More Thoughts on Garlic

Homegrown Neighbor here:
So Mrs. Homegrown’s post the other day about their not so successful garlic season this year inspired me to weigh in with some of my own garlic observations.

I recall having a conversation with Mr. Homegrown around the time we both planted our garlic in November. I selected three heirloom varieties to grow at a job site and I plopped a few extra cloves into my own garden. Mr. Homegrown said, “You can’t grow hardneck garlic here.” I of course had purchased only hardneck varieties. Now, we have garden debates like this all the time. Sometimes I am right and often I am completely wrong. I replied that we would wait and see. I hoped my hardneck garlic varieties wouldn’t be a total failure.

He planted white softneck garlic, the popular commercial variety here in California. I planted Music, Pskem River and Bogatyr garlic at my work site and Pskem River also in my home garden. All three varieties have done simply okay at my work site. However, the Pskem River garlic in my home garden is big and beautiful. Hardneck garlic produces scapes. The picture above is of the scapes I have removed from my plants in order to encourage them to produce bigger bulbs. Now I am going to stop watering the garlic and hope to harvest it in a couple of weeks. It is best to stop watering garlic at least two weeks prior to harvest to help the papery skins to form. This will also improve its storage quality.

Since I live a block away from the Root Simple compound, I’m quite sure weather isn’t the issue. Also, as my other garlic plants at a job site have shown lackluster growth I think I can draw a few conclusions. First, garlic likes fertile soil with plenty of nutrients. My home garden bed with the garlic in it has been amended with a lot of rich compost including worm castings and chicken manure. The native soil in the area also isn’t too bad. The pH is pretty neutral to slightly alkaline. Its a little heavy on the clay side but clay holds nutrients well and with all of the organic matter added the drainage is pretty decent. So I’m confident the robust garlic has been growing in healthy, rich soil.

My work garden site has less fertile soil that I am constantly trying to improve. So I’d guess that the garlic that has been slowly plugging along there is suffering due to the soil.

How it is watered can also affect how well garlic grows. Garlic likes even, regular watering during its growth cycle. My past experiences with garlic have certainly taught me that if they don’t get regular water they will stay puny.

And as to the softneck versus hardneck garlic debate I can say conclusively that hardneck garlic will indeed grow and thrive here in a Mediterranean climate. Garlic is usually planted here in November and harvested in June or July. So its growth cycle avoids the most intensely hot months. Softneck garlic stores better and this is why it is so popular and almost all commercially available garlic is softneck. Supposedly softneck varieties do better in warmer climates and hardnecks do better in colder climates. However, while we are not growing in Minnesota, nor are we growing in the hot and humid tropics. Our climate is very forgiving.

I can’t wait to harvest my garlic heads in a few weeks. I’ll post some pictures after the harvest.

How Not To Bake Bread

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown are away on book tour while I’m holding down the fort in L.A. and looking after their chickens.

I figured that while they are away and not blogging much, I can step in and entertain you with tales of my epic baking failures. Sure, lots of blogs have pretty pictures of food and neatly typed recipes, but everyone likes a good tale of failure now and then.

Now, my neighbor Erik, aka Mr. Homegrown is quite the bread baker. He can turn out beautiful, tasty loaves of bread with ease. Down the street here, my loaves are quite the disaster. I’ve been wanting to learn to bake bread for a while and my experiments haven’t been going well. I’m hardly an incompetent cook. I can even bake cakes and cookies and other things leavened with baking powder or soda. But with yeast, well, I just haven’t figured it out.

I’m trying to follow the Mother Earth News ‘no knead’ bread recipe that you bake in a dutch oven. I’ve tried other yeasted bread recipes before with little success. Since this one is supposed to be easier, I thought this is the perfect bread for me! Apparently some folks gets great
results with it. Grumble. Grumble. I get chicken feed. Not that the chickens are complaining. They love this experiment.

One loaf flattened out completely in the bottom of the pan. I was able to glean some of the pretty tasty insides before turning it over to the hens. The next loaf I was determined to shape better. The dough was a sticky mess. It stuck to everything including plastic wrap, my hands, the bowl. I added more flour to deal with the stickiness but things still went wrong. I at least got something that looked more like a loaf than a pancake. But I think I cooked it too long. Again, I cracked it open, ate the soft inside of the bread and gave the rest to the chickens.


I tend to be a very experimental cook. I like to learn from my failures. Often things taste good but aren’t pretty, but after a few tries I can make them taste and look good. But not bread. It defies all of my time tested methods of how I teach myself to do things. I’ve been reading books on baking and they make my head hurt. How much protein is in the flour or what kind of enzyme does what is way beyond my comprehension at this point. So when the neighbors get back, in exchange for ten days of chicken- sitting, I’m going to have Mr. Homegrown teach me how to bake a darn loaf of decent bread. With none going to the chickens.

Mr. Homegrown here–happy to give a bead lesson, but I’ve had plenty of failures myself. One tip would be to use a scale when measuring bread ingredients. Another would be to make sure you’re not using old, dead yeast. Lastly, I know you’re sick with a sore throat and that’s the time to order take-out.

Los Angeles Fruit Tree Pruning Workshops

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Growing fruit trees has obvious rewards. You can eat the fruit at its peak, straight off of the tree, full of flavor, aromatic and juicy. And the sight of an apple, peach or other deciduous tree in bloom is an ephemeral yet breathtakingly beautiful sight. But many of these trees will not bear good fruit without proper pruning. Good pruning encourages stronger limbs able to hold heavy fruits, prevents limb breakage, improves air circulation and light penetration and overall makes for a more attractive tree. Improper pruning or sheer neglect can mean weak, spindly limbs, a chaotic looking, ugly tree and puny fruits.

But how do you know what to cut? I’ll be teaching two workshops this weekend for the locals. The first is this Saturday, January 15th at The Learning Garden in Venice. The workshop will run from 11 am-12:30 pm and there is a suggested donation of $25. The Learning Garden is at the southeast corner of Walgrove Avenue and Venice Blvd.

Then on Sunday, the 16th at Milagro Allegro Community Garden in Highland Park at 1pm as part of their ‘Organic Sundays’ series I’m teaching another one.

And for those of you who aren’t local, the Homegrown Evolution team is going to work on some web based stuff for you. I’m going to teach Mr. Homegrown how to prune (in exchange for help baking bread, which I’m terrible at) and we will take photos for a blog post explaining the basics of fruit tree pruning.

Bagrada, The Bad News Bug


Homegrown Neighbor here:

I’ve been busy in the garden lately and one of the reasons I’m so busy is that I’m battling a new pest, the bagrada bug (Bagrada hilaris). This new pest made its way to the U.S. recently. It was first found in L.A. County in June 2008. So far in the United States it is only in Southern California and in parts of Arizona. If you live in a northern climate, hopefully you will be spared the spread of this heat loving pest.

I tend a garden in one of L.A.’s hottest microclimates. Even when the mercury is over 100, bagrada bugs seem to do just fine. And unfortunately they love a lot of our favorite garden vegetables such as broccoli, kale and cauliflower. The local nursery says they are destroying the allysum as well. In my garden they have been particularly devastating to an heirloom broccoli raab and some wild arugula. They also are munching the caper plants. Actually, they don’t munch, rather they suck juices out of a plant.

The nymphs are small and resemble a ladybug. Mature bagradas are black with orange markings and look like a beetle. They are often seen in mating pairs. They reproduce quickly and lay their eggs in the soil. Apparently insecticidal soap can help control them but, because they are so new to the U.S., little is known about their ecology here.

I hope some natural predators show up on the scene soon!

I’m trying to control them with diatomaceous earth, soap sprays and organic insecticidal oils. But I’m being really careful about the soaps and oils to be mindful of the bees in my garden.

I think that one of the keys to being a good organic gardener is observation. So I’ve just been watching the bugs, trying to handpick them and wash them off. Diatomaceous earth doesn’t affect the bees, so that is a good thing. It seems to help at least. But after a few days of no beetles, the population seems to explode again. When the populations get too big I’ve been spraying with neem. But I never spray near the flowers that the bees like the best. So it’s quite a challenge, since the bees are all over. I’ve decided to try to spray only after dark now, when the bees have gone to bed.

UC Riverside Center for Invasive Species Research fact sheet on bagrada can be found here.

Mr. Homegrown here: I found one peer reviewed study related to Bagrada hilaris controls, which you can access here.  The study found that the most effective treatment is the systemic pesticide imidicloprid which, unfortunately, is also deadly to pollinating insects and is a substance I don’t believe should be on the market. The study did show that starting plants at a cooler point in the season reduced heat loving bagrada bug numbers substantially. Confusingly, Bagrada hilaris is sometimes referred to as the “harlequin bug” which is also the popular name for a similar insect Murgantia histrionica.

Greywater Fed Tomato Plant Takes Over The World

Homegrown Neighbor Here:

So a few months ago Mr. Homegrown helped me install a simple ‘laundry to landscape’ greywater system. Most of the plants that get watered by the system didn’t get much water before and were just barely surviving. There are several fruit trees, a rhubarb plant and an assortment of perennial herbs lining a narrow strip of land along the side of the house. Now, the plants getting fed by the greywater are going bonkers.

Last week the area became impassable it was so overgrown. The path along the side of the house had disappeared. I have the laundry water going to the sewer half the time because I don’t want to overwater. That and my roommate bought some non-greywater friendly soap. So I really only run one or two loads of laundry a week into the yard. But that has been more than enough.

Yesterday I hacked my way through the overgrowth and tried to train the rampant cherry tomato plant. The tomatoes are delicious. I eat them constantly when I’m in the yard and pawn them off on friends and family whenever I can. Still, there are tomatoes in areas that I can no longer get too. The tomato plant has killed my apple tree I think. I can’t see the apple tree under it anymore. The tomato plant is about eight feet tall and equally wide. It is reaching for the roof, using the poor buried apple tree as its support. I tried to photograph the madness, but it just looks like an indeterminable tangle and doesn’t really show what is going on.

But now I have reclaimed a path along the side of the house. If just an occasional load of laundry can provide such a boost to this little patch of land, I wonder what all of the other water used in the house could do. I would have to get rid of all of the low-water and native plantings and go tropical! It just goes to show how much water we use in our homes every day and don’t really think about where it goes. Eventually I would love for all of the water from our showers and sinks to go to the yard as well, but for now, the washing machine is creating a little tropical oasis and that’s plenty.

Scarlet Runner Bean Stew

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Apparently a block away, Mrs. Homegrown has also been having bean cravings. Maybe there is something in the air. Maybe its just that beans are hearty, filling, inexpensive and all around awesome. I happened to get my hands on a bag of dried scarlet runner beans from Rancho Gordo specialty beans.

Scarlet runners are a favorite garden bean as they are great climbers and produce beautiful red flowers. If you want to grow a bean teepee or need to cover a chain link fence, they would be a good plant choice. In fact, my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown, grow them every summer.
 
I’ve never had scarlet runners as a dried bean before. But having lived in co-ops in Berkeley for many years, I am pretty experienced at cooking dried beans, other legumes and whole grains.
When it comes to dried beans I almost always do the overnight soak method. To soak beans overnight, simply place your beans in a large pot. Rinse them and pick out any stones or broken beans. Fill the pot up 3/4 of the way with water and let soak overnight or for at least five hours. After their soak you may need to add more water. The beans can soak up a lot. Then cook on medium to high heat for about an hour. Test a bean. How done you want your beans is rather subjective. If you want to use them in a salad, you may want them a little more firm. But if you want to make refried beans, they need to be extra soft. Just taste and see what you think. I like my beans nice and soft but not falling apart.
So to cook the scarlet runner beans I placed them in the 3 quart enameled pot that goes with my solar cooker, filled it the rest of the way with water and let the beans soak overnight. The next day I admired the fat, swollen beans. I threw in a few bay leaves and put the pot in the solar cooker around 9 a.m.. I arrived home around 4 p.m. and my beans were done.

They are big and meaty, but still rather bland. I’m going to eat them for dinner tonight and this is what I’m going to do to flavor them: I’ll keep the pot liquor (the water the beans cooked in). In a separate skillet I’ll heat some oil and saute onions, garlic, maybe a few pieces of celery then add some mushrooms. I really recommend cooking the onions and mushrooms in butter for extra flavor. But since I’m making tonight’s dish vegan, I’m going to cook them in coconut oil. Then I’ll add the cooked onions and mushrooms to the beans on low heat. Then add 1 -2 teaspoons of ground cumin and a dash of cayenne.Yum.

Rooftop Garden Classes

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Los Angeles has sprouted a very cool rooftop garden. Here where January temperatures are often in the 70′s, buildings aren’t designed to hold snow, meaning that our roofs usually can’t hold much weight. So rooftop gardens are rare.

But on the border of Little Tokyo, skid row, and a warehouse district, an old seafood warehouse rooftop has been turned into a gourmet garden atop the home of artisan food purveyor Cube Marketplace.

Full disclosure: I’m the lucky gardener. And this weekend I’ll be teaching a Fall Gardening Class and a class on new ways to use common garden herbs. For more information or to sign up for the classes click here.

The classes are part of a quarterly pop-up marketplace. Even if you don’t want to take the classes, this is an opportunity to come and check out the garden. I love watching the bees pollinate the flowers and then looking out at the view of Downtown Los Angeles and the industrial sprawl down below. It is delightfully incongruous.

Summer of Solar Cookin’


Homegrown Neighbor here:

I was lucky to recently receive a really nice solar cooker from a family friend. Apparently it had been sitting in her garage for a while, and I was happy to take it off of her hands.
The model is called an SOS Sport. It is a box style cooker with a black interior and clear, insulated lid. It also has a removable reflector to help concentrate the light in the box. The reflector is helpful, but I’ve seen the temperature get up to nearly 200 degrees without it during the middle of the day. It came with two round 3 quart pots, so it can cook up quite a lot of food.
Summer is here and it is nice and sunny in Southern California. And way too hot to turn on an oven. So I am embarking on a summer of solar cooking fun. I’ve made a few peach cobblers in the solar cooker, but mostly I use it to cook beans.
I love beans. They are inexpensive, hearty and filling. I keep my pantry stocked with at least two or three different types of dried beans and lentils at all times. I’m usually away all day at work and too exhausted at the end of the day to do much cooking.
I often slump into a chair in the garden at the end of the day, gazing at the veritable cornucopia of vegetables before me, wishing someone would harvest them and make me dinner.
The solar cooker is perfect for someone like me because I can load it up in the morning, leave it all day, and when I come home I have a great meal hot and ready. So it is kind of like a crock pot or slow cooker, just using solar energy instead of electricity. I’ve made a lot of black beans in it, but I’ve also used it to cook pintos, adzukis, mung beans and white beans. I usually grab a sprig of an herb or a bay leaf from the garden to throw in the pot.
Here is what I made today:
Solar Powered Navy Beans

2 cups navy beans
a handful of celery leaves
5 garlic cloves, whole
1/4 cup pickled red onion (just sliced red onion soaked overnight in white wine vinegar- delicious with everything)
Lots of water- maybe 4-5 cups
You want to make sure to use plenty of water. Beans absorb a lot of water as they rehydrate and the solar cooker looses some moisture as it cooks. So err on the side of extra water.
I’m not much of one for measuring. The great thing about making beans, soups and stews is you can add a pinch of this and a sprig of that and adjust the flavoring as you go. It is very forgiving.
I put the pot in the solar cooker around 10 a.m. and got home around 6 p.m. The pot was still nice and warm but not too hot. The beans were the perfect eating temperature. I had a lovely dinner and I’ll have leftovers for several days. I love easy meals. I’m going car camping next week and I’m thinking of taking the solar cooker with me. I think I’ll try a vegetarian chili for the camping trip. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Acanthoscelides obtectus- A seed saver’s lament

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Well, I had a rude awakening when I tried to plant my beans a few weeks ago. I have been growing several different types of pole beans for three or four years and saving seeds from them at the end of every summer. I usually grow purple, yellow and green varieties of pole beans for beautiful summer soups, salads and other dishes.

Not this year. When I opened the packet of bean seeds that I had saved last fall, I found all of these little holes in my beans. Turns out the culprit is the bean weevil, Acanthoscelides obtectus.

Their larvae make swiss cheese out of dried beans.

While they can be a pest in the garden apparently they usually are a problem in stored beans. And it turns out they love our mild California winters which allow them to reproduce year round. I also looked them up on the handy dandy University of California Integrated Pest Management site. Turns out not having dried beans around is the best way to control them. I probably am storing too many seeds in my garage. This fall I’m going to use glass jars instead of paper envelopes and see if that keeps some of the critters out.

Chicken Coop Complete

Homegrown Neighbor here:

As you may recall, I volunteer at a local high school where we have been working on building a chicken coop. Last fall we started taking apart the remnants of the old coop. It has been a long, slow process, but I am proud to announce that we are finally finished. The students did a lot of the work themselves and many had no building experience when we started. It was pretty great to watch them figure out how to use a drill.

The coop is big, 10 feet by 20 feet. The first four chickens have moved in and are very happy in their new home. These first four chickens needed a home and the school was happy to provide them one. In the future we hope to have up to twenty chickens at one time.

There is a spacious fenced in area for them to roam in during the day, with a big old oak tree providing valuable shade.

And the usually surly teenagers really enjoy the chicken’s hilarious antics. While digging in the orchard we unearthed some grubs and took them to the hens. One chicken grabbed the first grub and proceeded to run around the perimeter of the coop with all of the others following after her and periodically pecking at the prize in her beak, trying to steal it. Finally, the teenagers found something at school that they find worthy of their attention- chickens.