Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutzen on Getting More Dirt Time

By Riki Shore

Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen of the Root Simple blog just published their second book, Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World, which features DIY projects for anyone interested in moving even part of their life off-grid. Coyne and Knutzen live smack in the middle of Los Angeles, a city that has more inhabitants than 23 of the states in our country, yet they have managed to live as though they were pioneering on the North Dakota plains. They make their own bath soap and household cleaning products; they raise their own chickens and keep bees; they grow only edible plants on their hillside property; they compost all their waste – and I mean all their waste; they eschew plastic toothbrushes and flush toilets; and they make their own mead, beer and bread.

Sound off-kilter and kooky? It’s certainly an uncommon lifestyle in Los Angeles in 2011, but listening to Coyne and Knutzen talk, one quickly understands that they are educated, articulate and funny people who are, in fact, living the good life, and then some. They know more about how to survive in this complicated world than most of us will ever hope to know. I caught up with them at a recent book reading and they generously agreed to answer some of my most curious questions. Read, learn and enjoy.

TS: You advocate a DIY approach to one’s household and lifestyle, which includes growing some, or most, of your own food. In your opinion, what incentives does a busy, working parent have to grow his or her own food? What benefits are in store for this person and the rest of their family?

RS: If you can grow just a few things – say some lettuce and greens – you’ll always have those on hand. A garden is better than a fridge in many ways. See, you can eat off the same stand of greens or lettuce for weeks if – instead of harvesting the plant whole – you just cut off the outer leaves when you need them, leaving the plant to grow new leaves for your next visit. This is much better than racing the clock against a harvested plant. It’s disappointing to reach into the crisper drawer at the end of a long day, only to find out that the lettuce or veg you planned to eat for supper has wilted, turned brown, or even liquified.

Moreover, anything fresh picked is going to have more flavor and nutrients in it than something that’s been sitting around for who-knows-how-long.

Grapes on the Vine

Grapes ripen on a neighbor's patio in a courtyard in the city.

We know we eat many more vegetables since we started gardening, and we’ve also found it encourages us to cook at home more. This is true for every gardener we’ve spoken to. All three of these factors will have enormous impact on your family’s health.

Beyond that, keeping a garden is a fantastic way to keep your kids – and yourself – connected to nature. It’s so important to balance screen time with dirt time.

TS: I’ve heard you say that you don’t spend “all that much time in the yard”. What’s an average time commitment for urbanites who grow their own food?

RS: Depends on how much you grow. If you have, say, one 4′ x 8″ bed (and that’s plenty to start out with), and if you dedicate one weekend rigging it up with a drip system on a timer, so you don’t have to water, then your time commitment goes way down. The time spent then centers around choosing and starting the seeds, and prepping and clearing the beds before and after the season. But really, once you get the seeds or seedlings in the soil, and they’re being watered automatically, all you have to do is look at the bed once a day to make sure all is well – that the drip system isn’t broken, etc. That takes five minutes a day. So I’d say five minutes a day, plus a few weekend days for building, planning, planting, etc. The plants do all the hard work.

If you really want the easy path, plant fruit trees. Nothing is easier, or gives back more in return.

Limes

Sweet limes grow on our neighbor's patio in a city courtyard.

TS: Which herbs, fruits, or vegetables do you recommend starting with (for someone in a Southern California climate)?

RS: If you have the space, we highly recommend artichokes. They’re productive, attractive and virtually indestructible. They seem to die in the summer, after they’ve finished their annual crop, but will resurrect in the fall all on their own, year after year. In other words, once you get them going, you have no more work to do – ever. You’ll just be stuffing yourself with artichokes every spring.

We love fig and pomegranate trees for their fast growth, low water needs, overall toughness, and of course, their deliciousness. A completely no-care edible plant is prickly pear cactus. It gives both fruit (tunas) and vegetables, in the form of the young pads (nopalitos). Nopalitos might be an acquired taste if you didn’t grow up with them, but they are addictive after that, and very healthy.

It’s easy to grow salad stuff here – if you remember to plant it in the winter, not the summer. In SoCal you want to plant your lettuce around November or so, after it cools down. It will grow like gangbusters through the winter rains. Trying to grow lettuce – or other tender greens – here in the hot, dry summer is like beating yourself over the head with a blunt stick. So remember, greens in winter, tomatoes and squash in the summer.

Thai Basil

Thai basil planted in with marigolds and thyme.

Mint

Peppermint shares a container with rosemary.

Herbs love it in California. Rosemary and sage and thyme can live in the ground with almost no care, once established. Parsley and cilantro do well in LA in the winter, but don’t like the heat of summer. Plant them with the lettuce. Conversely, basil doesn’t like the winter cold. Plant it with the tomatoes.

TS: Fermentation comes up in your books and on your blog quite a bit. Why should we be eating fermented foods and which recipes are the easiest to start with?

RS: Fermenting makes more of the nutrients in foods available to your body. They also foster the good bacteria in your digestive track. And, most important, fermented foods are delicious. We highly recommend anyone who’s interested in the topic read Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. My favorite recipe is Daikon Radish Pickles, which we talk about in our first book, The Urban Homestead. One of our very early blog posts gives a recipe.

TS: Stock-making also comes up a lot. Why should someone who doesn’t cook a lot learn to make stock? What are the benefits and most common kitchen usages?

RS: The benefits of making stock come up if you’re cooking from scratch a lot. When you’re cooking from scratch, you have a lot of scraps around. It makes sense to use these scraps to make stock, to capture that nutrition and keep it in the kitchen. Cooking grains – anything from rice to couscous to quinoa – in stock makes them so much tastier. It’s sort of miraculous. Having stock on hand also makes homemade soup a snap.

TS: You keep chickens and bees at your Los Angeles bungalow. What has been the advantage for your household in having these livestock at your home? Is keeping livestock in the city for everyone?

RS: We love the living presence of chickens and bees in our yard. They are part of its fabric, and we’d miss them very much if they weren’t out there. We keep the chickens for eggs, and are addicted to that level of freshness and quality in our eggs. There’s no going back to supermarket eggs for us now. Their manure is a huge help in the compost pile as well. The bees haven’t given us any honey yet, but we feel like keeping them is a good deed, because bees are having such a hard time these days. They also provide valuable pollination services in our garden. Someday – maybe next year – we’ll have a honey harvest.

Keeping livestock isn’t for everyone. That said, it isn’t hard. We always say it’s easier to keep chickens than dogs, and the bees take hardly any time at all. But you do need to be willing to shoulder the responsibility of looking after the creatures in your care, as diligently as you would your household pets.

If you’re interested in beekeeping, we highly recommend you visit www.backwardsbeekeepers.com.

TS: Do you have a favorite weeknight recipe to share?

RS: Well, this isn’t a dish, but this is our go-to, fast and easy but super-tasty tomato sauce that gets put over just about everything – except in the summer, when we’re eating fresh tomatoes.

All you have to do is dump one big can of plum tomatoes into a wide skillet. Chop up a couple of cloves of garlic and throw them in the pan too, along with a generous swirl of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the tomatoes to a lively simmer, uncovered, and cook for about a half hour. Stir every once in a while. Smash the tomatoes with the back of your spoon as they cook. The sauce will solidify and thicken and darken and develop surprisingly good flavor for such a simple recipe. It’s the old reduction trick. Don’t stop cooking too early!

This goes well over pasta or polenta, of course, and is thick enough for pizza sauce. It also makes a good sauce for baked or stuffed veggies.

Lemon Verbena Self Water

PVC pipe inserted into the bottom of the container allows the plant to "self-water". Learn more at Root Simple.

TS: It’s easy to imagine that you never visit a drive-thru window, buy a pizza, or eat a doughnut. Are there in fact situations in which you need to turn to convenience/fast foods? If so, what are your favorite (least evil) choices?

RS: Ha! Well, we don’t do drive-thrus, that’s true. But Kelly is always prowling for a good doughnut. Thing is, good doughnuts are very, very hard to find in LA, so she eats very few!  Our convenience food of choice is Mexican. We’ll swing by a local stand or a truck and grab a veggie burrito or some little tacos when we’re out and about. We’re not purists about food, that’s for sure. We figure if we just keeping eating tons of vegetables and fruits around the house, our indiscretions will balance out.

Check out Kelly and Erik’s first book The Urban Homestead for more great DIY projects.