Sunday, February 27, 2011

These are the people in my neighborhood

I've been working on converting the front yard to ebdibles for a couple of years, it's a long process-- getting rid of bermuda grass, palm trees, planting fruit trees rearranging the dirt to create swales and lowered garden beds and so on. I hope to have it all finished by the end of this year, but spending a lot of time in the front yard has made me grateful to be an urban gardener (urban homesteader if you will). I see lots of people pretty regularly while I'm out there working, my close-by neighbors of course, and those are varied, kind and interesting people for sure, but today I'd like to talk about the other folks that pass by. So here are some brief profiles:

Backwards man: One of my favorites, he goes around the neighborhood several times a day in his wheelchair, backwards. We have brief conversations; when he sees me out working, he stops at my house to light his cigarette. Apparently he used to garden when he lived in San Diego. For awhile he got a motorized wheelchair and went forward, but he's recently returned to going backwards in a regular wheelchair. I asked him what happened to the electric chair (I'm sure this term isn't ideal) he replied, "It got a flat tire man, I'm totally bummed out!"

Murphy, the mayor of 14th St: I learned about the "mayor" part from a guy that lives a few streets away (on 14th St) that works at Home Depot. We figured out we were neighbors once when he was helping me with some appliance questions. Ironically, I see him nearly every time I'm at Home Depot and get caught up in neighborhood news, but have never seen him once around the neighborhood, but I digress. If there ever existed a man that would be well-served pedaling a bicycle instead of riding a converted one (powered by a lawnmower engine) it would be Murphy. However, he has lots of "business" around the neighborhood and must need to make his pick-ups and deliveries expeditiously. He's recently branched out from his uhm, herbal sales to making those irritating motorized bicycles. His sounds like a big giant bee, which sort of fits with his appearance, another one that he's made for a neighborhood guy sounds like a sputtering fart, and a third that was made for a possible business partner sounds like a mosquito, which brings me to....

The mosquito: Built like a mosquito, otherwise looks like a hippie. Almost like a cross-dressing hippie. He tends to wear a lot of tank tops and very short cut-off jean shorts. He used to ride an old ten speed around but then switched to this. He has a long-time lady friend that sometimes doubles up on the bike, but I have also seen him taking her around in a cart attached to the back of the bike that I'm pretty sure was made from an old wheelbarrow/dolly with the handles bent upwards for gripping. She looks a bit like the grandma from Beverly Hillbillies so the sight of this contraption going by will make anyone laugh and really brighten your day.

That old whore Lois: She's the neighborhood nuisance. Really the only regular pass-by that I really don't care for. I have no idea what her actual name is, but the term comes from a family member several generations back whose husband left her for, "That old whore Lois" Lois is always drunk/high and is often seen dressed bumbling around looking for business in a Jackie O-style outfit/sunglasses/scarf, with old beat up sneakers. She begs you for money with a variety of obviously untrue excuses and curses you if you don't give her any. No one gives her any. Her one positive point (that I've been able to find) is that she walks the dog that used to just stay chained up in the yard where she stays (I think it's an invalid's house who may be her grandfather). She peed on my neighbors wall a few months back.

The non-speaking dog-walker: A slight girl who looks to be in her early 20's that walks a great big hairy dog most everyday... in heels... that she can't walk in very well. I hear her clopping down the street and know who it is immediately. I usually say hi to her and she never says hi back. I don't think she's being rude, probably just shy, or maybe too focused on not falling over.

Jose: Jose unfortunately died of a stroke this past year, but he was one of my favorites and deserves recognition. His English wasn't great, my Spanish isn't great so our conversations were choppy. He always wanted to see what I was growing, we would talk about plants and cooking tips. One day he showed up in my front yard with some different agaves and instructed me to plant them, so I did. :) I showed him my two cotton plants once and he doubled over laughing saying, "You gonna beee reeeech!" I miss Jose.

I could go on, as there are a lot more, but this post is getting long. I'm so grateful to have this huge mix of folks surrounding me, maybe I'll do a part two to this post down the line.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Urban Homesteading at Rachel's Tiny Farm

Most folks by now know about the Path to Shooting Yourself in the Foot AKA the Dervaes family's trademark of "Urban Homestead" and "Urban Homesteading". For those of you that have managed to miss it, the brief summary is that a prominent urban homesteading family in Pasadena got the phrases Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading trademarked late last year. They then sent intimidating cease and desist style letters to other urban homesteaders or that dared use that decades-old term in their name or events. They had Facebook pages taken down of some folks and small businesses like Denver Urban Homesteading, a small farmer's market in Denver that also teaches and promotes self-sufficiency. There's a lot more that adds to the egregiousness of the situation, but a quick search will pull up dozens+ of stories about it, so I'll refrain from writing another one here. The long and short of it is that essentially the entire urban homesteading movement is upset. This is not a great move when your income, via donations and an internet store that sells urban homesteading-related items (with a pretty hefty markup so purchasing from them also includes an implied donation) depends primarily on other urban homesteaders.

I remember picking fruits and veggies at my grandparents house starting when I was very young, my grandmother also had shelves full of what seemed like hundreds of jars of canned foods that I liked to sit and stare at, though the only thing I wanted to eat were the cinnamon apples. She didn't teach me how to can, but she sparked the thing in my brain that made me want to do it, and has helped me along the way. It probably started in my grandparents gardens in the Ozarks when I was too small to remember and slowly snowballed into what it has become today, picking up bits of information and skills as I roll along my way.

Enough about that. In response, here are some things relating to self-sufficiency that are practiced here at the tiny farm. This is a post standing with my fellow urban homesteaders showing an overview of some of the things we do, illustrating that urban homesteading is a widespread phenomenon, deeply rooted and not something that one family can own. (No pics this time, sorry!)

Aquaponics: We're about 8 months into raising tilapia in a small (200 gallon tank, 100 gallon grow bed) home-made aquaponics system and loving it. I love the results and the concept, it's almost like having my own tiny biosphere in the backyard, without the late-night pizza deliveries... for those of you that remember that little fiasco. My goal for 2011 is to get the bigger system set-up and running. We're half way there, the pond is built and has gambusia (mosquito fish) swimming around eating any would-be baby mosquitos, I've just got to get the grow beds in and the mechanics finished. Another goal is to switch over to feeding the fish completely with homegrown feed (black soldier fly larvae, duckweed etc).

Food preservation: We do both dehydrating and canning. I prefer to dehydrate because the resulting product takes up less space and it uses only the arid AZ weather to create. (We use a solar dehydrator that I built which you can read about HERE.) This last year I found a brand-new pressure canner for cheap, so I'm able to do both water bath and pressure canning now. The pressure canner still makes me nervous and the safety monitor in me wants to wear a helmet and goggles while using it. For now I'm resisting the extra apparel and am I'm grateful to have the option to can low acid foods.

Chickens and Quail: We raise these (in separate areas!) mostly for eggs, occasionally meat. Because you can have quail roosters in the city, I'm able to breed the quail. In fact there's a batch in the incubator due to hatch the first week in March. The birds' manure can't be overlooked either, with attempting to grow as much as I do, that valuable fertilizer is necessary!

Composting: Because of composting, re-using and recycling, our household of two, including our businesses, now creates a small bag of trash every two weeks. Of course there are the other obvious benefits of composting.

Year round food gardens: Although we hit a new record low this year of 19˚ (how do you cold climate people get through winter??!!) our winters are pretty mild, generally with only a handful of freezes. Interestingly, the September through February season is often the most productive time of year in Phoenix, so 365 days a year there is something in the yard available for eating.

Solar power: The house, though on grid, creates 100% of the electricity it uses annually from photovoltaics on our roof. We also often cook with a solar oven, and dehydrate with the aforementioned solar dehydrator.

Rainwater collection: We have one 275 gallon rain collector and a few other smaller ones. Someday we hope to have a cistern, but that's likely a year or two off.

Household miscellany: I do our haircuts, we repair rather than replace when possible, use a clothesline, use a lot of homemade cleansers, make gifts or buy them from friends or other individuals that make neat things.

Seed Saving: With the exception of one Super Sweet 100 tomato I'm growing this year all of our seeds are open-pollinated. I love both the action and the idea of saving seed. As many of my friends know, I'm a seed hoarder. I'm trying to divest myself of this problem(?) but it's tricky. With all the horrible things that are going on in the mega-seed world, preserving open-pollinated varieties seems like an easy way to do some good deeds.

Helping others: Helping other folks that want to be more self-sufficient is one of the most important things an urban homesteader can do. You've got some skills or books you don't need anymore? Pass it on. Even if it's just taking the time to answer someones email questions. This year I feel lucky enough to have the ability to not only continue teaching chicken raising classes for the Valley Permaculture Alliance (formerly Phoenix Permaculture Guild) but to be recently added to their board of directors (It's unpaid, so don't get too excited about the possibility of the Tiny Farm adding acreage or anything). I was also able to host two seed swaps for Arizona Homegrown Solutions and donate about 700 packs of seeds (Remember that seed-hoarding thing?).

Our reasons for doing all of this are many-fold. Lessening our environmental impact is a big one. Another one is financial. My husband and myself are both self-employed freelancers, I'm a painter (art not houses) and he's an animator. As you can imagine, our income is sporadic and not huge. The relief of not having to worry about paying an electric bill is great. Due to saving rainwater, using many native-adapted plants and earthworks to use water most efficiently, our water bill is no higher than a house with a standard lawn. Our food tastes good, I know where it comes from and that it hasn't been genetically modified or covered in pesticides and our grocery bill is reduced. Finally, it's just a good feeling to live as self-sufficiently as possible, tens of thousands of people agree.