Digital Farming- What’s The Deal?

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So here in the world of urban homesteading things can get pretty busy. We can become so preoccupied with work, chickens, vegetable gardening, cooking, cleaning, blogging duties and email that we can miss some of the things going on in the world. I do like to occasionally check in with the world at large by reading the newspaper. I just read an article that I have to comment on.

A recent New York Times article titled, ‘To Harvest Squash, Click Here,‘ introduced me to the world on online farming. Apparently people spend a lot of time “farming” on line. Twenty two million a day in fact, according to the article. There are several farming games on Facebook, Farmville being the most popular. You can get seeds to plant, watch your crops grow and then harvest them. Some people are so addicted that they are eschewing real life responsibilities and social obligations to harvest their virtual soybeans.
It is even suggested that the popularity of these farming games is indicative of a collective yearning for a more pastoral life. I’m not sure I get this. I spend all day outside in the dirt making things grow. At sundown, I lock up the chickens. Then I harvest something to make into dinner or on a special evening, I’ll make a big batch of jam or sauce and spend hours canning. I’d rather spend as little time online as possible.
I can’t wrap my head around how a video game can in any way replicate the experience of farming. I may be an urban dweller, but I get my satisfaction by getting real, not virtual, dirt under my fingernails. Can any one explain this trend to a clueless non-gamer like me?

Handmade, Homegrown Apron Contest

Homegrown Evolution reader Pam Neuendorf has offered fellow readers a chance to win one of her handmade aprons. She sells her wares through Etsy, a website where crafters and artisans can sell their goods. You can see more of her aprons here. She has an ordinary day job but is a maven of craft by night. Pam says, “I love making aprons. They make me happy.” I am a big fan of aprons. They are useful for cooking, gardening or just looking darn cute. I am also a big supporter of all things handmade. So I love this handcrafted apron.

I also hope our readers will appreciate this reminiscence of mine. -When I was in college I lived in a house with a lot of people. There were about 50 of us and we took turns cooking and cleaning. Every Friday we celebrated ‘Naked Pizza Fridays.’ Only the men would cook on Fridays. They would wear aprons and nothing else. Just the apron. Oh, the good old college days. Perhaps this is why I see aprons as slightly subversive and rather sexy.

Dear readers, if you would like to have this apron, send me an email and tell me what activity you would use your apron for. I want to hear about your hobbies and how this apron would help your creative energies. I will pick a winner by Sunday night. Send your entries to [email protected].

Quince: the “Poster Child of Slowness”

Oops–I think they mean “quince

A year ago I planted a “Karp’s Sweet Quince” tree from Raintree Nursery and blogged about it, saying that I’d like to hear from fruit expert David Karp for whom the tree is named. Karp called me a few weeks ago to say that he was working on a quince article for the LA Times, “There’s a new taste for quince“. In the article Karp discusses varieties that can be eaten raw as well as how our Southern California climate is an ideal place to grow quince. Karp asked how my tree is doing and I had to say that it’s not doing all that well. In a fit of mad, rare fruit tree planting fever, I put it in a crappy location, in bad soil too close to a large prickly pear cactus that is probably competing with it. We’ll hope it does better in the next season.

Filling in for my lack of backyard quince, Homegrown Neighbor was nice enough to pop by with some she bought local Asian market. The label must have lost something in translation, but refers to a variety called “Pineapple quince”. Karp points out in his article that this is the most prevalent commercial variety. When picked fresh it could conceivably be eaten raw, though the commercial stuff ain’t fresh.

Quince is indeed, as one of Karp’s sources notes, “the poster child of slowness.” I tried to make some jelly with it and greatly underestimated how long it takes to cook. The jelly did not set, so I’ll have to try again. But the fruit did fill the entire house with a heavenly scent. Definitely a fruit worth slowing down for.

A Warning About Straw

Claude Monet used straw (or is that hay?) for art. We use straw to catch chicken droppings!

Straw is a very inexpensive and useful material for composting, mulching and animal bedding (we use it for all of these purposes). If you use it for mulch you’ll probably get some seeds that will germinate, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in a small vegetable garden. I get my straw from the feed store, but you can often get it for free from yuppies on Craigslist who have bought it to give their parties the Hee Haw ambiance we enjoy 24/7 at the Homgrown Evolution compound. If you buy it from the feed store remember to ask for straw, not hay. Hay is green and a lot more expensive. You feed hay to your horses.

But one warning from my friend, permaculturalist David Kahn. It’s tempting to pick up bales that stores have used after Halloween, but make sure they weren’t treated with fire retardant. Fire retardant has some nasty chemicals in it you don’t want in your garden. When in doubt, just go to the feed store–straw it ain’t expensive!

Addendum 10/27/09: Reader Polyparadigm raised another potential issue with using straw in your garden or compost pile: halogenated pesticide/herbacide residues. Clopyralid is an example–while banned for use in lawns in many places it’s still allowed on hay and grain crops . All the more reason to grow your own mulch and carbon materials if you can–don’t throw out those fall leaves! Here’s what Polyparadigm says:

“I’m glad I read through to the end! I was thinking this would be a warning about clopyralid and its close cousins. Which bears some mention: Halogenated pesticides aren’t broken down by any but a few soil organisms.

Clopyralid and aminopyralid mimic the hormones in broad-leaf plants, causing them to grow un-evenly and die from wrong-facing, crinkled leaves and other symptoms. Grasses are un-affected, so fields of grain and lawns have been sprayed with this sort of chemical, as a cheap way of keeping broad-leaf competitors at bay for a few years.

These chemicals have a half-life of 11 months in hot compost, and are often applied at such high rates that certain plants won’t grow in garden soil dressed with finished compost from a mix of sources, if one of those sources is a treated lawn or field.

A quick bioassay will test for this in straw: peas sprouting from soil mixed with that straw will look deformed if the field that grew the straw was treated. Browns of a similar texture from a source you know to be clean should probably be used for a control group.”

Stirred, Not Shaken


“Matter is never without spirit and spirit is never without matter.” – Rudolf Steiner

This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending an amazing workshop in biodynamic gardening taught by master gardener Dory Rindge. For those of you unfamiliar with biodynamics, it’s a system of agriculture based on the work of early 20th century philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

In the 1920s, at just the point when chemical fertilizers where catching on, Steiner proposed a radical return to organic farming. Biodynamic agriculture combines common sense practices such as composting with strange esoteric rituals. The oddest aspect of biodynamics involves the “preparations”, a specific set of substances made of manure, silica and herbs that are buried in cow horns, bladders and skulls. After a few months they are unearthed, ritually stirred and applied to soil and compost piles. Steiner has the biodynamic farmer spray these preparations on soil, plants and compost piles to act as a kind of homeopathy for the land.

While we did not make our own preparations in class (it’s complicated!) we did a ritual stirring with pre-made preparations in buckets of water. Using sticks we created vortexes in the buckets, alternating in clockwise and counterclockwise motions. We then divided the mixture and rushed home to spread it on our gardens.


I was excited and inspired by the class, a feeling which deepened when manure filed horns appeared to me in a dream. In my dream I interpreted the symbolism of the horns–that they represented a higher world unified with the earth by being buried and containing manure. It’s a symbol that recalls the ouroboros, the snake chasing it’s own tail, representing the cycles of nature, combined with the “as above, so below” gesture the magician in the tarot deck is making below. All this makes more sense if you compost!

Now I’m a big fan of the scientific method (yea soil tests!) but I’m increasingly dissatisfied with our modern culture’s overly materialistic world view. As the subtitle of this blog hints at, “cultural alchemy”, I’m interested in symbolism. But I agree with our our instrutor Rindge that it’s important not to get dogmatic about this stuff.

And I could care less about the science of the preparations. If you are, here’s a study that says its hokum and here’s another one that says they work (pdf). To focus on the biochemistry of the preparations seems to me to be asking the wrong questions. What I like most about biodynamics is its sense of intention. It’s an intention that ties us to the land, to the elemental spirits of plants and animals that were tangible to our ancestors. We could all use ritual that ties us to nature and I look forward to stirring preparations and perhaps making them with a few close friends. In fact, I’m much more excited about making preparations than it buying a package through the mail. Steiner’s set of herbs all grow well here and many of them I have already. But a cow is kinda hard to come by in Los Angeles. While it may be heresy to some, perhaps we’ll have to come up with some modifications to the rituals that make sense in this particular place and time.

More on biodynamics, specifically planting by the cycles of the moon and planets, when Mr. Homegrown gets back from San Antonio next week.

The modern woman-things to put in your apron pocket

Aprons are so cute and oh so functional. I’m often out and about in the yard and around the homestead and I find my apron a very useful accessory. An apron adds a flirty, feminine touch when worn over jeans and is a nice layer of protection for a dress. I tend to get very dirty and need a lot of pockets, so an apron is handy indeed. Whether I am at the farmer’s market, pulling weeds in the backyard or at the chicken coop, here are the top things you are likely to find in the pocket of my apron:

5. Money- small bills for the farmer’s market.
4. Seeds. I tend to collect seeds in my pockets.
3. My keys.
2. An egg. I certainly can’t put an egg in my jeans pocket.
1. My iphone. Very convenient place for this indispensable item.

Gathering of Community Gardeners

This weekend is the third annual Gathering of the Gardens in Los Angeles. While the event is put together by the non-profit L.A. Community Garden Council, it is open to all interested parties. You don’t have to be a member of a community garden to attend, just interested in community building and gardening.

There will be workshops and discussions on topics such as vegetable gardening, composting, native plants, beekeeping and even a workshop on urban chickens co-taught by yours truly, Homegrown Neighbor. The entire day Saturday is free, but a $10 donation is requested to cover operating expenses. I recommend you go and pay them $100, because that is what this event is worth. You’ll meet the coolest people in L.A., learn about gardening, eat great food and contribute to a great cause. The tour of community gardens on Sunday is already booked up so you’ll just have to make the most of Saturday.

When I lived in an apartment after college I had a plot in a local community garden. Being a part of that garden was perhaps the only thing that kept me sane during that time. I had a series of mind numbing jobs followed by periods of depressing unemployment. Having access to that little plot of land allowed me to meet members of my community and to get my hands in the soil. I harvested some fantastic artichokes, kale, onions and chard from that plot.

I have a lot of love for community gardens so I am thrilled to be a part of this event. The event takes place at Farmlab, 1745 N. Spring St., L.A. 90012. It is just slightly North of Chinatown, near Downtown. It runs from 8-4 on Saturday and you won’t want to miss the breakfast provided by Homegirl Cafe.

For more information visit www.lagardencouncil.org.

Let’s Get Biointensive

I picked up a handy tip on plant spacing from John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. Jeavons dislikes rows and instead uses the triangular spacing of the French biointensive method. You can view a nice diagram of biointensive spacing on the LandShare Colorado website. And see some images of the way Jeavons’ spaces his garden on This Girl’s Gone Green. Triangular plantings squeeze more veggies into small spaces. The tight spacing, with leaves allowed to just touch each other when the plant is mature, also creates a living mulch which shades the soil and saves water.

Jeavons suggests cutting out some triangles in different sizes to assist in planting. Using scrap wood, I made triangles in 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 15-inch sizes, taking the spacing suggestions in Jeavons’ charts for the seeds I had planted in flats. When it came time to transplant the seedlings I used the triangles to create hexagonal blocks of tightly spaced veggies. Cutting a notch in the corners of the triangles would be a slight improvement and allow for easier planting.


I could end this post leaving you all to admire my pretty little seedlings planted in neat biointensive rows. But here at Homegrown Evolution we believe in telling the truth. Growing vegetables has its frustrations. The day after I planted our winter vegetable garden (we have two growing seasons here in Southern California), we had a freak October heatwave, causing a panicked run to the nursery to buy some shade cloth. This was followed by one of Mr. Homegrown’s notorious gardening meltdowns, dreaded by the very patient Mrs. Homegrown. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that I got that shade cloth up in time.

Favorite Plants- New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides.


When the lettuce wilts in the heat, caterpillars and aphids destroy the kale and your swiss chard is plagued by powdery mildew…. there is New Zealand spinach.
It is not a true spinach but is in a genus all its own. The leaves are triangular in shape, and very succulent. They grow on long, rambling stalks. The seeds are triangular as well and the plant will reseed if you let it. It tends to spread and grow low to the ground. It can be used as a living mulch since it so effectively covers the soil in a vegetable bed.
This green keeps on growing and seems to be unaffected by the bugs and problems that affect other greens. I have seen it growing wild among the rocks right along the ocean, so it can handle saline soils. This is a very robust plant. It tolerates drought, bugs, salt and poor soil. And it does much better in heat than true spinach which just bolts in Southern California’s heat. New Zealand spinach can be grown in the summer when other greens may not grow so well.
My front garden be is pretty much all New Zealand spinach now. The drip watering system broke and most of the plants withered and died or were mercilessly attacked by bugs. But this plant kept on going strong.
I have been growing it for many years and find it a reliable plant. In The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy writes, “New Zealand spinach makes a marvelous temporary ground cover, is good in hanging baskets, and will cascade over the sides of planter boxes. Grow it on the patio so it will be close at hand to add to your morning scrambled eggs along with dill and cheese.”
I have so much in my garden right now that I may do a big harvest and blanch, chop and freeze it for later use. I make a lot of green lasagnas with massive quantities of NZ spinach. I saute it with onions and garlic and put thick layers of spinach sandwiched between noodles and cheese.

When life gives you greens, you can’t go wrong. I have heard that it is edible raw but I prefer it cooked.

Give it a try in your garden if you haven’t already.

Chicken Coop Deconstructed

Homegrown Neighbor here. I volunteer at a local high school with an agricultural program. Remember that we are in the middle of Los Angeles and agriculture is largely a thing of the past here.

This school is one of the last public high schools in the area to have space devoted to an orchard, garden and farm. Right now it is home to a goat, a Vietnamese pot bellied pig, dozens of rabbits and two hens. As can be expected, the program hasn’t gotten the respect and resources it deserves in the last few years. Things look a little scraggly, the orchard is filled with weeds and most of the barns haven’t been touched in thirty years, now housing only spiders.

This program is special of course because it allows city kids to have access to green space, get outside and get close to a pot bellied pig- all rare experiences around here.

My current project is rehabbing the old chicken coop. I brought in my friend Justin, curator of the local arts space Echo Curio and a fellow master gardener to help. He has the building and construction skills that I lack.

This week the students took off all of the old plywood, chain link and chicken wire.

The students loved destroying the old structure. They got to use crowbars and hammers after a little safety lesson. Dust and spiderwebs flew everywhere. They practically had to be dragged back to the classroom at the end of the period because they were having so much fun they didn’t want to stop.The old chicken coop is now stripped down to the studs. As soon as we can get the supplies, we will start rebuilding. The students will get some real hands on construction lessons and get to build it themselves. Once the paint drys the school will be ready for a big flock of chickens. I think the coop could handle about 20.

Next we’ll rehab the big barn and get mini goats and dwarf sheep. This is going to be a jewel of an urban farm and a great educational space!

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