More On Preventing Plants From Falling Over

Mrs. Homegrown’s post on her storm-flattened flax patch reminded me that I had a photo I took while taking John Jeavons’ Biointensive workshop earlier this month. In front of Jeavons is a bed of fava beans, also notorious for falling over in the slightest breeze. The randomly strung network of twine will support the fava as it grows.

You can see from my own fava bed below that I could have benefited from this low tech solution:

While I didn’t lose any fava in the storm, the plants are sprawling all over the adjacent, narrow path making it difficult to harvest.

As Jeavons says, the expert is the person who has made the most mistakes!

Hippie Heart Horizontal

Mrs. Homegrown here:
So I was wrong about the rains in that self-pitying post I wrote a week or two ago. They came again. (But this time, I really do think this is our last spate of rain.) It was a strong, blustery storm and it laid our flax flat. The poor hippie heart.

It had just started to bloom. Those little blue flowers turn to pods. Each pod holds a few seeds. That’s where flax seeds come from. As a city girl, I find this very impressive. Even more mind blowing is to look at these stalks and realize linen is made from them.

Flax is notorious for falling over from its own weight if not planted close together or supported. Rosalind Creasy, queen of the attractive edible garden, makes metal grids for her flax to grow through so it stays upright. I’d been trusting the universe. And the universe worked, until the storm. They might fluff up again when they dry. Or I might go out and see if I can encourage them into verticality.

If I can’t, I’ll harvest the stems, rot them, pound them, learn to spin, learn to weave, and make one square inch of linen.

Germinator Update

Last year my tomato seeds failed to germinate. Why? It was just too cold.

I vowed to build a cold frame and this winter I made good on that promise. I’ve upgraded the plastic sheeting on the “germinator” to rigid plastic awning material (plastic sheeting over a flat surface doesn’t do well in rain . . . duh). If I were to build this thing again I’d construct a sloping top, especially if I lived somewhere with actual weather.

Before–plastic sheeting on a flat surface–a bad idea! What was I thinking?

The automatic vent lifter (available from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply) works great, popping open the germinator to keep the seedlings from frying during the day (remember this is Southern California).

The sight of my tomato seedlings was a highlight of the week:

If I lived in a colder climate I might consider incorporating a compost bin inside my cold frame to keep seedlings warm, a heat mat, or growing indoors under lights.

Survival Gardening

One of many survival garden pitches.

Listen to AM radio for more than a few minutes and you’re bound to hear an ad touting seeds and “one acre survival gardens.” The implication is that hordes of foreclosed zombies will soon empty the shelves of the local Walmart and leave us all bartering for gas with our carefully stored heirloom pole bean seeds.

But it does raise the question of how much space you need to grow all your own food. It’s been on my mind since attending John Jeavons’ three day Grow Biointensive workshop where we spent a fair amount of time, calculator in hand, figuring out how many calories you can squeeze from small spaces.

What gets left out in the “survival garden” sales pitches is that, if you want real self-sufficiency, you’ve also got to maintain the soil fertility that you deplete by harvesting. To do that you need to grow all your own compost. For this, Jeavons suggests what he calls “carbon and calorie crops” things like corn and wheat where you get both something edible and a lot of biomass for your compost pile. In Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot “sustainable one person mini-farm” scheme, 60% of your growing area is devoted to these compost and calorie crops. The remainder is planted in 30% high calorie root crops, such as potatoes, with just 10% of the garden devoted to the usual tomatoes and greens.

The residents of Biosphere 2, using Jeavons’ techniques claimed that enough food could be grown for one person on as little as 3,403 square feet. Jeavons has shown that you could use less space, but you better like eating a lot of potatoes.

In reality, there’s probably too many variables, such as climate, to get an exact figure on how much space you need to grow enough food for one person. And let us not forget the novice survival gardener’s experience (I’m amused at the thought of those one acre survival gardeners busting open that paint can full of seeds for the first time having never gardened before). And if you want livestock, the acreage requirements jump considerably.

But considering that it takes, according to Jeavons, between 15,000 and 30,000 square feet for commercial agriculture to provide the same calories as Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot mini-farm, we’d do well to pull out those calculators on occasion. With just 176 square feet of vegetable beds at the Root Simple compound, our goal is self-reliance, not self-sufficiency. Do you think our post-apocalyptic overlords will feed us in exchange for blogging for them?

Concord grape, newborn and amazing

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This lovely thing is a newborn, unfurling Concord grape leaf. I had no idea it would be so beautiful. Why the crazy pink? Why does it look like it was dipped in sugar?

Even more amazing is that this event, though spectacular, is tiny. The Concord grape in question is a presently a 10-inch high stick, newly planted bare root stock, almost invisible. Only the flash of color caught my attention today and drew me to it to inspect. That this stick is suddenly bearing sugary pink wonders seems like a miracle.

Wish us luck with this grape. It is meant to shade our back porch. However, we’re beset by the sharpshooters, and the disease they carry (ever wonder why SoCal doesn’t grow wine?) which killed the first vine we planted, and then proceeded to kill the second one we planted, even though that one was supposed to be resistant to that blight–leaving us without summer shade on the porch for…how many years now? Fingers crossed that this grape will thrive, and grow from 10 inches high to 10 feet high and spreading.

Harvesting and Drying Calendula

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Okay, so in a previous post I talked about growing Calendula. This post I’m going to talk about harvesting and drying it. The next post I’ll do on the topic will be about making a skin-healing salve from the dried petals, olive oil and beeswax.

When to harvest: 
Start harvesting your Calendula as soon as the first flush of flowers is in full bloom. Don’t try to “save” the flowers. The more you harvest, the more flowers each plant will put out.  After the first cutting, you can probably return to harvest more every 3 days or so.
The ideal time to harvest is in the morning, before it gets warm, but after the dew dries. You want them all fresh and perky and at their peak. This is traditional wisdom. However, I believe it’s better to harvest when you can than not at all, so I harvest at all times of day.
A side note regarding seeds:
If you don’t harvest the heads, they die back on their own, and then they’ll go to seed fast. If you don’t like the idea of Calendula volunteering all over your yard the following year, you’ll want to collect all the heads before they die back. However, you may also want to monitor them carefully and collect ripe seed for planting the next year (you want to collect the seed when it’s brown, not green).  And if you want to keep track of such things, if you make a point of saving seed only from the plants with the best blooms, your favorite colors, etc., over generations you can breed your own line of Calendula.
Alien beauty. A seed head in its early stages. The seeds are the green things that look like bugs.
What parts to harvest:
I harvest the flower heads only, though I understand that the foliage has much the same properties as the flowers. If I were short on plants, and knew I’d get few flowers, I’d harvest and dry the leaves to make up that lack. Given a choice, though, I prefer the flowers, just because they’re good for cooking and decoration as well as my salves. People used to eat Calendula leaves (they’re known as “pot marigolds” because they used to go into the cooking pot), but I’ve tasted them, and I don’t think I’ll be making them part of my diet unless I have to.
To harvest, I either pinch off the heads or cut off the heads with scissors. This often leaves a long, beheaded stem behind. That stem can be trimmed back to the first set of leaves, for the sake of aesthetics. Or not. (ETA: A commenter recommends that you always cut the stem back to the first set of leaves, so the stem does not become a conduit for rot. Makes sense.)
How to dry:
Bring the flower heads indoors, into an area out of direct sunlight. Don’t wash the heads.

Spread the heads out face down on a dishtowel or a sheet or newspaper or for fancy, an old window screen stretched between two chairs. I find laying out the heads an oddly satisfying activity.
Of course, if you have a dehydrator you could use one of those. Calendula should never be subjected to high heat, so oven drying is out of the question. Set your dehydrator to 90-95 degrees F.  
If you’re air drying, turn the flowers over every so often. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
They’ll shrink quite a bit as they dry, so you’ll have room to keep adding fresh specimens as they come in.
When are they dry enough?:
They must be completely and absolutely dry before they go into storage. Believe me when I say this is important. A couple of years ago I was impatient and put a few chamomile buds which must have been not-quite-dry in to a jar with the rest of my (painstaking) chamomile harvest. The next time I opened that quart jar I got a big nasty whiff of mold. I almost cried.
So–the flowers must be dry. They should be fragile, crispy and very dry, like crepe paper. Make a habit of feeling them at different stages of drying to develop sensitivity in your finger tips. You’ll notice that when they’re not quite dry they’ll *look* dry but when you touch them they are a bit cool compared to a truly dry flower. In other words, you can feel the water in them. Leave those for another day or so.
The green part, the flower head to which the petals are attached, dries more slowly than the petals themselves, because it has a greater mass. Be cautious of this. If you’re going to store the heads whole, then you need to allow extra time for the green parts to dry.  Which brings me to the next item:
To pluck or not to pluck:
There isn’t a right or wrong here. Everybody does it different. 
If you plucked all the petals off the heads when you first brought them indoors, those petals would dry very fast. But that, in my frank opinion, would be a pain. It would be like playing a game of “He loves me, He loves me not” that lasted for hours.
If you want to leave the petals on the heads that’s fine. The heads (green parts) have medicinal properties too, so you can use them whole. The only thing is that you must make sure those heads are completely dry before you store them, as I said above.
What I do is is wait until the petals are dry, then I pluck them from the heads, to avoid the whole “is the head still damp?” issue. When the petals are dry, they come off the head very easy. In fact, the ease with which they come off the head is an indicator of their dryness. If they’re resistant at all, they’re not dry. To work in bulk, you can take a whole bunch of dry heads and put them in a bowl and rub them between your hands. The petals will fall off. The heads will collect at the bottom of the bowl, because they are much heavier than the petals. Or you can strip them by hand. When they’re dry, this only takes a single gesture.
Only the driest petals go in the jar. All that debris around the jar is stuff that’s not dry enough yet.
Can you use the flowers fresh?:
Yes. And no. Depends. The next step in this series of posts is the making of an oil infusion.  I never put anything “wet” in oil, because of the slight chance that botulinum toxin might develop in the oil.  Herbalists who I respect put fresh matter in oil nonetheless, and I envy them, because I suspect they’re getting more out of the plant by doing so. But I’m not going to take that risk–or write about it if I do. This is just safer. 
You can use the flowers fresh other ways. You can make them (and the foliage) into a tea, which you could use as a skin wash for sunburn or irritation–or drink. Fresh flowers could go into your bathwater to make a soothing bath. Fresh flowers can also be soaked in alcohol to make a tincture.  
I keep my very dry herbs in sealed mason jars in a dark cupboard. You don’t want to expose any dried herb to sunlight for any length of time. I use jars because I don’t take any chances with pantry moths (it’s amazing what they’ll get into). The risk with jars, as I’ve said, is that if the herbs aren’t perfectly dry, you’ll get mold. This is why other people opt to keep their dried herbs in paper bags–bags breathe a bit, so lessen the chance of mold. This is a good option, too.
I try to switch out my dried herbs every year–at least the ones I grow. Some of the things in my cupboard are older than that. I think some herbs keep their properties longer than others, but in general you should try to use them in a year or so. Like spices, the are best fresh, but usable, if not as potent, as they age. 

Label and date all your herbs. Even if you think you’ll never forget, somehow or another you will, and at some future find yourself standing at your cupboard, holding a jar full of strange plant matter and saying to yourself, “What is this?”


Green gold!

We’re very lucky that when we purchased our house 13 years ago it came with a mature, and delicious avocado tree. Wanting to know more about how to care for that tree I attended a remarkable lecture at the Huntington given by avocado experts Carl Stucky and Julie Frink. From the Huntington lecture I gleaned the following factoids:

  • Avocados varieties are divided into three “races”: Mexican, Guatemalan, and West Indian.
  • Avocados are extremely frost sensitive, more so than citrus.
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch! Avocados like a thick layer (6 to 12 inches) of course mulch. Once you mulch you have to keep mulching because the shallow roots of avocado trees will often grow up into the mulch.
  • Avocados like a well drained soil and won’t tolerate wet feet. So if you dig a hole and fill it with water and that water sticks around for a day, plant something else.
  • Avocados use a lot of zinc and may need supplemental applications of zinc sulfate placed in shallow holes.
  • What few pests avocados have can be sprayed off with a hose. 
  • Occasional deep waterings flush out chlorides in the soil that can cause leaves to turn brown at the tips and poor fruit production. In fact if the first rain of the season is less than 3 inches, you should irrigate to flush out salts that build up during the dry season.
  • Avocados take a long time to ripen on the tree–12 months or more depending on variety.

For additional reading Stucky recommended the following internet resources:
California Avocado Society
California Avocado Commission (The “growers” part of their website)

One thing that I discovered this year is that you can leave avocados on the tree for a very long period. We had at least a six month harvest window. There’s actually still a few on the tree.

As for squirrels, Stucky’s advice involved extraordinary rendition and water boarding, but we’ll spare you the details.

Hugo, humanure and nettles

One of the original illustrations to Les Misérables (1862)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Anne, our neighbor with the pea-ravaging Chihuahua, brings to our attention the fact that Victor Hugo was a humanure enthusiast, and in fact dedicates long passages of Les Misérables to it.

This is taken from Volume V, Book 2 (The Intestine of the Leviathan), Chapter One, provided by Project Gutenberg:

Paris casts twenty-five millions yearly into the water. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? Day and night. With what object? With no object. With what intention? With no intention. Why? For no reason. By means of what organ? By means of its intestine. What is its intestine? The sewer.

Twenty-five millions is the most moderate approximative figure which the valuations of special science have set upon it.

Science, after having long groped about, now knows that the most fecundating and the most efficacious of fertilizers is human manure. The Chinese, let us confess it to our shame, knew it before us. Not a Chinese peasant—it is Eckberg who says this,—goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young as in the days of Abraham. Chinese wheat yields a hundred fold of the seed. There is no guano comparable in fertility with the detritus of a capital. A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.

What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss. 

Fleets of vessels are dispatched, at great expense, to collect the dung of petrels and penguins at the South Pole, and the incalculable element of opulence which we have on hand, we send to the sea. All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, restored to the land instead of being cast into the water, would suffice to nourish the world.

Those heaps of filth at the gate-posts, those tumbrels of mud which jolt through the street by night, those terrible casks of the street department, those fetid drippings of subterranean mire, which the pavements hide from you,—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, the green grass, wild thyme, thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle, they are the satisfied bellows of great oxen in the evening, they are perfumed hay, they are golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are joy, they are life. This is the will of that mysterious creation which is transformation on earth and transfiguration in heaven. 

I’ll stop there, but it goes on…and Anne says he brings it up again later.

As I recall, Hugo also had a thing for nettles….hey, wait a minute! Turns out that his rant about nettles is in Les Mis too:

One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: “They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!” He added, after a pause: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”

I’ve never read Les Misérables, but I’m beginning to think it should be required reading–just for his asides. It’s time to face my PTSD from the musical and embrace the book–all three billion pages of it.

Advances in Gardening Series: We’re maturing

November–seedlings new planted

January–all the foliage is in
End of February–the flowers really start to pop

Stuff grows. You just gotta remember to plant it!

A quick photo update on progress for the Phan of Pharmacy and the Hippie Heart, mostly for our own record keeping. Maybe it will inspire those of you surrounded by rain or snow with dreams of your own spring planting.

Back in November, I cleared ground and planted the Phan/Fan with medicinal seedlings. See some of that history here. Now we’re at the end of February, and the Calendula and chamomile plants are mature. The Calendula (the yellow flowers in the pic) is giving off lots of blossoms, the chamomile–not so much. That’s garlic growing on the far right. It’s beginning to brown at the tips, but I don’t think it’s going to be ready until May. The poppies, hidden in the back, are slow, and not near blossoming yet. Note the rogue borage in the foreground.

Meanwhile, the Hippie Heart, planted with flax in the center and lentils around the edges is coming along very well. It waves hi to the police helicopters overhead. The point of the Heart was to have a place where I could experiment with planting seeds, beans and spices right out of the pantry. Soon I’ll need to decide if I’m going to let the flax and lentils go to seed, and collect that seed for fun, or if I’ll pull it out early in favor of more experimentation with new pantry crops over the summer.

January 22nd

February 25th: I can hardly wait ’til it blooms.

Grow Biointensive Videos

I’ve often threatened that our next book would adapt the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders into a vegetable gardening guide. Obsessive/compulsive? Here’s how you plant radishes . . .

Wherever I fall in the diagnostic manual, the vegetable gardening method I’ve used for the past few years has been based on John Jeavon’s “Biointensive” method as described in his book How to Grow More Vegetables. This past weekend I made the pilgrimage to Jeavon’s Willits, California headquarters to drink the Kool-Aid at the foot of the master and take a three day Biointensive workshop.

The Biointensive method involves growing compost crops, double digging and tight spacing. Jeavons aims to produce a complete diet in as little space as possible while maintaining soil fertility with few outside inputs. Unlike most garden gurus Jeavons backs up his ideas with meticulous research which draws on his background in workplace efficiency.

He’s also generous and “open source” with his techniques. The workshop was reasonably priced for three full days of instruction. Should you not be able to get to Willits, Jeavon’s non-profit Ecology Action has produced a well made series of instructional videos that you can view online here. I’ve created a playlist of the complete set of these videos below:

Now, I’m so fired up from the workshop I’ve got to get away from this computer and out into the garden!