A tasty Italian chard: Bieta Verde da Taglio

A few folks have written to ask what we’re growing in our winter vegetable garden and we’ve been late to reply. Since we’re in USDA zone 10 and seldom get freezing weather here in Los Angeles, we can grow year round. One of my favorites this winter has been a Swiss chard variety from Italy called Bieta Verde da Taglio or “Green cutting chard”.

Verde da Taglio has thin stems and thick leaves. It ain’t as pretty as the rainbow colored chards we are also growing, but it tastes better, in my opinion. Steam it, fry it up with some garlic and olive oil and you’re set.

Verde da Taglio is sold by the Franchi company, which I have a brand allegiance to as fanatical as the worst Apple computer partisan. Is Franchi the new Apple? I predict we’ll see folks tossing their iPhones for packs of rapini way before that Mayan calendar thingy comes to pass.

We got our Bieta Verde da Taglio seeds from growitalian.com a couple of years ago and they are still viable. But, thanks to Craig Ruggless, our local Franchi seed representative, you can now find these seeds in some nurseries and stores here in California. You can also order from Ruggless via the catalog on his Franchi Seeds USA Facebook page.

Great Seeds Grow Great Gardens

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I have a very exciting announcement to make. As you may recall, I volunteer at a school garden at North Hollywood High. Well, it is more than a garden. There is an orchard, a flower and herb garden, a pig and a goat. We are almost done with our chicken coop and hope to get some hens in there in the new year.

I have been trying to think of ways to raise money to support our school garden project. So we have partnered with one of my favorite seed companies, Botanical Interests, to fundraise for the school garden. If you click on the url above, or on the image in the sidebar and purchase seeds, a portion of the proceeds will go to support the garden project.
Botanical Interests is a family owned company. Their seeds are untreated and non-GMO. I have grown a lot of vegetables from their seed and I have always had great germination rates and healthy plants. They have a great selection of vegetables, herbs and flowers to choose from. My very favorite plant from their collection is the Italian Nero Kale. I eat huge, heaping kale salads from my garden on a regular basis. I didn’t used to like kale, now I love it.
And of course seeds make great gifts. Seed packets make great stocking stuffers, or cute adornments on packages. Botanical Interests also offers great collections of seeds such as a children’s garden collection and an heirloom tomato seed collection. What a perfect gift for any gardener or nature lover. So please, click through our website, tell your friends and buy some seeds!
Francine, our mascot pot-bellied pig, thanks you.

Nance Klehm at Farmlab Tomorrow

If you’re in So Cal tomorrow Nance Klehm will be doing a talk at Farmlab:

Metabolic Studio Public Salon
Nance Klehm
Friday, December 11, 2009, Noon
Free Admission

There are three fundamentals that guide this time of descent into northern-hemisphere darkness. The winter season is one of decline and decomposition, activity below ground and general shadowiness. The fundamentals that guide us are:

Everything comes into this world hungry.

Everything wants to be digested.

Everything flows towards soil.

This salon will discuss various methods of transforming what is perceived as waste and turning it into soil or building/healing existing soil.

Nance Klehm is a radical ecologist, designer, urban forager, grower and teacher. Her solo and collaborative work focuses on creating participatory social ecologies in response to a direct experience of a place. She grows and forages much of her own food in a densely urban area. She actively composts food, landscape and human waste. She only uses a flush toilet when no other option is available. She designed and currently manages a large scale, closed-loop vermicompost project at a downtown homeless shelter where cafeteria food waste becomes 4 tons of worm castings a year which in turn is used as the soil that grows food to return to the cafeteria.

She works with Simparch to create and integrate soil and water systems at their Clean Livin’ at C.L.U.I.’s Wendover, UT site. She uses decomposition, filtration and fermentation to transform post-consumer materials generated onsite (solid and liquid human waste, grey water from sinks and shower, food, cardboard and paper) as well as waste materials gathered offsite (casino food waste and grass clippings, horse manure from stables, spent coffee grounds) into biologically rich soil. The resulting waste-sponge systems sustain or aid: a habitat of native species of plants, digestion of the high salinity of the indigenous soils and the capturing, storing and using of precipitation.

She has shown and taught in Mexico, Australia, England, Scandinavia, Canada, the Caribbean, and the United States. Her regular column WEEDEATER appears in ARTHUR magazine.

Directions to Farmlab are here.

Also, Klehm and Mr. Homegrown are in Time magazine this week talking about humanure.

Klehm’s Website: www.spontaneousvegetation.net

Without Merit: poison in your compost

An image from Washington State University’s aminopyralid bioassay instructions.

Another thing to worry about! In the past two years farmers and gardeners in the UK and US have experienced the unintended effects of a powerful herbicide called aminopyralid, sold by Dow Chemical under the brand names Merit and Forefront. This herbicide is used to control weeds such as thistle, knapweed and yellow starthistle.

The problem is that aminopyralid survives the digestive systems of animals pastured on land sprayed with it, as well as compost piles made from their manure. Most other herbicides break down eventually, but this stuff sticks around. An organic farmer using compost contaminated by aminopyralid could lose crops and organic certification for years. If that isn’t enough to worry about, two other nasty herbicides, picloram and clopyralid have also contaminated compost piles around the world.

But what about us backyard gardeners? How can aminopyralid effect us? I’m fond of using a bit of horse manure in my compost pile. It’s free for the taking and helps heat up the pile. But if the horses were fed hay grown on land sprayed with aminopyralid I could lose my veggies, particularly tomatoes, lettuce and legumes which are highly susceptible to this chemical.

So what can we do? First the practical: test your compost. Washington State University has instructions for performing a simple test here (pdf). Basically, you plant three pea seeds in a 50/50 blend of compost and potting mix and compare their growth against a control group of three pea seeds grown in just potting mix. If you use manure in your compost pile and you don’t own the animal it came from, this test should be routine.

Secondly, a political solution: the Rachel Carson Council suggests writing two EPA officials to suggest banning a trio of deadly herbicides that includes aminopyralid: Kathryn Montague at [email protected], and Dan Kenny at [email protected].

For more information on aminopyralid, picloram and clopyralid see the Rachel Carson Council’s Killer Compost Q&A.

Read the articles in Mother Earth News by Barbara Pleasant that tipped me off to this problem, “Milestone Herbicide Creates Killer Compost” and “Contaminated Compost: Coming Soon to a Store Near You.”

Here’s a technical discussion of aminopyralid for those familiar with biochemistry.

From Ohio State University, a fact sheet on the equally bad clopyralid and some charts showing the persistence of other herbicides.

Lastly, beware of the recommendations of agencies tasked with the eradication of invasive weeds. The California Invasive Plant Council, in a 2006 publication on Yellow Starthistle management (availiable here as a pdf), recommends using both aminopyralid and clopyralid and fails to warn of their persistence. The USDA, Department of Defence and the Army Corp of Engineers assisted with that publication. Looks like these agencies need a little reflection on the laws of unintended consequences.

Basil all winter long


Mrs. Homegrown here:

Basil is a summer plant. When the nights get cold, basil turns unhappy. It yellows and loses flavor. Here in LA that doesn’t happen until quite late in the year. Erik just pulled out our summer basil a couple of days ago to make room for winter plants. I’m replacing it–in a culinary sense–with Italian parsley, which loves cool weather, but hates the heat. It seems our gardening year swings between the basil and parsley poles.

I made the last of our basil into basil cubes, which is my favorite way of preserving it. Just wash and coarsely chop your basil leaves and shove them into an ice cube tray, so that there’s a spoonful of basil in every cube. Cover with water and freeze. Pop them out of the trays and transfer them to a ziplock freezer bag. Throughout the winter, whenever you want a little fresh basil flavor, all you have to do is grab a few cubes. Toss the cubes straight into sauces, or let them melt to retrieve the leaves alone to use for toppings, salad &etc.

Row Covers in a Warm Climate

The aftermath of a skunk rampage.

Here’s an unintended organic gardening chain of events:

1. Scoop up multiple trash bags full of fruit scraps from Fallen Fruit’s jam making event at Machine Project.

2. Add this large bounty of organic material to the compost pile.

3. Watch as a bunch of beetle larvae hatch and devour the fruit and other goodies in the compost pile.

4. Sift compost and feed most of the larvae to a happy flock of hens.

5. Add compost to the vegetable garden.

6. Plant seedlings.

7. Wake up the next morning to find out that skunks have spent the night rampaging through the vegetable beds in search of the remaining grubs. Yell in frustration at the sight of all the uprooted seedlings that took a month to grow in flats.

Now I knew that skunks were a problem at our place, and I had covered the beds each night with some spare shade cloth to keep them out. But on this particular evening I had forgotten to cover the beds. Pepé le Peu had destroyed a month’s worth of work.

Setting about to find a solution, I considered everything from high powered weapons to peeing off the front porch to spreading batches of compost for the hens to pick through. Not wanting a visit from the LAPD, I settled on floating row covers, a light fabric that is used to exclude pests and protect plants from frost. Row covers would also take care of another persistent problem, cabbage worms. But here in USDA zone 10, where we have only occasional frosts, row covers have the potential to make growing conditions too warm. Thankfully I was able to get a roll of an extremely light row cover material called Agribon 15. Agribon makes a range of row covers in varying thicknesses. Agribon 15 is the lightest and is used mainly to exclude pesky insects. It has also worked with the skunks, who seem unwilling to poke through the flimsy fabric. Those of you in colder places should use a heavier cover to retain more heat.


I drilled holes in the corners of the beds and bent some scrap PVC pipe to create hoops to hold the row cloth above the plants. Agribon is so light that you can just put it on top of many plants without hoops.


Now I can sleep at night knowing that my beds are locked down in a kind of “vegetable Guantanamo”.


Johnny’s Seeds sells Agribon 15 in 250 foot rolls for $45. Seeds of Change sells it in 5o foot lengths for $26. It would make sense for most urban homesteaders go in with a few friends on a roll.

Watch a video on how to install row covers at Johnny’s Seeds.

Compost Field Trip

Homegrown Neighbor Here:

I recently had the opportunity to tour an industrial scale composting operation. I am a huge compost geek so I was pretty excited. I’ve seen a lot of piles in my day, but nothing like this. This facility, Community Recycling (a division of Crown Disposal), processes food scraps and organic wastes from most of the major grocery store chains in Southern California. They also collect food scraps from restaurants and other food vendors in the region as well as operate a recycling facility for metals, plastics, wood, paper, yard trimmings and anything else they can find a market for or a way to keep out of the landfill. I must say it was pretty impressive. But the most exciting part of course was the compost.

There were literally mountains of compost called windrows in rows perhaps twenty feet high by several hundred feet long. It’s a large scale operation with not just one windrow but dozens of them. And this is all stuff that otherwise would end up in landfills. Of course we should be composting all of our organic wastes close to home, but the sad truth is that a lot of this lovely organic material gets thrown away instead of returned to the earth. So I am glad that enterprises such as this exist.

When vegetables are going to go bad at the grocery store, they get tossed in a bin bound for these vast fields of degrading organic matter. The interesting part is that they get tossed in, plastic and all. There are bagged carrots, bagged salad mixes, plastic wrapped heads of cauliflower, all together. The compost windrows are just littered with plastic as you can see. Nothing like my backyard compost, where I would never allow any plastic or so much as a stray rubber band. On a commercial scale, they find it easier to sort the plastic out at the end of the composting process. Just how they do that, they won’t say–apparently it’s proprietary. But we got to drive around the hundreds of acres of compost and see the process for ourselves, start to finish. [Mr. Homegrown here: plastic combined with organics is one of the big problems in the world of municipal waste.]
The food waste is blended with wood chips or wood ‘fines’ as needed. Huge windrow machines straddle and churn the piles. They look like something out of Star Wars. Several months later the finished compost is sold to farmers. Community Recycling is a totally vertically integrated operation so of course they farm a little too–organic almonds, some row crops and some forage crops. That way, if they have too much compost on their hands at one time, they can always put it on their own land. The soil looked pretty good to me. I got to traipse around and get my hands in the earth. They also raise wild turkeys and other native birds to be released into the wild. It is part of a habitat and wildlife restoration project they are involved in.
This was better than any amusement park I’ve ever been too. I mean, they have compost, weird looking wild animals- yes, turkeys are very weird looking, organic almonds, a recycling facility and did I mention the mountains of compost? I’m pictured below, the happy queen of the compost heap.

Events in Los Angeles This Weekend: SIP Workshop and Maria’s Garden

Saturday (i.e. TODAY!)

On Saturday November 14th Kelly and I will be doing a Self Irrigating Pot (SIP) workshop in Westchester at 3 p.m. SIPs are a great way for folks in apartments to get into small scale vegetable gardening. Best of all the workshop is FREE FREE FREE! Here’s the location:

Playa Del Oro at 8601 Lincoln Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90045

Sunday

Anne Hars, who lives a few blocks from us, helped save another neighbor’s garden from a management company that wanted to remove it. Tomorrow, Sunday the 15th, Anne has organized a work party to tidy up the garden and she’s looking for volunteers and a few donations of pots, mulch and soil. The fun begins at 9 am at 421 North Coronado Street.

“This is a great opportunity to help a Senior Citizen in need and spend the day puttering around in the garden! We need people of all skill levels from beginners to experts. Landscape Designer Maggie Lobl has kindly worked out a design approach and will help co-ordinate activities.”

For more info see Anne’s website.

Humanure Happens

Simparch’s dry toilet located in Wendover Utah

From the 1806 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac,

“Four loads of earth mixed with one load of privy soil, will be equal to five loads of barnyard dung. Let it lie for several months and occasionally turn it over with a shovel, and it will be of use as manure.”

The editors of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2010,where I found that quote, deemed it necessary to tack on a disclaimer, “Human waste, as well as that of dogs and cats, is not recommended as manure for fertilizer today.” But after fielding a couple of calls from journalists interested in the subject of composting human waste, I’m thinking that humanure is about to get serious consideration again. After all, why waste a good source of nitrogen in the middle of a recession?

Simparch’s striking Clean Livin’ compound

All this is a long winded intro to get you all to check out two fine examples of dry sawdust-based toilets. First is the one at the top of this post, designed by a collective known as Simparch, and located on the historic Wendover Air Force Base on the Nevada-Utah border. The facilities are simple: a toilet seat sits atop a 55 gallon drum. Each time you use it you add some sawdust. After composting, you’ve got rich soil. But what makes the Simparch crapper so amazing is the view. From the throne you look out on a landscape so flat you can see the curvature of the earth, punctuated by munitions bunkers dating back to World War II. The toilet facilities are part of a self-sufficient living project they call “Clean Livin‘”.

It ain’t the moon but close: the view from the Simparch Clean Livin’ crapper

The second example, nicknamed the “crap-cedral”, is featured on Lloyd Kahn’s amazing blog. Built by someone with the improbable name of Birchbarkbobananda, the crap-cedral features intricate woodwork and an equally stunning location. What both of these dry toilet facilities prove is the siting possibilities that can happen when you can put your crapper wherever you damn well please. No sewer line means you can have a nice view!

Digital Farming- What’s The Deal?

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So here in the world of urban homesteading things can get pretty busy. We can become so preoccupied with work, chickens, vegetable gardening, cooking, cleaning, blogging duties and email that we can miss some of the things going on in the world. I do like to occasionally check in with the world at large by reading the newspaper. I just read an article that I have to comment on.

A recent New York Times article titled, ‘To Harvest Squash, Click Here,‘ introduced me to the world on online farming. Apparently people spend a lot of time “farming” on line. Twenty two million a day in fact, according to the article. There are several farming games on Facebook, Farmville being the most popular. You can get seeds to plant, watch your crops grow and then harvest them. Some people are so addicted that they are eschewing real life responsibilities and social obligations to harvest their virtual soybeans.
It is even suggested that the popularity of these farming games is indicative of a collective yearning for a more pastoral life. I’m not sure I get this. I spend all day outside in the dirt making things grow. At sundown, I lock up the chickens. Then I harvest something to make into dinner or on a special evening, I’ll make a big batch of jam or sauce and spend hours canning. I’d rather spend as little time online as possible.
I can’t wrap my head around how a video game can in any way replicate the experience of farming. I may be an urban dweller, but I get my satisfaction by getting real, not virtual, dirt under my fingernails. Can any one explain this trend to a clueless non-gamer like me?