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April 26, 2012

Guerrilla Homesteading 101: Let it Rain

They are predicting drought here this year, and it finally spurred us into action on setting up rain catchment to assure our garden gets water without pushing any rationing limits. Since our town is on a number of small municipal wells, water quality can greatly decrease if the aquifers run low, increasing the concentration of things like boron and sulfur. Also known as stink. A few days before a predicted storm, I had a couple of days off, and set out to start saving the rain.
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February 17, 2009

You Can Find Me In The Garden If You Want Me…

This was originally shaping up to be a huge blog; heavy with both polemic and practicality. I decided to split them up. This is the garden plan as it goes at the cabin.

The Mountaintop

The top of the mountain behind the cabin was cleared a decade or so ago, and is in the slow process of remediation. I’m planning on a feral garden up there eventually, with collected wild edibles from around the county. So far, all I have done is put in a few transplanted fir trees to serve as an eventual windbreak and thrown down about 25 lbs of a local wildlife forage seed blend both to improve the soil and to draw in more deer. My goal is to make this garden actually meet the dream above, working to establish self-sustaining guilds of wild natives, so I only need to go up there when I have a hankering for wild foods, or deer huntin’

The Failure Garden
A small portion of the main garden will be dedicated to torturing plants. Experiments on nutrient bombing, water deprivation, off-season growing, forced fruiting, and whatever dumb ideas I have. By expecting to fail in most of the experiments, I will hopefully not be disappointed when I discover that strawberries cannot grow on a diet of pure urine and that you can not cross breed marijuana and hops.

The Greywater Garden

I want to do a grey water garden at the bottom of the hill below the cabin with structural bamboo. But that shit is EXPENSIVE! So it will probably be flowers and such until I find a good cheap source for thick bamboo. Thinking about setting up a few drainage beds from the grey water to feed craft gourds and maybe pumpkins for the trebuchet.

The Cabin Planters
Nothing says “home” like planters in front of the house filled with beautiful flowers. Of course, we’ll have flowers. Bee Balm, Nasturtiums, burnet, Marigolds, chamomile, Bachelor’s Button, Lavender, Lilac, Roses, Violets and Borage. Should look pretty. They are also ALL edible. Behind the cabin (south face) is a 45 square foot area totally overgrown by native Yerba Buena. It had over grown chicken wire, old wood and assorted rubbish when I first got here, and after ripping it all our, I had a few dire strands of herb. A year later, I have a lush ground cover and an unrelenting supply of tea.

The Wild Ones
Blackberry, Huckleberry, Bay and a really hilarious Boletes patch coming up in a tanoak fairy circle next to our manure pile are our primary cultivation spots. We also have oyster alley, a strand of oaks that keep falling over in the wind and which have provided oyster mushrooms three years running. I don’t expect this to continue forever, but the more I know about “when that tree fell” the easier it is to find oysters. Meanwhile, we have a good blackberry strand starting up behind the Yerba Santa, which we have been training into a hedge row. The bay is all over the place, though we have four trees by our gate. Selective pruning has provided me with a great amount of wonderful smoker chips for the BBQ (Bay smoked asparagus is one of the best things I have ever cooked in a barbeque.)

The Roadside
Our driveway runs along the edges of three hills, and during heavy rains, huge rivers run off the side of the road. I have trenched the driveway repeatedly, and have inadvertently created silty little run-off beds on the sides of the road. I’m hoping to put in some sort of useful dry land plants that can take advantage of the winter rains and make it through the summer on fog drip. (any ideas? I want useful, before pretty.)

The Main Garden

The main garden is a half acre flat spot about 100 yards from the cabin. This will be intensive raised beds, potato towers, herb spirals, inverted tomatoes and any other thing we find that works, or at least entertains. . . We’ve been sacrificing firewood for edging as we clear firebreaks, using the felled trees as the walls of our raised beds. I put down a total green manure crop in fall, using rye grass, clover, mustard vetch and bell bean seed that had been spilled at work. We mulched it with a dozen bales of wheat straw, and now have a decent pasture coming up, which I will till down at the end of this month, or the beginning of next.

This tilling is merely an attempt to get some topsoil action going on, as the clearing is mostly sandstone and clay at the moment. I’m not planning on a lifetime of soil chopping, just trying to get a bit of organic matter in the ground around the beds before the first year. Also note, that without the tilling, it would take years to do what I am still trying to do totally organically, not even adding gypsum to break up the clay.

Our raised beds are a combination of our own compost, three year old horse manure (very well composted) and peat moss along with a generous helping of the local “dirt”. Underneath the soil of the beds is a thin layer of rice straw. I chose rice straw since it doesn’t seed out like wheat. In the areas that were heavily overgrown with chaparral or yerba santa, I’ve put down unbleached cardboard sheets beneath the soil to try and kill off the root spreaders. I had a redwood shoot out of the cardboard I put down for the cabin planters, so we’ll see how this works with some actual cover over it.

I hope that in fifteen years or so, the raised beds will have rotted away the logs, and the whole garden area will be fertile and capable of sustaining plant life. My ideal dream is that some sort of symbiosis will occur and I will just go out and pick food year round with no weeding, planting or work. Yeah, right… But dreams provide direction, even if they are perfectly unattainable. I’m sure we are all familiar with that feeling.

The main garden also includes the orchard, which right now consists of a lonely self-fertile peach tree. I’m planning on apples, plums, cherries and pears as well, but don’t have the money for trees this year, nor the time and experience to try and graft my own. I am bringing up some seed from neighbor’s trees, but this is a VERY long process, so I will be bringing in some more developed babies when I can afford them.

The Seeds

We’re focusing on using only open-pollinated, non-hybrid seeds where ever possible. We hope to save, trade and share seed, with gradually decreasing orders each year as we increase our personal seed bank. I hope that in a decade or so, we’ll simply do our yearly seed planning by ordering a new varietal or two

Surprisingly, it’s only about a dollar more per packet than buying your standard Ferry Morse packets from the garden center. This year our seed order is a bit odd, as we are experimenting on growing interesting heirlooms for sale at the farmer’s market, and trying to find out what does well here. I will also admit the three colors of carrots simply feeds my current obsession with stew brewing.

This year’s Seed Order

Lima bean (Henderson Bush),
Green Beans (Contender and Mayflower),
Broccoli (Romanesco),
Brussels sprouts (Long island improved),
Cauliflower (Purple of Sicily)
Carrots (Atomic Red, Cosmic Purple, Lunar White)
Celery (Tender Crisp)
Corn (Yellow King Dent, Dakota Black Pop)
Cucumber (Crystal Apple)
Huckleberry (chichiquelite)
Strawberry (Red Wonderwild)
Quinoa (kasalala)
Bok Choi (Canton)
Peas (Sugarsnap)
Hot Pepper (Anaheim)
Sweet Pepper (Golden Cal Wonder, Sweet Chocolate)
Radish (Purple Plum)
Squash (Lebanese White Bush Marrow, and Vegetable Spaghetti)
Tomato (Green Zebra, Kentucky Beefsteak, Cherokee Purple, Red Grape, Tom Watson)
Artichoke (purple of romagia)
Asparagus (Precoce d’ argentevul)
Salad Mixes

Stuff we’re getting locally
Potatoes (Calgold, Yukon, Red LaSota, Trueblue) (We get these at cost, so aren’t pursuing anything fancy)
Garlic n Onions (We already have a bed of each coming up strong, even with the snows this winter)
Our Trees

And, finally, yet another appeal.

As I said in the companion blog; Grow! Fill boxes with dirt if you need to. Shoplift seed from walmart if that is the only way you can do it. But right now, we should all be focused on growing our own food, by any means necessary. If nothing goes wrong, you have the freshest, healthiest food possible. If the dollar tanks, or food shortages and famine erupt, you’ll at least eat a bit more than you would otherwise.

Those of you with backyard lawns, SHAME ON YOU! Tear that sod up, compost it, and plant a garden. If you already have a big backyard garden, tear out your front lawn.

February 17, 2009


I am not a lifelong gardener by any means. I have done a bit of “dirt in a box” planting, and kept an underground herb garden in the SF basement using $8 full spectrum light bulbs and aluminum shaded work lights. I have a few tomatoes under my belt, and a few houseplants. I set my mom’s back yard up as a garden, but did it too well, and the work of harvesting and storing was too much for her, so she’s got flowers now in a few good strips of fertile soil. By nature, I am a walker and a builder, not a grower. So, again, my experience in this blog is limited compared to my camping stuff.

However, I want this blog to inspire you. I am not a master gardener; I don’t have a permaculture design certificate. My thumb is only green when the hammer pounded blood blisters get gangrenous. However, even for me, it is surprisingly easy to stuff a few seeds in some dirt and let the seeds do the rest of the work. Just water and occasionally feed. Some plants will flourish and feed you, others will die and feed the soil. But eventually, and probably sooner than you expect, you’ll get that breakout plant. You’ll be wading in food and you will instantly be hooked. Your successes will increase, and eventually, you’ll be sitting in a camper in the mountains trying to figure out what you can grow there. Well, it worked for me, anyways.

At this point in history, gardening may be the most socially aware and culturally subversive act we can involve ourselves in. If we are truly concerned with liberties, rights and justice; we must realize that dependence breeds consent. Not needing to rely upon the established distribution networks allows us to work directly for ourselves, without paying our tithing to the cesspool of corruption in corporate boardrooms, and government’s halls. Nothing is as liberating as being free to feed yourself. Should you grow enough to feed others, you can safely call yourself a revolutionary.

If we are to change the world, we must change our relationship to it. It is difficult to bite a hand that feeds, no matter how hard it strikes us, but it becomes downright impossible with it wrapped around our throat. We must begin to provide for ourselves in any way we can. And while in many places we are unable to dig a well, built a wikiup, or sleep naked under the stars, there is NO place we cannot grow.

When we grow food, we are doing more than growing calories, we are growing ourselves. Gaining a deeper understanding of our agrarian past and the fragility of our agricultural present. But one of the most important things we learn is a potential for independence. Once I realized that I really could grow my own food, all bets were off. I had always known it was possible, but until I took that first bite of a tomato that had grown in a old, duct-taped television box on my apartment’s balcony, I did not understand what it meant, how easy it was, and how deprived we really were to not have that simple understanding forced into our brains while in kindergarten. The fact that I spent months on a fairy tale history of America, and “oh yeah, here’s a lima bean in a milk box…” is probably 90% of the reason this country went to shit in the first place. Food comes from money and money grows on trees, obviously.

This year, plant a garden. If that seems too much, buy a packet of seed, spend fifteen minutes on google and bring up your favorite plant. Do it in an old shoe, coffee can or a million dollar antique vase. When you eat something you have grown from seed, you might find yourself growing roots, becoming more safely tied to the earth in these topsy-turvy times. And you will grow more next year.

If you have the spare time, or can make it, I urge you all to grow much more than one seed. Plant guerrilla gardens, pull out your pretty willow trees and drop peaches, stick alfalfa seeds in your ears. But GROW! Because the ability to feed yourself could become very important in the coming months. If it does not, and we can still rely on grapes from Chile, then at least your food won’t reek of diesel, and you can spend your grocery budget elsewhere.

You should grow for others. If you wind up with too many zucchini starts, give them to friends. Tell them you just want a hundred dried seeds back. Involve them. Give the meme of seed this year. If you’ve spent the last eight years protesting, then you should be ready to convince people of the importance of growing. Every bite we take that is not fed to us by a system which we claim to abhor is an act of personal liberation, and every convert we gain is an act of insurrection against the agro-chemical-corporate-complex that would patent our world into monoculture.

I always liked Sartre the best of the existentialists. He wasn’t such a freaking emo-kid about the absurdity of life, like Nietzsche and Camus. But one of the most important things he ever said, in my opinion, was when he was talking about the validation of ethical systems in a world without a god. He suggested that we should live our lives with the hopes that everyone will live exactly like us.

While this is not the source of my personal ethical philosophy, it does guide a great many of my actions, and enlighten many of my concerns. But when I stand at the garden gates and look out at my green manure and the slowly emerging grand garden, I frequently wonder what our world would be like if everyone grew food as a hobby, as a passion, or as life support.

We may overthrow a government with guns, but we will make it obsolete with gardens; under-throwing it with seed.

June 14, 2007

Growing the Holy Weed

It is estimated that in Mendocino county alone, the illegal cultivation of marijuana is a five billion dollar a year industry. Teenagers write sorrowful letters to local papers bewailing the situation where a straight A student struggles to have enough money for clothes, while their near drop-out peers, already employed at $30 an hour to trim buds, are driving around in gigantic new trucks. Indeed, when many of my friends heard of our move to Mendocino, they asked, “You gonna grow pot?”

The answer is always no. However, I have recently discovered another weed which might prove quite lucrative in the future. Yerba Santo, the holy weed. Used in a variety of methods such a direct chewing or steeped as a tea it is widely hailed to relive respiratory problems, such as asthma and bronchitis. It can be applied directly to inflammations to ease hives, rashes and swelling or combined with other plants can be used to make a salve to alive these symptoms. Until I read this, I had more interesting names than holy weed reserved for the thousands of yerba santo plants littering the area around the cabin, which could miraculously re-grow in days after clearing an entire area. We have thousands of these plants.

In my Guerrilla Camping articles, many often commented on my avoidance of the topic of foraging. The reason has been because there are dozens of authoritative books on the subject with great illustrations and written by experts with a profound understanding of poisonous look-alikes, seasonal uses and a vast catalog of plants they understand. My foraging and wildcrafting abilities are narrow, yet regularly grow as I find myself living in new places, exposed to new flora. In short, I don’t want somebody to read something I write and then go and poison themselves with a poisonous fennel look-a-like.

One interesting piece of wildcrafted lore is that whenever one finds a poison in the wilds, you will find it’s antidote within fifty paces. So when I read that Yerba Santo, combined with a weedy yellow flower called San Francisco Gum Weed, is an excellent southing agent for the rashes of poison oak, I banged my head against the table. Of course! I have thousands of poison oak plants and thousands of Yerba Santo plants.

Yerba Santo, the ubiquitous weed up here is actually quite useful and grows out of control. The weed is sold, dried and powdered, online for $40 a pound, and 365 capsules (presumably a year’s supply) sell for slightly less. Yet my interest is in preparing a poison oak salve for the use of my WWOOFers, my guests and myself. Should it prove effective, I might try to prepare it for sale at the farmer’s market, combining it with Aloe and other soothing agents.

The lesson is this: before you go ripping plants out of the ground in hopes of growing something profitable, find out what earth has given you first. It will be easier (or unnecessary) to cultivate, will grow within the confines of your available water and soil condition and hopefully someday, when somebody asks what I do, I’ll be able to blow their minds by saying, “I grow the holy weed”. . .