From the Archives: Loquat Leather

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Judging from the reaction to Mrs. Homegrown’s post yesterday it looks like some folks have a loquat obsession. Welcome home brothers and sisters.

At the risk of tooting my own loquat horn and repeating an old blog post, Mrs. H neglected to mention my controversial 2012 loquat leather experiment and recipe. You’ve still got to de-seed the damn things but at least there’s no need to skin them. Plus it makes use of booze.

I’ll admit it’s not a thrilling fruit leather but it’s not too bad.

Mrs. Homegrown chimes in:

My philosophy is simply that if one is going to go through the trouble of making fruit leather, preserves, pies etc., one should use outstanding fruit. The flavor tells in the end. After all, the starving times are not upon us. Even Erik can’t get super excited about this fruit leather–as I recall it tasted mostly of lemon and booze.

Then again, some people may have outstanding loquats–it sounds so from the comments on the last post. The ones we have access to just aren’t fantastic for preserving–too watery, too light. I just learned that there are over 800 cultivars of loquats, so there’s going to be lots of different loquat experiences.

Loquat season is here!

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photo courtesy of wikimedia

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) season is upon us here in our neighborhood of HaFoSaFo (that is, one special corner of Los Angeles).

This post will not have much relevance to those of you who do not live in a subtropical or mild climate, but for those of you who do, I highly encourage you to get to know the humble yet mysterious loquat.

Loquat trees abound in our neighborhood, and I don’t know if this is a purely local phenomenon or not. Loquats are hardy evergreen trees with thick, glossy leaves that remind me of citrus leaves and magnolia leaves and avocado leaves all at the same time, meaning it’s vaguely tropical looking.

They don’t seem to require much water or pruning–so they do well under benign neglect, though I’d suspect the fruit is best on trees which are not completely ignored.  This is the time of year when the fruit comes ripe, and it’s always kind of an exciting time because the loquats bridge the “fruit gap” between winter citrus and stone fruit.

The thing about loquats is that they are really suited only for fresh eating. And I mean fresh off the tree–they don’t keep long after they’ve been picked, which is why they never appear in stores. We’ve tried to figure out things to do with them, but they defy preservation because they are made mostly of water. They are also small, have skins which are impossible to peel (you just eat the skins), and large pits, all of which makes processing difficult. Yet they can be really tasty. The best ones taste a little like citrus honey and have a nice floral fragrance. Their light, watery flesh is refreshing on a hot day

(If anyone has figured out something to do with loquats other than eat them out of hand, please do let us know! The best we’ve been able to do is to infuse them in vodka, and that was not all that thrilling in the end.)

They are highly prolific, too. So right now all of the loquat trees in the ‘hood are studded with hundreds upon hundreds (thousands, maybe?) of little yellow-orange fruits. These fruits seem to be nuisances to most homeowners–I rarely see a tree which looks as if it’s being harvested, or if it is, the harvesting does not make a dent in the bounty. After all, how many fresh loquats can you gobble down in a day? All of which is to say I feel no guilt about snagging loquats off of accessible trees as I walk around.* On-the-hoof snacking is one of the pleasures of walking at this time of year!
Ripe loquats tend to be a little larger and fatter than the unripe ones, and the color is darker. They also have a tiny bit of give under the fingers. You’ll get a sense of how to tell which ones are best with experience. I usually rub the fuzz off the skin before eating, which, in my book, counts as washing. Beware the pits! Some trees have better fruit than others, so if you try a loquat and find it less than thrilling, try fruit from another tree. You may find a new favorite seasonal treat.
ETA:  Days after posting, I just got around to reading the Wikpedia entry on loquat. (ahem) Turns out there are over 800 cultivars of loquat, some of which are bred for smaller seeds and sweeter fruit, others which are bred for white or orange flesh, others which are bred for backyard production, meaning they fruit in waves, a bit at a time, while others are bred for commercial production, meaning their fruit appears and ripens all at once.  Some trees are meant to be ornamental. Methinks some of the trees in our neighborhood are commercial producers, and others downright feral. All of this is to say that there is going to be a huge variation in the loquat experience from place to place–which is reflected in the comments below.
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*Re: fruit foraging: I consider it fair/legal to snag fruit from street trees, those trees growing on the strip of public land between the street and the sidewalk, and fruit which overhangs the sidewalk. Now, of course, you don’t want to be a jerk about this–I pay attention to context, and won’t take fruit that people seem to be using, or which seems precious in any way. (Loquats I classify as a weed/borderline nuisance.) It’s never okay to step onto someone’s land to take fruit.

Also, I would never take vegetables from any part of a yard, public or not. That’s just different. To take a random example, I would never, say, help myself to someone’s giant squash.

And it’s important not to be greedy. I don’t take more than one fruit from a tree at a time (or maybe two or three, in the case of loquats). But if the tree is burdened with fruit and rotten fruit is splattering on the sidewalk, it seems more a favor than anything else to take one or two.

Of course, it is always best to ask the homeowner for permission. In the case of loquats, we’ve done this in order to harvest them in quantity for our preservation experiments. Homeowners are usually happy to share, even let you onto their land, to make use of their fruit. It turns out most folks just don’t know what to do with the bounty of fruit trees, or just don’t have the time/equipment/mobility to deal with harvest. In return, if you get permission to take lots of fruit, you can return some to them in the form of preserves or whatnot. This keeps the good will flowing.

Journal of the New Alchemists

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“Six-Pack” Backyard Solar Greenhouse, 1975. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

After reading an article by Paul Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!,” Nancy Todd turned to her husband John and said, “We must do something.” The year was 1969 and the Todds along with Bill McLarney went on to found the New Alchemy Institute.

History repeats itself. What the New Alchemists did, in response to the 1970s era energy crisis and political instability, sounds a lot like what people have been up to since the 2008 economic bubble: aquaculture, organic gardening, earth building, market gardens, no-till agriculture, old timey music, wind power, four season growing, permaculture, non-hierarchical leadership and goats. Only the 1980s era of appropriate technology amnesia separates current efforts from the work of the New Alchemists.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

By accident I discovered the Journal of the New Alchemists deep in the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library. As revealed by their journal, what distinguishes the New Alchemists from other efforts of the time is the Todd’s science background. The Journal has a refreshing research-based approach to its subject matter. The period I reviewed (their last decade of publication) covers mostly their agricultural experiments, but occasionally dips into urban planning and other subjects.

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Biodome. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

It’s interesting to look back at their work to see what ideas went mainstream and what faded away. What didn’t stick is what Nassim Taleb would call “top-down” approaches to design epitomized by the 70s fixation on geodesic domes and self contained ecosystems (though we’re starting to see a resurgence of the latter via a renewed interest in aquaponics). The more bottom-up work of refining conventional organic agriculture through no-till farming and integrated pest management had more long lasting influence. One could make a good argument that you need the domes and aquaculture schemes to inspire people to work on the more prosaic stuff. But another criticism of the appropriate technology movement of the 70s is that it focused on technology rather than social and political problems (see economist Richard S. Eckaus article “Appropriate Technology: The Movement Has Only A Few Clothes On“). We may be in the midst of repeating that mistake.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

One does not need to wander the closed stacks of the library to find the amazing Journal of the New Alchemy. Thanks to the internet you can download the New Alchemist’s publications as pdfs. Aquaponic enthusiasts will find much information. The Journals are a fascinating read and gave me a great deal of respect for the founders of the New Alchemy and their many contributors (one issue features a young Gary Paul Nabhan). They went far beyond talking the talk and walked the walk. They did something.

Cactus Thief Strikes Again

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I knew this was going to happen. After the theft of the first of three barrel cacti in our front yard, I knew the perp would be back. Sure enough the second cacti disappeared the other night. Now I’m left with the smallest, and most pathetic of the three cacti.

In response I considered rigging up some kind of Arduino based cacti security system that would set off an alarm and flashing strobe in the house. Attach a trip wire to the root system and we’re in business. I also pondered another extreme strategy: shower the cactus thief with free flats of baby cacti. The latter strategy could even lead to the first ever Root Simple Upworthy style clickbait headline, “Thief Steals Cactus and the Thorny Response Will Have You in Tears.”

Stoic philosopher Epictetus set me straight on what I should really do. He says, “Stop admiring your clothes and you are not angry at the man who steals them . . . our losses and our pains have to do only with the things we posses.” (Discourses Book 1.18) And wanting to posses a Home Depot cactus is quite pathetic.

It reminds me of something a friend told me, “Never drive by and look at a garden in a house you once owned.” Our gardens are impermanent. That impermanence is actually something that makes gardening interesting. My wandering cacti might even have a more sunny location in which to thrive.

Dry Climate Vegetables

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Here in Arrakis, I mean California, we’re in the midst of a terrible drought. And unfortunately, most of the seeds we buy for our vegetable gardens are adapted to require lots of water. One solution is to find veggies that have reseeded accidentally without supplemental irrigation. Here’s a short list of reseeding rogue veggies from our garden that have thrived with just the small burst of rain we got last month.

Continue reading…

Plant Thievery

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Arrow points to missing barrel cactus. Will the cactus on the right be next?

I know I’m supposed to be Mr. Groovy Permaculuture Dude, but it’s hard not to get angry when a barrel cactus gets jacked out of the front yard. The irony is that I planted this cactus to keep people from stealing the nectaplums higher up the front slope. Clearly I need to either let go of it all and accept the free exchange of the universe thing or plant a giant man-eating Venus fly trap to protect the barrel cactus.

Have you experienced plant thievery? Comments!

Anagallis monellii : A New Favorite

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Last fall we planted Anagallis monellii “Blue Pimpernel” in a bed of mixed flowers and herbs. This plant is neither edible or medicinal, but we hoped the bees would like its many blue flowers. Anagallis monellii is a Mediterranean native, so it is well suited to the California climate, and it follows that it does not need much water. It is perennial in zones 9 to 11 (that’s us), but can be grown as an annual elsewhere.

If you see Anagallis monellii without blooms, it is not much to look at. It’s a rangy, low-slung plant with uninteresting foliage. What it excels at is blooming.  I believe it comes in a few colors, but “Blue Pimpernel” makes 1″ flowers in a rich gentian blue with magenta eyes, and it makes lots and lots and lots of them, so much so that you can’t even see the foliage through the flowers. It’s insanely tough and cheerful, and the blue contrasts well with our profusion of volunteer California poppies and Calendula.

Basic factoids:  Grows about 10″ tall and spreads up to 20″,  low water, likes rich soil, blooms most in full sun, can be propagated from seed, self-sows. It blooms for a long time–spring through fall, in frosty climates, that is. We’ll see what it does here in the winter. We bought ours as seedlings from Annie’s Annuals, which is pricey but worth it, because the plants are beautiful, impeccably shipped, and never root bound!

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How to Deal with Extremely Root Bound Plants

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First off, don’t buy root bound plants. It’s just a bad business, trouble and tears. In general, you should always try to buy the youngest plants you can find. They are healthier than plants which have spent more time in a pot, and will quickly grow to match the size of older, more expensive–and more likely than not–root bound plants.

How do you know if the plant is root bound? Look at the bottom of the pot and see if roots are poking out the bottom. This is a bad sign. Don’t be afraid to gently ease the plant out of the pot to check its condition. If you see more roots than soil, this is a bad thing. If you’re buying fruiting or flowering seedlings, look for the ones which have not yet flowered, even though the ones which have flowered are cuter and may look like they have more promise. They’d don’t. They’re flowering or fruiting out of desperation to spread their seed before they expire in their pot prisons.

But sometimes we end up with a root bound plant. This week, in a fit of madness which doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect, Erik and I broke our own rules, doing two things we never do: We 1) bought a couple of plants at The Home Despot and 2) we bought these plants in gallon-sized pots. The plants had already put up flowers. And yes, of course they were root bound. Extraordinarily so. They were living in dense pots made of their own roots.

As I tried to resuscitate and plant these babies, I realized that I should post this technique on the blog, in case it might be helpful to others.  Forgive the photos. Erik wasn’t around to help me take them, and the battery on the camera was flashing red, but I needed to get those plants in the ground as quickly as possible. I only had time for a couple of bad shots.

How to Save Root Bound Plants

First off, I’ve found that root bound plants are often dehydrated plants, because the pots are mostly full of roots, making the soil hard and water repellant. If this is so, it helps to give the plants a good soaking before you un-pot them by placing them in a bucket of water for a few minutes.

Method A) Mildly root bound plants can be helped along by gently massaging the root ball with your hands just before planting to loosen the roots and open the ball if it has become hard-packed. If there are any big, long roots circling the root ball, trim those short.  You can do a similar thing with a hose to open up the soil and loosen the root ball.

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Method B) If your plant is extremely root bound, as mine were today, you’ll find you can’t simply work the roots apart with your fingers because they’ve formed a sort of impervious mat or pseudo-pot of themselves.  In this case, you have to be ruthless. Get yourself a sharp knife and make long vertical cuts down the sides of the root ball–how many depends on the size of plant, and what you think is best, but I find I usually make 3 to 5 cuts.  These cuts do violence to the roots, but will allow new root growth at the cut sites, giving the plant a chance to spread its roots out in your garden’s soil, instead of trying to live within its own, self-made prison.

In these extremes cases, there is also usually  a thick mat of tangled roots at the bottom of the root ball, pressed into the exact shape of the pot bottom. I tear this layer off.  Then I put my thumbs up the middle of the root ball and stretch it open just a little if necessary, gently,  to make sure the center is soft and not rock hard or densely tangled.

Get your plants in the ground as soon as you can after these operations. If possible, work in the shade, or in the early morning or evening, so the plants don’t spend much time with their tortured root balls exposed to the midday sun. Water well, and maybe top dress the new plantings with a handful of worm castings, or water with worm casting tea, or some other kind of plant pick-me up, to apologize to them for all of the rough handling.

It is very important to watch your plants closely after transplanting. They are like critical care patients until they begin to grow new roots. Until that time, you’ll likely have to water them more frequently than a normal plant, because their root structure is all messed up.  If the sun is strong, provide them with some shade. Also consider mulching to slow down water loss. Baby them as much as you can.

[ETA: One of our readers reminds me that another way to up your chances of success is to trim back the foliage of the plant. Fewer leaves means it will need less water, and can spend more energy growing new roots.]

No plant wants to be handled this way but with luck and care, the plant might do well afterward. The only alternative is planting it root bound, and no root bound plant can thrive. As in its pot, it will be hard to water, and it will live a short, sad life, always sickly and constrained, if it makes it at all.

As a caveat, I know of a few types of plant which can’t abide any fooling with their roots at all, like bougainvillea, for one, but if you buy a root bound plant, or allow one of your own seedlings to get that way, you really don’t have much of choice, or much to lose, so give it a try.

Ten Uses for Palm Fronds

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Like the sound of one hand clapping, one of the great unanswerable Zen koans of life in Los Angeles is, “what the hell do I do with all these palm fronds?” Those outside the few places on the earth these monsters grow will be amused to hear that great masses of the fronds drop (80 to 100 feet) in the slightest breeze. Disposing of them is a constant chore but, thankfully, there are a few things you can do with them.

Continue reading…

Why Your Garden Should Be Dark at Night

A confession: I was a teenage astronomy geek. This hobby that gave me an awareness of how depressing it is to live in a city so brightly lit that you can count the number of stars in the night sky.

A documentary, currently streaming on Netflix, called The City Dark details just how many other problems lights cause that you might not have thought of:

  • Lighting confuses migratory birds. Millions crash into buildings every year.
  • Sea turtle hatchlings walk towards city lights rather than the ocean.
  • For us humans? An increased likelihood of breast cancer among women who work at night.
  • Depression and sleep problems.

Worst may be the lack of perspective we humans get when we can’t contemplate the vastness of space. One of the astronomers in the documentary noted that when we lose touch with the scale of the universe we don’t appreciate the fact that we will never leave this earth. The distances are just too great. His point is that if we understood the impossibility of space travel, and gave up fantasizing about space colonies, we’d take better care of our home.

Photo: highline.org.

Highline Park at night. Photo: highline.org.

Keeping Gardens Dark
Thankfully light pollution is an easy fix and saves money and energy too. We can keep our outdoor spaces dark at night to benefit our well being and as well as the survival of nocturnal creatures. Night Sky concluded with a brief interview with Hervé Descottes, one of the lighting designers of the Highline Park in New York City. Descottes’s lighting design shows how you can balance the need for security with respect of the night sky by simply directing lighting downwards.

The International Dark-Sky Association has a guide to residential lighting that will help you keep our skies dark and nocturnal creatures safe. Some recommendations:

  • Choose dark sky friendly lighting fixtures that direct light down, not up.
  • Light only what needs to be lit, i.e. create a lighting plan rather than putting up a huge floodlight.
  • Switch lights off when not in use.
  • Reduce wattage–you don’t need as much as you think.

Here’s another idea: garden with moonlight. Rather than light up your garden with artificial light, include plants with silvery-grey leaves or white flowers. Our white sage glows spectacularly during a full moon. I’m also happy we put in a climbing white rose over our entrance arbor.

By embracing the darkness we can open our eyes to the stars above.