Atomic Gardening

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The always entertaining podcast 99% Invisible has a new episode, “Atom in the Garden” about the forgotten 1950s fad of gardening with radiation. Essentially, it was a crude form of genetic engineering. Plants were zapped with radiation in the hopes of creating useful mutations.

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While it didn’t work well, it did produce several varieties grown to this day including Rio Star Grapefruit. There was also a strong amateur interest in irradiated seeds supported by the Atomic Gardening Society.

The 1950s “gamma gardening” craze feels credulous today but it’s not like there’s no uncritical scientism in 2017 (Elon Musk solving LA traffic with tunnels, perhaps?).

Three California Natives that Double as Culinary Herbs

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In my perfect world we Southern Californians would cast off our topiaried Home Depot shrubbery in favor of California natives and a few carefully chosen Mediterranean plants. No more petunias, leaf blowers or fake lawns either. Imagine if all our residential, government and commercial spaces had climate appropriate landscaping? Native insects, birds and other critters would explode in population. It would be a paradise.

It would also be a huge culinary resource. Grow these plants in your garden and you can dodge the controversies of foraging in the wild. Towards that end, I thought I’d look at three easy to grow California natives that look great in a garden and double as culinary herbs.

White sage (Salvia apiana)
If you can grow this one you should. Like most California natives, when used as a culinary herb, it’s much stronger tasting than its cultivated cousins. You need to use it sparingly when cooking with it. Our neighbor has one that made it through our multi-year drought without a drop of water. When you grow it in a garden it’s best to prune it back every year to prevent it from getting rangy looking. You can use the cuttings as smudge sticks or dry them for use in the kitchen. White sage is over-harvested in the wild for the crystal shop smudge stick market which is another reason you should grow this one in your garden.

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Black sage (Salvia melifera)
Our black sage plant has become a giant blob that threatens to take over the backyard. The Chumash people made a tea out of it that functioned as a pain reliever. Like white sage, you can use it in cooking (again, sparingly because of the strong taste).

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California sagebrush (Artemisia californica)
When I imagine of the scent of our local mountains it’s this plant that I think of most. It was the Cahuilla people’s DayQuil. Using it as a culinary herb brings the taste of California to your food. Bees love it too.

You can make a tea with all of these plants and you can dry them for use as a spice herbs. And a reminder that if you’re in a hurry you can dry herbs in a microwave by putting the leaves in one layer between two paper towels. Microwave for one minute and let the leaves cool. If they aren’t brittle, microwave for another minute.

Pascal Baudar (a guest on episode 89 of the Root Simple Podcast) has a phenomenal spice herb blend that uses all three of these herbs combined with some garlic salt. I made a batch last week and have already used it on salmon and popcorn. You can find that recipe on page 158 of his amazing book The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir. I also strongly suggest taking one of Pascal’s classes.

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RIP Toby Hemenway

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Update: I’m very sorry to say that I just heard that Toby Hemenway has passed. He had a talent for explaining permaculture with clarity and elegance. His book Gaia’s Garden adapted Bill Mollison’s concepts for those of us with small spaces to tend. In his last book he merged permaculture with the City Repair movement and looked at ways we can improve our communities. We desperately need voices like Hemenway’s in this moment of crisis. He will be missed. 

Someone I greatly admire, Toby Hemenway needs our help. Hemenway is a permaculturalist and a gifted author of books such as Gaia’s Garden and The Permaculture City. In 2015 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and has signed up for home hospice care. He and his wife need support to pay for living expenses and caregiving. Please consider clicking on this link and donating: https://www.youcaring.com/tobyhemenway-718641. The campaign goal has already been met, but home health care is very expensive and I’m sure that more money would help greatly.

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How to kill your palm tree

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Erik and I have been enjoying Dr. Jerry Turney’s Tree Identification classes at the Los Angeles Arborteum. Talk about high tree geekery! The last one was all about palms, and though I know that most of our readers probably don’t live in palm-friendly climates, I’m putting this out there for those of you who do, and for all you random Googlers.

My take away from the talk is that most of the horticulture problems involving palms rise from poor practice and bad information. If a palm gets enough water, doesn’t freeze, and doesn’t get hacked up by us in misguided attempts to prune them, they are stately, beautiful, easy care trees.

So these are 4 good ways to try to kill your tree:

  1. Never Water It.  Palm trees grow in the desert, yes, but they are oasis plants. They grow by open water, or above underground water. They are tough, but tough is not the same as invincible, and they don’t show stress as clearly as other trees do, so you may not know that it is thirsty until it is too late. If it gets no water, one day your palm may just droop over, like a spent flower, and that is that. As the drought in Southern California continues, I’m beginning to worry about our iconic street palms. We tend to give them no thought whatsoever, but it may be time to start watering them if we want to keep them.
  2. Over Prune. If you imagine a clock face overlaid on the crown of a palm, never cut above 9 and 3 o’clock. And never, ever, opt for the heinous and misguided extreme pruning called the pineapple or hurricane or candle style cut, which leaves just a few fronds poking out at the top. Pruning a palm this way will only stress the palm and stands a good chance of killing it. Here’s a quick photo reference.
  3. Prune your palm with dirty tools. Diseases are carried on chainsaws and the like. Poor pruning hygiene has infected the stately 100 year old Canary Island Date palms in our local Elysian Park with deadly Fusarium wilt. Simple carelessness destroyed this beloved local landmark.
  4. Climb the palm with spikes. Those spikes leave holes which do not heal. They become portals for various sorts of fungal infections. These infections can be as dangerous to you as the plant, because if the crown rots from the middle, you may not notice it is even sick until the entire crown just falls off and plummeting down, all two tons of it. Falling palm crowns smash cars and kill people.

All in all, most of the problems palms suffer come from us pruning them. The simple solution is to leave them alone. Don’t prune it if you don’t have to. Don’t be fetishistic about tidyiness. Let the palm be its natural self. It knows how to grow, it knows where it wants its fronds and boots– after all, palms are much, much, much older than us as a species. They know what they’re doing. You’ll save money and the palm will thank you if you leave it alone. If you do prune your palm, hire a company that knows what they’re doing, or research the topic well before doing it yourself.

One final fascinating fact: you can read the history of a palm in its trunk.  When it undergoes stress from extreme drought or bad pruning, the trunk contracts. If you see a trunk which has pinched areas, you know that something bad happened at that time.

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Bidens rebuttal

Bidens biternata. Image: Wikipedia.

Bidens biternata. Image: Wikipedia.

Judging by the cries of dismay in the comment section on yesterday’s post, I believe it is time for a small correction of official Root Simple opinion on the weed Bidens. I didn’t get to see yesterday’s post before it went up and if I had, I probably would have added a paragraph praising Bidens, despite its wicked little seeds. Erik was frustrated when he wrote that post because he had just spent an hour pricking the hitchhikers out of his clothes. I don’t blame him, because the same thing happened to me when I pulled some the week before, and cleanup wasn’t fun. They weren’t only in my clothes–they were buried in my skin! Getting them out of dog fur must be a real joy. This is a mighty persistent weed.

But it is also a popular one. This summer has been an education in Bidens for me–though I did not know its name for a long while.

It was a weed I’d never seen before, which is odd, because I feel like I know my local weeds. This one is exotic to me. It spontaneously erupted in our front and back yards around midsummer. (Was it in the mulch? Carried on a wandering cat or possum or goldfinch?) I was intrigued by its delicate leaves, which appear very genteel and vaguely floral. I was curious as to what kind of plant it was–so I let it be. Eventually it developed small unspectacular yellow flowers. In my mind it was a pretty-ish weed, unidentified, but fairly harmless. I kept meaning to look it up, and at the same time, I pondered pulling it because it was competing for water with my more officially invited garden plants. (Since then I’ve learned that it might give off competitive chemicals, so probably isn’t the best companion to plants I actually want to keep in my garden.)

I am always curious about volunteers in the garden because they’re saying something about the state of the garden. In permacultural terms, the soil calls the weeds it wants and needs. I’m not smart enough to know what the Bidens signifies yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open.

What I could see, though, easily, was the busy cloud of insects buzzing around this mystery plant: honeybees, little native bees and flies and these tiny orange-ish moths that I’ve never seen before. Good pollinator plants remind me of space stations (the kind in movies, that is): complex structures full of vehicles of different sizes approaching, docking, departing, filling the airspace with frantic activity all the day long.This was definitely a good pollinator plant, an important source of nectar in a dry season, so I left all the plants in place.

My only regret came when the blooms were mostly gone and it was time for fall clean-up in the yard. I pulled it. That’s when I discovered that Bidens bite! Those seed clusters, which are beautiful black starbursts on the plants are murder to the unsuspecting gardener. I did warn Erik! I may have failed to tell him about its pollinator feeding qualities–but I definitely told him to be very careful if he pulled any. He just didn’t get how careful!

Only after our encounter with the seed did we finally get serious about ID-ing the plant. As Erik mentions in his post, the Facebook group Plant Identification told us it was some type of Bidens, and after further poking around I’m going to tentatively identify it as Bidens biternata.

Finally, as our commenters noted, it is a medicinal plant (And, as another reader pointed out, Bidens aurea makes a natural red/pink/orange dye). I can’t comment much on it’s medicinal value, because I haven’t done much reading about it yet, but what very little I’ve read already has me wanting to tincture some of it for its antibacterial properties. Unfortunately we’ve just pulled all of it from our yard and sent the plants away in the green bin, but little baby Bidens are popping up already, so I think I’ll let a few of those grow out. I have the feeling that Bidens is going to be a new permanent resident in our yard.