090 Garden Myths: Nitrogen, Roundup, Compost Tea


Our topic this week is gardening myths and our guest is Robert Pavlis. We touch on a number of controversial, hot-button gardening topics such as synthetic fertilizers, roundup and compost tea. Robert maintains a six acre garden near Guelph, Ontario all by himself, he’s a master gardener and a speaker. He has a background in chemistry and biochemistry and runs two blogs: gardenmyths.com and gardenfundamentals.com.

During the show we also discuss the “whys” of gardening, mosquito prevention, stuff you shouldn’t buy and the problems with fish fertilizer.

If you’d like 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. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.


Cold brewed tisanes, teas and coffee: Your summertime best friends


Cold brewed coffee is all the thing these days. And you’ve probably heard that we’re not supposed to make sun tea anymore, but fridge tea instead–which is cold brewed tea. In fact, cold brewing allows you to  throw just about anything you’d brew hot into cold water instead, refrigerate it overnight and end up with something refreshing, cold and delicious to drink the next day.

Proponents of cold brewing point out that though it takes longer than hot brewing, it preserves the more delicate scents and flavors of whatever you’re brewing, and minimizes the bitter and vegetal overtones which come from heating and from overbrewing.

Most importantly from my standpoint, you don’t have to heat water. You don’t have to get anywhere near the stove, and the finished product is nice and cold and ready to guzzle.

Cold Mint Tea

My everyday summertime fridge staple is cold mint tea (tisane, technically). I make this by simply throwing a handful of dried mint leaves (harvested from my rangy mint plant) into a jar, adding filtered water, and leaving it in the fridge for the length of a day, or overnight. Then I strain the tea to remove the leaves and keep the tea in the fridge. I never measure anything. You can make the tea stronger and dilute it to taste if necessary, or make it very weak, so it’s just cold water with a delicate breath of mint to it. It’s good no matter what you do. If you don’t have a mint plant, use a couple of mint tea bags.


If you don’t mind a little added sugar in your bev, jamaica (hibiscus flower tea) is a really nice summer drink, tart and sweet and refreshing. And as a bonus, my herbalism teacher tells me all that rich red flower power is good for you, too.

You can buy bags of dried hibiscus/jamaica flowers inexpensively in the spice aisle of any Latin market, in the same area where you’d find dried peppers and the like. If you can’t find the flowers, you may be able to find bagged hibiscus tea.

Cold brew jamaica by placing about a 1/2 cup of the dried flowers into a quart jar and top with water. I am ever grateful to The Kitchn for turning me on to the idea of adding a cinnamon stick to this brew. Cinnamon adds a really nice, sophisticated touch to the flavor. (The whole article is worth a read for some in-depth jamaica talk.) Let this sit overnight, or most of the day, strain and add sweetener to taste. It’s easiest to use simple syrup.

A taste of the wild

Our friend Pascal, who is on our podcast this week, usually shows up at parties with a big jug of cold infusions of foraged plants. He talks about this in his book, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine. He uses whatever is in season at the time, an eclectic mix that may include wild mints, elderflowers, conifers like white fir and pine, herbs like black sage and berries of all sorts. Sometimes he adds less-wild ingredients, like lemons or honey. He leaves all these things swirling around in the jug at table, so that the sight of the infusion is almost as arresting as the taste.

Pascal’s beautiful infusions should give you the courage to grab a few things from your garden and see what happens.

Spa water

If you’re not up for infusing the entire forest into your drinking water, what about cucumbers? It’s easy to forget how good simple infusions are to have around. A few cucumber slices, a cup of watermelon chunks, a handful raspberries–all these things make iced water a little more fun. Just use whatever you have leftover on any given day–that spare half of a lemon, a melon slice that no one seems to want, that extra handful of herbs. My favorite Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, Cacao, puts sprigs of rosemary in its table water.

Other herbal experiments

Experiment with other teas and herbs you have in your cupboard. For instance, I quite like cold brewed chamomile tea. Erik does not, however. Tastes do vary! Any of your favorite bagged hot teas might be good cold. It’s a good way to use them up if your tea collection is taking over your kitchen cabinet.

A healthy if decidedly green tasting option is dried nettle cold brew. Cold brewed nettles taste a little less like a cook vegetable than hot brewed nettles. Sometimes I mix nettles and mint half and half, to make the nettles a little more sprightly.

Extreme wonkery over iced tea and iced coffee

I am a lazy person. I enjoy sitting in my proverbial armchair and reading about other people’s obsessive quests to make things like the perfect cold brewed iced tea, but when it comes time to make it myself, I always end up just throwing a few things together and seeing what happens.

I always enjoy the experiments in the Food Lab over at the Serious Eats site, and I send you there if you want to up your fridge tea game:

The Tea Lover’s Way to Make the Best Cold Brewed Iced Tea

For The Best Sun Tea, Forget the Sun

(Amusingly, the different authors don’t exactly agree on the best route to iced tea, which only reinforces my laissezfaire attitude. But they’re great reads.)

And here’s their take(s) on cold brewing coffee:

It’s Time to Make Cold Brewed Coffee

Or maybe not?

What’s the Best Way to Brew Iced Coffee?

So brew yourself up something refreshing, find yourself a seat in the shade, and enjoy the summer!


How’s that Tomato Grafting Project Going?


Back in the winter I announced my plans to graft my own tomatoes. I undertook the project more in a spirit of idle curiosity than necessity. We haven’t had the sort of soil problems that might require grafted tomatoes but I thought it would be fun to try.

To graft tomatoes you grow a hardy root stock (I chose Maxifort) and the tomatoes you want to graft them on to. You then make the graft and secure it with a grafting clip. For the grafting process I used the directions in the following video from Cornell University:

The next step is to put the grafted seedlings into a “healing chamber” consisting of a dark, warm and humid environment that gives the plant a chance to heal and the graft to take. You then slowly introduce light over a period of days to transition the grafted plant to normal growing conditions.

What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s just say that at Root Simple Labs mistakes were made.

  • The root stock grew a lot faster than the heirloom tomatoes I chose. When you graft you want similarly sized stems. It would have been good to stagger the days I started my seeds rather than planting them all at one time.
  • The healing chamber needs to be a carefully controlled environment. I improvised a greenhouse by putting my seedlings in plastic bags. This worked but I had trouble re-introducing light in a uniform way. Grow lights would make this easier. And it was a pain to open all the individual bags to mist the plants.
  • Because of my lack of stem sizes to choose from I ended up with graft unions too close to the soil level. Of the six plants that survived my horticultural incompetence, I think they all may just be growing from the graft union itself rather than the root stock. I’m hoping that I can tell when I pull the plants at the end of the season.
  • I used potting soil rather than a seed starting mix. That’s just plain stupid. What was I thinking?
  • Next time I’ll get a selection of grafting clips in different sizes. That would give some flexibility in when to graft the plants.

Despite my cascade of errors I still have tomato plants (though probably not grafted ones) and I learned some valuable lessons should I attempt this project again next year. I’m thinking that instead of tomatoes, which have done fine in our garden in the past, I might try grafting peppers or eggplants which we have had trouble growing.

How are your tomatoes doing this summer? Are any of you growing grafted varieties?

088 Eric of Garden Fork TV on Raised Beds, Coleslaw and Deep Frying


On the podcast this week is a return visit from Eric Rochow of the “eclectic DIY” site Garden Fork. We talk about using pressure treated wood for raised beds, making coleslaw and Eric’s adventures in deep frying (bacon wrapped grilled cheese!) among other topics. During our conversation Eric mentions:

I was also a guest on the June 23, 2016 episode of the Garden Fork Radio Podcast this week to discuss bread, backyard ovens, foraging and more.

If you’d like 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. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.


Going to Seed

radish podsTidiness is a very pleasant thing inside a house. Outside, in a yard or garden, it’s not at all a good thing. I’m really tired of the cult of tidy.

We seem to be confused. We conflate our yards with our living rooms, the space beneath our shrubs for kitchen floors. Popular opinion seems to believe our flower and vegetable gardens should be maintained like trophy rooms, like curio cases.

Our mistake, of course, is thinking that everything is about us. That our yard, our garden, our little patch of land actually belongs to us and we have the right to maintain it exactly as we like. We might own it on paper, but we share it with hundreds, thousands, millions (if you want to get into soil biology) of other lives.

Of course, if we maintain our yards to exact standards of tidiness–say our yard consists of a lawn and some shrubs along the drive with the dirt beneath them blown clean, we probably are not supporting much life at all. We’ve put up the No Trespassing sign, and creatures listen.

front bed seedy 2It gets even more sparse if we spray herbicides and pesticides all over the place. All of the invisible life vanishes. Any creatures which visit are just passing through.

The land is eerily silent.

But life is waiting to come back. That is what is so amazing. It jumps back if given even half a chance. If you open the door just a crack.

All we have to do is sit back and relax.

Stop with the obsessive yard work.

Stop paying the yard crew.

Stop spraying chemicals around.

Just stop.

Leave the leaves. Let fallen leaves and pulled weeds stay on the land to protect and nourish the soil.

Let volunteers bloom.

Let your garden go to seed.

mustard seedyIf we live with fussy neighbors, or under the impression that our gardens should look like the ones in the magazines, we might work hard to keep our vegetable and flower gardens impeccable, starting seedlings in advance to replace aging plants so there’s never any sense of “decline” in the garden.

I’ve always let parts of our garden go to seed, but this year, more than ever, I’m attuned to it. I’m reveling in the beauty in it, and I’m understand the generosity of it down deep, on the soul level.

lettuce bloomingIn the past I struggled to leave the plants as long as I could stand it, knowing they were doing good in their later life cycle, but also feeling like my yellow, straggly garden made me look lazy or incompetent.

I was also acutely aware of the long gaps between harvests that would occur if I waited for plants to go to seed before replacing them. Now, I’ve given up all that anxiety, and I revel in this time.

The insects feast on the flowers which bloom on our lettuce, our arugula, our radishes, our mustard, our fennel. Predatory wasps hunt alongside lady bugs and diligent bees of all types.

argula flowerWe have more birds than ever in our yard, and they love our overgrown, browning beds, because of course they’re eating the seeds or the bugs on the ripening plants. They would not, however, allow me to take any pictures of them doing these things.

They love all the weedy places, the vacant lots and over grown side yards. Those places are full of flashing wings and trilling songs. It’s already a seed time of year here in LA on our fast moving calendar, and I’m watching the birds feast. I love watching the little finches balancing on thin, swaying plant stalks in the golden light of the afternoon. The world is full of moments of perfect, unconscious beauty like that.

Once the seeds are eaten, and the plants are brown and empty, I cut the stalks down at their base, but I don’t throw anything away. Everything stays in the yard, on or in the ground. The plant which fed us and the bee and the finch will now finish its work feeding the soil. Feeding the soil is its deepest work.

And–never worry!– some seed always manages to hit the ground despite all the competition, ensuring volunteers will come up next year, and feed us all again.

radish pods 2An aside:

One area where I have to admit that I am less than generous is in the matter of radish seed pods. These I don’t leave for the birds, because I like them so much.

Most of you gardeners are probably very familiar with radish seed pods. If you aren’t, they are the fat little pods that show up after a radish plant of any type goes to seed.

They taste like radishes, pretty much, sometimes they’re sweeter, sometimes they’re spicier. Radish pods are both a bonus crop and a fine consolation prize, because even if your radish roots end up puny or woody or otherwise disappointing, you can always eat the pods. They’re best fresh, picked a handful at a time as a snack or to put in a salad, but you can lactoferment or pickle them, too, using pretty much any pickle recipe you prefer.