Advances in Gardening Series: A Progress Report

Yes, you’ve seen this before. But Erik looks so bad ass with his sledgehammer, I just had to put it up again.

Some of you may remember that back in November we ripped out most of our back yard, redesigning the layout to maximize our growing space, and accommodate interests we have now that we didn’t have when we put in the original plantings.

We’ve learned from this experience that you should never be afraid to change your garden. Stuff grows back. Too often we get in a rut and are unable to see the potential of our own familiar spaces. Beyond that, we get attached to plants, even if they’re doing very little for us or the yard, i.e. : “But that shrub has always been there!” I don’t know if we’re even attached to the plant itself, but rather to the idea of permanence.

Anyway, our yard looked like it had been bombed flat for a couple of months, but it’s starting to green up now, so I thought I’d share a few progress pictures.

One of the features I wanted in the new yard was a rotating bed to produce medicinal herbs and flowers, lots of them, enough to dry and store in bulk. I tore out my old, tangled herb bed and laid out what I call The Fan of Pharmacy.  Here’s the area in November, with drip installed and some tiny seedlings in place. Chaos reigns in the background:

Now below  you can see a new pic of the fan from a similar angle. The plants in this rotation are calendula, chamomile and poppy. The calendula and chamomile are just starting to bud and flower. In the left foreground you can see The Trough of Garlic ™ and to the right, The Germinator ™, both of which are also part of the redesign. The birdbath has always been part of our yard, but it used to sit somewhere else. In the background you can make out The Screens of Discretion (tm) and two raised vegetable beds. Right now they’re mostly full of salad stuff. That’s the chicken coop in the rear left. In the dead center is what I call The Hippie Heart (and yes, that’s tm’d too.). I’ll come back to the heart:

I like the view better from the other direction. In the center foreground you can see twig with a label tied to it. That’s one of our brand new fruit trees.:

This below is a pretty uninspired picture of The Hippie Heart, a raised bed which is about 5 feet across, made by simply digging up and mounding earth–and adding some compost and other stuff. This bed came about because we had an open space in the center of our yard, and heaven forbid we have any unused space in our yard!:
The original idea was that we’d just mound up a raised circle, and allow natural pathways to evolve around it, sort of like a roundabout in the center of the yard. But a circle didn’t really fit the space. What fit was sort of bean shaped. While working on it, I realized the shape was closer to a heart than a bean. Now, we’re cynical big city types, and aren’t likely to put large valentines in our yard, but the thing wanted to be a heart and I saw no way to stop it. Besides, I like having a heart in our yard that looks up at the constant helicopter traffic.
I’ve deemed this bed as my experimental work space. I’m curious about growing plants out of things I have in my cupboard: seeds, spices, etc.  The center of the heart is planted with bulk bin flax. The edges are planted with lentils.  Since I have no idea about the origins of the seed, I’m not sure what it will produce, but it’s fun to find out. In the summer, I’m going to switch it out for sesame and cumin and chickpeas.
Next up in Advances in Gardening, what happened to the rest of the herbs.

So I had this dream

Here I am, with the soon-to-be-forgotten worms and a fantastic class of Waldorf kids

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So last night I had this dream that I was sitting at a kitchen table with someone (don’t know who it was) and I noticed something that looked like a dried out worm coiled on the edge of one of the dishes. I pointed it out to this other person, and she reached out and crushed it with her fingertip. It crumbled to pieces on the tabletop. I laughed and said, “I sure hope that’s not one of my worms!” She laughed, too, and mischievously blew the crumbs in my direction.

And thus does one’s subconscious work. I woke with a start, remembering that, after showing off my worms to class of visiting school kids, I’d left the bin out on the back porch for a night, and day, and half of another night. Usually the worms live in the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and brought them back in.

The problem with worms is that they’re so darn quiet.

The worms are fine. They’re tough, and our weather is mild. But I was a little worried about them  because they are house-worms, acclimated to room temperature, and I’d left them out in the open, on concrete, and in a shallow bin.

See, worms can take care of themselves just fine if given the room and resources they need to cool themselves down, warm themselves up, and regulate their moisture. However, when they’re in a shallow little bin, they just don’t have much latitude for adjustment. It’s our responsibility as worm keepers to regulate their environment.

Luckily for us and our forgotten worms, even though it was unseasonably warm yesterday,  the sun is low on the horizon, so our back porch wasn’t baking in the western sun, like it does most of the year. Otherwise, the worms, being unable to hide deep in the soil, might have steam cooked in the bin during that long, forgotten day. 

Of course, worms can be kept outdoors in all but the most extreme temperatures, but their bins need to be sited correctly–kept in nice shady spots, protected from the rain, and elevated from cold-conducting cement surfaces. (Maybe some of you folks who live in snow country could chime in on what you do with your worms when it’s freezing out?)


No Caffeine, No Migraines

Image courtesy of I Can Haz Cheezburger



Mrs. Homegrown here:

A while back I posted about my coffee addiction and search for coffee alternatives. Again, thank you so much for all of your suggestions–I’ve enjoyed them.

As nothing is more tedious than listening to other people rattle on about their health concerns, I’m going to try not to belabor this post. All I have is a simple message, and that is if you are a chronic migraine sufferer, you may want to consider cutting caffeine from your daily diet.

Of course this is hard to do, as most migraineurs live in an intimate tango with caffeine. All I have to say is that I’ve had migraines all my life, and they were becoming more frequent. My first impulse was to attribute them to other causes, but my gut told me to try caffeine. I tapered off caffeine over the course of a month, then went totally clean for a couple of weeks, after which I assumed I was “clean.” (That’s when I wrote that last post–in retrospect I’m amused by its cheery outlook. I was about to get slammed with true withdrawal)

You see, the headaches did not stop. They actually got worse. I wondered if my theory was wrong. And, of course, I really wanted caffeine whenever my head started hurting. That craving told me perhaps I was still in withdrawal. So I persevered, for perhaps two months of total abstinence and complete misery, and then the headaches stopped. Just stopped. It was like magic.

The lesson here is that it takes a long time for your body to adjust to the lack of caffeine, so you’ve got to be patient.

Since then, I’ve allowed a little caffeine back in my life. It seems important for me to not take it in the morning, because that’s where the habit is most strong, but I will have green tea or iced tea or decaf in the afternoon sometimes, and I get away with it. However, it is a slippery slope. While traveling this Christmas I got cocky and started playing with fire–drinking the straight java–and I ended up with my first migraine in a long time. That just served to confirm my theory. Overall, I’d say my migraines have been reduced by 80 or 90 percent.

Everyone is different, and migraines are a complex phenomena. This may not work for you, but it has worked well for me, so I just had to put it out there. As much as I loved my coffee, it wasn’t worth the pain.

Help save our oaks

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Sometimes I hate this city. And county. Tonight I learned two things: the first, that the city thinks it would be a great idea to create a parking area for idling buses in the center of one of our most vibrant pedestrian zones; the second, that the county plans to allow the Dept. of Water and Power County Department of Public Works to level a gorgeous oak grove this Wednesday, Jan. 12th to make a dumping area for flood debris. The first is just silly, the second is tragic. We’ve destroyed so much of our native landscape that what remains is incredibly valuable and irreplaceable. The thought of leveling 100 year old oaks for such a wasteful, temporary use makes me want to cry.

If you’d like to help, consider the following:

–It’s late notice, but there’s a protest tomorrow: 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, January 11th at 500 West Temple in Los Angeles. 

–Sign a petition

–Send a message to 5th District Supervisor Michael Antonovich, and while you’re at it drop a note to the whole LA County Board of Supervisors.

–Get updates on this situation from our friends at LA Creek Freak or in Facebook.

Thanks for your help.

A Favorite Tool: Canning Funnel

I heart my funnel

Mrs. Homegrown here:
If you are a home canner, you probably already have one of these and know how useful they are. If you don’t can, you might never have seen one before. I hadn’t before we started canning–and I don’t know how I lived so long without one. See, a canning funnel is just a wide mouthed funnel made to fit the mouths of canning jars. It allows you to quickly and efficiently ladle up hot food from the stove top into the jars. If you’re canning without one, heaven help you! Go get one! 
Even if you don’t can, you still need one. If, like me, you’re buying more dried goods and bulk foods, or drying herbs and vegetables, you probably use a lot of jars. Canning jars are an easy, efficient way to store food–far better than a cabinet full of random bags and boxes.You can see what you have and exactly how much you have. They line up in attractive rows. They’re also moth safe, if you’re using proper canning lids. I’m always transferring something or another into a jar–a bag of beans, a batch of dried mint, fresh yogurt–whatever. The canning funnel makes this a snap. Before I had one, I was either winging it and spilling a lot, or fashioning funnels out of newspaper. Life is just to short to chase beans around the kitchen. I use this thing every day.
Here’s a hint: If you have one of those little mesh tea strainers made to fit in the top of a tea pot (they always sell them in Asian markets), you’ll find it fits perfectly both into the funnel and into the mouth of a quart jar. Using one with your funnel, you can strain off tea, oil infusions, vinegar, etc. with no fuss or muss.

A Fast Bean Friday: Khichdi

Lame, lame, lame. I can’t even get it together to put up a picture. I’m just too crazy getting things together for the holidays. I suspect many of you are in a similar state. But I did want to post this, because I think you might want something wholesome and mild to eat over the next week, during your HRD (Holiday Recovery Period).

I learned about khichdi, a lentil and rice dish, very recently. Our friend Ari sent me a link to a basic recipe. It was nothing more than lentils, rice and cumin. I could not help but add some minced onion, but otherwise I followed this simple recipe and came out with something sort of bland but somehow extremely comforting and pleasant.

So I looked up khichdi, and discovered that it is an Indian comfort food–perhaps the Indian comfort food, if I can trust what I’ve read. Plain khichdi is baby’s first solid food. It’s also good for people with delicate stomachs. But it doesn’t have to be plain–it can be spiced up and elaborated with vegetables and toppings of ghee and yogurt. It’s the kind of food that college kids learn to cook when they first go off on their own. It’s the kind of food that each mom cooks a little different.

I’ve been playing with the basic formula, and it’s becoming one of our go-to “fast foods” around here. It cooks up in about a half hour, and you don’t even have to stand by the stove for that half hour. You just saute up the spices, add the rice, lentils chopped veggies and water, put a lid on the skillet and walk away. It’s also a great way to use up vegetable odds-and-ends. You can throw just about anything in there, and the great khichdi magic will make it all work, somehow or another.

I’m going to send you to this excellent post at One Hot Stove for the technique. It’s the best I found in all my research, and I’d just be copying them if I wrote it up here.

(ETA: I’ve been thinking about this over the holidays, and have decided to post the outline of the recipe here, just in case One Hot Stove ever closes up shop. I hate it when posts end up with dead links. I’d encourage you to read the One Hot Stove post if you have the option, because there’s more detail there, and a recipe for another dish called kahdi.  My recipe after the break –> )

Okay, khichdi is just rice, lentils and whatever spices and veggies you might have on hand cooked up into a pleasing mush in a skillet. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to get dictatorial about a recipe. It’s a technique.

This basic khichdi formula, as it lives in my head, is all you really have to remember–the rest is improvised:

The ratio of lentils to rice is 1:2, and the water is twice the measure of the rice and lentils.

For example, for two servings, I’d combine 1 cup of rice and 1/2 cup lentils. That’s 1 1/2 cups total of dry stuff. That means I’d need 3 cups of water.

The basic cooking methodology is to first rinse your lentils and rice, then lightly saute up the onion and spices in a deep frying pan. Then you dump in the lentils, rice and water–and veggies, if you’re using them– bring it all to a simmer, cover and cook on low for 1/2 hour.

(This is a recipe for white rice. Brown rice is better for the body, yes, but it does take longer to cook. Since khichidi is what we make when we’re starving and want food fast, we’ve been using white rice. If you use brown rice you’ll want to adjust the cooking time and water accordingly.) 

The details are where you get to swing. The details are both the vegetables and the spices. These you can add as you please.

Veggies:

This is your chance to use up whatever you have in your fridge, or those singleton veggies coming in from the garden, anything from chopped greens to peas to cauliflower…anything at all. Tomatoes, fresh or canned, are always a good addition. Pre-cooked, leftover vegetables would be fine, too. Chop it all up smallish. If you add lots of veggies, particularly the drier, root vegetable types, you’d want to add some more water to help them cook.

Spices:

It can be as spicy or mild as you like. I think whole cumin seed is a really important part of the flavor profile. I love the scent of whole cumin seed when it hits a hot pan, and it makes the rice fragrant. If you don’t have any whole cumin, I’d encourage you to hie off to the nearest ethnic market and get a goodly sized bag of it. Beyond that, it’s up to you, spice-wise. Salt and cumin only is a fine place to begin.

Still want more specifics? 


My procedure:

This is what I do, more or less. Say I’m making the two serving batch described above. I’d heat up a deep skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of oil and toss in:

1 small chopped onion, or 1/2 a big onion
Let that cook until translucent.

Then all at once, I add the spices, letting them heat just until they’re fragrant:

1 heaping teaspoon of whole cumin
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
A big pinch of hot pepper flakes
Maybe a teaspoon of coriander seeds, since I’m into those lately
(One Hot Stove recommends garam masala, which I don’t have (yet), but you might.)

When the pleasing scent of roasting cumin starts rising from the pan, I add the lentils and rice and water. You don’t want to burn the spices.

Once the lentils, rice and water are in, I add maybe a half teaspoon of sea salt, stirring it into the slurry to distribute it evenly.

Next I’d add my veggies, if I have any. Anywhere from 1 to 3 cups, chopped. Sometimes we just have the lentils and rice, especially when we’re really tired and don’t feel like chopping. Or thinking.

Bring the whole mess to a simmer, then cover, turn the heat to low, and walk away for a half hour.

Come back to find dinner in a pan.  Scoop it up and serve with yogurt. Top with chopped parsley or cilantro, if you’re feeling fancy.

Have any ideas? We’re rewriting the anniversary gift list

Okay, this has almost nothing to do with the post. But Anne, mentioned below, and her broody hen Big Wig, are fostering kittens. Yes, the hen sits on the kittens. You might die of the cuteness if you saw it. If you live in the LA area and need a fluffy, chicken-identified kitten, drop us a line.

Our neighbors Anne and Bill are about to have an anniversary. Anne was thinking about a gift for Bill and referenced the traditional anniversary gift list–you know, the inscrutable wood, paper, tin list, as well as the updated list which includes clocks and tablecloths–and was less than inspired. Instead, she’s thinking about taking a class that will be beneficial to Bill, and the relationship– a cooking class, perhaps. I hope I’m not spoiling any surprises! (She had other ideas, Bill…just in case you’re reading.)

Her instinct toward classes jives with an idea Erik and I have been kicking around for a while: that money should not be spent on objects, but on experiences.

We never regret money we shell out for experience, whether that be trips, workshops, lessons or strange adventures, while we often regret the acquisition of knickknacks and gadgets. Knowledge and experience are our most important possessions. They cannot be lost or broken. They form the stuff of our souls.

So we’re interested in rewriting the anniversary list in one or two ways, and would love it if you’d pitch in ideas for Anne and I to consider.

The first option is slightly more traditional. It would be a list of gift items, arranged per year, but we could try to rewrite it to be genuinely useful from a “homesteaders” point of view. I know I was just talking about the importance of experience, but we do need good tools in a functional household, and a list could be built around that.

The second option is the experience list. What sort of skills and knowledge make up a self-reliant household–and a good relationship? How would you prioritize that knowledge on a year by year time line? Can we think of 50?

And maybe there’s a third option–feel free to toss out anything you like.

The Barrier Method

Over the years we’ve lost countless plants to digging, chewing, trampling and sucking critters, mammals and insects both. We finally got smart. It makes sense to invest a little extra time and money to protect your crops and your livestock with physical barriers.

This practice started sort of piecemeal around here, with us only exerting ourselves over particularly problem-prone situations. Nowadays protection is standard for every bed we plant, for our seed starting boxes, and often for new perennials in the ground. The result is peace of mind, better results…and fewer gardening meltdowns from Erik (Squash Baby excepted).

We’ve written about all this before in various posts, but here’s some photos to give you an overview of some of the possibilities:

Our seedling trays are now contained within The Germinator ™: a large screened box. Prior to this invention, we arched chicken wire over our seedling trays to keep squirrels and loose chickens out.

All of our beds, whether raised or in the ground, are spanned with arches of wire which hold up aviary netting. The netting is held down around the edges with a variety of anchors, anything from bricks and boards to U shaped wire stakes. This keeps critters like digging skunks and birds out–but not insects.

Sometimes we cover our veg beds with a very light floating row cover (Agribon 15) instead of aviary netting. This not only keeps out critters, but also blocks many insects, particularly the cabbage worms that harass our brassica crops. It’s not pretty, but it keeps the plants pretty within. Heavier gauges of row covering can be used to ward off frost, or help jump start plants in cold weather.
Our chickens have a very secure coop. Connected to it is some extra play space, bounded by picket fence. This doesn’t protect the chickens from much, but they only use it during the day, when predators are few. It’s more to protect our garden from them. But I hope you can see the twine that stretches from picket to picket. These discourage the hens from flapping out of their run, and keeps hawks from swooping down on them.
We often protect newly planted perennials with circles of chicken wire staked to the ground. This young berry is protected from anything digging it up or stepping on it.  If I wanted to make sure critters couldn’t nibble on it, I’d pinch the top closed as well.

Medlar: The Best Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

This week we were luck enough to tag along with Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms on a jaunt to the hills near Tehachapi to help harvest an allusive fruit called the medlar.  Erik and I were just extra hands–the plan was hatched between Tara and Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. See, Craig has a place up in those hills, and just happened to know his neighbors had a little grove of medlars, and these neighbors agreed to sell them to Craig and Tara, provided Craig and Tara picked them. For us, it was a great excuse for a trip to the mountains with a bunch of friends for some laughs, fresh air and gorgeous fall scenery. Also along for the medlar hunt were Joseph Shuldiner and Graham Keegan. As a group we gathered 100 lbs of medlars in a couple of hours of easy work, which are going to be sold to foodies, rare fruit enthusiasts and perhaps some enterprising chefs at this weekend’s Santa Monica Farmers Market. There’s an article about medlars and this particular expedition in todays’s LA Times.

What is a medlar, you ask? It‘s Mespilus germanica, a small deciduous tree and member of the rose family. In fact, to me, medlar fruit look exactly like giant rosehips. The fruit is smallish, ranging from about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and ranging in color from rosy rust to dusty brown.

Medlars are native to Southwestern Asia and Southeatsern Europe. They were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, doted on by Victorians and mentioned by Shakespeare. I believe they are still popular in their native lands, such as Iran and Turkey. However, they’re almost unknown in the U.S. today, primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that they have to be eaten when almost rotten–a process properly called “bletting”–similarly to how you have to wait for Hachiya persimmons to soften before you can eat them. This leads to reason #2, because medlars have to be eaten when bletted, they either have to be eaten right off the tree, or they have to be picked early, then put aside for a few weeks to blet. Then, when they’re finally bletted, they’re have to be eaten immediately. There’s not a huge window of edibility. This level of persnickety-ness just doesn’t jive with our industrial food distribution system.

Beyond that, when they’re ready to eat, they look like they’re ready for the compost heap–brown, squishy, a little wrinkly. It takes some getting used to–well, it takes about as long for you to eat your first one before you figure out rotten=darn good.  I’d describe them as tasting like really good apple butter. People will describe them as holding delicate notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, wine, etc. I don’t know about that–I just tasted really, really good apple butter, delivered to me in a convenient skin instead of on toast. The flesh even looks like apple butter. Of course, like all persnickety fruits, they have a few big seeds that you have to work around as well–sort of suck clean and spit out later. It’s worth it, though.
 
We can’t grow medlars here in Los Angeles–it’s too warm. Otherwise I’d plant one right now. Medlars need hot summers and cold, frosty winters. If you live in a place like that, I’d highly recommend you plant a medlar. It’s a small, attractive tree, topping out at about 10 feet, and can be kept bush size. The ones we were harvesting were only 4-6 feet high. They are not widely available, but Raintree Nursery has a selection here.

After the jump is a little photo gallery from our trip:


Craig sorting medlars in the grand countyside

Is this bletted? Tara giving the medlar an evaluating eye
Medlars have beautiful fall foliage, and the fruit remains on the tree after the leaves fall, which is quite striking


There’s me. I’m shaking a branch. We picked up good looking ground fall, gathered what would fall when the branches were given a gentle shake, and picked any fully bletted fruits off the tree. The rest wait for a second harvest. 
Graham, looking more stylin’ than me as he works.


Here’s Joseph. He’s writing a cookbook. Notice how the trees are kept small for easy picking.
All sorted. Getcha medlars here!

medlars to market