Going to Seed

radish podsTidiness is a very pleasant thing inside a house. Outside, in a yard or garden, it’s not at all a good thing. I’m really tired of the cult of tidy.

We seem to be confused. We conflate our yards with our living rooms, the space beneath our shrubs for kitchen floors. Popular opinion seems to believe our flower and vegetable gardens should be maintained like trophy rooms, like curio cases.

Our mistake, of course, is thinking that everything is about us. That our yard, our garden, our little patch of land actually belongs to us and we have the right to maintain it exactly as we like. We might own it on paper, but we share it with hundreds, thousands, millions (if you want to get into soil biology) of other lives.

Of course, if we maintain our yards to exact standards of tidiness–say our yard consists of a lawn and some shrubs along the drive with the dirt beneath them blown clean, we probably are not supporting much life at all. We’ve put up the No Trespassing sign, and creatures listen.

front bed seedy 2It gets even more sparse if we spray herbicides and pesticides all over the place. All of the invisible life vanishes. Any creatures which visit are just passing through.

The land is eerily silent.

But life is waiting to come back. That is what is so amazing. It jumps back if given even half a chance. If you open the door just a crack.

All we have to do is sit back and relax.

Stop with the obsessive yard work.

Stop paying the yard crew.

Stop spraying chemicals around.

Just stop.

Leave the leaves. Let fallen leaves and pulled weeds stay on the land to protect and nourish the soil.

Let volunteers bloom.

Let your garden go to seed.

mustard seedyIf we live with fussy neighbors, or under the impression that our gardens should look like the ones in the magazines, we might work hard to keep our vegetable and flower gardens impeccable, starting seedlings in advance to replace aging plants so there’s never any sense of “decline” in the garden.

I’ve always let parts of our garden go to seed, but this year, more than ever, I’m attuned to it. I’m reveling in the beauty in it, and I’m understand the generosity of it down deep, on the soul level.

lettuce bloomingIn the past I struggled to leave the plants as long as I could stand it, knowing they were doing good in their later life cycle, but also feeling like my yellow, straggly garden made me look lazy or incompetent.

I was also acutely aware of the long gaps between harvests that would occur if I waited for plants to go to seed before replacing them. Now, I’ve given up all that anxiety, and I revel in this time.

The insects feast on the flowers which bloom on our lettuce, our arugula, our radishes, our mustard, our fennel. Predatory wasps hunt alongside lady bugs and diligent bees of all types.

argula flowerWe have more birds than ever in our yard, and they love our overgrown, browning beds, because of course they’re eating the seeds or the bugs on the ripening plants. They would not, however, allow me to take any pictures of them doing these things.

They love all the weedy places, the vacant lots and over grown side yards. Those places are full of flashing wings and trilling songs. It’s already a seed time of year here in LA on our fast moving calendar, and I’m watching the birds feast. I love watching the little finches balancing on thin, swaying plant stalks in the golden light of the afternoon. The world is full of moments of perfect, unconscious beauty like that.

Once the seeds are eaten, and the plants are brown and empty, I cut the stalks down at their base, but I don’t throw anything away. Everything stays in the yard, on or in the ground. The plant which fed us and the bee and the finch will now finish its work feeding the soil. Feeding the soil is its deepest work.

And–never worry!– some seed always manages to hit the ground despite all the competition, ensuring volunteers will come up next year, and feed us all again.

radish pods 2An aside:

One area where I have to admit that I am less than generous is in the matter of radish seed pods. These I don’t leave for the birds, because I like them so much.

Most of you gardeners are probably very familiar with radish seed pods. If you aren’t, they are the fat little pods that show up after a radish plant of any type goes to seed.

They taste like radishes, pretty much, sometimes they’re sweeter, sometimes they’re spicier. Radish pods are both a bonus crop and a fine consolation prize, because even if your radish roots end up puny or woody or otherwise disappointing, you can always eat the pods. They’re best fresh, picked a handful at a time as a snack or to put in a salad, but you can lactoferment or pickle them, too, using pretty much any pickle recipe you prefer.

Waxed Cloth Food Wrap (Made in a solar oven for bonus self-righteousness points)

peanut clothReuseable food wrap made with wax infused cloth is a thing. DIY instructions for it are all over the web. It sort of had its moment in the sustainable limelight a few years ago, so I know this post is not offering anything new for the jaded sustainable DIYer.

But I wanted to tell you that I’ve finally made a couple of pieces to test out, and I like them. If you’ve been using waxed cloth, let us know what you think of it.

The factor which finally spurred me into action on this project was our Solavore Sport solar oven. It seemed like the perfect vehicle for this project, and proved to be so–in most ways. Read on.

In case you missed the craze, these food wraps are simply beeswax infused cotton cloth. Their purpose is to help replace plastic wrap and baggies to some extent. They can also be molded over bowls as a light cover–not an air tight cover, but are likely as effective as laying a plate over the bowl. Waxed cloth can also be fashioned into envelopes to carry snacks.

They can be used over and over, and re-waxed. They can also be washed with cold water and soap.

Food wrapped in wax cloth will dry out more quickly than it would in plastic, and it’s not watertight, so it’s not good for drippy/juicy things. Also, it’s not recommended for wrapping meat, because it can’t be cleaned with hot water. But it works very well for wrapping things like cheese and sandwiches, cookies, nuts, carrot sticks, etc.

In my testing so far I’ve settled on using my cloths as snack carriers, using them to wrap up trail mix or carrots or chunks of cheese to put in my day pack, and I like them very much for this. I’ve not tried them for long-term cheese storage in the fridge yet, because the two I made have been constantly at work in the field. Time to make, more, I suppose!

Though I’ve experimented with using them as bowl covers, I doubt that I will use them for this purpose, as I have plenty of glass bowls with fitted covers, so I don’t need covers often. When I do, I’ve found the classic “balance a plate on the bowl” technique remains more convenient– but it’s worth giving the wrap a try. It is not breakable, so that may be a plus if you’ve got kids rooting around in your fridge.

peanut cloth 2

This is the peanut pack from above, folded for carrying. A more formal sewn envelope might be a touch more convenient, but you can do without, because the wax sort of sticks to itself when folded like this. It holds well enough to jounce around in the pocket of your bag for a day. I’ve not had a spill so far, but you could tie it up with string or a rubber band for extra security.

Professional Secrets

There are at least two companies making and selling these wraps now, and both use not only beeswax to infuse the cloth, but also pine resin and jojoba oil to make a fancier product.

I’m not sure what benefits may come from these extra ingredients–the pine resin may add some antibacterial action to the wax, but I don’t know it it would actually make any difference in terms of food safety. The jojoba is more mysterious. I wonder if it improves the texture?

You could probably replicate this proprietary blend by melting smallish quantities of pine sap, soft or hard, into hot beeswax over a double boiler, then stir in some jojoba. The resulting mix can be grated after it cools. Just be sure to cook this up in a jar you’re prepared to throw away, because the pine sap will never come off.


When covering a bowl, crimp the edges of the cloth around the edge as you’d crimp a pie crust. If you were really ambitious you could sew in an elastic band to hold the cover tight.


Making the cloths is very easy. All you have to do is cut some squares or circles of thin cotton fabric, like muslin. Pink the edges if you have pinking shears–this looks better, but I don’t think the edges will unravel much anyway, because of the wax.

Size depends on intended use. I can imagine eventually having a range of sizes and shapes. For instance, I’m imagining that a really large one might work nicely for rolling out and refrigerating cookie and pastry dough.

To begin, though, I’d recommend making just one or two. Test them and see if you like them and how you’ll use them before going into production whole hog. 12″ (30cm) square might be a good starting point.

Lay the cloth on a cookie sheet protected with foil or parchment and sprinkle the surface evenly with grated wax or wax pellets. You don’t need a ton of wax. You want to saturate the cloth, but you don’t want to use so much that the coating becomes thick and flaky. I used about 1 tablespoon of wax pellets for cloths about 11 inches square, just to give you an idea.

Place the cookie sheet in an oven set between 150F/64C and 185F/85C for about 10 minutes, just until the wax melts.

Safety note: Keep the oven low–don’t be tempted to use a hot oven for speed, because the wax could discolor at higher temperatures, or even burst into flame if the oven reaches 400F/204C.

Take the sheet out and check for coverage.

My experiments had pretty even coverage without any coaxing, because the hot wax wicks through the cloth. But if it looks spotty, you can spread the melted wax over the cloth with a silicone pastry brush or a dedicated paintbrush.

I specify a silicone pastry brush because the wax will come of the silicone brush– I used ours, so I can testify to this fact–but wax will never come off a regular bristle brush. However, if you use an inexpensive brush, you can keep that brush and use it again and again for waxing purposes by simply warming it until the bristles soften. For this reason you’d want to choose a brush with a wooden handle. Hardware stores sell cheap wooden paint brushes with natural bristles which would work perfectly for this purpose.

While the wax is still warm, hang the cloth up on a line to dry and cool. You’ll also need clothes pins or binder clips to secure the cloth.

The only things to remember are as follows:

  1. Less wax is better than more. If you use too much, your cloth might flake or be otherwise strange.
  2. Wax cools super fast, so if you’re working with the newly waxed cloth, be quick like a bunny. Instagram later! If your cloth cools before you finish, you can put it back in the oven and rewarm it.
  3. On the same note, you have to take the cloth off the cookie sheet the moment you remove it from the heat or it will bond to the sheet when it cools–and that happens fast. If it sticks, just put back in the oven.
  4. Have the drying line set up before you start. You’ll want to hang the hot cloths up right away to cool and dry, not be searching for somewhere to put them while they harden into odd shapes in your hand.

I don’t have many good pictures of the process, so for further research I’m directing you over to Mommypotomus for more details. She also has a cute plan for a snack bag that I might make.

Consider repurposing old textiles

I’m using some of my grandmother’s hankies for this project. I knew there was a reason I kept them around for so long! Take that, Kon Marie!

As I type this, I realize that sounds gross. Be assured, these hankies never saw service. In the 60’s (or earlier ?) people apparently sent one another novelty hankies that came folded inside matching greeting cards. Maybe these were the equivalent of our musical cards, a way to upscale a greeting card ? My grandma had several of these tucked in her bureau.

I claimed her nice linen handkerchiefs for my nose (I never saw her use one, despite having piles of them–she liked those little Kleenex packs), but these novelty hankies, made out of cheap printed cotton, are perfect for food wraps. The cloth covering the bowl in the photos is one of those.

These hankies are particularly nice because they have a finished edge, but this project is also perfect for making use of other textiles you might feel wasteful for throwing out, like old top sheets or a dress shirt with one unfortunate stain or fabric scraps from sewing projects.

Solar Oven Specifics

Beeswax melts at just below 150F/64C. It can discolor if heated above 185F/85C. Its flashpoint is 400F/204.4C.

While many home ovens can be set to 150F, my home oven is really primitive, it doesn’t have a pilot light and it doesn’t cook below 200F. I could fuss with it, prop the door open or whatnot to get lower temperatures, but I never wanted waxed cloths enough to bother with it.

But now that we have this Solavore Sport to play with, I realized I could achieve these lower baking temperatures easily, and simultaneously reach a new pitch of self-righteousness.

Regular cookie sheets don’t fit in the Sport, so I cobbled together a cooking tray out of a shallow cardboard box (a canned cat food case) lined with foil. It barely fit in the oven. It doesn’t even sit on the floor, in fact, but balances above, because the sides of the oven are wedge shaped. Hard to explain, but this should make sense to someone with a Sport.

Back in March, when we got the oven, it peaked around 150F if it didn’t have clips on the lid to seal in the heat–which would be perfect for this project. Now, with the sun higher, it rockets up past 200F pretty quickly even without the clips.

So, at this time of year, working at midday, all I had to do was watch the time and temperature to make sure the oven didn’t get too hot.

I put the tray in the oven, closed the lid (no clips, making the heating is less efficient on purpose) and waited about 10-15 minutes. The temp would quickly rise above 150F and the wax would dissolve, then I’d take it out before it got any hotter. Fast and easy!

Again, the reasons you want to keep the temps low is because 1) you might get discolored wax if you let it bake for too long above 185F and 2) in the very unlikely event the oven temp got to 400F, you’d risk the wax bursting into flame.

The only downside of using the Sport for this project is size limitations. The oven floor is wide but narrow, so I can’t make wraps bigger than 11 inches square. The floor is actually only 9 1/2 inches deep. By wedging the cat food box higher in the oven, off the floor, I was able to fudge things enough to make an 11 inch waxed cloth, but that’s the limit.

I may be able to fold a cloth in half for coating, perhaps layering the wax between the two halves. This is something I’ll play with if I decide to make more.

What’s next for the solar oven?

My next crafty project with the sun oven is going to be infusing oil with herbs, and perhaps drying herbs as well.

And for those of you who were following our solar cooking initiative, it has been on hiatus because our weather this May was dominated by a heavy marine layer which kept the skies overcast until mid-afternoon. I love this weather, personally, but it has put a wrench in the cooking experiments.

June, however, is coming in hot and bright. Usually June in LA is characterized by these same overcast conditions–we call it “June Gloom”– but I’m thinking the gloom came early this year and may be over. So look forward to more cooking posts soon!

Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I’m actually writing this review before I’ve even finished Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, because I’m savoring it so slowly it’s taking me forever to finish, and at the same time, I’m so excited about the book I couldn’t wait any longer to tell you all about it.

In her faculty bio, Robin Wall Kimmerer is described as a mother, plant ecologist, writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

It’s typical of her that all these descriptors are laid out in the first sentence of her biography, because she does not compartmentalize her different selves (scientist, mom, Potawtomi woman), but rather weaves them together, like sweetgrass basket, to make an integrated whole. In the same way her prose, which takes the form of story telling, will use one unlikely metaphor, like her long fight with pond muck, or tapping maple trees, to bring out moments of unexpected beauty, connection and inspiration.

My first exposure to Dr. Kimmerer came via one of my favorite podcasts, On Being. Here’s a link to that episode: The Intelligence of All Kinds of Life. 

I remember first listening to this podcast while walking around our neighborhood one evening at twilight. As she spoke about the intelligence of all living things and the importance of our relationship with plants, how we are meant to love and live in a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, tears came to my eyes because the things she was saying were the things I have always believed–always known— but which are not supported by my culture.

As a result, I often feel a little crazy, or unmoored, because trying to live my ideals in this world is like swimming upstream. In fact, it is all but impossible. But hearing an author, a professor, a scientist on a big radio program speaking my truth in a calm, clear voice, as if it were fact, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world, eased my heart. I hope you have a chance to hear this podcast, or read her books, and if you’re like me, I hope it eases your heart, too.

At one point, and I can’t remember if this was in her interview or in the book, maybe both, she tells of asking her grad students a question. She asks them, “Many of us love the natural world. What would it mean if you knew the world loved you back?”

Her students, all being budding scientists, could not accept that proposition (anthropomorphism, sentimentality, etc.). So she tweaked it a little for their comfort and said, “Okay, make it a hypothetical. Hypothetically speaking, what would change if you knew the world loved you back?”

Then they lit up with ideas and possibilities. “Everything would change!” they cried.

I agree with Dr. Kimmerer. The world does love us back. It cannot speak, but it shows its love through selfless acts of giving, like a mother. Plants shower us with abundance. They give us food, medicine, textiles building materials, and less material gifts like beauty and solace. They even give us oxygen: their love for us fills our lungs with every breath. Plants are the basis of the food chain, so at the root of things, our lives are wholly sustained by and dependent on the beneficence of the plant world, and yet we so rarely take a moment say thank you.

Front Yard Update: Welcome to Crazy Town

front sunflowers

I’ve been avoiding writing about the front yard project’s developments because, frankly, I’m not sure what is going on out there. It’s a little crazy.

The first flush of spring color, the wildflowers and other annuals which bloom with the winter rains, is almost gone now, while the summer bloomers haven’t kicked in. This is what I see if I go out and peer at my slope–a tangle of plants, some of which are doing better than others. What everyone else sees are the sunflowers.

The reign of the wild sunflowers

We have sunflowers. Lots of them. They’re wild sunflowers–not the kind that produce the big seeds, but the kind that grow along the freeway. I suspect these come from that big sunflower that I let grow up at the top of the hill last year which was, most likely, a hybridized descendant of an ornamental sunflower, “Lemon Queen” that Erik planted for the Great Sunflower Project several years ago. I pulled many, many seedlings but decided to let a few grow (four, I think?) on the slope, just to see what would happen.


First, I believe in the power of volunteers. They want to be exactly where they’ve sprouted, so they tend to do very well. Why pull a happy volunteer and hope the transplant you’re trying to coerce to live in that spot will do just as well? Most likely it won’t.

Also, sunflowers are very popular with the birds and the bees, and this yard is supposed to be about feeding those guys. And finally, I had this notion that they might provide some shade from the harsh sun for young plants. That they do, but of course they’re also causing chaos.

This is a perpetual problem for me, balancing the exuberance of annual volunteers, such as Nasturtiums, California poppies and sunflowers with the needs of the the less showy perennial plants. I love the seasonal color brought by the spring annuals, but I also have to patrol to make sure they’re not smothering any of my perennials. Inevitably, I miss a few.

Out on the front slope right now, the perennials are holding on beneath the sunflowers. Some are doing fine, some may be a little stunted. The risk I’m running is that the whole center of the slope will look terrible when the sunflowers go. For this reason, I should take them out now. This is what I think every day, but I just can’t do it.  I like them, and as I said, they’re feeding lots of creatures.

These sunflowers are not native sunflowers. The native sunflower is shorter and better behaved. I might try to swap those out for these guys next year, though these guys may be hard to dissuade.

front wildflowers

Some of the wildflowers earlier this spring: The pink are clarkia, the white is yarrow, the orange are Nasturtium (not wildflowers), the purple are Phacelia tanacetifolia.

Other wildflowers

I threw down a good deal of native California wildflower seed last fall, hoping to fill my barren slope come spring with lots of amazing wildflower action. That did not pan out.

I figure birds might have nabbed the seed, although wildflowers are fussy things, so maybe just decided they didn’t like the conditions. In terms of the birds, I did mix about half of the seeds with clay before seeding to protect them from the birds. Maybe the clay coated seeds were the only ones that sprouted? Or maybe that didn’t work at all? Who can tell?


I knew this planting would be full of surprises, because I’m unfamiliar with many of the plants I used. So I’m figuring out how they grow and what they like and how they get along. It’s all an ongoing experiment.

front sunflowers close

The golden yarrow is the small yellow flower in this picture.

Surprise number one is Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum) which is not a true yarrow at all. This was supposed to be a relatively small plant, maybe one foot high by two feet wide. I planted 3, and they’ve taken over the left side of the slope. Obviously, they like sunny hillsides! But you know, that side of the slope gets some shade, too, and the shade patches aren’t putting them off, either. Nor are the sunflowers. Really, between the Golden Yarrow and the sunflowers its a miracle that anything else has room to grow.

I give the Eriophyllum confertiflorum a big thumbs up for being an attractive, fast-growing plant. It’s also supposed to be good for butterflies, though I haven’t noticed any butterfly interest in the blooms yet. It’s been blooming since early spring, and it’s categorized as a spring/summer bloomer, so it will be interesting to see how long the bloom lasts.

I like this plant, but I didn’t really intend to cover the entire hillside with it, so I may need to take some action to make it play nice with others. Or, I could just let it take over the whole slope, pour myself a cocktail and call it quits on the landscaping. It wouldn’t be the worse solution in the world.

front grasses

Surprise #2 is how hard it is to get grass to grow.  Native grasses remain a mystery to me. I lost many of the grasses I planted this winter and others are growing slowly. I bought new grass to replace the lost ones, and it’s doing okay, but is a little lost in the crowd on the slope. I’m hoping that it will start reseeding itself, because I don’t want to buy any more of it. I’m figuring that getting a meadow situation started will take time –and the cooperation of the grass. If it likes the slope, I’ll get a grassy meadow in coming years, but not this year. If grass is not to be, I’ll have to punt.

And yes, it may have been more sensible (certainly more affordable) to scatter native grass seed instead of buying plants, but considering how well my wildflower seed did, I suspect it would have all gone into bird bellies as well.

blue eyed grass

A pleasant surprise: blue-eyed grass. What a pretty plant it is! Unfortunately it is summer deciduous, so it’s on its way out. On the upside, it reseeds itself.

Rampant sentimentality getting in the way of design principles

The sunflowers are the most obvious example, but I also have a patch of Mexican sage left over from the old days which I didn’t take out because the hummingbirds love it, and it feeds them during periods when bloom is low everywhere else, and because it is completely naturalized on the slope. It’s so happy and carefree, it seem a shame to take it out. I’m not sure if I could get rid of it, even if I tried! As it is, I keep digging it up as it tries to pop up everywhere, only allowing one stand to grow. But that stand is oppressing some of my other plantings.

I suspect Piet Oudolf does not think like this. This is why he is Piet Oudolf and I’m the Crazy Sunflower Lady.

On similar lines, I have a native sage on the slope as well, also leftover from the old days. It’s a great plant, but it wants to be large, and doesn’t really match my small scale meadow scheme, so I keep it, but I keep it trimmed back. Generally I don’t like “make work” schemes like that. Stuff should just be the right size for the space. Trimming is just a waste of energy for you and the plant. But I’ll leave it for now, and if I decide to give the slope over to the golden yarrow, I’ll let the Mexican sage and the purple sage go, too, and see who comes out on top. It would be like botanical cage fighting.

Speaking of cage fighting, at the very top of the slope we have a cardoon plant. You can see it in the top left of the top picture. Cardoons are technically invasive plants and one of the bêtes noires of the native plant folks. I doubt we’ll ever be on a native plant garden tour with this monster crowning our so-called native landscape, but Erik loves, loves, loves this plant for inexplicable reasons, so I can’t take it out.

The cardoon’s huge leaves are perpetually reaching out to overshade my natives, so I keep hacking them back (more make-work activity). However, I learned to like the cardoon much more this spring when I discovered it had become a ladybug nursery. I’ve never seen so many pupating lady bugs in one place. It was amazing. It probably housed more than 100 developing ladybugs at one point. And birds like that plant, too. They’re eating something off it–not the ladybugs, I think. So I guess it’s earning its keep.

The mystery of the front terrace

The first, front or bottom-most terrace on the slope turns out to have remarkably bad soil. The whole slope has variable soil, due to construction digging, but the front terrace is really distinct: distinctly crappy, that is. Its main problem is that it’s hydrophobic, and no other part of the slope is like that. Hydrophobic means that water doesn’t really sink into the soil very easily, and even after it seems to sink in, it sort of vanishes into the void, as if I never watered. It really is like a magic trick.

The plants down there are alive, but much smaller than their peers above. And no wonder–they’re underwatered.

The cure for bad soil is, as always, compost and mulch and worm poo. I need to add a lot of that stuff to this poor terrace, but I have a problem. The soil is already up to the top of the retaining wall–if I add more, it will spill all over the sidewalk. So I have a choice. I can add edging to give me a few more inches of depth for amendments, or I can dig up that terrace, pulling up the plants in the process, and hope they don’t mind being transplanted. Or I could leave it be, do small interventions like teas and hope the plants make it.


These days I’m pretty much battening down the hatches for the long dry summer. Erik and I have installed a “smart” irrigation system to make watering easier (we’ll blog about that after testing it). I’m going to do a heavy mulching soon as the wildflowers and other spring annuals finish up. At that time I might have to make some decisions about the sunflowers.

It will be interesting to see what the slope looks like without the sunflowers hogging all the attention. There are also summer and fall bloomers hidden in there, who will hopefully come to the foreground later this year.

Overall, I’m happy enough to wait and see how this system stabilizes over time. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad. It’s a little crazy, but it’s feeding critters, which is what it’s supposed to do, so I’m not complaining. I have the feeling it will look much different next year. We’ll find out!

I’ll do a late summer/fall update to see how this thing looks in the dog days of the year.