Hops in Containers

This spring I set out to answer the question, “can hops be grown in self-irrigating pots?” Answer, as you can see from the photo above: YES! For those of you not familiar with Self-Irrigating Pots or SIPs we have an earlier post on the subject.

Hops rhizomes, planted April 9, 2009

For our hops SIPs I modified a storage bin using Josh Mandel’s instructions (pdf). Back in early April, I obtained four hops rhizomes (two cascade and two nugget) from my local homebrew shop. You can also get rhizomes from many online sources. I chose cascade and nugget because I heard that they are two of the best varieties for Southern California. Both did well, with cascade being the most vigorous. The smell of the maturing cones is heavenly and the plant is quite beautiful, providing some much needed shade for the porch.

Nugget on the right, Cascade on the left

The only suitable place to grow this massive plant at our small house just happened to be by the front porch. This arrangement ended up being ideal–we’re on a hill and I simply attached some twine along the roof and put the SIPs down below the porch. I can simply stroll out on the porch and harvest the blossoms without having to balance on a tall ladder. Having the hops cones at eye level lets me access the cones when they are ready to pick and lets me monitor the health of the plant. I’ll also to be able to continuously harvest rather than having to cut down the entire plant. Alternately I’ve seen hops trellises rigged with pulleys so that you can lower the “bines”, as they are called, for harvesting.

Hops farmers in England demonstrating why you need to think about trellising.

With a western exposure the hops get morning sun and shade in the afternoon, which seems to be perfect in our sunny, dry and hot Southern California climate. The only problem I’ve had is a bit of rust, but it doesn’t seem to have spread too badly. Hops suck up a lot of water and, thanks to the SIPs, I only have to water once a day.

The SIPS are full of potting mix with a ring of organic fertilizer placed on top of the soil as specified in Josh Mandel’s directions. I have periodically added an organic liquid fertilizer to the water reservoirs as hops need a lot of nitrogen.

Cascade cones almost ready to harvest in late July

I don’t know how my hops will do in SIPs the second year, and I’m considering planting them in the ground if I can find a suitable place. I suspect that hops are a good candidate for pairing with a greywater source and I’m thinking about ways to do this.

Now that I’ve grown hops, I’m tempted to go to the next level. The local Rite Aid? How about we replace it with a field of barley? I’m anxious to swing a scythe again.

Stay tuned for info on a hops growing workshop with Boris Price and the folks at Silver Lake Farms to be hosted at the Homegrown Evolution compound this month. Look for the announcement on our blog this week.

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.

More on Hops in Containers

On the question of growing hops in containers that we posted on earlier this week, Shane in Santa Cruz, CA says:

“I think hops will do great in a container, if they are deep enough. I’ve heard you need something like a 1/2 whiskey, at least. The roots can go as low as 9 feet below ground.

I’m on my 2nd year of hops, cascade in nice soil, and brewers gold in what ever was in the ground. The brewers gold did better last year growing 18 feet and providing summer shade to a south facing window. The cascades only went 8 feet. I followed the same watering and feeding (never) for both.

This year my cascades are doing better, they are about 18 inches high so far. The brewers gold only 2 inches. This is in Santa Cruz, CA.”

Shane also contributed a very useful link to an article on Growing Hops in Containers. One of the suggestions in the article, for those of us in hot climates, is to grow hops on an east facing wall so that the plant is sheltered from the hot late afternoon sun. As Shane points out this can serve a double purpose–providing shade to cool your casa. Sounds kinda permacultural. Thanks Shane!

Hops in Southern California

From hop rhizome to young vine

Several people have asked a question we were curious about: what varieties of hops are best to grow in warm climates such as Southern California? We asked around and the consensus seems to be Cascade and Nugget among others. Greg Beron, one of the co-owners of Culver City Homebrewing Supply Co., has a couple of different hops rhizomes for sale that he says grow well here in Los Angeles. The shop’s parking lot, in fact, has many small plastic barrels planted with hops vines growing up string attached to the east side of the building.

Homegrown Evolution’s own hop farming experiment ended in the spring of last year after we accidentally plopped some home built scaffolding on top of the tiny vine while undertaking the heinous task of scraping and painting the front of the house. Planting it in terrible soil doomed it to failure anyways. We’re experimenting with growing both Cascade and Nugget hops in a big self irrigating planter with the hope that we can transfer them to the ground next year or the year after. In the meantime we’ll improve our soil with another application of “craptonite“.

Some hops growing links:

Hop Gardening

A list of Hop varieties for all climates

How to build a PVC hops trellis

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage, just about to bloom.

Borage is an ugly sounding name for a beautiful and useful plant. The moniker is probably a corruption of the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq or “father of sweat”, a reference to it’s diaphoretic qualities1. Both the leaves and the blue flowers (sometimes white flowers) are edible and have a refreshing cucumber like taste. Borage is an annual herb that we plant in the late fall here in Los Angeles for an early spring bloom, but in most other parts of North America you’ll plant it in the spring after the last frost. Ours survived a winter outbreak of aphids, but is now thriving.

We toss the flowers and leaves into salads as a flavoring. In fact we enjoyed a memorable borage spiked salad on a recent Greyhound bus trip to Las Vegas we took for a book appearance. Thankfully for our fellow passengers, we did not break out into a borage induced sweat.

For more on the medicinal qualities of borage, including “dispelling melancholy” (useful for bus layovers in Barstow, incidentally) see the borage entry in the Plants for a Future database.

Interview With Apartment Gardener Helen Kim

We got a lot of emails after posting the image above of Los Angeles based photographer Helen Kim’s astonishing windowsill garden. It’s a great example of what you can do with a small amount of space, and brings to mind William Morris’ advice, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. Helen graciously sat down for an email interview to talk about her beautiful and useful garden:

HOMEGROWN EVOLUTION: What’s your advice to folks who would like to try growing plants in an apartment windowsill?

HELEN KIM: Well, since I didn’t start with any particular plant knowledge or skills (just a feeling that it would be lovely to have living things around my apartment–besides my dog–to take care of and watch grow), I guess I’d just say just ‘hop in!’ For me, it’s been something of a hit-and-miss experimental approach: finding out which plants do well in which windowsills (I have six sets of large windows facing every direction except north). It takes a little doing, and I’ve lost a few here and there. I started years ago with French breakfast radish seeds, which didn’t go so well–they needed too much attention and too much water–and the few small radishes I ended up with a few months later were eaten and gone in a few seconds! Then I planted mint because I felt increasingly silly buying plastic packets of it in the supermarket, only to watch it wither in my fridge since I only needed a couple leaves of it for whatever recipe. To my surprise, the mint grew like crazy with minimal care–good for me since I’m running around a bunch and not particularly attentive. That was pretty encouraging, so I got more and more… figuring out, as I went along, which plants could survive my temperament. Rosemary seems to be pretty kill-proof, too.

HE: What have been some of the other successful/unsuccessful plants you have grown?

HK: Now that I’ve realized the south-facing windows are best for edibles, the most successful have been: lemon grass, rosemary, green onions, mint, mustard greens, parsley, cilantro, oregano, thyme, basil, Thai chili peppers, okra, chives, stevia, lemon verbena, tarragon, dill, and sorrel. The least successful have been: beans, cucumber, arugula, tomato, squash, Swiss chard, leeks, spinach, and corn. All of these were a complete wash last year! But the happy upshot is that, this year, I planted them at my mother’s house – in the two huge beds she has there. All that space and sunlight has made them pretty happy. While it was a bit of a bummer to not have them at arm’s reach at my place, it was nice at least to figure out I could use my windowsill as a kindergarten (I started a lot of these from seed in little peat pots) before sending them off to bigger pastures. And, since I visit every two weeks, I always come back home with an armload of this or that. I’ve had a strawberry plant that is doing pretty nicely these days at my place, but not bearing much fruit… so I’ll be shipping him off mom’s in a couple weeks.

HE: What do you use as fertilizer?

HK: Shockingly, I suppose, before this year I didn’t use anything! I always thought plant vitamins, ‘food,’ and fertilizer were a bunch of hooey. But a friend recently gave me a little lecture on the importance of fertilizer and I thought I’d finally give it a whirl… and I have to say that, yes, the plants are a bit happier than they were this time last year. I’ve been using Dr. Earth fertilizer and making fertilizer tea.

HE: Did you choose your apartment with the idea that you’d be gardening in it? If so, what should a prospective renter look for?

HK: I had three main things on my mind when I was looking for an apartment: the place would need to comfortably house me, my dog, and my plants. There were so few buildings that would take a pet, so that narrowed the field considerably. This small field became even smaller when I noticed many of the buildings had windows that swung outwards (impossible if you intend to water your plants). There was only this one building that fit the bill, so I moved in. On the first day, I realized the screens were impossible to remove (to water, etc…) without mangling. The building manager at the time told me that the screens were non-removable (what?!). So I measured all the windows, went to the hardware store, and had them make removable screens, voila. Maybe I should mention, too, that the management recently ripped out all the shrubbery in front of the building. I assumed they were going to put in something else in imminently, but a couple months went by… so, a few weeks ago, I started putting succulent cuttings around the perimeter.

HE: We understand you had some trouble with the MAN. What happened and how did you handle it?

HK: After a couple years of living here, another building manager informed me that the plants on the windowsills were violating building codes and that I’d have to remove them all. I wrote him a letter back saying that the plants were supported by steel mesh baskets and lashed to building with 50 lb. picture wire. I never heard back from him and he was replaced by another in a long line of building managers. Several years of walk-through inspections have come and gone, and nobody has mentioned it since. While I still wonder as to what the actual law is on windowsill plants, I’m not about to stir the pot by clarifying it with the management here.

HE: You’re an amazing chef–you won me over to the concept of cold soup with that delicious leek soup you dropped off the other week. What sorts of things do you cook with plants you grow on your windowsill?

HK: Aww, thanks, glad you liked it! Personally, I wouldn’t have made it through this summer without cold soups! The potato/peas/leek cold soup was made with sorrel from the windowsill. A couple weeks ago, I grabbed the lemongrass and Thai chilies and cilantro from the window and made tom yum goong soup. The chives are great with egg salad and capers. With the dill, tarragon, thyme, and parsley I usually make grilled fish. Whenever I come back from my mother’s I use the tomatoes to make bruschetta… and add my basil. Or I make salsa and add the cilantro. Or I use the oregano to make spaghetti sauce. Cactus salad is also good with the cilantro and oregano. The spinach and chard from my mom’s I usually blanch, then cool… and add garlic, sesame oil, salt, pepper, and green onions from the sill–good with the fish as a side. I use a bunch of the green onions whenever I make hot soup with noodles. And, for awhile there, I was making pasta with Swiss chard and mushrooms (with garlic and a bit of butter) just about every day! The mustard greens I like to have with my scrambled eggs… or, of course, for some pizzazz in any salad. I pounded the heck out of some dried stevia yesterday morning and added it to my coffee… and was surprised at how sweet it was. The mint is great to slice up and just throw in a glass of ice water. And it’s a must for my favorite summer beverage: glass of ice, shot of tequila, top with tonic water, squeeze in half a lime, and add a bunch of crushed mint. The okra plants are going great guns and I’m looking forward to cooking something non-slimy with them! … but I still haven’t gotten around to making any tea with the lemon verbena…

HE: We heard that some of the plants have a special significance for you

HK: Yeah, shortly after I moved in, my grandmother died and I inherited some of her plants–mostly succulents. So when the building manager told me I’d have to remove all the plants, I kind of panicked–but you know how that story worked out. They’re now living happily on two of the east-facing windows. The two windows on the south house the edible plants–which pans out nicely for my lazy self, since they’re right by the kitchen. And the one west-facing window (the shadiest) has my wonderfully-weird euphorbias. it took me awhile to come around to the sensible idea that it’s best to separate the edible plants from the poisonous ones!

HE: There was quite a reaction when I posted the photo of your garden.

HK: I was happy that some folks commented on the windowsill (blog picture) being nice looking! But, really, that was a new transformation from the beginning of this summer. I mean, I’ve had many of the same plants over the years in, more or less, the same arrangement. But, several months ago, a new neighbor moved into the apartment building next door. Their window is a little below my kitchen window, just three feet away. In the nine years I’ve lived here, the various neighbors have always kept the blinds and the window mostly shut. When this new neighbor decided to keep the blinds open day and night, I saw clear into the living room and kitchen… and, whenever I puttered around with the plants, I was looking straight onto their mattress. Without any effort on my part, all of a sudden I was getting way too much aural and visual information! So I worked a little bit at creating some visual privacy for all of us: I hoisted the further-back plants up on multiple bricks and replanted so that the taller plants blocked the bed-view somewhat… and left the closer plants on sill-level. The step-terrace-thingie was a nice aesthetic result – but totally an accidental by-product stemming from dumb necessity. But, rats, this new plant curtain hasn’t shielded me much from the squabbling. Sigh…

HE: Thanks Helen!!!

Nettle Mania

“out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety”
-Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common weed with a bad reputation–the plant has tiny spines that inject, as Wikipedia puts it, a “cocktail of poisons.” Miraculously when you boil the plant the spines lose their punch and you’re left with a tasty green consumed plain or incorporated in a number of dishes, from soups to ravioli, to the German cheese pictured above (thanks to Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell for the photo). When dried, the leaves make a damn good tea, with a rich, indescribable flavor. If that ain’t enough, nettles pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and are perhaps the vegetable with the highest protein content (10%).

At the risk of contradicting yesterday’s anti-media screed (After all, Marshall McLuhan once said, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.”), we’ll end with some links to an obscure sub-genre of youtube videos, nettle torture stunts. Mrs. Homegrown could drone on about the psycho-sexual implications of these clips, but that would be fodder for another blog. In the meantime, thanks again to Steve Rowell, here’s some nettling to fill your evening hours: here, here and here (just three of what may be hundreds).