Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Stack Your Functions!

In Permaculture lingo, “stacking functions” refers to building redundancies into a sustainable garden. In a forest, a tree doesn’t just do one thing; instead, it performs multiple jobs, like regulating climate, sequestering carbon, holding soil together, providing habitat, and giving food, just to name a few. One of the problems with industrialized society is that almost every aspect of our lives is specialized – there are shockingly few things we do or have that that perform more than one or two functions. This is especially true in our food and habitat (for most of us, houses and apartments), and it leads to an incredible amount of waste. Imagine if forests needed a separate organism to do each and every single job that one tree can easily perform.

Take, for example, a lawn. The lawn is pretty much the epitome of wasted space. Most of the time, it performs one single function: looking nice (if you like the way lawns look, something I personally can’t wrap my head around). Sometimes – sometimes – it also serves as a recreational area, so that’s two functions, which wouldn’t be so bad if lawn wasn’t the single largest crop in the United States. If you add a hedge to the edge of it to make it look nicer, you again have a plant that probably only serves one function – and notice that they don’t help each other out very much. If you find it impossible to keep your lawn healthy, this wasted space and lack of relationships is the reason why. Lawn is a monoculture, and there’s a reason monocultures never occur in nature.

To build a truly ecological garden, you need to make sure that all your plants are performing multiple tasks (and that all tasks are being done by multiple plants – more on that in a minute). For example, if you’re a fan of flowers, don’t just get a variety that looks nice. Try to find a flowering vegetable or perennial herb, or a creeping vine that acts as mulch or shades a window, or an edible flower like nasturtiums, or a flower that feeds and creates habitat for beneficial insects and spiders. If you’re growing vegetables, go for natural configurations that help the plants help each other. The most often cited example is the Three Sisters garden, in which squash, corn, and beans help keep each other healthy through mutually beneficial relationships. The corn provides a stalk for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and the squash acts as mulch. See The Urban Homestead or Gaia’s Garden to learn how to do it, or check out Kai Chang’s blog for updates on his garden. Another way to stack functions is through a polycultural bed, in which seeds are scattered so that vegetables come up in no particular pattern. The random placement of beans means that you don’t need to rotate your crops to amend the soil, and the close proximity of plants shades the ground so that the temperature is regulated and moisture is preserved. Again, see Urban Homestead or Gaia’s Garden.

Think about stacking functions in terms of landscaping, too. Why plant some anonymous hedge when a rosemary bush is edible and produces adorable flowers? If you’re looking for border plants, why not plant strawberries or chives, both of which also flower? If you never use your lawn, why have one at all? Edible landscaping, polycultural beds, or a fruit or nut tree can look just as nice (better, in my opinion) as grass. And if you take your climate into consideration when you’re planting, it’ll take much less work to care for your garden.

It’s also important to make sure that multiple plants are meeting a particular need, in case something happens to one of them. If you want to grow food, don’t just grow one plant or type of crop – if it gets a disease, then there goes all your work for the season. If you live in a dry climate, don’t rely on just one source of water – use multiple irrigation and conservation methods, like a soaker hose, thick mulch, a cistern, and berms and swales.

To reduce waste, try to stack functions in the rest of your life, too. One example from my own life is transportation. When I drive my car unnecessarily, I’m wasting both gas and time; notice that the car is only performing one function. If, however, I ride my bike, now I’m getting exercise while I travel. If I ride the bus, I can read or grade papers. If my destination is close enough to walk to, then I can listen to a Yiddish tape while I exercise and travel. Note that since most people reading this blog probably live in a car culture, the car makes sense, for now, if you’re in a hurry or if you need to carry a lot of stuff. However, since the earth doesn’t contain enough resources to sustain car cultures indefinitely, consider the virtues of animal transportation – a horse will give you fertilizer and companionship in addition to healthy transportation. (Horseback riding is a workout, right? It looks like it, at least.) Also note that this form of stacking functions shouldn’t turn into an addiction to multitasking. If you’re doing more than you can comfortably concentrate on, or if it’s stressing you out, then you are canceling out the good effects of your functions.

Conversely, living in a place that gives me the option of walking, biking, taking public transportation, or driving is an excellent system of redundancies. If my car or bike is in the shop, or I’m temporarily disabled, or I don’t have time for the bus, I still have plenty of options. I’ll never be completely stranded as long as I’m traveling within my city.

Another area of your life in which you should stack functions is food. Over the past century, we’ve developed a bizarre system in which, generally speaking, pleasure and nutrition are separated from each other. We eat fast food and chips and then buy vitamin supplements. We choke down iceburg lettuce and then crave cookies and soda. The whole reason we have a sense of taste is because a good taste, absent artificial ingredients, signals good nutritional content. If the food you’re eating isn’t both pleasurable and nutritious, then there’s a problem. It’s probably not your fault, especially if you’re low-income, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Western culture needs to drastically change its food system.

Finally, think about stacking functions in terms of space and garbage. If you have one room in your house for the guest bed, one room for each child, one room for eating, one room for watching TV, one room for entertaining guests, and one room for working on the computer, then you have too many rooms. (Full disclosure: I myself currently live in an apartment with too many rooms.) Like the lawn, all this wasted space creates a lot of unnecessary work. Can you put your desk in the guest room? Do you need both a living room and a den? Similarly, if you use a disposable cup once, for fifteen minutes, and then throw it away, that cup has only performed one function in its entire lifetime. Use a glass instead – or, at the very least, compost the disposable one and feed it to your plants. If the cup isn’t compostable because it’s plastic or has wax or poisonous dyes or whatever, then that’s a bad system.

Of course, the idea of cutting down on garbage is hardly revolutionary – but in practice, it can be maddeningly hard to pull off. This is why the best way to really start stacking your functions isn’t to simply pat yourself on the back for using canvas bags at the grocery store or travel mugs at the coffee shop, but to honestly evaluate every single object you use. If it only performs one function – or if it’s not reusable or even biodegradable – then it’s wasting space and resources. Once you realize that, you can begin figuring out what to do about it.

my garden

Image description: close-up of a calendula blossom in a basket hanging from a rail.

Image description: close-up of a calendula blossom in a basket hanging from a rail.

Continue reading

Has anyone heard of this…?

Birkat Hachamah? Far out. From the Forward:

Jewish Groups Prepare for Rare Blessing of the Sun

As sunrise broke over New York City on the morning of April 8, 1981, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — at the time he was known just as Zalman Schachter — stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and sounded the shofar.

For more than two hours after, Shachter-Shalomi led some 300 mostly young adults in an obscure Jewish ritual known as Birkat Hachamah, or blessing over the sun, a prayer recited once every 28 years when, the Talmud says, the sun reaches the same spot in the firmament as when it was created.

According to an account of the service in The New York Times, participants raised their hands in prayer, asked for healing for individuals and the earth, and released 70 balloons. At the conclusion, some worshipers joined in the singing of a Hebrew version of “Let the Sun Shine In” from the rock musical “Hair.”

The rite, Shachter-Shalomi told the Times, “helps us renew our relationship with the solar system and increase our awareness of the sun as a source of energy.”

Twenty-eight years later, Jews across the denominational spectrum are gearing up again for the observance with a range of planned celebrations, many of them environmentally focused. The sun prayer will be said, as it will several times in the 21st century, on April 8, which this year falls on the eve of Passover.

I kind of wish I could be in Safed for this:

In the northern Israeli city of Safed, an eight-day festival is planned featuring several environmentally and kabbalistically inspired events, including the ceremonial burning of leavened bread on the morning before Passover by concentrating the sun’s rays through an optic lens.

“Over the last 28-year cycle, we have suffered from pollution and the depletion of natural resources,” said the festival founder, U.S.-based artist Eva Ariela Lindberg, in a news release. “Let us use this extraordinary opportunity to co-create the next cycle by seeking alternative solar energies and a purer environment, recharging ourselves and learning how to honor the earth, our neighbors and ourselves. This is a time to renew, and bring fresh blossoms to our world for the next 28-year cycle.”

See also

Oh! And before I forget, there’s a Yiddish musical in L.A. tonight called Our Zeydes and Bubbes as Children. See the California Yiddish Institute’s website for details.

Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Grow Herbs From Seed!

From Little Herb Gardens by Georgeanne Brennen and Mimi Luebbermann:

The almost-instant gratification received from growing arugula, cilantro, or dill is reason enough to plant them. Each sprouts and grows quickly. Arugula leaves pop through the soil in three or four days. Success appears before your eyes. Cilantro emerges shortly thereafter, in five or six days, while feathery dill tips come through the soil in about ten days. Any of the three can be put to use within a few weeks, to flavor salads, soups, and sauces and to sprinkle on pizzas and sandwiches. Grow any or all of these herbs in small, window-sized pots, and replant with fresh seeds after a couple of months. A steady supply of succulent, tender leaves is your reward. Spring and fall produce especially good harvests. All three herbs quickly send up central stalks, flower, and go to seed during summer, and in winter germination is slower. Arugula is also called rocket, garden rocket, and roquette. Cilantro is also known as Chinese parsley and coriander. Continue reading

Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Keep Your Soil Healthy!

Quick note: I’m probably going to start doing these biweekly. Little easier on my schedule.

I don’t think I need to tell you that healthy soil leads to healthy plants. Is your soil light in color, dry, hard and impacted, or dusty and crumbly? Do your plants always wilt and die as soon as the fertilizer’s used up? Is there a patch in your garden (I know you don’t have a lawn!) where nothing ever grows? Do your potted plants never seem to do well? You’ve got some bad soil, my friend.

Here’s a rule of thumb: healthy soil is living soil. Healthy soil is teeming with microbes, fungi, worms, insects, and other beasties; unhealthy soil is uninhabited. Soil life is what causes decomposition, which releases nutrients for plants; healthy soil can’t help but fill itself with plant life as seeds are deposited by wind and larger animals. Unfortunately, our current agricultural practices – on both large and small scales – both discourage soil life from forming and actively kill it off. There are four things you can do, though, to encourage the critters to reinhabit your garden or pots: give them good water, fertilize with compost, refrain from chemical pesticides, and mulch each surface.

1. Water.
Most tap water is chlorinated. Chlorine, as any Orange Country resident knows, is the stuff that you pour in your pool to keep the sides from turning green. You do this because chlorine is a poison. When you put it in your pool water, it kills the algae; when you pour it on your plants, it kills all the soil life.

So here’s what you do. If you’re in an apartment and are just dealing with potted plants, fill your watering can or another container with tap water and let it sit, uncovered, for 24 hours. All the chlorine will gradually evaporate into the air. When I started doing this, I didn’t notice any huge surge in growth, but the pots did seem to retain their moisture a lot longer. (A quick note on potted plants: soil doesn’t have time to soak up the water if you just slosh some in there and let it run through; furthermore, any water running out the bottom of the pot takes nutrients with it. Water your potted plants at least two or three times, catching the water in a reservoir beneath the pot and pouring it back in.)

If you have a house and a yard, consider installing a cistern to catch rainwater. A cistern is basically just a big barrel positioned under the downspout that leads from your rooftop gutter. Just make sure that if you have an asphalt roof, you install what’s called a foul flush system so that you don’t get toxins in your water. For more detailed instructions, see Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s Toolbox for Sustainable City Living.

2. Compost.
The ecosystems found within soil are incredibly complex, and the nutrients they provide plants are correspondingly so. Conversely, the nutrients in chemical fertilizer are reduced to three main elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) plus a few extra chemicals thrown in for good measure. Recreating natural fertilizer in a lab is the equivalent of trying to put together a puppy. You can try, but instead of this:

a labrador retriever puppy.

Image Description: a labrador retriever puppy.

You’ll probably get this:

Sonys robot dog, the Aibo.

Image description: Sony's robot dog, the Aibo.

Just… not… the same.

(Oh, how I wanted to find a clip from Futurama’s Robo Puppy episode. “Robo Puppy commencing cheek licking! Licking in progress! Licking complete!” Classic.)

Luckily, you don’t need that jar of Miracle-Gro anyway, because compost has all the microbe-produced nutrients your plants need. If you’re not sheet mulching (more on that later), adding compost to your soil will keep it full of natural plant food. And as an added bonus, the soil life will attract more soil life, making your ecosystem even richer! A few weeks after I added my worms and garbage to the compost bin in my garage, I opened it up to find pill bugs crawling through the castings.

3. Pest Control.
To some extent, healthy soil itself will cut down on pests, since with all those species either in the soil or attracted by the soil, there’s bound to be a natural predator or two. Pests are naturally drawn to weakened plants, so if you’ve got a healthy garden, you probably won’t need much spray. But I’ve found that potted plants seem to be more susceptible to pests – especially my indoor ones, maybe because aphids can fit through the window screen but ladybugs can’t – so you may have to do a little maintenance now and then. Like chlorine, pesticides are poisons, and kill everything on contact, including beneficial soil life. Constantly spraying crops with poison only exacerbates pest problems; the soil life and predators die, making the plants even more vulnerable, and the pests, which are quick-breeding and more resilient than predators, come right back in even greater numbers.

The best thing is to try to attract natural predators with mulch (great for tiny spiders) and flowers (loved by ladybugs). But, like I said, in some cases you’ve just got to spray. In that case, try to use an organic spray with natural ingredients – these will suffocate the pests. You’ll still kill some beneficial life, but you won’t render the soil uninhabitable.

4. Mulch.
In dry climates, exposed soil is scorched, lifeless soil. In wet climates, exposed soil is probably not occurring very much, because it’s full of seedlings. Keep your soil moist! A layer of dried leaves or wood chips regulates the temperature and keeps moisture from evaporating. Sheet mulch, which is a thick layer of “green” (manure, kitchen scraps, etc.) and “brown” (dried leaves, paper, or wood) composting materials, actually creates compost and builds soil as organisms eat it and poop it out. Toby Hemenway describes it pretty thoroughly in Gaia’s Garden. Finally, groundcover plants, such as clover, function as a living mulch.

Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Hankies and Hand Towels!

Here’s a rockin’ awesome way to save paper: carry your mucus around in your pocket! Ha ha ha! No, seriously.

Using a handkerchief instead of tissue is a really easy way to reduce your waste. At first glance, it may seem gross to put that snot-rag back in your purse instead of throwing it away, but a) human mucus is mostly water, and b) if you’re anything like me, you carry the Kleenex around for a million years anyway. To wash it, simply rinse it with water and hang it up to dry. (If you have a wicked head cold or a nosebleed, no one will fault you for switching back to disposables. Although I do wonder if you could toss pathogen-laden tissues in your composting toilet.)

Plus, using a hankie gives you an excuse to learn embroidery! Ooooh:

(Image description: a multicolored sparrow silhouette within an embroidery hoop. “12-18” is embroidered in the top left corner.)

(Via Our Descent Into Madness.)

Once you’re hankie-savvy, why stop there? When I was in Japan, I noticed that none of the public restrooms had paper towel dispensers. This baffled the hell out of me until someone explained that everyone just carries little towels around with them. Next time you’re in a public restroom, take a peek into the trashcan and imagine how much waste could be avoided if we all stopped using paper towels. Especially since we throw them away after wetting them with clean water.

Since I’m no longer in Japan, I’m not sure where to buy the little restroom towels, but a washcloth or tea towel would work, I guess. One note, though: get the towel out before washing up. I’ve ruined more than one important paper rummaging through my purse with dripping hands.

Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Build a Shelf!

I have this low south-facing window in my dining room, and I wanted to take advantage of the light to grow some plants. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t find a shelf that fit that exact spot – everything was either too high or too narrow. You can see where this is going.

When I googled “how to build a bookshelf,” I didn’t expect to find anything that I could actually accomplish, but actually, it turns out that it’s quite easy to make your own shelf. Plus, it causes less waste, since you can reuse lumber (unlike pre-shaped particle board), and shelf-building will be a handy skill when we’re all living in our post-apocalyptic sod huts. Below are the instructions for a pretty small shelf, but these measurements are just for the sake of demonstration; you can make your shelf any size you want. Just don’t make it so long that it’s going to bow in the middle – or if you do, put an extra side board in the middle to prop up the top. You’ll need:

-3 boards 24″ long, 8″ wide, and 1″ thick – these are the top and sides
-1 board 22″ long, 8″ wide, and 1″ thick – this is the middle shelf (note: you must subtract the width of the side boards so that your middle shelf will fit under the top shelf. So if your top shelf is 32″ long, your middle shelf must be 30″.)
-4 boards 1″ long, 8″ wide, and 1″ thick – these are the supports
-a power drill with 1/4″ drill bits
-16 1/4″ screws, 2″ long
-wood glue
-paint and a carpenter’s square (optional)

Hardware stores and lumber yards will often cut the wood for you. Make sure your wood is eco-friendly, though. (Unfortunately, I can’t help you there.)

Decide how high up you want the middle shelf to go. I put mine just a couple of inches off the ground – that gives me room to store my watering can, potting soil, and gardening books. (When we have guests over for dinner, I just drape a decorative sheet over the shelf, so that all they see are my lovely plants.) Once you’ve decided, mark the spot with a pencil on both side boards. The first thing you’re going to do is drill in your supports.

The supports are what actually hold the shelves up, so they’re pretty crucial – you don’t want the weight of your stuff resting on the screws alone. Take one side board and glue on 2 supports: one where you want the middle shelf to rest, and one in line with the very top of the board. Now, drill two holes into the side board for each support; these are going to be your guide holes for the screws. Repeat for the other side board. Now scrape (or dip) your screws in the soap and screw them into the holes.

Note: the guide holes and the soap are extremely important steps. Do not power-drill the screws directly into the wood! It’ll crack along the grain and ruin your nascent shelf and you’ll have to go scrounge up some more lumber.

Once you’re finished, your side boards should look more or less like this (ignore the nails):

Now it’s time to screw on the top. Simply follow the same steps you did for the supports: glue, drill, soap, and screw. Do one side board at a time, of course, and don’t try to do it upright. Also, the carpenter’s square will ensure that you’re screwing it on at right angles, so that you don’t end up with a Picasso shelf. Just line the square up against the top periodically to make sure you’re on track.

At this point, the shelf should stand on its own. Huzzah! Now, you may find that there are little gaps between the boards, or that your middle shelf doesn’t quite touch the side shelves. Don’t worry about it. Self-sufficiency isn’t about perfection. Repeat the steps for screwing in the middle shelf, and you’ll find that the side boards tighten up as you lock it in. You got yourself a shelf there, buster. And you swore you couldn’t do carpentry.

Now you can paint it whatever color you like! I went with blue, mainly because we had some paint left over from when we did our walls. But, you know, if yellow’s your thing, you can go with that. Red, I don’t know. I’m not going to judge.

I know these instructions sound kind of complicated in writing, but all the parts fit together pretty intuitively when they’re in front of you. And if you’d like additional instructions, I learned from and

Stop consuming – start producing!