Grow a Fence

Image from Mother Earth News

Why build a fence when you can grow one? Permaculturalist Harvey Ussery has an article, “Living Fences How-to Advantages and Tips” in the latest Mother Earth News that describes several plants and strategies for creating living barriers that do more than just keep the livestock in. Hedges such as Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) provide fodder as well as fencing. Others, such as black locust fix nitrogen into the soil. For  USDA zones 8 to 9 Ussery suggests Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba). I’ll add that prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) also makes a nice edible fence in warm and dry climates.

Read this article and more on the voluminous Mother Earth News website.

Squash Baby Reconsidered

An entertaining lecture by permaculturalist Larry Santoyo last night at Project Butterfly was the perfect place to reflect on the whole squash baby debacle. During the talk I thought about just how completely I had abandoned the principles of permaculture in my management of the publicly accessible parkway garden where squash baby once resided. Some thoughts:

1. Rather than try to keep people from taking vegetables in the parkway garden, why not encourage them instead? Put up a sign describing what’s growing and when it’s ready to pick. One problem I’ve had in the past has been folks pulling up unripe vegetables. So some education, in the form of signs, might help. Maybe a chalkboard could detail when things are ready to pick.

2. I could create an honor stand like the one at the organic farm I visited up in Bolinas, Gospel Flat Farm.  At Gospel Flat you drop your money in a box. Most of the time the stand is unstaffed. I could do the same and donate any (admittedly small) funds to a charity–perhaps a school garden.

3. In permaculture you value edges and marginal areas. It’s at these intersections where life and culture happen. The parkway is an edge space between the private and the public. Rather than fight this space and try to privatize it, perhaps I should celebrate its public nature. I could add a bench and a water fountain. I could also do a better job of keeping it looking good (my summer garden was hideously ugly and unkempt). A more public parkway garden might also have the paradoxical effect of making it more secure and self-policed, since it will have communal value to folks walking by.

Permaculture works better as social engineering rather than horticultural dogma. Permaculture is not about creating that stereotypical herb spiral. It’s about our relationships both to each other and the natural world. Squash baby provided a much greater lesson by being taken than ending up as gnocchi on our dinner plates.

Squash Baby Stolen!

Squash Baby’s empty cage


This morning we woke to find that Squash Baby had been taken during the night.

Erik just returned from searching the neighborhood, hoping to find traces, remanants or, heaven help us, the perp him or herself.  Needless to say, he is cursing. He’d planned on harvesting Squash Baby today, so it is particularly heartbreaking. It had stopped adding inches (I believe it held at 36″), and had started taking on golden tones.

I only hope that the people who took it plan on eating it. If it’s feeding a family (which it could do for several days), that’s fine. If some kids took it and smashed in an alley…well, that’s best not pondered. Forensic examination of the stem stump, however, reveals that the perp did not use a knife, but rather pried the squash* free. This speaks ominously to an impulse theft.

Once I saw a Buddhist monk on TV. He held up a pretty glass and said, “This glass is already broken.”  My attitude toward Squash Baby has always been, “This squash is already stolen.” But poor Erik was much attached to the squash, and his head was filled with images of squash galettes and squash gnocchi and squash soup.  He wanted to have a squash butchering party.  Now he’s hunched over his breakfast cereal, disconsolate, and muttering about never planting anything in the parkway again.

He harvested Squash Sibling this morning, though it could have grown some more, I believe.  We’re hoping it’s ripe enough for good eating. It’s no inconsiderable squash, despite being the runt of the litter. It measures 22 inches.

Next year we will plant Lunga di Napoli again, far from the street.

* N.B. Squash Baby was technically a pumpkin, as noted in a previous post.

Least Farvorite Plant:–Heavenly Bamboo–Neither Heavenly nor Bamboo

Chickens assist in heavenly bamboo removal.

About a year ago, while searching for a spot for our new and larger compost pile, Mrs. Homegrown suggested ripping out a stand of heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) that occupied a shady spot in a corner of our backyard. My reaction? I think I said something like, “No way, it’s been there for twelve years and it took forever to reach three feet.”

Some time later Homegrown Neighbor came over and took a look at the yard. She said, “Why don’t you rip out that awful heavenly bamboo.” Once again I ignored the suggestion.

Last week Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms came over to rethink the garden. Eying the heavenly bamboo she scowled and demanded, “rip it out,” noting that it was ugly, diseased and caked with Los Angeles smog dust.

A few hour later I ripped it out. Needless to say Mrs. Homegrown is dismayed that it takes two experts to confirm something before I’ll listen to her advice.

Marital landscaping disputes aside, it’s not that this plant is inherently evil, it’s just not that interesting. Heavenly bamboo is not a bamboo It’s a member of the Berberidaceae or Barberry family. All parts of the plant are poisonous except to birds who can ingest the berries.While it’s draught tolerant (we never watered it), I don’t miss it. Typically, you see it tucked into forlorn plantings alongside 1960s era bank buildings. I suppose it provides some fodder for the birds, but that’s about it. Perhaps in some Japanese fantasy garden it would fit in next to the tea house, but we ain’t got no tea house.

I guess the lesson here, in addition to listening to your wife, is that gardens change and you’ve got to change with them. As Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Gardens, especially, should celebrate that impermanence. Now I have the beginnings of a big compost pile where it once stood.

We’ll detail some of the other changes we’re making in future posts and put up some before pictures. Stay tuned.

Hops Growing Resources

Reader Matt sent a couple of detailed links on growing hops. First an organic hops growing manual (pdf) by Rebecca Kneen of the Left Fields organic farm in British Columbia. Secondly, a PowerPoint presentation by hops farmer and breeder Jason Perrault here (pdf) along with the transcript here (pdf). I’m going to go through these resources before transferring the hops I’ve been growing in containers to the ground in the spring.

Thanks Matt and happy brewing to all!

Squash Baby’s Sibling

Squash Sibling sleeps tight under wire mesh and specious warnings

Mrs. Homegrown here:

A quick update on the squash baby circus. There’s a surprise addition to the family. In my first post, I said one of our two squashes had been stolen, leaving us with only one squash, which provoked Erik’s Guantanomoization of our front yard. In turns out there was a tiny 3rd baby hiding under a big leaf. We didn’t notice it for a while. But like zucchini, these things grow incredibly fast, so it became infant-sized in the blink of an eye. Erik fitted it with its very own chicken wire security blanket and positioned a warning sign right in front of it.

Squash Sibling measures 20 inches. The Original Squash Baby ™ is now a squash toddler, is holding at 36 inches, and requesting its own Twitter account.

Note of interest: Craig over at Garden Edibles, who sold Erik the squash baby seeds (Lunga di Napoli) points out that “Squash Baby” is really “Pumpkin Baby” — or perhaps “Punkin Baby”–because the Lunga di Napoli is, in fact, a pumpkin. A darned funny looking pumpkin.

Backyard Orchard Culture

How small can you go? An image from the Dave Wilson website demonstrating one way to keep a fruit tree a manageable size.

Damn. I wish I had heard this lecture twelve years ago when we bought our house. “Rock star orchardist” Tom Spellman, a sales manager with Dave Wilson nursery, gave a remarkable talk last night on how to create your own backyard orchard. He began by dismissing most advice on growing fruit trees, noting that it is intended for commercial orchards and is completely irrelevant for backyard fruit growers. Few of you reading this blog, after all, have to worry about having space to maneuver a tractor. Spellman outlined what he considers the three key components of a successful small scale backyard orchard:

1. Successive harvest. With careful choice of varieties you can create a mini orchard that produces consistently throughout the year (or growing season in colder climates). You don’t want a bunch of trees that all ripen in July. In his own yard Spellman planted four varieties of avocados, each of which produce fruit at different times, so that he can have a crop year round. You could also, say, plant three kinds of peaces that each mature successively. Or, plant a fig, an apple tree, a pomegranate and a lemon tree that will produce in different months. The Dave Wilson nursery has a handy ripening sequence chart, that you can use to plan what to plant.

2. Size control. Basically you don’t want fruit trees in a backyard orchard, you want fruit shrubs. Rather than one 30-foot tree in a 10 by 12 space, plant four or more and prune them vigorously so that their  branches are within easy reach. The possibilities for intensive fruit tree planting are endless: trees can be planted four or even six in one hole, espaliered, grafted, arranged into hedges, even braided together. But whatever the techinque, the goal is the same–tight spacing, short trees. You don’t want to have to go up on a ladder to harvest, and you don’t want 300 pounds of apples all at one time. Follow commercial standards and you’ll have huge, hard to manage fruit trees in your backyard. Follow Spellman’s backyard orchard guidelines and you’ll have many small trees and never be without fruit.

3. Grow what you will use. Spellman told the story of someone who went down to their local big box store and bought six trees for five dollars each. The problem was that he had bought six quince trees and did not know what to do with the fruit. Grow flavorful varieties that you can’t buy at the market. One quince tree is fine (we have one) but six is way too many.

Some other points Spellman made:

  • Pruning: Spellman suggests size control in the summer and detail work in the winter. (Note: this pruning advice is for our climate in California.)
  • Commercial growers focus on eye appeal over taste. You can’t buy decent stone fruit at the market, so stone fruit is a great thing to grow at home or buy at a farmer’s market.
  • It’s never too late to start a backyard orchard or to modify what you’ve got. Even huge fruit trees can be knocked back to a manageable size through radical pruning. You may lose a season or two of fruit, but you’ll have more room to squeeze in more trees. Don’t be afraid to bust out the chainsaw!
  • Be wary of most fruit tree growing advice as universities focus on research intended for commercial growers. In particular, the spacing suggested by many sources is way too far apart. Even many commercial growers are beginning to space tighter and keep trees shorter, a result of workman’s compensation lawsuits (workers falling out of those tall trees). More intensive growing has resulted in greater productivity as an unintended result of those lawsuits.
  • Pay attention to rootstock! Rootstocks are developed for varying soil and climate conditions. Every grafted fruit tree should have two tags on it–the tree and the rootstock–don’t buy a tree whose rootstock is unknown and make sure you grow trees with rootsocks developed for your climate and soil. Dave Wilson has a hand guide to rootstocks on their website, with their advantages and disadvantages here
  • Mulch like crazy! Mulching brings bioactivity to the soil, reduces weeds and saves water.Use 2 to 4 inches–according to research less than 2-inches is bad, more than 4 a waste of effort. 
  • Fertilize fruit trees with with organic fertilizer low in nitrogen and high in potassium and phosphorus. Nitrogen promotes vegetative growth at the expense of fruit and, again, you get a tree that’s too tall to manage. Fertilizers should also contain humic acid and micro nutrients. I’d add that a soil test is always a good idea. Our soil is already very high in potassium and phosphorus.
  • Make your first pruning cut knee high–i.e. chop that little tree off at the knee. This will be the start of a pruning strategy that keeps your tree small and manageable. 
  • When you get trees at the nursery buy small trees–don’t waste your money on large trees that have been sitting around in their pots too long. The small tree will quickly catch up to the large tree and you’ll save money.
  • When you plant four or more trees in one hole keep all the trees pruned to the height of the weakest tree.
  • In heavy clay soils, plant trees in raised mulch beds.
  • Fruit trees and berries work great in containers, just remember to prune them and keep them small.
  • Squirrel control: get a dog, use a have-a-heart trap or shoot-em!
  • Another reason to keep trees pruned small is so that you can throw bird netting over them. Use the netting for only a short time–2 to 3 weeks. Roll the netting up on a cylindrical object, like a piece of pvc pipe, for storage.
  • To get decent sized fruit, thin the fruit off the tree when it’s the size of a pea. Some trees you might have to thin upwards of 90% of the fruit.
  • Whitewash trees with sensitive trunks if you’re in a hot sunny climate. To make whitewash use a 2/3rds water to 1/3 cheap white paint mixture.

For extensive how-to fruit growing advice see http://www.davewilson.com/. Dave Wilson also has a “Fruit Tube” video channel here. I’m canceling Netflix!

Dave Wilson is a wholesale nursery. To order their trees, Tree People fruit tree expert Steve Hofvendahl recommends ordering through Bay Laurel Nursery. You can order trees now for January delivery.

A special thanks to Altadena Heritage who hosted this talk and put on an amazing series of lectures. Friend them in Facebook to get the lowdown on upcoming events.

Hops in Containers Update

“And I behold in breath of space
The autumn’s winter sleep.
The summer’s life has given
Itself into my keeping.”
-Rudolf Steiner The Calendar of the Soul Week 23

We’re going to drink “summer’s life” this winter. Year two of my hops (Humulus lupulus) in self irrigating pot experiment has yielded enough of a crop for at least one batch of beer. Read more about how we grew our containerized hops here. Some things I’ve learned:

1. There are two types of hops, bittering and aroma. Beer recipes call for both. Find out what varieties of hops grow in your climate, choose a type of beer you like, and plant at least one aroma and one bittering variety for hops self-sufficiency. I settled on cascade (very easy to grow) and nugget, both of which, when combined, make for a nice American pale ale.

2. Plant your hops somewhere where you will see them every day. I’ve enjoyed watching our hops bines grow just outside our bedroom window. They’ve come to symbolize summer for me as well as a restful night’s sleep. Plus the harvest window is brief and you need to keep a close eye on those cones–when the they get papery it’s time to pick them. I dry them for a few hours in our solar dehydrator, but you could also just let them dry for a few days inside with a fan pointed at them. After drying they go into bags in the freezer.

3. Plant hops in such a way that you can access them for easy harvest. Hops grow upwards of ten to twenty feet and beyond. If you can harvest them safely without cutting them down you might be able to squeeze more than one crop out of them in a season.

4. Hops need rich soil. I’m considering putting them in the ground next year with a lot of compost. I fertilized them in their containers, but clearly they could have used more nutrients. I did not get as much of a crop as I did the first year.

5. Hops are apparently deadly to dogs, so  be careful if you have a pooch. I don’t know if they will eat them off the bine, but they’ll definitely try to get them in the compost pile.

6. Prune to the strongest two bines for each plant and train them in a “V” shape. It’s really important to keep different varieties labeled and separate so, come harvest time, you know which one is which.

While painting the south side of our house I put up a pulley and rope system so that I can grow more hops. The pulleys will enable me to lower the bines during the August/September harvest season. More on our hops planting plans next spring.

Citron

The Citron (Etrog) and its anatomy.

I just attended a fascinating lecture by fruit expert David Karp on the history of the citron (Citrus medica) or etrog in Aramaic. I’ve only encountered citron in a candied form buried deep within a fruit cake. I’ve also seen the bizarre Buddha’s Hand, another kind of citron popular in Asia as both food and medicine. What I did not know is the significance of citron in Jewish history. Citron is used in the rituals of the harvest festival of Sukkot. According to Karp, a tree mentioned in a passage in the Torah, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of goodly trees.” was, at some point, interpreted as citron.

For orthodox Jews the citron must be perfect. Teams of rabbis equipped with magnifying glasses and jeweler’s loupes carefully inspect each fruit, with prized specimens going for several hundred dollars.  Karp said this has had unintended consequences. It’s virtually impossible to grow perfect citron without pesticides. Workers in citron growing areas have increased rates of cancer. And it’s forbidden under Jewish law to use the fruit of a grafted citron tree, or even a tree descended from a grafted tree, making growing healthy specimens even more difficult.

I have to say that after taste-testing citron products in the courtyard after the lecture I was not at all tempted to snag one of the trees that Karp gave away. And the intricacies of Jewish law make growing citron for ritual use an arduous and expensive proposition–sadly, citron will not be a road to riches for us, even in our perfect growing climate here in Los Angeles. We’ll stick with our quince and apricot trees which, incidentally, along with citron are contenders for the forbidden fruit of the garden of Eden (most apples don’t grow in Mediterranean climates). 

For more on the history of citron see, “The Secret Life of Etrogs” in the Jewish Journal.