The Biochar Solution

Image: Wikimedia.

Image: Wikimedia.

I have a built in, knee-jerk skepticism when it comes to the “notions and potions” school of gardening–the idea that some special substance will magically transform dead soil into a lush garden. That was my first reaction to biochar.

But it turns out that there’s something to biochar. This informative research summary from the University of Washington, Biochar: A Home Gardener’s Primer, changed my mind. According to U of W, biochar can:

  • Improve soil texture
  • Upcycle waste materials
  • Increase microbial life
  • Bind heavy metals (this is a big selling point for me with our lead and zinc contaminated soil)

U of W suggests purchasing biochar rather than trying to make it yourself. According to the authors its not easy to achieve proper pyrolysis at home. And they caution that biochar can cause problems for acid loving plants and worms.

I’m interviewing a biochar expert for our podcast today. Look for that episode in two weeks.

Have you used biochar? What do you think of the purchased versus home brew options?

Garden Magician Jeffrey Bale

Jeffrey Bale Garden lr

Image: Jeffrey Bale.

Do yourself a favor today. Fall into mosaic and garden designer Jeffrey Bale’s blog and spend a few hours in awe of his work. He has a new post up showing a garden he built from scratch in Portland and a drought tolerant garden in Los Angeles. I’m especially fond of the fountain in the Portland garden.

Bale’s works is informed by his world travels. He creates spaces that invite contemplation and mystery. Join with me in imagining a world in which creative people like Bale could be cut loose to transform both our private and public spaces . . .

The Hugelkultur Question

hugelkultur
A debate broke out at the Root Simple headquarters this past weekend over hugelkultur.

Hugelkultur is the most talked about concept in the permaculuture world. The idea with hugelkultur is that you mound or bury logs in compost and plant in it. Proponents contend that the logs break down and become open fungal pathways to store water and nutrients.

Kelly suggested we take an unused raised bed in our front yard and try an at-grade hugelkultur experiment (mounding in our dry climate seems like a bad idea, especially given our current drought). I balked at the amount of digging that would be involved. Kelly suggested that we should try it since we had little to lose and we’re supposed to be experimenting with garden ideas for the sake of our readers. I, again, thought about all the digging and the excess soil that would have to be carried down the staircase.

Then I had a change of heart. We should be experimenting, I thought. And we have a pile of wood.

But, like a gardening version of Hamlet, I started waffling again. I decided to post the hugelkultur question to the Garden Professor’s Facebook page. One of those horticulture professors, Linda Chalker-Scott is someone who I seek out when writing a magazine article. A civil discussion ensued on that Facebook page, proving that Facebook is good for something other than angry political screeds and cat videos. A summary of some of the points made:

  • There is no peer reviewed research on hugelkultur.
  • The concept seems to date back only to 2007 or so, most likely to Sepp Holzer.
  • Chalker-Scott suggested that you could get the same benefits with surface mulch with a lot less effort. See a previous Root Simple blog post for the reasons why mulch does many of the same things as hugelkultur.
  • Someone pointed out that subsidence in a hugelkultur bed might be bad for trees, though many use hugelkultur just for vegetables.
  • I pointed out that nature mulches but does not hugelkultur (except maybe in the case of floods).
  • Relieved that I would not need to dig, I chimed in that I thought that hugelkultur would rob soil of nitrogen as the carbon material broke down.
  • A hugelkultur supporter countered that large logs would not rob soil of nitrogen due to the surface to area ratio.
  • The conversation concluded with a back and forth on mulch vs. hugelkultur and the benefits of hugelkultur as a method to break up compacted soil. Again, the issue was that mulch takes less effort.

What’s needed is a field trial to answer a few questions. Would surface mulch alone work just as well? What is the effect of mounding? Would at-grade hugelkultur work better in dry climates? Does hugelkultur save water? Since I’m lazy and especially don’t like big dig projects I’ve decided to forgo a hugelkultur bed. But I also don’t want to completely dismiss the idea.

What do you think?

024 Water, Wilding our Gardens and Sewing

duck
Kelly and I return this week to discuss a recent talk I gave to a bunch of Master Gardeners about water harvesting and encouraging wildness in our gardens. On the second part of the podcast Kelly discusses the process of learning how to sew. During the first part of the podcast Erik mentions:

In the sewing portion of the podcast, Kelly talks about:

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

In Praise of the Hedgerow

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No I’m not going to try to interpret those Led Zeppelin lyrics. But hedgerows? They rock.

The traditional practice of letting nature have part of the farm turns out to have many benefits. Beneficial insects love hedgerows. A University of California study, Hedgerows enhance beneficial insects on farms in California’s Central Valley, backs this up and discusses specific plants.

Wouldn’t it be cool if whole cities could function as hedgerows? What if we took out all those lawns and planted native and/or flowering climate-appropriate plants instead?

In a somewhat rambling lecture I just gave to a group of Master Gardeners, I sang the praises of that UC study and also linked it to another nice resource, the UC Davis Arboretum Allstar list of plants that look good, provide habitat and don’t need a lot of maintenance.

Combine these two resources with a third, Piet Oudolf’s magnificent ideas about plant design in his book Planting: A New Persepctive and I think we might just be able to save the world.

Councilmen Want to Astroturf Los Angeles and Turn it Into a Big Minigolf Course

Sandestin-mini-golf

Los Angeles’ political leaders have a tendency to say the right things and get all the details wrong. Offering homeowners rebates to replace water hungry lawns is a good idea. Letting them use those rebates to put artificial turf in the parkway (see council motion 14-1197–introduced by councilpersons Blumenfield and O’Farrell) is not ecologically responsible.

I disagree with a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times, about giving rebates for artificial turf. It’s time for all of us in this dry Mediterranean climate to go beyond the lawn and bad topiary paradigm. Yes, we need to reduce irrigation, but we also need to create landscapes beneficial to all life: to insects, mammals, reptiles and human beings. And we need beauty. Gardens are both ecological and spiritual. If the author of the Times editorial needs a good example of what’s possible, I’d suggest visiting the new garden surrounding the Natural History Museum.

Artificial turf has a place on athletic fields and put-put golf courses. It does not belong in residential landscapes, especially in the parkway.

Thanks to Travis Longcore, science director for the Urban Wildlands Group, for tipping me off to this situation.

What Will Be the New Kale?

Our 2011 crop of spigarello.

Our 2011 crop of spigarello.

Since 2011, we’ve been saying that Spigarello is the new kale. Thanks to a tip from the folks at Winnetka Farms, we may need to wait for BroccoLeaf™ to have its fifteen minutes of fame as the new kale.

The Salinas, California based Foxy Organic is, quite sensibly, marketing broccoli leaves. Broccoli leaves are indeed edible and tasty. Foxy has the recursive media to prove it, a Facebook photo of someone Instagramming Broccoli leaves:

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Now I’ve just blogged about someone Facebooking about someone Instagramming Broccoli leaves. How far can we take this? Will broccoli leaves act as the gateway vegetable to Spigarello?

Why it’s Better to Pressure Can Tomatoes

Image: University of Wisconsin Extension Service

Image: University of Wisconsin Extension Service

As most avid canners know, 4.6 is the pH dividing line between acid foods that can be safely water bath canned and less acidic foods that need to be canned in a pressure canner. Most fruits have a lower, i.e. more acidic pH and can be water bath canned.

Tomatoes, on the other hand, are often near the 4.6 pH level and USDA tested recipes will call for adding either bottled lemon juice or citric acid (I prefer citric acid as the taste is more neutral).

I used to think that this issue was because different tomato varieties vary in their acid content. It turns out that it’s more about when tomatoes are harvested, not to mention what the weather was like during the growing season. Add this variability to other factors, such as how many cans you put in your canner, the material your pot is made out of and the type of heat source and you end up with a tricky question for the food scientists who test home canning recipes. All of these factors are why the recommended hot water bath canning time for raw packed tomatoes is 85 minutes.

I’ve hot water bath canned tomatoes and got great results (especially with San Marzano tomatoes). But 85 minutes is a long time. You can cut the processing down considerably and get better results by pressure canning tomatoes. Here’s a raw pack recipe that includes both hot water and pressure canning instructions. Note that you still need to acidify.

Thanks to Linda Harris, UC Cooperative Extension Specialist, Food Safety and Microbiology who gave a lecture at the Master Food Preserver conference where I gleaned these factoids.

How to Store Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

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Did you know that apples should be stored at room temperature for the first seven days and then go into the refrigerator? That ginger should be stored only at room temp? Preventing food waste is a topic getting a lot of attention thanks to a new documentary, Just Eat It. Estimates are that 40% of all food ends up in the dumpster.

UC Davis has an incredible resource for preventing food waste in our homes in the form of a pdf you can print out and post on your refrigerator. We’ve linked to it before, but it’s worth repeating: Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste.