Growing SEED

It has been a busy four-plus months since our last post!  We shouldn’t have been surprised that talking more and more about SEED and the automated system with more and more folks generated more and more questions.

What exactly is it? How does it work?  What’s in it? Who can use it?  Among others.

It was difficult to answer some queries simply because there was no assembled package.  But there was also the matter of sharing too much and having an idea appropriated before we even got it off the ground (literally!).  So, we began further developing the SEED project kit so that we could answer some of those questions without losing the more proprietary elements.


The kit, which is run on Arduino, is receiving a lot of interest and we have taken it on the road.  One of the highlights of the last month was an invitation to share SEED at the Food Day LA showcase at Los Angeles City Hall.

SEED Food Day LA

“But still,” you ask, “what is SEED?”   SEED is —

TRAINING and ENTREPRENEURSHIP – The future-forward job skills participants learn can be transferred to work in larger food/agriculture technology companies, neighborhood small farms, or their own enterprises, and each participant learns how to install resource-conserving systems that reduce waste and expenses.  Our goal is to provide this training as a key opportunity for traditionally hard-to-employ groups such as youth, veterans or previously incarcerated community members.

STEM EDUCATION and AGRICULTURE TECHNOLOGY – South Los Angeles, like many low-income communities, is often ignored in terms of technology and innovation.  So, we’re working to tap into the agriculture technology and robotics market – an industry projected to grow to $16 billion by 2020.

WORKSHOPS – Our current workshop curriculum educates community members in food security and production topics such as permaculture gardening, food preparation and preservation, health and nutrition and food distribution, along with job training to prepare residents for work in the emerging “green economy.”  STEM sessions focus on: assembly and utilization of low-cost technologies; garden and farm development; explorations of computer coding; soil management; permaculture; and, business development.

FOOD SECURITY and SUSTAINABILITY – SEED engages residents in the citizen science and food system innovation that increases access to fresh produce. Importantly, our participant farmers analyze scientific and engineering processes to understand the complexities of our globe’s food and ecological sustainability challenges.

SEED Food Day LA box

We know that is still a lot of words — and little visual — but we hope you will stay tuned as we complete development of the growing kit and eventually make it available to the public!   Oh, and if you’d like to see the kit in person, we’ll be at the DTLA Mini Maker Faire December 2nd.


Build a Bed

Work continues on our garden plot.  These days of early darkness and colder temps (relatively speaking for California) can certainly challenge even the most committed volunteers.  The site is clear, though, and ready.  Soon, soon…

Meanwhile, while trying to come up with unique ways to raise funds to sustain our work, we had a brainstorm.  The raised beds we’ve already installed were easy to assemble and have proven to be durable over this planting season.  Why not provide them to the general public?

We decided to create a kit of parts for redwood raised beds.  They’re small enough to be accommodated on a condo balcony or small side yard.  They’re beautiful material…and while we can’t speak for the eventual craftsmanship, we have confidence in everyone who buys and assembles one (or two!).

Our goal is bring a little of our Community Food System Project to you.  And what better way to support us than by letting us encourage you to grow your own food?!  ← (hint: click that link for more info!)  As always, thank you.

Paths of Desire

Desire line by Andrew Skudder

How are the memories that people hold shown in a place?  They might be revealed in the way people preferred to go instead of the paths that had been pre-built.  Sometimes it’s a shortcut, but often a way that is more interesting or efficient or safer or scenic. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a student of cities and urban form so a lot of what I do can be linked to some concepts learned in that area.  The Desire Path (or Desire Line) is one of those.  I often think about where the optimal paths are in any built environment.  They provide a type of direction people can trust, because they’ve seen others have used it.  They give us confidence to act.  I never thought, though, about how these ideas could be applied to our work building and planning urban gardens.

Are we building things that people want or will naturally come to? Are we making sure to consider the efficiencies, the scenic route?  Are we creating something that encourages others to follow upon it?  Are we thinking about the possibilities, and then moving towards the one(s) that everyone follows.  Are we setting up spaces that people want to be in, not where we want them to be?

Feedback is always helpful, but we also have to pay attention to what people are doing and the patterns that are developing.  And, we need to do this both before and after we provide a service or product.

A place to sit? Right next to a PVC pipe!

With some raised beds, I noticed a few things that tied the desire path concept to the work.  Where are people spending the most time in the garden? How are they navigating the beds? Where do they sit? Even in ones just completed, I’ve noticed residents sit on the corners – the area with the most surface area because of the top of the 4×4 post – even where there are chairs available.  It’s as if they want to be further connected to the task at hand…because it’s certainly not a comfortable perch.  I imagine that area will become sufficiently worn to the point that others will do the same on other corners.  So, we’ll take that into account on future beds.  Maybe a small platform on each corner is in order.  An easy, and simple fix that acknowledges natural behavior.

The PVC tubes installed to hold poles for netting have been sometimes used to hold sticks, with identifying information or crepe paper streamers. It isn’t a very sturdy re-use, since the sticks fall over and the PVC is on the interior of the bed.  But, what a wonderful alternative use of the structure!  What it means is that we should add a few PVC pipes on the exterior each bed just for people to engage in these types of creative uses. This we should do even beyond the garden art we’re already planning. We can’t imagine the universe of uses people will come up with, but are we allowing enough flexibility in the space? Enough for residents to develop those paths of desire?

We hope so.

Where are the paths of desire in your life?  Whether in your memory, your work, your environment.  Are they your own or shared?

(Raised) Beds R Us

We’ve been completing site planning and preparation for our South Los Angeles sites. We’re setting the template for all growing sites in our community food system, so we’re taking some time to do it as right as possible!

Meanwhile, we’ve started building raised garden beds in private front yards!  We want all communities to be part of our system.  And, private sites in single-family-home neighborhoods can help raise the profile of what we do.

So, check out more of these beds at our Original Green photo album.  Want one?  You know you do!

Time to clear the air…

Part of our overall strategy to bring sustainable practices to low-income communities includes improving indoor air quality (IAQ).  For a lot of organizations working on IAQ in affordable housing, that means advocating for better building materials. There are several programs and certifications that require green materials in the construction and maintenance of buildings.  Best known among these is the LEED certification developed by the US Green Building Council.

When we first heard about the USGBC’s new certification for affordable housing, we were ecstatic.  Okay, maybe really, really happy.  Finally, green standards for affordable units. Finally, improved living conditions for low-income residents. The EPA ranks indoor air pollution the fourth highest public health risk – often worse to breathe than outdoor air. Many toxins are in the structure itself (carpet, fiberboard, paint), which the imposition of green construction standards addresses.  But, other toxins include pesticides, smoke and cleaning solvents, which are resident driven.

The LEED certification does not include a requirement in its rating system for educating residents about ways to improve indoor air quality.  When we saw this article on LEED yesterday, it was like wow, someone else is finally talking about this IAQ thing.  Yes, wouldn’t it be great if the certification included a requirement for improving environmental health and maybe even educating residents.  We would love (yes, love, not just really, really like) a program like that — whether it mandated a full-on Promotora program, like at Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, where residents are trained to educate other residents about green cleaning, or an in-home environmental intervention conducted by a health organization, or even an introductory talk required of all new residents, to explain the benefits and ease of using natural products to clean their homes.

But, and this is a big but, the fact is LEED is a building and construction standard.  It isn’t about resident lifestyles.  But, much in the way cities require builders to meet certain LEED standards, maybe those cities can also make education about improving indoor air quality (whether for residents or commercial tenants) part of the local requirement to receive tax credits and other incentives.  People can be encouraged to use natural products (baking soda, vinegar, lemon, air filtering plants) and all commercial cleaning/maintenance would be required to be green certified.

We’ve written a Clean Cookbook with recipes for naturally cleaning everything from ovens to toilets.  And, we post a new Clean Recipe nearly every Tuesday on our OriginalGreen Facebook page (under the Discussions tab).  Soon, we’ll deliver this book to residents in housing developments along with a few natural products to get them started.

Our ultimate goal is to change policy in green building and standards for low-income and affordable housing, so that they mandate this type of education.  It’s great that the building is “green” but when the indoor air quality in some units can be 100 times more polluted than outdoor air quality, we think it’s time to clear the air and fulfill what we call a “whole home” philosophy.

You can’t take it with you…or can you?

During our search for methods to eliminate food deserts, we’ve come across some innovative ways people are bringing healthy food to low-income communities.

What happens when installing a farmers market or planting in a community garden or a yard is not an option — because there is no land available or people have to move? What if people simply need to learn how easy it is to grow their own food?

Could a garden be portable? Can education come to the people? What if the farmers market was mobile?

One artist designed an urban agriculture movable garden out of pull carts that have their own water storage. For people with no yard or who have to move often, this creative device allows them to grow their own food wherever they are. The folks at The Farm Proper in San Diego are creating pocket farms in unused lots, using shopping carts as the planters – a larger scale portable garden.

What about helping those who have yards or space to grow actually do it? A lot of people think they can’t grow food or that it’s too hard. Projects like Mobile Food Collective in Chicago are bringing the urban ag school and love of growing to the neighborhood. Their mobile unit also serves as a meeting point, seed exchange, and gardening tool shed.

Farmers markets are going mobile, too.  From veggie carts to stores on buses, produce is coming to urban food deserts. For several years, West Oakland’s People’s Grocery used a converted old postal truck (run on bio-diesel with solar-powered sound system) as a mobile market selling fresh, affordable produce at various places in the city. The Buffalo Grown Mobile Marketplace project not only brings organic, local produce to low-income communities, but also educates residents about community gardening and nutrition. Last summer, Seattle’s Mobile Market project collected produce from backyard growers, local farms and businesses in a quest to ensure “food resiliency.” (We talked a bit about community resiliency in our previous post.)

In New York City, 350 Green Carts bring fresh produce to food deserts. Plans are being made for similar carts in Chicago and Detroit.  And one of our favorites is Mark Lilly’s Farm to Family. His converted school bus brings a “unique interactive shopping/educational experience” to folks in the food deserts around Richmond, Virginia. They are a mobile micro farmers market with the motto: feeding the community one stop at a time.

Urban ag on the go! Yes, you can take it with you.

So you want to be a permaculturist locavore? Or, how to be a tickbird…

Well, maybe you’re not so sure about being one yet. But, once you read about how we’re getting folks to be one, you may decide you’d like to, too! And, oh my goodness, what if you’re already one of those and don’t even know it? Let’s see…

What is permaculture? The philosophy was developed in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. And, since then, so many folks have talked about it and defined it — a lot of them very well. Some people say permanent agriculture and others say permanent culture. Our take is decidedly grounded in how we can bring the philosophy to low-income residents and make it real and doable.

Our single sentence description: It’s about observing lessons in nature and copying them. And it does not have to be a drag.

This observation and learning means cooperating with nature and developing a relationship between humans, animals, plants and the built environment. Each provides for its own needs while serving the other. If one part changes, the rest are resilient enough to go on. It’s like the tickbird on the zebra, or the orchid on the kapok tree, or…well, you get the idea. Really, if you think about it, why NOT copy nature? Nature takes care of itself. It doesn’t weed, it doesn’t buy pesticides, it doesn’t haul stuff off to the dump. And, if left to its own devices, it does it over and over again very well.  It self-maintains and is sustainable.

How are we advancing permaculture? There are plenty of advanced systems that have been put in place to practice permaculture. Sometimes they involve harnessing solar power, integrating run-off systems, capturing major waste.  There are smaller systems where certain food plants are grown on a particular side of the house and then sop up water to prevent run off.  A lot of our work focuses on enhancing and encouraging the things residents already do.  Bartering for and sharing skills, services, food and tools. But it’s also new activities that create the permanent culture/agriculture that sustains their communities. It’s advocating for more green affordable housing. It’s waste recycling, reusing their stuff, and reducing use of toxic chemicals. It’s taking vacant land, making a community garden and growing their own food. It’s shopping for local food and eating at places that buy local food – becoming a locavore.

Ahh, so what is a locavore?

It may sound like something in a sci-fi film, but it’s really just any of us who choose to eat food grown locally or that has traveled fewer “food miles.”  Food miles are measured in distance from field to fork.  Your non-local meal may have traveled from 4 or 5 different countries and used up a lot of fossil fuels.  As we’ve written before, the most sustainable (and often healthy) choices are found in locally grown food.

How are we advancing locavorism? Well, what we’re not doing is rigidly proclaiming “no more bananas in Iowa!”  But, we are suggesting that everyone make more local choices when they can.  And, we’re talking about how one person doing it can improve others’ lives.  We promote sharing, resilience, and copying – copying nature, that is.

If you aren’t already, we bet now a lot of you are running out to be permaculturist locavores.  Whatever you do, start where you are.