Accidental Garden Design: Pomegranate and Prickly Pear

Can good garden design be taught or is it something you’re born with? If it’s inherited I didn’t get that gene, unfortunately. But at least a garden can sometimes put on a good show despite the gardener’s lack of design sense. Above, the view out our front window of our pomegranate tree (Punica granatum ‘Wondeful’) against our overgrown prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica).

These two plants have a lot in common. They both produce abundant and nutritious food in a dry climate with little or no attention other than yearly pruning. They combine beauty and free produce with no work. Both are rich in symbolism. I could go on, but the photo says all that needs to be said.

Genetically Modified Oranges Coming to a Store Near You

The ACP via UC Riverside

A tiny insect known as the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP for short) spreads a incurable bacterial citrus disease known as huanglongbing (HLB) or “greening.” Once a tree is infected with HLB there is no cure–you have to cut down the tree. HLB and a host of other problems, including thousand of acres of abandoned citrus groves, have devastated the Florida citrus industry. The psyllid made its way to California and the industry here is alarmed that HLB will soon follow. A Reuters story on HLB, “A day without genetically altered orange juice” has a number of astonishing revelations,

The bacterium that causes citrus greening is so lethal that the U.S. government classified it among potential bioterror tools known as “select agents” until about two years ago, severely limiting the scientific community’s ability to conduct research into the organism.

Yet another example of terrorism fears getting in the way of common sense.

The Reuters story goes on to discuss the development of genetically modified orange varieties resistant to the disease. Calvin Arnold, Laboratory Director of the U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory in Fort Pierce, Florida, reacting to possible consumer push back on the issue of GMO oranges, suggests,

I think especially here in the U.S., they’re understanding transgenics a lot better. Just like people go to Taco Bell, they know they’re eating crops that have been produced transgenically,” Arnold said.

I try to stay open minded about GMO. It may indeed be the case that if we want either bananas or oranges we may have to resort to GMO. But I think our energies might be better spent on preventative pest management strategies. Our large scale agricultural system leaves us vulnerable to unexpected “black swan” events like HLB, colony collapse disorder and SARS. We may enjoy the efficiencies that come with globalization and huge monocultures, but Mother Nature doesn’t work that way, and she will, ultimately, defeat our intentions with tragic results. A more biodiverse and distributed agricultural system with far less international and interstate shipment of goods is less vulnerable. It’s too late to deal with HLB this way, but perhaps we can head off other catastrophes. In the end, more of us will have to to plant our own vegetable gardens and run small farms.

A last, ironic tidbit in that Reuter’s story–for a disease whose spread was facilitated by globalization–some of the labor intensive research necessary to deal with HLB is being . . . outsourced to China.

What’s eating my cilantro?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

While we’re inviting questions, we’ve also got a question for you guys. What sort of critter likes to eat cilantro? I think it’s a critter, not a bug. There’s no sign of leaf damage, just nibbling the stems down. There’s no digging or other disturbance.

Whatever this critter is, it has a defined taste for cilantro, because the cilantro is interplanted with parsley and it never so much as touches the parsley, or anything else in the garden, for that matter. It just comes out at night and decimates the poor cilantro.

Ask Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown

The yodeling around here is non-stop. Photo by Elon Shoenholz

Hey Kids!

We thought it would be fun to find out what’s on your mind.

If you’ve got a question you’d like some advice on, this the place to ask. We’re best at answering questions about things like chickens, gardening, pickling and fixing bicycles. We’re not so great with questions regarding physics, Sanskrit translations or intellectual property law, but you’re welcome to ask nonetheless. If you have questions about us, our house, our garden, etc., we’d be happy to answer those, too.

Mr. Homegrown likes the widgets, so he’s putting one below that allows you to leave a voice message on the blog instead of a comment. I’m not really sure what the point of that is, but if you do it, you’ll make his day.

City of LA Shakes Down Community Gardens

The City of Los Angeles Department of Rec and Parks just announced fee increases for community garden plots. The rental of a 10 by 20 space will go from $25 to $120 a year. In the midst of an economic crisis, when the city should doing everything it can to encourage growing food in the city, we get this.

The good news is that, unlike national politics, we can make a difference by getting involved at a local level. I was alerted to this shortsighted fee increase by my friend Stephen Box who is running for city council in district 4. It’s about time that we got rid of the machine politicians that run Los Angeles and who oversee a vast and incompetent bureaucracy. It’s time for a change. If you live in district 4 vote for Stephen Box next March. If you live elsewhere, attend meetings, write letters and run for office.

Read Stephen Box’s editorial on community gardens here.

Our Winter Vegetable Garden

Favas n’ peas

It’s a blessing and a curse to live in a year round growing climate. Winter here in Southern California is the most productive time for most vegetables. It also means that there’s no time off for the gardener or the soil. In the interest of better note keeping, what follows is a list of what we’re growing this winter in the vegetable garden. We’ll do an update in the spring to let you know how things grew. For those of you in colder climates these would be “cool season” vegetables and it’s never to early to start planning.

For just about the tenth season in a row we’ve sourced all of our seeds from two venerable Italian companies, Franchi and Larosa. Why? You get a ton of seeds in a package and they’ve always, without exception, germinated well and yielded beautiful vegetables most of which can’t be found in even the fanciest restaurant in the US. Frankly, every time I try another seed source I’m disappointed. I also like Italian cooking with its emphasis on flavorful ingredients prepared simply–no fussy sauces or complicated recipes.

Salad Makings

First off an endive and escarole mix from Franchi Seeds recommended and sold to us by our friends at Winnetka Farms. Looking forward to this one.

“Cicoria Variegata di Castelfranco”
A  bitter and beautiful chicory, also recommended by our Winnetka pals along with:

“Lattuga Quattro Stagioni”
A butterhead type lettuce.

Arugula “Rucola da Orto” from Larosa seeds.
You can never plant enough arugula, in my opinion.

Greens

Rapini “Cima di Rapa Novantina”
I grow this every year. It’s basically my favorite vegetable–much more flavorful and easier to grow than broccoli.

Spigariello broccoli.
A large plant resembling kale. You eat the leaves and flowers. Used in “Minestra Nera” or “Black Soup,” which consists of this vegetable and cannelini beans. More info here.

Fava and bush peas
I’ve rotated in legumes in the bed we grew tomatoes in during the summer. The fava came from seeds saved by the Winnetka farm folks and from our own garden. The bush peas are “Progress #9″ from Botanical Interests.

Chard “Bieta Verde da Taglio”
A tasty, thick leaved chard from Franchi seeds.

Dandelion greens, “Cicoria Selvatica da Campo”
A truly idiot proof vegetable. Bitter and easy to grow.

Parsnips “Prezzelmolo Berliner”
The first time I’ve ever tried to grow parsnips.

Radishes “Rapid Red 2 Sel. Sanova”
Mrs. Homegrown complains that I never plant radishes. This year I addressed that grievance.

Beets “Bietolo da Orto Egitto Migliorata”
A repeat from last year, these are tasty red beets.

Buck’s horn plantain also known as “Erba Stella”
An edible weed.

Stinging nettles
One of my favorite plants. It’s begun to reseed itself in the yard. Useful as a tea and a green.

For more information on when to plant vegetables in Southern California, see this handy chart. And let us know in the comments what you’re growing or plan to grow during the cool season.

Bagrada, The Bad News Bug


Homegrown Neighbor here:

I’ve been busy in the garden lately and one of the reasons I’m so busy is that I’m battling a new pest, the bagrada bug (Bagrada hilaris). This new pest made its way to the U.S. recently. It was first found in L.A. County in June 2008. So far in the United States it is only in Southern California and in parts of Arizona. If you live in a northern climate, hopefully you will be spared the spread of this heat loving pest.

I tend a garden in one of L.A.’s hottest microclimates. Even when the mercury is over 100, bagrada bugs seem to do just fine. And unfortunately they love a lot of our favorite garden vegetables such as broccoli, kale and cauliflower. The local nursery says they are destroying the allysum as well. In my garden they have been particularly devastating to an heirloom broccoli raab and some wild arugula. They also are munching the caper plants. Actually, they don’t munch, rather they suck juices out of a plant.

The nymphs are small and resemble a ladybug. Mature bagradas are black with orange markings and look like a beetle. They are often seen in mating pairs. They reproduce quickly and lay their eggs in the soil. Apparently insecticidal soap can help control them but, because they are so new to the U.S., little is known about their ecology here.

I hope some natural predators show up on the scene soon!

I’m trying to control them with diatomaceous earth, soap sprays and organic insecticidal oils. But I’m being really careful about the soaps and oils to be mindful of the bees in my garden.

I think that one of the keys to being a good organic gardener is observation. So I’ve just been watching the bugs, trying to handpick them and wash them off. Diatomaceous earth doesn’t affect the bees, so that is a good thing. It seems to help at least. But after a few days of no beetles, the population seems to explode again. When the populations get too big I’ve been spraying with neem. But I never spray near the flowers that the bees like the best. So it’s quite a challenge, since the bees are all over. I’ve decided to try to spray only after dark now, when the bees have gone to bed.

UC Riverside Center for Invasive Species Research fact sheet on bagrada can be found here.

Mr. Homegrown here: I found one peer reviewed study related to Bagrada hilaris controls, which you can access here.  The study found that the most effective treatment is the systemic pesticide imidicloprid which, unfortunately, is also deadly to pollinating insects and is a substance I don’t believe should be on the market. The study did show that starting plants at a cooler point in the season reduced heat loving bagrada bug numbers substantially. Confusingly, Bagrada hilaris is sometimes referred to as the “harlequin bug” which is also the popular name for a similar insect Murgantia histrionica.

Skid Row Community Garden Gets SIPs

Novice gardeners + hot rooftop accessible only by many flights of stairs = perfect opportunity to use self irrigating pots.

Two master gardeners, Anne Hars and Maggie Lobl asked me to show them how to put together some SIPs (read more about what a SIP is here) for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which works with homeless and low-income residents on skid row.  Hars, Lobl, myself and a bunch of folks from LACAN put together a few SIPs and planted vegetables on the LACAN rooftop. The plants are thriving in a space where previous attempts at container gardening met with mixed success.

Gardening, like all the ways we humans interact with our surroundings is all about context. If you’ve got soil, as I’m lucky to have, work with that first. But if you have only a sunny rooftop or balcony and/or limited gardening experience SIPs are a great tool. They almost guarantee success, which is encouraging for people who have never gardened before. 

Read Jeff Spurrier’s article about the LACAN SIP garden in the LA Times, “Skid Row Community Garden: bounty by the bucket.”

The Big Apple

Homegrown Neighbor gave us this gigantic apple as a gift. The smaller one is for scale, and it’s your typical smallish (i.e. not grocery store large) organic apple.

We suspect Monster Apple is not for eating, only for marveling. It’s a Gordon apple, grown at the esteemed Eco-Home here in Los Angeles. According to HN, the other apples on the tree were large, too, but this one was the daddy of them all.