Italian Dandelion Redux

Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus)
It’s been a difficult winter growing season here in Los Angeles. Our unpredictable Mediterranean climate has thrown a few curve balls in the past few months courtesy of an ocean temperature phenomenon known as La Niña which has caused alternating periods of cool weather followed by 80º days and little rainfall. Our deciduous trees did not loose their leaves until after New Years, most of the winter vegetables we planted seem unhappy and to top it all off someone took all of the shallots and daikon radishes that were growing in our illegal sidewalk garden before they were ready to harvest.

All this leads me to muse about things that are really easy to grow and tough even in the strangest of weather. On this, the occasion of our 400th post, I had intended to discuss my favorite, indestructible vegetable, a leaf chicory popularly called Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus). Doing a Google search for it revealed, ironically, that I have already blogged an ode to Cichorium intybus. Let’s just say that despite the erratic weather, the Italian Dandelion soldiers on, providing nightly dinners of strong flavored greens (tasting delicious, incidentally, mixed with turnip greens). Horace, writing (blogging?) in a similar climatic region 2000 years ago writes “Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea, me malvae” (“As for me, olives, chicory, and mallows provide sustenance”).

It’s a comfort in these uncertain times to observe such a hardy plant. While my cabbage and kale wither under the hot sun and an army of aphids, the Italian Dandelion seems immune to both pest and disease. And, nearby, volunteer mallow hints at a spring of easy foraging. Horace was on to something.

And to all who responded to my call for urban homesteaders: I’m overwhelmed by the response (and the emails!). You are all an incredible inspiration and, like my botanical friend Cichorium intybus, a sign of abundance in the midst of adversity.

Jujube and Goji Fever

Jujube Photo from the Papaya Tree Nursery

Tucked into a residential neighborhood in a corner of Los Angeles’ vast San Fernando valley, the Papaya Tee Nursery, sells a dazzling array of exotic fruit trees, countless species and varieties you’ve never heard of. Papaya Tree’s proprietor Alex Silber, with his encyclopedic knowledge and stream of consciousness delivery, comes across at first as, well, unusual, until you realize that it’s not Alex that’s off kilter but the rest of the world. Who’s more sensible: someone who has a backyard full of the best fruit you’ve ever tasted, or the rest of us who know nothing other than flavorless, supermarket produce? There’s a whole world of flavor that our backyards could produce and Alex just might be Southern California’s exotic Johnny Appleseed.

Homegrown Evolution took a trip to Papaya Tree two weeks ago with bench pressing spotter, activist and blogger Creek Freak (whose book Down by the Los Angeles Riveris on my must read list). Creek Freak detailed his experience here on the Eco-village garden blog, and came back from Papaya Tree with an unique variety of jujube (Zyzyphus jujuba) which Alex Silber calls the Chang Jujube. Alex’s father got the original Chang tree as a gift from a friend in Asia. For those of you who have never had a jujube, it has a flavor somewhat like a date, (hence the popular name “Chinese date”). Most of the jujubes I’ve sampled at farmers market taste, charitably, like slightly sweet Styrofoam packing materials. Alex was nice enough to send us home with a bag full of dried Chang jujubes which convinced even the skeptical Mrs. Homegrown Evolution that this variety of jujube tree is well worth growing. The Chang jujube, unlike most varieties, is self pollinating and therefore does not require a partner. The Chang also has a distinctive, narrow and upright growing pattern, making it an ideal tree for small spaces. Jujube trees are an amazingly adaptable, deciduous tree, tolerating cold but preferring hot summers to produce good fruit which can be eaten fresh or dried. Once dried, the fruit stores for many months.

Goji berries (Lycium barbarum)

While Creek Freak came back with his jujube, Mr. Homegrown Evolution snagged three small goji berry bushes (Lycium barbarum). Goji berries created a frenzy in new age circles a few years back, with some extraordinary health claims, and currently fetch $14 for a pound of dried berries at Whole Foods. What attracted us to the plant is its alleged tolerance to living in proximity to black walnut trees, notorious for producing their own herbicides. We ended up planting them elsewhere in the yard, since our black walnut area is a bit too shady, and we’ll report back on how they do. Supposedly the leaves are edible as well, for those of you keeping score on the alternate uses of fruits and vegetables.

Note that the Papaya tree nursery is by appointment only and can be reached at (818) 363-3680. No mail order except for miracle fruit berries (see those strange berries and some video of the Papaya tree nursery here).

Looking for Urban Farmers

From the photo archives of the Library of Congress: Oswego, New York. A citizen showing his wife vegetables from his victory garden as she starts on her way to church.
Homegrown Evolution is writing a profile of urban farmers for a new magazine. We’ve got the West covered, but we are still looking for some folks to profile who:

1. Live in one of the five boroughs of New York City and grow edibles and/or keep livestock.

2. Live in Detroit. We hear rumors of folks keeping herds of goats in Motown!

3. Have photos of your activities.

Send us an email or leave a comment if you fit this description, or if you know of someone who does. All efforts, from the modest to the massive, are interesting to us.


Brewing Demo

Hogarth’s formula: beer=good, gin=bad

Homegrown Evolution will be conducting an informal beer brewing demo as part of an art opening in Eagle Rock this weekend. Curated by Nate Garcia, Needle in a Haystack brings together an eclectic group of artists exploring community and public space, including our comrade Ari Kletzky of Islands of L.A., with whom we’ll be interacting during the course of the show.

At the opening, on Saturday January 24th we’ll be demonstrating how to make a batch of beer with malt extract, a process that anyone can do in their own kitchen. The beer will ferment in the gallery and be served on February 28th at the closing party. We’ll be setting up around 6 p.m. and we should be finished brewing by 9 p.m. or so. The event is at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock which is located at 2225 Colorado Boulevard.

Stay tuned for more fermentation workshops in the near future.

Make a Garden Work Table from a Pallet

Pallets are a ubiquitous building material, your free lumber yard in tough times. Homegrown Evolution patched together the garden work table above for use with seedlings and storing pots and watering cans. Hopefully the picture is all you need to put one together yourself.

Some tips for working with pallets:

1. We prefer projects that don’t involve disassembling the pallet. The nails in pallets aren’t meant to be removed. Trying to take one apart with a crowbar will, in most cases, result in a lot of split, useless wood. A Sawzall reciprocating saw would work better if you must take one apart. For the table above we simply cut the pallet in half with a circular saw and handsaw.

2. Use screws not nails and predrill all holes. Pallet wood is very brittle and splits easily.

For some other design ideas check out:

This nice coffee table. Note that you simply use the whole pallet.

And this cool idea: an art/architecture collective Municipal Workshop has a nice way of avoiding the problem of pulling pallets nails. They cut pallets apart and use all the small pieces of wood like tiles. Here’s some more info on their “Autotron Unit”, pictured above.