Category Archives: greywater

New Year Resolutions for the Farm

I love writing to-do lists. Not following them, not x-ing them off, but simply writing a list of goals. The end of the year happens to coincide with my birthday, so it’s a good time to take a look at what I’ve done and what I hope to do the next year. I’m turning 37 this year, and it’s my 7th year of squat farming in Oakland. Here’s to another seven!


Increase productivity. This year, I’m creating French intensive beds. For awhile I was trying to do those hippie permaculture jungles, but I’m starting to see that for me, it isn’t as productive or easy to harvest as it could be. So I’ve made four raised berms and planted row crops. My idea is to harvest everything at once, add compost, and then plant a new crop. I’ll still do interplanting, but it’ll be more organized. I want to start using the fence more as a scaffolding for growing stuff like grapes and cucumbers, too. With more productivity, I’m going to look for a better distribution model, too.

Save more Water. This summer was drier than a pot smoker’s mouth at dawn. Billy and I really curbed our house water use, and we re-used tons of greywater, but I’m realizing that perhaps summer is not the best growing season for California. To that point, I’m going to grow another crop of dry-farmed tomatoes. But i’m also going to plant a dry-land cover crop in May in many of the beds, and let it run its course through June, July, and August. I can use it for animal fodder.

Pull out Ornamentals. I planted an echium and melianthus major about five years ago and they are huge now. Huge and not producing anything very edible or beautiful. So out they go! I’ll replace them with fruit trees, and a lil’ duck pond.

Deal with Bermuda Grass and that F-ing Perennial Buckwheat. Two horrible weeds. The fact that someone actually gave me the buckwheat just pisses me off. It refuses to die. It also refuses to taste good, and even my animals won’t eat it. This spring, I’ll be hosting a big weed pulling party. I might even hire some local workers, but that last stand of weeds has to go!


Muscovy Ducks. I am in love with duck confit. Ducks are also great because they reproduce on their own, grow quickly, and are downright cute. And so, our plan is to get a breeding pair of Muscovies and let them do their magic in the garden. We hope they don’t destroy the various vegetable beds. They are going to live in this car–our gutted 240D–at night.

Breeding Hens. A dear friend gave me five of her bantam hens. They are raised by their mother and are more feral than tame, but I think they will be good setters. My idea is to bring a rooster in for my big girls, get them knocked up, and then stash their fertilized eggs under the bantams, who will hatch them out. My goal is to avoid ordering day-olds from the hatchery, if possible.

Rabbit Hides. I need to process the many ones in my fridge and actually figure out a way to use the pelts in a way that honors and celebrates the rabbit. We’re planning a big rabbit gala with Meatpaper and OPEN in early February, so stay tuned.

Guinea Hogs. I know, I said I’d never raise a pig again. But now someone told me about the marvelous, diminutive guinea hog. Never getting bigger than 250 pounds, these delicious piggies weigh 100 pounds or less, and would be perfect for my small farmelette. Dumpsters here I come again!

Requeen. It’s been a while, but I think I need to requeen my bee colony. I love the girls, but they are not as productive as they should be! I’m hoping to catch another swarm and get a second hive going.


Cob Oven. This is on my list every year, and every year it goes by without getting done. But really, it would be wonderful to make pizza and pies, breads and cakes, right?

Cheese Cave. So far, I have a cheese closet. But I’m confident it can be turned into a functional cheese cave. I just have to get some fans, themometers, and various coolers. I want to experiment with making some rind-y cheese, and one day will figure out how the hell Cypress Grove makes Humbolt Fog. This may involve some kind of apprenticeship. These are, from left to right, bandaged goat cheddar (larded with duck fat), fresh chevre, and the 95% humidity requiring Blue Goat.

Wild Food. Sometimes I feel like a dumb-ass farmer trying to grow stuff when nature provides, if you know where and when to look. I want to try to do more harvesting in the wild–acrons, bay nuts, ‘shrooms, nettles, and berries. Maybe some hunting.

Happy New Year to you all; thanks for reading! And please feel free to share your goals on your farm/garden/patio…

Water, water, nowhere

Loved the rain last week. I’m from Seattle, where I hated the constant drizzle and dark but when I moved to dry(ier) California, I learned to love the wet stuff falling from the sky.

This year, for the third winter in a row, we didn’t get our usual amount of rain. Which means we’re facing a drought, with snowpack only at 75%. Which means trouble for my lush vegetable garden and micro-farm.


Unless I flex my puny brain and focus on the options.

One is to downscale. To plant a cover crop and let a few of the beds just rest up and go fallow. I’ve done that with two beds, planting fava beans which I’ll pull up and cover the bed during the summer. Once the rains start again in October, I’ll plant lettuces and greens.

Another is to use more greywater. This is the water that comes from your dishwashing, clothes-washing, hand-washing. It’s kind of clean but not drinkable. Bill and I have been watering our trees with this water for the past two years with no ill effects. We use Oasis soap, which is considered “biocompatible” with greywater systems. Now when we take a bath we’ll dump that water in the washer and do a load of laundry. After the washing machine is done with it, then the water is siphoned out into the garden. So it’s used three times! These are the kind of things that should be encouraged by the government, not made illegal. Check out this website which is trying to encourage a bill that makes greywater use legal in the State of California.

A third thing I’m setting up is a dry-farmed area in my garden. I’m planning on planting corn, beans, potatoes, herbs, and some of the Mexican plants a fellow gardener sent to me. The plan is to water them for the first month or so until they are established and thriving. I’ll mulch them with rabbit and goat turds and a layer of straw. And then, I stop watering. From what I’ve seen, the fruit of the tomatoes become dense and taste intensely tomatoe-y, the potatoes same thing. The corn is for flour and so doesn’t need much water. The beans like it hot and dry. The herbs become more powerful. I’ll let you know how it turns out.


Finally, my ultimate challenge: I’m building an outhouse! Here’s the foundation so far. I hope to have it done by this weekend for the hide-tanning class. The idea is that we waste tons of clean water by shitting into it. Water that we could drink–we poop into. Now during a drought, that seems mighty stupid. This will be a composting toilet that contains all poo in a large bucket where it will break down over a few years. I’ll devote a whole post to it and the system once the outhouse is built and is functioning. Can’t wait to carve out that little crescent moon….

Raise your freak flag

Saw a fella out in my garden today. He’s tall and blond, riding one of those fixed gear 10-speeds that are all the rage with the kids today. I walked my bike from out back and started my 12 block commute to my office.
“Excuse me, who owns this lot?” he said.
“I do,” I lied. But you know, I feel like it’s mine. If you garden it, don’t you own it? A guy from Maine told me that if you plant a garden, the owner can’t uproot it. State law. Anyway, so I’m lying and he’s wondering.
“Do you need help?” he said.
Where was this man five years ago when I was building the beds? Hauling the manure?
Feeling a little like the Little Red Hen, I told him I mostly have it under control.
“There’s a lot of bare soil,” he said, and leaned back on his bike.
I’m a journalist, so I enjoy lots of criticism (from editors, and later, readers) but I do get defensive when a stranger makes comments about my gardening technique. And I started to wonder: Why am I getting defensive about my garden with this random jack-ass who I don’t even know?
In the last year or so I’ve had so many more visitors to the garden. I can’t tell if it’s my neighborhood getting gentrified or an upsurge of interest in urban gardening or the blog. I recently had two wonderful sisters come by the garden and offer their help. But they never mentioned my bare soil (which is being watered every day in anticipation of the beet, corn, and carrot seeds I buried there a few days ago).
Eventually I invited them to build their own raised beds. One of the sisters even followed a hastily drawn map to the stables where I get my treasure trove of horse manure. Her bed is thriving with beets, greens, spinach and tomatoes.
“Why don’t you leave your email,” I said, and pointed at our mailbox, which for some reason has graffiti writing all over it. “I’ll invite you to some gardening parties we have on Fridays.”
Dude looked unexcited about this prospect. Didn’t I see that he had seeds for my soil?
I explained that I had to go to work and we exchanged names and then I biked away.
If this guy had been more charming, maybe I would have entertained the idea of another gardener at GhostTown Farm. Even if he had been a delightful cross between Willie Nelson and Julia Child (imagine!), in the end I would’ve said no.
The trouble is, I don’t have enough water for any more farmers on my 1/10 of an acre. What with the drought, we’re being extra diligent to pour our bathwater and washing machine water into the greywater system, which empties out through the kitchen sink. It waters all the fruit trees that line the garden. All other watering has been cut down to bare minimum.
It’s a bummer, this scarcity, because I do like to share. But as I rode my bike to downtown Oakland, I passed by 5 vacant lots and one abandoned park. If the city could be convinced—by this fella who can identify bare soil so well, perhaps?–to set up community gardens in these vacant places, then even more people can grow their own food…Instead of watering grass, the city could water vegetables.
I realized as I parked my bike outside the office building: I don’t want my farm to be an oasis or a freakshow. I want it to be the new normal. That of course every empty lot grows vegetables and every block has some goats or chickens. But that’s going to take people who are willing to be bold, to strike out on their own, to make their own patch of bare soil to plant.

Speaking of freaks, check out my profile of “Carl” for