Advances in Gardening Series: The Fan

Yet another heat wave slowed our backyard redesign project, but the weather is looking more cooperative at last and things are coming along. What we thought we might do over the next few days is share some of the new things we’ve put in, and how/why we built them, just in case any of it might be useful to you.

Everything is pretty rough and ragged right now, but it will be fun to report back in a couple months and do a compare/contrast.

The Concept:

Above you see the bones of my herb fan (and lots of chaos beyond). This space used to be my herb patch, which consisted of a bunch of random plantings, some perennial, some seasonal. It somewhat useful and occasionally attractive, but  didn’t earn its keep. So what I’ve done is split my herb production into two categories: kitchen and medicinal.

The kitchen herbs are going to live in a smaller planter box, all compact and tidy (because really, how much marjoram do you need?). This new bed, The Fan, is for medicinal annuals, because I need more space to produce them in useful quantities. For instance, you need a good number of chamomile plants if you want enough to put away for tea and a little more for salves. With this in mind, I’m going to rotate “large” crops of annuals through this space, one variety per wedge.

This winter’s fan is planted with, from left to right, Calendula, chamomile and bread seed poppies. I started the Calendula and chamomile in flats ahead of time, simply to get a head start, then transplanted them into their wedges this week. Poppies don’t like to be transplanted, so I sowed those seeds today.

The original herb garden was a rough quarter circle. We kept that footprint, but used spare bricks to divide the shape into 3 smaller wedges. The bricks give me a way to walk between the wedges without compacting the soil. 

The Process:

To prepare the ground…

I first forked the original soil, because while it’s not bad soil, it was compacted. Poppies have deep taproots. Like carrots, they need loose soil, so I really worked their wedge deep. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have done the same for all the wedges. Then I spread 1″ of good homemade compost over the whole area and a bit of alfalfa meal and forked that in about 3 inches deep. Then I watered deeply to prepare for planting.

By the way, I made a mistake at this stage. While merrily amending and forking the soil, I forgot that chamomile likes crappy soil.  With chamomile, hard conditions yield many blossoms. So by putting my chamomile in a deluxe bed, I may have guaranteed myself lots of foliage and few flowers. We’ll see. The lesson? Pay attention. Don’t garden on autopilot.

Next I coiled drip tubing in each wedge…

pinning the tubing down with bent wire. Erik did the heavy lifting in setting up the drip system a couple of years ago. Now when we want to irrigate, we just have to move the tubes around or switch them out as necessary. You can see the tubing snaking around in the photo. Soon as the plants get a little bigger it will become invisible. The mainline tubing is visible at the bottom of the photo–this is where all the little tubes plug in. That will also be obscured later.

The final step is to protect newly planted seeds and seedling from marauding critters.

We do this by stretching bird netting over wire hoops. Bird netting, also called aviary netting, is a super light, fine plastic netting that can be bought at most nurseries. You can drape trees or garden beds with it to protect them when in fruit, or when plants are tiny and tempting.

Erik says he’ll do a whole post on the wire hoops one day, but right now can’t remember the name of the wire. But he gets in the chain-link fencing section of the Home Despot. But basically, it’s a sturdy galvanized wire. Because it’s sold in circular bundles, it’s easy to cut off a piece and use it as a hoop. The cut ends get thrust in the ground and the netting is spread over the arch. We weigh the ends down with bricks or boards. You can see the bricks on the far left wedge above–if not the netting itself.  This system isn’t elegant, but it’s temporary, and it works.

Now all I have to do is top water…

until the plants get roots deep enough to take advantage of the drip. It’s nice to have the chamomile and Calendula so far along. These seedlings are too big for bugs to bother, and should do fine. The poppies I planted by simply sowing the seed thick on the surface of the soil, and patting them down a bit.  When they germinate, there will be tons of teeny sprouts, and I’ll have to thin them ruthlessly so that each poppy has lots of breathing room. I’ve made the mistake in the past of planting them too closely. When you do that, they get spindly and sad.

And that’s that. I can hardly wait to see the beds fill in.

Tune in next time for… The Germinator!


On miso, caffeine and the search for a morning brew



Mrs. Homegrown here:

I am a caffeine addict. Erik is too, though he doesn’t admit it. Actually, he was only a casual user until he met me, and then became habituated to the morning brew, and eventually graduated into the 3pm pick-me-up brew. In general, I think mild caffeine addiction is not very worrisome, and pretty much built into the fiber of America. However, my own addiction has always been demanding. And recently I had to go straight (long story) — which resulted in a full week of headaches and misery. But now I’m clean, and living in a much slower, less productive, somewhat dream-like reality. Is the world supposed to be this way??? Really?

Anyway, I’ve decided two things. One, that it is impossible that I should never again ingest caffeine. No more Turkish coffee? No more Thai iced coffee? Never again a Mexican Coke? No English Breakfast teas on a cold afternoon? No crisp iced tea with a nice lunch? Riiiiighht. It will have to come back into my life in some sort of managed way. (How’s that for addict thinking?)

But before I slide back into my habits, I’ve decided to stay entirely clean for a month to see how my head reacts. See, I get a lot of headaches, so much so that I’m a connoisseur of headaches, and I’m wondering if the vascular expansion roller coaster of caffeine consumption might not be very good for me. We’ll see.

All this brings me to the point of this post. I’m looking for interesting suggestions for hot beverages that I can drink in the morning which will ease my longing for the ritualized caffeine consumption.

I do not approve of any of the myriad fruit-flavored or otherwise flavored “herb” teas in the marketplace. I have my own mint, nettles and other herbs to make tea of, but thin herb tea is just plain depressing first thing in the morning. In the morning I want something substantial. I’m not afraid of the the bitter, the strange and the strong.

Do any of you know anything about chicory or the various bitter root brews? Those old-timey, war ration, hillbilly sort of brews? This is what I’m interested in pursuing. Let me know if you have any ideas or favorites.

What’s working for me so far is miso soup. It’s an important component of the traditional Japanese breakfast, and I can see why. Miso soup is big and interesting and hearty–somehow on par in terms of body satisfaction with a nice cup of coffee with milk. Of course, it’s crazy high in sodium, but it is rich in trace minerals, and if you use real paste (not dried mix) and don’t overcook it, you also get a dose of beneficial micro-organisms, because miso is a fermented product. I throw in a few strips of nori to give me something to chew on as I drink.

A few hints re: miso:

• Buy the pure paste, not the soup mix. Buy the paste in big bags at an Asian-foods supermarket. It is much cheaper than the little tubs sold in health food stores. After I open a bag I transfer it to a plastic yogurt tub and put it in the fridge. It keeps forever. There are different types of miso (red, white, brown…) Don’t let this confuse you. All are good. Just start somewhere and you’ll sort it out. I’m fond the red.

• Proper miso soup is made with the classic Japanese soup stock, dashi. You can make it with any stock you like, or do as I do in the mornings and just use water. It’s important not to simmer miso, because heat kills the beneficial critters in it. If you’re making a pot of soup, add the miso at the end, after you pull it off the heat. If you’re making it with hot water, take the kettle off heat before the boil, or let the water sit and cool some before using.

• I use about one rounded teaspoon of paste per coffee cup of water. This makes pretty strong drink, but I like that.

Big hint: when mixing miso paste into liquid, always dissolve the miso in a tiny bit of liquid first, and then add that solution to the larger volume of liquid. Otherwise you’ll never get the lumps out. For instance, I put a spoonful of paste at the bottom of the coffee cup, add a splash of water, mix that up until the lumps are gone, then add the rest of the water.

• You can make your own miso! Sandor Katz has instructions in Wild Fermentation. It actually doesn’t sound hard to do at all. You just cook up some beans and inoculate them, then store them in a crock. I’ve always wanted to try it, but miso needs to ferment for a year in a reasonably cool place. Living in SoCal without a cellar, I just don’t think I can give it the conditions it requires.

• You can make pickles using miso paste. I’m experimenting with that right now, and will report back.

Taut-line knot

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Knot tying is a skill that’s long been on my to-acquire list. I’ve finally learned how to tie a fancy knot, and it’s pretty exciting. This won’t impress ex-Boy Scouts and hardcore knot wonks, but if your knot skills are pretty much limited to shoelaces (as mine were until today), you might enjoy learning this one.

The taut-line hitch is an adjustable knot. It slides to adjust tension, but stays where you put it. So cool! If you’ve ever struggled to tie a line between two objects–say a laundry line–only to have it sag morosely, you’ll get my excitement. It’s also a useful for staking out tents and tarps.

I’m not going to show you how to do it here, but I’m going to save you the trouble of squinting at lots of poorly drawn diagrams and unclear videos, by sharing the the video that did it for me, one offered by a joint called The Art of Manliness. Official disclaimer: I haven’t read that site, so I don’t know what their program is, but I must say, I do feel rather manly.

It’s actually a very easy knot, though until I found this set of instructions, the procedure baffled me. Apparently there’s a few variations of this knot, but this version does work.

ETA: One of our commenters brought up the advantages of variations of this knot. If you’re new to knots, as I am, I’d recommend you learn one variation of this knot, so you get the general gist of it planted in your brain, and then venture into the Wikipedia page on the Tautline Hitch to look at the variations. The one shown here is #1857. Also important, I learned from Wikipedia that these knots may not be secure when made with slippery synthetic rope.

Birds on a Wire

A neighbor told me this morning that when the house next door to him was for sale the owners asked him not to hang laundry on his clothesline because it would, “bring down their property value.” And, of course, many housing developments have the same anti-clothesline restriction. Is it some distant cultural memory of 19th century tenement buildings, an id-based Ralph Kramden, an intense fear of anything urban? Maybe this clever design by Fabian van Sprecklsen might tip the balance for the clotheslineophobes. The ends are shaped like telephone poles and the clothes pins are shaped like little birds. I’m tempted to pull out a saber saw and make a copy, but that would be stealing! Via Doornob, an inspiring design blog I highly recommend.

Chumash Plant Wisdom

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Great news for our readers in Southern California (and parts near)! I’ve just found the holy grail of local plant guides: Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. It’s co-authored by a Chumash healer, Cecilia Garcia and a USC pharmacology prof., James David Adams, Jr., both of whom write for Wilderness Way magazine. It features full-color pictures of plants familiar to you from hikes in the desert and the chaparral, and discusses the recommended use of the these plants from both the Chumash perspective and the western scientific perspective.

I found this book in the wonderful Green Apple book store while visiting San Francisco. It can be ordered direct from the publishers. The title link will take you to their site. It also is available in our Amazon store.

More Nettle Love: Nettle Infusion


Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s nettle appreciation week here at Homegrown Evolution. Inspired by Homegrown Neighbor’s post, I thought I’d throw in my own two cents about nettles.

First, it’s one of my favorite plants. Its nutritional profile is outstanding. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritionally dense foods available. It’s a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins, chlorophyll–the things your body might be lacking after a long winter, or a period stress and poor eating. For this reason it’s long been treasured as a spring tonic.

The most straightforward way to take advantage of these nutritional benefits is to eat nettles as a green, but as our neighbor mentions, they don’t make great eating. They’re not bad, just bland. It’s funny how such a prickly plant is so aggressively mild when all is said and done. That’s part of its charm and mystery. When I harvest it in the wild, usually from tall stands of tough, mean plants, I really feel like I’m hunting or doing combat of some sort. The older nettles get, the more intimidating they become. Though I wear long pants and sleeves and rubber dishwashing gloves when I go into battle, I never escape unscathed. But stings are just part of the process, a price I pay gladly.

I recommend you check out the website of Susun Weed, an herbalist. Reading there, I learned that infusions make more of the plant nutrients available than regular tea, so now we put one ounce of dried nettle (an ounce is quite a lot–a cup if it’s chopped, half a jar or more if the leaves are whole) in a quart jar, fill the jar with boiling water and let it sit 4-8 hours before drinking. The resulting brew is stronger tasting than ordinary nettle tea, but not unpleasant at all. It’s our house energy drink.

Nettle Harvest

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Stinging nettle- Urtica dioica is a both a beloved and hated plant. Yes, it does sting. The stem and leaf edges are covered in stinging hairs. It can be rather painful. But it has been used as a food and medicine plant dating back at least to ancient Rome. Interestingly, if you sting an inflamed or painful area of the body with nettle, it has been shown to decrease the pain.
Mr. Homegrown has also written about nettles on the blog here.
Nettle is considered anti-inflammatory and is a diuretic. It has been used to cleanse and build the blood, treat prostate problems, to promote healthy menstruation, to reduce arthritis pain and even to treat hair loss. I have always taken nettle when I feel a little anemic and weak. It has a mild taste that is easily blended with other herbs for tea. My favorite pick me up is a teaspoon of dried nettle with a teaspoon of jasmine green tea.
Nettle is nutritious, if not delicious. If I were lost in the woods or just trying to find something to eat here on the streets of L.A., I would be happy to find nettles. Luckily, nettle thrives in both locations. It reseeds readily, making it an annoying weed if you don’t know how to make use of it.
I found a weedy nettle patch while hiking one day. I dug up a little bit and put it, roots and all, in my backpack. I transplanted it into my front yard when I got home. The nettle grew and set seed. So now I have a nice big nettle patch in my front yard.
The nettle patch has grown so lushly that it stings me every time I walk to my car. It borders the entire driveway. I’m kind of immune to the little stings at this point. I hardly even notice it. But a friend of mine got stung rather badly the other day as I forgot to warn him about the weeds. So I realized it was time to harvest.
I put on latex gloves, got my kitchen shears and a brown paper bag. I discovered that nettle can sting you right through a latex glove. And my wrists were stung quite severely. But oh well. I was so excited about harvesting I just plunged my arm into the deep green patch and started cutting.
I cut the plants off near ground level and carefully placed them in my paper bag.
Then I closed the paper bag and hung it inside near a sunny window to dry. If you live in a humid climate or need it to dry quickly, I recommend setting your oven at a very low temperature, like 200 degrees and placing the bag in it for half an hour.
It will take about two weeks for your nettles to dry on their own. Check periodically to make sure they are drying properly and not getting moldy. Once they are dry, the sting is gone. You can safely strip the leaves from the stems and store in a jar in your pantry. Make some tea and enjoy. Stinging nettle is a tonic for almost anything that may ail you.

Bottle Cap Wreath

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I love Christmas. I love eating cookies, getting together with friends and family and of course, an excuse to make things. I was inspired this weekend to get a little crafty. My front door needed a wreath and I have a huge collection of beer bottle caps so of course I made a bottle cap wreath. I used a simple piece of wire as a form and a lot of hot glue. I tied the wire around a ceramic bowl to shape it. That’s about it. It took me perhaps an hour to make.
I also made this little one as a gift for a friend who helped to consume the beer for the project. For the little one I used the rim of a coffee can (like the one’s from Trader Joe’s.) I just cut off the metal rim from the cardboard and hot glued the bottle caps. I found a little green ribbon to hang it with as an extra special touch.
Happy Holidays to all.

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.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)


Every time we visit the nice folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead they send us home with some strange plant. Thanks to PUH, who are busy actually doing things as opposed to blogging about doing things, we now have a beautiful flowering mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus).

Verbascum thapsus is one of those plants that most people think of as a weed. Native to Europe and Asia, Verbascum thapsus was introduced to North America because of its many medicinal uses, almost too many to list. Most commonly used for respiratory problems, it also makes both green and yellow dyes and doubles as a fish poison! Tradition holds that it also wards off evil spirits,with some sources saying it’s the herb Ulysses took with him to deal with the treacherous sorcerer Circe.

It’s a useful, striking and beautiful plant. It’s also classified as an invasive. The Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA), a consortium of ten federal government agencies and 260 mostly non-profit organizations, has Verbascum thapsus in its cross hairs. How the non-profit “cooperators”, as the PCA terms the many native plant organizations in the PCA consortium, can get behind a program that suggests spraying glyphosate (e.g., Roundup®) and triclopyr (Garlon) in wilderness areas is a great mystery to me. The PCA is also pondering the release of non-native biological controls for mullein such as the mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci). So, it seems, some non-native species are o.k. while others are not? Shouldn’t we be concerned about what else the mullein moth will munch on? Better, I think, to learn to get along. The non-natives are here and we ain’t going to get rid of them. Let’s find their uses rather than spray herbicides. We humans, after all, are notoriously invasive, a moral I’m reminded of as I read the narrative of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca. If Monsanto marketed a Conquistador control I’m sure the Indians would have spayed an ocean of it, but they only would have created pesticide resistant super-Conquistadors.

While I’d hesitate to plant this stuff if I lived on the edge of a wilderness area, I see no problem growing it in the city. A mix of edibles, natives, ornamentals, medicinals and especially some useful “weeds” makes for a more robust garden. So in the interest of getting along:

Read more about the medicinal properties of Verbascum thapsus on Alternative Nature Online Herbal.
More on the magical properties of Verbascum thapsus at alchemy-works.com.