Archive for August, 2008

HOW TO: Create a Seed Bank

As another hurricane bears down on the gulf coast, one has to wonder whether the glass half empty crowd which has been predicting increased damage in upcoming years due to natural disaster is correct. Nature does go in cycles, and we may end up laughing off current pessimism about the planet’s inability to regulate herself. But current data does suggest that we are facing at the least a massive migration of plants and animal species to inhabit new regions of the planet. Global environmental organizations are already seeing plant and animal species move to new elevations of previously frigid territory and dead zones showing up in previously fertile areas.

Perhaps the hardest adjustment we as humans will have to make, provided we don’t all take each other out first, is that of food supply.  When the local soils no longer support the crops to which we’re accustomed, we’ll be faced with two choices: move, or learn to cultivate something new.  This migratory period will be critical to the existence of all life on earth.  By creating and maintaining seed banks, we are helping to sustain the biological diversity of life on earth.  This is the aim of the latest biological depository established in Scandinavia, into which governments from around the world are locking seed samples in preservatory conditions in case of Doomsday.

But while the establishment of such seed banks are admirable, the greatest potential for preserving biological diversity lies with the individual.  After all, your grandmother’s mint patch that grows in your backyard probably isn’t on the seed registry’s radar, and neither are your neighbor’s prize heirloom sunflowers.  For any planet to sustain a wide diversity of genetic material, it is we, the people, who will have to stash away the genetic legacy of our lives thusfar as a gift to the future.  So why not get started now?

Making a seed bank is ridiculously easy.  You could well go from a single set of seeds to more than you could ever plant within the span of a single growing season.  Of course, seeds are most fertile when fresh, but stored under the right conditions, most seeds will last for years.  It is a good practice to plant from your seed bank each year, and replenish the stock with fresh seed over the growing season.  This way, most of your seed stays fresh at any time.

Now, how to get started?  First, buy an pack of little brown paper envelopes, or even just a package of writing envelopes.  Then stash a few in your pocketbook, briefcase, or car, and start hunting!  Every time you see a particularly beautiful tree in fruit, a really nice flower, or healthy looking seed grasses, take a handful of seeds, pat them dry if they are wet (say from being removed from their protective fruit coverings to prevent rot), and place them in the envelope.  Be sure to label the outside of the package with what type of plant (if you don’t know, just describe it as best possible), the date on which you collected it, and ideally, where you found it. Then transfer your sealed envelopes to a cool dry storage place next time you are home, to keep the seeds from germinating and then dying from lack of soil nutrition. Then you simply hit the road again and look for more!  Most people won’t mind you taking a handful of anything from their lawn, but certainly some tact and discretion are in order always.

The next step in a successful seed bank is to increase the diversity through exchange with others. In most towns there are groups of seed savers who get together periodically to have exchanges, in which you give a little to get a little of something else.  This is the true gem of seed collection. You are gaining access to the best of all local areas, all of which should be relatively well suited to cultivation in your area, simply for having an eagle eye in your own neighborhood.

As with all great ventures, the best time to get started is before everyone else catches on. That way, when seeds become more scarce, you’ll already be a practiced veteran of the seed trade.  This is truly a return to the simpler life our parents parents experienced, and is a selfless act of philanthropy you can complete without spending a dime.

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Cool Gadget: Solar Icemaker Prototype

It’s not portable, or even available yet, but the solar icemaker prototype created by students at San Jose State University (see full story on the icemaker here) is literally cooler than cool.  They used pressure differentials created by rise and drop in daytime temperatures to create a “zero carbon footprint” ice maker.

At something like 5 feet cubed for dimensions, and only capable of producing ice at night, it’s not going to replace the ice tray any time, but it could be really important in places that don’t have easy access to a power grid for food refrigeration and space cooling. Best of all, it looks like something that the dedicated DIYer could put on his or her “To Build” list without having to hit the books much beforehand.

They are currently at work on the product, as well as several others related to solar energySee the San Jose State U program site here, it looks very interesting, and it’s great to see renewable energy being taught in higher education.

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Looking Under the Surface of “Green”

Ever heard of the game Energyville?  It’s an online game where you name a town, and then, Sims’ style, decide how you’re going to power it using the available technologies.  Each has their own pros and cons, and costs different amounts of money, environmental damage and national security.  Then the game takes you through the years, showing you how the choices you make affect the city.  On the surface, it sounds like a good concept.  But play it once or twice, and you might start to wonder just why it is that biofuels always “get more expensive due to lack of corn supplies” in every scenario presented, though petroleum, natural gas, and shale oil seem to get better with age.  Or how even if you have your town fully powered with alternative energy, the game won’t let you advance to the next level without adding some petrol to the mix.  I played the game several times, and Beautopia never lived up to its name, no matter how valiantly I erected wind towers and solar panel racks.  Well, it did LOOK pretty, but my score couldn’t compete with the oil guzzlers and nuclear supporters out there.

Still, even with a marked slant evident in the policital events presented, the game is an interesting look at how we do need to think about the future when making energy choices of today.  If someone would come back with a more REAL version of this game, instead of Chevron, which is the presenter of Energyville, there could be a lot to learn from it.  If you want to check out the game, it’s at:

www.willyoujoinus.com/energyville

In a greater sense, this game underlines what seems true in most of life.  Most things seem okay on the surface, pretty kind and helpful even, but a little digging (not much in this case) reveals that “free” offers contain strings, “impartial” observers are paid for their opinions, and even organizations set up to help others usually have their own agendas that can affect their actual aid.  Green living is a noble goal, and of course I encourage you to follow the natural path.  Just be aware of the greenwash, as they call it, because for every understanding and caring soul who enters the green “industry”, there also enters a conglomerate like Safeway or KMart, hoping to make a buck.  Learning to take only what you need from these giants is a lifelong game in and of itself.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fresh! Seeds of the Past and Food for Tomorrow

Fresh! Seeds from the Past and Food for Tomorrow

It’s been a big week of reading, trying to stay ahead of the library due dates.  This was a great book, a bit different from any I’ve read before in the general gardening arena.  Brian Patterson takes a scientific look at human history’s tenuous relationship with the foods we eat and illustrates how cultivation of seeds created the culinary landscape we take for granted today.  Part science, part history, and very interesting, he goes beyond the superficial facts and examines cultivation on a chemical level. How did we learn that potatoes, though poisonous when green, can be eaten when cooked?  Or that by fermenting grape juice and adding it to flour, we can enjoy light, fluffy leavened bread, but only if that grape juice doesn’t turn to vinegar first?  When viewed through the lens of science, even the most mundane of foods take on a magical quality.

It’s not a super long book (160 pages) but it’s surprisingly full of facts to be so easy to read.  I especially enjoyed the sections on the global spread of foods from one culture to the next and the final section which contains his look toward to future of plants and humans.  For those considering gardening as a nutritional endeavor, I can’t recommend this enough. Though not expressly a gardening book, you’ll find plenty of solid tips on how to get the most from your plants in terms of flavor and nutrition.  And who doesn’t want either of those?  You’ll also get a clearer understanding of the miracles that led to the availability of foods in your favorite seed catalog, and it may inspire you to try a few new exotic varieties.

There’s also plenty here for those interested in botany or cultural anthropology. After all, seeing what detailed culinary data we can glean from Egyptian society based upon their meticulous burial practices, one can draw some interesting conclusions about how we might preserve our own history for future generations.  For the general reader, and especially for those interested in going off-grid, knowing more about locally grown foods and their health properties can only be helpful in today’s 1500 mile to plate global food culture. And it might make you befriend a local farmer or two for their floral insights.  Strawberries never tasted so sweet as when you know that the farmer used sustainable scientifically sound growing practices to deliver them to your kitchen.

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BOOK REVIEW: Skinny Bitch in the Kitch

Skinny Bitch in the Kitch (Rory Freedman and Kim Bardouin) – 2007 (excerpt)

The Bitches are Back!

For those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll remember how excited (and grossed out!) I was by the book Skinny Bitch, a treatise on eating vegan and treating yourself like the queen (or king) you really are. (read the review here) Soon after turning the last page of that book, I ordered the new companion book, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch from the library and sat back to wait, and wait, and wait, for it to come. Guess it’s just as popular as the original!

While I did enjoy the book, it lacked the hard-hitting feeling of the first book. Much of this is due to the different format. After all, this is a cookbook, so the focus is on recipes, not pep-talks. I guess they figure they’ve already hit you over the head, no need to do it again. I read through it in an afternoon, copied the recipes I liked, and sent it on its way. No grossed out dreams the next day, not even a squeamish look at the supermarket meat aisle. Perhaps after the first book, my expectations were too high… I actually MISSED this feeling of being punched in the stomach, and felt like I’d been let down. The book sort of assumes that you’ve already read Skinny Bitch, and for those that haven’t you’re relegated to three pages of summary and an order to get off your ass and purchase that book too.

That being said, the recipes look very good, and admirably, they stick to a relatively normal palette of ingredients that you probably already own (or should). And they look pretty tasty too. Most don’t travel to the culinary ends of the world, but are instead vegan revamps of classic recipes. The organization was funny and there are some cute little quotes peppered here and there for good measure.

Overall, I liked the book, but felt that I’d have liked it better with a little less expectation. I found myself photocopying chapters from the first book and handing them out to everyone I knew while breathlessly expounding on the vegan lifestyle. That won’t be happening with this one. As a producer in the movie business, I know well the daunting challenge these ladies faced in creating the sequel to such a popular book. Truly, living up to high expectation is never easy. If you’ve never read either, I recommend getting the two books together and trying out the recipes while you read Skinny Bitch and other food is totally turning your stomach. That way, the yummy vegan meals you prepare will taste that much better, and will have a greater chance of ending up in your regular cooking repertoire.

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BOOK REVIEW: It’s a Long Road to a Tomato

It’s a Long Road to a Tomato (Google Books) Keith Stewart (2005)

Any home gardener out there know that the title of this book is indeed truthful. For every fruit or vegetable harvested from your garden, hours of time and plenty of resources went into cultivation. As Keith Stewart so eloquently describes, things get even more extreme when you turn to commercial gardening, and even more so when you commit to gardening organically.

This book was extremely entertaining and educational. What I liked best was the honest depiction of the amount of work it takes to be a farmer in the 21st century. Next time you go to a farmers’ market, take a moment to talk to a vendor about their farm: you’ll really appreciate how hard they work when you hear stories of 4am waking and hand weeding in a commitment to earth-friendly growing practices! Suddenly, paying $0.50 more for an avocado doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.

The story is a personal one, outlining Mr. Stewart’s journey from city-dwelling ad man to wildly successful organic farmer at NYC’s most famous farmers market. You’ll read about the stringent hoops one must jump through to call produce organic, the unglamorous life of digging in the dirt, current governmental and policy landscapes for the independent farmer, managing a staff of farm workers, and many interesting little unrelated tales from the journey. When the cover quotes “you’ll laugh out loud”, they aren’t kidding.

I was inspired from reading this book to plant some garlic, which Mr. Stewart praises as perhaps the best plant on earth. True to his word, the plants have done very well even under my inexperienced care. It was nice to see his progression from a hobbyist’s garden to a commercial venture… it makes the leap seem that much more tangible for those of us looking to break into that market.

All in all, I have nothing but praise for this book. If you’ve ever considered growing professionally, you really should read this book first. Not that it will scare you off (on the contrary, I found it very inspiring), but it WILL give you a much better idea of the things you need (a garden, a good accountant, and a dream) and the things you had better not need (like sleep and a social life!). And even if you aren’t trying to change careers, it will help you connect the food you eat to its source, and encourage you to buy local and support your local independent farmers as they battle the giant conglomerates who control our global food supply. So go on, savor that local tomato, it will be so much sweeter!

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Solar Power Class: Combined Circuits

The next installment of our electrical theory class is about combined circuits. Though studying all the simple circuits of the past few posts (see Ohm’s Law, Kirchoff’s Laws the Formulae Roundup if you’d like a review) is well worth the effort so that you understand the reasons why your power system is or is not working, most often in a power generation setting, you’ll be dealing with things hooked up in combined circuits, which means in combinations of series and parallel that produce the required output wattage to run a house circuit.

So how do you deal with the laws we just learned when you see a circuit that doesn’t seem to fit either category?

Solving Combo Circuits:

For the above example, can you show the remaining measurements for each resistor, and also calculate the total resistance for the circuit? To do this, we must reduce the circuit to a simple circuit of only one type. Before we get started, let me share one more little formula with you. Don’t worry, this one is designed to make your life easier. In a parallel circuit with only two resistors, instead of solving for total resistance in the usual way, you can find it using the following formula, also known as the “product over sum” method:
Rt = (R1 * R2) / (R1 + R2)

First, let’s work on the total resistance measurement. For a combination circuit, you use all the knowledge you’ve been storing up about simple series and parallel circuitry, and simply solve from the outside in, treating each circuit as though it is independent of the rest.

The outermost two resistors are hooked up in parallel (R5 and R6). Because there are only two resistors in this circuit, we can solve for the “equivalent” resistance by using the formula above. Therefore, R5-6 = 30*60 / 30 + 60 = 20Ω.

The next step “into” the center of the circuit is a series circuit composed of R3, R4, and the equivalent value for R5-6. Since in series circuits, we can simply add the partial resistnaces to get the total, we arrive at: 20 + 10 + 20 = 50Ω

This leaves us with a simple series circuit with three resistors – R1, R2, and the equivalent of R4-5-6. Again, we have a series circuit, so we simply add up the partial resistances to arrive at our final Total Resistance for the entire combination circuit. Therefore, 50 + 30 + 50 = 130Ω = Rt

Now that we know the total resistance, finding the total current through the circuit is as easy as using Ohm’s Law: E = I * R. Therefore, 240w = I * 130Ω, and I = 1.846 amps. Now we can use Ohm’s Law’s other formula to figure out the total power. P = I * E = 1.846 * 240 = 443.1 watts.

Now we know all of the totals for the circuit. They are as follows:
Rt = 130Ω
Et = 240v
It = 1.846 A
Pt = 443.1w.

From here you could go on to solve the current or voltage drops at any particular point along the circuits, or similarly figure out the work done at any point along the circuit’s path.

There you have it: you can now solve practically any circuit you’ll encounter.  And remember, practice makes perfect, so keep doing examples until you feel thoroughly comfortable with all these past few lessons.  If you’d like another explanation of combination circuits, check out the links below:

Physics Classroom Tutorial

Understanding and Calculating Combination Circuits

Electrical Engineering Training Series

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Photovoltaic Class

To all my fellow travelers on the road to solar living! If you’re following along with the solar power class, be sure to note that the class now has its own page on the site (it’s at the top of the page on the right-hand side), where you can find all the lessons in one easy to remember place. If you are following along, stop by and say hello to your other classmates by commenting on that page, so we can facilitate discussion and learning for all involved. Also, if you find great resources that everyone will want to know about, post them there!

For my fellow Los Angeles classmates who are checking in, though all the information now posted is publicly available to all who visit the site, there will eventually some information and resources posted which are specific to our class that will be available only via password. By commenting and saying hello, I will know your email address to send you a password when such information is posted.

See you there!

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Find Balance (or it will find you!)

What is it about balance, the great equalizer, that makes it so circumspect a teacher? In life I have always had a tendency to go overboard on things… not dangerously or nuttily so (hopefully!) but if I decide that nothing beats peach ice cream, well, three or four pounds of that stuff might make it into the shopping basket!   Which is where I find myself now: having discovered all of a sudden that there IS a corner fit to raise a few plants in the confines of my current tiny living space, I proceeded to buy about seven pots and plant all sorts of seeds that I’ve collected over the past few years while waiting for a spot to garden again.

I was feeling a little guilty about taking up so much available real estate with pots.  However, so busy was I watching the pretty little seedlings push up out of the soil and grow stouter and sturdier with each passing day that I neglected to notice that my kittens are also growing each day, and getting into more and more mischief along the way.  So it was that the other night there occurred a tragic plant homicidal incident that I knew was coming somewhere in the back of my head.  The kittens, having recently discovered the joy of heights, have taken to sleeping in my plant pots, tipping them wantonly, and chewing off the young greens.  Every morning, I awake to a new field of floral carnage and (literally!) soiled carpet. My plants have become refugees in their own biosphere, moving every few hours to places where they can be guarded against feline attack.  One kitten in particular has decided that nothing beats an aromatherapy nap in my basil, rosemary, and mint, and all three are currently trying to adjust to the daily stomp-down.  Not that I blame him, it DOES smell good there!  But at least it forced me to redecide on an appropriate amount of space to devote to growing, since several pots required replanting or retirement.  Ah, balance, the great teacher.

Growing an herb garden is shockingly easy, as herbs generally tolerate spottier care than other plants and they smell so wonderful along the way.  Of course, each has its own desired care prescription (planting mint, a water lover, and sage or lavender (drought lovers) together in the same pot might not be the best idea, unless you like seriously wilted sage!), and likes differing amounts of light.  But in general, all will stand up to more abuse than a “pretty flower” plant.  (If your growing conditions are seriously strenuous, consider cactus gardening.  Mine have survived and even thrived in trying conditions, and they require little to no water except when flowering.)  An added bonus of a kitchen garden is that fewer pests will be able to find your tender plants and unleash their destructive forces.  Of course, as I’ve found, you might have bigger pests to deal with!  Also, you’ll be able to enjoy fresh herbs for cooking year-round.  Basil, mint, lavender, wild strawberries, rosemary, ginger, and garlic are reliable performers for the beginning gardener.  To find out more about planting an herb garden, see the WikiHow article link in the gardening section of the links panel.  In no time, you’ll be kicking those packaged 1500-mile-to-plate supermarket herbs to the curb.

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Getting the Mail

Reducing your life footprint on the earth sometimes means making a few more… by walking instead of driving to local destinations.

Having sold the car a few months back as part of this solarious experiment, I’ve been hoofing it all over the city this summer. It’s been great for getting a tan, and also a refreshing way to view the neighborhoods in my area. A good walking street does not necessarily mean the same for driving, and since you have plenty of time to examine things as you go by, you’ll probably find yourself seeing details you never noticed right in your own stretch of town. I use the time to look for edible and native plants along the street… in Los Angeles, there is an old law that states any tree or plant that overhangs the sidewalk is fair game for harvesting by the general public (see FallenFruit.org, a great website complete with “Fruit maps” and a commendable mission statement for more on this). Yesterday, as I trekked to get my mail from the post office, a stretch of about 1 3/4 miles that I used to cover by car in about 5 minutes without more thought or notice than to curse the traffic gods, I recorded the following:

Walking down Santa Monica Blvd, sharing the sidewalk with transvestite hookers and average Joe and Jane shoppers peacefully co-mingling around large retail storefronts, I turn back onto a neighborhood street once known as an artists’ mecca, but which is now a darkly comical mix of homeless people camping near the lawns of middle income family homes. There are ample opportunities for herb stalking here, which occupies me for the remainder of the block (a funny thing about LA is that regardless of its immense size, the cultural landscape changes drastically every couple of blocks, kind of like a permanent Olympic Village).

I make my way to Melrose Ave, past a sea of tourists waiting in a never-ending line for Pinks Hotdogs, and past the local halfway house for adults with developmental disabilities which shares its corner with one of the most popular Cuban restaurants in town. As I walk by, the halfway house residents are watching the arrival of a Hollywood celebutante and her entourage at the restaurant, who, needless to say, are not watching those watching them. Melrose is awash with foreigners who haven’t yet heard about the street’s decline and think that they’ll find the next hot designer outfit there. These days, you’re more likely to find a ten dollar clubbing outfit or a glass bong, though a few brave designers have shops there still. Mixing with the exotic foreigners’ accents are the rough voices of immortal punk rockers, the giggles of wannabe high school hipsters, and the rolling grumbles of Persian and Asian store owners who still work the sidewalks attracting customers. Turning off Melrose, I walk down the alley through an open air art museum, courtesy of the talented taggers and spray can artists who’ve made the alleys their gallery for years, and hopefully for many more to come. This is one of my favorite spots in the city, and I linger for a few moments to appreciate the ever-changing canvas.

Beyond there is another neighborhood, this one the domain of the local Orthodox Jewish population, where men in Yarmulkas drive nice cars (except on Shabats) and women in long black skirts push double wide strollers down the sidewalks. This is another foraging mecca, lots of date palms and fruit trees, undoubtedly because the second-generation families who live there still appreciate the historic reality of food shortages and self-sufficiency. The houses themselves are historic craft services houses from the golden days of Hollywood, each with their own character and story.

Turning onto Beverly Blvd, I start to notice Ferraris and Porsches parked street-side, indicating I’m now in the realm of the hipster designers. Trendy cafes and coffeehouses are interspersed with interior design firms and Fashion Week designer boutiques. Writers peer intensely at passers by from behind their laptops and eavesdrop on actors who gather to share “I’m too cool” party tales with other actors with whom they are, no doubt, too cool to be hanging out. Finally, I pass the local public park, a haven for youth sports leagues, middle aged joggers, and boheme-chic refugees from CBS Studios’ resident neighborhood actor population and the renowned Farmer’s Market (which is now more like a shopping mall) just beyond. Inside the park’s entrance stands a largely ignored Holocaust monument to those who died in the great war and the remnants of an old amphitheater that, despite being in the heart of thespian territory, today only serves as a frisbee park for local dogs and the meeting spot for several Hollywood fitness boot camps.

In twenty minutes, I feel like an ambassador at the United Nations, having traveled half the globe without ever leaving town! As a bonus, I’ve gathered enough seeds from passing plants to start a respectable guerrilla garden somewhere, got a good workout, and it took no fossil fuels to get to my destination, save whatever was used in making the rubber soles of my shoes. Most importantly, I got to interact with my neighborhood on a personal level, rather than simply staring out the window at a traffic light.

Is there somewhere local that you generally drive that would be a good candidate for a walk? If time is a luxury, then treat yourself to a little jaunt through your local world. Picking a regularly scheduled destination you already frequent will help encourage you to ditch the car and get out more often than simply saying “I will go for more walks”, at least if the shattered remains of many new years resolutions are any indication. When you do decide to hoof it, keep a mental trip journal and post your best tales here! See you on the street~

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