Least Favorite Plant: Ficus benjamina

Photo by Elon Schoenholz

While Ficus benjamina, a.k.a. “weeping fig”, is one of my least favorite trees, my most favorite photographer, Elon Schoenholz is currently posting a series of ficus tree images on his blog. Schoenholz, wisely, takes a neutral stance on this hot button tree describing Ficus as,

“L.A.’s favorite underappreciated, unheralded, unfavorite curbside flora. I have no real love for these trees, per se, no sentimental attachment. They just express form and mass and scale and human intervention in a way that I enjoy, like nothing else in the urban landscape as I encounter it.”

He’s wise to be neutral. A civil insurection broke out in Santa Monica over plans to replace ficus trees with ginko trees in the downtown area. Hunger strikes were threatened and activists chained themselves to their beloved Ficii. In the end 23 Ficus trees were removed by the city.

In colder climates Ficus benjamina is strictly a houseplant. Here in Southern California it can leave the 1950s era office buildings and public access TV sets that are its normal habitat and wander the great outdoors. Once outside Ficus goes about lifting sidewalks with its massive roots and creating canopies so dense that the public space beneath them is as dark as the depths of the Amazonian jungle.
Ficus also seems to inspire what I call obsessive-compulsive topiary, so nicely chronicled in Schoenholz’s photos. Just as when you’re holding a hammer everything looks like a nail, when you’ve got a gas powered trimmer in your hand, and a Ficus tree in front of you, well, you just gotta go at it. Geometrical topiary that looks great in the gardens of Versailles, does not necessarily translate well on the sun-baked asphalt-lined traffic sewers of the City of the Angels. But Schoenholz’s photos do make a persuasive case for what could be termed “outsider topiary.”
To be fair, Ficus benjamina is not without some benefits. It’s one of the plants NASA studied for its use in improving indoor air quality. But as the horticultural equivalent of the Nagel print, perhaps it’s time to replace a few of them with its edible cousin Ficus carica.

Ficus fans and foes alike should visit Schoenholz’s Etsy store for some handsome photos of what city employees can do with those power trimmers.

Bulk Bin Microgreens

Sunflower seed germination test
An admission: both Mrs. Homegrown and I are sprout haters. We love the people who sprout, but not the sprouts. Perhaps it’s just the association with 1970s era health food restaurants or macramé. Sprout lovers out there are welcome to try to convince us otherwise, but I’ll warn you that numerous good-hearted attempts have already failed. But we’re both open to the microgreen idea. Microgreens are allowed to grow longer than sprouts and require either soil or some kind of fertilized growing medium. Usually you harvest when the first true set of leaves appear.
While we’ve never intentionally grown microgreens we’ve always thinned seedlings by eating them. And trays of microgreens are a great way for folks in apartments with sunny balconies or south facing windows to grow a little of their own food. You could also easily grow them under fluorescent lights.
Many seed companies offer microgreen mixes and seeds in bulk. Prices are reasonable considering that you need a lot of seed. But, being cheap, I was curious to see if I could germinate seeds from a health food store bulk bin. I chose my least favorite health food store, a depressing space tucked into a mini-mall where the isles are redolent with that unmistakable and unidentifiable 1970s health food store scent. Is it some chemical reaction between soy, wheat grass and carob fumes? But I digress.

For the sake of science I chose this forlorn store, which will remain nameless, since I assumed the stuff in their bulk bins has been sitting around a long time and I wanted to test seed of questionable viability. This store sells seeds for sprouting and microgreens, such as radish at around $9 a pound. The much cheaper bulk bin items, however, are all around $1 to $2 a pound. Of course, most don’t have microgreen potential, but I found a few that do and set about to perform a germination test to see how well they would work. The test consisted of putting the seeds in a folded and moistened paper towel and placing the towel and seeds into a sealed plastic sandwich bag. Here are the results:

Amaranth
I’d say above 90% of the seeds germinated. Amaranth seeds are so small that it was impossible for me to count out a precise number, but it looks like virtually all sprouted.
Popcorn
10 our of 10
Sunflower
7 out 10
Fava
A complete bust, but I will try again in soil rather than in a towel.

Good results considering the circumstances. I’m interested in hearing if anyone else has tried bulk bin microgreens, and if so what other seeds you have grown as microgreens not sprouts. If that’s you give us a shout in the comments.

Seeding Change

Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall is in the New York Times this week in an article by Michael Tortorello, “Packets Full of Miracles.” Tortorello asks six gardeners to pick out their favorite seed varieties. Homegrown Neighbor chose New Zealand spinach, Nero de Toscana kale, Red orach, Sugar Ann snap pea, Crimson California poppy and Verbena bonariensis.

I’m sure Homegrown Neighbor would appreciate a reminder that if you buy seeds from Botanical Interests using the link on the right side of this blog, 40% of your purchases will go to supporting the ag program at North Hollywood High. Let’s get that chicken coop paid for! Fellow Angelino Caitlin Flanagan be damned!
It’s also a good moment to point out the reasons it’s best to grow from seed rather than buying seedlings at your local nursery. You get many orders of magnitude more selection, it’s much cheaper and you prevent the spread of soil diseases. Last year a fungal disease, late blight, infected gardens due to seedlings grown at large nurseries in the south and sold at big box retailers up and down the east coast (read more about that in an excellent editorial, You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster) . Plant seeds and you help keep your garden disease free.
Spring is just around the corner. Time to order those seeds! Leave a comment with your favorite varieties.

Compost Pail Comparison

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Just a quick product review.

Containers to hold your kitchen scraps are now common accoutrements sold in home stores. The idea is you fill them up as you prepare food and they are able to store the coffee grounds and broccoli stems without getting any flies or foul smells until you have a chance to get out to the compost pile.
I used to use a large yogurt container for this and store it in the fridge. The problem was, the container was way too small so I still had to empty it practically every day. If I was preparing a lot of veggies I would overflow, with scraps piling up on plates on the counter. My kitchen looked dirty and embarrassing. So the idea of a larger container to hold my food waste is appealing.
My kitchen has stainless steel appliances so when I saw a coordinating compost pail at a big box store, I had to indulge. But the honeymoon ended quickly. I recently bought a pail that I like much better. So I thought I would share the information.
So the pail on the right, with the holes on the top is my old compost pail. The pail comes with these removable carbon filters. A word to the wise. Never, ever purchase a product like this. I am convinced that it is a poor design, made to force you into buying more carbon filters. I actually had fruit fly larvae embedded in one of the filters. My roommate refused to even open the thing.
The pail is hard to clean. It is always scummy. The top little handle part fell off and it is inside the lid somewhere under the carbon filter. Too many parts.
The pail on the left is my new pail. It is from Gardener’s Supply Company. The design is simple- a pail and fitted lid. No holes, no carbon filters. And it is about half the price of the other one. It can go in the dishwasher and is easy to clean overall. Simple design, no parts to purchase later, I love it. It fits several days worth of kitchen scraps unless I’m doing a big meal for guests. I like only having to empty the pail every three or four days.
Of course any vessel with a fitted lid would work to hold your kitchen scraps. Many everyday containers could be used for this purpose. But I love that this one matches my kitchen and looks neat and tidy. I like that it is easy to clean, dishwasher safe, slick and shiny. No one knows what is rotting on my kitchen counter when I hide it in this pretty pail.

That ain’t a bowl full of larvae, it’s crosne!

Mrs. Homegrown, justifiably, gives me a hard time for growing strange things around the homestead. This week I just completed the world’s smallest harvest of a root vegetable popularly known as crosne (Stachys affinis). Crosne, also known as Chinese artichoke, chorogi, knotroot and artichoke betony is a member of the mint family that produces a tiny edible tuber. While looking like any other mint plant, the leaves have no smell. The tubers look all too much like the larval form of the Michelin tire mascot and have the taste and texture of a Jerusalem artichoke.

Crosne on left, actual larvae on right

What happened to the larvae on the right after the photo shoot?

I got the tubers, that I planted last year, from Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, who always has an amazing booth full of produce at the Hollywood farmer’s market. I asked Alex if he thought I could grow them here in Los Angeles. He said that he wasn’t sure, but that he thought that where he grew crosne, at a higher altitude with a much colder winter, would be more conducive to producing a good crop of tubers.

What crosne leaves look like

Self irrigating pots, post crosne harvest

Undaunted, I planted two self irrigating planters made from storage bins with about twelve or so tubers. Throughout the year the foliage was lush and finally died back in late November. It was really easy to grow, just like any other mint. It grew to about 1 1/2 feet and never produced flowers. I’m sure in wetter places it would be invasive. I spoke to Alex at the market again in December and he told me to pull the tubers out around Christmas. Alex was right, I didn’t get a very big crop–LA is probably not the best climate for this plant. No crosne banquet this winter. But I did get enough to make a jar of pickles with.

I feared that it would be as hard to clean as Jerusalem artichoke, but a few blasts of the garden hose took off most of the dirt. French folks cook crosne in butter. I decided to pickle them in white vinegar using a recipe for Jerusalem artichoke. The recipe I used was a little too heavy on the mustard, otherwise I’d pass it on. The addition of some tumeric gave the pickles an appealing yellow color. I’ve been tossing them into salads to the horror of Mrs. Homegrown, who is not a fan of my crosne pickles.

Eric Toensmeier, author of Perrenial Vegetables has a YouTube tour of his garden where you can see how he grows crosne. Toensmeier interplants it with other root crops that mature at the same time, so you get a mix of things at harvest.

The Plants for a Future entry on Stachys affinis has some nice information on how to grow it.

Weeds into Fertilizer

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Nettlemania continues here at Homegrown Evolution.
It is raining which means even more nettles are on their way! My plants have set seed and there are tiny nettle plants popping up all over the place.
But I want to tell you about my latest nettle experiment. I am going to ferment nettles into a liquid fertilizer. I placed a bunch of whole nettle plants into a large plastic trash can. I am going to stir the mixture everyday for a few minutes to add oxygen into the system. The oxygen will feed bacteria that will break down the nettle and I guess produce some good byproducts in the process. After three weeks I will use the final brew as a liquid fertilizer for my garden. I will try to take pictures while it ferments to share with you. Supposedly this will not only add nitrogen but also valuable trace minerals to my soil. While the stirring adds oxygen, overall this is an anaerobic process. The plants are sitting in stagnant water most of the time and apparently get quite stinky. But I have learned that stinky things, when applied in the garden, are often very good things. Cleaning the chicken coop always produces a good product for the garden.
Nettles, like comfrey, are good at taking up minerals and other nutrients from the soil. Nettles are rich in iron, silica, calcium, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. These are all things that plants need for healthy growth. This makes nettles useful for making your own fertilizer. They can accumulate nutrients and minerals in their biomass. When they break down in a compost pile, or in this case in the water, they release the nutrients. Many of these elements can be difficult for other plants to access in the soil. Nettles just happen to be very good at taking up nutrients from relatively poor soil.
The point here is let your weeds rot in water and you get a nice fertilizer. This is better than water into wine as far as I’m concerned. Which reminds me that I want to try making dandelion wine this spring….
So many of the plants that people consider weeds, like dandelion and nettle, are nutritious and medicinal plants. My favorite part is that they are easy to grow and don’t need good soil, need no fertilizer and don’t require watering. Perfect.

More Nettle Love: Nettle Infusion


Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s nettle appreciation week here at Homegrown Evolution. Inspired by Homegrown Neighbor’s post, I thought I’d throw in my own two cents about nettles.

First, it’s one of my favorite plants. Its nutritional profile is outstanding. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritionally dense foods available. It’s a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins, chlorophyll–the things your body might be lacking after a long winter, or a period stress and poor eating. For this reason it’s long been treasured as a spring tonic.

The most straightforward way to take advantage of these nutritional benefits is to eat nettles as a green, but as our neighbor mentions, they don’t make great eating. They’re not bad, just bland. It’s funny how such a prickly plant is so aggressively mild when all is said and done. That’s part of its charm and mystery. When I harvest it in the wild, usually from tall stands of tough, mean plants, I really feel like I’m hunting or doing combat of some sort. The older nettles get, the more intimidating they become. Though I wear long pants and sleeves and rubber dishwashing gloves when I go into battle, I never escape unscathed. But stings are just part of the process, a price I pay gladly.

I recommend you check out the website of Susun Weed, an herbalist. Reading there, I learned that infusions make more of the plant nutrients available than regular tea, so now we put one ounce of dried nettle (an ounce is quite a lot–a cup if it’s chopped, half a jar or more if the leaves are whole) in a quart jar, fill the jar with boiling water and let it sit 4-8 hours before drinking. The resulting brew is stronger tasting than ordinary nettle tea, but not unpleasant at all. It’s our house energy drink.

Nettle Harvest

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Stinging nettle- Urtica dioica is a both a beloved and hated plant. Yes, it does sting. The stem and leaf edges are covered in stinging hairs. It can be rather painful. But it has been used as a food and medicine plant dating back at least to ancient Rome. Interestingly, if you sting an inflamed or painful area of the body with nettle, it has been shown to decrease the pain.
Mr. Homegrown has also written about nettles on the blog here.
Nettle is considered anti-inflammatory and is a diuretic. It has been used to cleanse and build the blood, treat prostate problems, to promote healthy menstruation, to reduce arthritis pain and even to treat hair loss. I have always taken nettle when I feel a little anemic and weak. It has a mild taste that is easily blended with other herbs for tea. My favorite pick me up is a teaspoon of dried nettle with a teaspoon of jasmine green tea.
Nettle is nutritious, if not delicious. If I were lost in the woods or just trying to find something to eat here on the streets of L.A., I would be happy to find nettles. Luckily, nettle thrives in both locations. It reseeds readily, making it an annoying weed if you don’t know how to make use of it.
I found a weedy nettle patch while hiking one day. I dug up a little bit and put it, roots and all, in my backpack. I transplanted it into my front yard when I got home. The nettle grew and set seed. So now I have a nice big nettle patch in my front yard.
The nettle patch has grown so lushly that it stings me every time I walk to my car. It borders the entire driveway. I’m kind of immune to the little stings at this point. I hardly even notice it. But a friend of mine got stung rather badly the other day as I forgot to warn him about the weeds. So I realized it was time to harvest.
I put on latex gloves, got my kitchen shears and a brown paper bag. I discovered that nettle can sting you right through a latex glove. And my wrists were stung quite severely. But oh well. I was so excited about harvesting I just plunged my arm into the deep green patch and started cutting.
I cut the plants off near ground level and carefully placed them in my paper bag.
Then I closed the paper bag and hung it inside near a sunny window to dry. If you live in a humid climate or need it to dry quickly, I recommend setting your oven at a very low temperature, like 200 degrees and placing the bag in it for half an hour.
It will take about two weeks for your nettles to dry on their own. Check periodically to make sure they are drying properly and not getting moldy. Once they are dry, the sting is gone. You can safely strip the leaves from the stems and store in a jar in your pantry. Make some tea and enjoy. Stinging nettle is a tonic for almost anything that may ail you.

Rapini is the New Broccoli

When I tried to grow broccoli in the past I got more aphids than produce. Plus broccoli takes up a lot of room in the garden for a very small return, which is why I’ve switched to rapini instead.

Rapini, according to Wikipedia, is known under a confusing jumble of names including broccoli rabe, broccoli raab, broccoletti, saag, broccoli di rape, cime di rapa, rappi, friarielli, and grelos. It’s a member of the brassica family and is closely related to the turnip. And, unlike most vegetables found in our supermarkets, it actually tastes like something, with a mustardy bitterness I really love.

I planted about 18 square feet worth and Mrs. Homegrown and I have been eating it for weeks tossed in pasta, omelets and on its own. Both the flowerettes and the leaves are edible. The plant continues to send up flowers even after the center one is picked, so you can get a continuous harvest for a few weeks. I’ve had some aphids, but nothing like when I’ve tried to grow broccoli or cauliflower. It’s a cool season crop, so here in Los Angeles we plant it in the fall for a winter harvest. You just gotta pick those flower buds soon, before they actually start to flower, otherwise you’re in for extra bitterness.

The variety I planted is another winner from the Franchi seed company, Cima di Rapa Quarantina. As this vegetable doesn’t ship well, it’s an obvious choice for the home garden. While fresh homegrown broccoli is amazing, I still like the stronger flavor of rapini better.

Coffee Chaff Chickens

A hen checks out her fluffy new digs: coffee chaff bedding
Image shamelessly stolen from Lyanda Haupt’s Tangled Nest blog

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Deep litter in the chicken coop is good for chicken health, general aesthetics and good neighbor relations. Chickens need to scratch, so giving them lots of stuff to scratch is kind. It also absorbs odor and protects stray eggs from breakage. Even better, their constant scratching combines their waste with the bedding material, creating useful compost over time.

We use straw in our coop and run (the outside parts) and wood shavings (animal bedding) inside the hen house. We use horse bedding inside the house instead of straw because we clean the inside of the house regularly–their overnight poo is quite concentrated– and it’s very easy to scoop up the poo when it’s mixed with fluffy wood shavings. It also smells better longer. Straw in the house is just sort of substandard.

However…the big however….them’s dead trees we’re shoveling into our hen house, and as we all know, trees don’t grow on trees.

But what’s a good alternative to shavings?

Yesterday, Lyanda Haupt, author of Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, a beautifully written book about crows and the path of an urban naturalist, posted about an intriguing chicken bedding possibility: coffee chaff, a byproduct of coffee roasting. You should go read about it.

Maybe we all can’t access the chaff bounty of our local coffee roaster, but we should think more about upcycling and creative alternatives to business as usual. Depending on our region and location, we all probably have access to different sources of dried plant material fit for chickens. We just have to think outside the box.

One word of caution: whatever you experiment with shouldn’t be dusty. Hens are susceptible to respiratory infections, so sawdust and the like are not a good idea. When you purchase animal bedding look for the higher quality “dust free” variety.