I don’t hear you singing in the wire . . .

AT&T has yet to restore our phone and Internet service. To those who have ordered books I apologize for the delay (we’re also waiting for a new shipment from our publisher). It looks like it will be Monday before we will have anything other than smoke signals to communicate with, unless we shift to HAM or pirate radio (perhaps a good idea considering AT&T’s repair service–I’d hate to see what they’d be like in an earthquake).

In the meantime we leave you with a song that seems appropriate under our circumstances, Wichita Lineman, often described as the “first existential country song”:

Dookie in the Tomatoes

Our first tomatoes of the season are just beginning to ripen, coinciding nicely with the multi-state cow poo in the roma scare. Allow me to speculate wildly about the cause of the current epidemic, tracing the cause step by step from the beginning:

1. We begin not with the tomato farm, but instead with manure from that wonder of industrialized agriculture, the concentrated feed lot, where thousands of cattle stew in their own filth. Immunosuppressed cattle on these feed lots act as ideal Petri dishes for all kinds of diseases including salmonella. At these massive operations, cattle feed on corn even though, biologically, they were meant to eat grass. To counter the deleterious effects of feeding them the wrong food, they are pumped full of antibiotics which, due to the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest, creates new generations of antibiotic resistant infections. Concentrating them so close together further facilitates the spread of exotic strains of all manor of nasty things including salmonella.

2. Manure from the feed lot either runs off accidentally onto a neighboring tomato farm or is exported as fertilizer intentionally. At some point, manure gets on a tomato, either on the farm or after being shipped.

3. A salmonella infected tomato arrives at a centralized packing facility where it is loaded into a massive water bath by underpaid workers to mingle with thousands of other tomatoes. The water bath acts as our second salmonella Petri dish along the tomato’s path to our table. Alternately, a blade used to automatically slice tomatoes gets infected with salmonella, thereby spreading the bug to all the other pre-sliced tomatoes headed to the food assemblers (a more accurate term than “chef”) at America’s fast food establishments.

4. After leaving the packing facility, Salmonella infected tomatoes get shipped all over the country and perhaps the world, thereby sentencing thousands of people to multi-day commode-sitting hell. Some immunosuppressed folks, sadly, die.

5. The government announces, acting in the interest of the big agricultural players, “our food system is actually safer than ever”, and congratulates themselves for their quick diagnoses of the exact strain of salmonella and its source–in this case, tomatoes processed by careless workers at a packing facility. Hearings ensue, and a few months later they announce a new series of bizarre regulations. Tomato packing facility washing equipment must now be maintained at the precise temperature of 163º F for 5.375 minutes minimum. Problem solved. Mainstream journalists move on to the next hot topic.

Now I could be completely incorrect in my assumptions about this month’s tomato scare–it’s just a guess. But let me offer a few solutions that would take care of the problem no matter what caused this most recent outbreak:

1. If you can, grow your own tomatoes and make your own fertilizer. Yes, it’s possible (but a lot less likely) to get salmonella from your own home grown produce, but at least you and your family will be the only one infected.

2. Support small family farms. Again, a small family farm could cause a salmonella outbreak, but it would effect far fewer people. Decentralization at all points in the agricultural supply chain is the solution to greater food security, not further concentration. Unfortunately our government is on the take from the big players and promulgates regulations that make it impossible for small family farmers to make a living. Read Joel Salatin’s book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal” for more on how agricultural regulations are at the heart of our food safety problems.

3. Don’t wash produce until just before it is prepared. At it turns out, washing upsets the natural balance of harmful and beneficial bacteria present on fresh produce. Food microbiologist Keith Warriner has found that a beneficial bacteria called Enterobacter keeps salmonella in check. Wash off the Enterobacter and salmonella thrives (read more on this theory at New Scientist). The same holds for washing eggs–bad idea.

I count myself very fortunate to have a bit of land to grow some tomatoes and feel sorry for those who don’t have this luxury. I wish more journalists would spin this story as a reason to build more community gardens and allow apartment dwellers to grow some food on the roof. It leaves me eating that big juicy roma tomato, pictured above, with all the smugness of a Prius driver in the HOV lane.

Staycationing

Due to some sloppy utility work (thanks for the outsourcing DWP!), our phone and internet service are out for the next few days. Mrs. Homegrown Evolution is in San Francisco with our only cell phone.

To those of you who have ordered books I apologize for the delay.

Casting out the lawn

One technique for learning to draw is to study the negative space, the empty space around the subject you’re trying to capture. Doing so shortcuts our mind’s tendency to distort and stereotype the subject, say a building or a face. Draw the negative space, and you’ll be more likely to realistically capture the outline of your subject rather than ending up with the stick figures and child-like representations our mind naturally tends to portray.

In our cities negative space, the open spaces between buildings, consists of vast seas of parking and empty, unused lawns. We all tend to filter out these spaces, failing to comprehend their size and ubiquitousness. Thankfully there’s a growing awareness that our city’s negative spaces are in fact negative, that they contribute to blight, profligate use of resources and our general unhappiness.

But a consciousness shift is underway led by forward thinking folks like the parishioners of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in West Los Angeles who have teamed up with the non-profit organization Urban Farming to rip up their entire 1,200 square foot south lawn to plant vegetables for the congregation and the LAX Food Pantry. From their press release:

“Holy Nativity is a strong community center with focus on faith, hope, diversity, community and environment. The new Community Garden garden provides solutions to the issues of food insecurity, access to fresh produce, education on healthy eating, greening the environment, rising food costs and the importance of donating to those in need. Urban Farming and Holy Nativity, along with the project’s partners, will have a celebration event on Sunday, June 8. This garden is a partner in the Urban Farming campaign, “INCLUDE FOOD™ when planting and landscaping”.

During World War II, twenty million people planted “victory gardens” at their homes. They grew 40% of America’s produce. We did it then, we can do it again.”

Kudos to Holy Nativity and Urban Farming for this initiative and we hope the idea spreads to other churches, synagogues an mosques across the land–I wish I could attend the opening, but I’ll be assisting with the Bike Coalition’s annual River Ride fundraiser (not to late to sign up for that LA cyclists!). To those who can make it to Holy Nativity, the festivities run from 2 t0 5 p.m. this Sunday June 8th. Holy Nativity is located at:

6700 W 83rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(310) 670-4777

I had wanted to make a clever biblical reference at the beginning of this post and suggest that now, in 2008, Jesus would rip up the lawn, with the same fervor that he chased away the inappropriate money changers who did business in the temple. Dusting off the bible, however, I discovered that Jesus also shooed off some livestock during that episode. But with our increasing food troubles, I’d like to think that today, in addition to the vegetables, Jesus would welcome livestock back to the church grounds (cathedrals were used in the Middle Ages as barns, after all).

For more info and photos, see Holy Nativity’s Community Garden page.

Rainwater Harvesting with Joe Linton

With the driest spring on record here in Los Angeles, water and where to get it ought to be on all of our minds in this drought prone metropolis. Thankfully, artist, author, Los Angeles River expert and co-founder of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition Joe Linton will be teaching a workshop on rainwater harvesting at the Los Angeles Eco-Village on Saturday, June 14, 2008 from 9 am to 3 pm at L.A. Eco-Village (Directions)

Here’s a description of the workshop from the Eco-Village’s website.

This workshop is part of a continuing series in “hands-on” urban permaculture and includes:

  • An overview presentation on Los Angeles water issues, including local multi-benefit watershed management efforts.
  • A tour of Los Angeles Eco-Village stormwater harvesting landscape features, including the Bimini Slough Nature Park.
  • A hands-on workshop to build terraced swales to detain and infiltrate storm water
  • This workshop focuses on building earthworks that gather and infiltrate rainwater in the landscape. It does not cover rainwater harvesting with cisterns, which we anticipate will be the subject of a future hands-on permaculture workshop, hopefully in early fall 2008. Watch for details.

Fee: $35 (sliding scale available) – bring a bag lunch.
Registration required: 213/738-1254 or [email protected] (workshop size limited)

About Joe Linton
Joe is an artist and urban environmental activist. He’s been involved for many years in efforts to restore and revitalize the Los Angeles River, including writing and illustrating the guide book Down By The Los Angeles River (Wilderness Press 2005). Joe is a long-time resident member of Los Angeles Eco-Village and a co-founder of the LA County Bicycle Coalition.

Garlic!

Our parkway guerrilla garden, profiled in last week’s Los Angeles Times article, which is now linked on BoingBoing, yielded up an impressive garlic harvest this season.

Garlic is one of the easiest crops for us to grow here in Southern California. You just take the large, outer ring of cloves from store-bought garlic and stick them in the ground with the pointed side up interspersed throughout your other plantings–wherever you have some room. We plant them around Thanksgiving and harvest in late May/early June when the stalks begin to turn brown and fall over. After you harvest your garlic, don’t wash it just knock the dirt off, then let it “cure” with the stalks and roots intact in a dry place inside until the stalks are entirely brown. Premature cutting of stalks or roots can lead to rot. After your garlic is dry then you can trim it to just the bulbs and store it somewhere cool and dark (not the fridge!). We’re going to put ours in a double brown bag in our strange subterranean garage–a cellar or basement would also work.

With our mild winters and warm summers, California is the ideal place to grow garlic, but there are special varieties for cold climates that you can mail order. The University of Minnesota Extension has a nice page on growing garlic in cold places.

An Apology

Sometimes, in a lame attempt at humor, I paint groups of people with an overly broad brush. I owe a dear friend an apology for a May 23rd post “Mistakes we have made”. My friend is a real estate agent and, quite rightly, she took offense at my insulting comments about her profession, pointing out that it was simply not fair of me to cast dispersions on all for the sins of a few. Looking back at this post I can see her point–it was inflammatory and juvenile.

To the list of “Mistakes we have made” I can now add a lapse of journalistic ethics. Please accept my apologies.

I’ve re-edited the original post to better represent our experience, minus the hurtful rhetoric.

A Mystery Philippine Vegetable

Some TV folks were here to interview us about guerrilla gardening, following up on the story that mentioned us in the LA Times this week. We did the interview down in the parkway next to our illegal street-side vegetable garden. I nattered on about reclaiming wasted space, staying in touch with nature, the value of homegrown food, dodging the authorities and knowing where your carrots come from. I harvested for the camera, an unimpressive string bean and two small cucumbers.

On a whim, I suggested that we visit the parkway garden that inspired us to plant our own. Just two blocks away, this parkway garden is the handiwork of a retired couple from the Philippines. As luck would have it, the couple pulled up during our interview. Julie (I’m afraid I can’t spell her last name) stepped out of her car and proceeded to give us a tour of her “guerrilla” garden, talking about–guess what–reclaiming wasted space, staying in touch with nature, the value of homegrown food, dodging the authorities and knowing where your bitter melon comes from. The only differences between our two spiels–the bitter melon, and Julie’s lack of Generation X irony and a blog.

I think the TV folks were hoping for something more telegenic, sexy and radical, to fit the “guerrilla gardening” story, like say the image on the left. They were, perhaps, less excited by some ordinary middle-aged to elderly residents of Echo Park passionately talking about vegetables.

Their loss our gain. As a parting gift Julie gave us this leafy green whose name, I’m afraid, I can neither pronounce nor remember. She told us to parboil it and season with soy sauce. Any guesses readers as to what this is?

Homegrown Evolution in the LA Times

Today’s Los Angeles Times Home and Garden section has a story on Guerrilla gardening, “Guerrilla gardener movement takes root in L.A. area”. The article mentions our parkway vegetable garden, which consists of two 6-foot square raised beds with two wire obelisks to support beans and tomatoes. We constructed it in October of 2005 and have grown a few season’s worth of crops.

Here’s our parkway garden just after putting it in. We installed raised beds because of the compacted, poor quality soil.

Winter and early spring is the best season for most vegetables here in Los Angeles. In January of 2006 we had a riotous crop of sweet peas, greens, calendula and garlic.

This past winter we planted dandelion greens, collards, garlic and more sweet peas.

Last summer we had a mini corn field.

Lastly, a shot from the summer of 2006 of tomatoes supported by one of the obelisks.

With a backyard dominated by two large shade trees, the parkway, with its excellent sun exposure, is the best location for us to grow food. We invite neighbors to share our harvest, and to answer a commonly asked question, we’ve never had a problem with anyone getting greedy and taking all the tomatoes.

Vegetable Gardening for the Lazy

One of the problems with growing vegetables is all the labor involved–starting seeds, composting, watering and watching out for bugs. It’s worth it, of course, for the tasty rewards, but many busy folks are simply too exhausted after work or corralling the bambinos to pick up a shovel and garden. For those who’d rather sit on the porch with a martini than laboring in the field, and we often include ourselves in that category, perennial vegetables can put food on the table year round without the hassle of having to plant seeds every spring. Here’s a roundup of our top four favorite edible perennials we have growing in our humble garden.

1. Tree Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala–I think). This strange but attractive member of the Brassica family, pictured above (in a protective cage to fend off our chickens and Doberman), goes under a confusing number of popular names. The specimen given to us by Trathen Heckman of the Petaluma based Daily Acts (thanks again Trathen!), has matured into what looks like a four foot tall kale plant gone to seed, except it hasn’t gone to seed. The leaves are mild flavored and we’ve eaten them both cooked and raw. The problem with this plant is finding one. Search for it on the internets and you’ll find other people searching for it. So dear readers, leave a comment on this post if you know of a good source either local or mail order. We’ll definitely be making some cuttings, as it would be nice to have more than one.

2. Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). A member of the sunflower family, this North American native produces an edible tuber that, while hard to clean, is worth the effort. It’s invasive which, from the perspective of the martini swilling gardener, is a plus since it means never having to propagate more. We planted ours in the spring from tubers we picked up in the produce section of our local market, Trader Joes. You may be able to find Jerusalem Artichioke at fancy food markets such as Whole Foods. Stick those grocery store bought tubers in the ground and in a few months you’ll have a field of these things.

3. Regular old Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus). Here’s a perennial for those of us lucky enough to live in a Mediterranean climate. In foggy coastal areas artichokes thrive year-round. Here in inland Los Angeles they die back in the summer. We cut them to the ground in June and wait for them to come back in the fall. Artichokes are a handsome, large plant that produces one of the most delicious of all vegetables.

4. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). We won’t natter on about this one, as we’ve covered the edible leaves here, jam making with the fruit here, avoiding the spines here and penned a very early potty-mouthed love letter to the plant here. Needless to say, a plant that needs no added water or fertilizer and grows in dismal, alkaline soil while producing an abundant crop is a plant that allows more time to get the perfect vermouth/gin ratio for those late afternoon cocktail sessions on the urban homestead.