The first talk is by a chef named Dan Barber. It’s all about a Spanish farmer named Eduardo Sousa. Sousa produces foie gras (French for “fat liver”)  a substance that I was unfamiliar with until I heard this talk. Foie gras a delicacy made from goose liver. Sousa farms in such a natural way that wild geese come to stay and live with his domesticated geese. The talk is about permaculture, slow food, history, and the joy of great food as the “expression of nature.” Barber’s excellent talk includes a quote I really liked – from Jonas Salk: “If all the insects disappear, life on earth as we know it would disappear within fifty years. If human beings disappeared, life on earth as we know it would flourish.”  

The second talk is  by Michael Pollan, who should be familiar with readers of this blog from this earlier post. His talk is sort of a  whirlwind tour of many of the themes his book The Botany of Desire. He suggests that we could see much of humanity as a vast conspiracy of “corn’s scheme for world domination.” The talk concludes with a great profile of Joel Salatin’s permaculture farm in Virginia which is “well beyond organic agriculture.” 

Don’t spend tooooo much time on Ted.com, but check out these two talks, and let them inspire you to get out and garden!

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.)

Yuki and Federico gazing languidly at each other while testing out the new table at the bulbout

Yuki and Federico gazing languidly at each other while testing out the new table at the bulbout

Regular LAEV garden blog readers (both of you) may be getting bored with the saga of the bulbout… but there are still many chapters to come. Today’s chapter is on our new table for four. If you want bulbous background, see prior entries on what a bulbout is and how one materialized on our block and the arrival of the stumps.

Today, we had a great group bike ride (organized by Aurisha Smolarski) to a going-away lunch for Thiago Winterstein… ay… who we’re all going to miss. About a dozen of us rode up to Square One on Fountain Avenue near Vermont. Good food and a good discussion about insulation, music, information overload, blogging, writing, power tools, young tools, and the meanings of life… but I digress. On the ride back, Federico was asking me about how it was to use the chainsaw to saw a chair out of (or perhaps into?) the stump. I was telling him that it’s a pretty blunt, loud instrument. It was rather difficult to get cuts that were straight and/or parallel… but I did manage to get one chair cut (see the middle of the above photo or the left of the photo below for two not-particularly-descriptive photos.)  The chair is sit-in-able, but I still want to use a sander to round its sharper corners.

When we arrived back at eco-village, Federico, Yuki and I lamented that the stumps in the bulbout looked pretty much like they were, well, just unloaded there… which is pretty much the case. Yuki, who is significantly shorter than I, also mentioned that most of the stumps were too tall for her to sit on comfortably. I sort of knew this – though most of them fit me fine, we deliberately got them a bit big, knowing that we can trim, but we can’t add length.

We discussed the possibility of getting out the chainsaw, but, decided instead on an easier and more collaborative task – to arrange the stumps in a more orderly way – in hopes of encouraging more use. We got shovels and a level, and got to work. Most of the stumps aren’t quite even – which is to say that the cut on the top isn’t quite parallel to the cut on the bottom – so, when their bottoms are placed on a level surface, their tops aren’t level. To remedy this, and to take a little excess height away, we dug into the mulch and soil, creating holes that we plugged with the stumps. We placed four seating stumps around a larger central table stump.

It didn’t take too long, but it made the space a bit more inviting and more inhabitable. I really like this approach – small (easy-to-finish – this took the three of us about an hour) interventions that improve the space… while leaving plenty more to do when the energy and initiative strike us. I like these sorts of tasks better than embarking on far-reaching master-plans that take lots of time to complete.  I think that this is an especially apt way to work in the garden – multiple small achievable tasks tend to add up nicely into a beautiful and productive garden; big heroic plans for the garden tend to languish unfinished.

More bulbout chapters soon…

Another view of the table for four

Another view of the table for four

Las Trincheras - Passive Rainwater Harvesting Terraces at Los Angeles Eco-Village

Las Trincheras - Passive Rainwater Harvesting Terraces at Los Angeles Eco-Village

Like a proud parent, I want to show off pictures of “Las Trincheras” – the stepped terraces that harvest rainwater in my front yard. These are inspired by Brad Lancaster, the water harvestologist from Tucson Arizona, whose books include excellent instructions for creating simple gravity-fed earthworks that detain and infiltrate rainwater.

I live at Los Angeles Eco-Village – an intentional community located in Koreatown in Los Angeles. The first terraces were begun as part of a hands-on urban permaculture course I taught here in the summer of 2008.

Sloped Grassy Area prior to Building Terraces

Sloped Grassy Area prior to Building Las Trincheras

Here’s a photo of what the area looked like in early June 2008. The sloped grassy surface ushered water off onto the sidewalk, and into the street. From there the water heads through a storm drain and into Ballona Creek and the Santa Monica Bay. We decided that we’d rather slow down these raindrops, and invite them to soak into the ground, where they can help sustain plants and trees. On a small scale, This prevents flooding and pollution and augments local groundwater supplies. Indirectly, to the extent that it can offset use of imported water that is pumped here at great cost, it also saves energy which helps curb global warming, resource wars, and more.

The first step was to weed the site as thoroughly as possible. This takes a lot of time, but if you don’t do it you’ll get a lot of hard-to-pull weeds growing up throughout your terraces.

Also prior to the worshop I obtained a stash of broken concrete, which we call “urbanite.” I had been gathering this from various construction projects I would bike past in my neighborhood, but, for this larger project, I did recruit a truck to get larger quantities. Most crews will have to pay to dispose this stuff, so they’ll give it to you for free, if you’ll take it off their hands. If they don’t want to give it to you, try coming by their site at a little after 5pm and you should be able to harvest it. I’ve found that the most useful pieces are those at least larger than a brick.

In addition to the urbanite, we arranged for a truckload of chipped tree-trimmings to use as mulch. This is another resource that’s generally available for free, as tree-trimmers will pay to dispose of it. They’ll ususally drop it off, but our contacts will only drop off full truck loads. We have them dump it in the street, then we haul it off and use it for mulching paths, courtyards, etc.

Las Trincheras at the End of the Water Harvesting Workshop

Las Trincheras at the End of the Water Harvesting Workshop (with lots of mulch piled on)

This photo shows the extent of the project completed at the ten-person workshop – it takes a while to weed and to set each level, so after a 1-day workshop (about half of which was actual building work), all we’d finished was one low terrace – as well as the stairs on the right. Thanks to my friend/neighbor and co-workshop leader Federico who took charge of constructing the stairs. You might notice that the stairs drain slightly to the left, into the beds and away from the cob lizard bench.

As Lancaster’s book tells, one important component for successful rainwater harvesting is to keep these retaining walls level – the terrace follows the contour of the landscape. Level terraces spread water out laterally along the contour, instead of allowing it to run off downhill. Use a level (tool) to make sure – a nice 6′ foot level is best, but you can make do with smaller. The sidewalk at the bottom of the photo (actually permeable pavement from a city of Los Angeles pedestrianization project) is sloped to the left. The top of the terrace wall is level. The wall serves multiple purposes (permaculture principles call this “stacking functions”) – it serves as a retaining wall for the garden bed and is also just the right height for sitting on, so it also serves as a bench. I am happy to say that it sees plenty of use, especially during class breaks at the adult school at the end of the block.

Las Trincheras this week

Las Trincheras this week

Here’s another picture of the trincheras today.

One mistake that I made in building them was to add too much mulch to to the soil. It’s definitely very good to mulch on top of the soil – especially after young plants have become established. Mulch itself is a water harvesting feature – it acts like a kind of one-way valve for water. The water soaks into the soil through the mulch, but the mulch shades the soil which blocks the sun from drying it out. It’s difficult to get seeds to start in mulched areas (which is another good thing about mulch – it prevents weeds from getting started.) I wanted to get more organic matter into the soil, so we added compost – which is a great amendment, but we also added mulch into the soil. Don’t try this at home. As chunks of wood break down in the soil, the process fixes some nutrients. This makes some of the soil nutrients less available to plants. When I planted corn and beans, immediately after building the terraces, the plants turned a relatively pale yellowish green and their growth was stunted. I gave them compost tea and they yielded some, but, still, overall, they didn’t do as well as I expected. Over time, the wood does break down and releases the nutrients back into the soil. While doing all this, the bed actually grows quite a bit of mushrooms… perhaps I should have taken advantage of this and planted good edible fungi?

Just lately we’ve had some of our first significant rains, and the greens, chard, strawberries, onions, mizuna, arrugula, and artichokes I’ve planted there seem to be fairly well. The morning after recent rains, the terraces were very much saturated with rainwater they’d absorbed.

The New Trincheras made of Cinder Blocks

The Other Newer Trincheras made of Cinder Blocks

I also created this second group of terraces a couple weeks ago. I didn’t have enough broken concrete, so I used some cinder blocks that were lying around unused. I filled the blocks with soil and planted in them. I am hoping that the plants grow out nicely and soften the somewhat linear gray lines of the blocks.

If LA Eco-Village garden readers are interested in reading more about about water harvesting and other local water issues (with an emphasis on river restoration and revitalization) you may want to check out the L.A. Creek Freak Blog, where I’ve cross posted this.