Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Birdhouse Gourd Seedling


This is a Birdhouse Gourd seedling a few days after I sowed the seed.  Clearly I should not have started these so early and maybe not indoors at all.

I'm having flashbacks of the first year I started seeds indoors.  Not knowing any better I sowed green bean seeds in coir pellets.  They grow ferociously up into the fluorescent light fixtures before I finally gave up and composted them all.  That year I learned that green beans should be direct sowed and gained a new understanding of the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk so I did not consider it a complete failure.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dervaes Family Jumps the Shark

Remember that Happy Days episode where Fonzie is water skiing in shorts and leather bomber jacket when he jumps over a shark? That episode is thought to have signified a change in the show that eventually led to its being taken off the air.  Years later, people still use the phrase “jump the shark”. Wikipedia says it refers specifically to “the point...where the plot spins off into absurd storylines...it has reached a point of decline in quality that it is incapable of recovering from."  Dervaes family, I'm talking to you.




By now you’ve heard the news that the Dervaes family applied for and was granted trademarks to the phrases “urban homestead”, “urban homesteading” and a bunch of other ones.  Like many folks who've written about the Dervaes' this week, I was a big fan of theirs when I first started gardening and discovered garden blogs.  I couldn't wait to read about what new techniques they were trying in their garden.  I looked forward to seeing what they were cooking in that Jetsons looking solar oven.  And those walks they took their goats on.  God!  I loved it!  When I decided to build my own raised vegetable beds I combed their site looking for instructions or pictures of their beds so I could determine how to construct mine.  As much as I could, I designed my garden like theirs.  I remember thinking they’d be proud.  The more I read about them, the more I was amazed at their commitment to sustainable living especially in their urban environment.  I was impressed by how much of their own food they could produce on their small bungalow lot in Pasadena, California.  I would fixate on pictures they'd post of gatherings hosted at their house, looking beyond the guests at the mix-matched dishes they used, how their house was furnished with old looking stuff.  Wondering what it would be like if I’d kept and still used half the serviceable things I gave away, proudly wearing my dated household items as an environmental badge of honor.  I joined their site, commented on their blog posts, I was all in.

I can't pinpoint exactly when I stopped reading their blog regularly.  I just recall that over time, the content became less and less about what they were doing on their urban homestead and more and more about speaking engagements, TV shows and movies.  I went there to read about gardening but all I got was self-promotion.

Then, one day a few weeks ago I saw a preview of an upcoming episode of the VH1 TV show You're Cut Off which had been filmed at the Dervaes family's urban homestead.  Although I was excited to see a familiar blog on mainstream TV, something didn’t seem right about it.  These reality TV shows are just the type of thing they’d disapprove of, I thought.  Hell, I got the impression they were opposed to whole idea of TV!  They'd jumped the shark.  

In case you've never seen it, You're Cut Off is a reality show where a group of spoiled brats (these girls come from very rich families, they don't work and don't feel like they should have to) are forced to live together in a house and participate in "challenges" that are designed to make them appreciate what they have, motivate them to get a job and stop living off their families. The episode at the Dervaes house was predictable.  They made a smoothie on the blender bicycle.  They cleaned out the animal's cages.  A goat escaped.  And the Dervaes girls were there, one of them barefoot like usual.  I was not inspired by the Dervaes’ at all and it disappointed me.  Maybe they were just nervous or maybe it was the editing of the show but they seemed like zombies.  I guess I expected to see them speak so passionately about the importance of growing your own food and conserving energy that all the girls would be, well, converted.  Instead, they were more like "we make smoothies on this here bike.  Deal with it!"

It's funny how things snowball with the power of the Internet and social media.  A few days after the You're Cut Off episode aired, all hell broke loose for the Dervaes family.  Somebody found out they’d trademarked the common terms urban homestead and urban homesteading, cease and desist letters were being sent to authors of books written on urban homesteading long before they’d filed the paperwork for the trademark.  Facebook was ordered to take down pages that used the newly trademarked terms. And the family has been under attack ever since.  I expected them to be shocked and apologetic by our reactions but instead, they took down their Facebook page have since been posting angry sounding messages on their website about how we’ve misunderstood them.  “Get your facts straight!”  And something about “bloggers are not reporters!”  I love that last one the most since, well, they’re bloggers, too!

Most of the folks speaking out against the Dervaes trademark of this old and commonly used term are writers who understand and respect the need for trademarking and protecting intellectual property.  But they’re quite appalled that this term is even trademarkable (it has been commonly used to describe this way of life for a very long time) and even more so that the Dervaes family would take steps to prevent us from using the only term we know to describe the very thing they’re forever proselytizing about.  That they would pursue legal action against folks that share their goal and vision of how we could better use our backyards and are trying to teach people how to do it, just like them, has left us bewildered and angry.  

It’s clear their motivation has shifted and in the process, they’re losing a big part of their faithful audience.  I suspect the VH1 show and this trademarking debacle are just publicized examples of it and that this transition started a long time ago.  Maybe this was always the plan?  Either way, I believe this will be the beginning of the end of their business, as they know it.  I'm not saying Path To Freedom, Urban Homestead (and all the many other names they do business under) will cease to exist, but I am saying it won't continue in the same capacity.  And they’re going to need to recruit a whole new audience.  Since they’ve pissed off a huge part of their fan base, they might want to consider riding with this mainstream reality TV thing.  They’ll be widely recognized as the freakazoid family from Pasadena who take their goats on walkabouts around town rather than trailblazers committed to educating people on real ways to improve our planet.  As I said before, they seem to already be heading that way.  There's been a clear shift from teaching people how to build and manage their own urban homestead to publicizing and capitalizing on their personal family endeavors.  Now, at other's expense.

It all reminds me of John and Kate Plus 8.  Remember?  They started out as a nice wholesome family with a million kids but sometime along the way, the money, the fame, something went to their head.  Subsequently, the family fell apart. The husband may or may not have cheated on the wife; the wife turned into or was exposed as being a shallow mom pimping her kids for money.  Their show ended and now we mostly hear about them in the tabloids (last I heard two of the kids had been expelled from school for being bullies), or see them in cameo appearances on shows like Sarah Palin’s Alaska.  Or ones that recruit washed up celebs.  I still have flashbacks of Kate on Dancing with the Stars.  Every time I hear that Lady Gaga song Paparazzi I cringe as I picture Kate in that red dress, heavy make up, making that scary face. Awkwardly shuffling across the dance floor rigidly gripping her unlucky partner.  It’s got me wondering if the Dervaes are gonna end up selling potting soil at Home Depot one day.  I mean really?  What’s next for them?  And for God’s sake, what were they thinking?  I’m not worried in the least about them taking legal action against folks for using the term urban homesteading.  There are just too many of us.  But somewhere inside I feel a little sorry for them.  They had a good thing going. 

Dervaes family, I thought you were one of us.  I’m disappointed.  

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On Growing and Buying Basil

My favorite area of the garden to work is the bed where the basil is planted.  I don't even mind weeding that one because I know each time my arm brushes against it, or the bindweed slaps it as it gets ripped out and crammed into the trash, the sweet sexy smell of basil gets released into the air.  When I'm working in that bed I breath long deep breaths hoping to get a whiff of it and in doing so I've accidentally transported myself into a more meditative place.  I am breathing like I am doing yoga.

The other day I paid over five dollars for a small jar of dried basil.  As a gardener who grows basil every year, it crushed me to do it.  But, I have been making soup like crazy this winter and nearly every recipe calls for basil.  Even if it doesn't, I add it, anyway.  Because, more basil! Everything needs more basil!

Basil has got to be the easiest herb to grow in a home garden.  I am notorious for neglecting my garden but while other plants sometimes suffer, the basil flourishes.  In my garden it is very disease resistant and will grow where ever I stick it.  In past years I have seriously underutilized my basil crop.  I chop up a few leaves for pizza or salad and some gets used in the marinara I can but most of it gets sent to work with my husband who gives it to his coworker who gives it to her father who loves to make pesto.  I get up early in the morning and traipse out to the garden, sleepy-eyed, still in my pajamas to harvest it.  I bring in whatever will fit in my giant old blue plastic strainer, wash it, pick off any leaves with the slightest blemish then label the bag.  Organic Basil.  Harvested today!  I feel proud.  I think my husband does, too.  

This year I'm growing a lot more basil.  And I'm trying some new-to-me varieties.  Thai basil for one. A spicy Greek one and some type of red basil.  Maybe some others, too.  I forget.  After being traumatized by buying that dried basil, I went crazy shopping for basil seed vowing never to purchase dried basil, again.  I should have plenty to give away this year but I'm also studying up on the best ways to dry and store basil.  My good friend tells me I should just wash the leaves and freeze them while they're still fresh.  I'll try this too.

If you store your own basil, I'd love to hear how you do it.  Do you freeze it fresh?  Do you dry it?  If so, what's the process for drying it and what do you store it in?  And if you have a garden but have never grown basil, please!  Grow it this year!  Whether you have an in-ground garden or you garden in containers, it will not disappoint you.

Friday, February 11, 2011

On Indoor Seed Starting 2011

I have a decent seed starting set up in the basement.  I use one of those 4 foot wide 18 inch deep metal shelving units and cheap 4 foot shop lights, two lights per shelf, each fixture having 2 fluorescent bulbs (4 bulbs total per shelf).  The shop lights hang effortlessly from thin Ikea hooks and the chains that came with the lights.  The lights are on 14-16 hours per day and shut off automatically thanks to the cheap timers they're plugged in to.  I could lament about my love for the metal shelves an entire post.  They have worked so well for my seed starting set up that I now have one in the kitchen injecting a modern industrial feel to an otherwise traditional, boring room.  If you are looking to set up your own indoor seed starting operation, I highly recommend them.

I hadn't been in that room of the basement since we took the FEMA guy there to inspect flood damage from the bad storm back in July 2010.  We had over a foot of seepage water before the storm finished but I don't feel right complaining about it since many of my friend's basements were flooded with sewage water.  Three feet in one case, cat liter boxes floating along the top like small house boats.  One person in the community described what it was like to watch feces floating amongst her children's toys.  We were lucky.

My seed starting materials are confined to a corner back room of the basement where I have the seed shelf with lights and a solidly built albeit too shallow work table constructed and bolted down by some former owner.  The rest of the room is storage space. A mattress set shoved against the wall.  A china cabinet.  My old Onkyo stereo system with its double cassette players and giant black speakers.  God! I was so excited when I bought that thing a million years ago.  

When I finally mustered up the motivated to clean the room so I could get some seeds started, just walking in there took me back to the flood.  The unopened hedge trimmer I won in some essay contest nearly 4 years ago laying the middle of the floor still wrapped in plastic, the box warped and discolored. Both of my already confirmed-dead cordless drills still there because I couldn't bring myself to get rid of them, yet.  The rusted drill bits.  Gallon water jugs cut for winter sowing sitting in the middle of the room where they'd floated off the bottom shelf of the metal seed rack eventually settling there when the water finally drained.  And the new $800 water heater we bought after the flood ruined ours leaving us hot water-less for days.  Still, once I got started, it was just like being in the garden. Getting into a zone.  Losing yourself then suddenly realizing you're finished as a sense of accomplishment washes over you.  

Even though I've been starting some of my own plants from seed over the past few years, I never get the timing right.  I'm late with everything. Sometimes so late that the seedlings don't grow large enough to be transplanted into the ground by summer and end up in the compost pile.  This year is liable to be the same but I am happy to report I'm off to a better start than usual.  

In zone 5, now is the time to start onions and leeks.  Onions take a long time to grow from seed.  In fact, they need nearly 12 weeks before they're ready to transplant.  This year I am growing Flat of Italy and Jaune Paille Des Vertus onions, both from several year old seeds.  I sowed about 3 seeds per pellet in hopes I'll get at least one in every pellet to germinate.  

More than anything else in gardening, seed starting brings out my insecurities.  As meticulously as I can, I drop the seeds down into what is supposed to be the hole in the rehydrated pellet but the seeds, usually some shade of brown, blend in with the stringy granules of choir the pellets are filled with and I'm never really sure I actually got them in the hole.  Or if they're laying on top of the choir. Or if the seeds even hit the pellet at all.  Still, I assume they are there then take the end of a pen, gently pressing down in the center of the pellets, worrying the seeds might be sticking to the pen and I'm actually shoving multiple types of seed into one pellet.  What I'm saying is there's a good chance that I'll have Painted Daisy, Thyme and Stevia all fighting for space in the same pellet.  Then I'll be faced with the moral dilemma of which gets sacrificed.  What I need is a fancy instrument to inject single seeds, no matter how tiny they are.  

It's cold down in the basement.  The seed tray covers will keep the seeds a little warmer but I still have to fight the urge to plug up a space heater.  Then I envision the space heater resulting in a $500 electric bill, or worse, starting a fire that'll burn our house down.  And there's the fear that nothing will germinate.  That somehow I have contaminated every single pellet.  Or that nature just stopped working.  The failure of seeds to germinate can be pretty traumatic for a gardener.  For now I'm hoping that seeds are where they need to be, properly hydrated, not contaminated and warm, enough.