The Urban Homestead

many hands at the speakeasy

Oh, boy this was fun. Christine Louise Berry organizes a series she calls The Speakeasy, and I’ll tell you below about the really great one that took place on Sunday. You’ll remember my mentioning Christine’s work earlier. She (the main force behind SmartGals) did that marvellous McArthur Park event with the fragments of plays to be found all over the park, and had the excellent taste to combine it with Mama’s Hot Tamales. A couple of months ago, at a party of hers (to celebrate car-independence in LA!), I met Erik Knutzen, with whom I ended up talking a great deal about lots of things because we seem to be on the same page on many things with regards biking and public transport (he’s part of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition), gardening and sustainability (he’s involved in a lot of land use issues for his day job). So we talked about lots of topics, from composting to the Velib system (and why Los Angeles has essentially already decided not to take that wonderful route, sadly).

Erik, with his partner Kelly Coyne, write a really great blog called Homegrown Evolution (excellent title), which is all about urban gardening, and they are passionate about getting more people to do gardening (as am I, you might have gathered). You’ve probably read my posts on gardening from time to time and thought that it isn’t for you since you’re in a big city in an apartment on the nth floor (where n is some integer greater than one or zero) with no access to garden space. I’ve occasionally mentioned things that you can do in terms of apartment gardening all the same, but since I’ve not said very much, you probably have not given it much thought.

urban homestead bookWell, if that, or something like it is the case, Erik and Kelly’s blog is for you. But even better (‘cos I’m old-fashioned, and am quite a fan of books), you can pick up their new book on the subject! It is called The Urban Homestead. After talking with Erik at the party back in June I cycled off to Skylight Books to see if it was there and they had a newly minted pile of them right there. So I got one and had a look and it is really excellent. I meant to blog it back then, but there was one thing and another and so forth… and then I thought I’d wait until Sunday. What happened on Sunday? Christine made Erik and Kelly the focus of the Speakeasy!

So I showed up there (it is held in the basement of a church in Los Feliz – so rabid fundamentalist atheists might want to chill out a little) at the appointed time, gave the password at the door, and got my $5 discount for not driving. I felt guilty and sympathized with some of my friends (who I was pleasantly surprised to see there – Aimee Bender and a group who car-pooled over from much further away) who could not get a discount even though they carpooled (Ahem!, -Ok, I can see that’s harder to provide evidence of though-)) and we all went down the steps to the dark (relatively) space.

It was rather excellent, I have to say. There was a string band playing in the corner  Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen (Triple Chicken Foot), and tables with coffee, lemonade, and snacks of various sorts. Lots of people were milling around chatting with each other, and right in the middle were Erik and Kelly, getting people to dig their hands into the dirt and plant! What were they planting? They were using orange peel halves as containers within which to sprout garlic. You can do it on your window sill, and get tasty garlic sprouts for your five minutes of work.


I took some available-light photos to give you a sense of what was going on. Don’t count on them for forensic clarity. Amusingly, I was taking a shot or two of the planting table, and was conscious that I was getting in the way of a guy who seemed to be an official photographer, so I stopped and apologized. He said it was fine, since he was trying to get a shot of me taking the photo, and then I recognized him – It was David Markland from La Metblogs! (I’d met him at the LA Bloggers Live event a while back, you’ll recall). His girlfriend was helping Christine produce the event, and (now I remember) I think she was involved in the MacArthur Park event too. Seems all my circles of friends are intersecting. Anyway, in return I took a (blurry) snap of him taking a photo of the same scene. I wonder if he’ll post about this event too?

planting table at the speakeasy results from the planting table at the speakeasy planting table at the speakeasy

(Click for larger views. In the middle are Matthew and Laura, pleased with their results.)

Here’s a little video giving you (I hope) a sense of the setup.

After a while, Christine clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention, introduced the speakers, who proceeded to do an excellent presentation of some of the simple urban homesteading practices they want to introduce people to, along with other tips on foraging around the city for food (I’ve blogged about the Fallenfruit people before, right? Free produce growing around the city…), gathering tasty herbs in the park for salad, or even annexing a bit of sidewalk to grow things on, or joining a community garden. Erik demonstrated a number of useful practical things (actually, lots of nice examples of basic everyday science being put to good use in making self-watering containers, knowledge about what plants need to be healthy, and so forth. And this is without even getting to things you can do simply with solar energy, such as cooking directly using sunlight…)


I highly recommend the book, and their blog. The book is really so much in tune with a lot of what I care about – people, life, doing things yourself instead of robotically grabbing everything pre-wrapped off the store shelves, re-using instead of constantly disposing, getting involved, and being aware of the ebb and flow of your environment (urban or otherwise) and how it interacts with you and vice versa. It is not more of the somewhat abstract hand-wringing about the environment that we see so much of, that (while important to be aware of and be passionate about) makes it so easy to remain uninvolved in since they are largely concerned with big policy issues, melting glaciers, rapid industrialization in China, and so forth. Instead, it is about local things you can do. As local as your window sill. As local as how you get around your neighbourhood. As local as what you put into your mouth.

An important aspect of all of this (and of great interest to me down to the core) is that this is all about community, and as such is a microcosm for how we ultimately should operate when working on the global problems too. None of this amounts to anything much if it is not coordinated with us learning to form local communities, and really stand in the way of the tendency to isolate ourselves so much from each other while living in the city, especially one so car-centric. Nobody has a huge amount of land right in the middle of the city (or at least, I don’t know any people like that), and few have time to explore all the things you can do in the urban homestead mode (not just growing a few herbs on the window sill, or vegetables in a self-watering container, but how about making beer, or even keeping chickens, or bees!?), but a lot can be done by doing it together, and trading ideas and experiences, and trading your edible results with each other – just sharing life with your fellow human being across the way. Wonderful.


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