Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Been There, Read That

Over the last few years, several people have asked me why I don't write a book about my adventures in urban homesteading. There are two answers to that question. The first is "I tried, but it wasn't long enough to be a book." The second one is "Because someone else already did." Novella Carpenters "Farm City," written about her efforts at urban farming and livestock production in Oakland, CA, was published more than two years ago. I found it hilarious and informative, but far too profane for most of my friends to truly enjoy. Any treatise on Permaculture would tell you everything I have learned and more, but they are usually just that- long, sometimes tediously academic treatises, expecting the reader to slog through pages of plant guilds and the advantages of biodynamic farming, when all they want to know is how to set up a backyard chicken coop.

Then last week I checked out "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Urban Homesteading." Mildly insulting title notwithstanding, it is a comprehensive beginner's guide to increasing one's independence (in the practical sense) without migrating to the countryside. I don't do everything they discuss, and certainly don't do it in the exact manner they  describe. But if you want to move beyond growing summer tomatoes and try something a little more radical (the root word of which  is the latin "radix", meaning "root", amusingly enough), then this is a quick read and a fine place to start your study.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Come Mista Tally Man

It's banana blooming time again. 

I have learned from past experience that this variety (I don't know the name- the tag was long ago lost in the mulch by the rummaging of kids and chickens) produces far more bananas than I can use for cooking. The kids don't find their slippery ripe texture to their liking for fresh eating, so lunchboxing doesn't help much.

Besides, when the 'nanas start filling out, they get so heavy they threaten to tip the tree. So as soon as the plant has produced a few more hands (the "bunches" that you buy in a grocery store are properly termed hands; a bunch is the entire enormous pseudostem full of as many as a hundred bananas) imma gonna cut off what is left of the flower and see if I can cook it. Anybody have a recipe suggestion?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Live and In Person

I saw a bakfiets yesterday. A real, Dutch bakfiets, on the streets of Long Beach by Whaley park.

"But what on God's green earth is a bakfiets?" I hear you cry. Only the coolest euro-hip kid-carrying cargo bike ever! It looks like this.

The one I saw yesterday was carrying a toddler and a baby, and was ridden by a guy named Michael Wolfgang Bauch. I know this because, after stopping him to ask where he got the awesome wheels, he told me that he was a filmmaker. He recently finished a film called "Riding Bikes with the Dutch", which will soon be screening at LACMA. Here's his website:

I told him about my Madsen bucketbike (, and he was kind enough to not scoff at my American wheels, and share my enthusiasm for going car-free for short trips. I think it was the high point of my week. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I didn't Know Birds Could Do That

I've never seen anything like it. A pair of goldfinches (Michaelson assures me that is what they are) wove a nest on the underside of one of our banana tree leaves. I think it incorporates fibers from the leaf itself in order to support the weight.

It gets bounced around by the breezes an awful lot, but hey, maybe birds like that.

I haven't seen the chicks yet, but I can hear them peeping from across the yard when their parents show up with lunch.

Goldfinches aren't supposed to breed in this area, but nobody told this pair. I hope we get to see the chicks when they fledge, and before they fly away. The father has been a real bright spot in the yard. I don't have a photo, but he looks like this:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Spread 'em

I know, it looks like I was trying to make a Transformers birthday theme tree. In reality it is my most recent effort to turn a tree with a relentlessly upright growth habit into a spreading shade tree.

When a tree resists my efforts to prune it into the shape I want, I resort to bending the twig, as it were. Sometimes I tie limbs together, sometimes I bungee cord them to stationary objects. And sometimes I hang things from the branches to weight them down until they conform. K'nex were well suited this time because I needed so many weights, but relatively light ones. Besides, it was easier to pillage the kids' old K'nex bin than drag out a ladder and get down the box of Christmas ornaments. 

Although that would arguably have been prettier.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Calling Our Food by Name

This didn't get published on Our Mother's Keeper, so I think I'll just throw it up here.
Ohp, they did post it! But how did this whole post end up in boldface. Sigh. Really must work on my technical skills. 

My mother’s parents were both school teachers. But they had 6 children (five boys plus my mother) and wanted to teach them the value of good honest manual labor. So they also ran a small dairy farm- the sort of thing where you keep few dozen milk cows on pasture just off the highway that runs from your town to the next town over. That was where the high school was, anyway, so it was fairly convenient to do the milking and feeding morning and afternoon. They sold the milk to the neighbors. They kept a quarter-acre vegetable garden beside their adobe home, and when they wanted chicken for dinner, Grandma caught and killed one from her own coop (while my mother hid in a tree to avoid being asked to help).

By the time I came along, the flock had disappeared, chicken came on a Styrofoam tray from the grocery store, and there were only a few cows left. I got to visit the milking barn as a small child, and I still remember grandpa grabbing a handful of oats from the hopper to snack on while he prepared a cow for milking. (He gave some to the cow, too, of course.) Raised on supermarket 2% milk, I couldn’t stomach the creamy stuff- certainly not when it was still warm from the cow, no matter how enthusiastically my older relatives raved about it! The beef, however, I was more than happy to eat. Old dairy cow isn’t much good for steaks, but pressure canned cuts make for excellent gravy over potatoes or brown bread. We sometimes came home from visits to Grandma and Grandpa with cans of beef, labeled with the year and a name identifying the cow from which the meat had come.

Fast-forward 35 years. I keep half a dozen free-range chickens in my backyard for the eggs, fertilizer, pest control, and general amusement. My children are involved in their care and feeding, making sure they have water during the day and locking them safely in their coop at night. It’s nothing compared to getting up a 5 a.m. to milk a dozen cows, but it’s still a responsibility for the well-being of another living creature, and a connection to their food. Between “the ladies”, our fruit trees, and our vegetable garden, my kids understand better than most of their classmates just how their bellies come to be filled every night.

 We also keep chickens for the psychological salve of knowing that at least we are doing some small thing to avoid complicity in the various horrors of factory farming without giving up animal products. That’s not to say this is a chicken sanctuary: when a hen gets too old to lay reliably, we kill and eat her (mostly in soup or stew; the meat on a three-year-old chicken is remarkably tough.) Yes, I know, vegetarianism is an option for avoiding the blood and sins of industrial farming. But my daughter is decidedly allergic to peanuts, mildly allergic to soy, and politely but firmly declines to consume nearly any other nut. We’re working on expanding our non-animal protein sources (I’ve got sapling almond and macadamia nut trees planted in the hopes of changing her mind), but we’re going to have to keep going with the moderate animal protein consumption for now.

If I could keep a milk cow, I totally would. Ditto for a dairy goat. But I’m in urban/suburban coastal southern California. One of my neighbors got in trouble with the city just for having a pet potbelly pig that got too big for his “pet” designation. Milk is just going to have to come from the store. Urban meat production, on the other hand, we are still trying. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, I totally respect that, and strongly suggest that you not read any further. To the rest of you I say: rabbit tastes just like chicken. Well, dark meat free-range turkey, anyway.

Honestly, my rabbit raising efforts have been a failure so far. My first buck (that’s a male rabbit, we called him Roger) died of heat stroke, before I learned to put soaking wet towels on top of the hutch on hot days for some evaporative cooling. Jane, my first doe, refused to breed despite being given her pick of two different bucks. (The kids got an eyeful watching the bucks try to woo her. I’ll have to get back to you all on whether or not having one’s first glimpse of sexuality be of a doe kicking the butt of the buck attempting to mount her is useful in preventing teenage sexual activity, but I’m thinking it might be.)

This spring I rallied my determination and acquired a new doe. This meant that it was time to cull Jane. I only have so many hutches. She was over two years old, but I’m opposed to wasting flesh as much as I am opposed to cruelty. So my husband gave her one last cuddle- or tried to, she was always crotchety- then quickly dispatched her and skinned the carcass. (I skinned and cleaned Roger’s carcass when he died, but I’m still too lily-livered to personally kill a mammal I knew. I’m working on it.)

Then I got cooking. We got a significant part of four dinners from Jane: rabbit stew, chopped rabbit meat in orange-ginger sauce over rice, rabbit adobo (Filipino marinade), and then finally the broth from boiling the bones went into a tomato-corn soup. Yes, she was a big rabbit, and we eat meat in small portions. During the second dinner, my 13-year-old was having trouble getting the somewhat fibrous meat out of the ladle and onto his plate. He muttered “Jane, stop fighting me and get out!” And then the meat did. And then, he ate it.

We don’t just know where our food came from; we know it by first name. Eat your heart out, Michael Pollan.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Little Girls

My sister's little girl

My little girl

I can't stop mentally comparing those two pictures. Not sure why.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hey, Look!

They like me over here:

Only problem is, my posts don't generate much discussion. So head on over there and start a comment war for me, wouldja? Thanks.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Solar Season

Some days our "May Gray" overcast really puts a damper on my solar cooking. But other days, it's golden. Even if the weather isn't really warm, bright sun can get the solar cooker to 300 degrees, from as early as 10 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon during the summer months (but 10 to 2, and only about 275 degrees, in the winter.)

We recently inherited about a half ton (and I mean that literally) of wheat from a friend who was cleaning out her mother's food storage. It's a bit stale for making bread, but it makes good chicken feed. At least, it does if it is cooked. What better way than putting it in the solar oven (with equal parts water) for a few hours? Let it cool, then toss it on the lawn for the yard birds.

Next up was granola. My teen has recently decided that this is his favorite after-school snack. The ingredients are cheap, but granola sucks a lot of electricity for the hour it has to toast in the oven. As a low-temperature recipe, however, it's perfect for the solar cooker. It does require hands-on time; the solar cooker has a small internal cavity, so I have to break the granola into two batches, and it has to be stirred every 20 minutes. Two hours tending the cooker means Solar granola is only for the seriously stay-at-home.

Last item of the day was a pan of caramel cinnamon rolls. I like giving them to the kids for breakfast once in awhile (they're 50% whole wheat and light on the caramel, so they're not too awful for breakfast food). That requires that I make them the day before- I'm not the kind of mom who thinks getting up at 5 to allow fresh pastries to rise in time for breakfast is the best way to show love. Nope. Not doin' it that way.

Although the recipe calls for a 375 degree oven, cooking them at 300 worked fine. Well, it would have, if I had left them in long enough. Jon wanted to go run some errands that required my presence, so I took them out at 45 minutes. Next time, gotta go for the full hour. The outer ones were fine, but the inner ones were doughy. Tasted good, though.

Shame I had to go to the bank that day. I think I could have done a quiche with the daylight that was still left. Oh, well, the sun will rise tomorrow.

The Big 4-No

For the sake of clarification, let me state that I will not be celebrating my 40th birthday this year.

The 40th anniversary of my arrival on this planet will arrive soon, but I will not be marking it with a celebration. I’m not in denial about it. I’ve been referring to myself as being 40 years old for several months already. I just don’t see it as any sort of celebrational event.

I may have reached the midpoint in life, but I may have passed it a year ago, or it may not be for another decade. I won’t know until I’m done.

Certainly I have long since passed the days of gleefully marking my height on the bedroom door frame- I am in the days of marking my weight on the bathroom scale. I am no longer “such a lovely young woman,” looking for any excuse to wear a fancy new dress- I am growing a dowagers hump that makes fitting any dress an increasing problem.

But I am also not yet to the point where waking up alive is an achievement in itself, and doing it for a whole year is party-worthy.

I am in the vast middle lands. Some of my skills and abilities are getting stronger, but others are fading at the same time. I am accumulating experience, but I am losing both physical and mental vigor- slowly, yes, but measurably. My children are growing up, but my parents are growing- well, not in that direction anymore.

So in summary, it’s my birthday, and I can chose not to celebrate it if I want to. If that bugs you, go have your own party. Celebrate the random event of your choice. Nuthin’ to see here. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Beheadings Will Continue Until Egg Production Improves

The chickens laid goose eggs yesterday. By which I mean they did squat. Hmm, still too elliptical.

There were no eggs yesterday. From 6 adult hens. Not a one.

And so, at 4:40 yesterday afternoon, when I should have been on my bike taking Jillian to piano lessons, I decided to kill a hen. Jon did the actual cutting off of the head, though. He knows he is faster (and therefore more humane) than I am.

Oddly, this chicken seemed almost glad to go. I wonder if she knew she was unproductive, or if she had been in some distress that was preventing laying (yes, we've been watching them, and this hen hasn't laid an egg in many months). As I was pressed for time, I just buried this one. She was old enough to be too tough for anything but broth, anyway.

So it's down to 5 (ostensibly) laying hens, and 4 young pullets. We'll see if shaking up the pecking order improves the egg production. At the very least, it will decrease the feed consumption, and it did make me feel like I had accomplished something for the day.  

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mother's Day

I solemnly resolve to run away next Mother's Day.

I said the same thing last year, but decided the kids were still too young for me to just drive them to church, kick them out the door, then take myself to the movies. But next year, I'm pretty sure they can handle it. They were delightfully reverent through the whole sacrament meeting. I did more coloring in Jillian's books than she did, to distract myself from the ludicrousness of the affair. If we really wanted to enjoy Mother's Day as a sort of holiday for mothers, we'd cancel church and spend the day in our pj's, ignoring the housework and feeding the children out of cans and cereal boxes. (I would say "letting our husbands do the housework and feed the children," but, well, sigh.) If, on the other hand, we need a special mark on the calendar to remind us of the importance of mothers, then we are remarkably stupid. Either way, the manner in which we "celebrate" is not well suited to the purpose of the celebration, and I've had enough of it. The boycott is declared.

As soon as the obligatory candy was passed out (and handed to my kids, who need the calories rather more than I do), I went home. I cooked a really nice lunch, prepped a good dinner, listened to some comedy on the radio, and got back to church in time to pick up kids. If I hadn't been so ticked at my husband for not doing anything to acknowledge the holiday, it would have been fairly pleasant. Next year, I will remove the responsibility from him entirely, and take myself out. He has been informed of this plan, and I think he is secretly relieved. I don't blame him. I am aware that I am difficult to please- I have to live in this brain all the time, y'know.

Jillian did give me a cute flower pin she had made in Activity Days that I wore to church, and Ben wrote me a nice note that afternoon. My favorite "gift" was from Michaelson, however. I hope you can see what it says.

I haven't asked him how he is going to kick his own butt, but I truly look forward to cashing this in. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baby Come Back

Technically Roselyn, my sister's newborn, has never been at my house for daycare before, so she can't really come back. But she's here, nonetheless, from 8-ish until 4-ish every school day until the end of my sister's school year (late June). At not quite 8 weeks, she's a very mellow baby, but not used to being away from mama.

Having an infant around is reminding me of so many things I was beginning to forget. How being even a little sleep deprived makes me nuts. How much I can get done in a half hour of quiet. How little I can get done in three hours if I have to hold a child at the same time. Why I chose to be a stay-at-home mom rather than try to juggle kids and work (since I had that choice open to me). Why I won't be having any more children. How human beings of all sizes tend to resist doing the little things they really really really need to do to be happy (seriously, kid, the bottle is full of breastmilk- I know it doesn't feel like mom, but just suck the nipple already! You're hungry!)

Next time I forget how I got to this point in life, y'all remind me to spend a few days taking care of a new human. I may not be any more reconciled to my life's limitations, but they will make logical sense.

P.S. Speaking of logic, did I mention that Rosie can raise one eyebrow and look at me like a tiny Mr. Spock? Hilarious.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Little Less Alone

There's a new blog out there, started by mormon environmentalists. It's much too new to know what I think of it yet, but already I feel a little less alone.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Feeling Chipper

On Friday afternoon, the UPS guy brought this

Which I used to turn this

into this.

I foresee much improved levels of hummus in my garden soil. 
I can practically hear the worms salivating. 

My new toy is a Greenworks 15 amp electric chipper, and it does a fine job converting fruit tree prunings (of which I have large volumes over the course of a year) into respectable mulch without hurting my eardrums or triggering my asthma. Anything too big for this little baby is just about the right size for the pizza oven. 

Transforming waste into resources and cleaning up the back yard at the same time. Possibly the best fun I had all week.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

At least it doesn't smell like Teen Spirit

Tonight at dinner we had baby cauliflower and broccoli (from the garden-brag brag), sauteed in some leftover bacon drippings- not enough to make them actually taste like bacon, but enough to make them plenty yummy. At least, that's what I thought. Jon doesn't comment on my cooking very often, beyond eating a reasonable amount of it and insisting that the kids eat it, too. Ben and Jillian both are having allergies, so they had a hard time tasting much of anything tonight.

And then there was Michaelson. He tasted a piece, pondered for a minute and asked "Mom, did you get this recipe from Dad's mom?"

"Uhh, no...why?"

"Because this tastes like Arizona."

Brassicas in bacon grease = Arizona. Did not know that. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Balls Out

Not THOSE balls. These balls.

We live along a flood control channel. And when it rains, all manner of dreck is washed off the streets and into that channel. I dunno what the wierdest thing we have seen is- maybe a shopping cart? But aside from the appallingly predictable styrofoam flotsam, one of the things we see most often is play balls. Apparently it is common for kids to kick a ball over a fence and into a ditch. This year someone (no idea who) decided to start rounding up balls that get stranded on the rocks behind our house- then throw them over the fence into our yard.

30+ balls so far this year.

They just show up. One day there is nothing under the play structure but digging toys, the next day, I find this. (The chicken is ours, of course. Not sure what she was planning to do with that mini soccer ball.) 

Same with the trampoline. One day nothing but lanky grass underneath. Next day, half a dozen spherical plastic toys.

I've taken the best of the lot over to the school to be put back in service a few times now, but honestly, a lot of these balls have had it and should just be thrown away. So to whomever is out there bombing our yard with trashy balls- Please, stop.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In Case You Were Wondering

Pineapples grown in a greenhouse in a back yard in southern California taste just as good as the ones fresh off the plantation in Oahu. 

I have witnesses to prove it. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Apple Attack? Lumber Lockdown

I planted a Gordon Apple sapling next to the trampoline last year. We've had this variety of apple before, so we know it grows well in Long Beach. (The fact that the old Gordon Apple tree was finally killed off by the combined effects of no less than two diseases and two simultaneous insect infestations is just evidence that a lot of things grow well in Long Beach.) The sapling I planted was a semi-dwarf, so I figured that by the time it was big enough to be a space concern, we wouldn't have little kids wanting a trampoline any more.

But I forgot about the fact that kids like to sit on the edge of the trampoline and mess with stuff.

In this particular case, they messed with the branches.

All of them.

Stripped off.

Not a single sideways twig left on this poor little whip of a sapling.

So I caged it.

Try and get your mangy paws through THAT, my dear destructive little children!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Promising Panicles

There were a few panicles of flowers on the Macadamia tree when I planted it last year, but they didn't survive the transplantation.

Perhaps the possibility of nuts is improved this year?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Happy Face

Jillian's dinner Wednesday. She said is was a "REALLY smiley face!" Apparently someone has been showing her photos of Groucho Marx?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Meanwhile, He's Back at the Ranch

Jon works from home now. At least, that is what IBM is telling him this week. He will be part of a team of experienced implementers who help other IBM business services people troubleshoot projects that are not meeting their deadlines, etc. He will be here pretty much all the time, on the phone and computer, except when he suddenly has to fly somewhere for a few days/weeks to help a project onsite.

There is tremendous upside potential to this arrangement for Jon and the kids. Travelling every week isn't easy, even for a person who can sleep standing up the way Jon can. And the children should benefit from his more consistent involvement in their daily lives. I think they may get a little tired of his involvement, to be brutally honest, but it will be good for them to have it whether they want it or not.

I'm having more difficulty finding the upside for myself. I still can't commit to a regular job, as I can't count on Jon for childcare with any regularity. Just because he is at home doesn't mean he is available, and experience indicates there will be little prior notice before he is called away. I will lose the use of the office/sewing room often, due to his frequent business calls (every sewing machine I've ever met was too noisy to be used in the same room as a cellphone.) If I have a rush sewing job, I can always set up in another room, but it will be an annoyance not to be able to use my functional setup. Jon will take on various daily household duties, which will be good for him, but will also increase my already growing dispensability. If the only reason to get out of bed in the morning is that there are kids to be fed and taken to school, but Daddy can handle that, well then why bother getting out of bed?

I'm almost to the point where I should cut my thyroid medication dose in half and spend most of my day meditating by a sunny window. I often said I should be reincarnated as a cat. Apparently, I won't have to wait that long. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Just had to provide evidence that I can in fact move these muthers.

Does this rock make me look fat?

I'm pretty sure that I sometimes make messes just to experience the satisfaction of cleaning them up again. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Taking the Good with the Bad

The last guava finally ripened and fell from the tree last week. The very next day, our apricot tree started flowering.

In a good year, this tree would be covered in blooms. But there's no way we got anywhere near the 400 hours of chill (temperatures below 45 degrees) that this tree needs to set fruit. Now that the tree has broken dormancy it is too late for any late winter chilling to do any good (and it might even kill off whatever fruits do manage to set). So odds are that this will be the second year in a row of no apricots, or very few. Several of my other stone fruits most likely won't be bearing either, but at least the tropicals are happy. I'll just have to save up the money we didn't spend on heating to buy fruit this summer. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

And When I'm Thoroughly Pooped Out

I watch lectures on  My favorite series is the Mini Medical School for the Public out of UCSF. I have a little tiny crush on this lecturer.

As a mother, this lecture on pediatric issues was quite useful.

I like many of the lectures in the Science category as well. Wanna see some Science Cheerleaders? (They're at about 3:02, if you don't want to hear the rest of the lecture.)

Other subject areas include Arts & Music, Public Affairs, Humanities, Business, Education Issues, and Gardening and Agriculture. (I think I've watched every video available in that last category.) The site is searchable and new talks and lectures are posted regularly. I am occasionally disappointed in the sound quality, but not usually. There is often an extended introduction of the lecturer, but it is easy to skip past it.

Anybody know of other sites like this?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


So I've found that if I get a solid hour or two of exercise per day, I don't need any antidepressants. I could just do a good workout in the morning and another at night. But I'd really rather just have physical activity be a natural part of my day. If I had a job, having one about 4 miles away that I could cycle to and from would be ideal. Or having a job that naturally involved a fair amount of activity. But for the last two weeks (and the next few, I'd guess) this is how I have been getting my exercise.

The chickens "help out" by eating all the juicy worms I dig up when I remove an inch or two of dead grass/dirt to set the stones in. They've never eaten so well in their fluffy little lives. 

I can set 20-50 stones per day, depending on how large the stones are (they vary from about 15 to 50 pounds- I have Jon move the occasional 75 pound monster) and how easily they fit together. It's like the world's heaviest jigsaw puzzle, with no picture on the box to guide you.

Putting in the stones will help a little bit in reducing the water bill, a bit more in reducing the amount of mowing we need to do, and rather more in making the back yard look like I meant it to be like that, rather than just "Eh, I didn't know what to do back here, so I left it to the bermuda grass." I suppose I could try to make a job of it, but can you imagine the business card? 

World's Wimpiest Stonelayer! 
Two hours per day, maximum.

Monday, January 31, 2011