Squash Baby Reconsidered

An entertaining lecture by permaculturalist Larry Santoyo last night at Project Butterfly was the perfect place to reflect on the whole squash baby debacle. During the talk I thought about just how completely I had abandoned the principles of permaculture in my management of the publicly accessible parkway garden where squash baby once resided. Some thoughts:

1. Rather than try to keep people from taking vegetables in the parkway garden, why not encourage them instead? Put up a sign describing what’s growing and when it’s ready to pick. One problem I’ve had in the past has been folks pulling up unripe vegetables. So some education, in the form of signs, might help. Maybe a chalkboard could detail when things are ready to pick.

2. I could create an honor stand like the one at the organic farm I visited up in Bolinas, Gospel Flat Farm.  At Gospel Flat you drop your money in a box. Most of the time the stand is unstaffed. I could do the same and donate any (admittedly small) funds to a charity–perhaps a school garden.

3. In permaculture you value edges and marginal areas. It’s at these intersections where life and culture happen. The parkway is an edge space between the private and the public. Rather than fight this space and try to privatize it, perhaps I should celebrate its public nature. I could add a bench and a water fountain. I could also do a better job of keeping it looking good (my summer garden was hideously ugly and unkempt). A more public parkway garden might also have the paradoxical effect of making it more secure and self-policed, since it will have communal value to folks walking by.

Permaculture works better as social engineering rather than horticultural dogma. Permaculture is not about creating that stereotypical herb spiral. It’s about our relationships both to each other and the natural world. Squash baby provided a much greater lesson by being taken than ending up as gnocchi on our dinner plates.

Least Farvorite Plant:–Heavenly Bamboo–Neither Heavenly nor Bamboo

Chickens assist in heavenly bamboo removal.

About a year ago, while searching for a spot for our new and larger compost pile, Mrs. Homegrown suggested ripping out a stand of heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) that occupied a shady spot in a corner of our backyard. My reaction? I think I said something like, “No way, it’s been there for twelve years and it took forever to reach three feet.”

Some time later Homegrown Neighbor came over and took a look at the yard. She said, “Why don’t you rip out that awful heavenly bamboo.” Once again I ignored the suggestion.

Last week Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms came over to rethink the garden. Eying the heavenly bamboo she scowled and demanded, “rip it out,” noting that it was ugly, diseased and caked with Los Angeles smog dust.

A few hour later I ripped it out. Needless to say Mrs. Homegrown is dismayed that it takes two experts to confirm something before I’ll listen to her advice.

Marital landscaping disputes aside, it’s not that this plant is inherently evil, it’s just not that interesting. Heavenly bamboo is not a bamboo It’s a member of the Berberidaceae or Barberry family. All parts of the plant are poisonous except to birds who can ingest the berries.While it’s draught tolerant (we never watered it), I don’t miss it. Typically, you see it tucked into forlorn plantings alongside 1960s era bank buildings. I suppose it provides some fodder for the birds, but that’s about it. Perhaps in some Japanese fantasy garden it would fit in next to the tea house, but we ain’t got no tea house.

I guess the lesson here, in addition to listening to your wife, is that gardens change and you’ve got to change with them. As Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Gardens, especially, should celebrate that impermanence. Now I have the beginnings of a big compost pile where it once stood.

We’ll detail some of the other changes we’re making in future posts and put up some before pictures. Stay tuned.

Farmers Markets: Buyer Beware

A local Los Angeles NBC news report “False Claims, Lies Caught on Tape at Farmers Markets” detailed something I’ve known about for a long time: some of the food sold at farmers markets comes not from local farms, but from wholesale sources. In short, some dishonest farmers market sellers are reselling the same inferior produce you get at the supermarket for a lot more money. And it gets worse. NBC also uncovered evidence of lying about pesticide use, also not surprising.

A farmer who runs an orchard visited us before this report came out and backed up what NBC later reported. She warned me never to buy from stands at farmers markets where the fruit is all the same size and looks too perfect. It’s a sign they just took the truck to a downtown wholesale warehouse and loaded it up.She also said that many farmers will mix their own produce with wholesale produce.

This report came out just after two supermarket chains, Safeway and Albertsons, created fake farmer’s markets inside and outside of their stores.

Yet more reasons to grow your own fruits and vegetables if you have space. Lying about the source of produce and pesticide use is so easy to pull off and the price incentive so rewarding that I’m sure this is happening everywhere. I’m interested in hearing other reports, so have at it in the comments.

Flower Gardening Class at the Huntington

fallflowers Our friend Tara Kolla is teaching a flower gardening class at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino this coming Saturday Oct. 2nd from 10 a.m. to noon. From the class description:

“Save money at the flower market by growing your own organic blooms. Urban farmer Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms shares tips for growing seasonal flowers that make beautiful arrangements in the home.”

I can’t say enough good things about Kolla–she’s our go-to person when we have gardening questions and, if you’ve seen her booth at local farmer’s markets, you’ll know why this class is not to be missed. Members: $40. Non-Members: $50. Registration: 626-405-2128. More information here.

Motuv-ated

We received a very nice letter from Amanda Lazorchack who, along with her partner Dane Zahorsky, are teaching a 7th grade sustainability class at the Kansas City Academy. They’re using our book The Urban Homestead as a textbook and sent a long a few pictures of what they are up to with their group, Motuv.

Lazorchack wrote, “It’s almost as if we woke up one day and realized that we didn’t know how to grow our own food and that that was a huge problem so we better get to teaching ourselves.” Amen!

We’re inspired by what they’re doing, and hope you might be, too.

Thanks, Motuv, for showing us what you’re doing!

Here’s some pics:

Pallets make great compost bins–I really like the paint job–much nicer than ours.
Motuv’s corn!
Motuv’s tomatoes!

Hops Growing Resources

Reader Matt sent a couple of detailed links on growing hops. First an organic hops growing manual (pdf) by Rebecca Kneen of the Left Fields organic farm in British Columbia. Secondly, a PowerPoint presentation by hops farmer and breeder Jason Perrault here (pdf) along with the transcript here (pdf). I’m going to go through these resources before transferring the hops I’ve been growing in containers to the ground in the spring.

Thanks Matt and happy brewing to all!

Backyard Rebirth

Our shack as spied by Google.

Our yard is a disaster. There’s some randomly planted natives, vegetable beds lying fallow after a mediocre summer and large areas of, well, nothing. However, this ongoing landscaping disaster brought a valuable lesson: sometimes it’s best to bring in someone from outside the household for design advice, particularly if that person knows what they are doing. Thank you Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms for being that person.

Yards develop emotional baggage and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Kolla came up with a lot of simple ideas that we would never have thought of in a million years. We’ll document the changes we make as we begin planting and hardscaping over the next few months (our quirky Mediterranean climate means that late fall is one of our prime planting seasons). Now, I gotta go fetch the machete.

Behind the Scenes of a Euell Gibbons Grape Nuts Ad

Every decade has its celebrity forager. The aughts gave us Survivorman, but back in the 1960s and 70s Euell Gibbons stalked all that wild asparagus. This odd film, from the Academic Film Archive of North America, takes you behind the scenes of the creation of an iconic Grape Nuts ad staring Gibbons.

And the branding synergies between foragers and marketers continues–Survivorman pimps for auto insurer Geico–but, personally, I’ll take Gibbons and his wild cranberries, thank you.

Another gem from archive.org.

Lloyd Kahn on Shelter


SHELTER from jason sussberg on Vimeo.

Jason Sussberg has made a nice film about author and publisher Lloyd Kahn. In this short film, Kahn sums up exactly what our dwelling places need, “Shelter is more than a roof overhead–it’s a feeling of warmth and security.”

And, incidentally, how many people do you know who can skateboard that gracefully at the age of 75?

For more inspiration head over to Lloyd’s Blog.

Backyard Orchard Culture

How small can you go? An image from the Dave Wilson website demonstrating one way to keep a fruit tree a manageable size.

Damn. I wish I had heard this lecture twelve years ago when we bought our house. “Rock star orchardist” Tom Spellman, a sales manager with Dave Wilson nursery, gave a remarkable talk last night on how to create your own backyard orchard. He began by dismissing most advice on growing fruit trees, noting that it is intended for commercial orchards and is completely irrelevant for backyard fruit growers. Few of you reading this blog, after all, have to worry about having space to maneuver a tractor. Spellman outlined what he considers the three key components of a successful small scale backyard orchard:

1. Successive harvest. With careful choice of varieties you can create a mini orchard that produces consistently throughout the year (or growing season in colder climates). You don’t want a bunch of trees that all ripen in July. In his own yard Spellman planted four varieties of avocados, each of which produce fruit at different times, so that he can have a crop year round. You could also, say, plant three kinds of peaces that each mature successively. Or, plant a fig, an apple tree, a pomegranate and a lemon tree that will produce in different months. The Dave Wilson nursery has a handy ripening sequence chart, that you can use to plan what to plant.

2. Size control. Basically you don’t want fruit trees in a backyard orchard, you want fruit shrubs. Rather than one 30-foot tree in a 10 by 12 space, plant four or more and prune them vigorously so that their  branches are within easy reach. The possibilities for intensive fruit tree planting are endless: trees can be planted four or even six in one hole, espaliered, grafted, arranged into hedges, even braided together. But whatever the techinque, the goal is the same–tight spacing, short trees. You don’t want to have to go up on a ladder to harvest, and you don’t want 300 pounds of apples all at one time. Follow commercial standards and you’ll have huge, hard to manage fruit trees in your backyard. Follow Spellman’s backyard orchard guidelines and you’ll have many small trees and never be without fruit.

3. Grow what you will use. Spellman told the story of someone who went down to their local big box store and bought six trees for five dollars each. The problem was that he had bought six quince trees and did not know what to do with the fruit. Grow flavorful varieties that you can’t buy at the market. One quince tree is fine (we have one) but six is way too many.

Some other points Spellman made:

  • Pruning: Spellman suggests size control in the summer and detail work in the winter. (Note: this pruning advice is for our climate in California.)
  • Commercial growers focus on eye appeal over taste. You can’t buy decent stone fruit at the market, so stone fruit is a great thing to grow at home or buy at a farmer’s market.
  • It’s never too late to start a backyard orchard or to modify what you’ve got. Even huge fruit trees can be knocked back to a manageable size through radical pruning. You may lose a season or two of fruit, but you’ll have more room to squeeze in more trees. Don’t be afraid to bust out the chainsaw!
  • Be wary of most fruit tree growing advice as universities focus on research intended for commercial growers. In particular, the spacing suggested by many sources is way too far apart. Even many commercial growers are beginning to space tighter and keep trees shorter, a result of workman’s compensation lawsuits (workers falling out of those tall trees). More intensive growing has resulted in greater productivity as an unintended result of those lawsuits.
  • Pay attention to rootstock! Rootstocks are developed for varying soil and climate conditions. Every grafted fruit tree should have two tags on it–the tree and the rootstock–don’t buy a tree whose rootstock is unknown and make sure you grow trees with rootsocks developed for your climate and soil. Dave Wilson has a hand guide to rootstocks on their website, with their advantages and disadvantages here
  • Mulch like crazy! Mulching brings bioactivity to the soil, reduces weeds and saves water.Use 2 to 4 inches–according to research less than 2-inches is bad, more than 4 a waste of effort. 
  • Fertilize fruit trees with with organic fertilizer low in nitrogen and high in potassium and phosphorus. Nitrogen promotes vegetative growth at the expense of fruit and, again, you get a tree that’s too tall to manage. Fertilizers should also contain humic acid and micro nutrients. I’d add that a soil test is always a good idea. Our soil is already very high in potassium and phosphorus.
  • Make your first pruning cut knee high–i.e. chop that little tree off at the knee. This will be the start of a pruning strategy that keeps your tree small and manageable. 
  • When you get trees at the nursery buy small trees–don’t waste your money on large trees that have been sitting around in their pots too long. The small tree will quickly catch up to the large tree and you’ll save money.
  • When you plant four or more trees in one hole keep all the trees pruned to the height of the weakest tree.
  • In heavy clay soils, plant trees in raised mulch beds.
  • Fruit trees and berries work great in containers, just remember to prune them and keep them small.
  • Squirrel control: get a dog, use a have-a-heart trap or shoot-em!
  • Another reason to keep trees pruned small is so that you can throw bird netting over them. Use the netting for only a short time–2 to 3 weeks. Roll the netting up on a cylindrical object, like a piece of pvc pipe, for storage.
  • To get decent sized fruit, thin the fruit off the tree when it’s the size of a pea. Some trees you might have to thin upwards of 90% of the fruit.
  • Whitewash trees with sensitive trunks if you’re in a hot sunny climate. To make whitewash use a 2/3rds water to 1/3 cheap white paint mixture.

For extensive how-to fruit growing advice see http://www.davewilson.com/. Dave Wilson also has a “Fruit Tube” video channel here. I’m canceling Netflix!

Dave Wilson is a wholesale nursery. To order their trees, Tree People fruit tree expert Steve Hofvendahl recommends ordering through Bay Laurel Nursery. You can order trees now for January delivery.

A special thanks to Altadena Heritage who hosted this talk and put on an amazing series of lectures. Friend them in Facebook to get the lowdown on upcoming events.