A Hairy Cucumber: Mezzo Lungo di Polignano

There’s a crass joke or limerick to be made here but I’ll leave that up to you, our dear readers. I’ll just say that this cucumber, an Italian heirloom called Mezzo Lungo di Polignano, has done well for us this summer. No powdery mildew and it’s tasty. I got the seeds from Craig Ruggless at www.gardenedibles.com. I wrote Craig to ask him about it and he replied,

“This is one of my favorites. They are also very good when left on the vine to get larger. Be sure to peel and remove the seeds. They make a great “boat” for salad fillings Like tuna or salmon with lemon and capers in maybe a mayo or yogurt dressing.”

The salad boat idea, in our case with tomatoes and a yogurt dressing, made for one of my favorite meals this summer. As for the hairy skin–biodiversity in action–and there something to be said for variety and aesthetics even though that crazy skin never ends up on the dining room table.

It’s Official: Erik is Insane

Our parkway garden

It’s true. Erik has gone insane trying to protect his baby. His squash baby.

A little background:

We’ve long gardened in two raised beds in the parkway in front our house (the parkway being the space between the sidewalk and the street). This is officially city property, though we are responsible for maintaining it. It gets great morning light, so it’s a valuable growing space. It’s also fun to garden out in public, so we can talk to our neighbors and get all the fresh gossip, and show little kids what food looks when its growing.

The drawback to a public garden, of course, is that it is defenseless. This means that dogs and cats and sometimes people tromp through the beds, scattering freshly planted seeds and smashing delicate seedlings. If the plants survive, then they become subject to theft. Now, we don’t mind sharing food. The parkway isn’t really ours, after all, so we figure what grows down there is fair game. Generally we either grow things down there that are easy to share–like beans or cherry tomatoes–or things people aren’t likely to pilfer–like greens.

This all changed this year, because Erik decided to plant squash down there. Not just any squash, but this fantastical Italian winter squash called Lunga di Napoli. It’s a green skinned squash, rather like a butternut in shape and texture, except it can reach a meter in length.

At the time of planting, I did the wifely, “Honey, are you sure that’s a good idea?” thing. It’s just not a good idea to plant high-investment crops in the parkway. He assured me he knew it was a risk, but he wanted to try, and we didn’t have space to plant it anywhere else. “No big deal,” he said. Back then he was reasonable.

Since then, our parkway has turned into a dense jungle. *** Note: We love our tolerant neighbors!!!! *** There’s not only squash growing in those two small beds, there’s also scarlet runner beans, strangely hairy cucumbers, volunteer tomatoes and giant lamb’s quarters going to seed. The giant squash tendrils are spreading across our driveway and walk. Sure, it’s better to be lush than bare, but it looks crazy. Grey Gardens type crazy. In my more optimistic moments I think of it as a “food forest.” I tried to take pics, but it’s hard to capture the wildness of the space.

Very like the jungle swallowed the ruins of Palenque on the Yucatan peninsula, our Scarlet Runner bean long ago swamped its trellis.
Hairy cucumber and tiny tomatoes growing together. The beds have their moments of beauty.

Back to the squash. It only bore two fruits. Erik began to obsess over them as soon as they appeared. How would they ever live to maturity? He just knew a thief would take them at zucchini size, and then they’d never reach their potential. Suddenly, it was of utmost importance to him that these squash reach their full one meter length. I trembled with dread and ill foreboding.

The remaining Squash Baby, currently measuring 20 inches or so.

One morning the inevitable happened. Erik stomped into the house, crying, “The %$#$!*s took my squash! They took my squash!” The smaller of the two squashes was gone, picked long before its time. After a brief period of depression, which he spent either cursing the unjust nature of the universe or reiterating his desire to chop down all the trees in our backyard, so as to maximize secure growing space (which is not going to happen as long as I’m around!), Erik began to scheme.

And now, we are the proud proprietors of Garden Guantanamo. The remaining squash baby –and it really is baby sized, and growing fast–soon I will have to refer to it as the squash toddler–is wrapped in layers of chicken wire and spiked deep in the earth. But that was not enough. He’s also surrounded the entire parkway with a cordon of bright yellow rope (invoking police tape?) and most alarming of all, fashioned little signs that say “Warning: Experimental/Not For Human Consumption/No Es Comida” and staked them at 3 foot intervals on all sides.

Lousy pic of one of the signs, obscured by windblown lamb’s quarters.

I’ll admit I’ve put up my share of signs in my time (Keep Door Closed, Turn Off Lights, Don’t Eat the Cake in the Fridge, etc.). But age brings wisdom, and I’ve learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who read signs and those who don’t. And the great irony is that those who read signs don’t need the signs in the first place. And those who need the signs never, ever read them.

In other words, I don’t think the signs are going to work. And I’m dreading my neighbors asking me what’s experimental about our food.

In the meanwhile people, pray for Erik and his squash baby. And I’ll keep you updated.

Blue Garlic A-OK


Mrs. Homegrown here:

Note the lovely blue tinge of the garlic in my latest pickling adventure. Turns out that there’s a few reasons garlic might turn blue or green when prepared, but whatever the case, the coloring is harmless. What most likely happened here is that the garlic I used wasn’t fully dried, so it reacted with the vinegar in the pickling mix. I remember noting how moist the garlic cloves were as I worked with them that day.

If you want to read up more on this topic, and learn some of the science behind it (I’m too lazy to retype all the big words), check out this garlic fact sheet from What’s Cooking America. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

By the way, the pickles I’m making are tourshi–Armenian pickles. If they work out, I’ll share the recipe.

Figgy Rebuttal

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I had to register my disagreement with Mr. Homegrown’s Mission Fig vs. Kadota Fig post. Seems Erik decided to hold a taste test and invite only himself. The Kadota figs are certainly very good. But much of that goodness comes from their sweetness. They are sweet as honey, but not cloying. I respect that, but I don’t crave it. Unlike Erik, I don’t have a sweet tooth. Therefore, of the two I prefer the less sweet Black Mission figs–they’re figgier, for lack of a better word. So don’t go to bed thinking that you’re really missing out by not having one of them fancy Janice Kadota trees in your yard. They’re very good figs, but they’re not all that.

Black Mission Fig vs. Janice Seedless Kadota FIgs

Janice Seedless Kadota (top), Black Mission Fig (bottom)

Who wins the flavor battle between Black Mission figs and Janice Seedless Kadota figs? The verdict: Black Mission figs are damn good, but Janice Seedless Kadotas are damn better! We’re jealous of Homegrown Neighbor who has one of these beauties.

Patented in 1993 and sold wholesale by the Dave Wilson Nursery, Janice figs are white and incredibly sweet. Ask your local nursery to order one from Dave Wilson for you. But note, this is a variety for Mediterranean climates.

For excellent directions on growing figs see this info sheet from the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Italian immigrants desperate for the flavors of home pioneered growing figs in northerly climates. See this discussion over at GardenWeb for cold climate fig strategies.

Extreme Recycling

Over at Edible Geography a post, Upgrade Excreta, on three artists and designers working with human waste. Above, design student James Gilpin, who has allegedly figured out how to turn the pee of elderly diabetics into fine single malt scotch. Now that’s what I call recycling!

Meanwhile, Chicago artist and activist Nancy Klehm has completed her Humble Pile humanure project, releasing a stunning t-shirt in the process.

Lastly, designer Tobias Wong has created little glittery pills that make your poop sparkle.

Scarlet Runner Bean Stew

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Apparently a block away, Mrs. Homegrown has also been having bean cravings. Maybe there is something in the air. Maybe its just that beans are hearty, filling, inexpensive and all around awesome. I happened to get my hands on a bag of dried scarlet runner beans from Rancho Gordo specialty beans.

Scarlet runners are a favorite garden bean as they are great climbers and produce beautiful red flowers. If you want to grow a bean teepee or need to cover a chain link fence, they would be a good plant choice. In fact, my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown, grow them every summer.
 
I’ve never had scarlet runners as a dried bean before. But having lived in co-ops in Berkeley for many years, I am pretty experienced at cooking dried beans, other legumes and whole grains.
When it comes to dried beans I almost always do the overnight soak method. To soak beans overnight, simply place your beans in a large pot. Rinse them and pick out any stones or broken beans. Fill the pot up 3/4 of the way with water and let soak overnight or for at least five hours. After their soak you may need to add more water. The beans can soak up a lot. Then cook on medium to high heat for about an hour. Test a bean. How done you want your beans is rather subjective. If you want to use them in a salad, you may want them a little more firm. But if you want to make refried beans, they need to be extra soft. Just taste and see what you think. I like my beans nice and soft but not falling apart.
So to cook the scarlet runner beans I placed them in the 3 quart enameled pot that goes with my solar cooker, filled it the rest of the way with water and let the beans soak overnight. The next day I admired the fat, swollen beans. I threw in a few bay leaves and put the pot in the solar cooker around 9 a.m.. I arrived home around 4 p.m. and my beans were done.

They are big and meaty, but still rather bland. I’m going to eat them for dinner tonight and this is what I’m going to do to flavor them: I’ll keep the pot liquor (the water the beans cooked in). In a separate skillet I’ll heat some oil and saute onions, garlic, maybe a few pieces of celery then add some mushrooms. I really recommend cooking the onions and mushrooms in butter for extra flavor. But since I’m making tonight’s dish vegan, I’m going to cook them in coconut oil. Then I’ll add the cooked onions and mushrooms to the beans on low heat. Then add 1 -2 teaspoons of ground cumin and a dash of cayenne.Yum.

The Pinnacle of Permaculture: Tending the Wild

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesBook review: Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

When the white man came to California, he found a verdant paradise: meadows thick with wildflowers and clover, stately groves of nut trees, abundant, healthy game and rivers full of fish. It was a land of endless bounty. The natives, often derogatorily called “Diggers” by the whites, seemed to live off this bounty in a lazy, hand-to-mouth sort of way.

Tending the Wild, a highly readable dissertation, takes this mythology apart. Anderson’s argument is that the native people of California were active stewards of the land.

Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.

Through extensive practical experience, the Indians had found a “middle way” between exploitation of the land and hands-off preservation of the land. They made use of the land, and in so doing, made the land better for all other creatures as well. They used resources, but managed to give back more. And in so doing, they shaped California.

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view and California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of the Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy visas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb and green gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting and seed scattering.”

Our favorite idea to come out of this book is the notion that plants and animals need people. This is the philosophy of the Native American elders Anderson interviews. Rather as plants need birds to scatter their seeds, plants rely on humans to thin and prune them, protect them and spread them. The elders imagined an active, reciprocal relationship of use between humans, plants and animals. For them, “wilderness” is a pejorative term. When land is untended, it turns feral and declines. In a thriving land there is physical and spiritual intimacy between man, plants and animals.

All this is to say that California, at first European contact, was a garden–a garden that had been loved, tended and built up for generations. And the first settlers and explorers couldn’t see it. They saw a gift from God, one which they stripped bare in short order.

There is sadness in reading this, sadness in thinking of all that has been lost. But as Anderson contends, there is still a chance to preserve some of this knowledge. It lives on in the elders who remain whose grandparents remembered California before the gold rush. This book collects some of that knowledge, and talks about Indian management of certain species. While it cannot teach us everything, it provides a tantalizing vision of a non-exploitative yet productive relationship between man and nature, providing us a path for the future, if we can find the will to take it before it is too late.

Highly recommended read, especially for Californians, conservationists, gardeners, wild plant enthusiasts and those studying permaculture.

LA Times Calls Vertical Gardens in a Dry Climate a Bad Idea

Wooly Pockets at Homeboy Industries

Writing for the LA Times, Emily Green has penned a skeptical look at wall-based growing, “The Dry Garden: A skeptic’s view of vertical gardens.” I’m in complete agreement with Green and wrote about this silly trend back in July. Says Green of a garden in Culver City that uses the Wooly Pocket vertical system,

“The concrete wall behind the bagged-and-hung garden is wet with runoff from an automated drip system. The sacks are calcified with irrigation scale. Even in an open-air setting, get close and there is a whiff of mold. It’s hard to imagine a less savory or more whimsically destructive system for a region in a water crisis.”

Amen. We need more critical thinking like this, especially when it comes to schemes with “eco” or “sustainable” pretensions.

Plantago coronopus, a.k.a. Buckhorn Plantain, a.k.a. Erba Stella

Cruise down the produce isle of a supermarket in the United States and you’ll only find highly domesticated foods. Thumb through the pages of the Silver Spoon (the Joy of Cooking of Italian Cuisine) and you’ll discover entire chapters devoted to the use of wild or semi-wild plants.

This summer I grew one of these semi-cultivated Italian vegetables, Buckhorn plantain (Plantago coronopus) also known as Erba Stella and Barba di frate (friar’s beard). It’s a mild, ever so slightly bitter green I found delicious boiled and sauteed with garlic and olive oil. The Silver Spoon suggests cooking it with either pancetta or anchovies.

As for growing Plantago coronopus, let me put it this way, if you can’t grow it consider giving up gardening. I left some in my seedling flat and, with just three inches of soil, it produced a viable crop. It’s a weed. While I’ve seen it described as a cool weather green, it grew fine this summer (admittedly a very mild summer here in Los Angeles). Do an English language search for this plant on the interwebs and you’ll get tips on the right herbicide to use to rid your lawn of it.

Another winner from Franchi seed company!