Mongolian Giant Sunflower

Nothing much to say about the Mongolian Giant Sunflower other than, “wow”. I got these seeds from Seed Savers Exchange and they have lived up to the “giant” in the name. I’m going to have to climb a ladder to harvest the seeds.

Though I don’t see the need to get competitive with my sunflowers, Renee’s Garden has some good harvesting advice,

As the petals fall off, the center florets dry up and the seed kernels begin to swell in the disks, carefully climb a stepladder and cover your flower head with a mesh onion bag or loose burlap or paper bag. This keeps marauding birds from robbing your seeds so that the heads look perfect and complete when you are ready to show them off to friends or proudly display them on their long stalks at your local county fair. Cut the stalks at the base when the ripened seeds develop a hard shell. If you plan to eat your sunflower seeds or preserve them for your bird feeder, wait until the seeds are completely dry; then remove them by hand or by rubbing them over wire mesh into a basket. Store in tightly closed containers to keep rodents away.

In addition to the native sunflowers that reseed themselves every year I think I’ll plant a few Mongolian Giants each summer. If you’ve got a favorite sunflower variety, either ornamental or edible, please leave a comment.

Mrs. Homestead here: Turns out sunflowers can also help clean up radioactive contamination. Good to know! They’re planting them in Fukushima. (via Boing Boing)

Winter Squash Disaster

Those of you who follow this blog may recall last summer’s “squash baby” fiasco.  This year I planted a few Marina di Chioggia squash plants (technically a pumpkin) in one of my vegetable beds located in a more secure location. Instead of some homo sapien making off with my squash bounty, it looks like the neighborhood raccoons are having a gnocchi party somewhere. All I’ve got to show for three Chioggia plants is one small squash and the one pictured above.

Household animal tracking expert Mrs. Homegrown assures me that the nearby scat pile belongs to some raccoons.

My thoughts after another year under a squash curse: winter squash takes up too much room to devote precious vegetable bed space if, like me, you don’t have a lot of room. In previous years I’ve tucked it in unused corners of the yard and let it sprawl around. That’s what I’ll do next year.

The grape that ate the world

grapefail or grapewin?

We’ve posted about our grape problems before. Pierce’s disease makes it hard to grow grapes in SoCal. We’ve been trying to get resistant varieties to grow on our patio arbor (aka The Masculinity Pavillion) with no success. Our most recent planting attempts are stunted and unhappy, meaning that once again we’re experiencing A Summer Without Shade.

While our “resistant” varieties are proving not-so-resistant, there is at least one grape that laughs at Pierce’s disease: the native California grape, Vitus californica. I believe this sturdy wild grape provides the root stock for the vineyards up North. We planted one of these near our north side fence maybe five years ago now. While the rest of our grapes wilt and struggle, this one is completely the opposite. It is monstrously huge, cheerfully indestructible, and absolutely out of control.

Without water or any encouragement whatsoever it has grown all along the side of the house, from the back yard to the front yard–some 50 feet. It long ago swamped the 6′ chain link fence and now entertains itself by making grabs at both our house and our next door neighbor’s.

This week we have to go next door armed with pruners and machetes and flame throwers and beat it back out of the neighbor’s yard. Meanwhile, tendrils of the vine are reaching into our kitchen window. I’ve allowed this to go on because it pleases me to be reminded of the supremacy of nature–and also, it ensures we can’t forget to go save the neighbor.

(And yes, we really should have done this over winter, when the vine was bare. As I recall, I made noises about it, and Erik grumbled, “Put it on the list…” Anyway, the monster didn’t lose its leaves until quite late–maybe December or January, then seemed to sprout again immediately.)

The grape grows about six inches a day. Since I took these photos, 3 more vines have made their way in and one has reached the ceiling. It’s going beyond cute to somewhat alarming.

Oh, and do we at least get fruit from this beast? No, we do not. It has never fruited. Not a single grape. californica does make fruit, supposedly, but we’ve never tasted it. Our vine is too busy putting all of its energy into swamping the world.

You may be asking why we don’t plant a Vitis californica on our arbor. The answer is we probably will next year. Erik had his heart set on a tastier grape, so resisted that option, but judging how the newest set of contenders are struggling out there, I’m thinking we have a native in our future. Perhaps the beautiful Roger’s Red.

If we do so, we will definitely be better about staying on top of the pruning. This is our lesson learned.

Help Us Choose a Grain Mill

At the Huasna Valley wheat farm I blogged about yesterday, they have a grain mill made by a company called All Grain Mills out of Utah. What the farmer liked about this company is that the mills they make have stone wheels instead of steel. Steel burrs can heat up and destroy the enzymes in the wheat. Furthermore these All Grain mills are considerably less expensive than other ones I’ve seen. I’d like to know if any of you readers have one of these All Grain Mills? If so, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in recommendations for other mills.

And I can’t help but comment on the aesthetics of the All Grain Mills. The company’s website is so bare-bones it’s almost hip (promising in my opinion when you’re looking for pre-interweb technology). And that fake wood paneling reminds me of my childhood:

Why we love fennel

Fennel is an invasive plant, and there are plenty of fennel haters out there, many of them our friends, but every year we let a stand or two of wild fennel take root in our yard anyway. We just had to pause now, while the fennel is high, to say that we love it, because it is hardy and beautiful and grows with no water and no encouragement. Feral fennel bulbs aren’t as good as cultivated bulbs for eating, but we eat the flowers, the fronds and the seeds from these wild stands.

But the real reason we let it grow is because fennel attracts more beneficial insects than any other plant, native or imported, that we’ve ever grown in our yard. It’s impossible to photograph, but our fennel stand is swarming all day, every day, with flying insects of every sort, honeybees, wasps, butterflies, ladybugs and many, many small pollinators which we cannot name. At least ten species at any given glance. It is truly a sight to behold.

Sonora Wheat at the Huasna Valley Farm

Ron Skinner

I had the great privilege this week of visiting the Huasna Valley Farm in California’s central coast run by Ron and Jenn Skinner whose visible joy is infectious. The Skinners grow Sonora wheat, an heirloom variety brought to the Southwest by the Spanish.

Sonora wheat is well suited to dry desert and Mediterranean climates. It produces a cream colored flour that was historically used for tortillas and posole. The Skinners served us some Sonora whole wheat biscuits that tasted as light as white flour but with a rich and complex flavor.

Jenn Skinner

To fight weeds (the big bugaboo of wheat farming) the Skinners plan on introducing Black Medic (Medicago lupulina) a leguminous plant that will fix nitrogen and out-compete unwanted weeds. The tall stalks of Sonora wheat will allow the medic to grow far below the seed heads. This is in contrast to conventional wheat farming with its short varieties and heavy reliance on herbicides. Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution” used Sonora wheat to create Sonora 64, an early green revolution wheat. Ironically, as we face an uncertain energy future, we may have to go back to the original Sonora wheat as it performs better in organic circumstances and needs less water than modern wheat varieties.

Ron shows off the combine.

One of the challenges the Skinners faced in farming just a few acres of wheat was figuring out how to harvest it. Large industrial farms use enormous and very expensive combines. Small and medium sized combines simply aren’t manufactured anymore. Luckily the Skinners found a vintage Allis-Chalmers combine across the road which Ron and his son disassembled and rebuilt.

I bought twenty pounds of Sonora wheat flour and a few pounds of wheat berries and am really looking forward to baking with it. I might even grow my own mini-Sonora wheat field this winter (you plant it here in Southern California in January for harvest around the 4th of July.

For more information on Sonora wheat see:

The Huasna Valley Farm website, particularly their informative newsletters. has a Sonora Wheat tortilla recipe.

Slow Food USA has a page on the history of Sonora wheat.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, join the Los Angeles Bread Bakers to participate in farm visits, baking classes and oven building sessions.

And a special thanks to LABB member Joseph Shuldiner for arranging this trip!