Avocados

Green gold!

We’re very lucky that when we purchased our house 13 years ago it came with a mature, and delicious avocado tree. Wanting to know more about how to care for that tree I attended a remarkable lecture at the Huntington given by avocado experts Carl Stucky and Julie Frink. From the Huntington lecture I gleaned the following factoids:

  • Avocados varieties are divided into three “races”: Mexican, Guatemalan, and West Indian.
  • Avocados are extremely frost sensitive, more so than citrus.
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch! Avocados like a thick layer (6 to 12 inches) of course mulch. Once you mulch you have to keep mulching because the shallow roots of avocado trees will often grow up into the mulch.
  • Avocados like a well drained soil and won’t tolerate wet feet. So if you dig a hole and fill it with water and that water sticks around for a day, plant something else.
  • Avocados use a lot of zinc and may need supplemental applications of zinc sulfate placed in shallow holes.
  • What few pests avocados have can be sprayed off with a hose. 
  • Occasional deep waterings flush out chlorides in the soil that can cause leaves to turn brown at the tips and poor fruit production. In fact if the first rain of the season is less than 3 inches, you should irrigate to flush out salts that build up during the dry season.
  • Avocados take a long time to ripen on the tree–12 months or more depending on variety.

For additional reading Stucky recommended the following internet resources:

Avocadosource.com
California Avocado Society
California Avocado Commission (The “growers” part of their website)

One thing that I discovered this year is that you can leave avocados on the tree for a very long period. We had at least a six month harvest window. There’s actually still a few on the tree.

As for squirrels, Stucky’s advice involved extraordinary rendition and water boarding, but we’ll spare you the details.

Hugo, humanure and nettles

One of the original illustrations to Les Misérables (1862)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Anne, our neighbor with the pea-ravaging Chihuahua, brings to our attention the fact that Victor Hugo was a humanure enthusiast, and in fact dedicates long passages of Les Misérables to it.

This is taken from Volume V, Book 2 (The Intestine of the Leviathan), Chapter One, provided by Project Gutenberg:

Paris casts twenty-five millions yearly into the water. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? Day and night. With what object? With no object. With what intention? With no intention. Why? For no reason. By means of what organ? By means of its intestine. What is its intestine? The sewer.

Twenty-five millions is the most moderate approximative figure which the valuations of special science have set upon it.

Science, after having long groped about, now knows that the most fecundating and the most efficacious of fertilizers is human manure. The Chinese, let us confess it to our shame, knew it before us. Not a Chinese peasant—it is Eckberg who says this,—goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young as in the days of Abraham. Chinese wheat yields a hundred fold of the seed. There is no guano comparable in fertility with the detritus of a capital. A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.

What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss. 


Fleets of vessels are dispatched, at great expense, to collect the dung of petrels and penguins at the South Pole, and the incalculable element of opulence which we have on hand, we send to the sea. All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, restored to the land instead of being cast into the water, would suffice to nourish the world.

Those heaps of filth at the gate-posts, those tumbrels of mud which jolt through the street by night, those terrible casks of the street department, those fetid drippings of subterranean mire, which the pavements hide from you,—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, the green grass, wild thyme, thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle, they are the satisfied bellows of great oxen in the evening, they are perfumed hay, they are golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are joy, they are life. This is the will of that mysterious creation which is transformation on earth and transfiguration in heaven. 

I’ll stop there, but it goes on…and Anne says he brings it up again later.

As I recall, Hugo also had a thing for nettles….hey, wait a minute! Turns out that his rant about nettles is in Les Mis too:

One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: “They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!” He added, after a pause: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”



I’ve never read Les Misérables, but I’m beginning to think it should be required reading–just for his asides. It’s time to face my PTSD from the musical and embrace the book–all three billion pages of it.

Advances in Gardening Series: We’re maturing

November–seedlings new planted

January–all the foliage is in
End of February–the flowers really start to pop

Stuff grows. You just gotta remember to plant it!

A quick photo update on progress for the Phan of Pharmacy and the Hippie Heart, mostly for our own record keeping. Maybe it will inspire those of you surrounded by rain or snow with dreams of your own spring planting.

Back in November, I cleared ground and planted the Phan/Fan with medicinal seedlings. See some of that history here. Now we’re at the end of February, and the Calendula and chamomile plants are mature. The Calendula (the yellow flowers in the pic) is giving off lots of blossoms, the chamomile–not so much. That’s garlic growing on the far right. It’s beginning to brown at the tips, but I don’t think it’s going to be ready until May. The poppies, hidden in the back, are slow, and not near blossoming yet. Note the rogue borage in the foreground.

Meanwhile, the Hippie Heart, planted with flax in the center and lentils around the edges is coming along very well. It waves hi to the police helicopters overhead. The point of the Heart was to have a place where I could experiment with planting seeds, beans and spices right out of the pantry. Soon I’ll need to decide if I’m going to let the flax and lentils go to seed, and collect that seed for fun, or if I’ll pull it out early in favor of more experimentation with new pantry crops over the summer.

January 22nd

February 25th: I can hardly wait ’til it blooms.

Question for you: Do you like giveaways?

The more we blog, the more offers we get from people willing to provide goods for giveaways that we host–we’re talking new books, gardening tools, seeds, that sort of stuff. (Although we have been endlessly spammed by an antique replica sword company who is desperate that we share their information with you. Their marketing focus is obviously rapier sharp.)

We’re of two minds on this. We like free stuff, and are happy to be a conduit of free stuff for you. Why not? But then again, we hesitate because we don’t necessarily want to be anyone else’s marketing tool, nor do we want to subject you to marketing if you’ll all find that annoying. Yet….there’s all that free stuff. And we’d do our due diligence on the companies, of course, to make sure they pass muster.

What do you think?

Return of Bean Friday: Spicy Mayocoba Beans

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Our neighbor Teresa of Tularosa Farms gave us this recipe. She not only gave us this recipe, but a bag of beans to go with it, and a loaner dutch oven.  How’s that for neighborly? I made it a while back and really liked the results. Erik proclaimed it to be the best of all the Bean Friday dishes, though I remain partial to the Bastardized Puerto Rican beans. I’m happy to finally get a moment to share this with you.

Mayocoba beans are pretty yellow beans, the color of old ivory. We’d never had them before, but are glad to have met them, because they are mild in flavor and have a smooth, buttery texture. They’re used extensively in Latin American cooking, so you might have to visit a Latin American-flavored grocery store to find them.

The recipe after the break:

Spicy Mayocoba Beans

1 lb. beans, soaked overnight
1 medium onion chopped
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 1/2 teaspoon chili powder*
2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
7 oz. can chopped jalapenos

*I had no chili powder so used lots of paprika plus a little bit of cayenne pepper as a substitute

Put the beans in a big pot, cover them with a couple of inches of water and simmer until tender.

When the beans are getting close to done, heat some oil in a deep skillet or a heavy bottomed pot and saute the onion until translucent. Then add the garlic and the rest of the spices, reserving only the jalapenos. I like to cook everything well at this stage to bring out flavor, but am careful not to burn anything. If a crust starts to form on the bottom of the pan I deglaze it by throwing in a little water, beer or wine (depending on what I’m drinking while I cook), then loosening all that tasty goodness with a spatula.

Next, add your beans and their water to the onion mix, stir well and let them continue to simmer as long as you can, so the flavors have a chance to blend. Add more water as necessary so they don’t burn, keeping the consistency as thick or thin as you like.

Stir in the jalapenos at the end for an extra kick.

Serve with yogurt or sour cream, maybe.

These spicy beans make for amazing gourmet burritos. If cooked with more liquid, they can be served as a bean soup/chili sort of thing. They’d also make a great side dish for meats.

The binoculars are always close at hand

A typical breakfast scene: Erik surveys the neighborhood from our “hilltop aerie.” What’s he looking at? Perhaps a lithesome jogger? Actually, no. When I took this picture he was admiring something poking out of a recycling bin over on Coronado Terrace.

I’ve never quite got used to my man’s propensity to snatch up the binoculars, but I don’t really disapprove either. Erik is a peculiar peeping tom. His viewing interests fall into 3 categories:

1) Scavenge opportunities
2) Happily spotting people and/or dogs we know on the street. Sort of as a sport. (“There goes Blackie!”)
3) Foiling wrongdoers. Because he’s so nosy, he knows who lives here, and has interfered with nefarious activities in the past (casing, tagging, etc.).

Grow Biointensive Videos

I’ve often threatened that our next book would adapt the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders into a vegetable gardening guide. Obsessive/compulsive? Here’s how you plant radishes . . .

Wherever I fall in the diagnostic manual, the vegetable gardening method I’ve used for the past few years has been based on John Jeavon’s “Biointensive” method as described in his book How to Grow More Vegetables. This past weekend I made the pilgrimage to Jeavon’s Willits, California headquarters to drink the Kool-Aid at the foot of the master and take a three day Biointensive workshop.

The Biointensive method involves growing compost crops, double digging and tight spacing. Jeavons aims to produce a complete diet in as little space as possible while maintaining soil fertility with few outside inputs. Unlike most garden gurus Jeavons backs up his ideas with meticulous research which draws on his background in workplace efficiency.

He’s also generous and “open source” with his techniques. The workshop was reasonably priced for three full days of instruction. Should you not be able to get to Willits, Jeavon’s non-profit Ecology Action has produced a well made series of instructional videos that you can view online here. I’ve created a playlist of the complete set of these videos below:

Now, I’m so fired up from the workshop I’ve got to get away from this computer and out into the garden!

Our sky, post-storm

I’m just putting this up as a memorial to winter. It’s over, and I already miss it. From now on the Southern California skies will be relentlessly azure, unmarred even by clouds, except for a brief period of chronic overcast called “June gloom.” We may not see rain again for 9 months.

Borage: It’s what’s for dinner

image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Our friend Milli (Master Gardener of the Milagro Allegro community garden) stopped by today to pick up some sourdough starter. On seeing our back yard swamped abundant with borage (Borago officinalis), she mentioned that she’s been really digging borage tacos lately. This was very exciting news to us, because we’d never eaten our borage leaves–only the flowers.

So tonight I went out and cut a whole mess of stiff, prickly borage leaves. The prickles vanish on cooking. Some sources say only to use small leaves for cooking but I say fie to that. I used leaves of all sizes and after cooking there was no difference between them. Borage is actually rather delicate under all its spikes and cooks down considerably in to a very tender, spinach-like consistency.

Instead of making little tacos with it, we folded it into tortillas with a bit of goat’s milk gouda to make yummy green quesadillas–a quick, light and satisfying meal at the end of a busy day.

How did we cook it? –>


We cooked the borage as we cook all of our greens, no matter what kind. It seems we can’t be bothered to develop any variations on this theme. First we saute chopped garlic in lots of olive oil along with chile pepper flakes, then add piles of chopped wet greens–any greens– to the pan. These get tossed until they wilt to the point where we want them, which varies. If any green seems particularly tough, we put a lid over the skillet for a moment to steam them. Salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon finishes them off.

I used this technique on the borage and it came out very nice. Tender, as I said, with pleasing bit of cucumber flavor. There is also the faintest hint of a mucilaginous texture, but nothing off-putting. Borage is a cooling herb, like mallow (Malva sylvestris)–which we like to eat as a green as well. Because of this cooling quality, both are refreshing to eat, especially on a hot day. I’m writing this a few minutes after dinner and this coolness lingers in my throat. It’s also supposed to be a soothing, grounding herb and now I’m wondering if I don’t feel a bit more grounded, too, post-quesadilla.

Borage is also a medicinal plant–as a compress, tea, tincture or oil extract it has different uses and effects, which will have to be covered in another post.

More people are familiar with borage’s star-like edible flowers, which can be preserved in sugar for cakes, or tossed into salads. I’ve heard of freezing them in ice cubes for fancy drinks, which is a lovely idea.

Obligatory health warning:  I’m going to quote this directly from the very useful Plants for a Future database, from their entry on borage:

The plant, but not the oil obtained from the seeds, contains small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause liver damage and liver cancer[238]. These alkaloids are present in too small a quantity to be harmful unless you make borage a major part of your diet, though people with liver problems would be wise to avoid using the leaves or flowers of this plant.

Also, I’ve seen warnings regarding pregnant and nursing women eating borage here and there, too, although I don’t know the exact reasons for the warning. As per usual, check with your doctor if you have concerns.

We figure as long as we’re only eating borage a few times a week, and only for a limited period–”borage season,” as it were–these pyrrolizidine alkaloids are not going to get us down.

Least Favorite Plant: Unkown

This is my first contribution to a regular feature here on Root Simple: the Least Favorite Plant. For me it’s a tie for least favorite between Manroot (I’m sure my adversarial obsession with this plant will compel a future post) and this tree that I have yet to identify (please help in the comments if you know what it is).

[update: The Root Simple Community has correctly identified the tree as Osage Orange or Bois d'Arc. Thanks everyone for the comments!]

I tried to have the tree removed by professionals a few years ago but the stump just keeps growing despite all of the terrible things we’ve done to it including cutting the stump, stripping the bark and severing roots.
The thorns are extremely wicked. Thick leather gloves are no match for this plant. I have taken to working without gloves since they offer no protection and I can be more nimble and careful without them. Someone could make a very realistic crown of thorns with the thin branches of this tree.
When cut it exudes a white glue like sap that is stickier than pine sap but more viscous so it quickly spreads everywhere.
This is where we stand after a 3 year battle and that’s after the initial tree was removed. I hope I’ve finally won.