Seeding Change

Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall is in the New York Times this week in an article by Michael Tortorello, “Packets Full of Miracles.” Tortorello asks six gardeners to pick out their favorite seed varieties. Homegrown Neighbor chose New Zealand spinach, Nero de Toscana kale, Red orach, Sugar Ann snap pea, Crimson California poppy and Verbena bonariensis.

I’m sure Homegrown Neighbor would appreciate a reminder that if you buy seeds from Botanical Interests using the link on the right side of this blog, 40% of your purchases will go to supporting the ag program at North Hollywood High. Let’s get that chicken coop paid for! Fellow Angelino Caitlin Flanagan be damned!
It’s also a good moment to point out the reasons it’s best to grow from seed rather than buying seedlings at your local nursery. You get many orders of magnitude more selection, it’s much cheaper and you prevent the spread of soil diseases. Last year a fungal disease, late blight, infected gardens due to seedlings grown at large nurseries in the south and sold at big box retailers up and down the east coast (read more about that in an excellent editorial, You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster) . Plant seeds and you help keep your garden disease free.
Spring is just around the corner. Time to order those seeds! Leave a comment with your favorite varieties.

Compost Pail Comparison

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Just a quick product review.

Containers to hold your kitchen scraps are now common accoutrements sold in home stores. The idea is you fill them up as you prepare food and they are able to store the coffee grounds and broccoli stems without getting any flies or foul smells until you have a chance to get out to the compost pile.
I used to use a large yogurt container for this and store it in the fridge. The problem was, the container was way too small so I still had to empty it practically every day. If I was preparing a lot of veggies I would overflow, with scraps piling up on plates on the counter. My kitchen looked dirty and embarrassing. So the idea of a larger container to hold my food waste is appealing.
My kitchen has stainless steel appliances so when I saw a coordinating compost pail at a big box store, I had to indulge. But the honeymoon ended quickly. I recently bought a pail that I like much better. So I thought I would share the information.
So the pail on the right, with the holes on the top is my old compost pail. The pail comes with these removable carbon filters. A word to the wise. Never, ever purchase a product like this. I am convinced that it is a poor design, made to force you into buying more carbon filters. I actually had fruit fly larvae embedded in one of the filters. My roommate refused to even open the thing.
The pail is hard to clean. It is always scummy. The top little handle part fell off and it is inside the lid somewhere under the carbon filter. Too many parts.
The pail on the left is my new pail. It is from Gardener’s Supply Company. The design is simple- a pail and fitted lid. No holes, no carbon filters. And it is about half the price of the other one. It can go in the dishwasher and is easy to clean overall. Simple design, no parts to purchase later, I love it. It fits several days worth of kitchen scraps unless I’m doing a big meal for guests. I like only having to empty the pail every three or four days.
Of course any vessel with a fitted lid would work to hold your kitchen scraps. Many everyday containers could be used for this purpose. But I love that this one matches my kitchen and looks neat and tidy. I like that it is easy to clean, dishwasher safe, slick and shiny. No one knows what is rotting on my kitchen counter when I hide it in this pretty pail.

Bread and Transformation

I’ve not tried Reinhart’s baking method (even though I once had one of his books out of the library), but I like this 2008 Ted talk on the alchemical symbolism of bread. If you’re either a baking or brewing geek like me it’s worth a view.

The baking method I’ve used for over a decade is from Nancy Silverton’s book Breads from the La Brea Bakery. You use a sourdough starter and at least half the flour must be white to get it to leaven properly. I’ve had great results, but would like to someday make a loaf entirely from whole wheat with a sourdough starter. Reinhart, in his book Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor claims to be able to do just that and not end up with a hockey puck. If you’ve tried his method (and gone through his very lengthy directions) leave a comment!

That ain’t a bowl full of larvae, it’s crosne!

Mrs. Homegrown, justifiably, gives me a hard time for growing strange things around the homestead. This week I just completed the world’s smallest harvest of a root vegetable popularly known as crosne (Stachys affinis). Crosne, also known as Chinese artichoke, chorogi, knotroot and artichoke betony is a member of the mint family that produces a tiny edible tuber. While looking like any other mint plant, the leaves have no smell. The tubers look all too much like the larval form of the Michelin tire mascot and have the taste and texture of a Jerusalem artichoke.

Crosne on left, actual larvae on right

What happened to the larvae on the right after the photo shoot?

I got the tubers, that I planted last year, from Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, who always has an amazing booth full of produce at the Hollywood farmer’s market. I asked Alex if he thought I could grow them here in Los Angeles. He said that he wasn’t sure, but that he thought that where he grew crosne, at a higher altitude with a much colder winter, would be more conducive to producing a good crop of tubers.

What crosne leaves look like

Self irrigating pots, post crosne harvest

Undaunted, I planted two self irrigating planters made from storage bins with about twelve or so tubers. Throughout the year the foliage was lush and finally died back in late November. It was really easy to grow, just like any other mint. It grew to about 1 1/2 feet and never produced flowers. I’m sure in wetter places it would be invasive. I spoke to Alex at the market again in December and he told me to pull the tubers out around Christmas. Alex was right, I didn’t get a very big crop–LA is probably not the best climate for this plant. No crosne banquet this winter. But I did get enough to make a jar of pickles with.

I feared that it would be as hard to clean as Jerusalem artichoke, but a few blasts of the garden hose took off most of the dirt. French folks cook crosne in butter. I decided to pickle them in white vinegar using a recipe for Jerusalem artichoke. The recipe I used was a little too heavy on the mustard, otherwise I’d pass it on. The addition of some tumeric gave the pickles an appealing yellow color. I’ve been tossing them into salads to the horror of Mrs. Homegrown, who is not a fan of my crosne pickles.

Eric Toensmeier, author of Perrenial Vegetables has a YouTube tour of his garden where you can see how he grows crosne. Toensmeier interplants it with other root crops that mature at the same time, so you get a mix of things at harvest.

The Plants for a Future entry on Stachys affinis has some nice information on how to grow it.

Avatar: I’m not lovin’ it.


Since it just won the Golden Globe award for best picture and several other garden blogs have commented on it, I think it’s time to take a break from blogging about nettles and weigh in on James Cameron’s Avatar. For the five or so folks who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a plot summary: An evil corporation sets up shop on a far off planet, “Pandora”, to mine a rare mineral necessary for the next generation of iPhones. Unfortunately, said planet is occupied by a tall blue Rastafarian/Smurf people who practice a quaint religion centered around a fiber optic tree (what Doug Harvey describes as the “Gaia Hypothesis Shrub”). The blue folks also have fiber optic connections in their pony tails, kinda like this:


In Pandora’s jungle, everything is bioluminescent and all the plants are networked with the fiber optic shrub. Even the flying lizards have fiber optic appendages. The tall blue smurf folks can plug into these connections and control the flying lizards and five-legged horses. Oddly, when the blue people make love they don’t seem to connect up their fiber optic pony tails (would that make for an R rating?). Best of all, Sigourney Weaver discovers that the quaint religion, which involves sitting in a lotus position and swaying in front of the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub, is all based on SCIENCE since the fiber optic network is just like the internets back on earth not some woo-woo esoteric thing.

Spoiler alert–a disabled veteran, using a fancy wii controller mounted inside a tanning bed becomes a blue person and, by jacking into a really big flying lizard, defeats the evil corporation. In the final scene the disabled veteran, now fully smurfed-out, uses a spear to tip over the corporate general who is walking around in a top-heavy robot thingy. Sigourney Weaver dies and gets sucked up into the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub. Or, that’s my memory of it. I got kinda distracted by the 3D Imax Sensurround experience.

As for Avatar’s ideas about nature, one of Cameron’s workers must have done a brief one page summary of Paul Stamet’s mushroom writings for the busy director. The whole fiber optic natural network subplot in Avatar is reminiscent of the discovery, thanks to advances in DNA testing, of what may be the largest living organism in the world, the underground mycelial network of a massive honey mushroom Armillaria ostoyae that covers some 1,500 acres in Washington. Mix mushrooms with undersea landscapes and you’ve got Cameron’s jungle. Add the fiber optics and you’ve got a computer geek’s vision of Mother Earth.

What bugs me about the critical reaction to Avatar is the idea that the movie somehow represents a yearning for contact with the natural world (ironic in a movie that substitutes flesh and blood actors with digital puppets). In fact, Avatar is an artifact of a culture profoundly out of touch with nature. and serves only to further that disconnect by embedding the myth of disconnect in our popular imagination. How deeply offensive it is–how simple minded and tech biased–to suggest that nature is something we can “plug into,” Matrix style, as if we’re somehow separate from the world around us, aloof from it until we choose to interact with it. We are one with the natural world, always have been, always will be. We are born jacked-in, but we learn to ignore it.

What really frightened me about the Avatar and all the critics who loved it, is how the movie’s protagonist redeems the natural world by becoming virtual. Sure, he becomes flesh and blue blood in the end but only after all those virtual hours in the tanning bed. In this way Cameron’s movie inverts Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant Solaris (not to be confused with the George Cloony remake). The doomed astronauts of Solaris descend into madness because they loose touch with the natural world and can no longer distinguish the virtual from the real. In the film worried government officials dispatch a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, to find out what is going on aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Kelvin spends his last days on earth deep in the woods at his fathers remote cabin. Once in space Kelvin loses touch with reality. His dead wife appears to him, simultaneously real and virtual. Jerry Mander describes Solaris in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:
“Without concrete reality, which is to say, contact with their planetary roots, they are adrift in their minds: insane. All information has become believable and not believable at the same time. It has become arbitrary. There is no way to separate the real from the not-real. Although the astronauts know this, since there is nothing that is not arbitrary, except each other, all information is equal. It is impossible to determine which information to act on . . .

Finally, the message of the film is clear. The process of going insane began long before the launch into space. It began when life moved from nature into cities. Kelvin’s ride from woods to city to space was a ride from connection to disconnection, from reality to abstraction, a history of technology, setting the conditions for the imposition of reconstructed realities by a single powerful force.”

Tarkovsky says far more about our alienation from the natural world in Solaris’ highway scene than Cameron can ever hope to and he does it without dialog or special effects. In the clip below, the people in the car have left the countryside, a peaceful interval of grounded-ness. Now they’re traveling to the city, and from the city, to space. The long silent car ride shows their transition from the natural world, to the dislocation and isolation of the city freeway system, setting them up for the final dislocation and madness of the space station.

As if we didn’t need more proof that our culture is dangerously losing touch with reality, like the doomed astronauts of Solaris, along comes the newfangled form of depression,”Avatar Blues,” a sadness that fans suffer knowing they cannot actually live on Pandora. CNN offers this helpful suggestion,

“Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing “Avatar” video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities.”

Here’s our own suggestion for folks longing for Pandora. Go outside. Find a plant, any plant. A tree, a weed growing out of the sidewalk. Spend a few moments with that plant, observing what it looks like, how it grows, how it makes you feel. Believe what you hear, what you feel, what you imagine. There’s no need for tanning beds and fiber optics. You’re already jacked into a world 10 billion times richer and more imaginative than Pandora. To see it you just have to open your eyes.