Seed Review: Thompson & Morgan Golden Berry

In a new feature on Homegrown Revolution we’ll review the success and flavor of our crops beginning with Physalis pruinosa, a.k.a ground cherry, husk cherry, or strawberry tomato. When we planted these seeds we posted on the confusing array of names that this neglected branch of the nightshade family has gathered over the years–we’ll use the scientific name in the interest of precision.

Our Physalis pruinosa, planted in April has born fruit for the past two months and seems to be nearing its end of production. We agree with Steven’s comment on our original post that the flavor is not as pronounced as some would have you believe. The fruit tastes like a slightly sweet tomato with, sad to say, a slight hint of gastric reflux. Perhaps it would be tastier cooked down into a jam but we don’t have enough of a crop to make more than one small jar. The plant itself grew easily with no pest problems, but did start to look unhappy in the heat of the summer.
We probably won’t grow it again, but will let the plant reseed itself. The chickens have spent some time pecking at the fallen fruit and seem to enjoy it about as much as we do, which is to say not all that much.

The Three Sisters

Due to the rigors of finishing our book The Urban Homesteader due out from Process Media next spring we were late getting around to planting our parkway vegetable garden. To review, the parkway is that space between the sidewalk and the street that belongs to the city but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. The city, of course, wants us all to plant a lawn so that fat people can easily plop out of their Escalades unimpeded. We decided to grow food instead and despite the presence of many building inspectors reviewing our expensive foundation work nobody seems to care about the two large raised beds we installed. In fact one of our neighbors has planted her own parkway vegetable garden just down the street.

Since it was so late (July) we decided to cultivate heat tolerant vegetables and upped the ante by planting the Native American three sisters–corn, beans and squash. The three sisters are textbook permaculture, the idea being that the beans nitrogenate the soil and climb up the corn while the squash provides mulch. All plants are useful and you end up with an interdependent, self-sustaining beneficial feedback loop. Some people add a fourth sister, Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) which attracts pollinating insects for the corn and squash.

We added a drip irrigation system on a timer (more on that in a later post) which has seemed to keep the plants healthier by preventing watering mishaps due to those flaky hung-over mornings. We planted corn seeds from the Not a Cornfield project, a variety of squash called Cucuzzi, and two beans from seeds we saved from last season (the tasty Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco and attractive but not so tasty scarlet runner bean).

Chicken Cannibalism!

We caught our Rhode Island Red pecking at the base of our Araucana’s tail this weekend. Fortunately we stopped this act of cannibalism before it got past a small wound and a few missing feathers and we’ve been able to isolate the victim from the perp until she recovers. Cannibalism is common amongst chickens and there are a number of theories as to why it happens including dietary inadequacies, genetics and simple chicken boredom. The most plausible theory in our opinion is that cannibalism results from insufficient opportunity to forage.

Simply letting our flock out of their run to free-range throughout the backyard seems to have taken care of the problem. Sure we may lose a hen or two to hawks and cats, but that seems a better fate than being eaten alive by one of your own kind. We’ve also switched to a higher protein feed to see if that will help as there is a minority opinion in poultry farming that chickens resort to cannibalism as a result of protein deficiencies.

Most commercial poultry farms take care of cannibalism by cutting off beaks when the chicks are around 4 to 6 weeks old. We believe beak trimming along with the associated practice cramming chickens in “battery cages”, as pictured above, to be inhumane. For more on the behavior of corporate agriculture read about the Humane Society’s Factory Farming Campaign or better yet start your own backyard flock.

We’ve taken the flowers out of our hair

Homegrown Revolution is back from San Francisco with a couple of random observations from our trip:

1. The picture above of a gas cap spotted in the Mission District demonstrates, that even in a bike and mass transit friendly city many folks take their cars a little too seriously. Let’s remember folks, we suspect that Jesus rides two wheels and takes the bus and does indeed look anguished every time we open the gas cap.

2. We took our bike with us and enjoyed the numbered bike routes that take you north-south and east-west. While not perfect (we would have preferred a few more signs to point the way) these routes help a cyclist navigate thought the city taking you down more bike friendly and less hilly streets. The San Francisco bike map (pdf) shows the routes in addition to signage on the streets.

3. Raising chickens made us appreciate San Francisco’s strident health food store, Rainbow Grocery which has a chart in their egg section to show how the chickens that produce the eggs are raised. We meant to get a photo of this elaborate chart but unfortunately we forgot the camera. Posted on the refrigeration cabinet, the chart tells you which of the brands they carry clip beaks or wings and whether the chickens have access to pasture. Rainbow Grocery was the first San Francisco retailer to carry only cage free eggs.

4. Unfortunately we didn’t see this exhibit by photographer Douglas Gayeton at Petaluma’s Singer Gallery, but you can view images from his slow-food related photo essay about Tuscany here.

5. While Homegrown Revolution promises never again to get into celebrity gossip, we’ll note that we spotted gravelly voiced alt-rock singer Tom Waits gassing up his Lexus SUV at a filling station in Berkeley. More exciting to us was discovering that our base of operations in the Mission was a mere block from the infamous Symbionese Liberation Army safe house where heiress Patty Hearst became urban guerrilla Tanya. We have a feeling we’ll see the return of revolutionary noms de guerre in the coming few years and when that happens we’ll see Tom ditch the SUV for two wheeled transit on Berkeley’s many bicycle boulevards.

So Wrong it’s Right

The internets are full of inaccurate and contradictory information, and we at Homegrown Revolution don’t want to contribute to the noise which is why we must post a few corrections this morning. Please note our corrected posts on making prickly pear cactus jelly and on our tomatoes.

Also, our poll results are in and you all want more info on growing your own food! We note with some dismay the low rating of the harangue, the popularity of which is a minority view not surprisingly expressed by two friends and professional harangists, one an attorney and the other LA bike activist extraordinaire SoapBoxLA.

Homegrown Revolution will be heading up to San Francisco for a week and we’re not sure the natives up there have internet access, so we may go dark until we get back. In the meantime in honor of the folks at Elon Schoenholz photography we’ll leave you with the image above and a link to instructions on how to turn an office chair and a kid’s bike into a recumbent bike capable of powering you to your aerospace engineering job. Rumour has it that SoapBoxLA is making one of these things with a Aeron chair and a titanium road bike to ride in the controversial Pasadena peloton.

Plantain!

Homegrown Revolution neighbors Annelise and Eric intercepted us on our nightly dog walk and not only invited us up to their front porch for a glass of wine, but also sent us away with a couple of plantains harvested from their next door neighbor’s tree. It’s exactly what we’d like to see more of–folks growing food instead of lawns and everyone sharing the abundance.

While there’s a lot of banana trees in Los Angeles they tend not to yield edible fruit since our climate is not quite hot and humid enough. But plantains, judging from the delicious taste of the ones we fried up, are a different story. They do require a lot of water to grow, but greywater expert Art Ludwig calls bananas (the same family as plantain) “the premiere plant for greywater in warm climates”. You can bet that as soon as the building inspectors sign off and leave the scene of our newly retrofitted foundation at our crumbling 1920s vintage compound we’re going to try to figure out a way to route the shower drain out to a new mini-grove of plantain.

We’ll be our own banana republic and do the world a favor considering the amount of blood that has been spilled bringing bananas to North America. Witness Chiquita’s recent admission to teaming up with right wing terrorist groups in Columbia.

In the meantime, for the Homegrown Revolution readers out there in warm climates here’s the lowdown on growing bananas and plantain.

Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe

UPDATE: I’ve concocted a lower sugar version of this recipe that I like better. See that recipe here. Also, see our method of drying prickly pear fruit.

Folks in cold places will have to excuse our temporary bout of Prickly Pear mania, but we’ve got a hell of a lot of cactus fruit to deal with this season. Next year we’ll take a crack at making
a batch of Tiswin, the sacred beer of the Papagos Indians of central Mexico (usually made with saguaro fruit but prickly pear fruit will do in a pinch). This August we’re making jelly.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Taking reader Steven’s (of the fine blog Dirt Sun Rain) suggestion, burn off the nasty spines by holding the fruit over a burner on the stove for a few seconds. Using the non-cutting edge of a knife held at a 90º angle to the fruit, scrape off what remains of the spines (technically called glochids).

2.There are many methods described on the interenets for extracting the juice. The way we have found best is to slice the fruit (you need not skin it) into quarters and put in a pot with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 minutes. Mash with a potato masher and strain the juice and water through a colander with two layers of cheesecloth to remove the seeds and pulp.

3. We’ve found that 2 1/2 pounds of fruit will yield a little over 2 1/2 cups of juice using the method above.

4. We use a recipe from the Jamlady Cookbook, by Beverly Ellen Schoonmaker.

Here’s the recipe:
2 1/2 cups prickly pear cactus juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
5 cups sugar
1 box of powdered pectin (18 teaspoons-note that not all pectin brands contain the same amount in a box, so measure it out to make sure)

Hard boil cactus fruit juice, pectin and lemon juice for 3 minutes. Hard boil means the point at which the brew still bubbles even when you stir it. Add sugar and bring back to a hard boil for 2 minutes or until the jell point is reached.

5. Put in 8 once canning jars, seal and heat process for 10 minutes. We followed the canning
instructions on the Ball website for high-acid foods
.

Unlike many other cactus jelly recipes on the internets that we have tried unsuccessfully, this one works. The proof is pictured above.

Sourdough Recipe Disaster!

There’s nothing we hate more than a bad recipe, something that the internets have in as great an abundence as porn, penis pills and subprime mortgage ads. And after a visit from the revolutionaries at Weasel Goes Pop yesterday we learned that Homegrown Revolution is guilty of distributing a bad whole wheat sourdough starter recipe. Please pay a visit to our corrected version here.

A Prickly Harvest

So what’s wrong with this picture? Those who have harvested the delicious fruit of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) will recognize the wisdom of using tongs to avoid the thousands of tiny painful spines (technically called glochids). But truly experienced prickly pear harvesters immediately see the foolishness of not wearing gloves even when wielding those tongs. We know better, yet we’re feeling the the pain of a few dozen almost microscopic barbed glochids sticking out of our palms.

But it’s worth it. Prickly pear fruit, despite those painful glochids, are one of our favorite crops here on our humble urban homestead (though, truth be told, a certain co-homesteader here resents the invisible glochids that inevitably end up on the kitchen countertop, not to mention the hundreds of seeds in the fruit itself). But you must respect a plant that can produce fifty pounds of fruit, not to mention edible leaves on just the three inches of rain we received in this very dry year. In the Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles, prickly pear needs no additional irrigation, needs no pesticides or fertilizers, tolerates terrible soil and produces useful food. It’s the perfect plant for the lives of folks too busy to tend fussy non-native plants.

On the first anniversary of Homegrown Revolution, formerly known as SurviveLA, and a year after our last prickly pear fruit harvest season, we can now announce why, ironically, we’ve been too busy to keep up with our vegetable beds–next spring the good folks at Process Media will be releasing our book The Urban Homesteader. While we’ve been negligent in some of the small scale agricultural duties we profile in the book, at least we have our prickly pear cactus to keep us in fruit this summer.

And due to the unusual quantity of fruit our prickly pear has gifted us with we’re experimenting with making jelly to deal with the abundance. We’ll share the recipe and other prickly stories this coming week . . .

Sandwiched!

Homegrown Revolution began guest blogging this week on the engaging new consciousness shiftin’ nexus known as Reality Sandwich. We’ll be posting there at least once every two weeks. Check out our first post, an urban homesteading manifesto, just above Jamye Waxman’s missive, “Celebrating Sacred Sex Communities” (No doubt Waxman will probably win in the hit count).

As harangues are currently running low in our on-line poll, Homegrown Revolution will also be moving some of our transportation related harangues to the revamped blog illuminateLA, overseen by the fabulous Enci.