Gathering of Community Gardeners

This weekend is the third annual Gathering of the Gardens in Los Angeles. While the event is put together by the non-profit L.A. Community Garden Council, it is open to all interested parties. You don’t have to be a member of a community garden to attend, just interested in community building and gardening.

There will be workshops and discussions on topics such as vegetable gardening, composting, native plants, beekeeping and even a workshop on urban chickens co-taught by yours truly, Homegrown Neighbor. The entire day Saturday is free, but a $10 donation is requested to cover operating expenses. I recommend you go and pay them $100, because that is what this event is worth. You’ll meet the coolest people in L.A., learn about gardening, eat great food and contribute to a great cause. The tour of community gardens on Sunday is already booked up so you’ll just have to make the most of Saturday.

When I lived in an apartment after college I had a plot in a local community garden. Being a part of that garden was perhaps the only thing that kept me sane during that time. I had a series of mind numbing jobs followed by periods of depressing unemployment. Having access to that little plot of land allowed me to meet members of my community and to get my hands in the soil. I harvested some fantastic artichokes, kale, onions and chard from that plot.

I have a lot of love for community gardens so I am thrilled to be a part of this event. The event takes place at Farmlab, 1745 N. Spring St., L.A. 90012. It is just slightly North of Chinatown, near Downtown. It runs from 8-4 on Saturday and you won’t want to miss the breakfast provided by Homegirl Cafe.

For more information visit www.lagardencouncil.org.

Favorite Plants- New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides.


When the lettuce wilts in the heat, caterpillars and aphids destroy the kale and your swiss chard is plagued by powdery mildew…. there is New Zealand spinach.
It is not a true spinach but is in a genus all its own. The leaves are triangular in shape, and very succulent. They grow on long, rambling stalks. The seeds are triangular as well and the plant will reseed if you let it. It tends to spread and grow low to the ground. It can be used as a living mulch since it so effectively covers the soil in a vegetable bed.
This green keeps on growing and seems to be unaffected by the bugs and problems that affect other greens. I have seen it growing wild among the rocks right along the ocean, so it can handle saline soils. This is a very robust plant. It tolerates drought, bugs, salt and poor soil. And it does much better in heat than true spinach which just bolts in Southern California’s heat. New Zealand spinach can be grown in the summer when other greens may not grow so well.
My front garden be is pretty much all New Zealand spinach now. The drip watering system broke and most of the plants withered and died or were mercilessly attacked by bugs. But this plant kept on going strong.
I have been growing it for many years and find it a reliable plant. In The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy writes, “New Zealand spinach makes a marvelous temporary ground cover, is good in hanging baskets, and will cascade over the sides of planter boxes. Grow it on the patio so it will be close at hand to add to your morning scrambled eggs along with dill and cheese.”
I have so much in my garden right now that I may do a big harvest and blanch, chop and freeze it for later use. I make a lot of green lasagnas with massive quantities of NZ spinach. I saute it with onions and garlic and put thick layers of spinach sandwiched between noodles and cheese.

When life gives you greens, you can’t go wrong. I have heard that it is edible raw but I prefer it cooked.

Give it a try in your garden if you haven’t already.

Chicken Coop Deconstructed

Homegrown Neighbor here. I volunteer at a local high school with an agricultural program. Remember that we are in the middle of Los Angeles and agriculture is largely a thing of the past here.

This school is one of the last public high schools in the area to have space devoted to an orchard, garden and farm. Right now it is home to a goat, a Vietnamese pot bellied pig, dozens of rabbits and two hens. As can be expected, the program hasn’t gotten the respect and resources it deserves in the last few years. Things look a little scraggly, the orchard is filled with weeds and most of the barns haven’t been touched in thirty years, now housing only spiders.

This program is special of course because it allows city kids to have access to green space, get outside and get close to a pot bellied pig- all rare experiences around here.

My current project is rehabbing the old chicken coop. I brought in my friend Justin, curator of the local arts space Echo Curio and a fellow master gardener to help. He has the building and construction skills that I lack.

This week the students took off all of the old plywood, chain link and chicken wire.

The students loved destroying the old structure. They got to use crowbars and hammers after a little safety lesson. Dust and spiderwebs flew everywhere. They practically had to be dragged back to the classroom at the end of the period because they were having so much fun they didn’t want to stop.The old chicken coop is now stripped down to the studs. As soon as we can get the supplies, we will start rebuilding. The students will get some real hands on construction lessons and get to build it themselves. Once the paint drys the school will be ready for a big flock of chickens. I think the coop could handle about 20.

Next we’ll rehab the big barn and get mini goats and dwarf sheep. This is going to be a jewel of an urban farm and a great educational space!

Root Knot Nematodes, Meliodogyne spp.

Root knot nematodes are my current sworn enemy in the garden. They are very frustrating because unless you know what to look for, you may never know you have a problem. Nematodes are microscopic soil dwelling roundworms. There are many different kinds of nematodes and not all are garden pests. However, the root knot nematode is a very annoying pest indeed. Above ground, plants are stunted. Below ground, the little guys are sucking on the plant’s roots and robbing it of nutrients. This weakens the overall root system, starves the plant and allows entry points for fungus and disease. Bad stuff.

I have had plants that mysteriously won’t grow. No amount of fertilizer, water or sunlight seems to make them happy. Then, I pull out the plant and find the tell-tale sign of root knot nematodes- galls on the roots. The roots are stunted and distorted. They look like they are covered in tumors.

According to my California Master Gardener Handbook, plant parasitic nematodes (including the root knot type) can form complexes with pathogenic fungi in the soil. The pathogens and nematodes work together to damage the plant. Susceptible plants are damaged more than would be predicted from each pathogen alone. They are in cahoots! What is a gardener to do?
Nematodes are known to affect many valuable crop plants. There are chemical treatments available, but for a home gardener who wants to be organic, the options are more limited. I read somewhere that adding organic matter can help by encouraging beneficial soil microbes. I tried that. Plants were still stunted. So I bought nematodes to kill the nematodes. They are supposedly beneficial nematodes that prey on root knot nematodes. Of course, you can’t see nematodes so I felt like I could be the Emperor with no clothes. I have no idea whether there was something in the package or not, much less what the invisible material may do in the garden. But I was desperate so I shelled out the money to give it a try. I applied the beneficial nematodes in my garden and at a client’s house. So we have two experimental plots. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Of course, you can always grow plants that are resistant or not affected by parasitic nematodes. I have noticed that new zealand spinach is totally immune. While other plants are stunted and won’t grow, new zealand spinach flourishes. So if all else fails, I’ll always have that.

Made in the shade- Passive cooling

We just survived another major heat wave here. People and plants were positively melting. The sidewalks were veritable solar cookers. I’m sure I could have fried an egg on the sidewalk outside my house.

I prefer not to crank the air conditioning, so I have been thinking a lot lately about simple ways to cool ourselves and the spaces we inhabit.
Air conditioning is the main mechanical means by which we cool buildings these days. However, there are several ways that we can cool buildings without plugging in so much as a fan. These technologies are referred to as passive. They don’t require any kind of motor or electricity, just a some good planning and design.
If one were designing a building from the ground up there are myriad features that can help that building use a minimum of mechanical heating or cooling mechanisms. There is no one size fits all design. Passively heated and cooled buildings are adapted to local climate conditions. Current construction practices tend to favor the same type of ramshackle 2×4 and drywall buildings from California to Long Island, and all the climate zones in between. Just stick an air conditioner on top, put in a heating unit, and you’re done. Sadly, most buildings are an energy efficiency disaster. Poor design is so prevalent, it is shocking once you know what to look for. Have you ever leaned up against a stucco or brick wall on a hot day? Ouch! You can literally burn your skin off.
However, a passive building in the humid South, might feature carefully placed windows to maximize air flow. In the desert Southwest, where temperatures can be scorching in the summer and freezing in the winter, thick, heavy walls of adobe, strawbales or rammed earth provide protection from extreme weather conditions.
Here in the Homegrown neighborhood, most of us live in old houses that are not designed with passive solar features. The Homegrown Evolution house is practically a greenhouse. My house is about 20 degrees hotter at night than it is outside. All of the hot air gets trapped and has no where to go. The windows are poorly placed allowing for little cross ventilation. Hot air rises so we need windows up high. Do you hear me architects?
Yet there are simple things those of us with old houses can do. I already mentioned window placement. Vents up high could also work. Insulation is of course a must. I had my attic insulated a few years ago and now I don’t need to run the heater nearly as much in the winter. I’m not sure what effect it has on the summer heat, because it still feels pretty darn sweltering in here.
Shade is an easy way to keep things cool. Shade can be utilized inside and out. An outdoor seating area begs for shade. This can be achieved with trees and shrubs or vines trained over a trellis. A roof structure of some sort can also provide shade for outdoor areas. If you have pets that spend time outside, make sure to provide them with a cool, shady spot for hot summer days.
Trees can also provide valuable shade for your house. Leafy trees will protect your house from the direct rays of the sun. Shade prevents solar heat gain. Pure and simple. Deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the Winter can allow sunlight to enter your house in the cool season, making them ideally suited to passive heating and cooling.
You can also shade your windows. Solar shades project out over a window, thus blocking the highest angle of the sun. When the angle of the sun is lower and the heat and sun less extreme, in Winter and during sunset and sunrise in summer, sunlight can still get in the windows. A roof that projects past the walls of the house serves the same purpose by also blocking the highest angles of the sun.
I chose to employ this technology and give myself more growing space by building an arbor on the back of my house.
This shades the back of my house and makes it look much nicer at the same time. I have planted hardy kiwi on it. The kiwi will help to provide shade, give me tasty fruit, and because it is deciduous, it will die back in the Winter to allow in a little more light. Brilliant.
This of course is just a few of the things you can do to use less energy to heat and cool your home. But I hope it provides a little inspiration and gets some of you out there to reach for a shovel instead of a thermostat.

New Chicken!

I just couldn’t wait to announce the arrival of my new hen. The Chicken Enthusiasts club I started had our first meeting on Saturday. Twenty five people attended. Not too bad for a group that just started a month ago. The meeting was really fun, much chicken knowledge was exchanged and we all got to enjoy meeting other like minded folks.

At the meeting, this chicken arrived in need of a new home. Since I recently lost a hen, it made sense that I offer her a new abode. She is in a cage inside the coop for a few days, at the recommendation of a more experienced chicken keeper in the group. Today I let her out for a bit and the other chickens instantly attacked. Even my tiny silkie bantam got in on the
aggression. So back to the little cage she went. I’ll let her out again tomorrow when I can spend more time supervising. Hopefully they will establish the pecking order and everything will calm down.
She is an araucana type chicken and seems very sweet and mellow. She lets me pick her up and seems to enjoy being hand fed. Upon being attacked by the others, she instantly submitted, crouching in a corner.

She laid an egg yesterday and it was a pretty pale green color. I’m very excited about the new addition to the flock.

The Original L.A. Urban Homestead

You know that band you saw play at your local dive bar back in the day that is totally popular now and playing in arenas? Well, the L.A. Eco-Home is kind of like that. Long before glossy magazines were doing “Green” issues, before hybrid cars and composting became hip, Julia Russell had been giving tours featuring the environmentally friendly aspects of her home and garden. Julia is pictured here in front of her Gordon apple tree which bore over 500 lbs. of apples last year. (We counted, seriously.)

The Los Angeles Eco-Home Network has been educating Angelenos about simple ways to conserve energy and other resources, grow their own food and live a happier, healthier lifestyle, since 1988. The house is a charming bungalow full of warm dark wood. It features a small solar array, a fabulous greywater system and many other features that make this cozy home worth a visit. The most educational part of the Eco-Home, in my humble opinion, is Julia’s actual lifestyle. Sure, technical features such as solar and greywater are great, but living lightly is more about how you live and small simple choices you make everyday. Julia is in her 70′s and doesn’t drive. She bikes. Pretty impressive. She has a nifty cargo bike that she uses to get groceries. The house is surrounded by mature trees that provide deep shade in the summer, keeping the house cool without the need for air conditioning.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson would be environmentalists can learn from Julia and the Eco-Home network is the absolute lack of pretentiousness and holier-than-thou attitude that can plague the green movement. Julia is down to earth and just wants to share her passion for living a green lifestyle. So if you are in L.A. check out one of their tours and bring a friend.
The Eco-Home Network- being green and keeping it real since ’88.

Urban Chicken Enthusiasts Unite!

Creating community is a vital part of the urban homesteading movement. For why should one make jam or grow zucchini without people to share it with? In a big, crazy city like L.A. there are lots of interesting people doing inspiring things, you just have to find them. I’m always excited to meet new people who are interested in all the things we write about here at Homegrown Evolution. I was lucky to move a block away from Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown and find instant community. Now the neighbors and I have been thinking that we would like to meet more local urban chicken folks. As our flocks age a lot of questions come up and we’d like to learn from more experienced chicken keepers. And we often meet people who would like to know more about urban poultry. So I’ve decided to create a group of L.A. urban chicken enthusiasts. I used meetup.com to create the L.A. Urban Chicken Enthusiasts group.

I like Meetup because the point is to organize face to face meetings. Our group will get together every month or so, eat eggs dishes and talk about raising chickens, local food and sustainability. The L.A. Urban Chicken Enthusiasts meetup group is just for people in the Los Angeles area. Not to worry if you aren’t in L.A., I noticed a lot of other urban chicken groups on Meetup and if there isn’t one in your city you can easily start your own. So if you are local and into chickens, join our group. If you aren’t in L.A. or not a poultry person, just go forth and create a group for whatever you are into, network, make friends and build some community.

Outdoor Sink Makes Water Recycling Simple

This is my new outdoor sink. I found the cast iron sink on the side of the road in Pomona and gleefully dragged the heavy beast several hundred yards to my car. I had a frame built for it out of scrap wood lying around the yard, the faucet and pipes came from another discarded sink, and we hooked it up to the hose outlet. It drains into a simple 5 gallon bucket which I can then pour out into the nearby landscape. It is super simple grey water. Now instead of going inside to wash my hands or rinse produce from the garden, I can use the outdoor sink and easily recycle my water. Plus, there is less dirt and compost in my kitchen sink. This is the kind of so-simple-its-brilliant stuff I just love. While I would like my entire house to have a greywater system, that isn’t really feasible at this time. The house is old and the pipes are very difficult, perhaps impossible, to access. So we are starting with the sink and soon we are doing a simple greywater system from the washing machine as part of our Summer Workshop Series. Every drop counts so we have to start somewhere.

Chicken Goes to Hollywood

Homegrown Neighbor here.

On Thursday Mr. Homegrown and I escorted my chicken, Peckerella, to her first public appearance. Peckerella was there to assist author Terry Golson, who has written a wonderful children’s book called Tillie Lays An Egg. The book has adorable pictures of her flock and features the adventurous Tillie, who likes to lay her eggs everywhere except her nesting box.
Ms. Golson is currently in Los Angeles to share Tillie’s story with children and chicken aficionados of all ages. Since her chickens reside on the East Coast, Peckerella stepped in to play ambassador. ‘Pecky’ as she is often called, did a wonderful job and was very well behaved, allowing many children to pet her and sitting patiently during the book reading. Her next appearance will be at a reading of Tillie’s story at Chevalier’s books in Larchmont Village this Sunday, August 9th, from 11-1. If you are in the area please stop by and say hello. Peckerella loves to meet her adoring fans. Sorry, Chickenzilla doesn’t fit in the cat carrier so she won’t be able to make it.