The Urban Homestead: city gardening (book)

June 12, 2008 at 10:27 am Leave a comment

?’The Urban Homestead’ co-author Erik Knutzen talks city gardening and solar cooking : Emerald City : Los Angeles Times?     

The LA times just recently did a blog article on the book The Urban Homestead by Erik Knutzen and his wife. Erik talks about city gardening and solar cooking in this recent work. I make a very, very brief review of the interview covering concepts like starting small, the absolute importance of soil, fruit trees, permaculture and more.

It’s always a smart thing to start small. I learned that the hard way when I was trying to transform my yard almost 2 years ago.

One of the first things Erik tells people is ?to start small.� The mistake that a lot of people make is trying to transform the entire house and yard all at once.� There are all these examples of people doing these really heroic projects to try and maximize the space all at once.� The easiest thing you can do if you have a yard is to build something like a small raised bed to grow a few vegetables in. The one we have is 4×8 feet made out of wood, but it could be made out of other stuff like broken concrete or whatever you have at hand.� You make a box with no bottom, then you buy soil or make compost, and then start vegetable gardening because you know the soil is good.?

It?s a lot harder starting with a whole yard. A lot of work that could have been more wisely used. Back then I didn?t know as much as I do about soil and that tilling can destroy the soil structure. I turned over every bit of soil. Now I know. Alas, I don?t have the time to put that knowledge to use except for through my work to establish FoodCycles (, more of a low energy, high compost greenhouse based on Growing Power Inc. []).

Soil is the life blood of good food. It?s the ground you stand on. It?s what your vegetables (and animals if you have any) depend on for good nutrition. There are even cultures that eat soil just to get the right nutrients and build up a stronger immune system (by challenging it with the microbes in the soil).

Erik explains:
Do you know the expression, “you don’t grow plants, you grow the soil?”� The first thing you really need is the right soil, and in most places the soil you’ll start out with is really bad. Using a raised bed is a way to jump-start growing while you amend the existing soil, which can take years.
If you want to take over the lawn or do something more ambitious, the first step is to really grow the soil.� Make compost, but most people won’t be able to make enough to fertilize a whole yard so you might have to import compost.� We get horse bedding material.� Did you know L.A. has more horses per capita than any other large city in the country?� There is tons of compost around here

Off the top of my head, it takes 100 years to create maybe 1 cm thickness of soil (if you aren?t using a lot of worm compost – haha). Yet today’s “modern” farming and land changing practices literally destroy the soil, something like at 10 times the rate it is created or we lose soil at 1 cm every 10 years – I probably read this somewhere in David Pimentel’s work (a agriculture researcher out of Cornell University). It seems to mirror our destruction of biodiversity – except we’re killing species at 1000 times the normal rate (still debated of course except the UN people who did some research certainly support this – think about last year?s cry about ocean?s losing all the fish!).

We don’t believe in tilling the soil.� We believe you should amend it from above.� Soil has a symbiotic system of fungus and worms that work with the roots of plants.� If you till it you’re going to destroy that relationship.� The way to build it is to add organic matter as mulch. You might have to gently break the soil up a little bit, with a tool called a broadfork, but do it gently.� You definitely shouldn’t till it.� Tilling isn’t just bad for the soil, it contributes to pollution because it releases CO2 into the atmosphere.”

I’ve been thinking about how to get more of these trees in the city or in my yard. An interesting method in India called the Doshi system makes use of bags, compost and a lot of twigs to grow food. It can also be used to grow trees. You want to be “sure to plant them carefully so that they provide shade where you want it — say to cool the house, while at the same time not shading out areas where you want to grow sun-loving vegetables” according to Erik.

In his interview, Erik talks about permaculture and having the “the plants work with each other in a mutually beneficial relationship“. He mentions the “three sisters”.

The best example of this is the “three sisters” that the Native Americans used to plant: corn, squash and beans. The idea being that beans are nitrogen-fixing plants, they pump nitrogen into the soil to fertilize the ground for the corn and the squash.� The corn grows up as a trellis for the beans. The squash serves as a mulch for the other plants. And together these three plants provide an ideal diet for humans.” (the corn and beans provide complementary protein which meets all your protein needs – the human body is made of 80% protein I might add)

I definitely tried this one a year or two ago before my knowledge was as extensive as it was now. In my yard however the squirrels literally wreaked havoc. They ate my corn, knocking them over into the beans. Some of my yellow crookneck squash became victims too. The three aren?t going to be next garden idea for sure and wild corn is known to be notoriously hard to cultivate according to Gerrie Baker, Kingston market gardener and co-owner of The Worm Factory (

What I like is the idea of using as little fossil fuel chemicals as possible. We need living machines (the plants, the insects, the animals) to work with us to grow food and thrive. That?s an important concept coming from permaculture. Erik states: ?This sort of gardening is the opposite of American agriculture.� Too often they’re putting in petro-chemicals temporarily into the soil to try and grow plants.� With permaculture you use nature to do that and create a beneficial feedback cycle.� It also simply requires less labor.?

Erik goes on to say:
?One of the main goals of permaculture is to require as few human inputs as possible. There’s a phrase local permaculture expert David Khan taught me that I really like, “work makes work…” If you plant a grass lawn you have to mow it every week, you have to fertilize it.� I just don’t have time for that kind of work.� I don’t want that kind of work. I also don’t want to pay someone else to do it.
If you work with nature rather than against her, you don’t have to do as much work.� Nature doesn’t need humans to make it go.

It?s a lot more than just gardening. Erik talks about gardening for apartments or small spaces (I’m looking in your direction Molly), foraging in the nearby wild (there are cultures that still do that), home economics and fermenting your own stuff (make your own beer? preservation or canning anyone? in fact, Canadian Organic Growers Toronto is hosting a workshop on preservation – see below).

What I love about the interview is the talk about the sourdough bread.
“… all you have to do is mix flour and water together and every day throw out half the mixture (or make bread with it) and add more flour. The wild yeast is contained in the flour itself, and the air in smaller concentrations.� It’s there naturally.� It’s very easy to make good bread without commercial yeast.”
Bread without commercial yeast lasts longer, tastes better and some say is better for you.”

Erik also talks about solar energy. It’s great that you can use it on a bike and even to cook rice. It ain’t as fast except you never burn it.
DN: I saw a woman at the bike expo in Pasadena the other week pulling an oven baking cookies with solar power on her bike.� I thought that was cool.”
Erik on cooking rice:
We cook our rice in a solar cooker now and it’s easier than cooking on the stove.� We just throw it in the solar cooker and two hours later you have perfectly cooked rice and you can’t burn it. That’s the kind of thing we show how to do in the book and the kind of thing that someone in an apartment or someone who can’t afford solar panels can easily do.

The book looks to be a fascinating and practically useful read. I am definitely keeping this on my to get wish list.

June 25 : Canning and Preserving Workshop
Hosted By: Canadian Organic Growers Toronto
Whole Foods Kitchen, Hazelton Lanes, 87 Avenue Road, Toronto
Time: 6:30 – 8:30 PM
Cost: $5 (COG members free)
Reserve your space:
A hands-on workshop to prepare you to can or preserve this summer’s harvest for future enjoyment!

For the full interview go to:

Keywords: David Pimentel, Cornell, CO2, greenhouse gas emissions, fungus, worms, roots, plants, soil, vegetables, permaculture, urban, agriculture, garden, ferment, storage, preservation, canning, Canadian Organic Growers Toronto, biodiversity, corn, squash, bean, horse, compost, manure, chicken, egg, solar energy, cooking


Entry filed under: Agriculture, Compost, Environment & Sustainability, Food, Local Agriculture, Organic Agriculture, Urban Agriculture, Urban Gardening. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Plant Give-away! (FoodShare) Portable Farms & Stylish Chicken Pens

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