A Warning About Straw

Claude Monet used straw (or is that hay?) for art. We use straw to catch chicken droppings!

Straw is a very inexpensive and useful material for composting, mulching and animal bedding (we use it for all of these purposes). If you use it for mulch you’ll probably get some seeds that will germinate, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in a small vegetable garden. I get my straw from the feed store, but you can often get it for free from yuppies on Craigslist who have bought it to give their parties the Hee Haw ambiance we enjoy 24/7 at the Homgrown Evolution compound. If you buy it from the feed store remember to ask for straw, not hay. Hay is green and a lot more expensive. You feed hay to your horses.

But one warning from my friend, permaculturalist David Kahn. It’s tempting to pick up bales that stores have used after Halloween, but make sure they weren’t treated with fire retardant. Fire retardant has some nasty chemicals in it you don’t want in your garden. When in doubt, just go to the feed store–straw it ain’t expensive!

Addendum 10/27/09: Reader Polyparadigm raised another potential issue with using straw in your garden or compost pile: halogenated pesticide/herbacide residues. Clopyralid is an example–while banned for use in lawns in many places it’s still allowed on hay and grain crops . All the more reason to grow your own mulch and carbon materials if you can–don’t throw out those fall leaves! Here’s what Polyparadigm says:

“I’m glad I read through to the end! I was thinking this would be a warning about clopyralid and its close cousins. Which bears some mention: Halogenated pesticides aren’t broken down by any but a few soil organisms.

Clopyralid and aminopyralid mimic the hormones in broad-leaf plants, causing them to grow un-evenly and die from wrong-facing, crinkled leaves and other symptoms. Grasses are un-affected, so fields of grain and lawns have been sprayed with this sort of chemical, as a cheap way of keeping broad-leaf competitors at bay for a few years.

These chemicals have a half-life of 11 months in hot compost, and are often applied at such high rates that certain plants won’t grow in garden soil dressed with finished compost from a mix of sources, if one of those sources is a treated lawn or field.

A quick bioassay will test for this in straw: peas sprouting from soil mixed with that straw will look deformed if the field that grew the straw was treated. Browns of a similar texture from a source you know to be clean should probably be used for a control group.”

Stirred, Not Shaken


“Matter is never without spirit and spirit is never without matter.” – Rudolf Steiner

This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending an amazing workshop in biodynamic gardening taught by master gardener Dory Rindge. For those of you unfamiliar with biodynamics, it’s a system of agriculture based on the work of early 20th century philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

In the 1920s, at just the point when chemical fertilizers where catching on, Steiner proposed a radical return to organic farming. Biodynamic agriculture combines common sense practices such as composting with strange esoteric rituals. The oddest aspect of biodynamics involves the “preparations”, a specific set of substances made of manure, silica and herbs that are buried in cow horns, bladders and skulls. After a few months they are unearthed, ritually stirred and applied to soil and compost piles. Steiner has the biodynamic farmer spray these preparations on soil, plants and compost piles to act as a kind of homeopathy for the land.

While we did not make our own preparations in class (it’s complicated!) we did a ritual stirring with pre-made preparations in buckets of water. Using sticks we created vortexes in the buckets, alternating in clockwise and counterclockwise motions. We then divided the mixture and rushed home to spread it on our gardens.


I was excited and inspired by the class, a feeling which deepened when manure filed horns appeared to me in a dream. In my dream I interpreted the symbolism of the horns–that they represented a higher world unified with the earth by being buried and containing manure. It’s a symbol that recalls the ouroboros, the snake chasing it’s own tail, representing the cycles of nature, combined with the “as above, so below” gesture the magician in the tarot deck is making below. All this makes more sense if you compost!

Now I’m a big fan of the scientific method (yea soil tests!) but I’m increasingly dissatisfied with our modern culture’s overly materialistic world view. As the subtitle of this blog hints at, “cultural alchemy”, I’m interested in symbolism. But I agree with our our instrutor Rindge that it’s important not to get dogmatic about this stuff.

And I could care less about the science of the preparations. If you are, here’s a study that says its hokum and here’s another one that says they work (pdf). To focus on the biochemistry of the preparations seems to me to be asking the wrong questions. What I like most about biodynamics is its sense of intention. It’s an intention that ties us to the land, to the elemental spirits of plants and animals that were tangible to our ancestors. We could all use ritual that ties us to nature and I look forward to stirring preparations and perhaps making them with a few close friends. In fact, I’m much more excited about making preparations than it buying a package through the mail. Steiner’s set of herbs all grow well here and many of them I have already. But a cow is kinda hard to come by in Los Angeles. While it may be heresy to some, perhaps we’ll have to come up with some modifications to the rituals that make sense in this particular place and time.

More on biodynamics, specifically planting by the cycles of the moon and planets, when Mr. Homegrown gets back from San Antonio next week.

Let’s Get Biointensive

I picked up a handy tip on plant spacing from John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. Jeavons dislikes rows and instead uses the triangular spacing of the French biointensive method. You can view a nice diagram of biointensive spacing on the LandShare Colorado website. And see some images of the way Jeavons’ spaces his garden on This Girl’s Gone Green. Triangular plantings squeeze more veggies into small spaces. The tight spacing, with leaves allowed to just touch each other when the plant is mature, also creates a living mulch which shades the soil and saves water.

Jeavons suggests cutting out some triangles in different sizes to assist in planting. Using scrap wood, I made triangles in 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 15-inch sizes, taking the spacing suggestions in Jeavons’ charts for the seeds I had planted in flats. When it came time to transplant the seedlings I used the triangles to create hexagonal blocks of tightly spaced veggies. Cutting a notch in the corners of the triangles would be a slight improvement and allow for easier planting.


I could end this post leaving you all to admire my pretty little seedlings planted in neat biointensive rows. But here at Homegrown Evolution we believe in telling the truth. Growing vegetables has its frustrations. The day after I planted our winter vegetable garden (we have two growing seasons here in Southern California), we had a freak October heatwave, causing a panicked run to the nursery to buy some shade cloth. This was followed by one of Mr. Homegrown’s notorious gardening meltdowns, dreaded by the very patient Mrs. Homegrown. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that I got that shade cloth up in time.

Least Favorite Plant: Tree of Heaven

Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop’s new ghetto palm farm. Photos from the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop.

Riding on the Amtrak San Joaquin train two weeks ago I discovered a new metric: the economic health of a city can be judged by the size of its trees of heaven (aka Ailanthus altissima, aka “ghetto palm”). The higher the ghetto palms, the more likely a city is to be in the crapper.

Tree of heaven is a super weed much reviled by gardeners and landscapers for its unstoppable ability to grow in nearly every climate in the most inhospitable conditions. In a move that will raise a lot of horticultural hackles, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has gone beyond the “if you’ve got lemons make lemonade” phase of their project and has deliberately planted a ghetto palm farm. From their press release:

“Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has established its first Tree of Heaven Farm on a vacant Detroit city lot for future harvest. We planted seedlings in beds of car tires. The tires protect the young trees while they are growing but also determine their lifetime to a size when the trunks are suitable for processing. We assume this period of growth to be approx. 40 years. Within this timespan we will maintain the plantation and keep the lot free of any kind of real estate speculation or building activity. The plantation has been realized with the support of the SMART Museum of Art, University of Chicago and a documentation is on display in the current Heartland exhibition.”

The Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has turned sculptures and made furniture out of tree of heaven for a few years now. They’ve also come up with a stinky tree of heaven sauna:

“We have another small installation in the SMART Museums Heartland exhibition: A humidifier is installed in the museum lobby. The water tank of the device contains some pieces of Tree of Heaven wood (coll. Ghetto Palm). This is how the active substances get extracted in traditional Chinese medicine to cure a wide range of ailments from digestion problems, mental conditions, balding, to asthma and even cancer. In these tough economical times, a constant flow of steam will benefit all visitors with the spirit of this true Detroit resource.”

Invasion biology becomes art. If you can’t beat em’ you might as well find a use for em’.

Kimchi Secrets Revealed

Kimchi champion Granny Choe at Krautfest 2009 – photo from Eating L.A.

The last time I tried to make the spicy Korean fermented cabbage dish known as kimchi it was such a disaster that Mrs. Homegrown exiled the batch to the back porch where it rotted for a good two months before we got around to sending it to the landfill. At Krautfest 2009, which we helped organize back in September, we had the great privilege of learning to make kimchi from kimchi entrepreneur Oghee “Granny” Choe. And thankfully, Pat over at Eating L.A. has put Granny Choe’s recipe online for all to enjoy here. Having tasted Granny Choe’s kimchi, I can tell you that it’s not to be missed even for the kimchi-phobic.

You can order Granny Choe’s kimchi online at grannychoe.com.

Granny Choe also has a nice recipe for a savory kimchi pancake here.

Here’s some photos of Krautfest 2009 via Mark Frauenfelder.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Grub


Why start the day with the Wall Street Journal when the real excitement is to be found in periodicals such as Backyard Poultry Magazine? While our broke nation can’t afford missile shields or moon trips anymore, at least it’s comforting to read in the pages of BPM that the citizens of Bonner Springs, Kansas can visit the brand new National Poultry Museum. This month’s issue of BPM also has a fascinating article by Harvey Ussery, “Black Soldier Fly, White Magic” on raising black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) grubs as poultry and fish feed.

“If we offer the grubs 100 pounds of food wastes, for example, they will reduce it to 5 pounds of residue usable as a superior soil amendment, in the process generating 10 and possibly up to 20 pounds of live grubs that can be fed to livestock; in addition to liquid effluent (how much depends on the moisture content of the feeding materials) which can be used to feed crops. Hey, wait a minute–what happened to the “wastes”? There is absolutely no waste remaining after this conversion–it has all been transformed into valuable resource.”

To raise Hermetia illucens you put vegetable and fruit trimmings in a container with a small opening for the black soldier fly females to fly in and lay their eggs and a method for the grubs to climb out of the compost. You can also feed them small amounts of fish and meat but they can’t digest cellulesic materials. A company called ESR International markets a black soldier fly growing system called the BioPod™ at www.thebiopod.com. A spiral ramp in the BioPod™ allows the grubs to scamper out of the feeding materials and launch themselves into a bucket. Each morning you empty a bucket full of grubs for your grateful chickens or fish, making sure to reserve a few to ensure future black soldier fly generations. Adult black soldier flies don’t bite and are only interested in flying around looking for sex and, in the case of the females, to find a good place to lay eggs.

At $179, the BioPod™ is above our humble slacker budget level, but you can make your own out of the ubiquitous five gallon bucket. While I haven’t tested this design, there’s some simple plans on this informative blog devoted to the black soldier fly. The author of this blog, “Jerry aka GW,” cautions that growing grubs requires attention to detail and will be easier in warmer climates such as the southeast and west coasts of the US where soldier flies can be found in the wild. While you can buy black soldier flies to populate your composter, it will be easier to grow them where they already live. Here’s another DIY grub composter. If any of you have experience with building one of these please leave a comment.

And while you’re ditching the Wall Street Journal, why not skip the Netflix this evening! Here’s a video on grub growin’ complete with a dramatic musical conclusion:

The crank in me has to add that simple ideas like becoming a grub cowboy are more exciting, and have greater potential than all the Priuses and algae fuel schemes combined. Growing grubs is an activity many of us have done accidentally. Making use of those grubs is just a matter of inserting ourselves into one of nature’s clever recycling schemes.

A Cheap Soil Testing Service

I’ve started a new method in the garden: test the soil, amend according to the recommendations and grow. Lather, rinse, repeat. In many parts of the U.S., you can get free or low cost soil tests from your county extension service, but not here in Los Angeles. Some time ago I answered a reader’s question about where to get soil testing done, only to have to correct my response several times. Last week, Homegrown Evolution pal and the editor of Cool Tools, Elon Schoenholz, gave me a definitive answer on where to send soil for testing: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory. A standard soil test is $9, $4 more for the standard test plus organic matter. The standard tests includes heavy metals. That’s a bargain, and you don’t have to be a resident of Massachusetts. They also offer compost, fertilizer and plant tissue tests at reasonable prices.

Read a review of UMASS soil testing by master gardener Amy Thompson at Cool Tools.

My Big Fat Greek Squash


Every time I visit my mom, her Greek neighbor pops over the fence to offer me seeds and plants. He visits Greece each summer and comes back with seeds for plants whose names he can’t translate into English. As a result I always have a few mystery Greek vegetables growing in the garden. This spring he gave me a squash seedling he had propagated. It grew into a massive vine and produced two winter squashes whose weight exceeded the capacity of my kitchen scale. I harvested them last month and we’ve been eating a lot of squash!

The skin turned a kind of manila envelope color and the flesh was a deep orange. It kind of looks like a butternut squash on steroids. The flavor resembled pumpkin, but tasted a lot better than most pumpkin I’ve had. We roasted one squash to make squash tortellini among other dishes. The best recipe, however, was for a savory winter squash pie (galette) out of Mark Bittman’s book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (thanks to Bruce of the Green Roof Growers for suggesting this book). Bittman’s spicy winter squash galette recipe is here on MSNBC along with a video of him making it. I’ll note that the online recipe is different from the one in the book which calls for a longer baking time. My galette was in the oven for over an hour, but I did not cook the squash as long in the frying pan as Bittman does in the video. I’m sure either way will work, and this has to be, seriously, one of the best things I’ve ever cooked. It would make a great substitute for the always dry Thanksgiving turkey.

And I’ve made a mental note to myself to grow more winter squash next year. I like the taste better than summer squash and you can store it in the pantry for later use (hence the “winter” in the winter squash).

If you’d like to hazard a guess as to what this squash is called (especially if you’re Greek), please leave a comment.

City Repair LA

Mark Lakeman stares down the new Bimini Street salamander.

Portland architect and activist Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair movement, is in Los Angeles for a week of lectures and activities. Lakeman believes in actions that correct what he believes is our disassociation from nature and our alienation from each other. He’s a passionate opponent of the grid, the imposition of street networks and regimented thinking that he traces back to Roman imperialism. He’s probably most famous for inspiring groups of like-minded neighbors in Portland to adorn their streets with furniture and elaborate murals, usually done without asking for permission (see examples on an interactive map). He wants to empower us all as “villagers”, in charge of our own collective fate, rather than as serfs subservient to distant bureaucrats and moneyed interests.

Author and Creekfreak Joe Linton executing a reverse Sistine Chapel maneuver.

What I like about Mark Lakeman’s actions is that they aren’t “actions.” There is none of the attention seeking, pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric that one finds in activities such as “guerrilla” gardening (or perhaps some of our own past activities!). Instead the focus is on problem solving through getting neighborhoods together and doing things rather than standing around and complaining. Yesterday I had the great privilege of participating in a city repair street mural painting with my friends at the Los Angeles Ecovillage and their neighbors. The Ecovillage folks who organized the event had knocked on doors and enlisted the help of their neighbors. They blocked off the street themselves without getting a permit, set up refreshments, put on some festive music and laid out a mural design in the intersection in front of the apartments that house the Ecovillage. Whole families came and the kids had a great time participating in what became a giant coloring book. At the conclusion of a day of painting under the bright LA sun, a piñata was hoisted, bashed apart and candy rained down across the colorful new street mural.

Jimmy Lizama operating the piñata.

The mural incorporates lizard and ocean motifs, and enhances the crosswalks in the intersection, which is adjacent to a public school. The mural will act as a traffic calming device and counter our Department of Transpiration’s usual ignorance of pedestrian safety. While not asking for city permission is provocative, this was not a Boston Tea Party moment. It was simple problem solving in the form of a neighborhood party. Everyone had fun, and the street will be safer and more attractive. Thinking about the day yesterday, I woke up this morning with an overwhelming sense of happiness and empowerment.

The new mural nearing completion in the early afternoon.

Can every neighborhood rush out and paint a street mural? Probably not. At Lakeman’s lecture on Friday, I could sense a familiar skepticism in the audience. He showed slide after slide of happy Portlanders creating cob benches, tea houses and street mandalas. The people of Portland have built one of the most livable and desirable communities in the US. But here in Los Angeles we have many obstacles and far less cohesiveness. And I was not alone in wincing at the aesthetics of many of the Portland projects. Lakeman himself acknowledged that a lot of people ask him why everything has to look like hippies built it. Here in Los Angeles and elsewhere we’re going to have to devise different city repair strategies and aesthetics. It’s easy to get hung up on street murals and cob benches. Like Lakeman says, we’ve got to look to nature and at each other to devise the form of our cities. The form these villager led interventions take in Los Angeles, Austin, Iowa City and Brooklyn are going to be different. What all our cities share in common is the need to get started immediately to undo a century’s worth of bad planning and disempowerment.

The End of California Citrus?

As small as an ant, the Asian citrus psylid is big trouble!

When I spotted state agriculture agents on our street I knew something was wrong. It turns out that a specimen of the dreaded Asian citrus psylid showed up in our neighborhood. The Asian citrus psylid is not a problem in itself, but carries an incurable bacterial disease called huanglongbing (HLB). HLB, first reported in Asia in 1919, renders citrus fruit inedible and eventually kills the tree. Parts of Africa, Asia and South America are infected with HLB and in some regions of Brazil the disease is so bad that they’ve given up growing citrus altogether. HLB is in Florida and is adding to a nightmarish collection of other diseases afflicting citrus in the Sunshine State. Now California growers are panicking with the appearance of the psylid.

So far the psylids found in California do not carry HLB. However, according to an article in the Journal of Plant Pathology (pdf), HLB inevitably follows the citrus psylid within a few years. In several ways HLB resembles Pierce’s disease which has killed most of my grape vines and basically made growing table or wine grapes in Southern California impossible without copious pesticide application. Both diseases are bacterial and both are spread by phloem sucking insects. The pesticides used to control the Asian Citrus Psyllid and the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter (the insect that spreads Pierce’s disease) are also the same, and include a ground application of imidacloprid, marketed under the brand name Merit and manufactured by Bayer Environmental Science. State agricultural officials that I spoke with at an informational meeting on Wednesday in Echo Park hope that applications of imidacloprid and pyrethroids will slow the progress of the psylid and, “buy some time”, as they put it, to come up with a strategy to deal with the possible appearance of HLB. California agriculture officials hope that their proactive approach combined with lessons learned from missteps in psylid control in Florida and the rest of the world will slow the progress of the insect and minimize the damage of an emergence of HLB in California.

Compliance with the residential pesticide application program is voluntary. State agriculture officials will knock on the doors of residents in three areas in Los Angeles where the psylid has appeared to ask for permission for a foliar application of pyrethroid and a ground application of imidacloprid to any citrus trees a homeowner might own.

While I understand the gravity of the situation–we really are looking at the possible end of citrus in California if HLB gets a foothold–the use of imidacloprid gives me cause for concern. Imidaclopred is highly toxic to honey bees and has been banned in several European countries for its likely connection to colony collapse disorder. When I told an employee of the Department of Pesticide Regulation at the meeting on Wednesday that people in my neighborhood keep bees he paused and said, “you’ve got a problem.” Another official said to me that our bees (and presumably other pollinators in the neighborhood) will be sacrificed for the greater good of preserving the state’s citrus industry.

As with Pierce’s disease the best long term solution to this problem will be to breed trees resistant to HLB. This is easier said than done as, unlike Pierce’s disease and grapes, no HLB resistant citrus cultivars have been found. It may be that the only way to breed for resistance soon enough to head off the HLB will be through the development of transgenes with antimicrobial properties. This approach is already being funded by the USDA and the citrus industry.

As a backyard gardener and rabble rousing blogger, I could lose a lot of sleep pondering all the thorny questions this crisis brings up. Are there situations where genetic modification is warranted, or do antimicrobial transgenes pose unintended consequences? Will localized applications of imidacloprid kill our pollinators in significant numbers or will strategic applications head off more widespread use later on if nothing is done? What are my responsibilities as a backyard gardener to large scale growers? Do the benefits of international trade outweigh the inevitable appearance of invasive species? Should we close the downtown flower markets and produce distribution warehouses where state entomologists suspect the psylids might have come from?

Rather than try to answer the unanswerable, I’m going back to two of my favorite books books that don’t have anything to do with plants. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a meditation on the logical fallacies of economists and Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic have all the strategic wisdom a gardener needs. Seneca would say, do what is in your power to do and don’t worry about what you can’t fix. Taleb would advice always maximizing upside potential while minimizing exposure to the downside. My unsentimental conclusion: don’t try to grow citrus. If I had a mature tree I’d leave it in place and rip it out at the first sign of HLB. Despite the state’s offer to replace any HLB infected tree with a free citrus tree I wouldn’t take them up on the offer. In our case we have three small, immature citrus trees that are already chewed up by citrus leafminers. I’m pondering pulling them up and replacing them with fruit trees unrelated to citrus. This follows our stoic, get tough policy in the garden. Planting a tree entails a considerable investment in time. It can take years to get fruit. Why not plant pomegranate instead and let other people worry about citrus diseases? If a pomegranate disease shows up, rip it up and plant something else. Following this approach will eliminate habitat for the psylid and negate the need for pesticides.

Orange v. Tuna ¿Quien es Más Macho?

The first consideration with any domestic plant or animal should be choosing species with robust immune systems and then following that up with an objective selection process. This is an approach that mimics one of the fundamental laws of evolution: survival of the fittest. True, there is often a trade off between the flavor and yield of a fruit and strength of its natural defenses. Oranges are juicier and easier to peal than the spiny and seed filled fruit of the prickly pear cactus. But the long term odds of having a reliable supply of prickly pear fruit are a lot higher than a steady flow of orange juice. I may get a few spines in my fingers, but it will be the citrus farmers who will be losing sleep. As Seneca says, “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”

View a video on how to recognize Asian citrus psylids here.