That ain’t a bowl full of larvae, it’s crosne!

Mrs. Homegrown, justifiably, gives me a hard time for growing strange things around the homestead. This week I just completed the world’s smallest harvest of a root vegetable popularly known as crosne (Stachys affinis). Crosne, also known as Chinese artichoke, chorogi, knotroot and artichoke betony is a member of the mint family that produces a tiny edible tuber. While looking like any other mint plant, the leaves have no smell. The tubers look all too much like the larval form of the Michelin tire mascot and have the taste and texture of a Jerusalem artichoke.

Crosne on left, actual larvae on right

What happened to the larvae on the right after the photo shoot?

I got the tubers, that I planted last year, from Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, who always has an amazing booth full of produce at the Hollywood farmer’s market. I asked Alex if he thought I could grow them here in Los Angeles. He said that he wasn’t sure, but that he thought that where he grew crosne, at a higher altitude with a much colder winter, would be more conducive to producing a good crop of tubers.

What crosne leaves look like

Self irrigating pots, post crosne harvest

Undaunted, I planted two self irrigating planters made from storage bins with about twelve or so tubers. Throughout the year the foliage was lush and finally died back in late November. It was really easy to grow, just like any other mint. It grew to about 1 1/2 feet and never produced flowers. I’m sure in wetter places it would be invasive. I spoke to Alex at the market again in December and he told me to pull the tubers out around Christmas. Alex was right, I didn’t get a very big crop–LA is probably not the best climate for this plant. No crosne banquet this winter. But I did get enough to make a jar of pickles with.

I feared that it would be as hard to clean as Jerusalem artichoke, but a few blasts of the garden hose took off most of the dirt. French folks cook crosne in butter. I decided to pickle them in white vinegar using a recipe for Jerusalem artichoke. The recipe I used was a little too heavy on the mustard, otherwise I’d pass it on. The addition of some tumeric gave the pickles an appealing yellow color. I’ve been tossing them into salads to the horror of Mrs. Homegrown, who is not a fan of my crosne pickles.

Eric Toensmeier, author of Perrenial Vegetables has a YouTube tour of his garden where you can see how he grows crosne. Toensmeier interplants it with other root crops that mature at the same time, so you get a mix of things at harvest.

The Plants for a Future entry on Stachys affinis has some nice information on how to grow it.

Avatar: I’m not lovin’ it.


Since it just won the Golden Globe award for best picture and several other garden blogs have commented on it, I think it’s time to take a break from blogging about nettles and weigh in on James Cameron’s Avatar. For the five or so folks who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a plot summary: An evil corporation sets up shop on a far off planet, “Pandora”, to mine a rare mineral necessary for the next generation of iPhones. Unfortunately, said planet is occupied by a tall blue Rastafarian/Smurf people who practice a quaint religion centered around a fiber optic tree (what Doug Harvey describes as the “Gaia Hypothesis Shrub”). The blue folks also have fiber optic connections in their pony tails, kinda like this:


In Pandora’s jungle, everything is bioluminescent and all the plants are networked with the fiber optic shrub. Even the flying lizards have fiber optic appendages. The tall blue smurf folks can plug into these connections and control the flying lizards and five-legged horses. Oddly, when the blue people make love they don’t seem to connect up their fiber optic pony tails (would that make for an R rating?). Best of all, Sigourney Weaver discovers that the quaint religion, which involves sitting in a lotus position and swaying in front of the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub, is all based on SCIENCE since the fiber optic network is just like the internets back on earth not some woo-woo esoteric thing.

Spoiler alert–a disabled veteran, using a fancy wii controller mounted inside a tanning bed becomes a blue person and, by jacking into a really big flying lizard, defeats the evil corporation. In the final scene the disabled veteran, now fully smurfed-out, uses a spear to tip over the corporate general who is walking around in a top-heavy robot thingy. Sigourney Weaver dies and gets sucked up into the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub. Or, that’s my memory of it. I got kinda distracted by the 3D Imax Sensurround experience.

As for Avatar’s ideas about nature, one of Cameron’s workers must have done a brief one page summary of Paul Stamet’s mushroom writings for the busy director. The whole fiber optic natural network subplot in Avatar is reminiscent of the discovery, thanks to advances in DNA testing, of what may be the largest living organism in the world, the underground mycelial network of a massive honey mushroom Armillaria ostoyae that covers some 1,500 acres in Washington. Mix mushrooms with undersea landscapes and you’ve got Cameron’s jungle. Add the fiber optics and you’ve got a computer geek’s vision of Mother Earth.

What bugs me about the critical reaction to Avatar is the idea that the movie somehow represents a yearning for contact with the natural world (ironic in a movie that substitutes flesh and blood actors with digital puppets). In fact, Avatar is an artifact of a culture profoundly out of touch with nature. and serves only to further that disconnect by embedding the myth of disconnect in our popular imagination. How deeply offensive it is–how simple minded and tech biased–to suggest that nature is something we can “plug into,” Matrix style, as if we’re somehow separate from the world around us, aloof from it until we choose to interact with it. We are one with the natural world, always have been, always will be. We are born jacked-in, but we learn to ignore it.

What really frightened me about the Avatar and all the critics who loved it, is how the movie’s protagonist redeems the natural world by becoming virtual. Sure, he becomes flesh and blue blood in the end but only after all those virtual hours in the tanning bed. In this way Cameron’s movie inverts Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant Solaris (not to be confused with the George Cloony remake). The doomed astronauts of Solaris descend into madness because they loose touch with the natural world and can no longer distinguish the virtual from the real. In the film worried government officials dispatch a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, to find out what is going on aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Kelvin spends his last days on earth deep in the woods at his fathers remote cabin. Once in space Kelvin loses touch with reality. His dead wife appears to him, simultaneously real and virtual. Jerry Mander describes Solaris in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:
“Without concrete reality, which is to say, contact with their planetary roots, they are adrift in their minds: insane. All information has become believable and not believable at the same time. It has become arbitrary. There is no way to separate the real from the not-real. Although the astronauts know this, since there is nothing that is not arbitrary, except each other, all information is equal. It is impossible to determine which information to act on . . .

Finally, the message of the film is clear. The process of going insane began long before the launch into space. It began when life moved from nature into cities. Kelvin’s ride from woods to city to space was a ride from connection to disconnection, from reality to abstraction, a history of technology, setting the conditions for the imposition of reconstructed realities by a single powerful force.”

Tarkovsky says far more about our alienation from the natural world in Solaris’ highway scene than Cameron can ever hope to and he does it without dialog or special effects. In the clip below, the people in the car have left the countryside, a peaceful interval of grounded-ness. Now they’re traveling to the city, and from the city, to space. The long silent car ride shows their transition from the natural world, to the dislocation and isolation of the city freeway system, setting them up for the final dislocation and madness of the space station.

As if we didn’t need more proof that our culture is dangerously losing touch with reality, like the doomed astronauts of Solaris, along comes the newfangled form of depression,”Avatar Blues,” a sadness that fans suffer knowing they cannot actually live on Pandora. CNN offers this helpful suggestion,

“Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing “Avatar” video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities.”

Here’s our own suggestion for folks longing for Pandora. Go outside. Find a plant, any plant. A tree, a weed growing out of the sidewalk. Spend a few moments with that plant, observing what it looks like, how it grows, how it makes you feel. Believe what you hear, what you feel, what you imagine. There’s no need for tanning beds and fiber optics. You’re already jacked into a world 10 billion times richer and more imaginative than Pandora. To see it you just have to open your eyes.

Passport to Survival

One of the dusty corners of the Homegrown Evolution reference library holds two examples of a book genre I always look out for: the Mormon survival manual. As far as I can tell, these tomes assume we’re, “in the last days,” a period for which the Latter Day Saints hierarchy suggests keeping a two year supply of food for your household. Having just seen the grim Cormac McCarthy/Viggo Mortensen vehicle “The Road” and not wanting to have to resort to cannibalism (those folks at the Wal-Mart sure don’t look appetizing!), I cracked open my Mormon survival books starting with Esther Dickey’s Passport to Survival.

The astonishing thing about the 110 recipes in Dickey’s book is that they make use, almost exclusively, of only four ingredients: wheat, salt, honey and powdered milk. This makes Passport to Survival one of the most unusual cookbooks ever written. From these easily stored and inexpensive raw materials Dickey makes everything from tacos to ice cream. The fake meat that forms the centerpiece of her suggested meals is made by extracting gluten from flour and then making seitan. Your greens come from sprouting wheat. Here’s a few recipes and meals:

“#26. Mock Tater Tots

1/4 cup dry milk
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup thick starch #14a

Combine, and drop mixture from a teaspoon onto a cookie sheet Bake until brown. (Make tater tots miniature size).”

Ever resourceful, Dickey’s thick starch is the leftover water made from extracting the gluten from the wheat.

“#83. Soft Ice Cream (Emergency Flavor)

1 cup dry milk
3 cups water
3 tbs.honey

Mix, put in shallow tray, and freeze solid. Break in small chunks and beat with electric mixer, bender or juicer. Serve in miniature cones made from dough #51.”

Dickey whips up some lavish meals for the bunker, again, with just flour, salt, honey and powdered milk:


“Tuesday supper: “Hors d’oeuvres #27, green cream soup #70 and #73, thin sticks #9, wheatburgers #36, oven-cracked wheat #46d, soft ice cream #83 with caramel syrup #84, barber pole sticks #90, cold milk.”


“Monday dinner: green drink #73, emergency stew #20, noodles #27, bread sticks #38, criss-cross cookies #91.”

Dickey slept outdoors into her 90s and passed away in 2008. From her obituary,

“Nobody could say Esther had not practiced what she preached. As a young couple, Russell and Esther lived in a campground for more than two months, baking bread with a reflector oven. In her own east Multnomah County backyard, she once comfortably lived in a 15-by-4-by-6-foot cave, as an experiment. She once pushed a loaded two-wheeled metal cart to Oxbow Park along the Sandy River to live in a campsite by the river for several days.

There was one notable Thanksgiving with gluten drumsticks.”

I have the 1969 edition of Passport to Survival that I picked up on Amazon. There’s a more recent edition written by two of her daughters, but I haven’t seen it.

Should you be inspired to try your hand at wheat gluten cookin’, here’s some step by step instructions on making your own seitan from scratch on the Forkable blog.

Update 1/15/2010: I was just thumbing through my copy of the 1980 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and found a page devoted to Mormon survival manuals including a review of Passport to Survival. The review even included the same photo I chose for this post. This proves that:

1. The Whole Earth crew invented the internets.

2. There’s nothing I can blog about that the Whole Earth folks didn’t already cover. I owe them a tremendous debt and continue to admire their work each time I open my old copy of the catalog.

Rapini is the New Broccoli

When I tried to grow broccoli in the past I got more aphids than produce. Plus broccoli takes up a lot of room in the garden for a very small return, which is why I’ve switched to rapini instead.

Rapini, according to Wikipedia, is known under a confusing jumble of names including broccoli rabe, broccoli raab, broccoletti, saag, broccoli di rape, cime di rapa, rappi, friarielli, and grelos. It’s a member of the brassica family and is closely related to the turnip. And, unlike most vegetables found in our supermarkets, it actually tastes like something, with a mustardy bitterness I really love.

I planted about 18 square feet worth and Mrs. Homegrown and I have been eating it for weeks tossed in pasta, omelets and on its own. Both the flowerettes and the leaves are edible. The plant continues to send up flowers even after the center one is picked, so you can get a continuous harvest for a few weeks. I’ve had some aphids, but nothing like when I’ve tried to grow broccoli or cauliflower. It’s a cool season crop, so here in Los Angeles we plant it in the fall for a winter harvest. You just gotta pick those flower buds soon, before they actually start to flower, otherwise you’re in for extra bitterness.

The variety I planted is another winner from the Franchi seed company, Cima di Rapa Quarantina. As this vegetable doesn’t ship well, it’s an obvious choice for the home garden. While fresh homegrown broccoli is amazing, I still like the stronger flavor of rapini better.

Mushrooms and Yard Sharing

Mr. Homegrown contemplates his many writing tasks.

Mr. Homegrown needs your help with two topics. First, for our second book, I’d like to talk to someone who has successfully grown oyster mushrooms from spawn. I’m looking for advice on preparing and inoculating the growing medium. I’m not looking for folks who have grown oyster mushrooms from kits which, in my humble opinion, are not cost effective. If anyone knows of well written step by step directions somewhere on the interwebs, please let me know, or better yet if you’ve done it yourself send me an email. And yes, there is Paul Stamets, but some psilocybin freak stole all his books out of the LA library.

Secondly, I’m writing another article for Urban Farm Magazine and I’d like to speak to anyone who has set up or been a part of a yard sharing program. You get extra points if you are in New Jersey or Philadelphia. I’m not looking for my fellow Californians, as there have been too many Golden State types in my previous articles.

Contact me at homegrownevolution(at)sbcglobal.net or leave a comment. Thanks!

Happy Holidays from Homegrown Evolution

We didn’t get around to our annual Christmas missive this year so we’ll have to share some silliness via the interwebs. Here at Homegrown Evolution we like to combine the country and the city. Kinda like this:

Look out, this might get stuck in your head–what the Germans call “ohrwurm” (ear worm):

Fröhliche Weihnachten! May your coming year be full of homegrown veggies, bikes and bathtub booze!

The Skunk Whisperer

Normally I ignore the business related facebook pleas filling up the Homegrown Evolution in box, but one came today that I had to grant some free publicity. We’ve all heard of horse whisperers and TV’s dog whisperer. You may have even heard of the chicken whisperer. Step aside for the . . . skunk whisperer, a “no-kill, no-trap” pest control company based in Oklahoma which seems to consist of at least two skunk whisperers, each with their own cartoon avatar and territory.

From what I can tell from the Skunk Whisperer’s website, www.totalwildlifecontrol.com, they seem to practice a common sense integrated pest management (IPM) approach to critter control. In other words, work first on eliminating habitat. Studies have shown that if you trap and try to relocate animals such as skunks and raccoons, you’re just making room for a another one to take their place. If you poison them you risk killing predators up the food chain, not to mention pets and humans. And poisoned mammals have a nasty tendency to crawl into a wall to die leaving a stench that lasts for months.

As a chicken owner I’m sensitive to the raccoon menace. Following the IPM approach, just like the Skunk Whisperer, I made sure the chicken coop was well fortified and I got rid of a water feature that was a nightly raccoon attractant. Our Doberman is the icing on the anti-raccoon cake.

It’s easy to see how preventing points of entry into our homes is one important part of fending off critters. Judging from the voluminous photos on the Skunk Whisperer’s facebook page they focus on screening out critter access. The beehive relocation I helped with recently and the one I’m going to do in the spring are both because hives made their way into buildings with gaps in the woodwork. Close up the gaps and you exclude most non Homo sapiens. And can we please stop leaving pet food outside?

Possum whispering and bare handed trappin’.

It turns out that the Skunk Whisperer also uses a technique I just tried. The contractor who did our foundation work left the crawlspace access door open. I’m pretty sure something took up residence down there. If I just closed the access door I risked having a critter die under the house, or possibly killing someone’s cat. Instead, I got a cheap raccoon-sized trap and rigged it up as a one-way door. Critters can exit, but they can’t come back in. It seemed to work–the trap sprung and something either left or tried to get in and couldn’t. Now I can close off the access door and not worry about the scent of death wafting up through the house. Here’s what my skunk trap-out looks like–excuse the bad picture and remember that it’s not a trap as the exit end is always open:

I cut a board to fit around the trap-out and nailed it to the corners of the crawl space opening.

The next step is to get a cartoon of myself and I’ll be making the big money.

Here’s the Skunk Whisperer removing the Pepsi machine raccoons. As he put it, “They’d put money in and a raccoon hand would come out.”

A tasty Italian chard: Bieta Verde da Taglio

A few folks have written to ask what we’re growing in our winter vegetable garden and we’ve been late to reply. Since we’re in USDA zone 10 and seldom get freezing weather here in Los Angeles, we can grow year round. One of my favorites this winter has been a Swiss chard variety from Italy called Bieta Verde da Taglio or “Green cutting chard”.

Verde da Taglio has thin stems and thick leaves. It ain’t as pretty as the rainbow colored chards we are also growing, but it tastes better, in my opinion. Steam it, fry it up with some garlic and olive oil and you’re set.

Verde da Taglio is sold by the Franchi company, which I have a brand allegiance to as fanatical as the worst Apple computer partisan. Is Franchi the new Apple? I predict we’ll see folks tossing their iPhones for packs of rapini way before that Mayan calendar thingy comes to pass.

We got our Bieta Verde da Taglio seeds from growitalian.com a couple of years ago and they are still viable. But, thanks to Craig Ruggless, our local Franchi seed representative, you can now find these seeds in some nurseries and stores here in California. You can also order from Ruggless via the catalog on his Franchi Seeds USA Facebook page.

Nance Klehm at Farmlab Tomorrow

If you’re in So Cal tomorrow Nance Klehm will be doing a talk at Farmlab:

Metabolic Studio Public Salon
Nance Klehm
Friday, December 11, 2009, Noon
Free Admission

There are three fundamentals that guide this time of descent into northern-hemisphere darkness. The winter season is one of decline and decomposition, activity below ground and general shadowiness. The fundamentals that guide us are:

Everything comes into this world hungry.

Everything wants to be digested.

Everything flows towards soil.

This salon will discuss various methods of transforming what is perceived as waste and turning it into soil or building/healing existing soil.

Nance 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 currently manages 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.

She works with Simparch to create and integrate soil and water systems at their Clean Livin’ at C.L.U.I.’s Wendover, UT site. She uses decomposition, filtration and fermentation to transform post-consumer materials generated onsite (solid and liquid human waste, grey water from sinks and shower, food, cardboard and paper) as well as waste materials gathered offsite (casino food waste and grass clippings, horse manure from stables, spent coffee grounds) into biologically rich soil. The resulting waste-sponge systems sustain or aid: a habitat of native species of plants, digestion of the high salinity of the indigenous soils and the capturing, storing and using of precipitation.

She has shown and taught in Mexico, Australia, England, Scandinavia, Canada, the Caribbean, and the United States. Her regular column WEEDEATER appears in ARTHUR magazine.

Directions to Farmlab are here.

Also, Klehm and Mr. Homegrown are in Time magazine this week talking about humanure.

Klehm’s Website: www.spontaneousvegetation.net

They want to ride to school. So they do.

In Orlando Florida, one of the worst places to ride a bike in America, some high school students are taking back the streets:

High School Bike Bus from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo. Via Streetsblog.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, elementary and high school groups go on field trips to the auto show:

No doubt our educational dollars were well spent showing the kids the informative educational displays:

I noticed that some of the students at the car show had been given traffic safety pamphlets about how to safely ride bikes. Car companies have been producing pedestrian and bike safety info for years. At the risk of being somewhat conspiratorial, auto industry produced safety materials often carry a hidden message that walking and biking are dangerous, marginal activities. Actually biking to school together like the Florida students as well as walking school buses send a much better message, in my opinion.

The good news is that, in car-centric cities like Orlando and Los Angeles there is a growing awareness that alternative transportation arrangements need to be made quickly. Here in LA we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Thanks to Elon Schoenholz for scoring two free passes to the car show. It’s good to check out how the consensus trance is holding up.