Well howdy! We’re in the New York Times

We’re pleased and flattered to be in the Times today, spouting off at the mouth and waving our freak flag (or freak thrysus) high. Michael Tortarello interviewed us, and he’s a helluva a writer. You could spend your time in worse ways seeking out his other articles, like this one on hybrid seeds, which is one of Erik’s favorites. And kudos to Laure Joliet for taking such beautiful pictures.

Advances in Gardening Series: Thoughts on The Fan, and the problems of overabudance

The Fan late in the season, about to be pulled out. See earlier photos of The Fan here.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Last fall we dug up a sort of feral herb bed and replaced it with a more formal, three-part bed that I call The Fan. The idea is to use this bed to plant annual herbs and flowers. While some of these plants are medicinal, it is also a bed dedicated more to aesthetics than the rest of our garden, so it’s also a place where I particularly want to plant flowers and plants of strong visual interest.

The first crop, planted in November, consisted of Calendula, chamomile and poppies. All three grew wonderfully well and provided a nice focal point for the garden. The Fan is right outside our back door, so is what most people see first. It looked professional–like we actually know what we were doing.

The downside of this season’s fan was in fact its abundance. It looked nice, but it provided too much plant material. In the case of both the chamomile and Calendula, I could have done with half the plants for my teas and salves. The poppies looked gorgeous and fed the bees, which is all I care about. I’m not complaining about those. Oh no. Wait. I will. Early in the season, thinning on a big bed of poppies was a real pain. I had to do it over and over again. It was worth it in the end, but next time I’ll not sow seed so thickly.

All in all, the result of this overplanting is that it became a make-work scenario. When I wasn’t thinning poppies, I had to be out there constantly, deadheading the chamomile and Calendula just to keep up with it all. Deadheading (chopping off the spent flowers) encourages more flower production, which is important if you want a continual harvest. It also collects seed, to keep it from spreading everywhere. Despite my efforts, I know a ton of seed fell, and when the rains come next year, I’ll be pulling Calendula and chamomile volunteers.

Moral is, know what you need, and plant no more than that. Unless you’ve got the time and energy to maintain larger, more flashy beds. I’m all about making it easy on myself, so next year I’ll plant less. Of course, it takes experiences like this to learn exactly what our needs are. This is just how it goes.

 What’s next:

The next round of plants in the fan have to be able to stand our hot, dry summer. This is a bit of headscratcher for me. Most of the plants I’m interested in grow best during our cool season. So what’s going in there next is sort of eccentric. One section will be an Echinacea patch. Another will be black cumin, which has historical medical uses, and the other is broom sorghum, because it looks to be gorgeous, and I want to make a broom. You’ll hear more about all these in future posts.

Elderly and Barefoot–that’s how I plan to be

See, even Plato was rockin’ the barefoot look

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Erik is the Thoughtstylist™ in this house, but I’m going to step up on the Stylin’ Platform for a change. As regular readers know, Erik is into barefoot running. I barefoot walk, and am working my way into barefoot running.

Our neighborhood is full of long, steep staircases devoid of handrails. I go up and down these on my walks. When I’m in running shoes, I feel insecure on these staircases–I really watch my step, lest I end up sprawled on the bottom like an Aztec sacrifice. No matter what I do, I always feel like I’m about to pitch forward on my face.

Contrast that to doing the stairs barefoot. When I’m barefoot I feel completely safe. On the way down, my toes grab the edge of each stair, automatically. Going up, I’m high on the ball of my feet, and don’t worry about catching a toe and tripping.

This led me to realize, on a visceral level, that when you’re barefoot, you’re very surefooted. Your foot is conforming to the terrain, and the nerves in your foot are sending a constant flow of feedback to your brain. You walk more lightly–not more hesitantly, but with more awareness.

Surefootedness becomes more important to me now that I’m past 40 and staring down the gullet of my elder years. I also have older family members, and I’m sure most of you do. We all know that one of the biggest threat to the elderly are falls. And falls happen because as we get older, and less active, we lose coordination, strength, and balance.

My thoughtstyling, in a nutshell, was that older folks should spend more time barefoot. Being barefoot really wakes up your senses and trains you to be surefooted.

Of course it can be hard for elderly people to care for their feet, so they need to take time to build up callouses that will protect their feet from cuts. That process can happen in a shorter period time, with work, but it’s easier if we’ve been going barefoot all our life…or at least since our 40′s.

No one may agree with me, but I for one plan to be a barefooted elder. And I’m going to start leaning on my mother about it, too.

I was pleased to find my thoughstyling backed up in this book Erik bought recently. It’s called Barefoot Running, and has a special section on transitioning to barefoot for the elderly and less mobile. The author makes the same arguments that I am here, just somewhat more articulately. Overall it’s a really good book on the basic mechanics of barefooting, how to build up callouses, how to approach weather and different terrains, etc. It also has some not so valuable stuff on diet and stretching and spirituality, as if it’s trying to be a book about all things–but for the basic barefoot stuff, it’s great.

Nasturtium Flower and Pistachio Pesto: a story in pictures

Sorry, we don’t have a recipe for this, because we always wing it when it comes to pesto–even Erik, who is recipe dependent. You too can make it without a recipe.

Pesto is simply a blending of 5 main ingredients, which can vary widely according to season, availability and taste:

1) an aromatic herb, or blend of herbs (traditionally basil, but we use chives, parsley, mint, arugula and here, nasturtium flower–basically anything with a strong flavor. This can be stretched with some spinach or nettles for a milder flavor.)
2) a nut of some sort, toasted preferably
3) good quality shredded Parmesan cheese
4) good quality olive oil
5) raw or roasted garlic

You throw all these things in a blender, or go old school and mash them with a mortar and pestle. The proportions are intuitive. It’s hard to make bad pesto as long as your ingredients are good. Less cheese and nuts yields a lighter pesto. Less herb and more cheese and nuts makes a richer pesto. Less garlic yields a milder pesto. We use maybe 2 raw cloves per batch. It’s all good. Process the dry ingredients first, then add oil bit by bit to make a paste. Some people make a smooth paste, we leave nut chunks in. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve pesto over hot pasta, or spoon it into soup for flavor, or dip veggies in it, or thin it down and drizzle it over cooked veggies, or spread it on toasted bread, or eat it off the spoon…

Pop Quiz Answer: Pineapple Guava

Fruit forming. photo credit: Kurt Stüber, via Wikimedia Commons

Yes indeed, as so many of you guessed, that was a picture of our pineapple guava. For those of you who haven’t seen one, meet the pineapple guava, aka feijoa or Acca sellowiana: a small, evergreen tree or shrub that bears tasty green fruits which have a Jolly Rancher-like flavor. The fruit form off of flowers that taste like cotton candy. The trick is not to eat too many flowers or you end up with no fruit.

It shouldn’t be confused with regular guava, as it tastes much better. In my opinion.

Pineapple guava has pretty silver grey foliage, evergreen foliage, as I said, so can make a really nice addition to the landscape. I’ve heard of folks planting them in rows to form a hedge. It’s a great plant for small spaces. The fruit forms late in the year, which is also nice, since so few other fruit trees bear so late.

But yes, I’m sorry, like so many things we mention here it is plant that prefers a warm climate. It’s hearty to 12 degrees, and generally recommended for zone 8 and up, though I think some people have successfully grown it in colder places with special care. But when grown in a climate which is comfortable for it, the pineapple guava is a really sturdy, easy plant. We utterly ignore ours. It gets some of our laundry greywater once in a while.  That’s about it in terms of care. It doesn’t seem prey to insects or other ailments. All we have to concern ourselves with is keeping the birds and squirrels away from the fruit–which we do by netting the tree.

Okay, next quiz is going to be really hard…

Adventures in Gardening Series: Wrap up on the Hippie Heart: Growing lentils and flax

The Hippie Heart got a crew cut

We’re clearing out our cool season crops for the warm season ones, so it’s time for some reporting on the new beds we’ve been profiling under the “Advances in Gardening” series. We’ll start with the Hippie Heart.

The Hippie Heart is a heart-shaped bed where I was intending to experiment with planting seeds straight out of the pantry, ill-advised as that might seem, just to see what happened. Erik grumbled at this plan–and for good reason, since a lot of seeds we can buy in bulk bins may be hybrid, sterile or irradiated. But I wanted to try it anyway. This first season I planted the Heart with bulk bin flax seed and lentils from a boxed lentils. The results were mixed. Sort of interesting. Not super-productive, but not a failure, because I learned lots.

First, both flax and lentils are very pretty plants. In its prime, the Heart was an attractive thing The flax grew straight and tall and made lots of periwinkle blue blooms that turned their faces to the sky.  (The mature were knocked over in a storm, so if I plant it again, I will do so with supports). The lentils, which were planted around the edges of the heart, made pleasant, rounded shapes, not big and sprawly like so many legumes can get. The folliage is delightfully delicate, almost lacy.

Fascinating flax

The flax proved fertile. The flowers died back and left pretty little round pods, each of which holds a few flax seeds. Of course, we didn’t plant enough flax to really do anything with it. I have a few bunches of harvested flax now, and if I beat the pods, I might harvest a cup of flax. This doesn’t seem worth the effort. The dried stalks are very pretty, and I might bring some of it inside to put in vases. Also, the chickens like them a lot, so the bulk of it will probably end up chicken fodder.

The harvest is in

What’s more important to me was the experience of growing flax. I hold it in my hands and say, This is linen. This is flaxseed. This is linseed oil. Henry the VIII’s shirts were made of this stuff, as were my grandmother’s best napkins. Rembrandt mixed his paints with this–most oil painters do, since linseed oil is a common carrier for oil pigments. Heck, he was painting on linen, too.  The linoleum of our kitchen floor is made with this. And at this moment, all over LA, raw foodie are subsisting on dehydrated flaxseed crackers.

Flax pods. They rattle, and kittens like them!

I love growing a plant with that much cultural relevance and history. It doesn’t matter so much to me if it’s practical, though I may not do it again, not on this scale.

The fate of the lentils

The lentils were less successful.  They came from a box of Sabarot green lentils. They were planted in November. Months passed. They didn’t flower, didn’t flower. I began to figure they were sterile seeds. At the very last moment, in May,  a few tiny flowers appeared here and there, but by that time I had to take it out. So that is the risk of growing from unknown seed raised for commercial consumption. It was a risk I took. In the future, though, I’d consider planting lentils from real seed, because the plants are compact and attractive.

A cover crop option?

Here’s a side thought–being a legume, lentils help draw nitrogen into their soil via the roots. If you want to boost the nitrogen in your soil, you can plant legumes, then cut them down when they flower, leaving the roots with their nitrogen nodules in the soil for the next crop to feed upon. (If you let them grow beans, they consume much of that stored nitrogen). This process is called cover cropping, and though it sounds like something only a farmer would do, you can do this in your garden beds to rest and rejuvenate them. The thing about these boxed lentils is that they didn’t flower for months and months, and then hardly at all, so they’re an ideal cover crop: they give you plenty of time to knock them down at your leisure.


What’s next?

While I liked this experiment, I don’t know if I want to continue with pantry seed–though I do have a lingering desire to grow sesame plants! I’m not even sure if I want to continue planting annuals in that bed. Edible perennials are always preferable to a lazy gardener like myself, so I might be leaning that way.  Will let you know what we figure out.

Previous posts on the Heart:

http://www.rootsimple.com/2011/01/advances-in-gardening-series-progress.html

http://www.rootsimple.com/2011/03/advances-in-gardening-series-were.html
http://www.rootsimple.com/2011/03/hippie-heart-horizontal.html

Plantain for rashes

It’s hard to take a decent picture when both of your hands are covered in green slime!

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

A couple of days ago I made a mistake: I attacked a stand of rogue borage without gloves. You know how it is when you think you’re just going to make one pruning cut, and then end up hacking for an hour in a mindless frenzy? Borage is covered with irritating little hairs which made my hands and forearms itch and burn. I really should have known better.

Plantago major

Fortunately, our yard provides the cure for such indiscretions in the form of a nice patch of common plantain (Plantago major). This broad leaf plantain, as well as its narrow leaved cousin, Plantago lanceolata, are fantastic for easing the irritation of itchy rashes and bug bites. I harvest the leaves, dry them, and make them into salves for year round use, but when plantain is growing, it’s easiest to use it fresh. All you have to do is pick a leaf, chew on it a little, and rub the pulp on your skin. Really rub it so you get the green juices out. You’ll feel relief immediately.

Keep this in mind when you’re out in a park or hiking. Plantain grows everywhere–it’s a universal weed, and it’s particularly fond of lawns. Once you know what it looks like, you can find it easily.

Do any of you have a favorite natural cure for rashes or bug bites?