Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter

Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter (Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a. “tree spinach”) has reemerged in our garden via the compost pile. It’s a striking edible weed, part of the family that encompasses spinach, quinoa and epazote. Seeds of Change sells this beautiful variety, oddly named “Magenta Spreen.” Like other members of the Chenopodium family it has a fair amount of oxalic acid which could be a problem if it’s all you ate. Even though I’m prone to kidney stones I’m not concerned about oxalic acid in moderation. Cooking reduces oxalic acid as well as saponins that the leaves also contain.

The Plants for a Future database entry on Chenopodium giganteum has a few cultivation details,

“An easily grown plant, succeeding in most soils but disliking shade. It prefers a moderately fertile soil. This species is closely related to C. album, and was probably derived from it through cultivation. The tree spinach is sometimes cultivated for its edible leaves, there are some named varieties. ‘Magentaspreen’ is a vigorous plant growing 1.5 metres tall. It has large leaves, the new growth is a brilliant magenta colour. Tastiest when young, the leaves are eaten raw or cooked like spinach. A warm climate is required in order to ripen the seed.”

Chenopodium giganteum has a tendency to become invasive, but I prefer to think of it as what Craig Ruggless of Garden Edibles calls a “happy wanderer.”

Love the Grub 2.1

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae, common in compost piles, are a free protein source for chickens and fish. It’s possible to create a composter to deliberately propagate BSF. Jerry (sorry I don’t know your last name) of the Black Soldier Fly Blog, has put together excellent and very detailed instructions on how to construct the BSF composter above. It’s a kind of Logan’s Run for larvae. Soldier fly females enter through the pipe on the top of the bucket and lay their eggs in food scraps you place in the bottom of the device. Larvae hatch and climb up a spiral tube and fall into a holding box.

You can buy a commercial BSF propogator, the Biopod, but it’s a bit over my price range. I’ll be putting together this BSF composter soon and will report back on my results.

Thanks to Federico of the Los Angeles Eco-village for the tip on this. See Federico’s blog http://eeio.blogspot.com/ for some other amazing DIY projects.

Also, see our previous post on the BSF.

The Spice Zee Nectaplum

We just harvested our first Spice Zee Nectaplum and, no exaggeration here, it was just about the tastiest fruit we’ve ever eaten–very sweet, with a indescribably rich taste and aroma. The nectaplum is a complex hybrid developed by Zaiger’s Genetics and sold through the Dave Wilson Nursery. It’s a gorgeous tree, with deep red leaves in the spring that gradually become a dark green by mid-summer.

Hybrid fruit trees are created by applying pollen to seed bearing stock to make a cross. The Zaigers have an innovative movable container system that allows them to cross lots of fruit trees each spring. The nectaplum was the result of years of work and many crosses. It’s not a simple process. From the Dave Wilson website:

At Zaiger’s Genetics, of the 50,000 trees planted per year, only 300 to 400 remain after three years, and even fewer after 10 years. The final trees get six years to see if they are commercial grade. “It isn’t a get-rich-quick deal,” Zaiger says, smiling. “You have to have an understanding wife that will let you go off on a 20-year project with no income.”

Dave Wilson is a wholesale nursery, so if you’d like to buy a nectaplum you’ll have to ask your local nursery to order one for you or get one online from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply.  If you’ve got the space I’d highly recommend this tree. If I could have only one fruit tree it would be this one.

USDA zones 7-9
Chill requirement: 200 to 300 hours

Acanthoscelides obtectus- A seed saver’s lament

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Well, I had a rude awakening when I tried to plant my beans a few weeks ago. I have been growing several different types of pole beans for three or four years and saving seeds from them at the end of every summer. I usually grow purple, yellow and green varieties of pole beans for beautiful summer soups, salads and other dishes.

Not this year. When I opened the packet of bean seeds that I had saved last fall, I found all of these little holes in my beans. Turns out the culprit is the bean weevil, Acanthoscelides obtectus.

Their larvae make swiss cheese out of dried beans.

While they can be a pest in the garden apparently they usually are a problem in stored beans. And it turns out they love our mild California winters which allow them to reproduce year round. I also looked them up on the handy dandy University of California Integrated Pest Management site. Turns out not having dried beans around is the best way to control them. I probably am storing too many seeds in my garage. This fall I’m going to use glass jars instead of paper envelopes and see if that keeps some of the critters out.

Vertical Vegetables

Frederick Law Olmstead’s office has a 19th century “vertical garden.” Vines!

I was somewhat dismayed to see a local newspaper article touting a company that sells a $1,000 vertical vegetable garden system to schools. The company has a plan to sell this system nationwide. The problem is that I have serious doubts about the long term viability of vertical garden walls for a number of reasons: irrigation, maintenance and start up costs just to name a few. And I’m not alone. The New York Times did some critical reporting on the subject of vertical garden systems in a recent article, “Gardens That Grow on Walls.”

For certain plants vertical growing might work. I haven’t tried it, but this DIY vertical succulent garden in Sunset Magazine certainly is striking. But vegetables? Their roots need space and you’d need to do a lot of watering to keep a vertical vegetable wall happy.

All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!But growing vertically does not have to mean attaching roots to a wall. I can think of two simple vertical vegetable garden strategies where that $1,000 would go a lot further. How about simply favoring fruits and vegetables that either grow vertically naturally, say pole beans, grapes, peas or kiwi or that can be convinced with a bit of pruning to go vertical, such as tomatoes, melons and winter squash? Mel Bartholomew has some nice vertical gardening tips in his classic book Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!. Build some raised beds next to a wall or saw cut out the concrete, plant in the ground and you’re in business.With some slings for the fruit, you can even grow watermelons vertically.

EARTHBOX GARDEN KIT GREENAlternately, buy or make some self irrigating planters (SIPs) and put them next to a wall. See the Green Roof Growers for what can be grown vertically with SIPs made from scavenged five gallon buckets. Or you can buy a commercially made SIP kit from the Earthbox company for around $50. The nice thing about SIPs is that they are fairly idiot proof and easy to maintain. A SIP is as close to “plant and forget about it” as you can get with vegetables. In short, perfect for schools where maintenance is always an issue.

As one of the vertical wall landscape designers admitted in that New York Times article, “in nature, you don’t have vertical dirt.” Why fight nature?

The glass is half full–even if it’s full of greywater


Mrs. Homegrown here:

In this blog and in our books, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of accepting failure as part of the process of living a more homegrown lifestyle. Disasters of different sorts are inevitable. Sometimes they’re part of the learning process. Other times they’re acts of nature that you just have to shrug off. This year we’ve had lots of failures in the agricultural line. It’s been the theme of the year.

For instance, we lost the grape which covers our back porch to Pierce’s disease. No shade for us this summer. Then we had to pull out our citrus trees because there’s a new citrus disease in California, very similar to Pierce’s disease. We blogged about the crookedness and incompetence of the teams sent by the CDFA to intimidate people in our neighborhood into allowing them to spray our yards. Rather than allow them to apply imidacloprid to our vehemently organic garden, we’ve pulled the trees. They were young in any case, barely giving fruit yet. For all the Safety Theater going on, this citrus disease is not going to be stopped by spraying, only by breeding disease resistant varieties. So we figured we may as well pull trees which are doomed to die a few years from now anyway and replace them with non-citrus trees. Nonetheless, that left us with holes in our yard.

Then we had root nematodes in one of our garden beds, and crappy results in another for reasons still unknown. Our first batch of summer seedlings did not thrive, and had to be restarted, which has put us far behind. It’s almost July and our tomatoes haven’t even fruited. We planted our front yard bed with amaranth seeds, and a stray dog dug them all up. We planted a back bed with beans, and the chickens got loose and dug those all up as well.

But the other day I was looking at the photos stored on our camera, and realized that for all this, there were successes this year, and moments of plenty, beauty and grace. It’s far too easy to focus on the failures and forget what goes right. So from now on we’re going to document our yard and other projects more diligently, so that we can look back on both the failures and the successes with a clear eye. It did me good to see these photos, which I’m going to share with you:


The front yard isn’t looking bad. Not organized, but at least not barren.

Lesson the First: make weed-like plants the backbone of your yard, meaning edible plants that grow no matter what–which kind of plants will vary by region. Grow fussy annuals too, if you want, but have these survivors as back up. And learn how to cook them. For instance, we get nopales from that huge cactus that is swamping our hill. The cucumbers may refuse to set fruit, but the cactus pads offer reliable eating for several months, and then the cactus fruit forms, and we have a second harvest. Nopal is the gift that won’t stop giving.

Another fail-proof crop in this region is artichoke. I really don’t know why every house in SoCal doesn’t have one in its yard. Every year we eat artichokes until we’re sick of them, and the only downside is that they spread like mad, as you can see below:


But is that really such a problem? Too many artichokes? Oh noes! Ours grow happily entwined with fennel (which was too small at the time to be seen in the shot above). Fennel is another weedy survivor here. We can harvest the bulbs, or eat the flowers and fronds, or do nothing and just let the pollinators have at it. Today I was sitting by the fennel patch. The flowers are full of pollen, and the air above it looked like LAX: honeybees, wasps, orchard mason bees, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name, butterflies, ladybugs…. I’d need a fancy camera to capture all that action, but here’s a shot from the spring:


And then there’s always the reassurance of a sturdy old fruit or nut tree. Most of our trees are young–planted by us. They have yet to reach their productive days, but we have an old avocado tree. It bears fruit every year, but every 3rd year it gives a bumper crop. And this was one of those years. They’re the best avocados, too–buttery to the extreme. We literally do nothing for this tree, and it gives us this:


We had plentiful greens this year during our winter growing season, mostly turnip and beet greens, bitter Italian greens and Swiss chard. The hoops you see support light row cover material to keep insects away. Our beds look like covered wagons a lot of the time!


We’ve had some nice food this year, too, some of which was documented. Good to look back on.

A salad made with our greens, our pomegranates, and Erik’s notorious pickled crosne:


Or this salad of greens, avocados, nasturtium and arugula flowers, all from the yard:


Ooh..there’s this. Our carrot crop wasn’t big, but it was good. Yellow carrots. They got chopped up and roasted and tasted like candy:

And then there’s the creature comforts. Our chickens are doing well, still laying and haven’t been pecking on each other so much. I took this picture during one of their outings, when they were patrolling the herb bed:

Our dog is very old, so every day with him counts. There’s lots of pics of him on the camera, because he’s such a sexy senior citizen:


And there’s no comfort like a good Neighbor. Particularly one who carries a huge knife and knows how to use it:

And when the going gets tough, we can remember to take pleasure in the ephemeral. Blueberry flowers are worthy of haiku:


It doesn’t rain much in LA, and even when it does, rainbows are a rarity. But we had this one:


Life’s not so bad.

Pakistan Mulberries

Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall was nice enough to drop off some freshly picked Pakistan mulberries (Morus macroura) gleaned from a house sitting gig. It’s one of the tastiest fruits I’ve ever had, very sweet, kinda like nature’s version of a Jolly Rancher. If you’ve never had a Pakistan mulberry it’s not surprising as it’s a fruit that simply doesn’t ship well.

Here’s what the California Rare Fruit Growers say about it,

“Originated in Islamabad, Pakistan. Extremely large ruby-red fruit 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches long and 3/8 inch in diameter. Flesh firmer than most other named cultivars. Sweet with a fine balance of flavors. Quality excellent. Tree spreading with large heart-shaped leaves. Recommended for the deep South and mild winter areas such as southern California, but usually performs satisfactorily in cooler areas.”

According to the Plants for a Future database the Pakistan mulberry is hardy down to -5 and -10°c and has both male and female flowers on the same tree. If I had the space, which I don’t, I’d definitely plant one.

That would have been the conclusion of this blog post had I not done an image search that turned up this:

Apparently chicks dig Pakistan mulberries or at least that’s the impression that a nursery down in Georgia (that I’m not gonna name cause the reviews are not so good) would like us to think. And the same nursery that generated the image above also has a page of religious videos, one of which (“The Cursed Fig Tree”) addresses the “God hates figs” controversy we dealt with some time ago. I can’t figure out if the videos are sincere, art, shot by kids, visionary public access or all of the above. We’ll leave it to post-structuralists readers of this blog wasting time at work to figure that out. 
Art theory tangent aside, damn, those Pakistan mulberries are good!

Growing and Preparing Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus)

It’s the ultimate pain in the ass vegetable to prepare and I’ll probably get in big trouble in native plant circles for even mentioning it, but just last night I fried up my first successful plate of homegrown cardoons (Cynara cardunculus).

Not the most attractive blanching job, admittedly.

All ready to prepare

The cardoon is a close relative of artichoke, identical in appearance, except that the flowers are much smaller and the plant tends to get a lot bigger. Instead of eating the flowers, as with artichoke, you eat the stems. But first you’ve got to take some extra steps. When it gets around 3 feet tall you tie all the stems together and cover it in cloth, burlap or newspaper to blanch it for two to three weeks, leaving the top few inches of leaves to poke out of the covering. I once tried to eat an unblanched stem and it was bitter and tough so, in my experience, the blanching is a necessary step.

Pullin’ off the stringy bits

To prepare it you take the blanched, tender inner stems and pull off the stringy bits on the back, being careful to avoid the sharp edges (did I mention that this is a pain in the ass food?). Chop the stems into two inch strips and drop them into acidified water to prevent discoloration. Next boil the crap out of them. You might also be able to bake the crap out of them, but I have not tried this. I boiled them for 25 minutes. After boiling I fried them in a pan with garlic and olive oil and topped them with salt and Parmesan cheese. They are somewhat bland with a faint taste reminiscent of artichokes. They’d probably taste better paired with a heavy meat dish or as part of a stew. I’ve also seen recipes where they are drenched in cream and cheese.

In our Mediterranean climate cardoons are a perennial, though if you harvest them they’ll effectively be an annual. Here in Los Angeles you plant them in the winter/fall for a spring/summer harvest. The cardoon I harvested was “dry farmed” with no supplementary irrigation and planted itself. Elsewhere you would plant them a couple of weeks after the last frost and blanch them before they get too big.

When I mentioned to a native plant expert I greatly respect that I had them in my garden she read me the riot act. Cardoons are remarkably resilient and invasive. Hailing from the Mediterranean, they’ve taken over large parts of the New World. The brilliant purple flowers release thousands of tiny seeds, each with their own fibrous parachute that caries them hundreds of feet in the slightest of breezes. Charles Darwin mentions cardoon in The Voyage of the Beagle,

“In the latter country alone [Uruguay], very many (probably several hundred) square miles are covered by one mass of these prickly plants and are impenetrable by man or beast. Over the undulating plains, where these great beds occur, nothing else can now live.”

My own thoughts about “invasives” are closer to David Theodoropoulos than the nativists–best to work with invasives rather than fret about them. Homo Sapiens are the ultimate invasive species, after all, and I’ll take the cardoons over the oil spills, any day.

Seedling Disaster!

“No one talks of failure as anything but shameful; this is wrongheaded and foolish . . . Mistakes are synonymous with learning. Failing is unavoidable. Making is a process, not an end. It is true that deep experience helps avoid problems, but mainly it gives you mental tools with which to solve inevitable problems when they come up.”

-Tom Jennings, as quoted in Mark Frauenfelder’s excellent new book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World 

Oh, but those mistakes sure can be frustrating especially when they happen in the garden!  I’ve had nothing but bad luck germinating seeds this spring for our summer garden and, as a result, our vegetable beds are as bare as the Serengeti. What happened? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  • watering too much
  • watering too little
  • damping off 
  • unseasonably cold weather (we germinate outside here)
  • the occasional hot day on top of cold evenings
  • the mindset of the gardener: being in a hurried, stressed mood as we finished our next book

Nature being a complex system, you can often get stacking problems that make figuring out what went wrong difficult. I’m leaning towards the cold weather as I’ve noticed some of the seeds I planted starting to come up as it has warmed up. Lesson: you’ve gotta watch the weather reports even in a mild climate such as ours or invest in heating mats or a cold frame. 

Despite my pledge to grow vegetables only from seeds, panic over a summer without homegrown tomatoes prompted me to call Garden Edibles owner Craig Ruggless to see if he had any seedlings. Thankfully he had some heirloom tomato seedlings that he gave to me in return for helping him try to capture a swarm of bees that had shown up in his olive tree (unsuccessfully, it turned out–more on that misadventure in another post). At least I’m not alone. My friends in Chicago, the Green Roof Growers, had their own tomato seedling apocalypse.

I once saw Julia Child on Martha Stewart’s show demonstrating how to make an elaborate dessert called a Croqembouche, a pyramidal tower of cream filled pastry balls. Stewart and Child built separate Croqembouche towers. At the end of the demo Stewart’s was perfect and Child’s was, well, a big mess. Yet Julia soldiered on, laughing at her mistakes. My pledge with the garden is to try to do the same and have fewer of my notorious garden meltdowns when the inevitable crisis happens. So what if it ain’t perfect around here? Now Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown neighbor should make note of that pledge . . .

Readers, please feel free to share some recent disasters.

Least Favorite Plant: Euphorbia tirucalli

When we bought the glorified shack which is our house, it came with a collection of trees I’d never plant including a twenty foot tall, multi-trunk, Euphorbia tirucalli also known as the “pencil tree.” In most places Euphorbia tirucalli, which hails from tropical Africa, is only a house plant, but here in frost free Los Angeles, the damn thing can grow to massive proportions. Merely cutting a limb of this toxic tree produces drops of sticky white latex capable of raising welts, should it contact the skin, and clouds of eye searing sawdust. We had our eccentric tree trimmer, who would sometimes show up as late as 9 pm, chainsaw in hand, take the sucker out. I’m especially glad I removed this living Superfund site after hearing a story neighbor Pilar told me this morning.

A woman, getting out of a car, caught part of the Euphorbia tirucalli tree on her car door, breaking a branch and causing some of that toxic sap to fall into her eyes. She started screaming in pain immediately and could not see. Pilar rushed her to the emergency room where she spent several hours hooked up to apparatus that flushed out her eyes. Thankfully she escaped any permanent injury.

Ironically, for such a toxic plant, it has many uses, both historical and proposed:

  • Plant blogger Mr. Subjunctive included it in his list of useful houseplants to fend off zombies with over at Plants are the Strangest People.
  • It’s been proposed as a cancer cure, I suppose because it’s so nasty that you’ll forget you have cancer.
  • Africans use it as a mosquito repellent and fish poison.
  •  Petrobas, the Brazilian national petroleum company, is investigating the use of the latex as a fuel source. Tap into the trunk and perhaps we can propel one our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood’s many Priusi. 
  • The Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plants Products lists off dozens of uses for the plant including this gem: “In Tanganyika, the latex is used for sexual impotence (but users should recall ‘the latex produces so intense a reaction … as to produce temporary blindness lasting for several days.’”

Using temporary blindness to cure sexual impotence, ain’t exactly a compliment to one’s partner. Spammers take note: you’ve got a new plant product to push.

For medical information on the eye damage caused by Euphorbia tirucalli  see a case study here:: http://www.hkcem.com/html/publications/Journal/2009-4/p267-270.pdf. And, as that case study points out, remember to wear eye protection when you take this plant out of your garden.