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.

Thanks!

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.

A Transportation Cocktail: Bikes, Trains and Buses


It’s the best kept secret in mobility. Bicycles, buses and trains go together like gin, vermouth and olives. Ride to the station, chug along to your destination and then ride off. You’ve got your wheels on both ends of the trip. We’re especially fond of the trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco on Amtrak’s lumbering San Joaquin train. Sure it takes ten hours, but it’s a small price to pay for having a bike in San Francisco. Once in SF, there’s no searching for parking or waiting for those slow-going north-south buses.

Note:

1. Some Amtrak routes let you take a bike on board but on the longer hauls you have to box up your bike, which can be a major inconvenience. The California trains that don’t require boxing are the San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner and Capital Corridor. On the painfully slow Coast Starlight you’ll have to box the bike. However, a friend found a loophole on the longer haul box policy in the form of a waiver offered by a baggage handler that, once signed, allowed my friend to put his bike in the baggage car without a box (note, the worker at the counter did not mention anything about a waiver and refused to accept an un-boxed bike). Avoid this hassle by taking the above mentioned California trains.

2. Amtrak Thruway buses accept bikes on, as far as I can tell, the San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner and Capital Corridor routes. You just stash the bike below in an empty cargo hold.

3. I’ve also taken my bike on board Metrolink trains up to Ventura.

4. For you folks pondering a trip to California, the train/bike combo would be a whole lot of fun.

5. Yes, a folding bike would be more convenient, but I like my road bike.

6. Get a copy of the San Francisco bike map to avoid the big hills and find the best routes. I got my copy at the Rainbow Market.

For more info on bikes on California Amtrak routes check here or call Amtrak, but always remember that when you bring up bikes with a customer service person it will be the first time they’ve ever heard the question.

Now back to the slow, but entertaining San Joaquin train. While it takes longer than driving or flying, the views of the Central Valley can’t be beat. You’re well off the highway for most of the trip, and get a god’s eye view from the upper deck. Glimpses of farms, backyards and small towns flash by as if in a series of dream-like snapshots. Some sights from my trip on the train:

Some older Asian men crouching on a backyard patio while chopping up a big side of beef (or game?) with an axe while a teenager looked on in pajamas.

A large, shirtless white man with a Mohawk standing outside a junk strewn and isolated compound somewhere north of Fresno.

A luxurious pool plopped, incongruously, smack in the middle of an empty two acre yard, at an unreasonable distance from the house. Adjacent to the house, the largest outdoor fireplace I’ve ever seen. Can you say second mortgage?

Speaking of mortgages, the territory of sub-primelandia: endless rows of abandoned suburban tracks on former agricultural land sitting empty, tattered real estate flags flapping in an unseasonably warm winter breeze. It brings to mind the boom town expression of mortgage agents, “drive until you qualify.”

A for sale sign hanging in front of a 1920s era dilapidated shack with a equally dilapidated pier jutting out into the northeast corner of the San Francisco Bay near the town of Pittsburgh, CA. Ready to tie up that Zebra boat for a memorable daily commute into San Francisco.

Canada geese kicking back in a Fresno drainage pond.

The world’s most aesthetically challenged hot tub enclosure, also spotted in Fresno.

And along the way, in backyards, the Central Valley has two of my favorite signs of civilization: backyard chickens and nopales. At the dramatic end of the line for the San Joachin train lay the forlorn streets of Bakersfield, immortalized in Buck Owen’s song,

“I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
Just want a chance to be myself

I’ve done a thousand miles of thumbin’
I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better
On the streets of Bakersfield”

Video of that song here, but beware of the distracting mullet on the bassist.

Secondary and Edible

Homegrown Evolution is headed to San Francisco for the week on business and will be away from computers (thankfully). Along the way we’ll be enjoying the agricultural vistas of California’s Central Valley via Amtrak’s lumbering San Joaquin train. In the meantime, please take a look at this fascinating link, the secondary edible parts of vegetables. Cucumber stem tips and young leaves for dinner anyone?

The Squirrel Menace

In our garden squirrels are a serious problem. Their worst offense is grabbing avocados off our tree, taking a few small bites and then dropping them on the ground for our Doberman to finish off. This year only five avocados made it into the kitchen. Today’s New York Times has just about the only effective solution. Anyone for squirrel tacos with guacamole?

“With literally millions of squirrels rampaging throughout England, Scotland and Wales at any given time, squirrels need to be controlled by culls. This means that hunters, gamekeepers, trappers and the Forestry Commission (the British equivalent of forest rangers) provide a regular supply of the meat to British butchers, restaurants, pâté and pasty makers and so forth.

The situation is more than simply a matter of having too many squirrels. In fact, there is a war raging in Squirreltown: invading interlopers (gray squirrels introduced from North America over the past century or more) are crowding out a British icon, the indigenous red squirrel immortalized by Beatrix Potter and cherished by generations since. The grays take over the reds’ habitat, eat voraciously and harbor a virus named squirrel parapox (harmless to humans) that does not harm grays but can devastate reds. (Reports indicate, though, that the reds are developing resistance.)”

Two tangents here:

1. Please note the dapper gamekeeper photographed for the story. Here at Homegrown Evolution we think it’s about time the work clothes with tie look, such as this gamekeeper’s traditional hunting attire, makes a comeback. No more walking around in pajamas!

2. We’ve got another excuse to replay this old video:

Thanks to neighbor Lora Hall for the link to the New York Times story!

Waking up on New Year’s Day with the world of long crowing roosters

Now I’m not suggesting these guys for urban situations, but New Year’s Day seems an appropriate moment to survey the world of long crowing roosters. According to poultry expert Gail Damerow, writing in the current issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, long crowers probably have their origins in Japan and have spread throughout the world through deliberate selection. Here’s a play list for your listening pleasure, consisting of a Turkish long crowing breed, the Denizli, followed by a Koeyoshi (good crower in Japanese) and the Tomaru (black crower):

For those of you trying to awaken hungover members of your household, here’s two audio files of: A Totenko (red crower) and a Tomaru.

Somewhat perversely, the long crowing trait makes for lower fertility in eggs and greater susceptibility to disease in chicks. As Humans have bred long crowing roosters for thousands of years, it’s a reminder that people have been placing fun and entertainment before utility for a long time. An anthropology professor I once had speculated that the musical bow came before the hunting bow. Other anthropologists theorize that chickens were domesticated for fighting before people figured out the whole egg and meat thing. Far from a defect in human behavior, for me things like long crowing roosters prove that innovation comes out of play.

Thanks to longcrowers.de for sharing those videos!

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