To the growing number of city-dwelling farmer hopefuls, Oakland is like Hollywood. Check out any decent bookstore’s gardening section and you’ll trace many worthy titles back to this city, even anthologies on the subject tend to have more than one Oakland food hero, (or heroine, more accurately.) I know it isn’t just the nice weather – something innate to the city’s spirit attracts these doers in droves. Call them food cycle explorers; you don’t have to venture too far off a highway to find lawns turned to raised beds of lettuce.
Ruby Blume is star on this scene. Not only is her garden bountiful, but it is designed with imagination. Ruby’s seasoned know-how has gone into her book, co-authored with Sonoma-based Rachel Kaplan, which provides a template and guide for all things Urban Homesteading, also the book’s title. Ruby’s vast experience has been strengthened by years of practice so her lessons are as useful for the first time lawn-converter as someone interested in raising quails alongside their rabbits. I’ve used her planning techniques in my summer veggie bed, like arranging plants by height along the path of the sun through my small backyard garden. The density of practical tips is so great that the book is quickly becoming a go-to resource around my house.
Once a year Ruby arranges tours of her urban farm and of other exemplary plots around Oakland and Berkeley. This year’s farm day is quickly approaching: Saturday, June 9. It is a chance to see well-established urban farming solutions in different settings, from the tiny 400 square foot Indigoat Farms to the hillside homestead Pineheaven in Montclair. In many cases just seeing a working greywater system or how little space you need to keep Nigerian dwarf goats makes them seem more possible.
This farm day is one of the best ways to experience all the sides of homesteading and to see them in practice – you can get a sense for what’s doable in your space and plan for what classes you might want to take in the coming months. It’s also a great chance to get a book from Ruby, and have her sign it for you. Yea!
Buy tickets in advance for $30, or show up to the farms on the day with $5 per person per tour between 11 and 5. Don’t miss the honey at Pluck and Feather – it is one of the best local honeys I have yet tasted. This is a self-guided tour so plan your own transit between farms. I think this format works best to show off these special places so you can pace yourself and mingle.
I imagine Ruby’s dream is for everyones’ Renaissance-man aspirations to come true. She fuses glass, saves seeds, makes cheese, raises quail, grows fruit – the list goes on. She believes in the importance of these skills and teaches them through the school she founded, the Institute for Urban Homesteading (IUH). When she’s not teaching she’s taking classes – when I taught soap-making skills with IUH the past two seasons she’s been one of the most eager and inquisitive students.
I can’t wait to learn more from her, which seems to happen naturally every time our paths cross. See you at the Farm Tours!
If you can’t make these, there are a few other times of year Ruby has an open house. You can also take a native plant tour each May in the East Bay, the Bay Friendly tour next spring, or visit one of the City Slicker Farms on their market days.
Posted in DIY / Good Ideas / Kitchen Adventures / Places / San Francisco Bay Area
As Earth Day weekend quickly approaches I find myself preparing to teach another class of how to make soap. This Sunday I’m teaching the more popular cold process method for the Institute of Urban Homesteading here in Oakland – there still room for one or two more and you can sign up here. If you can’t make it this weekend I’m teaching another cold process class and a hot process class this fall.
*NOTE: Use caution, we are dealing with a seriously caustic hydroxide. Although it’s totally possible to teach yourself, if you are at all apprehensive I do recommend learning soap-making in a class setting where all of the steps are demonstrated and specific issues can be addressed, and I’m not just plugging my class here.*
Making soap is one of those connective activities that, while I’m doing it, makes me feel as though I am really a part of the generations before me. Even though its been years since my first batch, I still recall the myths of soaps discovery along the Tigress River ages ago. It was told to me that the intense ash from nearby active volcanos mixed with mountain stream water and the fat from ritual sacrifices so that when the women would go to wash in the river they’d find suds where the streams met with it. Ash is one of the most basic ways to make a strong base liquid, which then saponifies when it meets with fat. If you couldn’t source lye or potassium hydroxide from the hardware store you could make your own by dunking a pillowcase full of charcoal into a bucket of purified water for several hours, then testing the pH. But even when using store-bought ingredients. the chemical reaction is the same reaction those washer women experienced, and all those who have made soap since.
There are as many variations in making soap as there are in making cheese, and the primary division follows this analogy – there are soft and hard cheeses and soft (liquid) and hard (bar) soaps. So as you research soap making for, perhaps your Earth Day project, keep in mind that there are numerous approaches and styles even within both main types.
I think making your own soap is a fun and simple contribution to make to reduce the packaging you use, but as I said, the historic context also makes it a joy to do.
Posted in DIY / Garden Maven / Good Ideas / Places / San Francisco Bay Area
Tonight at the North Oakland Senior Center there will be a public meeting to talk about zoning policies in this city. Think: owning chickens, whether or not you can have a rooster, raising quail or rabbits, growing chard, or growing chard that you make into a quiche that you sell… all these issues and more are evolving in Oakland.
For instance, remember reading Farm City author Novella’s blog? She lovingly told us of her gardening discoveries and mishaps, her family of animals and other goings on at her urban farm. But apparently she said too much – city officials started taking notes and serving her with fines. She isn’t the only one. The laws have changed to allow more places to be legal for growing food and having animals in Oakland within the last few months. There is still more changing to do.
Posted in DIY / Garden Maven / Good Ideas / Places / San Francisco Bay Area
A few days ago I had a lovely conversation with K. Ruby Blume. I sat at her kitchen table in front of a handmade bowl full of local walnuts and a hive she had extracted from one of the bees’ nests in her backyard. As she brewed the coffee I couldn’t help but notice all the beautiful details around me – things that were collected or re-used or handmade. The windowsill had been mosaic-ed with her own tile work and outside the sun shone on her garden; in view was a trellis where hops would soon climb up her roof and several large basins where blood oranges and satsumas were ripening.
Ruby is the founder of the Institute for Urban Homesteading in Oakland, a school that exists within the many homesteads that dot the East Bay. She comes from three generations of teachers and has a deep respect for the tradition of passing on vital information, so with her school she handpicks teachers who not only have expert information in their field but also share this vision that all people are dynamic and capable of creating so much for themselves.
As Ruby says, “The process of learning is a process that thankfully never ends…the keystones of learning are the ability to ask good questions, the skill to track down information, the confidence to try something you have never done before and the willingness to fail and learn from your mistakes.” Classes range from rooftop beekeeping to animal husbandry skills to coaxing your own sprouts, and there’s a long and rather complete list of courses that can enable one to really become a new breed of renaissance man or woman.