Rainwater Harvesting and Beyond

If you live in a dry climate like we do here in Los Angeles your bookshelf should have a copy of one of Brad Lancaster’s amazing books. Through very simple techniques, most of which can be executed with a shovel and a free afternoon, Lancaster shows you how to turn a barren landscape into a Garden of Eden. Lancaster empasizes earthworks which capture and channel water where you want it to go, instead of uselessly sending it down the gutter.

For those of you in Southern California, Lancaster will be delivering a free talk at the Santa Monica Public Library Monday September 15th at 6:30 p.m. More info via Westside Permaculture Gatherings.

If you’re not in SoCal, you can get more information about Lancaster’s work and order a copy of one of his books on his website, www.harvestingrainwater.com.

Urban Foraging with Nance Klehm

Via The Little Green People Show, a podcast with Chicago’s urban forager Nance Klehm:

“We’re not talking gardens or dumpster diving. This is a discussion of the riches that grow in our highway medians, city planters, backyards and rail lines. Expert forager, Nance Klehm, sheds light on the city’s bounty, from medicinal plants to tasty greens. Getting to know the foraging landscape takes some time and energy, but gives back in complex flavors and a better appreciation of plants, and it’s free. “

Listen to the podcast here.

Helping the Bees with Science in your Backyard

San Francisco State University associate professor Gretchen LeBuhn is currently coordinating the innovative Great Sunflower Project, enlisting gardeners around the country to plant sunflowers and count the number of bees that visit them in a set period of time. We participated this summer, planting the sunflower seeds provided by the project. It’s too late to start this year, but you can sign up for next year’s project here. When we last did an observation, we counted five bees within ten minutes visiting the flower we chose to watch. See the video above for an instant replay.

This project is very important, and participation and support of it is a way we can all help out with what appears to be an alarming decrease in bees due to colony collapse disorder. In a fascinating and well written new book, A Spring Without Bees, author Michael Schacker explains the details of colony collapse disorder and the media’s poor job of covering it (hint: it ain’t cellphones, moving bees around or a bee rapture). Schacker blames the bee decline on two pesticides: GAUCHO, manufactured by Bayer Crop Science and Fipronil, manufactured by BASF. You can read more about Schacker’s efforts on Plan Bee.

Growing Watermelons

This watermelon sums up why we grow as many of our own foods as our small yard will allow. Damn it was good! Just about the sweetest, most perfect watermelon I’ve ever tasted. Was it worth it from an economical perspective? Probably not since, due to a combination of not so great soil and an improperly installed drip irrigation system, I only got two melons from one vine. But, learning from these twin mistakes, I suspect that next year’s watermelon harvest will be larger, and two other watermelon vines I have going (in a better location) already have a few fruits developing on them. Some things I’ve learned about watermelons:

1. Fighting powdery mildew. Our inland coastal climate, with its hot summer days and cool evenings, is not the best place for melons as we tend to get powdery mildew, a white fungal growth that covers the leaves. However, our watermelon vines seem to be resistant to this problem, unlike the cantaloupes that we’ve tried to grow in the past. Lesson: watermelon is happier in our climate than cantaloupes and cucumbers.

2. Plant early varieties. While producing smaller fruit, early watermelon varieties get you to harvest faster. This means less time for pest and disease problems to develop. While we’ve got a very long season here in Southern California for summer vegetables, with almost no chance of a fall freeze, I’ve begun in the past year to plant early varieties of most vegetables simply because there is less time for bad things to happen.

3. Watermelon is a living mulch. Watermelon, an enormous vine, makes an excellent living mulch, snaking, as it does, amongst our tomatoes and okra. I’ve laid down a layer of straw as mulch, but the watermelon adds a little more to the shade and water retention effort.

4. Irrigating watermelons. Watermelons have large root systems and if you use drip irrigation make sure that the emitters extend in a ring around the roots. Putting an emitter at the stem of the plant, as we did, does not adequately water the roots. We’ll get into the topic of drip irrigation in detail later this year.

5. It ain’t easy picking the world’s largest watermelon. See for yourself via youtube.

For more information on growing watermelon (including the tricky issue of learning when to harvest them) see the University of Illinois Extension’s How to Grow Watermelons.

Tuesday Morning Fruit Linkages

We’ve been reading Adam Leith Gollner’s entertaining book The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession and Gollner mentions a number of intreguing internet resources, perfect for a little post holiday weekend surfing:

More than you ever wanted to know about the world’s smelliest fruit: Durian (Durian Palace)

The California Rare Fruit Growers, “Pushing the Limits of Fruit Growing, Worldwide” (CRFG)

The world’s largest fig database (figs4fun)

The strange and obsene Coco de Mer, a fruit denintely NSFW (Earth Science Picture of the Day)

What to do with all those hot peppers: Harissa!

Lyn, a reader in Canada with way too many hot peppers on hand, asked us what we thought we should do with them. We have the same problem here this year, an overabundance of very large, hot Italian Long Peppers. Thumbing through some recipe books we realized that we had all the ingredients to make Harissa, a spicy Moroccan condiment. The recipe is simple and quick. We cut open five of our hot peppers, discarded the seeds, and combined them in a food processor with:

1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp caraway seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp fresh mint
3 garlic cloves

Turn on the food processor and add enough olive oil to form a paste. That’s it. Harissa will last several weeks in the fridge or you can freeze it. You could also can it, but you’ll need a pressure canner as this is a low-acid food (even though it’s fiery).

And speaking of fiery, though we should know better (having once accidentally inhaled hot pepper seeds), we disregarded warnings about wearing rubber gloves when slicing the peppers. At the risk of providing too much information, a post Harissa making trip to the bathroom led to, shall we say, burning sensations for Señor Homegrown Evolution!

Burning sensations aside, Harissa is a very tasty and spicy addition to almost any meal, not just Moroccan dishes. We still have peppers to deal with, so our next project will be to experiment with pickling them. Readers–what’s your favorite way to deal with hot peppers?

Interview With Apartment Gardener Helen Kim

We got a lot of emails after posting the image above of Los Angeles based photographer Helen Kim’s astonishing windowsill garden. It’s a great example of what you can do with a small amount of space, and brings to mind William Morris’ advice, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. Helen graciously sat down for an email interview to talk about her beautiful and useful garden:

HOMEGROWN EVOLUTION: What’s your advice to folks who would like to try growing plants in an apartment windowsill?

HELEN KIM: Well, since I didn’t start with any particular plant knowledge or skills (just a feeling that it would be lovely to have living things around my apartment–besides my dog–to take care of and watch grow), I guess I’d just say just ‘hop in!’ For me, it’s been something of a hit-and-miss experimental approach: finding out which plants do well in which windowsills (I have six sets of large windows facing every direction except north). It takes a little doing, and I’ve lost a few here and there. I started years ago with French breakfast radish seeds, which didn’t go so well–they needed too much attention and too much water–and the few small radishes I ended up with a few months later were eaten and gone in a few seconds! Then I planted mint because I felt increasingly silly buying plastic packets of it in the supermarket, only to watch it wither in my fridge since I only needed a couple leaves of it for whatever recipe. To my surprise, the mint grew like crazy with minimal care–good for me since I’m running around a bunch and not particularly attentive. That was pretty encouraging, so I got more and more… figuring out, as I went along, which plants could survive my temperament. Rosemary seems to be pretty kill-proof, too.

HE: What have been some of the other successful/unsuccessful plants you have grown?

HK: Now that I’ve realized the south-facing windows are best for edibles, the most successful have been: lemon grass, rosemary, green onions, mint, mustard greens, parsley, cilantro, oregano, thyme, basil, Thai chili peppers, okra, chives, stevia, lemon verbena, tarragon, dill, and sorrel. The least successful have been: beans, cucumber, arugula, tomato, squash, Swiss chard, leeks, spinach, and corn. All of these were a complete wash last year! But the happy upshot is that, this year, I planted them at my mother’s house – in the two huge beds she has there. All that space and sunlight has made them pretty happy. While it was a bit of a bummer to not have them at arm’s reach at my place, it was nice at least to figure out I could use my windowsill as a kindergarten (I started a lot of these from seed in little peat pots) before sending them off to bigger pastures. And, since I visit every two weeks, I always come back home with an armload of this or that. I’ve had a strawberry plant that is doing pretty nicely these days at my place, but not bearing much fruit… so I’ll be shipping him off mom’s in a couple weeks.

HE: What do you use as fertilizer?

HK: Shockingly, I suppose, before this year I didn’t use anything! I always thought plant vitamins, ‘food,’ and fertilizer were a bunch of hooey. But a friend recently gave me a little lecture on the importance of fertilizer and I thought I’d finally give it a whirl… and I have to say that, yes, the plants are a bit happier than they were this time last year. I’ve been using Dr. Earth fertilizer and making fertilizer tea.

HE: Did you choose your apartment with the idea that you’d be gardening in it? If so, what should a prospective renter look for?

HK: I had three main things on my mind when I was looking for an apartment: the place would need to comfortably house me, my dog, and my plants. There were so few buildings that would take a pet, so that narrowed the field considerably. This small field became even smaller when I noticed many of the buildings had windows that swung outwards (impossible if you intend to water your plants). There was only this one building that fit the bill, so I moved in. On the first day, I realized the screens were impossible to remove (to water, etc…) without mangling. The building manager at the time told me that the screens were non-removable (what?!). So I measured all the windows, went to the hardware store, and had them make removable screens, voila. Maybe I should mention, too, that the management recently ripped out all the shrubbery in front of the building. I assumed they were going to put in something else in imminently, but a couple months went by… so, a few weeks ago, I started putting succulent cuttings around the perimeter.

HE: We understand you had some trouble with the MAN. What happened and how did you handle it?

HK: After a couple years of living here, another building manager informed me that the plants on the windowsills were violating building codes and that I’d have to remove them all. I wrote him a letter back saying that the plants were supported by steel mesh baskets and lashed to building with 50 lb. picture wire. I never heard back from him and he was replaced by another in a long line of building managers. Several years of walk-through inspections have come and gone, and nobody has mentioned it since. While I still wonder as to what the actual law is on windowsill plants, I’m not about to stir the pot by clarifying it with the management here.

HE: You’re an amazing chef–you won me over to the concept of cold soup with that delicious leek soup you dropped off the other week. What sorts of things do you cook with plants you grow on your windowsill?

HK: Aww, thanks, glad you liked it! Personally, I wouldn’t have made it through this summer without cold soups! The potato/peas/leek cold soup was made with sorrel from the windowsill. A couple weeks ago, I grabbed the lemongrass and Thai chilies and cilantro from the window and made tom yum goong soup. The chives are great with egg salad and capers. With the dill, tarragon, thyme, and parsley I usually make grilled fish. Whenever I come back from my mother’s I use the tomatoes to make bruschetta… and add my basil. Or I make salsa and add the cilantro. Or I use the oregano to make spaghetti sauce. Cactus salad is also good with the cilantro and oregano. The spinach and chard from my mom’s I usually blanch, then cool… and add garlic, sesame oil, salt, pepper, and green onions from the sill–good with the fish as a side. I use a bunch of the green onions whenever I make hot soup with noodles. And, for awhile there, I was making pasta with Swiss chard and mushrooms (with garlic and a bit of butter) just about every day! The mustard greens I like to have with my scrambled eggs… or, of course, for some pizzazz in any salad. I pounded the heck out of some dried stevia yesterday morning and added it to my coffee… and was surprised at how sweet it was. The mint is great to slice up and just throw in a glass of ice water. And it’s a must for my favorite summer beverage: glass of ice, shot of tequila, top with tonic water, squeeze in half a lime, and add a bunch of crushed mint. The okra plants are going great guns and I’m looking forward to cooking something non-slimy with them! … but I still haven’t gotten around to making any tea with the lemon verbena…

HE: We heard that some of the plants have a special significance for you

HK: Yeah, shortly after I moved in, my grandmother died and I inherited some of her plants–mostly succulents. So when the building manager told me I’d have to remove all the plants, I kind of panicked–but you know how that story worked out. They’re now living happily on two of the east-facing windows. The two windows on the south house the edible plants–which pans out nicely for my lazy self, since they’re right by the kitchen. And the one west-facing window (the shadiest) has my wonderfully-weird euphorbias. it took me awhile to come around to the sensible idea that it’s best to separate the edible plants from the poisonous ones!

HE: There was quite a reaction when I posted the photo of your garden.

HK: I was happy that some folks commented on the windowsill (blog picture) being nice looking! But, really, that was a new transformation from the beginning of this summer. I mean, I’ve had many of the same plants over the years in, more or less, the same arrangement. But, several months ago, a new neighbor moved into the apartment building next door. Their window is a little below my kitchen window, just three feet away. In the nine years I’ve lived here, the various neighbors have always kept the blinds and the window mostly shut. When this new neighbor decided to keep the blinds open day and night, I saw clear into the living room and kitchen… and, whenever I puttered around with the plants, I was looking straight onto their mattress. Without any effort on my part, all of a sudden I was getting way too much aural and visual information! So I worked a little bit at creating some visual privacy for all of us: I hoisted the further-back plants up on multiple bricks and replanted so that the taller plants blocked the bed-view somewhat… and left the closer plants on sill-level. The step-terrace-thingie was a nice aesthetic result – but totally an accidental by-product stemming from dumb necessity. But, rats, this new plant curtain hasn’t shielded me much from the squabbling. Sigh…

HE: Thanks Helen!!!

Vegetable Gardening With Dogs

We love all dogs and live with an elderly Doberman Pincher. But gardening with dogs can definitely have its challenges, especially when your trusted companion has a taste for heirloom tomatoes. On the right, the aftermath of one of our dog’s nightly tomato raids, this time targeting our healthiest and most productive vine, a variety called Giant Syrian. The dog has managed to claim all but a few of the tomatoes off this vine, knocking off many unripe ones in the process. FYI, the Giant Syrian tomato is our favorite variety this year, producing large, flavorful and meaty fruit. Hopefully the Doberman will leave a few for us. [Update: an alert reader has pointed out that tomatoes are toxic to canines. The ASPCA says that the green parts are toxic, but others claim that both the ripe and unripe fruit are also a problem.]

On the subject of tomatoes, here’s a very beautiful and useful website with pictures and descriptions of many heirloom tomato and vegetable varieties: the Heirloom Vegetable Archive.

Two Girls Fight Produce Stand Closure

Several readers sent me a link to a ridiculous story about two young girls busted for selling homegrown produce in front of their house (watch the video via KGO-TV San Francisco). You should check it out if just to see the amazing garden this family seems to have. Their struggle reminds me of the equally ridiculous taco truck war raging here in Los Angeles. Funny how this allegedly capitalist country seems to stamp down the entrepreneurial spirit when it emanates from the hoi polloi.

Ramshackled!

We had the great pleasure this weekend of meeting the folks behind the paradoxically named blog Ramshackle Solid. Both of our “compounds” have a wonky old house sitting on an awkward hillside, so we had a lot to talk about and we look forward to visiting the Ramshackle casita one of these days. In the meantime, due to the wonders of the internets, we can all take a tour via the blog. Make sure to check out their whimsical rebar bean poles, pictured above, complete with instructions on how to make one.