A Bustle In Your Hedgerow: California Natives for your Vegetable Garden

Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) photo by Art Shapiro

I’ve always been suspicious of some of the popular companion planting advice of the sort dispensed in old books like Carrots Love Tomatoes. From what I understand research just hasn’t proven a lot of the relationships these sorts of books tout. What makes intuitive sense to me, however, is that biodiversity in in a garden can create habitat for beneficial insects and birds that can help keep our edibles free of pests. For thousands of years in Northern Europe that biodiversity was maintained through the use of hedgerows.

Now, thanks to a study conducted by UC Santa Cruz researchers Tara Pisani Gareau and Carol Shennan, we’ve got some solid advice on what sorts of plants can create habitat for beneficials. The study, “Can Hedgerows Attract Beneficial Insects and Improve Pest Control? A Study of Hedgerows on Central Coast Farms” looks at a set of specific plants used in hedgerows in California: common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), California lilac (Ceanothus griseus and C. ‘Ray Hartman’), perennial buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), and coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica).

In their conclusion Gareau and Shennan note,

Planting a diversity of plants that have different floral architectures should increase the likelihood of conserving a diverse community of insect natural enemies. Coyote brush and yarrow would be especially important foundational plants in hedgerows. In addition . . . combining hedgerows with in-field floral plantings (in strips or randomly throughout) may increase the dispersal of small-bodied insect natural enemies through the fields.

Scott Kleinrock, who is in charge of the new Ranch project at the Huntington, tipped me off to this research and is making use of a lot of California natives to create the urban residential equivalent of a hedgerow. In short, a hedgerow in our yards and urban spaces means making sure to include lots of natives and flowering plants that can provide habitat for the types of critters we want. Hopefully this important research will be duplicated in other regions and climates with different sets of plants.

Now, I’ve got to get me some Baccharis pilularis!

ETA: Apologies for being California-centric here, but we don’t know of any research studies on native plant hedgerows in other places. However, be sure to check out this Mother Earth News article about living fences, which we’ve posted about before.

ETA 2: From our comments: check out the region-specific guidelines for plants which support pollinating insects, put together by the good folks at the Xerces Society.

EDC Part I: Multi-tool and Knife

Photo by Jonas Bergsten

Your “everyday carry” or EDC is whatever you always have on hand–everything from your multi-tool to your cellphone to your credit cards. And, as it turns out, entire websites detail the fetishistic search for the Platonic ideal EDC. I especially like the EDC porn on everyday-carry.com.

In part I of our EDC review I’m going to describe my multi-tool which I’ve worn on my belt everywhere I go for almost 20 years. Subsequent posts will detail the other things I tote and the complex contents of Mrs. Homegrown’s purse.

For years the centerpiece of my EDC was the original Leatherman “Pocket Survival Tool” like the one in the picture above, a gift from Mrs. Homegrown back when I worked in video in the early 90s. Last year I broke the file off of it and finally lost the tool while re-doing our greywater system. I replaced it with the cheapest Leatherman I could find, the Leatherman Kick:

Leatherman 830018 Kick Pocket Multi-Tool with Leather Sheath

I have to say that I like my old Leatherman better and, thankfully, it turned up again. The Kick works fine but I prefer my old Leatherman’s all metal construction, its superior leather belt case and that fact that it’s ever so slightly smaller. That old Leatherman also has a tiny flathead screwdriver I find handy. With both, I use the pliers more than any of the other tools.

Now the Leatherman is to the Swiss Army knife what, say, Robert Johnson is to prog rock. One is direct and the other has, well, too many notes. The designers of the original Leatherman tool apparently felt that it’s fine to pop open a beer bottle after a hard days work but far too Eurotrashy to uncork a bottle of wine, at least that’s what I assume from the lack of a corkscrew. Though I just met someone who carries a tool I didn’t know existed, the Leatherman Flair:

The Flair,  Leatherman’s obvious attempt to imitate the Swiss Army knife, has a corkscrew, scissors and a fork like thingy. It’s been discontinued, though Leatherman still makes similar tools (though without the odd fork–how to skewer that olive?). And, of course, there’s Leatherman’s gardening, hunting, bicycling and even military and law enforcement multi-tools.

Leatherman is the Budweiser of multi-tools. There’s a whole array of other companies that make higher quality products but, alas, we don’t sell enough books for me to peruse the finer offerings at our local Ross Cutlery shop. Again, my basic Leatherman seems to have enough tools for most situations.

Of course a multi-tool is just part of one’s EDC. On days that I’m removing a beehive from a wall I’ve taken to carrying a Bushman knife to cut out the comb.

Cold Steel Bushman Black SK-5 Steel Cordura Survival Sheath


 It’s all metal, durable and easy to clean. And the hollow hilt can accept a stick to turn the knife into a spear should you need to “harvest” a feral pig for lunch, let’s say. But the Bushman is too bulky and sinister for my EDC, at least in urban areas. I wore it around the house one day, but Mrs. Homegrown said she thought I was acting like a preschooler and, frankly, what do I need a big knife like this for blogging, answering emails and trips to the post office? Plus this sucker is a one way ticket to junk touching and a Mr. Toad’s wild ride through the porno scanner should you get within a square mile of an airport or other secure facility. Bushman aside, the right to carry a small multi-tool is, incidentally, one of the reasons I prefer rail to the indignities of flying these days.

Stay tuned for what else is in my EDC, as well as Mrs. Homegrown’s EDC musings. Perhaps I’ll get around to a full-on EDC centerfold photo like the ones on everyday-carry.com. In the meantime, what’s in your EDC? Leave some comments . . .

A special thanks to Phil Noyes (author of an amazing book  Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America) for introducing me to the concept of EDC.

Vegetable Garden Update: Too Much Salad

It’s amazing what you can grow in just a 4 foot by 8 foot area. From top to bottom in the picture above:

Escarole mix: Misticanza Di Indivie E Scarole
Lettuce: Lattuga Quattro Stagioni
Chicory: Cicoria Variegata Di Castelfranco
Dandelion Greens
Swiss Chard: Verde Da Taglio

Approximately half the bed is devoted to salad makings. Combined with another 2 foot by 4 foot area of arugula elsewhere in our yard, we’ve had a whole lot of salads this winter. Mrs. Homegrown would probably say too many salads. She’s also tired of me pointing out, each time I prepare a salad, that it’s made with fancy-pants Italian varieties.

But these greens are tasty and eye catching. Not even “Whole Paycheck” carries this stuff–you gotta grow it yourself. I got these seeds from the good folks at Winnetka Farms who run an heirloom seed store. I, pretty much, just call up Craig at Winnetka Farms and ask him what I should plant.

I grow salad greens by sowing the seeds densely in blocks and thinning as we eat. The dandelion greens and chard are started in flats and transplanted as John Jeavons recommends in his book How to Grow More Vegetables. I grow most of these cool season vegetables under a thin row cover material called Agribon-15 to keep out cabbage worms that go after the chard.

Stay tuned for more vegetable gardening updates including a few disasters.

Pimp My Cold Frame

While the climate here in Los Angeles is exceedingly mild–it rarely gets much below freezing–springtime can, some years, be too cold to get good germination of summer vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. This was the case in 2010 when I was not able to get a single tomato seed to germinate until late May. To head off another seedling crisis I built a simple cold frame.

In order to prevent the cold frame from becoming a solar cooker (it can get over 80°F during the day this time of year) I pimped it out with an Univent Automatic Greenhouse Vent Opener. The Univent uses no electricity. As the temperature gets hotter a small piston thingy forces open the window you attach the Univent too. As the temperature cools in the evening, the Univent closes the window. It was easy to install, though the directions it came with seem to have been translated back and forth between several European languages before materializing into English.

The price on Amazon seems a bit steep at $50. I got mine on sale from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, but they no longer seem to carry it back in stock here.

I’m fully aware that my cold frame, with it’s plastic cover, would be way too flimsy for places with real weather. Nevertheless, I can imagine the automatic vent opener being useful in many climates.

ETA: Mrs. Homegrown here: I just wanted to add a clarifying note. This cold frame is The Germinator ™, one of our recent garden improvements. Ordinarily it is covered with wire screen, which lets sun in but keeps critters out. Erik’s plan is to swap out the plastic sheeting with the wire screen as needed.

Bare Root Fruit Tree Season is Here!

Yet another Internet “un-boxing.” This time fruit trees.

Our bare root fruit tree order just arrived from Bay Laurel Nursery. We ordered:

  • Tropic Snow Peach on Nemaguard rootstock
  • Panamint Nectarine on Citation rootstock
  • CoffeeCake (Nishimura Wase) Persimmon
  • Saijo Persimmon (pollinator for CoffeeCake)
  • Flavor Finale Pluot on Myrobalan 29C rootstock
  • Santa Rosa Plum on Citation rootstock (pollinator for the Flavor Finale Pluot)
  • Flavor Delight Aprium on Citation rootstock

The plan is to follow the Dave Wilson nursery’s backyard orchard culture guidelines which we blogged about in detail here. In short, you plant trees close together and prune the hell out of them to keep them small and manageable. We also used Dave Wilson’s handy fruit and nut harvest date chart to, as much as possible, assure that we have some kind of fruit ready to eat during most of the year. All of the varieties we chose have low chill hour requirements since we live in USDA zone 10.

Poo Salon and Urban Forage Classes with Nancy Klehm

Our good friend Nancy Klehm is coming to town for a visit. We’ve invited her to be a guest lecturer at our “Academy of Home Economics” and she’s agreed to teach a couple of classes. If you live in the LA area, this is a chance not to be missed.

First, who is Nancy?

Nancy Klehm is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Her solo and collaborative work focuses on creating participatory social ecologies in response to a direct experience of a place. She grows and forages much of her own food in a densely urban area. She actively composts food, landscape and human waste. She only uses a flush toilet when no other option is available. She designed and managed a large scale, closed-loop vermicompost project at a downtown homeless shelter where cafeteria food waste becomes 4 tons of worm castings a year which in turn is used as the soil that grows food to return to the cafeteria. 

More information on Nancy can be found at her website, here: http://www.spontaneousvegetation.net/

Class #1:

Poo Salon
Friday, February 18th, 2011
7-9pm, Echo Park, $15

Have you heard about the concept of humanure composting? It’s the practice of composting human waste. It’s practical, easy, green as can be, and totally off the grid. Better still, all the cool people are doing it. Whether you’re interested in a viable emergency toilet, dream of living off the grid or are considering a revolutionary urban lifestyle, you’ll want to know these techniques. Nancy, a world class humanure expert, describes this class as part philosophical discussion, part problem solving session, part introduction to the technology of composting.
• Foraged snacks provided. BYOB to share.

SOLD OUT. But you can put yourself on a waiting list for a possible second session by sending an email with “Poo Salon waiting list” in the subject line to: [email protected]

Class #2

Urbanforage with Nancy Klehm (aka Weedeater)
Sunday, February 27th
2-4:30 pm, Echo Park, $25

Learn about the plants that share this city with us!

Urbanforage is an informally guided walk through the spontaneous and cultivated vegetation of the urbanscape. Along the walk, we learn to identify plants, hear their botanical histories and stories of their use by cultural use by animals and humans and share antidotes of specific experiences with these plants.

This walk will start with sharing an herbal beverage and end with a simple herbal food shared over discussion of the experiences and questions generated by the walk.

SOLD OUT. But you can put yourself on a waiting list for a possible second session by sending an email with “forage waiting list” in the subject line to: [email protected]

The Great Cellphone Debate

The one that worked–with bail bond ad!

Kelly and I share a cellphone, and I’m always trying to think of ways to ditch it, if just to have one less bill every month. I often deliberately leave it at home when out of the house. I hate being interrupted by it and I dislike the social awkwardness of public phone conversations. Not that many people call our cellphone anyways as we don’t give out the phone number much. When I need to text someone (them young folks!) I use my laptop and Google Voice.

Yesterday, on a bike errand sans cellphone, I found myself in a situation where I needed to call home to get some information. Five payphones later, I finally found one that worked. Payphones have been in decline for years, of course, with the advent of cellphone service. Kind of a shame since I wonder if cellphone networks will work in an emergency. And what about people too poor to afford a cellphone?

Now, I don’t want this to turn into a anti-technology rant. I recognize that many people have to carry cellphones because of job and/or family obligations. And they certainly are convenient when it comes to things like finding someone at an airport, not to mention all the features of those smart phones (our phone ain’t “smart,” so others must think of me as crazy when I’m surprised at what you can do with one of those iPhone thingies).

But I wonder if we need a time out to consider the unintended consequences of cellphones. Are cellphones creating a generation of less independent children, always tethered to parents and civilization? Is all that RF radiation good for us? Then there’s the Miss Manners questions: all that texting at the dinner table, at parties, at school, in houses of worship.

At the same time I’m intrigued with developing some of the how-to content of this blog into a phone-friendly format. It’s not like cellphones are going to go away. Maybe it’s better to work with the technology.

Leave some comments! How do you all negotiate cellphone usage with a non-consumerist lifestyle? What positive things come from cellphones? If you’re cellphone free, why and how do you manage?

The Kingdom of Bolinas

In Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia, Northern California, Oregon and Washington break away from the union to form their own highly groovy utopia. What Callenbach predicted may never have happened on such a big scale, but the small town of Bolinas, CA sure feels like it broke off from the rest of the country. Callenbach, in fact, featured Bolinas in the prequel to Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging.

Bolinas residents, famously, remove the turnoff signs on the highway on a regular basis, giving the town an independent vibe. One of the first things you see on approaching Bolinas is a series of picturesque organic farms, including Gospel Flat Farm which runs an honor stand along the road. When we visited they had some nice looking beets:

And a quirky mobile facility:

Bolinas also has a free store:

With its own unique signage:

And a multi-denominational alter thingy on the main drag:

With yet more creative signage:

The list of former residents reads like a who’s who of American art and poetry. It’s easy to see why. Bolinas has natural beauty, a good set of small businesses and all that fresh produce. It’s also the home of my favorite bloggers, publisher and author Lloyd Kahn

Kind of hard to find myself back in Los Angeles, the most un-Bolinas of cities!

Why My Poultry Waterer Kept Breaking

This is not a handle! How not to carry a poultry waterer.

After breaking two poultry waterers I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. Thanks to instructions that came with my third waterer I learned not to carry it by the outer handle. After filling the waterer you carry it with the inner handle as seen below:

The inner handle.

Using the outer handle with the waterer full puts stress on the metal and ultimately breaks the vacuum.

Our backyard “egganomics” took a hit–gotta account for those three waterers now!

Garden Bench Ideas

I’ve been contemplating building a garden bench for our backyard so whenever I see a nice one I take a picture. The first example (above) resides in a nursery in Bolinas, California. Looks like one end is the ubiquitous cinder block and the other a pre-cast concrete pier. Add some driftwood (there’s a lot of it in Bolinas) and you’ve got a bench.

This arts n’ craftsy bench is in the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. If I want to recreate this I’d have to pull out the router to do the fancy lettering. Would be kind of funny to offer naming rights to objects in our backyard, though.

Also in the Arboretum, this massive stone bench. Kinda hard to get those heavy stones up the steps to our house. It’s beautiful, but if I recreated it poorly I’d have an object that recalls the tiny Stonehenge gag in This is Spinal Tap. The amusing back story to many of the stones in the San Francisco Arboretum is that they came from a Medieval Spanish monastery that William Randolph Hearst bought and had disassembled, crated and shipped to California at great expense. A couple of fires destroyed the crates and markings and years of acrimonious debate on where to put Hearst’s monastery ended with many of the stones getting distributed around the park as benches and walls. Most went to the construction of a new abbey near Sacramento.

Really nice stonework here–a bench midway up a staircase on the Lands End trail overlooking the entrance to the bay. It’s the most beautiful place on the planet with a nice bench to enjoy the view. 

A bench at the Preston Winery, home of that olive oil I blogged about yesterday.

I don’t ‘think a short bench like any of these would work in our backyard. At home I’m either running around or completely horizontal. Perhaps some kind of lounge chair might work better or a really long bench with some cushions.Will have to consult with the boss . . .