Fall Home & Garden

Cob Together, Right Now, Naturally
The Solar Upgrade
Home Sweet Loan
Love Apple Farms
Tips for your fall and winter garden
Blown Away
Autumn-atic Gardening
‘Brown’ is the new ‘Green’

Cob Together, Right Now, Naturally

How one local is turning her dream of sustainable housing into reality

Claudine Désirée is a woman with a noble dream. Her vision is that of a world where people live simply, at one with nature in homes built with a synergy of creativity and passion. She dreams of communities that fulfill a higher purpose and where people can experience living in an entirely different and sustainable way.

It may sound far-reaching and idealistic, but in fact, in many areas of the world, it’s already a reality. What makes these eco-villages so unique isn’t just their shared goal of achieving a society completely in tune with nature, it’s the actual structures that comprise the villages. Many of the homes and buildings are constructed of cob—an ancient building material consisting of soil, sand and straw. It is these cob structures in particular that Désirée sees as the way forward in an eco-friendly world.

cover cobbDésirée hasn’t always been an advocate for natural living. Having grown up amidst concrete- and skyscraper-clad New York City, she was immersed in an utterly urban lifestyle—until she moved to Berkeley for college that is. It was here in California where her eyes were opened to a way of life that embraced natural living and released her passion for living lightly on the planet.

In 2003 she attended a two-week permaculture design course where she laid eyes on her first cob house. “I had never heard of it before,” Désirée explains. “I fell in love immediately. I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is what I want.’” The course was life changing, one might say, as it has since inspired her to build two cob structures in her own backyard, teach weekend cob workshops and even travel on a solo cycling trip through Europe researching centuries-old cob structures.

So what is a cob structure exactly? It may look like it has been plucked straight out of a Tolkien novel, but cob building is no fantasy. This concrete-strength building material is a simple mixture of clay-based soil, sand and straw, and has been in use for thousands of years.

Désirée explains that the cob-making process is relatively simple, and one that anyone can learn. Once the ingredients have been mixed together, the building strategy involves stacking layers of small “loaves” one on top of the other, until the walls are sufficiently high. The clay within the mixture bonds to the other ingredients, and once dry, it’s as strong as a concrete wall.

But more than simply building a structure, the creation of cob is an artistic process. “While you’re building, you sculpt in your shelving, you sculpt in your little arches or alters,” Désirée continues. “It’s very personal and it’s just so simple.”

Cob structures can range from small, 100 round foot (as opposed to square foot) playhouses, to an entire home of 1,000 round feet or more. And while the benefits of cob are innumerable—earthquake, fire and rodent proof just to name a few—it is perhaps the low cost that attracts the most attention. “For my structure which is 150 round feet, the walls cost maybe $200 or $300, and it’s seven feet tall,” Désirée shares. Because many of the materials can literally be found in your own backyard, the costs lie mainly in the window and roof materials.

Désirée hopes to be the first to build a legal, permanent cob residence in Santa Cruz. Nothing fancy, just a beautiful earthen home in which she can live simply and healthfully. As of yet, Santa Cruz doesn’t have any official eco-villages, possibly because of the strict building codes and legal hoops that must be negotiated for cob construction. But Désirée feels that as cob gains momentum, that fact will soon change. “It’s really time,” she says. “People call me every day from all over the country asking me about cob and how they can learn to do it.”

Perhaps as the demand for affordable housing continues to grow and cob assimilates into the mainstream, Désirée’s eco-village dream just may become a reality.

Désirée will teach her next cob workshop on Saturday, Sept. 29 in Bonny Doon. For more information, visit her website at cruzincob.com. | Leslie Patrick


The Solar Upgrade

Allterra Solar gives its two cents about solar upgrades so you can begin saving

Most of us want to conserve as much energy and water as possible, without having to spend a fortune to do so—but it can be a perplexing task to navigate this path, and so many of us remain in the dark. This is where Energy Upgrade California steps in—an organization funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), California utility ratepayers, and private donations. It is an educational and proactive program designed for homeowners and business owners, alike, to not only gain insight into what features are best for their particular building, but also how to appropriately finance their project in a way that won’t be detrimental to their wallet. This is done with the help of a well-matched contractor/rater, who helps participants decide whether a Basic Upgrade or Advanced Upgrade package is the right fit. Both of these packages contain their respective rebates and incentives, as well as the ability to add Enhanced Options, like water-efficient landscaping and solar selections.

cover solar-panelEnvironmental nonprofit Ecology Action oversees Energy Upgrade California on the local level, and, as such, has been working with Santa Cruz homeowners to green up their properties since the program began. For those homeowners interested in energy retrofits, Ecology Action connects them with participating, certified contractors like Allterra Solar. This nine-year-old Monterey Bay Area Certified Green Business is designed to help homeowners upgrade as efficiently as possible by installing solar energy panels manufactured by SunPower Inc., which is located in San Jose. Allterra’s Sales and Marketing Manager, David Stearns, encourages those on the upgrading fence to consider the long-term benefits of installing solar. 

“Solar is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country,” Stearns says. “There’s no question of how much of a rebate you’re going to get back. It’s a very easy, quick process. We can install solar for free and you can pay per month,” he adds, dispelling the myth that energy upgrades are unreasonably expensive.

He points to a statistic he read in an April 2012 SmartPlanet article that he says he finds baffling: “97 percent of Americans overestimate the price of installing solar,” meaning, they are under the assumption that they must hand over a large sum at once, rather than pay an affordable monthly fee.

Here he adds that Allterra offers a free-of-charge consultation.

Working at Allterra, Stearns has found that “solar is a lot more attractive to people” than conventional energy choices. This is because of several boons—financial, environmental and otherwise—that result from making the initial effort and investment in solar. Additionally, Stearns says others will appreciate the opportunity to participate in what he feels is “a great program with a noble goal.”

Now it’s your turn to get involved and begin your own realistic dream of having a happy home that uses clean energy. Not only is this dream a few clicks—or a phone call—away, but know that the professionals helping you at Allterra Solar are all residents of Santa Cruz County, too. Solar energy? More like stellar energy.

Allterra Solar is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m Monday-Friday and by appointment on weekends, at 207-B McPherson St., Santa Cruz. Call 425-2608 for further questions or visit allterrasolar.com to get a quote. For more information, visit ecoact.org. and energyupgradeca.org/county/santa_cruz. | Cynthia Orgel


Home Sweet Loan

Local home loan experts give tips for first-time and experienced borrowers

“It is so important to understand the loan process,” says Tai Boutell, mortgage banker for Santa Cruz Home Finance. “Getting a loan approved these days will be complicated and long, but it’s very manageable for anyone, you just have to be willing to jump through some hoops.”

Whether it’s first-time homebuyers, or homeowners looking to refinance, renovate, or take out an equity line, everyone can use some tips for navigating home loan procedures in the current housing market.

For anyone looking for a home loan, Jennifer Walker, Santa Cruz branch manager of RPM Mortgage, suggests first and foremost to find and work with a broker you can trust. “First time borrowers should always seek referrals from friends and family and local real estate agents and take the time to interview two or three local mortgage professionals,” explains Walker. “The process is more complicated than ever and we can’t cover all the details in one meeting.”

cover house of cashFinancial management seems to be the name of the game for a successful loan, and both Boutell and Walker note that borrowers need to be properly coached on how to manage their finances at the beginning of the loan process. “Everything is scrutinized in much more detail,” cautions Boutell, “all aspects of tax returns, credit, and, currently, all aspects of bank statements, money going in and money going out, will be looked at by the underwriter and questioned.”

Having a monthly budget worked out for all basic living expenses can be extremely helpful in deciding how much borrowers can actually afford. “Keep all your financial documents in one place during your search for a home,” says Walker. “Get a box to throw pay stubs, bank statements, check stubs, etc. [in] so they are readily available when requested. I am amazed at the number of people who don’t keep that stuff.” 

Although getting through the home loan process has become more cumbersome, especially after the housing market crash in 2007, there are still options. “The current economic climate is conducive to low interest rates,” says Boutell. With government loans like the Veterans Affairs loan that allows veterans to buy a home with no down payment, or the Federal Housing Administration loan that is easier to qualify for and has lower interest rates than conventional loans, Boutell advises prospective home buyers that qualify for those loans to take advantage while they can.

For home renovations, homeowners can take out equity lines of credit on their homes and use that revenue for remodeling projects or additions to a house. However, without any equity, a potential borrower may be out of loan options to revamp their homes. “More people are having to pay for small renovations out of pocket,” says Walker. “For bigger projects, a construction loan from Santa Cruz County Bank or Lighthouse Bank might be a good option.”

Regardless of what kind of loan a borrower is looking for, both Boutell and Walker note the importance of finding a local reputable lender. “Make sure they use only local appraisers, especially for Santa Cruz County. We are not a cookie-cutter subdivision community,” says Walker. “A good loan agent is your guide through the maze of all the lending guidelines and regulations, [they are the] key to a smooth process.” | Jenny Simeone


Love Apple Farms

Mighty tomatoes out of little seedlings grow

Most businesses start out in a small way, and that was certainly the case for Cynthia Sandberg, co-owner of Love Apple Farms with Daniel Maxfield.

After taking gardening classes at Cabrillo College in the early ’90s, Sandberg planted her own tomatoes and found that they grew well and in abundance. The former attorney realized that not only did she have a passion for growing tomatoes, but she was also very good at it, so she started a gardening company called Love Apple Farms. Word quickly spread about her growing skills, especially of premium heirloom tomatoes, and her tomato seedling sales became very successful.

A meeting with David Kinch, the chef and owner of the renowned Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos, led to the formation of an exclusive partnership in 2006, and Sandberg became the sole grower for Manresa—using biodynamic and organic principles for all her farming. Because of Kinch’s superior cuisine, Manresa has consistently been awarded two Michelin stars.

cover loveLocated off Vine Hill Road in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Love Apple Farms sits on 80 acres of prime land (the former Smothers Brothers Winery), and it has now become so much more than the source of produce for Manresa Restaurant. With Sandberg’s expertise, it has gradually been turned into a culinary and gardening education center that attracts more than 1,000 students annually for classes in cooking, gardening, cheese making and more. Guest chefs are also invited to demonstrate their skills, and special lunches and dinners are held periodically.

Sandberg has planned a variety of classes for the fall and winter, and October promises to be particularly interesting. Winter Vegetable Gardening classes will be held on Oct. 7 and 26—budding gardeners will learn there is more to a winter garden than growing greens and cabbage—and are designed to educate on bed preparation, winter pest and disease issues, as well as critical sow dates for winter crops.

Backyard Chicken-Keeping is set for Oct. 8 and a class on Alternative Proteins is scheduled for Oct. 28.

Guest chef Andrea Nguyen, well-known local author and expert on Vietnamese cuisine, is lined up for a cooking class on Asian Dumplings on Oct. 20, and Pim Techamuanvivit follows on Oct. 21, with a class on Harvest Pies, just in time for the holiday season. She also gives a class on Macarons on Oct. 6.

And for all ice cream lovers, pastry chef Kendra Baker, co-owner of The Penny Ice Creamery in Santa Cruz, will teach a class on Oct. 27 on how to prepare ice cream with sustainable, organic and local ingredients—completely from scratch.

For those who want to experience a lunch or dinner at Love Apple Farms, a Farm Lunch is offered on Oct. 13 and a Farm Dinner on Nov. 3, with some seriously delectable food to be prepared.

Sandberg’s tips for your fall and winter garden:

1 Transplant your brassica-family seedlings by Oct. 1. The brassica family includes such cool-weather lovers as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages. These plants need a long growing season, so plant them early to get a good harvest during the middle of winter.

2 Sow your root veggies by Nov. 1. Root vegetables such as carrots, beets, turnips and radishes, cannot be transplanted. They need to stay where they are sowed (or you risk losing the tap root, which is what you’re eating!). Always sow more than you think you need, as you won’t get 100 percent germination. You can always thin the bed later if you have a bumper crop.

3 Amend your planting beds before your fall crop. Vegetables need more fertilizer than you may think. They produce calorically rich food for you. You need to feed them in order for them to do that. We amend our beds with compost, worm castings, and Gardner & Bloome 4-6-3 Tomato, Vegetable and Herb dry fertilizer before each crop we sow or transplant.

4 Start a compost pile or worm bin. If you have to buy your compost and worm castings, fall is the perfect time to delve into starting to create your own garden fertility. Fallen leaves layered with “green” materials such as kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, or your spent summer crops will soon turn into useable compost for your spring garden beds. Worm bins are easy to manage and produce wonderful, potent fertility as well.

5 For those who aren’t going to garden through the winter, now is the time to buy season extenders. If frost is forecast, pull a frost blanket, plastic sheet, or bed sheet over low hoop structures (leaving an air space above the plants) at night. You will be able to squeak out a few more weeks of your warm-weather-loving crops. | Josie Cowden

Love Apple Farms, 2317 Vine Hill Road, Santa Cruz, 588-3801. Visit loveapplefarms.com.


Blown Away

Local landscaper leads anti-leaf blower task force

A brief jaunt of Googling “leaf blower” invariably finds you product promotions, bureaucratic jargon, and flaming forums where users challenge to blow “California hippies” off their property and where non-users share stories about how their grandmother almost out-raked a gas-powered leaf blower.

Locally, however, the leaf blower discussion is headed in a more environmentally minded direction. The discussion started when Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping owner Ken Foster wrote an open letter in the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s Feb. 12 issue, calling on landscapers to reconsider their reliance on the blower. A few weeks earlier, Foster had published a manifesto of sorts on the souring aspects of leaf blowers to his company’s blog.

cover Ban-Leaf-BlowersIn his letter, Foster challenged landscapers to dramatically reduce their use of gas-powered, two-stroke leaf blowers and instead supply their debris-clearing arsenal with rakes, brooms, and, as a last resort, electric blowers. Listing air pollution first and noise pollution third in a list of five reasons, Foster evidently drew the focus away from typical neighborhood complaints about blowers’ high-pitched whining noise and challenged landscapers to go a step further in their overseeing the health of the landscape.

Foster says that he got “a lot of response” from that letter, as several thank you cards and calls rolled in. In response, Foster mounted a call-to-task-force, inviting a dozen homeowners, professional landscapers and community activists to research and represent the woes of the device. The goal of the task force (called Leaf Blower Task Force Santa Cruz) is not to reinvent the rake, but to find dogmatic solutions to technology’s side effects.

However much his 2,768-word blog post attempts to discredit the common landscaping appliance, Foster’s sunset standpoint is more moderate. “An all-out ban is the wrong idea … we really just need to educate people,” Foster explains. “Since I’m a landscape contractor, I understand what contractors have to do to stay in business. At the same time, I just feel like we could be more careful about the community and the people we work with.”

With more than 300 cities across the nation—two dozen of them in California—which currently ban or restrict leaf blower use, Santa Cruz is not new to the issue: A proposed ban failed in the City of Santa Cruz in 1998.

Foster, who is also a permaculture instructor at Cabrillo College, wrote his own personal manifesto, titled “My escape from the land of the two-stroke backpack blowers,” in the 1990s.

“We have this attitude that we need power in the landscape,” says Foster, “and I think that a lot of people that are doing the [machine-assisted] work could easily be doing high-quality work with a little bit of training.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, American Lung Association, California Air Resources board and UC Riverside have published preliminary findings about leaf blower pollution, but further information, clearly and cleanly obtained, may help the dust settle.

The lure of irresistibly sardonic nicknames like “polluting noise bazooka,” “Lucifer’s trumpet,” and “death metal sur l’herbe,” have yet to convince Santa Cruz to abandon the device. But Leaf Blower Task Force Santa Cruz is nearing a “critical threshold,” as Foster puts it, and they hope to research, document and present their findings to the city council soon. Stay tuned. | KellyAnn Kelso


Autumn-atic Gardening

The Garden Company tells all for fall

When it comes to a variety of talked-about issues these days—the upcoming election and the fate of our nation, the ethics involved (or not) during Lance Armstrong’s cycling career, or Chris Brown’s most recent controversial neck tattoo—no two opinions ever seem to converge. However, since 1986, when The Garden Company was established in Santa Cruz, locals have been in total agreement: this is the go-to business for all of your gardening-related queries and projects.

Conveniently located on Mission Street, this independent business is family-owned and operated by The Keutmanns. Charlie Keutmann has a degree in horticulture and landscape architecture, and his wife, Maria, has been gardening since age 5. The pair prides themselves on maintaining a welcoming, knowledgeable staff, as well as an exquisite array of top-notch products. (These factors came together to help them nab Best Garden Supply in Good Times’ annual cover GArdenBest Of readers poll four years running.) So who better to give us the inside scoop on gardening and must-have seasonal items for fall?

When it comes to flowers that fit the fall season, Keutmann recommends cyclamen, which he describes as a bulbous-type plant that is dormant in summer, and usually found in shades of pure white to speckled white, pink, rose, lilac, purple-violet, and red. Chrysanthemums, bedding plants (such as English primroses, which come in shades of red, orange, chartreuse, light yellow, and pink), pansies and violas are also great for brightening up the dark months ahead, he says.

If you’re more curious about what kind of trees to plant, Keutmann says that Japanese maples and ginkgo trees—the latter characterized by “slow-growing, spectacular displays of golden yellow”— are great items to start with. A more daring display of color comes with the Chinese pistache. This tree—a male breed that does not produce fruit—will surely wow your neighbors with its “screaming shades of yellow, orange, and red,” says Keutmann.

There is plenty of gardening to be done in the colder months, despite what some may think. The trick, says Keutmann, is “don’t be afraid to plant a fall vegetable garden.” For the Santa Cruz climate, he suggests leafy greens like kale, arugula and lettuce, and head crops like broccoli and cauliflower. Root crops—from carrots and beets to radishes and anything else that doesn’t bear fruit above ground—and perennial herbs are also great autumn garden bets, he adds. For the latter, he says to look to rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, and mint.

He adds that fall is a great time for pruning and trimming. “It’s the time to start thinking about fruit trees [as well as the optimal period] to plant out what you want to do for January: bare-root season,” he says. If you’re not planning on doing a winter garden, no matter—simply do what you can to “amend the soil in this year’s garden for next spring.”

The Garden Company is open 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, at 2218 Mission St., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 429-8424, or visit thegardenco.com to sign up for the e-newsletter and receive monthly updates. | Cynthia Orgel


In 2012, ‘Brown’ is the new ‘Green’

Eight Earth-friendly reminders

1 Reinvent your recycling routine It may be time to step up your recycling game and learn more about which products actually don’t get recycled—like the plastic containers that produce is packaged in. Brush up on the ins and outs at cityofsantacruz.com/index.aspx?page=1327. It’s a good idea to become even more conscious of how much goes into our landfills that really doesn’t need to.

2 Ready to reuse? Out: paper napkins and towels. In: cloth napkins and dish towels. Consider reusing plastic utensils—again and again—and attempt to purchase as many items as you can in bulk (olive oil, honey and the like), so that you can reuse the jars once you clean them.

3 Grow your own food in your own garden Santa Cruz is a gardener’s haven and sustainable gardening is on the rise.

Ecology Action is one of the best online portals for reminders on  everything from creating ideal gardens to “Sustainable Mini-farming.” Learn more at growbiointensive.org. Take note of local gardening centers, too, such as DIG and the Garden Company in Santa Cruz.

4 Stay fresh by buying fresh and local With so many farmers markets in the county, this seems like an easy thing to do, but you would be surprised by how many people don’t take advantage of buying “fresh and local.” Bottom line: Supporting the local economy will help lower the carbon footprint.

cover earth hands2005 Compost Composting table scraps and garden cuttings is something most Earth-friendly Cruzans know how to do. For those new to the game, take note: composting reduces landfill and supplies significant nutrients for your own garden. Be aware of the growing number of compost containers and methods. Keepers: Coffee filters, paper bags, tea bags. Learn more at compostsantacruzcounty.org.

6 Invest in a water bottle There is a sea of plastic waste out in the Pacific Ocean—need we say more? Take note: plastic water bottles are a petroleum product, and more than 40 million wind up in landfills every year. Buying a water bottle and, better yet, installing a water filter system for your home or workplace is not that costly.

7Conserve, conserve, conserve If you haven’t already replaced your “regular” lightbulbs with their fluorescent counterparts, now is the time to do so. Do this all around the home—from your kitchen and living room to laundry room and garage. Consider LED general illumination, too.

8 Get out of the car In other words: consider walking and/or riding a bike. How about cycling to work once or twice a week; or cycling to the market? Go without a car from time to time. | Greg Archer

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