Another way to deal with prickly pear stickers

One of those “farm uses” could be burning off prickly pear spines . . Image via BoingBoing

I’m drowning in prickly pear fruit which means a lot of nasty thorns in the kitchen and an angry Mrs. Homegrown. Previously I burned them off over our stove, but inevitably a few stickers would find their way to the kitchen sponge. Now I’ve got a new technique for removing stickers thanks to Norman of Silver City New Mexico who writes,

“Just a note to tell you how I harvest the pears.  We live in the arid SW and have a lot of native cacti.  The pears were very good this year because of the extra wet summer.  In dry times we burn the stickers off the prickly pear so the cows will eat the leaves.  It saves the cattle in some years.  I take a propane torch and burn the stickers of the pears before I pick them.  They turn very shinny like you had waxed them.  Then just pick them with your bare hands.  Sure saves a lot of time not having to roll them on a grill.”  

I tried this today with the propane torch I use for sweating pipe. Works great. Norman also suggested making some “Knox Blox” with the juice, something I intend to try. Thanks Norman for saving our marriage.

I forgot about Bean Fest!

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Apologies all, it’s been a heck of a week.  I realize I never set an end date on Bean Fest, a day where I could sign off gracefully with a last recipe, and now I think maybe that’s for the best. Because really, does Bean Fest ever end? No, it does not. Not in our hearts.

And besides, I have a backlog of bean recipes. So while I will not be posting a recipe this Friday, I will declare Fridays henceforward as frugal recipe day. I may not come up with something every week, but Friday will be the designated day to highlight not only bean dishes, but soups, stews and the like. Admittedly, “Frugal Recipe Day” is not the most appealing tag. I’ll set our marketing department to work on coming up with a better name.

There are these moments

You sorta had to be there

There are these moments, they’re hard to explain, but perhaps you’ve experienced them too. Like the other day I was in the yard, taking out an old lavender bush and one of our hens, Handsome, was under my feet the whole time, waiting for spiders to fall.

At one point I stopped my hacking and looked at her–really looked at her. She was dappled with late afternoon sun, her fresh molted feathers glistening and speckled with bright gold patches of light. Sensing my attention, she stopped scratching and just looked at me. The sun caught her amber eye and made it beautiful and deep and somehow profound. And we just sat there, regarding each other for a long half moment. And in that small space of time, I realized how blessed I was to have this moment, outdoors, in the golden light, surrounded by the scent of dying lavender, with this strange and amazing creature by my side.

Growing Home: Agriculture in the City

We’re pleased as punch to have been invited to participate in this fantastic symposium hosted by the Huntington Library & Gardens in Pasadena.  It’s a full day of presentations, tours and practical breakout sessions. We’re generally slow to open the wallet for events, but we’d gladly pay the $25 admission for this one. 

Check out the line up below! Homegrown Neighbor will be there (Full Circle), as well as Tara of Silver Lake Farms–she who knows everything about soil and helped us redesign our garden. Our buddies from Backwards Beekeepers will be there, too.  Food Not Lawns, Fallen Fruit…all these people are so amazing , its hard to even choose highlights.  Seriously. If you live in So. Cal, you have to come. Come and say hi.


Growing Home
Saturday, November 13, 8:30am-5:30pm
In celebration of all that’s home grown, is a day of talks, tours and demonstrations by local experts on topics from nurturing soil to keeping chickens to growing organic flowers and produce.  Rosalind Creasy, edible landscaping pioneer, is the keynote speaker.  Other presenters from: Silverlake Farms, Homegrown Evolution, Food Not Lawns, Darren Butler, Full Circle Gardens, Metabolic Studio, Backwards Beekeepers, Fallen Fruit, Sustainable Habitats, Master Gardeners, and Little Flower Candy Company.
And the day before, Friday, there’s an academic symposium which also sounds fascinating. Gary Nabham wrote Where Our Food Comes From, and about a hundred other books: 

Bringing Home the Ranch
Friday, November 12, 8:30am-8:00pm
Combining talks presenting a range of perspectives with a student poster session and Ranch tour, this one-day symposium brings together academics, students, and professionals interested in the future of urban agriculture. Gary Nabhan, world-renowned ethnobotanist, ecologist, writer, and grower of heritage food crops, will be the keynote speaker.  

Tickets and details available through www.brownpapertickets.com

Summer 2010 Tomato Report

Tomato season began inauspiciously with unseasonably cold weather for Southern California. I simply couldn’t get any seeds to germinate. Thankfully, Craig of gardenedibles.com came to the rescue with a couple of seedlings for us. Here’s a recap of our tomato successes and failures:

Red Pear. I’ve grown this one before. It’s a plump, ribbed, meaty tomato. It’s flavorful and amazing both fresh and made into sauce. Craig concurs that this is a must grow variety.

Napoli. A paste variety with a short bushy growth pattern. Like San Marzanos this vine cranks out a ton of fruit. Did not taste great fresh but made the best canned tomatoes I’ve ever grown–I’m guessing this variety is bred for canning.

St. Pierre: not much to say about it. O.K., but not all that exciting.

Yellow pear. This small cherry tomato sprouted out of the compost. It’s kinda bland, but we got a ton of them. I borrowed some time in neighbors Anne and Bill’s dehydrator and dried them.

Sun Gold. Mrs. Homegrown stuck a Sun Gold tomato in the backyard which I failed to care for properly. Nevertheless, it still produced a decent crop.Very sweet and prolific.

Failures. I had three vines fail on me due to a combination of not transplanting soon enough and not paying attention to them–mainly, I think they got root bound in their pots.

Lessons
This year I took the watering advice of tomato guru Steve Goto of  Gotomato. Goto suggested a thick layer of mulch and a very deep watering when transplanting. The next watering comes when the plant droops in the morning–a whole month for me. Thereafter you water deeply only when the plant droops again in the morning, which worked out to be about once a week. You ignore any droopiness during midday and only water in the morning. I used in-line drip emitter tubing and all seemed to go well. Goto has tomato growing instructions you can download here.

Another big lesson is that even in sunny Southern California you need a cold frame to get good germination in the spring. We’ll blog about the cold frame I just added to our back patio soon.

So how did your tomatoes do this year? Drop us a comment with your geographical location and the tomato varieties you liked the most/least.

Organic Egg Scorecard

Chino Valley hen houses, identified by the Cornucopia Institute as “ethically deficient.”

The Cornucopia Institute has released an “Organic Egg Scorecard” to assist in the ethical minefield that is shopping for a dozen eggs. The scorecard identifies 29 “exemplary” and, not surprisingly given recent news, a whole bunch of “ethically deficient” organic egg producers. The study used a 0 to 2200 point scoring system, rating farmers on hen’s access to outdoor spaces, pasture and the quality of housing among other factors.

And, a memo to Trader Joe’s–take a look at that scorecard–you guys get a big “0.”

Via the Official Poultry Bookstore Blog.

One of our favorite activities: Depaving

Taking out concrete with a sledgehammer may not be everyone’s idea of a great time, but believe me, Erik is having a great time in this picture. Any opportunity to get rid of a few feet of ugly concrete or asphalt,  and replace it with soil and plants, is not an opportunity to be missed. Depaving increases growing room for green things and it also gives more points of access for rain to enter the ground and renew the water tables–rather than being lost down into the sewers. Think about your home–do you have sidewalks that can be replaced with mulched paths? Can you reduce the size of your driveway? How much of your backyard is paved?

What Erik is doing here is pretty simple. He’s taking out a chunk of our back patio, ripping it down to soil. The next step is to build a big planter box above the hole. This way, our planter box becomes a raised bed rather than a simple container. While it’s possible to garden in containers, it’s always better, if at all possible, to open the bottom to soil.

We’re pretty fearless about messing with our back patio because it’s ugly, cracked and worn out.  Any yuppie worth their salt would have replaced it out years ago, but we’ve had more pressing repairs to do. You can see we built a sort of deck/arbor thing there behind Erik, but the larger area of the patio has long been a sort of unattractive work-zone/no-man’s land. A non-space.  Reclaiming it is part of our backyard renovation, and building a raised bed at the edge of the patio is part of that plan. This new bed will give us 200 square feet of new growing space, pulled from an area that did nothing before but collect junk.

The cement work on the patio is so poor that it’s easy for us to take out with simple tools. In this case Erik first defined the area of removal by slot cutting the concrete with a hand-held circular saw fitted with a blade called a “Masonry Cut-Off Wheel.”  (If our patio were made of better concrete, we’d have to rent a gas powered, water cooled saw with a diamond studded blade . These are available at equipment rental joints.)  The cool thing is that once you make that neat cut, you can bash around inside the lines with a sledgehammer and (hopefully) the cement will not crack outside the lines.

Here you can see the slot cut lines at the bottom and right. Erik has pounded this area with the sledge hammer, and is prying up thin layers of cement with a crowbar. Our patio was covered with archaeological layers of skim coats–so in our case, the work is a matter of taking out thin layer after thin layer. A more solid patio would be taken out in big chunks. At any rate, Erik kept hammering away–while I helpfully “documented”–until he hit the sad and sorry soil that’s been trapped beneath the concrete for perhaps 90 years. That soil will revive. That’s the amazing things. Soon enough moisture and worms will move in and it will live once more.

We would have liked to have recycled the broken chunks of concrete to use elsewhere, but its poor quality meant that it fractured into tiny chunks too small to use as “urbanite.”

Stay tuned to see the new raised bed.

Colony Collapse Disorder “Solved”

Russell Bates of the Backwards Beekeepers keeping bees naturally.

Media coverage of beekeeping, particularly colony collapse disorder gets me a bit frustrated. This week saw the release of a study from the University of Montana, Missoula and Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, linking CCD to a co-infection of a previously unreported virus and a common bee parasite called nosema. As usual, most reporters failed to do their due diligence, except for Katherine Eban at Fortune magazine who explored the ties between the lead researcher in this study, Jerry Bromenshenk, and pesticide manufacturer Bayer Crop Science. See her work in a provocative article, “What a scientist didn’t tell the New York Times about his study on bee deaths.”

Aside from the glaring conflicts of interest (Bromenshenk is also developing a hand held device to detect bee diseases including the ones in this study), I think what’s missing in bee research, in general, is a whole systems approach to the problem. Not only are commercial beekeepers trucking their bees thousands of miles, but they are using miticides, not allowing the bees to form their own comb, limiting the numbers of drones, breeding weak stock and exposing the bees to pesticides such as imidacloprid (manufactured by Bayer!) to name just a few questionable practices. All of this bad beekeeping promulgates bees with weakened immune systems. The researchers may find a “solution,” but with weak bees some other problem will come along in a few years and we’ll be right back where we started. Meanwhile the big commercial beekeepers cling to pesticides as the cause of CCD since this thesis allows them to carry on without addressing all of the aforementioned practices.

CCD is nothing new–it’s happened before and will happen again until we start keeping bees in a more natural manner. To “solve” CCD with some kind of treatment regimen or a hand held detection gadget is a bit like the government propping up those “too big to fail” banks. Everything works fine until the next bubble comes along. I believe that the long term solution lies with folks like the Backwards Beekeepers, Dee Lusby and in the words of the late Charles Martin Simon. In short, work with nature not against her.

Bean Fest, Episode 8: Really Good Lentil and Whole Grain Soup

photo by wollongonger

Welcome to Bean Fridays, our ongoing series highlighting the beautiful bean.

We had a brief hint of winter here this week, three days of chilly grey skies and lingering drizzle. I was in heaven–but it didn’t last, and we’re heading into another heat wave. But anyway, that taste of winter put me in the mood for soup.

So today I’m going to share my favorite soup recipe. I’m stretching the rules a bit to put it here, because it’s not a bean dish, but it does involve lentils. One of its great merits is that its what I call a pantry soup. If your pantry is well stocked, you’ll have what it takes to make it or improvise something similar and equally good. And needless to say, it’s easy to make, or I wouldn’t make it.

This recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells, where it’s called Oliviers & Co’s Provencal Three-Grain Soup. With a provenance like that you know that even if it is packed with wholesome ingredients, this isn’t going to be one of those bland “healthy” soups.

You’ll need:

1/3 cup spelt
1/3 cup pearl barley
1/3 dark green lentils
3 leeks, white portion only — or an onion or two–finely chopped or sliced into thin rounds.
2 carrots, chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 t. of fresh or dry thyme
1 head of garlic, all the cloves peeled
1 28 oz. can of tomatoes/or your own canned tomatoes
Sea salt
Olive oil

  • Notes on the grains: Use whatever whole grains you have on hand, from wheat berries to quinoa, one type or a blend, as long as it measures 2/3 cup. I’ve used all spelt, all barley, even rice, I think– it all tastes the same once it’s in the soup. The variable is texture and eye appeal. The little dark (greenish black brown) lentils called lentilles de Puy are really the best for this, because they hold shape so well. You may find other small lentils, like those little black lentils, work too. But whatever you have will be fine–it’s just that some other types of lentils, like the pink ones, tend to dissolve in soup rather than staying firm. If you don’t have lentils, the soup could be all grain, or you could substitute with pre-cooked beans, adding them in toward the end.

Rinse your grains and lentils off in a fine colander, set aside.

Put about a tablespoon of olive oil, about 1 teaspoon of sea salt, the herbs, leeks or onions, and carrots in a heavy bottomed soup pot. Turn the heat on fairly low and cook them covered for about five minutes, so they soften but don’t brown. This is called sweating.

Add the whole can of tomatoes, juice and all, then add about 5 cups of water.  Bring this to a simmer.

Add the grains, lentils and all those garlic cloves (The garlic cloves are the secret weapon! If you or your family is garlic shy, don’t worry, the soup doesn’t taste very garlicky when it’s done.)

Simmer covered until the grains are tender, about 45 minutes, depending on the grains.  Add more water if necessary, to keep it at the thickness you prefer.

Test for seasoning. Add some fresh ground pepper, and serve in bowls drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Don’t skip the olive oil swirl. It really makes it, somehow.

It’s that easy, and that good. I usually double this recipe for leftovers.

Note re: leftovers: The grains soak up all the liquid when the soup is sitting in the fridge, leaving the soup a semi-solid mass–so you’ll have to add a good deal of water when you go to reheat. This doesn’t effect flavor at all. It’s an excellent leftover type soup.

Propagating herbs via cuttings

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Say you have one lavender plant, but you’d like to have more. Or your trusty sage plant is getting old and woody and needs to be pulled, but you wish you could save a bit of it and start fresh. One way to accomplish this is to grow new plants from cuttings taken from your existing plant. This is process called taking softwood cuttings. You cut small bits of plant, dip them in a rooting hormone, then baby the cuttings until they grow roots of their own. Basically, it’s cloning.

Herbs are particularly suited to this sort of propagation, since it’s better to have a fresh young herb plant than scraggy woody old herb plant, and this is a way to renew your herb plants. Also, it may be hard to collect seeds from your favorite herbs, particularly if you live somewhere cold.

It takes a good while for cuttings to root, so you don’t do this when you’re in a hurry to get plants in the ground. But if you plan it right, this is a cheap and satisfying way of propagating plants.

Erik and I are ripping up our back yard, basically taking it down to bare soil. I’m taking cuttings of many of the things I’m ripping out, so that I can replace them later.  I decided to document the process for the edification of all ya’lls.

A note on timing:

If you live in a cold winter climate, this will be the wrong time of year to take cuttings–wait til spring. But in a warm winter climate this is the ideal time. We plant perennials in the winter, so that they can use the rains to get established before the long, dry summer.

You’ll need:

–Something nice and sharp to take cuttings with, ideally a grafting knife, but really any very sharp cutting implement. What you don’t want is to take cuttings with something so dull it crushes the stem. Think like a surgeon.

–A seedling tray or a bunch of little plastic containers filled with good potting soil.
(Note: Don’t use peat pots or egg cartons or anything similar. In general I don’t think they’re good vessels for starting plants, but in this case in particular it would be disastrous because they’d disintegrate in the constant moisture, and/or attract mold.)

–A bottle of rooting hormone powder (available at nurseries)

–A glass of water

–A small dish or tray

–A plastic bag or two, or a plastic lid for your tray, or some plastic bottles. See below

–Maybe a spray bottle full of water–for watering later

How to to do it:

This is your set up:

On your worktable you’ll want a glass of water and a dish or tray with a bit of the rooting hormone in it. You don’t need much. You dip in the tray instead of the rooting hormone bottle to keep the contents of the bottle clean and dry. One jar of rooting hormone will serve for hundreds of cuttings.

You’ll also want your seedling tray or plastic pots or whatever you’re using full of soil and ready to go before you start.

Take some cuttings and trim them down:

Go forth ye into the garden and pluck a branch of herb. When choosing a branch to propagate, look for the freshest, plumpest, prettiest sprigs you can find. The ones that seem to be flushed with life force, not ones that seem mature, or worse, in decline. The stems should be pliant, not woody. Look for tiny leaves sprouting at the tips. That’s always a good sign.

Here’s a nice bit of lavender that will be used for this demo:

Next you’re going to strip your cutting down to just a little nubbin. You start by plucking off all but the very topmost leaves. Do this cleanly, try not to strip skin from the stem. The reason you do this is because leaves are a site of moisture loss during the rooting process. Excess leaves would die anyway, and too many will imperil the cutting. Pluck it down until there’s only a pair or two pairs at the top. Erik says I always leave too many. Consider what you see in the following photos a generous quantity.

The next photo is the same sprig stripped down. It’s not the clearest picture–I was having serious problems with the macro lens on the camera–but I hope if you look close at the bare stalk you can see the swelling in the stem in the places where the leaves used to emerge. These are called nodes.  There are three in that picture. The first a little bump just beneath the leaves, the second a kind of busy node, midway down, and the third just above the bottom of the picture. Ignore that tiny stray leaf between nodes 2 and 3. 

The next step is to make a cut at a node–make the cut just beneath the node, as cleanly as possible. Remember, you don’t want to crush the stem at all when you make the cut.

Which node you choose depends on what sort of herb you’re working with. It’s just a matter of common sense. The cutting will be planted in soil, so the stem needs to be long enough to bury–about an inch, more or less. The lavender cutting is large, relatively speaking, so in this case it was cut at the topmost node. But that day I was also rooting thyme cuttings. These were much smaller and more delicate, so I was cutting them three or four nodes down. I hope that makes sense.

Dip it, Dip it Good:

After you cut the stem, dip the cut end in the glass of water and then dip it in the rooting hormone. Dip only the tip of the stem–try not to get it on the leaves. So you end up with this:

Okay, again, not the best pic. The crap on the end of the cutting is the hormone powder. The pen is for scale. I should have/could have removed another set of leaves from this cutting.

Plant the Cutting:

Next, make a hole in the soil with you fingertip, plant the cutting up to its leaves and gently pat down the soil around it.  Here’s a portion of my tray, showing sage and thyme cuttings:

Now, here’s an important tip. Make lots and lots of cuttings of each plant you plan to propagate. Many more than you actually need because there is a high failure rate. Expect that a good number of them will wither up and die of various causes. I figure my failure rate will be 50%, so I make twice as many as I need.

Cover it in Plastic:

The cuttings are very delicate, so they need a moist, hothouse atmosphere. They must be completely covered in plastic. If your tray comes with a plastic lid, that’s great. If you don’t have one, put a plastic bag over your pot(s) or tray. It does not have to be clear. A regular plastic grocery bag or a white plastic bin liner is fine. Cut plastic bottles are good for pots, too.

If you’re using a bag, contrive a way to keep the plastic up,  so it doesn’t lay on the cuttings. Prop it up with sticks or plastic utensils or arcs of wire. Encase the entire pot or tray in the bag, so no air gets in. If they have ventilation, there won’t be enough moisture inside.

Aftercare:

The cutting part is the easy part. The hard part is waiting, and keeping these babies alive. They must always be moist, but not boggy. The plastic should make keeping them moist easy, but they will need a bit of water now and then. You might find it easiest to water them with a spray bottle, because if you water with any force before they root, you might dislodge them.

Every couple days take the plastic bag off and turn it inside out, so that there’s not too much condensation collecting on the underside of the plastic and splattering on the cuttings. It’s a delicate balance between nicely moist and too wet.

If you see any fungus or mold–anything suspicious at all– on one of your cuttings, pull it out. You don’t want that spreading.

If the cuttings are outdoors, you also have to protect them from heat and sun. Remember, the plastic could make your tray into a solar oven. We’ve come home after a day of unexpected heat to find our cuttings steam cooked in their trays. Move them to a shady spot if the weather is expected to be warm and sunny.  They like to be warm, but not too warm. The 65-70ºF zone is perfect.

You know your cuttings are succeeding when they put off new growth. They should be well rooted and ready for transplant in about 4 weeks.