There are these moments

You sorta had to be there

There are these moments, they’re hard to explain, but perhaps you’ve experienced them too. Like the other day I was in the yard, taking out an old lavender bush and one of our hens, Handsome, was under my feet the whole time, waiting for spiders to fall.

At one point I stopped my hacking and looked at her–really looked at her. She was dappled with late afternoon sun, her fresh molted feathers glistening and speckled with bright gold patches of light. Sensing my attention, she stopped scratching and just looked at me. The sun caught her amber eye and made it beautiful and deep and somehow profound. And we just sat there, regarding each other for a long half moment. And in that small space of time, I realized how blessed I was to have this moment, outdoors, in the golden light, surrounded by the scent of dying lavender, with this strange and amazing creature by my side.

Growing Home: Agriculture in the City

We’re pleased as punch to have been invited to participate in this fantastic symposium hosted by the Huntington Library & Gardens in Pasadena.  It’s a full day of presentations, tours and practical breakout sessions. We’re generally slow to open the wallet for events, but we’d gladly pay the $25 admission for this one. 

Check out the line up below! Homegrown Neighbor will be there (Full Circle), as well as Tara of Silver Lake Farms–she who knows everything about soil and helped us redesign our garden. Our buddies from Backwards Beekeepers will be there, too.  Food Not Lawns, Fallen Fruit…all these people are so amazing , its hard to even choose highlights.  Seriously. If you live in So. Cal, you have to come. Come and say hi.


Growing Home
Saturday, November 13, 8:30am-5:30pm
In celebration of all that’s home grown, is a day of talks, tours and demonstrations by local experts on topics from nurturing soil to keeping chickens to growing organic flowers and produce.  Rosalind Creasy, edible landscaping pioneer, is the keynote speaker.  Other presenters from: Silverlake Farms, Homegrown Evolution, Food Not Lawns, Darren Butler, Full Circle Gardens, Metabolic Studio, Backwards Beekeepers, Fallen Fruit, Sustainable Habitats, Master Gardeners, and Little Flower Candy Company.
And the day before, Friday, there’s an academic symposium which also sounds fascinating. Gary Nabham wrote Where Our Food Comes From, and about a hundred other books: 

Bringing Home the Ranch
Friday, November 12, 8:30am-8:00pm
Combining talks presenting a range of perspectives with a student poster session and Ranch tour, this one-day symposium brings together academics, students, and professionals interested in the future of urban agriculture. Gary Nabhan, world-renowned ethnobotanist, ecologist, writer, and grower of heritage food crops, will be the keynote speaker.  

Tickets and details available through www.brownpapertickets.com

One of our favorite activities: Depaving

Taking out concrete with a sledgehammer may not be everyone’s idea of a great time, but believe me, Erik is having a great time in this picture. Any opportunity to get rid of a few feet of ugly concrete or asphalt,  and replace it with soil and plants, is not an opportunity to be missed. Depaving increases growing room for green things and it also gives more points of access for rain to enter the ground and renew the water tables–rather than being lost down into the sewers. Think about your home–do you have sidewalks that can be replaced with mulched paths? Can you reduce the size of your driveway? How much of your backyard is paved?

What Erik is doing here is pretty simple. He’s taking out a chunk of our back patio, ripping it down to soil. The next step is to build a big planter box above the hole. This way, our planter box becomes a raised bed rather than a simple container. While it’s possible to garden in containers, it’s always better, if at all possible, to open the bottom to soil.

We’re pretty fearless about messing with our back patio because it’s ugly, cracked and worn out.  Any yuppie worth their salt would have replaced it out years ago, but we’ve had more pressing repairs to do. You can see we built a sort of deck/arbor thing there behind Erik, but the larger area of the patio has long been a sort of unattractive work-zone/no-man’s land. A non-space.  Reclaiming it is part of our backyard renovation, and building a raised bed at the edge of the patio is part of that plan. This new bed will give us 200 square feet of new growing space, pulled from an area that did nothing before but collect junk.

The cement work on the patio is so poor that it’s easy for us to take out with simple tools. In this case Erik first defined the area of removal by slot cutting the concrete with a hand-held circular saw fitted with a blade called a “Masonry Cut-Off Wheel.”  (If our patio were made of better concrete, we’d have to rent a gas powered, water cooled saw with a diamond studded blade . These are available at equipment rental joints.)  The cool thing is that once you make that neat cut, you can bash around inside the lines with a sledgehammer and (hopefully) the cement will not crack outside the lines.

Here you can see the slot cut lines at the bottom and right. Erik has pounded this area with the sledge hammer, and is prying up thin layers of cement with a crowbar. Our patio was covered with archaeological layers of skim coats–so in our case, the work is a matter of taking out thin layer after thin layer. A more solid patio would be taken out in big chunks. At any rate, Erik kept hammering away–while I helpfully “documented”–until he hit the sad and sorry soil that’s been trapped beneath the concrete for perhaps 90 years. That soil will revive. That’s the amazing things. Soon enough moisture and worms will move in and it will live once more.

We would have liked to have recycled the broken chunks of concrete to use elsewhere, but its poor quality meant that it fractured into tiny chunks too small to use as “urbanite.”

Stay tuned to see the new raised bed.

Bean Fest, Episode 8: Really Good Lentil and Whole Grain Soup

photo by wollongonger

Welcome to Bean Fridays, our ongoing series highlighting the beautiful bean.

We had a brief hint of winter here this week, three days of chilly grey skies and lingering drizzle. I was in heaven–but it didn’t last, and we’re heading into another heat wave. But anyway, that taste of winter put me in the mood for soup.

So today I’m going to share my favorite soup recipe. I’m stretching the rules a bit to put it here, because it’s not a bean dish, but it does involve lentils. One of its great merits is that its what I call a pantry soup. If your pantry is well stocked, you’ll have what it takes to make it or improvise something similar and equally good. And needless to say, it’s easy to make, or I wouldn’t make it.

This recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells, where it’s called Oliviers & Co’s Provencal Three-Grain Soup. With a provenance like that you know that even if it is packed with wholesome ingredients, this isn’t going to be one of those bland “healthy” soups.

You’ll need:

1/3 cup spelt
1/3 cup pearl barley
1/3 dark green lentils
3 leeks, white portion only — or an onion or two–finely chopped or sliced into thin rounds.
2 carrots, chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 t. of fresh or dry thyme
1 head of garlic, all the cloves peeled
1 28 oz. can of tomatoes/or your own canned tomatoes
Sea salt
Olive oil

  • Notes on the grains: Use whatever whole grains you have on hand, from wheat berries to quinoa, one type or a blend, as long as it measures 2/3 cup. I’ve used all spelt, all barley, even rice, I think– it all tastes the same once it’s in the soup. The variable is texture and eye appeal. The little dark (greenish black brown) lentils called lentilles de Puy are really the best for this, because they hold shape so well. You may find other small lentils, like those little black lentils, work too. But whatever you have will be fine–it’s just that some other types of lentils, like the pink ones, tend to dissolve in soup rather than staying firm. If you don’t have lentils, the soup could be all grain, or you could substitute with pre-cooked beans, adding them in toward the end.

Rinse your grains and lentils off in a fine colander, set aside.

Put about a tablespoon of olive oil, about 1 teaspoon of sea salt, the herbs, leeks or onions, and carrots in a heavy bottomed soup pot. Turn the heat on fairly low and cook them covered for about five minutes, so they soften but don’t brown. This is called sweating.

Add the whole can of tomatoes, juice and all, then add about 5 cups of water.  Bring this to a simmer.

Add the grains, lentils and all those garlic cloves (The garlic cloves are the secret weapon! If you or your family is garlic shy, don’t worry, the soup doesn’t taste very garlicky when it’s done.)

Simmer covered until the grains are tender, about 45 minutes, depending on the grains.  Add more water if necessary, to keep it at the thickness you prefer.

Test for seasoning. Add some fresh ground pepper, and serve in bowls drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Don’t skip the olive oil swirl. It really makes it, somehow.

It’s that easy, and that good. I usually double this recipe for leftovers.

Note re: leftovers: The grains soak up all the liquid when the soup is sitting in the fridge, leaving the soup a semi-solid mass–so you’ll have to add a good deal of water when you go to reheat. This doesn’t effect flavor at all. It’s an excellent leftover type soup.

Propagating herbs via cuttings

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Say you have one lavender plant, but you’d like to have more. Or your trusty sage plant is getting old and woody and needs to be pulled, but you wish you could save a bit of it and start fresh. One way to accomplish this is to grow new plants from cuttings taken from your existing plant. This is process called taking softwood cuttings. You cut small bits of plant, dip them in a rooting hormone, then baby the cuttings until they grow roots of their own. Basically, it’s cloning.

Herbs are particularly suited to this sort of propagation, since it’s better to have a fresh young herb plant than scraggy woody old herb plant, and this is a way to renew your herb plants. Also, it may be hard to collect seeds from your favorite herbs, particularly if you live somewhere cold.

It takes a good while for cuttings to root, so you don’t do this when you’re in a hurry to get plants in the ground. But if you plan it right, this is a cheap and satisfying way of propagating plants.

Erik and I are ripping up our back yard, basically taking it down to bare soil. I’m taking cuttings of many of the things I’m ripping out, so that I can replace them later.  I decided to document the process for the edification of all ya’lls.

A note on timing:

If you live in a cold winter climate, this will be the wrong time of year to take cuttings–wait til spring. But in a warm winter climate this is the ideal time. We plant perennials in the winter, so that they can use the rains to get established before the long, dry summer.

You’ll need:

–Something nice and sharp to take cuttings with, ideally a grafting knife, but really any very sharp cutting implement. What you don’t want is to take cuttings with something so dull it crushes the stem. Think like a surgeon.

–A seedling tray or a bunch of little plastic containers filled with good potting soil.
(Note: Don’t use peat pots or egg cartons or anything similar. In general I don’t think they’re good vessels for starting plants, but in this case in particular it would be disastrous because they’d disintegrate in the constant moisture, and/or attract mold.)

–A bottle of rooting hormone powder (available at nurseries)

–A glass of water

–A small dish or tray

–A plastic bag or two, or a plastic lid for your tray, or some plastic bottles. See below

–Maybe a spray bottle full of water–for watering later

How to to do it:

This is your set up:

On your worktable you’ll want a glass of water and a dish or tray with a bit of the rooting hormone in it. You don’t need much. You dip in the tray instead of the rooting hormone bottle to keep the contents of the bottle clean and dry. One jar of rooting hormone will serve for hundreds of cuttings.

You’ll also want your seedling tray or plastic pots or whatever you’re using full of soil and ready to go before you start.

Take some cuttings and trim them down:

Go forth ye into the garden and pluck a branch of herb. When choosing a branch to propagate, look for the freshest, plumpest, prettiest sprigs you can find. The ones that seem to be flushed with life force, not ones that seem mature, or worse, in decline. The stems should be pliant, not woody. Look for tiny leaves sprouting at the tips. That’s always a good sign.

Here’s a nice bit of lavender that will be used for this demo:

Next you’re going to strip your cutting down to just a little nubbin. You start by plucking off all but the very topmost leaves. Do this cleanly, try not to strip skin from the stem. The reason you do this is because leaves are a site of moisture loss during the rooting process. Excess leaves would die anyway, and too many will imperil the cutting. Pluck it down until there’s only a pair or two pairs at the top. Erik says I always leave too many. Consider what you see in the following photos a generous quantity.

The next photo is the same sprig stripped down. It’s not the clearest picture–I was having serious problems with the macro lens on the camera–but I hope if you look close at the bare stalk you can see the swelling in the stem in the places where the leaves used to emerge. These are called nodes.  There are three in that picture. The first a little bump just beneath the leaves, the second a kind of busy node, midway down, and the third just above the bottom of the picture. Ignore that tiny stray leaf between nodes 2 and 3. 

The next step is to make a cut at a node–make the cut just beneath the node, as cleanly as possible. Remember, you don’t want to crush the stem at all when you make the cut.

Which node you choose depends on what sort of herb you’re working with. It’s just a matter of common sense. The cutting will be planted in soil, so the stem needs to be long enough to bury–about an inch, more or less. The lavender cutting is large, relatively speaking, so in this case it was cut at the topmost node. But that day I was also rooting thyme cuttings. These were much smaller and more delicate, so I was cutting them three or four nodes down. I hope that makes sense.

Dip it, Dip it Good:

After you cut the stem, dip the cut end in the glass of water and then dip it in the rooting hormone. Dip only the tip of the stem–try not to get it on the leaves. So you end up with this:

Okay, again, not the best pic. The crap on the end of the cutting is the hormone powder. The pen is for scale. I should have/could have removed another set of leaves from this cutting.

Plant the Cutting:

Next, make a hole in the soil with you fingertip, plant the cutting up to its leaves and gently pat down the soil around it.  Here’s a portion of my tray, showing sage and thyme cuttings:

Now, here’s an important tip. Make lots and lots of cuttings of each plant you plan to propagate. Many more than you actually need because there is a high failure rate. Expect that a good number of them will wither up and die of various causes. I figure my failure rate will be 50%, so I make twice as many as I need.

Cover it in Plastic:

The cuttings are very delicate, so they need a moist, hothouse atmosphere. They must be completely covered in plastic. If your tray comes with a plastic lid, that’s great. If you don’t have one, put a plastic bag over your pot(s) or tray. It does not have to be clear. A regular plastic grocery bag or a white plastic bin liner is fine. Cut plastic bottles are good for pots, too.

If you’re using a bag, contrive a way to keep the plastic up,  so it doesn’t lay on the cuttings. Prop it up with sticks or plastic utensils or arcs of wire. Encase the entire pot or tray in the bag, so no air gets in. If they have ventilation, there won’t be enough moisture inside.

Aftercare:

The cutting part is the easy part. The hard part is waiting, and keeping these babies alive. They must always be moist, but not boggy. The plastic should make keeping them moist easy, but they will need a bit of water now and then. You might find it easiest to water them with a spray bottle, because if you water with any force before they root, you might dislodge them.

Every couple days take the plastic bag off and turn it inside out, so that there’s not too much condensation collecting on the underside of the plastic and splattering on the cuttings. It’s a delicate balance between nicely moist and too wet.

If you see any fungus or mold–anything suspicious at all– on one of your cuttings, pull it out. You don’t want that spreading.

If the cuttings are outdoors, you also have to protect them from heat and sun. Remember, the plastic could make your tray into a solar oven. We’ve come home after a day of unexpected heat to find our cuttings steam cooked in their trays. Move them to a shady spot if the weather is expected to be warm and sunny.  They like to be warm, but not too warm. The 65-70ºF zone is perfect.

You know your cuttings are succeeding when they put off new growth. They should be well rooted and ready for transplant in about 4 weeks.

Bean Fest, Episode 7: The Home-Ec Supper Club

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Welcome back to Bean Fridays! A change of pace this week: Instead of a recipe, an idea.

Our friend Ari was hanging out with us a while back, and we were talking about how its fun to eat at a friend’s house, even if they don’t serve up anything special, how a commonplace dish for one person is a novel thrill to another. And of course,  how just being together is what makes it fun.

The problem is that we too often think that having people over for dinner means throwing a dinner party, and that you have to really put on the dog: clean the house, cook a fancy multi-course meal, deploy table runners and wine charms and strange little forks and who knows what. Even throwing a backyard bbq can get pricey and involved.

Well, maybe some people are liberated enough to not think this way, but I have deep, even genetically programmed anxiety about hostessing that transforms me from my usually lazy self into a Martha Stewart demon at the mere mention of a dinner party. (Ask Erik.)

Well, good-bye to that and hello Home-Ec Supper Club, also called the Beans and Rice Party.

This is the deal that Ari, Erik and I came up with. We’d invite over a mixed group of friends with similar interests in home-ec, home arts, bikes, brewing, bees, homesteading, whatever you want to call it. Practical people, basically.  Erik and I, as hosts, would provide a simple, cheap big pot of something. Cheap being key, because we’re broke. We made rice and beans. The Bastardized Puerto Rican Bean recipe from few weeks ago, as a matter of fact. Stew or chili would be another good option.

Having that on hand, we know no one is going hungry, but for variety, we threw open the door to the guests to bring anything they want–or absolutely nothing at all—but not to spend more than 5 bucks on anything they did decide to bring. We didn’t want to cause those grim forced marches to the liquor store to buy a nice bottle of wine, or emergency trips to the deli case of Whole Foods. No. We wanted people’s surplus, or nothing at all. What did they have in the garden? What were they sick of eating? That’s a Home Ec Supper contribution.

It wasn’t hard to make some beans and rice, and it sure didn’t stress our budget. I didn’t clean the house up much beyond basic hygiene. There was zero tablescaping. We had 12 guests, more than Erik and I have ever had to dinner. It stretched our crockery to the limit. Some people had to eat out of bowls instead of plates. Others had to drink out of jam jars and novelty cocktail glasses. To seat them all, we had to bring our outside table inside and line it up with our usual table–and we borrowed 5 chairs from Homegrown Neighbor. Everyone had to squash up tight.

The guests arrived with amazing offerings from their yards and kitchens, everything from a bowl of sweet, ripe pineapple guavas to a salad with green tomatoes to homemade biscuits to an apple butter tart for dessert–and most excitingly (not to play favorites) a keg of homebrew. It pays to know brewers. We didn’t do any formal potluck organizing, but it worked out just perfectly anyway.

So we started with beans and rice, but ended up with a feast. But even if we’d only had beans and rice, we would have been happy. That’s the key to this. It’s not about the food, it’s about the company. Worry about food was just excised from the scheme. We all had a good time. No one was stressed, not even the hosts. We all pledged to do it again in a month at someone else’s house. And so–we hope–a tradition is born.

We invite you to start your own Home Ec Supper Club in your area. The weather is cooling, it’s harvest season, it’s a great time to come together with friends, make new ones, too, and share the bounty.

And if you do, please let us know how it went!

Squash Baby Stolen!

Squash Baby’s empty cage


This morning we woke to find that Squash Baby had been taken during the night.

Erik just returned from searching the neighborhood, hoping to find traces, remanants or, heaven help us, the perp him or herself.  Needless to say, he is cursing. He’d planned on harvesting Squash Baby today, so it is particularly heartbreaking. It had stopped adding inches (I believe it held at 36″), and had started taking on golden tones.

I only hope that the people who took it plan on eating it. If it’s feeding a family (which it could do for several days), that’s fine. If some kids took it and smashed in an alley…well, that’s best not pondered. Forensic examination of the stem stump, however, reveals that the perp did not use a knife, but rather pried the squash* free. This speaks ominously to an impulse theft.

Once I saw a Buddhist monk on TV. He held up a pretty glass and said, “This glass is already broken.”  My attitude toward Squash Baby has always been, “This squash is already stolen.” But poor Erik was much attached to the squash, and his head was filled with images of squash galettes and squash gnocchi and squash soup.  He wanted to have a squash butchering party.  Now he’s hunched over his breakfast cereal, disconsolate, and muttering about never planting anything in the parkway again.

He harvested Squash Sibling this morning, though it could have grown some more, I believe.  We’re hoping it’s ripe enough for good eating. It’s no inconsiderable squash, despite being the runt of the litter. It measures 22 inches.

Next year we will plant Lunga di Napoli again, far from the street.

* N.B. Squash Baby was technically a pumpkin, as noted in a previous post.

Bean Fest, Episode 6: Walton’s Serbian Lima Beans

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Welcome back to Bean Fest, our Friday focus on the wonderful world of beans.

Our friend, Walton, sent in this recipe, which he got from friends. I don’t know anything about its Serbian-ness–whether this is a traditional dish there, or what. Maybe some of you can enlighten us. (I forgot to ask Walton.)

[ETA: Walton wrote in. It is a genuine Serbian dish. The recipe was given to Walton by his friend's mom, Mrs. Milosavljevic. Thank you, Mrs. Milosavljevic!]

What I can tell you is that it is amazing: full of flavor and almost dangerously rich. If you know anyone who thinks eating beans for dinner is akin to wearing a hair shirt, make these for them. Dried Lima beans have a buttery taste on their own. Add to that a huge quantity of olive oil, and the scrumptious umami-savoriness of long-cooked onions, and you’ve got a palette paradise.

I’d classify these as a special occasion food, because they are so rich. One modest serving will fill you up. We ate them as a main dish with a basic green salad, which works nicely to counterbalance their oiliness, and had hunks of bread to sop up the juice. This recipe would work well as a side dish, of course. They’d also do well on a holiday table.

And best of all, they’re easy to make. They don’t have many ingredients, and there’s nothing complex about their cooking. They just take a little longer than most beans because of the time in the oven.

This is the recipe as he sent it:

Serbian Lima Beans

    * 1 lb small lima beans
    * 1 1/4 cups oil
    * 1 1/4 lbs sliced or chopped onions
    * 1 tspn pepper
    * 2 tspn salt
    * 2 tspn paprika
    * crushed red pepper / chili powder to taste
    * couple bay leaves
recipe
    * cook lima beans according to package (do not over cook; will cook a bit more in the baking process later)
    * fry onions in oil stirring frequently til very limp/well cooked (think near mush)
    * add spices to onions, mix thoroughly. Taste and adjust according to taste.
    * add well drained lima beans to onion mix (reserve some lima bean water)
    * pour into 9 x 13 baking dish; you want there to be some fluid (to bake in); if dry add some reserved lima bean water
    * insert bay leaves into beans in dish
    * bake, covered, at 375 for 30 minutes
    * bake uncovered, at 350 for 15-20 minutes til golden brown (take care not to burn)
Walton’s Notes:
  • I would suggest putting the bay leaves in the water with the beans when you first start cooking them.
  • Also, this seems like a lot of olive oil, but it really makes the flavor, so I’d suggest you use some kind of tasty extra-virgin with a strong character. 
  • The onions should be caramelized slowly, barely making any noise while they cook down. This is the other strong flavor of the dish. Start the onions during the last hour of the beans boiling.

Buon appetito!

This is what they look like fresh out of the oven

Mrs. Homegrown’s notes:

Not much to add here.  FYI 3 not-too-large yellow onions = 1 1/4 lbs.

I goofed by not reading the recipe correctly, so I caramelized the onions solo, instead of in the 1 1/4 cups of oil. (For some cracky reason I thought the oil was added later.) I had to back paddle and simmered the finished onions in the oil for about 10 minutes, hoping the flavor would infuse into the oil in that time. I think it worked. The mind boggles to think it might have been even better if I’d cooked it correctly.

Do be sure to cook the onions a nice long time, as Walton noted. That is the key to the recipe, and a point I don’t want anyone to miss.

The only thing I was unclear on was how much bean water to add back into the baking dish before cooking. Figuring wet beans are always much better than dry, burnt beans, I poured the reserved water into the dish until it just barely covered the top layer of beans. Then sealed the baking dish with foil. That seemed to work just perfectly.

Woman Fights Off Bear with Zucchini

Stop it, lady! Hey! Ouch!

Many thanks to Heather who left a link this in our most recent Squash Baby post, asking if we planned to use our Squash Baby to fend off bears.

It’s true! A woman bested a bear with a squash. Witness this article on the website of Montana television news station, KXLH. See photos of the very zucchini which smote the bear! Admire the heroic collie, who was wounded in the fray! (but will be okay.) Marvel at the sturdy jeans worn by the Squash Warrior, torn by the bear’s fearsome claws.

And to answer Heather’s question, I have no doubt that Squash Baby could lay a bear flat, the only problem is that I’m not sure I have the upper body strength to swing it around! Good thing the only bears in our neighborhood are found in bars.