Friday, April 22, 2011

Urban Homesteading- The book

My friend Ruby Blume from the Institute of Urban Homesteading along with Rachel Kaplan wrote this beautiful book on urban homesteading

The book is awesome, full of colorful pictures and great description on how to do things and why to do them, they have a good explanation on the politics of why to do this type of work, join this movement and remove your self as much as you can from the established system.

The most exciting part of this book, for me, is that there is a write up about me and the work that I have been doing at the Algarden with Giancarlo

Here is what they wrote about me, Giancarlo and our project at the Algarden. Enjoy.

"Patricia Algara is a landscape architect who practices urban agriculture on a double lot in Berkeley, CA that she borrows from a neighbor. Having come from a family of farmers in Mexico, working the land is instinctive to Patricia, but when she came to this country, she felt overwhelmed by the difficulties of finding a place to farm. During a winter storm a fence got blown away revealing an empty lot with perfect sun exposure two blocks from where she works. She met Giancarlo Muscardini the neighbor to the right of the unused lot, she asked him about the empty space that was a huge contrast to his own  lush garden, edible garden and orchard. He knew the neighbors and had dreamed of doing something on the next-door site for a long time.

"It drove him crazy to see the neighbors mowing the weeds every other week. So together we wrote a formal proposal for the use of the land," Patricia recalls. “We met with the neighbors. They were excited but had some issues. I had a lawyer draft an agreement so they aren’t liable if anyone gets hurt. They didn’t want an open community garden, so they fenced the property in a way to keep it private for them and usable for us. I have keys and can bring people and we have work parties and events, but always in collaboration with the owners’ needs.”

Together, Patricia and Giancarlo designed and built the garden. During the first work was done on setting up infrastructure—putting in a greenhouse, and garden beds, but mostly amending the soil which was really hard clay so that things could grow. Water was piped into the garden from Giancarlo’s place next door. “When we first started, it was all grass so we had a lot of work to do," Patricia says. "It’s been two years and it’s finally a working garden. We sheet mulched, and did compost and used a chicken tractor and did what we could to build the soil. Everything here is done through permaculture principles and the soils are much better now. They can still improve, but now they are productive and there’s a lot of food.” 

Patricia and Giancarlo get food from the garden, as do the owners and people who live in the units below Giancarlo’s house. To share the excess produce, Patricia hosts an informal Friday lunch where all the food is prepared using the fruits and vegetables from the garden. The food gets harvested the night before to assure the freshest and most ripe flavors. The menu changes every week depending on what's in season. The lunch is also an opportunity to show people how the vegetables plants look while they are growing, their benefits to the garden and their nutritional properties, is mostly a way to expose people to local, organic, fresh flavors and get them excited to grow their own food.

     As this demonstration urban farm project keeps growing, Giancarlo is inspired to deepen the permaculture design of the garden, as well as his own garden on the other side of the fence. He’s looking toward planting more fruit trees, trees which can be coppiced (cut back to encourage the growth of straight suckers which can be used for building and garden projects), a more evolved food forest, and planting biomass-producing trees which add further nutrients to the soil. 

Patricia’s success with this garden leads her to work on food security projects in Richmond, one of the most impoverished communities in the Bay Area. “The more I learn, the more I see how this needs to happen everywhere" she says. "It is so daunting at an environmental level to understand what is going on, and sometimes it feels like a huge thing I can’t do anything about. But growing food is something I CAN do."

"The more research I do, the more I see what a big impact food production has on so many aspects of the environment. We can have an impact every time we eat, breaking away from industrial agriculture, the fuel to transport the food, and the toxins that are used to grow it. If everyone grew something, one little small thing, it would matter. Food is basic. We need it 3 times a day. At least! Even if you just have a little window, you can grow mint. And that’s one less thing to buy at the store.

“Food is the gateway drug to a more sustainable lifestyle. You start to become aware of the cycles of nature, the cycle of the moon, what’s happening with the seasons and the climate, and you start to pay attention to the world. And it has a trickle down effect—just doing this changes your behavior. It happened to me. Seeing this garden and the changes it’s brought me makes me want to work so that more people can see this and do this. And it’s not that hard. It’s a basic human thing. It’s easy and we should all be doing it."

Here is a scanned version of how the page looks on the book. I highly recommend you buy the book, it is a great resource.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Capturing a swarm

It is not every day that a swarm of bees finds you.
Last Tuesday as I was walking to work, Luis, one of the day laborers on the Algarden street, who sometimes helps us out at the garden, ran to me and asked me if I wanted I swarm of bees. It was early and I was still waking up so I was trying to understand. what, where, when how?
So he explained that a swarm had landed at the base of an avocado tree on the yard of his friend and that he could take me over if I wanted to go capture it.

One of my hives died over the winter so I was down to one hive. I had been thinking of getting a second one but had not had the time and mental bandwidth to coordinate it. I think it is always good to have at least two hives, that way if you loose one you can always make a split and continue being a bee keeper. In my case, my hives are named after my grandmothers, Stella and Gloria, and I would not want to be without either of them. 
This event was very serendipitous.
I had an extra small box at the garden so I went to grab it along with my suit and smoker and off I went with Luis and Maria (who took all this pictures and videos - Many thanks!) to find the bees. 

So exciting, there were about 10,000 to 20,000 bees hanging on to the leg of a plastic chair, the owner of the house put this wood box over them to protect them and his kids from being stung.

I grabbed first a piece of wood that had a good bunch of them and moved them to the box, I could tell the queen was not there because they were not staying they were flying back to the chair leg.

So I pulled the chair out carefully and placed the leg on top of the box and jerked it so that most bees fell into the box. 

I could tell the queen was there because the bees were staying on the box this time. 

However there were still a lot of bees on the other box that needed to be moved to my box.

I used a piece of cardboard to carefully pick up the bees and move them to my box.

And there is most of them

Hard to tell exactly how many but a lot!

So I covered the box and Luis helped me to tie it up and take it back to the Algarden.
Luis was pretty excited to be a part of the action, his son-in-law is a beekeeper in Guatemala so he is used to being around bees and I think this brought back some good memories for him.

I left the 5 frame box with only two frames for two days. I had to build new frames so it took me a while, but after two days I came back to transfer the bees from the small box to a full 10 frame box and I had all the frames ready to go. This video shows what we found when I opened the box, the bees had already built a beautiful comb on the empty space of the box and it already had some nectar and pollen. Very hard working bees.

It's good to have Stella and Gloria back together at the Algarden. Welcome!
Many thanks to Maria for taking pictures and video and to Luis for his help and for connecting me with the bees. 

Arigato gozaimasu Japan!

PechaKucha was devised in Tokyo in February 2003 as an event for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public. It has turned into a massive celebration, with events happening in hundreds of cities around the world, inspiring creative worldwide. Drawing its name from the Japanese term for the sound of "chit chat", it rests on a presentation format that is based on a simple idea: 20 images x 20 seconds. It's a format that makes presentations concise, and keeps things moving at a rapid pace. 

This month's PechaKucha was a special world wide fundraiser for the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, with the theme "Inspire Japan." 
I was invited to present my work and even though it was lots of work to prepare I was very happy to thread the story of how I have been inspired by Japan to do the work that I do. It was beautiful to have an opportunity to go back and look through my over 2000 pictures of Japan and remember my time in that beautiful country.

Here is the 20 slides that I created and the text for each slide below.

When I was being born and my family was waiting for me looking at babies in the nursery room, my grandfather kept commenting on the cute Japanese baby. When the nurse came out to correct him, I was the Japanese baby.

Well, I’m not Japanese, I just have small eyes. But that has not kept me from fully embracing Japanese culture.  Geisha and Hello Kitty are just some of the characters that I have impersonated and I often dream of becoming an anime heroine and fly the skies with Astro boy. 

.My first summer of graduate school I went to Kyoto to study Japanese gardens. I was in heaven, spending my days strolling through some of the most beautiful gardens in the world. There are 4 basic types of gardens in Japan: Pond garden, Zen garden, Tea ceremony and Paradise garden.

However most of them share elements, particularly as it relates to traditional Japanese architecture built to frame the landscape, and the raised floor which can be used for sitting and observing. This creates a connection with nature, a place to contemplate the change of the seasons.

Another characteristic of Japanese architecture is no walls, so the inside and the outside are always connected. The landscape is intended to be seen from a seating position; the layout design of the tatami mat is an important element of the space. 

Paths are an important element of the garden, they are set in a naturalistic way to make you feel as if you are in the country side, a place to relax and forget the city. Paths create the transition mood in people to prepare them for the tea ceremony. Stepping stones need to be placed for short stride considering a woman in a Kimono.

Barrowed scenery is another common element where gardens take advantage of the mountains beyond the property. Beyond the walls of the rock garden are cherries, maple, evergreen trees and pines that change through the seasons.

Zen gardens represent different elements in nature. Gravel represents the ocean; the racking represents the ripples in the water. Rocks represent  mountains or different animals based on their arrangement and the mounds of grass represent the land.

You must always have a washing basin in front of the tea house to wash hands and mouth to purify yourself before having tea. Another important element is having a place for fire to heat the water and a sink to wash the bowls.

My first real project out of school was a play area for a school in Tokyo. The project senior designer of the project said to me “you have been to Japan and studies gardens, you can design a tea house right?” And I confidently nodded but ran back to look at my notes in panic. This was exciting and yet terrifying. 

The tea house for this project was to be an outdoor classroom and the garden a play area with borrowed scenery of play equipment. The tea house had to stand to the test of hundreds of kids, and meet American ADA regulations so traditional materials like paper walls and paths with stepping stones were out of the question.

We tried to incorporate as many traditional elements in our outdoor classroom/ tea house but using different materials and being creative about the representation. The wash basing was a rain water catchment. The path was an ADA ramp to the elevated platform. The concrete floor was scored in the same size and pattern as a tatami mat.

Our garden had a climbing wall and a play mountain to provide space for seating and gathering. A “river” flowed from the mountain into an ocean of sand play area with rippling concrete colors. Instead of stepping stones there were characters scored in the concrete.

Working on this project was great but it also confronted me with the realities of working for a landscape design studio – Lots of time in front of the computer! As I searched my notes and looked through my pictures I kept being reminded of the Japanese idea of connecting people with nature, building restaurants on top of rivers, eating next to waterfalls.

Eating with and in nature, growing food in the city. Feeling nature, being surrounded by it. I realized how much I needed that connection with nature in my own life. So I began searching for land and during a winter storm a fence was blown away revealing an empty lot 2 blocks away from my work.

I meet the neighbor of the empty lot who had been dreaming about doing something with it. Together we designed and drafter a phasing plans to present to the owners. They liked the idea but had some liability concerns so we got a legal agreement and they allowed us to use the space to grow food.

We had lots of help from friends and neighbors to convert the space into a beautiful garden. We composted to build soil nutrients, planted seeds, got chickens and bees and created a habitat for pollinators.

After two years we had an abundance of food from the garden, more that we could eat. So inspired by the Japanese idea of eating in nature, my friend Julia and I started the Algarden café, an informal Friday lunch at the garden with food from the garden.

The lunch is an opportunity to show people how the vegetable plants look while they are growing, their benefits to the garden and their nutritional value. Mostly the lunches are a way to expose people to local, organic, fresh flavors, get them excited about growing their own food and outside connecting with nature and one another.

Food is the gateway drug to a more sustainable life style. You start to become aware of the cycles of nature, the moon, the seasons, and climate. It changes your behavior.
I got inspired by Japan to do this work and I hope my work can inspire Japan to rebuild and restore its beautiful nation.

Thank you

Arigato gozaimasu Japan!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Preserving Mayer Lemons

As every good Mexican, I love limes! I put lime juice on pretty much everything, limes are wonderful.
I have now discovered Meyer lemons and I have to say, there is something really special about them, they are tart yet sweet and their peel is almost as good as the juice. They are delicious.
 I also have an abundance of them so I'm always looking for new recipes.

Mayer lemons (Citrus × meyeri) is a citrus fruit native to China thought to be a cross between a true lemon and either a mandarin or common orange.
It is great to have such an abundance of this wonderful fruit but I needed to figure out how to preserve it. I looked up recipes for mayer lemon preserving and found a few, I'm trying them all.

I'm starting with Limoncello, I have done this before and it is pretty easy, it also makes for great conversation when shared with friends. Peel the lemons and add the peels to the vodka, let it sit for about 40 days in a dark area and enjoy with simple syrup. I hope this one will be ready for my friend Juan's wedding. 

I made two types, I added mint leaves to one and scented geranium to the other for a more herbal flavor

it is also a good reuse for tequila bottles...

So now the question is what to do with all this left over lemons with no peel.

Lemon Jam!

You have to completely take out the white part to avoid bitterness and add other lemons with peel for flavor. Just take off the ends and cut them in very fine slices.

Mix that with sugar and cook at low heat. I added ginger slices too.
Let it simmer until it looks cooked

And jar them

It's great on toast

I also did some Moroccan lemon preserves, which is kind of like pickling them. To make the preserves the lemons get cut in 4 (like a cross from top) but not all the way and then stuff them with sea salt. They are placed on a glass jar and covered with lemon juice. They do not get boiled on the jars, they will ferment and the jars need to be opened every week or so to allow the air to get out. It is hard to know at first if it is working or not because they are fermenting and it seems as if things are not working but if you are patient and wait two months your lemons will be ready. I made a few jars with different spices, chili peepers, bay leaves, coriander, cinnamon.

Once the are ready I chop them up small and use them in pasta or to marinate fish or chicken. 
They will last all year on the jars, no need to refrigerate,

Another way to preserve lemons, which I learned today from a client, is juicing them and putting the juice on ice trays to freeze, and then keeping the cubes on a freezer bag. That way  the cubes can be thawed and used whenever they are necessary.

Take advantage of the lemon abundance now by preserving them and enjoy them all year.
Good luck and send me some more recipes if you have them.