Water Harvesting With Simple Earthworks

Finch Frolic Garden’s Program In The Garden Series for June:

Shaping the land to harvest energy and water – easily!

With permaculturalist Jacob Hatch of Hatch Aquatics and Landscaping

Jacob HatchSunday, June 28, 2015 2-4 pm.

Use 30% – 70% less water on your landscape!

Jacob Hatch of Hatch Aquatics will show you how to catch free, precious, neutral pH rainwater using earthworks.  Whether you use a trowel or a tractor, you can harvest that free water. Each attendee will receive a plant!  We will, of course, offer homemade vegetarian refreshments.  Cost is $25 per person, mailed ahead of time.  Finch Frolic Garden is located at 390 Vista del Indio, Fallbrook.  Please RSVP to dianeckennedy@prodigy.net . More information can be found at www.vegetariat.com.  You’ll love what you learn!

Artificial Turf? Big Mistake.

Want a green lawn that needs no irrigation or mowing?  That sounds ideal.  As with most products that sound too good to be true, so it is with artificial turf. Modern artificial turf is not much like the Astroturf of old.  Artificial grass blades are usually made of polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon, which create soft, harder or stiff blades respectively.  These are anchored in an infill material that is usually a mixture of sand and ground up recycled automobile tires among other things.  Utilizing recycled tires should give this product big bonus points; however, this material will leach heavy metals into the ground, contaminating the dirt for decades.  When heated, the plastic and rubber will release toxins into the air as well.

Heat is the biggest problem with artificial turf.  The infill made of plastic and rubber is a thermal mass: as it sits in the sun it absorbs and radiates heat.  For example, at 6 pm, an hour before the Women’s World Cup in Canada began at the end of a nice 75 degree day, the artificial turf on which they were to play measured 120F.  Where daytime temperatures rise to 100F, the turf could measure up to 180F.  Having turf where children or animals play can cause burns.

Radiating heat from thermal mass such as hardscape (usually cements and asphalt), expanses of gravel, and especially artificial turf will heat up homes and is a contributor to more energy usage for air conditioners and fans.  In arid areas there might not be much rainfall but there can be fog and ambient moisture that normally collects on leaves and drips as a form of irrigation.  Good pollenization partially depends upon moist, still air because pollen dries rapidly. Radiating heat and reflected light (the albeido effect) from these surfaces help to dry out moist air and cause air movement as the heat rises.  The more rising heat, the windier and drier the atmosphere becomes and the less fruit and vegetable set there is.  As artificial turf heats up to a third again of the atmospheric temperature and continues to radiate into the evening it is even more damaging to atmospheric moisture than bright cement.

The claim that artificial turf greatly reduces the amount of toxins in the air that would be released from lawnmowers, and save thousands of gallons of water otherwise used to irrigate lawns is using select ideas while ignoring others.  Artificial turf may not need mowing, but it needs leaf-vacuuming and hosing off, especially if there are animals using it.  On soil bird, reptile and pet feces are part of the fertilization process and are quickly decomposed by microbes.  On artificial turf the feces adhere to the plastic blades and are difficult to remove with even a power wash.  Urine seeps into the rubber matting and cannot be completely removed, smelling strongly of urine for the life of the turf.

Native plants and grasses improve the soil, hold rainwater, moderate heat and wind, and offer habitat for hundreds of birds, mammals and insects.  Areas that are covered in artificial turf are sterile, harmful to animals, people and the environment, and offer no educational value.  Planted areas are magnets for wildlife that are starved – literally – for decent food, water and shelter.

The life of some artificial turf products is estimated to be 10 – 15 years, with a warranty usually for 8.  If the grass is being heavily used the life is reduced.  The turf doesn’t look new up until the warranty expires; the blades break off and the plastic and rubber slowly break down further been compressed, dried out and imbued with heavy metals.

The cost of installing artificial turf is heavy.  It must be laid on scraped, level, rockless dirt, so there are earthworks involved.  There are many types of artificial turf and they have a broad price range.  A 12’ x 75’ strip of low-grade turf from a chain hardware store is currently over $1500.

What are the alternatives in this time of water scarcity?  For areas that must have grass, tough native grass mixtures are a great alternative. See the selection that S&S Seeds has of native Californian grasses; they even offer sod.  Lawns should be mowed higher and more frequently for best root growth, and the cuttings left to mulch in. For least evaporation and for pathogen control watering should be done between 3 AM and 9 AM. See this site for more lawn tips.

Stop using commercial fertilizers, which cause plants to need more water. Use actively aerated compost tea, which is easy and inexpensive to make, completely non-toxic and causes deeper root growth and therefore healthier, longer-lived and more resilient grass.  Please explore the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham, soil microbiologist, who has perfected the use of AACT on properties worldwide.  Instructions for making AACT can be found here.

For those who don’t need a lawn at all, native landscapes can be lush and beautiful and after being established dislike summer water.  You can see what native and non-native plants are safe to plant near your house if you live in a fire zone with the County of San Diego’s Defensible Space Plant List.  Please see the books The California Native Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren, and California Native Plants for The Garden by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien.

The secret to water storage in the soil for both lawns and plants is to dig in as much organic matter into the soil that you can.  Artificial turf is also not permeable, so it channels rainwater rather than harvesting it.   Old wood is best, but cuttings, organic fabric and paper can all be used to hold rainwater.  One inch of rain on one acre in one hour is 27,154 gallons of water.  The best place to hold that water for your plants –or to hold precious irrigation water – is in the soil.  Wood in the soil along with top mulch will water and feed plants for months, as well as cleanse and build soil.  This practice is called hugelkultur.  Please research hugelkultur on the Internet for more information.

If you are considering purchasing artificial turf or gravel for your yard or common area, please think again.  It is adding to the problem of global warming, it is an elimination of even more habitat – even the scarce habitat that a lawn can offer –  and will become an expensive problem in a short time.

The Uninvited Guest: Living With Wildlife

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The Uninvited Guest: Living With Wildlife

Finch Frolic Garden’s Program in the Garden Series

Sunday, May 24 2-4 pm

 Miranda Kennedy (B.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Science) brings a naturalist’s enthusiasm and a scientist’s perspective to the topic of wildlife vs. domesticated land.

IMG_6893In this fun informal talk, Miranda will give insight into the ecology of many of our wonderful Southern California native wildlife species, focusing on the issues of the human-wildlife interface such as land management, garden damage, disease, domestic animals, pollinators, and the conservation concern. The talk and discussion will explore methods for peaceful and mutually beneficial cohabitation of this precious resource necessary to human and wildlife alike: habitat.

Each attendee will receive a native pollinator-attracting plant! We will, of course, offer homemade vegetarian refreshments.

 Cost is $25 per person.  Finch Frolic Garden is located at 390 Vista del Indio, Fallbrook. Please RSVP to dianeckennedy@prodigy.net . More information can be found at www.vegetariat.com.

 You’ll love what you learn!IMG_7224


My Plea Against Gravel

gravel wastelandHere in Southern California, as in many other areas, we are finally legally recognizing the drought. There are rebates in place for those who take out their lawns, and here in Fallbrook there is a 36% water reduction goal.  Many people just don’t know what to do with all that lawn.  A very unfortunate continuing trend is to dump half a ton of colored gravel on it.  Please!  NO!  First of all, once down gravel is nearly impossible to get out again.  Gravel, like all rocks, is thermal mass.  Instead of having a large rock heating up and radiating out heat, with gravel there are tens of thousands of surfaces radiating out heat and reflecting light and heat back up.  It is the worst kind of hardscape.  All that reflected heat and light heats up your home, making you use your air conditioner more frequently which is a waste of energy, and also dries out the air around your home.  Desertification reflects light and heat to a point where moist air moving over a region dries up.  There is less rain, or no rain.  Most trees and plants trap humidity under their leaves.  Gravel reflects light and heat back up under those leaves and dries them out, sickening your  plants and trees.  Pollen travels farther on humid air; it can dry out quickly.  If you are relying on pollination for good fruit set between trees that are spaced far apart, then having some humidity will increase your chances of success.

An area of Wildomar, surrounded by hillsides of chaparral that hasn't been destroyed.  These homes have mostly gravel yards and denuded, compacted backyards.  Very little rain penetrates, and all the weeds that nature sends it to help repair this gash in the earth are promptly poisoned.  This is death to us and our planet.

An area of Wildomar, surrounded by hillsides of chaparral that hasn’t been destroyed. These homes have mostly gravel yards and denuded, compacted backyards. Very little rain penetrates, and all the weeds that nature sends it to help repair this gash in the earth are promptly poisoned. This is death to us and our planet.

By laying gravel you are turning soil into rock-hard dirt, because microbial life cannot live closely under it.  That robs any plants you have stuck into the gravel of the food they need from the soil, which is opened up through microbial activity.  You are adding to the heat value of the hardscape around your house causing you to cook in the summer and use more air conditioning.  You have reduced habitat to zero.  You have added to global warming by reflecting more heat and light into the sky.  Although gravel is permeable, usually the ground below it bakes so hard that rain doesn’t percolate.  I’ve read sites that want to you increase the albedo effect by laying gravel.  In the short term albedo helps cool the atmosphere, but as a result of too much reflected light dries everything out.  Think of the dark coolness and dampness of forests… that are now bare ground.

What do you do with your lawn instead?  There are many choices that are so much better for the earth and your quality of life.  First step, cut swales on contour on any slopes for best rain harvesting.  Flat lawn? Easier still.  Turn your lawn into a beautifully landscaped lush native garden.  I’m not talking about a cactus here and there, but a creation with the awesome native plants we have in Southern California.  Some of them such as Fremontia can die with supplemental summer water!

A beautiful border and plantings of California natives.  Very low water use here, and very high habitat!

A beautiful border and plantings of California natives. Very low water use here, and very high habitat!

There is a chocolate daisy that smells like chocolate.  Oh yes.  And how can you not want to plant something called Fairy Duster or Blue-Eyed Grass?  A native landscape planted on soil that has been contoured to best catch and hold water, and amended with buried wet wood (hugelkultur), will give much-needed food, water and breeding grounds to countless birds, butterflies, native insects and honeybees.

Or put in a pond.  Wait, a pond during a drought?  Yes!  Ninety-nine percent of California wetlands have been paved over, drained or are unusable.  Where are all the animals drinking?  Oh, wait, we are in the epicenter of extinction, mostly due to wetlands loss.  There are very few animals left that need to drink.  Those that are left have to take advantage of chlorinated water in bird baths and swimming pools. The microbially rich and diverse clean, natural water that fed and sustained life is just about gone.  So what can you do?  If you have a swimming pool, you can convert it either entirely to a pond, or into a natural swimming pool that is cleaned by plants.

A natural pool upgrades your pool to a lovely pond without the use of chemicals.

A natural pool upgrades your pool to a lovely pond without the use of chemicals.

Suddenly instead of having this expensive eyesore that you use only a couple of months a year and pour chemicals into year-round, you have a lovely habitat that you want to sit and watch, and even better, swim in safely without turning your hair green or peeling your skin.  You don’t need to clean the pool all the time, and you don’t need to put in chemicals.  If you are in the San Diego or Los Angeles area, call Dr.  Robert Lloyd of PuraVida Aquatics for a consultation and conversion.  If you don’t have a pool, then build one that is cleaned by plants and fish. You don’t need a filtration or oxygenation system because the biology does it all.  Where do you get the water from to top off your pond?

Native Pacific Chorus Frogs enjoying our clean pond at Finch Frolic Garden.

Native Pacific Chorus Frogs enjoying our clean pond at Finch Frolic Garden.

Connect your pond to a lovely, planted stream that is connected to your laundry water or graywater system.  You are buying water every day, so why not compost your water through phytoremediation and have a pond full of great healthy chemical-free water that is wonderful to look at and is an oasis for thirsty animals and insects?

Or install a food forest.  With good soil building and rain catchment first, and planting in guilds with sheet mulch around trees and on pathways, you will be using a fraction of the water you pour on your lawn and yet harvest lots of food.  Too much food?  Share it with a food pantry!

Or start a veggie garden without digging any sod.

Create a lasagna garden right on top of the lawn and start growing immediately.

Create a lasagna garden right on top of the lawn and start growing immediately.

Layer cardboard, sticks, grass, food scraps, leaves, more grass, more food scraps, more leaves and top it with about 8 inches of good soil, then plant right in it!  That lovely standing compost heap will slowly turn into good soil while killing the grass beneath and growing crops for you immediately.

If ridding yourself of a lawn just breaks your heart, then substitute the high-water use grasses for a native grass mix that is comparable.  Look at S&S Seeds for prices or for seed choices.  Water a few times with Actively Aerated Compost Tea using any rainwater you may have caught in those 50-gallon containers and your grass roots will travel so deeply that they will find groundwater.  Check up on the work of soil microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham and see how easy AACT is to make and use.

There are so many alternatives to using gravel that aren’t expensive, that are an investment in your property and in reclaiming habitat while beautifying your home and saving money.  So please, just say, “NO,” to the gravel.  Tell a friend!!

Which one of these would you rather live in?  Which do you think is better for the earth and for the future generations?

Finch Frolic Garden, year 3.

Finch Frolic Garden, year 3.

gravel wasteland

Fun With Worms and Microbes!

Enjoy a talk in the shade of Finch Frolic Garden with Doctor of Microbiology Bob Lloyd.

Enjoy a talk in the shade of Finch Frolic Garden with Doctor of Microbiology Bob Lloyd.

Finch Frolic Garden’s Monthly Program in the Garden Series
Sunday, April 26, 2015, 2 – 4 pm.

Want to learn how to save water, and get the most out of the water you already buy?
How to improve your soil and how to grow food without chemicals…and why?
How to raise compost worms successfully?
Discover the world of the unseen! Sit in the shade at beautiful Finch Frolic Garden and enjoy a talk and demonstration with microbiologist and owner of PuraVida Aquatics Dr. Bob Lloyd (http://www.puravidaaquatic.com/). He’ll introduce you to the importance of soil microbes, water organisms, compost worms, and so much more! Using slides, videos, specimens and a microscope Dr. Lloyd will teach you a new way to look at healthy soil and water, and how to have both without chemicals. Each attendee will receive a sample either of compost worms or aquatic beneficials. We will, of course, offer homemade vegetarian refreshments. Cost is $25 per person, mailed ahead of time. Finch Frolic Garden is located at 390 Vista del Indio, Fallbrook. Please RSVP to dianeckennedy@prodigy.net . More information can be found at www.vegetariat.com. You’ll love what you learn!

How to grow compost worms successfully!

How to grow compost worms successfully!

Saving Water

Any vertical space - wire, nets, roofs, trellises - will catch water and allow it to drip.

Any vertical space – wire, nets, roofs, trellises – will catch water and allow it to drip.

Today, despite being April Fool’s Day, our California governor finally recognized our severe drought and ordered mandatory cutbacks. That is a whole other can of worms due to the corporations and large businesses which are using so much water, and I won’t get into it. However, much of the world is becoming a drier place, and it is happening quickly. How does that relate to permaculture?
We will receive rain. Not a lot, but it will come. Remember that 1 inch of water on 1 acre in 1 hour is 27,154 gallons of free neutral pH water. If you have runoff water flowing onto (and usually funneled off of) your property, then you have to opportunity to harvest hundreds of gallons more water. You need to do three things:

Heavy mist over the pond.

Heavy mist over the pond.

1. The best place to hold rainwater in in your soil. For that you need to dig simple or extensive swales (ditches with level bottoms), rain catchment ponds (holes like dry ponds) and even small fishscale swales above each plant. Catch water as high up on your property as you can, in the areas where water will naturally flow into. Holes, dry ponds and swales all passify the running water and allow it to sink into the soil rather than running off the top. Even if you have flat property, texturing your soil will allow water to percolate more quickly. Driveways, roads, sidewalks and paved pathways – called hardscape – all channel water. See where the water flows and catch it, or redirect it into swales where you want the water to go.
The taller the tree, the higher the precipitation it can harvest.

The taller the tree, the higher the precipitation it can harvest.

2. Heavy clay soil will percolate slowly and water can puddle up and even become anaerobic. Sandy soil will allow the water to drain very quickly. What you want is for the soil to hold the water for as long as possible without becoming anaerobic so that trees and plants can use it for months after it stops raining. The solution to both of these soils is to bury organic matter. Hugelkultur is the term used for layering dirt on wood or other organic matter. Old logs are perfect. Any clippings, old cotton bedding, clothing, pillows, branches, leaves, junk mail… anything that can be considered ‘brown’ (as opposed to ‘green’) waste, will work. Don’t heap debris in a hole and cover it up. Layer it with dirt and cover it over with mulch. Plant on your hugelbeds. Make your holes or beds perpendicular to water flow so that water hits them and infiltrates the mounds. The organic matter will become a sponge and hold that water in the dirt. As the topsoil dries out it will wick the moisture from the buried organic material. Meanwhile just by burying or stacking the organic material you will have made nutrient and oxygen channels available to roots, and as the wood decays it feeds the microbes and thus the plants. You are improving your soil for years to come, feeding your plants, catching and holding rainwater in your soil, recycling, and sequestering carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere from the exposed dead wood. How great is that? You don’t have to use trees… if the labor isn’t for you then use a trowel and a piece of old untreated 2×4, nails and all, and make a fishscale swale and hugel above each plant. Also, fill your raised beds and pots half-way with layered wood and dirt, and you will be saving water and fertilizing your plants as well. Have established trees? Use a hose and a power nozzle (or just a sledge hammer if the ground is soft!) to drill holes vertically around the dripline and hammerwood down into the ground. You won’t be cutting through roots. Turn your alleys and foot paths into hugelswales by digging them down, laying a layer of wood, covering the wood over with dirt allowing the path to have a slightly concave shape that is level at the bottom. You can walk on it, it will catch and hold water that gravity will feed down to plants below rather than puddling up. Every time you plant, except for when planting desert plants, put old wood at the bottom of the planting hole. Soaking wood in actively aerated compost tea or worm casting tea first will really kick off the microbial activity. No wood? Cruise the neighborhood at trash day and see what is out there.
Tunnel spider webs show how much moisture is dropping on this hugelbed.

Tunnel spider webs show how much moisture is dropping on this hugelbed.

3. Cover your ground with mulch. Sheet mulch under your trees and along your pathways to lock in moisture and prevent rainfall from compacting your soil. It is always good to leave some bare ground – particularly by wet areas – bare for some insects to lay their eggs in. If you have bugs, then you have lizards, frogs and birds which will eat your problem insects (unless, of course, you have outdoor cats. They will kill all of your predators. Keep your cats confined!). If you don’t have bugs, you don’t have predators. Then when the bad bugs move in there won’t be anything to eat them.
Dense bushes hold the moisture in. It sounded as if it was raining during this light fog.

Dense bushes hold the moisture in. It sounded as if it was raining during this light fog.

4. Plant a lot. That may sound opposite of what to do in a drought, but you need to plant drought tolerant canopy trees and bushes that will spread. Although we may not receive rainfall we will be receiving dew, mist and fog, and the more surfaces you have to catch it, the more water your yard will receive. Mist nets won’t work in Southern California very well because we don’t have a lot of heavy fog. However trees are made to catch water and gently deliver it to their leaf-covered roots. Shrubs are groundcover that produce leaf mulch and habitat for birds and lizards. They keep the moisture from being blown away during our Santa Anas. Trees are wind breaks which protect other trees and plants. Plant fast-growing drought tolerant trees on hugelbeds that are there to work for you: they passify the wind and catch precipitation, while dropping leaves for mulch and turning your dirt into soil.
A 1/2 inch of cardboard or newspaper  with mulch on top.

A 1/2 inch of cardboard or newspaper with mulch on top.

PLEASE, do NOT spread gravel or small rock! All those little stones – which are virtually impossible to remove from your landscaping – are all thermal masses. They bake your soil, increase the temperature of your garden and reflect heat up onto your house and the underside of the leaves of whatever you may have planted. Gravel and stonescapes cook the planet because there are so many edges to heat up. With gravel yards there is nothing to allow water to percolate into the soil, there is no height to catch rain or passify winds. Stonescapes reflect light and heat back up into the air further drying the atmosphere, called the albeido effect..
How do you reduce your domestic water use? Cut in in half by flushing the toilet every other time (or less). See how fast you can take a shower. Fill a glass with water every morning and use only its contents to rinse your toothbrush or your mouth during the day (if there is any left, drink it or pour it into the back of your toilet tank). Use a pan of water to wash dishes instead of running water. Irrigate only when it is dark, after 3 am. That allows the least evaporation with the least insect problems. Don’t use overhead irrigation. If you are on a well, don’t think that you have an unlimited supply of water – don’t spray water around pastures at noon. Water is precious and needs to be cherished. See how many uses you can get out of water that you buy – wash water can go into the toilet or onto plants. Investigate greywater. Use your laundry water right into your landscape (use safe soaps). Get as many uses out of your clothes before you wash them. Look at your monthly water usage on your bill and challenge your family to reduce it by half, with a family reward (movie? Local restaurant?) when you succeed.
Saving water can be done. It MUST be done. We are used to water security and now we have to change our ways, while the changing is still easy.

Pathways Can Help Your Garden!

A finished section.

A finished section.

Footpaths and/or vehicle access paths are absolutely necessary for any yard.  Unfortunately, weeds love growing in them.  Worse, the pressure from footfalls, wheelbarrows and vehicles compress and compact the soil, pressing the soil grains together so tightly that oxygen – and therefore life – can’t exist often up to several inches or more deep.  Any life, that is, except for the grasses and other weeds that nature sends in to help repair the soil.  Bare ground will be greatly compacted by rainfall, which will then erode paths as it runs, unable to soak through that spaceless ground. Once wet bare pathways are often unwalkable until they dry out, and have to be resmoothed. In our hot, dry areas, bare earth or graveled pathways reflect heat and light back up.  That reflected heat and light dries out the underside of plant leaves, where species such as Live Oaks have over the millennium developed leaves that curl to expose less surface to the hot sun and to gather moisture underneath.  Reflected heat and light dries out the air as well, and any hope of slight humidity to help water plants through months of dry heat is gone.  If you have open-pollinated vegetables that rely on breeze for pollination, all that open pathway actually decreases your germination because pollen – such as from corn – will dry out in arid conditions.  Humidity that you can keep in your garden will keep pollen more viable longer.

A wealth of freshly chipped wood - two dump-trucks full!  The challenge: to spread it all in a week before our first tour.  Yikes!

A wealth of freshly chipped wood – two dump-trucks full! The challenge: to spread it all in a week before our first tour. Yikes!

What to do?  Covering pathways with gravel is a common solution.  I hate gravel.  It heats up and becomes a thermal mass in the summer, further cooking your soil and air.  It doesn’t suppress weeds and weed-whipping becomes an exercise in avoiding shrapnel.  You can never get it out of the ground once you apply it, and chunks of gravel don’t do soil much good for planting.  If you trip and fall on gravel it does terrible things to your knees – I had a piece lodged in my kneecap after a stumble some years ago (sorry for that cringe-worthy item).

A 1/2 inch of cardboard or newspaper  with mulch on top.

A 1/2 inch of cardboard or newspaper with mulch on top.

Covering the soil is better, but not best. Bark will help rain bounce and then percolate, is dark so it won’t reflect light and heat as gravel does, and it decomposes.  It is also expensive to buy, and because it decomposes you have to re-buy it every couple of years.  Decomposing bark may be adding elements to your soil that you don’t want depending upon the source.

More progress as the afternoon wears on.

More progress as the afternoon wears on.

I have experienced all the options above. The best method of countering all these issues that I have found also repurposes and recycles. Sheet mulch.  Yep.  You’ve heard it from me before and it proves itself every year.  There is more to it, though.

I disturbed a couple of nesting mice in one of  the unused Kenya bee  hives.

I disturbed a couple of nesting mice in one of the unused Kenya bee hives.

First of all, please, please, please never use plastic.  You can read about white pollution and the layers of plastic merging with topsoil in China and cringe.  Plastic will not last.  It will always be around in pieces. You will be poisoning your soil.IMG_6460

At the most basic, you can cover your pathways with 1/2″ of cardboard and newspaper, and top it with wood chips.  I obtain my wood chips  from arborists who save paying a dump fee by dumping it in my yard.  If you’d rather have a more uniform look then purchase your bark.  Either way the cardboard and newspaper will make the chips last years longer.  More importantly the cardboard and newspaper form a protective, absorbent layer that protects the soil from compaction.  Have you looked under a log or sheet of abandoned plywood in awhile?  All the white tendrils of fungus, insects, worms, lizards and roots are thriving there along with billions of soil microbes all because they have that protective layer that keeps moisture in and compaction out.  That microclimate is what you are forming with cardboard and mulch pathways. Since microbes free up the nutrients in the soil from which plants feed, you are creating more food sources for your plants. Tree and plant roots don’t end at the dripline, they reach out towards whatever source of water and nutrition they can find.  If you are top-watering rather than deep-watering, then roots are abundant closer to the topsoil.  By sheet mulching pathways you are extending food sources for your plants and trees, which now can stretch underneath the paths, link together with other roots through fungal networks, and become stronger and healthier.  You also are creating habitat which is a food source for the entire food chain.  Cooler, humid areas are better for bees and insects that pollinate, and the predators that feed upon them such as lizards, toads, frogs and birds.  Just by sheet-mulching your pathways you are improving your environment as a whole.  How can you NOT want to do this?

Sheet mulching around trees  is much the same, except you add a little manure or compost tea if you have it.

Sheet mulching around trees is much the same, except you add a little manure or compost tea if you have it.

Sheet mulched pathways hold moisture and create some humidity which allows for better pollination and helps keep your plants from scorching in arid areas.  If you live in a wet area or very humid area, use thicker layers of cardboard and mulch, which will help absorb moisture from the air and deliver it to the ground.  Decomposition is quicker in wet areas, so using several inches of cardboard with mulch will last much longer and will again keep  down compaction.  Compaction in rainy areas is just as bad as in arid areas because of the erosion and flooding it causes.

More progress as the afternoon wears on.

More progress as the afternoon wears on.

To catch rainwater and allow it to percolate into the soil rather than erode away topsoil, you dig rain catchment basins or swales.  Swales are ditches with level bottoms, and can be a foot  long (fishscale swales) or the length of your property. Swales should be positioned perpendicular to the flow of water.  You can create swales across pathways, fill them with mulch, top them with cardboard or old plywood, and mulch on top to match the rest of the pathway.  Water will be caught in the swales and won’t wash out paths on hillsides.

MIranda working on a large pathway near our large hugelbed.

MIranda working on a large pathway near our large hugelbed.

Going a step farther, you can ‘hugel swale’.  Hugelkultur  is layering woody material with dirt. This introduces organic material, oxygen and nutrient pathways into the soil and holds moisture into the dry season.  You can dig deeply in your pathways, layer old wood (sticks, branches, logs, whatever you have) with the dirt, up to soil level, then sheet mulch.  Your pathways are now waterharvesting alleys that you can walk on, and which will really feed your plants.  And you just repurposed old woody cuttings.

This mulch will greatly help the Asian pears  and cherries which struggle with the dry heat of the summer.  The ground will be kept moist and reduce evaporation, holding in humidity.  We'll be planting more heavily in  this area, too.

This mulch will greatly help the Asian pears and cherries which struggle with the dry heat of the summer. The ground will be kept moist and reduce evaporation, holding in humidity. We’ll be planting more heavily in this area, too.


In very dry areas plants and trees do better in sunken beds, especially those that require a long chill time.  Cold settles in holes.  Moisture runs downhill, therefore dew will accumulate at the bottom of holes.  You can either plant in holes and have your pathways higher, or if you have an established garden (such as I do) you can build up your pathways so that they become slightly higher than your trees and planting areas.  We are working on that at Finch Frolic Garden, here in drought-stricken San Diego county.

So before I launch into yet another long lecture, the idea for pathways is simple: sheet mulch with cardboard and wood chips.  If you live in a wet area, use several inches of both.  If you live in a dry area, use no more than 1/2 inch of cardboard (or else it will absorb moisture from the soil) topped by at least an inch of mulch (no limit there!).  If you want make super pathways, bury woody material before you sheet mulch.  If you live in a dry area, raise your pathways above your planting beds.  If you live in a wet area, lower your pathways so water can drain away from your plants (unless they love wet feet).  Never use plastic, and please rethink gravel.

Then sit back and enjoy your yard and all the food and nutrients and abundance you have set the stage for, all using recycled materials that will last for years.  Congratulations!

Compost Your Gophers

Kitchen scraps blended with a lot of water make excellent liquid compost.

Kitchen scraps blended with a lot of water make excellent liquid compost.

I’m a firm advocate of blender composting .  Throw your kitchen scraps into your blender (don’t add in items that your blender can’t handle, but throw them in after its blended) with a lot of water and drizzle it around your plants.  If its chunky, kick some dirt over it.  This feeds your microbes very quickly because the organic matter is bite-sized, and thus feeds your plants.  No chemicals necessary.

Spoiled soup, pickle juice mixed with old juice... pour it on down the holes!

Spoiled soup, pickle juice mixed with old juice… pour it on down the holes!

After making pickled jalapenos, salsa, or other spicy foods I thought that the resulting compost smoothie would be very powerful.  Indeed it is. So I pour it  down gopher holes that are in my garden areas.  No one wants jalapeno/onion/garlic water in their livingroom.  I’m fertilizing the garden at the same time as discouraging the gophers.

Pouring a noxious brew down a gopher hole.  Some solids are just fine, too, as you will be covering it up.   Worms just love this.

Pouring a noxious brew down a gopher hole. Some solids are just fine, too, as you will be covering it up. Worms just love this.

I’ve gone a step farther and made a merry mixup of foods past their prime along with vegetable scraps.  Old juice, stinky rice milk, moldy leftovers, the juice from a bottle of pickles, the last of the salsa… whatever you need to throw out, add to your blender liquid and pour it down the holes.  It won’t stop the gopher from tunneling in another direction, but it will wreck  existing tunnels for them, and feed your worms and microbes.  And after watching plants disappear into the ground, pouring evil brews down the hole is very, very satisfying.

Vegan Turmeric Milk: A Yummy Cold Remedy

Gingery turmeric milk is a delicious powerhouse in the war against colds.

Gingery turmeric milk is a delicious powerhouse in the war against colds.


Have a cold, or just near someone who has one?  Headache?  Aches and pains?  Digestive problems?  Here is a simple and very delicious East Indian recipe that mothers give their children when it is cold season.  It contains some powerful anti-inflammatories, namely turmeric and ginger.  I’ve written about how taking turmeric daily has kept my arthritic hands mobile and virtually pain-free.  Look up the health uses for turmeric and you will be amazed.  Black pepper helps activate turmeric, and since turmeric is fat-soluble it is best taken with a little fat in your meal.  The following recipe can be made in a few minutes and feels wonderful going down.  It was inspired by a post on Journeykitchen.com.  I used organic vanilla soy milk, because that is what I had.  You may use any dairy substitute that you want, but not non-fat.  If it is non-fat, then add a half teaspoon of oil (such as coconut oil) to the drink, or eat some on the side.

I make a big pot of this in the morning, strain it and then rewarm it during the day as I need it. The longer you simmer the spices, the stronger they become.  The ginger becomes a little hotter, and the others more bitter.   For children or those new to these spices, heat the spices in the milk 3-5 minutes before straining unless they like it stronger.

Turmeric is a bitter yellow root that can be cooked with, or more commonly is found dried and ground  to use in curries and as a colorant.  Where do I even begin to list its benefits?  As I previously mentioned turmeric is used for arthritis, heartburn , stomach pain, diarrhea, intestinal gas and bloating, loss of appetite, jaundice, liver problems and gallbladder disorders.  It is also used for headaches, bronchitis, colds, lung infections, fibromyalgia, leprosy, fever, menstrual problems, and cancer. Other uses include depression, Alzheimer’s disease, water retention, worms, and kidney problems.  Turmeric can be applied to the skin for pain, ringworm, bruising, eyeinfections, inflammatory skin conditions, soreness inside of the mouth, and infected wounds.  It is used as a facial to help skin and give darker skin a glow (I used it on my pale face and came up yellow for a few washings, but with nice skin!).

Ginger helps with the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection, bronchitis, cough, menstrual cramps, arthritis and muscle pain, but is especially known for relieving nausea. I ate a lot of ginger during my pregnancies, and now we have some in the car to treat motion sickness.

Adding organic honey as a sweetener really boosts the healing power of this drink.  Honey – and not the processed mass-produced kind, but unheated organic honey – has anti-fungal, anti-septic, and anti-microbial properties that really help soothe a sore throat and kill germs.  The glucose and  fructose are absorbed by the body at different times so  that the energy  they provide is slow and long-term -not the high and low that granulated sugar provides.

Cloves  are anti-fungal, antibacterial, antiseptic and analgesic. They’re packed with antioxidants and are good sources of minerals (especially manganese), omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and vitamins.

Peppercorns help turmeric work, are anti-inflammatory, carminative, and aid digestion. They are also an excellent source of many B-complex groups of vitamins such as Pyridoxine, riboflavin, thiamin and niacin, and are a good source of many anti-oxidant vitamins such as vitamin-C and vitamin-A, and in flavonoid polyphenolic anti-oxidants that help the body remove harmful free radicals and help protect from cancers and diseases.

Cinnamon has been used to reduce inflammation, it has antioxidant effects, and fights bacteria, and may lower cholesterol.

Cardamom is rich in nutrients such as iron, calcium and magnesium, potassium, manganese, many vitamins such as C, and is a co-factor for the enzyme, superoxide dismutase, a very powerful free-radical scavenger.

Cayenne is rich in capsaicin. The pepper also contains vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin E, potassium, manganese, and flavonoids (anti-oxidants), and has long been used to ease pain, headaches and to increase circulation. If you don’t use hot peppers regularly, please add just a few grains to the milk and work your way up.

If you are recovering from stomach distress and need some bland, comfort  food, please investigate this recipe for jook, a wonderful cooked rice dish.

My best wishes for a healthy and happy day!

Turmeric Milk
Recipe type: Beverage; Vegan
Cuisine: East Indian
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 2 cups
This quickly made hot drink will help ward off colds, or bring relief if you have one. The inspiration came from Journeykitchen.com.
  • 2 cups whole or low fat (not non-fat) organic soymilk, rice milk, nut-milk, or other non-dairy milk
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 3 black peppercorns
  • 3 cardamon pods, cracked
  • 3 whole cloves
  • ½ inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon (or a fingernail-sized piece of cinnamon stick)
  • Pinch of saffron (optional)
  • A couple drops of vanilla (opt.)
  • Cayenne to taste (opt.) (start with a few grains and work up)
  • Organic honey, brown sugar or other sweetener to taste (opt.)
  1. Lightly crush the peppercorns, cloves and cardamon pods
  2. In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients except for sweetener.
  3. Gently heat and allow to simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  4. Add sweetener to taste. If adding organic honey - which is a healing force on its own - stir it in as the milk is off the boil. Boiling will kill the beneficials in the honey.
  5. Strain into cups and serve.


Seitan: An Easy Mock Meat

A juicy seitan sandwich is really, really good.

A juicy seitan sandwich is really, really good.

For the past year I’ve been making my own vegan meat out of organic vital wheat gluten.  This meat is called seitan (pronounced, humorously enough, say-tan, just like the fork-tongued guy in red).  If you’ve eaten mock meats, especially in restaurants, you’ve most likely have eaten seitan.

I am not gluten intolerant, and I know that the current ‘epidemic’ of celiac disease is not what it seems.  People eat far too much wheat in their diets, and that wheat is not only genetically modified, but sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, then processed until it has to have nutrients added back onto it to qualify as food, and then it is shipped and stored.  The consumer has no idea when that poor tortured grain actually came forth into this world.  As my good friend Bill says, “You can’t see the farm in it.” I believe that when people eliminate wheat from their diets they feel so much better because they aren’t eating all those hamburger buns, batters, snacks and other empty-calorie foods.  They are also reducing the amount of pesticides and herbicides they consume.

I know about developing an intolerance to food.  I’ve developed an intolerance to soy milk (organic, mind you), which made me realize how much of it I have been consuming. Now I drink rice milk or water mostly, and manage my soy intake while keeping an eye out for other products I may be indulging in too much.  My grandfather Walter Brower in the 30’s had developed a bad dermatitis. He was in the hospital with it, being treated for all kinds of things with no relief.  He was missing work, and he was the sole supporter of his family.  Finally someone recommended that he visit a chiropractor… a chiropractor?  For a skin condition?  In the 1930’s? This was radical thinking. Thankfully he was desperate enough to go.  He visited the chiropractor’s office, sitting across from him at his desk, and told the doctor about his affliction.  The chiropractor asked what he did for a living.  My grandfather was a delivery man for Bordon’s milk.  The chiropractor said that my grandfather had developed a milk allergy due to all the dairy products he consumed.  My grandfather went off dairy, and the skin problem disappeared within days.  (This was at a time before cows were fed pellets of corn and chicken feces laced with antibiotics as they are today, too.)

All that said, I make my own meat with organic products, as well as my own vegan butter , and am now experimenting with vegan cheese (more on that later).  Do I have a lot of time on my hands?  No.  I spend a couple hours once a month making the seitan and the butter, enough for a month, and freeze both.

Seitan isn’t pretty before it is cooked.  It is grey and spongy.  However compare it to the flesh of a butchered animal and it is beautiful.  You can buy vital wheat gluten just about anywhere now, but different brands have different quality.  I use Bob’s Red Mill which has outstanding flavor and never gets rubbery.  I also use Bragg’s Liquid Aminos instead of soy sauce, tamari and often other salt.  It is organic and nutritious, and a little bit brings out the flavor of soups, main dishes, salad dressings, scrambled eggs, and anything its added to.  Compare prices online for both; Amazon.com has good deals if you want to buy a lot.

When seitan is frozen, the patties are quickly thawed in a lightly oiled pan.  The ‘meat’ is juicy, flavorful and delicious, and can be used in place of chicken strips, ground up instead of meat for stuffing or sausage, used as is in a sandwich or hamburger, or cubed for stew, curry… whatever.  The problem I have is wanting to eat it too often!

Basic Seitan
Recipe type: Main Dish
Cuisine: Vegan
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 12
Organic vital wheat gluten makes a yummy, all-purpose meat substitute for very low cost.
  • 2 cups organic vital wheat gluten
  • 1 teaspoon organic crushed dry rosemary (or minced fresh)
  • 1 teaspoon organic dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon organic dried rubbed sage
  • ¼ teaspoon organic cumin seed, lightly crushed
  • ¼ teaspoon organic garlic powder
  • 2 cups water
  • ⅓ cup Bragg's Liquid Amino Acid (or tamari sauce, but it is saltier)
  • 8 cups water
  • ¼ cup tamari sauce
  • ¼ cup Bragg's Liquid Amino Acid
  • ½ teaspoon organic onion powder
  • 1 4-inch piece dried kelp (kombu) (you may omit)
  1. In a large non-reactive bowl, mix together the vital wheat gluten, rosemary, thyme, sage, cumin seed and garlic powder. In a measuring cup mix the 2 cups water with the Bragg's. Quickly add the liquid to the dry and working fast mix thoroughly. The gluten will develop quickly; use your hands to work it to make sure there are no patches of dry gluten. There should be extra liquid. The gluten will be rubbery. Shape the gluten into a long loaf, about 3 inches in diameter. Allow to rest while you make the broth.
  2. In a tall stock pot combine 8 cups of water with the Bragg's, tamari, onion powder and kombu and bring to a boil.
  3. Cut gluten log into slices no wider than ¼ inch, or in strips (you can always cut the finished patties into strips later). Individually drop pieces into boiling stock (they'll stick together otherwise). Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Drain and either store seitan in refrigerator in some broth for no more than 5 days, or layer seitan patties flat in a plastic freezer bag laid on a cutting board or plate and freeze. When frozen gently break apart patties in the bag and keep frozen, taking out what you need. Patties can be heated quickly in a pan, sliced and stir-fried, thawed and breaded and baked or fried, or used any way you'd like.

I tried several seitan recipes, most of which were either too bland or too strong and muddy flavored.  This recipe I really like for all-purpose, chickeny seitan.  I freeze the finished slices flat in a plastic bag so I can pull out however many I need whenever I want them.