Sep 27, 2006

Keeping us together, keeping us apart

How do you use the space between your front door and the sidewalk? Probably the same as your neighbors do, especially if you're in a culturally homogenous area. Here, James Rojas observes Latino Urbanism in Los Angeles:

"Fences: A Social Catalyst
"Fences are a fixed prop. In many front yards across America one can find fences. Most people will build fences for security, exclusion, seclusion, etc. and Latinos build fences for these same reasons. Fences create easily defendable spaces and illustrate a simple, straightforward approach to procession: 'This is my space.' However it's the way Latinos use fences that becomes interesting.

"Waist-high fences are ubiquitous throughout the residential landscape of Latino Los Angeles. The fences function as place to keep things out or in, provide a place hang wet laundry, sell items or just chat with a neighbor. Fences are a useful threshold between the household and public domain and bring residents together. Boundaries bring people together and the fences in Latino neighborhoods define boundaries between public and private space. However here the fences break down the social and physical barriers by creating a place where people can congregate. The middle class suburban neighborhood people rarely congregate in the front yard. This visible expanse of land acts as a psychological barrier that separates the private space of the home from the public space of the street. Collectively the enclosed front yards create a different urban landscape and transform the neighborhood.

"Enclosed front yards help transform the street into a plaza. This new plaza is not the typical plaza we see in Latin American or Europe with strong defining street walls but has an unconventional form. Nevertheless the streets in Latino LA have all the social activity of a plaza. Residents and pedestrians can participate in the social dialog on the street from the comfort and security of their enclosed front yard. Fences clearly delineate their property between neighbors, which allows them to personalize their front yard without physically interfering with each other.

"La Yarda: A Personal Expression
Nowhere else in urban landscape of Latino Los Angeles is the use of space so illuminated and celebrated than in the front yard. Typical middle class front yard is an impersonal space in which no one sits there, no personal objects are left lying while the front yards in Latino LA are personal vignettes of the owner's life. Depending on the practical needs of the owners, the use and design of the front yard vary from elaborate courtyard gardens reminiscent of Mexico, a place for children, to working places. Middle class Americans put their daily habits in the backyard. Latinos bring the party, workspace and conversation to the front yard creating activity in the public space.

"The front yard in middle class suburbs has become a space dedicated to showing that we are good citizens, and responsible members of the community. In Latino LA front yard is not measure by the cosmetics of the lawn but rather your participation in streets activities. The Latino front yards reflect the Latino cultural values applied to American suburb form."

Living in one of the middle-class suburban neighborhoods Rojas describes, I can appreciate how little our front yards are used—which makes it all the more ironic that more often than not, they are comprised mostly of lawn, as though our children will be playing out front while we sip lemonade and chat with our neighbors.

Which is the more human condition: to convene as the community we are, to talk and work and play together despite (or even because of) our fences; or to retreat behind those fences, escaping the masses of people and trite conversation we endure all day in public, pretending that we live apart from and immune to everyone else?

Sep 23, 2006

The High Cost of Nitrogen

Inspired by Al Gore, House & Garden's garden guy Tom Christopher has written an eye-opener about "the cost in fossil fuels of the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers we apply so lavishly to our yards and gardens":

"After a bit of research and doing the math, I have found that [Gore] is right. The raw material for all synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is anhydrous (water free) ammonia, which is manufactured by combining hydrogen from natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen. This is an extravagant process: to produce one ton of anhydrous ammonia requires the consumption of 33.5 million British Thermal Units (BTU's) of natural gas. According to a 2001 U.S. government estimate, that's almost exactly half the quantity of gas needed to heat the average home in one of our northeastern states for a whole year.

"A farmer may need the fertilizer (though synthetic nitrogens are a relatively inefficient source of this nutrient because so much of what is applied simply leaches away through the soil to pollute groundwater and streams); what I can longer justify as a home gardener is my consumption of this costly stuff. Currently, I'm putting in a lawn as a fire-break and tick-free zone around our house in the country. If I were to plant a half acre of Kentucky bluegrass and fertilize according to the recommendations on the fertilizer bags, I'd apply a total of as much as 85 lbs. of synthetic nitrogen annually – consuming in that way more than 1.4 million BTU's of natural gas."


Obviously, nitrogen is necessary for plant development; we just need to be a little more thoughtful about how we use it and where we source it. Nitrogen-fixing cover crops, "grasscycling" with a mulching mower, and dressing the soil with well-composted manure can all increase your nitrogen delivery organically, and in fact counter some of the damage done by the production, and application, of synthetic fertilizers.

Sep 21, 2006

Spinach Madness

From Wednesday's Mercury News:
Spinach fans, don't despair: Just grow it yourself
By Holly Hayes

"Popeye reached for canned spinach, but if you're craving the fresh stuff, you can always pick up your trowel and grow your own.

"Cultivating spinach in the home garden -- whether in a traditional plot or containers -- is easy, say cool-season vegetable gardeners. And the bonus is that if you start your plants from seed, you can try some varieties that rarely show up at the market."

(Plus, none of that E. coli nastiness.)

Read the full story for sources and cultivation tips.

Sep 16, 2006

Bleeding Cardinal... Green?!

While I couldn't argue (much) with the case made last year for the downsizing of Stanford Stadium, I was heartbroken at the announcement that the new stadium would have artificial turf. I mean, this was the field that Dan Fouts allegedly called "about the most perfect surface on which he ever played"—and it's certainly the most perfect surface for LSJUMB airplanes and other merry hijinks. (Even if they don't get to touch it for a while.) I was so bummed, I didn't even bother checking the stadium webcams or following any other news of the construction, other than glancing over every time I drove past to make sure the whole thing hadn't imploded.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I turned on the Stanford-Navy debacle -- I mean, game -- tonight and saw… divots! Gorgeous, imperfect, messy chunks of sod sticking out every which way, flying nobly skyward in slo-mo with every replay. Somehow, I totally missed the announcement that real grass would be used in place of the synthetic stuff. And I am thrilled.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not changing my attitude about lawn. Most of the time, it's the wrong plant in the wrong place, underused and overwatered. But as a play surfacing—especially for an omnidirectional sport such as football—it's a great choice. The expense and maintenance might be a bit much (especially for the 100,000 square feet of Bermuda grass in the new stadium), but it's worth it for the spirits and safety of the players.

And, of course, the Band.

Sep 14, 2006

Now, THAT's Marketing!

Apart from the fact that I find the whole concept of offshore drilling pretty gross, it's nevertheless amazing that someone had the foresight -- in 1966, even, well before our era of spin and hypermarketing -- to landscape drilling platforms. Heck, I'm tempted to fly down to L.A. just for this (but the boys are too young to get in). Tell you what: if you're the first person to send me a copy of your admission ticket, along with a reasonably thoughtful review of the project, I'll refund your admission. Bonus points if you can take a photo from the perspective shown here. Super bonus points if the towers are only sending up benign puffs of white steam like this.

Sep 11, 2006

Holey Pancreas, Batman!

Weird, but scarily possible: On Aug. 29 a teenager was impaled by a 10-inch piece of metal thrown from his brother's lawnmower. The shard punctured the teen's pancreas and lodged in his abdominal aorta, which (and this is really weird) is fortunate because it helped staunch the bleeding that otherwise would have been fatal within minutes.

I'm only bringing this up because who among us doesn't cut a few corners, so to speak, in our gardening practices? I'm no exception: I can't count the number of times I've reached a little farther than I should from a ladder, or thrown on open-toed sandals to mow the lawn, or taken down a tree limb using two cuts rather than three or more. What about you: do you don protective goggles every time you mow or edge the lawn? Wear a respirator, gloves, and body armor every time you apply pesticides or herbicides? For that matter, do you know whether any of the plants in your garden might be toxic?

I can only imagine how the kid's brother feels, but then again, who the hell expects scraps of metal the size of drinking straws to be lying around in your lawn? Yet the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 16 percent of all lawnmower injuries -- some 12,000 per year -- come from objects such as nails and wire, thrown at about 200 mph.

The story seems like it will have a happy ending, but it's still a good reminder to make a habit of looking for any debris that might be on your lawn before you start to mow. Hire a trained and licensed landscape contractor to handle the chemicals and tools. And sign yourself up for a class on pruning and/or landscape maintenance.

The pancreas you save could be your own.