Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)


Every time we visit the nice folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead they send us home with some strange plant. Thanks to PUH, who are busy actually doing things as opposed to blogging about doing things, we now have a beautiful flowering mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus).

Verbascum thapsus is one of those plants that most people think of as a weed. Native to Europe and Asia, Verbascum thapsus was introduced to North America because of its many medicinal uses, almost too many to list. Most commonly used for respiratory problems, it also makes both green and yellow dyes and doubles as a fish poison! Tradition holds that it also wards off evil spirits,with some sources saying it’s the herb Ulysses took with him to deal with the treacherous sorcerer Circe.

It’s a useful, striking and beautiful plant. It’s also classified as an invasive. The Plant Conservation Alliance (PCA), a consortium of ten federal government agencies and 260 mostly non-profit organizations, has Verbascum thapsus in its cross hairs. How the non-profit “cooperators”, as the PCA terms the many native plant organizations in the PCA consortium, can get behind a program that suggests spraying glyphosate (e.g., RoundupĀ®) and triclopyr (Garlon) in wilderness areas is a great mystery to me. The PCA is also pondering the release of non-native biological controls for mullein such as the mullein moth (Cucullia verbasci). So, it seems, some non-native species are o.k. while others are not? Shouldn’t we be concerned about what else the mullein moth will munch on? Better, I think, to learn to get along. The non-natives are here and we ain’t going to get rid of them. Let’s find their uses rather than spray herbicides. We humans, after all, are notoriously invasive, a moral I’m reminded of as I read the narrative of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca. If Monsanto marketed a Conquistador control I’m sure the Indians would have spayed an ocean of it, but they only would have created pesticide resistant super-Conquistadors.

While I’d hesitate to plant this stuff if I lived on the edge of a wilderness area, I see no problem growing it in the city. A mix of edibles, natives, ornamentals, medicinals and especially some useful “weeds” makes for a more robust garden. So in the interest of getting along:

Read more about the medicinal properties of Verbascum thapsus on Alternative Nature Online Herbal.
More on the magical properties of Verbascum thapsus at alchemy-works.com.

Real Estate Bubble Bananas

There’s a house in our neighborhood that’s been for sale for over a year. Two months ago the for sale signs disappeared, junk mail littered the front porch and the mow and blow guys stopped showing up, leaving the lawn to go wild. A busted sprinkler head creates a nightly fountain as the houses’ infrastructure lapses into a timer operated zombification. We knew the nice young family that used to live here and I hope that they were able to sell somehow, but it doesn’t look good.

I started picking up the junk mail to make the place looked lived in. I also remembered that the backyard had both figs and bananas, and ventured beyond the gate to see how the fruit was developing (fyi, picking up fallen fruit is important to keep down the rat population). The figs aren’t quite ready but the bananas, the ones the squirrels didn’t get, were the tastiest damn bananas I’ve ever eaten. It turns out that our national real estate bubble has a fruit filled silver lining. I imagine that all across America there are abandoned fruit trees yielding their bounty for a new generation of gleaners. Thank you Angelo Mozilo for creating a literal banana republic!

Bananas are not my favorite plant for Southern California as they take a lot of water and get somewhat rangy looking when the wind rips up their leaves. But they are one of the most greywater tolerant plants and a good choice for paring with the outflow of a shower or laundry machine.

Fruit score: 10 to the squirrels 2 to the people

I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what variety this banana tree is, but June is a good month to plant bananas here in Southern California. Figuring out when to harvest bananas is tricky. Some yellow and mature on the plant (like my subprime banana) and others stay green and only mature after you pick them. Gardening expert Pat Welsh in her book Southern California Organic Gardening recommends picking one banana to see if it’s ready. For the pick-while-green, varieties (the majority of bananas) Welsh says,

“Pick their fruit when they’ve lost their sharp edges and indented sides; wait until they lose their angularity. When the fruit is still green but has become rounded, filled out, and fat looking, it’s ready to pick.”

Cut off the whole stalk of bananas and let them turn yellow in a cool shady place.

The past few days the Financial Times has started showing up on the driveway of this house so perhaps our neighbors were able to sell the place and the banana republic days are over. Looks like we’ll have to camp out with the in-laws in Phoenix for the subprime citrus harvest this winter . . .

Fish Don’t Fart

Portable Farms founder Colle Davis

Earlier this week we posted about home-scaled fish farming coming to a Home Depot near you. Yesterday we came across mention of another aquaponics supplier, Portable Farms (www.portablefarms.com) that produces larger greenhouse-based cultivation/aquaponics setups ranging in size from 6′ x 8′ to 90′ x 120′. The greenhouse seems like a good idea since, even in our warm Southern California climate, common aquaponics fish such as tilapia need heated water. Portable Farms owner Colle Davis runs a two acre farm in Escondido California and has been working on his aquaponics system for over 37 years. The tag line “Fish Don’t Fart” refers to the benefits of fish over methane generating cattle.

We skipped over aquaponics in our book since we considered it too expensive and complicated for most people. But perhaps we should give it closer consideration. Aquaponics is profiled in the pioneering urban homesteading book, The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the Cityand Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A do-it-Ourselves Guidewhich comes out of their work at Austin’s Rhizome Collective. What all of these efforts have in common is a permacultural design principle of turning a waste product into a resource and closing a loop. Fish make fertilizer and plants clean water, so why not combine the two?

I’d like to hear stories from ordinary folks who have tried aquaponics on a small scale. If that’s you, leave a comment!

Chickens and Compost; A Match Made in Heaven

Before I got the chickens last year, I was already quite passionate about, or perhaps obsessed with, composting and fruit trees.

My composting area was way at the back of the yard ( I also keep three worm bins by the house for easy kitchen access). When we were deciding to put in the chicken coop we put it adjacent to the composting area. The composting area later became a part of the chicken run. There is a tangerine tree that is next to the compost that provides shade and protection to the hens. I never could have dreamed how well the chickens would fit in with composting and fruit trees!

They love eating fruit – pomegranates, figs, peaches, even oranges. The chickens make contributions to the compost with their poop, of course, but the real fun is when you turn it. Chickens are very curious- I’d say they are much more curious than my cats, who have disappointingly little interest in compost. I have to be careful where I plunge the pitchfork into the compost pile because the bird brained Peckerella (pictured) likes to be right in the middle of things. The chickens eat the bugs, grubs, worms and assorted creepy crawlies with glee. They scratch and peck and slurp up worms like noodles. It is a delight to behold. My father, who was very skeptical about the chickens at first, now loves to come over and watch them eat bugs from the compost. It is the best television show I know of, made right here in my own back yard. With the chickens, everything really comes together into a working system. They are also a lot of work and I worry that I’m overly emotionally attached to them. But over all, I am delighted with my backyard agroecosytem.

Vertical Micro-Farming

I was at Cal Poly Pomona the other day and saw this interesting display. The school has several small farm plots that demonstrate innovative or new practices, from hydroponic lettuce to intensive mini-orchards and now this strange setup. They sell the produce at the adjacent farm store. From looking at it I can tell that this setup is meant to utilize vertical space and grow vegetables in a small footprint. Water drips down from the top, irrigating multiple plants on its way down. The plants are not only stacked vertically, but radiate around the central axis, maximizing horizontal space as well. In this photo they are growing hot chili peppers. I also saw basil and sweet peppers and there were others I can’t recall right now. I’m inspired to try to build one at home, since I’m always running out of space for my plants.

Farm in a Box

Farm in a Box ‘Little Tokyo

I never thought I’d see “permaculture” and “Home Depot” in the same sentence, but an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (For a Green Thumb, Just Add Water) connects the dots between the two with a new product line called Farm in a Box Aquaponics from Earth Solutions.

Farm in the Box is a combined fish tank/planter box. Waste from the fish circulates into the planter box via a pump to provide fertilizer for the plants as well as removing nitrogen and ammonia from the water. From the Earth Solutions website:

“By integrating fish with vegetables, naturally balanced aquatic ecosystems are established making it unnecessary to add fertilizer, chemicals or remove nitrogen rich water.

As in nature, plants, fish and oxygen loving bacteria create a symbiotic relationship; Fish waste is converted by bacteria to a plant loving nutrient which helps maintain safe levels of ammonia without discarding waste and water.

Aqupaonics is an efficient, intensive gardening method with average of 3-6 fold greater yield per square foot. And even though water is everywhere in an aquaponic system, there is as much as 90% less water used than in-ground methods. Other advantages to aquaponics, is that it is fun, easy, most can be done anywhere, by anyone who shares a passion for locally grown food and herbs, without the challenges of in ground farming. Experiment with growing aquaponically raised fish and vegetables in your house on the patio in a greenhouse or community garden, and enjoy!”

Having never tried aquaculture I can’t say if Farm in a Box is a good idea or not, but it sure is interesting to see an advanced permacultural concept ending up in the isles of a big box store. If Home Depot wants to distribute a product like this or Nike wants to use fixed gear bike “culture” to sell shoes, I’m all for it. Let’s get the ideas out there. It’s up to us to take the next step and actually eat the fish.

The Homegrown Mailbox: How and Where Do I Get My Soil Tested?

When you write a book you get questions. In our case, due to the sinking economy in California, they are delivered by Kevin Costner on horseback rather than by email or regular federal postal trucks. No problem, we like questions. A caveat here: like Nancy Klehm, the Green Roof Growers and Black Swan author Nassim Taleb, we prefer the term “practitioner” to describe what we do as opposed to “expert”. We favor experience over speculatifyin’ and make no claims to accuracy. But, we’re happy to take the letters from Kevin, the horse poop for compost and try our best. Here’s one question we get a lot:

Q: Y’all know where I can get my soil tested? I’ve started HUGE garden in my side yard and it just occurred to me that it is where people used to park their cars. I’m concerned about Oil or other pollutants from the cars that might still be in the soil. Any experience with this? Can I test without it costing an arm and leg?

J.R., Los Angeles

A: See my updated response here. [Note update at bottom of this post!] There’s basically two groups of things to test for: contaminants and soil nutrient levels. There are cheap home test kits, but sending samples to a lab is much more accurate. To find a lab in the US, the best place to start is with your local Cooperative Extension Service. Find yours via this link. Some offer free or low cost soil testing.

Here in Los Angeles the Extension Service does not offer testing, but they were nice enough to provide a list of local labs. The lab I talked to, Wallace Laboratories, offered tests at $75 a sample–see their price list for specifics. Before you send a sample talk to the lab to find out what they test for and how much they charge for phone consultation in interpreting the results. If you’re worried about contaminants make sure to describe your situation.

Sampling is a DIY project. You put the soil in a bag and send it off to the lab (they’ll tell you how to dig for the sample and how much to send). You’ll probably need to do several samples since different parts of the yard might have different problems.

In the end I cheaped out and went with Peaceful Valley’s soil testing service for $29.99. No contaminant testing, but the results did tell me that I’m very low in nitrogen, with a soil ph that’s slightly alkaline. They charge for phone consultation, but I was able to interpret the results myself with their slightly overpriced booklet that you can order along with the test.

Another approach, especially if you live in an old house like ours, is to assume that your soil is contaminated, skip the test, and grow things in raised beds, containers or stick to ornamentals. You could also try bioremediation: each season plant a cover crop, let it grow, and then pull it up and dispose of it. Test the soil until it comes out clean. This works well, but it can take many years to get all the contaminants out.

For those of you in Los Angeles, our local Extension Service agent Yvonne Savio kindly sent me the following list of labs with comments.

Biological Urban Gardening Service
PO Box 76
Citrus Heights, CA 95611
(916) 726-5377
URL: www.organiclandscape.com
Email: [email protected]
Organic recommendations, very user-friendly
Owner Steve Zien and I co-author “Organic Matters” organic gardening column in Sacramento Bee for 20 years.

Wallace Laboratories
365 Coral Circle
El Segundo, CA 90245
(310) 615-0116
www.bettersoils.com
Test results very scientific
No recommendations

Soil and Plant Laboratory, Inc.
1594 N. Main Street
Orange, CA
(714) 282-8777

FGL Environmental
853 Corporation Street
Santa Paula, CA
(805) 525-3824

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
44811 N. Date Avenue
Lancaster, CA 93534-3136
(661) 945-2604

Here’s a dirt cheap (pun intended) test for soil ph that you can do yourself.

UPDATE: 7/7/09: Visiting journalist Michael Tortorello tipped us off to the University of Minnesota’s soil testing lab will test out of state samples for their regular (low) fee. It’s much cheaper than the services listed above. Their submission forms are located here.

Least Favorite Plant: Yellow Oleander (Thevetia peruviana)


Thumbing through a book of toxic and hallucinogenic plants, I finally manged to i.d. the neighbor’s shrub that looms over the staircase to our front door. The popular name given for this plant in the book was “suicide tree”, so named for its use in Sri Lanka, though I’ve found other plants with this same moniker. The scientific name is Thevetia peruviana, and it’s also known as “lucky nut” (can we change that to unlucky nut please?), Be Still Tree (presumably because you’ll be still if you eat any of it), and yellow oleander (it’s a relative of Southern California’s favorite freeway landscaping flower). I was able to dig up a research study on what the authors described as an “epidemic” of yellow oleander poisoning in Sri Lanka,

“Accidental poisonings occur throughout the tropics, particularly in children. Adults have died after consuming oleander leaves in herbal teas. However, deliberate ingestion of yellow oleander seeds has recently become a popular method of self harm in northern Sri Lanka. There are thousands of cases each year, with a case fatality rate of at least 10%. Around 40% require specialised management and are transferred from secondary hospitals across the north to the Institute of Cardiology in Colombo”

Native to central and south America Thevetia peruviana made its way to Sri Lanka only recently, with the suicides starting up within the last 25 years, according to an article in Bio-Medicine. Apparently news accounts of suicides have fueled its use. The Bio-Medicine article describes a typical incident, “I remember one girl said her mother wanted her to get up and do the shopping. She said no, her mother scolded her and she took a yellow oleander seed.”

A semi-popular landscaping plant, it grows without any water or care here in Los Angeles, though a hard frost would kill it. The elderly neighbor who used to live next door told me that she brought it with her from Mexico. I’ve seen it growing in vacant lots and by the freeway, so it seems to be able to spread on its own. So why put it on the least favorite plant list? It’s neither beautiful nor useful (unless you want to kill someone or hate shopping) nor does it seem to provide habitat or forage for beneficial wildlife. Why plant something that can accidentally poison a toddler?

Welcome to the Summer Fruit Season

Homegrown Neighbor here again. I just picked the first peaches of the summer from a tree in my backyard. They are an early variety called Florida Prince. One was so ripe it immediately started oozing fresh peach juice onto my hand which I readily licked off. It was intensely sweet and full of peach flavor. The peaches all have the most wonderful aroma. Grocery store fruit never has a smell that intense and lovely. Yesterday I ate my first plum of the season as well, a variety called Beauty. It was super sweet and delicious. I am very happy to begin the summer fruit season. I will continue to gorge myself on these sweet treats while they are at their peak over the next few months. And now for the shameless plugs- I’ll be at the Old L.A. Farmer’s Market in Highland Park this afternoon selling veggie seedlings and fruit trees. So come and visit and pick up your very own peach tree and some growing tips. And did you know fruit trees are excellent for irrigating with greywater? Learn how you can irrigate your home orchard with your old laundry water at the greywater workshop tomorrow night with my Homegrown neighbors. Soon you will have an abundant and water-wise garden.