Least Favorite Plant: Ficus benjamina

Photo by Elon Schoenholz

While Ficus benjamina, a.k.a. “weeping fig”, is one of my least favorite trees, my most favorite photographer, Elon Schoenholz is currently posting a series of ficus tree images on his blog. Schoenholz, wisely, takes a neutral stance on this hot button tree describing Ficus as,

“L.A.’s favorite underappreciated, unheralded, unfavorite curbside flora. I have no real love for these trees, per se, no sentimental attachment. They just express form and mass and scale and human intervention in a way that I enjoy, like nothing else in the urban landscape as I encounter it.”

He’s wise to be neutral. A civil insurection broke out in Santa Monica over plans to replace ficus trees with ginko trees in the downtown area. Hunger strikes were threatened and activists chained themselves to their beloved Ficii. In the end 23 Ficus trees were removed by the city.

In colder climates Ficus benjamina is strictly a houseplant. Here in Southern California it can leave the 1950s era office buildings and public access TV sets that are its normal habitat and wander the great outdoors. Once outside Ficus goes about lifting sidewalks with its massive roots and creating canopies so dense that the public space beneath them is as dark as the depths of the Amazonian jungle.
Ficus also seems to inspire what I call obsessive-compulsive topiary, so nicely chronicled in Schoenholz’s photos. Just as when you’re holding a hammer everything looks like a nail, when you’ve got a gas powered trimmer in your hand, and a Ficus tree in front of you, well, you just gotta go at it. Geometrical topiary that looks great in the gardens of Versailles, does not necessarily translate well on the sun-baked asphalt-lined traffic sewers of the City of the Angels. But Schoenholz’s photos do make a persuasive case for what could be termed “outsider topiary.”
To be fair, Ficus benjamina is not without some benefits. It’s one of the plants NASA studied for its use in improving indoor air quality. But as the horticultural equivalent of the Nagel print, perhaps it’s time to replace a few of them with its edible cousin Ficus carica.

Ficus fans and foes alike should visit Schoenholz’s Etsy store for some handsome photos of what city employees can do with those power trimmers.

Bulk Bin Microgreens

Sunflower seed germination test
An admission: both Mrs. Homegrown and I are sprout haters. We love the people who sprout, but not the sprouts. Perhaps it’s just the association with 1970s era health food restaurants or macramé. Sprout lovers out there are welcome to try to convince us otherwise, but I’ll warn you that numerous good-hearted attempts have already failed. But we’re both open to the microgreen idea. Microgreens are allowed to grow longer than sprouts and require either soil or some kind of fertilized growing medium. Usually you harvest when the first true set of leaves appear.
While we’ve never intentionally grown microgreens we’ve always thinned seedlings by eating them. And trays of microgreens are a great way for folks in apartments with sunny balconies or south facing windows to grow a little of their own food. You could also easily grow them under fluorescent lights.
Many seed companies offer microgreen mixes and seeds in bulk. Prices are reasonable considering that you need a lot of seed. But, being cheap, I was curious to see if I could germinate seeds from a health food store bulk bin. I chose my least favorite health food store, a depressing space tucked into a mini-mall where the isles are redolent with that unmistakable and unidentifiable 1970s health food store scent. Is it some chemical reaction between soy, wheat grass and carob fumes? But I digress.

For the sake of science I chose this forlorn store, which will remain nameless, since I assumed the stuff in their bulk bins has been sitting around a long time and I wanted to test seed of questionable viability. This store sells seeds for sprouting and microgreens, such as radish at around $9 a pound. The much cheaper bulk bin items, however, are all around $1 to $2 a pound. Of course, most don’t have microgreen potential, but I found a few that do and set about to perform a germination test to see how well they would work. The test consisted of putting the seeds in a folded and moistened paper towel and placing the towel and seeds into a sealed plastic sandwich bag. Here are the results:

Amaranth
I’d say above 90% of the seeds germinated. Amaranth seeds are so small that it was impossible for me to count out a precise number, but it looks like virtually all sprouted.
Popcorn
10 our of 10
Sunflower
7 out 10
Fava
A complete bust, but I will try again in soil rather than in a towel.

Good results considering the circumstances. I’m interested in hearing if anyone else has tried bulk bin microgreens, and if so what other seeds you have grown as microgreens not sprouts. If that’s you give us a shout in the comments.

Seeding Change

Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall is in the New York Times this week in an article by Michael Tortorello, “Packets Full of Miracles.” Tortorello asks six gardeners to pick out their favorite seed varieties. Homegrown Neighbor chose New Zealand spinach, Nero de Toscana kale, Red orach, Sugar Ann snap pea, Crimson California poppy and Verbena bonariensis.

I’m sure Homegrown Neighbor would appreciate a reminder that if you buy seeds from Botanical Interests using the link on the right side of this blog, 40% of your purchases will go to supporting the ag program at North Hollywood High. Let’s get that chicken coop paid for! Fellow Angelino Caitlin Flanagan be damned!
It’s also a good moment to point out the reasons it’s best to grow from seed rather than buying seedlings at your local nursery. You get many orders of magnitude more selection, it’s much cheaper and you prevent the spread of soil diseases. Last year a fungal disease, late blight, infected gardens due to seedlings grown at large nurseries in the south and sold at big box retailers up and down the east coast (read more about that in an excellent editorial, You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster) . Plant seeds and you help keep your garden disease free.
Spring is just around the corner. Time to order those seeds! Leave a comment with your favorite varieties.

Bread and Transformation

I’ve not tried Reinhart’s baking method (even though I once had one of his books out of the library), but I like this 2008 Ted talk on the alchemical symbolism of bread. If you’re either a baking or brewing geek like me it’s worth a view.

The baking method I’ve used for over a decade is from Nancy Silverton’s book Breads from the La Brea Bakery. You use a sourdough starter and at least half the flour must be white to get it to leaven properly. I’ve had great results, but would like to someday make a loaf entirely from whole wheat with a sourdough starter. Reinhart, in his book Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor claims to be able to do just that and not end up with a hockey puck. If you’ve tried his method (and gone through his very lengthy directions) leave a comment!

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!