Favorite Plants- New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides.


When the lettuce wilts in the heat, caterpillars and aphids destroy the kale and your swiss chard is plagued by powdery mildew…. there is New Zealand spinach.
It is not a true spinach but is in a genus all its own. The leaves are triangular in shape, and very succulent. They grow on long, rambling stalks. The seeds are triangular as well and the plant will reseed if you let it. It tends to spread and grow low to the ground. It can be used as a living mulch since it so effectively covers the soil in a vegetable bed.
This green keeps on growing and seems to be unaffected by the bugs and problems that affect other greens. I have seen it growing wild among the rocks right along the ocean, so it can handle saline soils. This is a very robust plant. It tolerates drought, bugs, salt and poor soil. And it does much better in heat than true spinach which just bolts in Southern California’s heat. New Zealand spinach can be grown in the summer when other greens may not grow so well.
My front garden be is pretty much all New Zealand spinach now. The drip watering system broke and most of the plants withered and died or were mercilessly attacked by bugs. But this plant kept on going strong.
I have been growing it for many years and find it a reliable plant. In The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy writes, “New Zealand spinach makes a marvelous temporary ground cover, is good in hanging baskets, and will cascade over the sides of planter boxes. Grow it on the patio so it will be close at hand to add to your morning scrambled eggs along with dill and cheese.”
I have so much in my garden right now that I may do a big harvest and blanch, chop and freeze it for later use. I make a lot of green lasagnas with massive quantities of NZ spinach. I saute it with onions and garlic and put thick layers of spinach sandwiched between noodles and cheese.

When life gives you greens, you can’t go wrong. I have heard that it is edible raw but I prefer it cooked.

Give it a try in your garden if you haven’t already.

Least Favorite Plant: Tree of Heaven

Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop’s new ghetto palm farm. Photos from the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop.

Riding on the Amtrak San Joaquin train two weeks ago I discovered a new metric: the economic health of a city can be judged by the size of its trees of heaven (aka Ailanthus altissima, aka “ghetto palm”). The higher the ghetto palms, the more likely a city is to be in the crapper.

Tree of heaven is a super weed much reviled by gardeners and landscapers for its unstoppable ability to grow in nearly every climate in the most inhospitable conditions. In a move that will raise a lot of horticultural hackles, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has gone beyond the “if you’ve got lemons make lemonade” phase of their project and has deliberately planted a ghetto palm farm. From their press release:

“Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has established its first Tree of Heaven Farm on a vacant Detroit city lot for future harvest. We planted seedlings in beds of car tires. The tires protect the young trees while they are growing but also determine their lifetime to a size when the trunks are suitable for processing. We assume this period of growth to be approx. 40 years. Within this timespan we will maintain the plantation and keep the lot free of any kind of real estate speculation or building activity. The plantation has been realized with the support of the SMART Museum of Art, University of Chicago and a documentation is on display in the current Heartland exhibition.”

The Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has turned sculptures and made furniture out of tree of heaven for a few years now. They’ve also come up with a stinky tree of heaven sauna:

“We have another small installation in the SMART Museums Heartland exhibition: A humidifier is installed in the museum lobby. The water tank of the device contains some pieces of Tree of Heaven wood (coll. Ghetto Palm). This is how the active substances get extracted in traditional Chinese medicine to cure a wide range of ailments from digestion problems, mental conditions, balding, to asthma and even cancer. In these tough economical times, a constant flow of steam will benefit all visitors with the spirit of this true Detroit resource.”

Invasion biology becomes art. If you can’t beat em’ you might as well find a use for em’.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Grub


Why start the day with the Wall Street Journal when the real excitement is to be found in periodicals such as Backyard Poultry Magazine? While our broke nation can’t afford missile shields or moon trips anymore, at least it’s comforting to read in the pages of BPM that the citizens of Bonner Springs, Kansas can visit the brand new National Poultry Museum. This month’s issue of BPM also has a fascinating article by Harvey Ussery, “Black Soldier Fly, White Magic” on raising black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) grubs as poultry and fish feed.

“If we offer the grubs 100 pounds of food wastes, for example, they will reduce it to 5 pounds of residue usable as a superior soil amendment, in the process generating 10 and possibly up to 20 pounds of live grubs that can be fed to livestock; in addition to liquid effluent (how much depends on the moisture content of the feeding materials) which can be used to feed crops. Hey, wait a minute–what happened to the “wastes”? There is absolutely no waste remaining after this conversion–it has all been transformed into valuable resource.”

To raise Hermetia illucens you put vegetable and fruit trimmings in a container with a small opening for the black soldier fly females to fly in and lay their eggs and a method for the grubs to climb out of the compost. You can also feed them small amounts of fish and meat but they can’t digest cellulesic materials. A company called ESR International markets a black soldier fly growing system called the BioPod™ at www.thebiopod.com. A spiral ramp in the BioPod™ allows the grubs to scamper out of the feeding materials and launch themselves into a bucket. Each morning you empty a bucket full of grubs for your grateful chickens or fish, making sure to reserve a few to ensure future black soldier fly generations. Adult black soldier flies don’t bite and are only interested in flying around looking for sex and, in the case of the females, to find a good place to lay eggs.

At $179, the BioPod™ is above our humble slacker budget level, but you can make your own out of the ubiquitous five gallon bucket. While I haven’t tested this design, there’s some simple plans on this informative blog devoted to the black soldier fly. The author of this blog, “Jerry aka GW,” cautions that growing grubs requires attention to detail and will be easier in warmer climates such as the southeast and west coasts of the US where soldier flies can be found in the wild. While you can buy black soldier flies to populate your composter, it will be easier to grow them where they already live. Here’s another DIY grub composter. If any of you have experience with building one of these please leave a comment.

And while you’re ditching the Wall Street Journal, why not skip the Netflix this evening! Here’s a video on grub growin’ complete with a dramatic musical conclusion:

The crank in me has to add that simple ideas like becoming a grub cowboy are more exciting, and have greater potential than all the Priuses and algae fuel schemes combined. Growing grubs is an activity many of us have done accidentally. Making use of those grubs is just a matter of inserting ourselves into one of nature’s clever recycling schemes.

Root Knot Nematodes, Meliodogyne spp.

Root knot nematodes are my current sworn enemy in the garden. They are very frustrating because unless you know what to look for, you may never know you have a problem. Nematodes are microscopic soil dwelling roundworms. There are many different kinds of nematodes and not all are garden pests. However, the root knot nematode is a very annoying pest indeed. Above ground, plants are stunted. Below ground, the little guys are sucking on the plant’s roots and robbing it of nutrients. This weakens the overall root system, starves the plant and allows entry points for fungus and disease. Bad stuff.

I have had plants that mysteriously won’t grow. No amount of fertilizer, water or sunlight seems to make them happy. Then, I pull out the plant and find the tell-tale sign of root knot nematodes- galls on the roots. The roots are stunted and distorted. They look like they are covered in tumors.

According to my California Master Gardener Handbook, plant parasitic nematodes (including the root knot type) can form complexes with pathogenic fungi in the soil. The pathogens and nematodes work together to damage the plant. Susceptible plants are damaged more than would be predicted from each pathogen alone. They are in cahoots! What is a gardener to do?
Nematodes are known to affect many valuable crop plants. There are chemical treatments available, but for a home gardener who wants to be organic, the options are more limited. I read somewhere that adding organic matter can help by encouraging beneficial soil microbes. I tried that. Plants were still stunted. So I bought nematodes to kill the nematodes. They are supposedly beneficial nematodes that prey on root knot nematodes. Of course, you can’t see nematodes so I felt like I could be the Emperor with no clothes. I have no idea whether there was something in the package or not, much less what the invisible material may do in the garden. But I was desperate so I shelled out the money to give it a try. I applied the beneficial nematodes in my garden and at a client’s house. So we have two experimental plots. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Of course, you can always grow plants that are resistant or not affected by parasitic nematodes. I have noticed that new zealand spinach is totally immune. While other plants are stunted and won’t grow, new zealand spinach flourishes. So if all else fails, I’ll always have that.

A Cheap Soil Testing Service

I’ve started a new method in the garden: test the soil, amend according to the recommendations and grow. Lather, rinse, repeat. In many parts of the U.S., you can get free or low cost soil tests from your county extension service, but not here in Los Angeles. Some time ago I answered a reader’s question about where to get soil testing done, only to have to correct my response several times. Last week, Homegrown Evolution pal and the editor of Cool Tools, Elon Schoenholz, gave me a definitive answer on where to send soil for testing: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory. A standard soil test is $9, $4 more for the standard test plus organic matter. The standard tests includes heavy metals. That’s a bargain, and you don’t have to be a resident of Massachusetts. They also offer compost, fertilizer and plant tissue tests at reasonable prices.

Read a review of UMASS soil testing by master gardener Amy Thompson at Cool Tools.

My Big Fat Greek Squash


Every time I visit my mom, her Greek neighbor pops over the fence to offer me seeds and plants. He visits Greece each summer and comes back with seeds for plants whose names he can’t translate into English. As a result I always have a few mystery Greek vegetables growing in the garden. This spring he gave me a squash seedling he had propagated. It grew into a massive vine and produced two winter squashes whose weight exceeded the capacity of my kitchen scale. I harvested them last month and we’ve been eating a lot of squash!

The skin turned a kind of manila envelope color and the flesh was a deep orange. It kind of looks like a butternut squash on steroids. The flavor resembled pumpkin, but tasted a lot better than most pumpkin I’ve had. We roasted one squash to make squash tortellini among other dishes. The best recipe, however, was for a savory winter squash pie (galette) out of Mark Bittman’s book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (thanks to Bruce of the Green Roof Growers for suggesting this book). Bittman’s spicy winter squash galette recipe is here on MSNBC along with a video of him making it. I’ll note that the online recipe is different from the one in the book which calls for a longer baking time. My galette was in the oven for over an hour, but I did not cook the squash as long in the frying pan as Bittman does in the video. I’m sure either way will work, and this has to be, seriously, one of the best things I’ve ever cooked. It would make a great substitute for the always dry Thanksgiving turkey.

And I’ve made a mental note to myself to grow more winter squash next year. I like the taste better than summer squash and you can store it in the pantry for later use (hence the “winter” in the winter squash).

If you’d like to hazard a guess as to what this squash is called (especially if you’re Greek), please leave a comment.

The End of California Citrus?

As small as an ant, the Asian citrus psylid is big trouble!

When I spotted state agriculture agents on our street I knew something was wrong. It turns out that a specimen of the dreaded Asian citrus psylid showed up in our neighborhood. The Asian citrus psylid is not a problem in itself, but carries an incurable bacterial disease called huanglongbing (HLB). HLB, first reported in Asia in 1919, renders citrus fruit inedible and eventually kills the tree. Parts of Africa, Asia and South America are infected with HLB and in some regions of Brazil the disease is so bad that they’ve given up growing citrus altogether. HLB is in Florida and is adding to a nightmarish collection of other diseases afflicting citrus in the Sunshine State. Now California growers are panicking with the appearance of the psylid.

So far the psylids found in California do not carry HLB. However, according to an article in the Journal of Plant Pathology (pdf), HLB inevitably follows the citrus psylid within a few years. In several ways HLB resembles Pierce’s disease which has killed most of my grape vines and basically made growing table or wine grapes in Southern California impossible without copious pesticide application. Both diseases are bacterial and both are spread by phloem sucking insects. The pesticides used to control the Asian Citrus Psyllid and the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter (the insect that spreads Pierce’s disease) are also the same, and include a ground application of imidacloprid, marketed under the brand name Merit and manufactured by Bayer Environmental Science. State agricultural officials that I spoke with at an informational meeting on Wednesday in Echo Park hope that applications of imidacloprid and pyrethroids will slow the progress of the psylid and, “buy some time”, as they put it, to come up with a strategy to deal with the possible appearance of HLB. California agriculture officials hope that their proactive approach combined with lessons learned from missteps in psylid control in Florida and the rest of the world will slow the progress of the insect and minimize the damage of an emergence of HLB in California.

Compliance with the residential pesticide application program is voluntary. State agriculture officials will knock on the doors of residents in three areas in Los Angeles where the psylid has appeared to ask for permission for a foliar application of pyrethroid and a ground application of imidacloprid to any citrus trees a homeowner might own.

While I understand the gravity of the situation–we really are looking at the possible end of citrus in California if HLB gets a foothold–the use of imidacloprid gives me cause for concern. Imidaclopred is highly toxic to honey bees and has been banned in several European countries for its likely connection to colony collapse disorder. When I told an employee of the Department of Pesticide Regulation at the meeting on Wednesday that people in my neighborhood keep bees he paused and said, “you’ve got a problem.” Another official said to me that our bees (and presumably other pollinators in the neighborhood) will be sacrificed for the greater good of preserving the state’s citrus industry.

As with Pierce’s disease the best long term solution to this problem will be to breed trees resistant to HLB. This is easier said than done as, unlike Pierce’s disease and grapes, no HLB resistant citrus cultivars have been found. It may be that the only way to breed for resistance soon enough to head off the HLB will be through the development of transgenes with antimicrobial properties. This approach is already being funded by the USDA and the citrus industry.

As a backyard gardener and rabble rousing blogger, I could lose a lot of sleep pondering all the thorny questions this crisis brings up. Are there situations where genetic modification is warranted, or do antimicrobial transgenes pose unintended consequences? Will localized applications of imidacloprid kill our pollinators in significant numbers or will strategic applications head off more widespread use later on if nothing is done? What are my responsibilities as a backyard gardener to large scale growers? Do the benefits of international trade outweigh the inevitable appearance of invasive species? Should we close the downtown flower markets and produce distribution warehouses where state entomologists suspect the psylids might have come from?

Rather than try to answer the unanswerable, I’m going back to two of my favorite books books that don’t have anything to do with plants. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, a meditation on the logical fallacies of economists and Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic have all the strategic wisdom a gardener needs. Seneca would say, do what is in your power to do and don’t worry about what you can’t fix. Taleb would advice always maximizing upside potential while minimizing exposure to the downside. My unsentimental conclusion: don’t try to grow citrus. If I had a mature tree I’d leave it in place and rip it out at the first sign of HLB. Despite the state’s offer to replace any HLB infected tree with a free citrus tree I wouldn’t take them up on the offer. In our case we have three small, immature citrus trees that are already chewed up by citrus leafminers. I’m pondering pulling them up and replacing them with fruit trees unrelated to citrus. This follows our stoic, get tough policy in the garden. Planting a tree entails a considerable investment in time. It can take years to get fruit. Why not plant pomegranate instead and let other people worry about citrus diseases? If a pomegranate disease shows up, rip it up and plant something else. Following this approach will eliminate habitat for the psylid and negate the need for pesticides.

Orange v. Tuna ¿Quien es Más Macho?

The first consideration with any domestic plant or animal should be choosing species with robust immune systems and then following that up with an objective selection process. This is an approach that mimics one of the fundamental laws of evolution: survival of the fittest. True, there is often a trade off between the flavor and yield of a fruit and strength of its natural defenses. Oranges are juicier and easier to peal than the spiny and seed filled fruit of the prickly pear cactus. But the long term odds of having a reliable supply of prickly pear fruit are a lot higher than a steady flow of orange juice. I may get a few spines in my fingers, but it will be the citrus farmers who will be losing sleep. As Seneca says, “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”

View a video on how to recognize Asian citrus psylids here.

Urban Farm Magazine

We have a article on urban farmers across America in the premiere issue of a magazine bound to appeal to readers of this blog, Urban Farm. Our article, Where Urban Meets Farm, profiles the efforts of our friends the Green Roof Growers of Chicago, Em Jacoby of Detroit and Kelly Yrarrazaval of Orange County. All of these fine folks have repurposed urban and suburban spaces to grow impressive amounts of food, a common sense trend popular enough to have spawned this new magazine.

Editor Karen Keb Acevedo says, “Urban Farm is here to shed a little light on the things we can all do to change our lifestyles, in ways we think are monumental as a whole, yet at the same time, barely noticeable on their own.” The first issue has practical articles on goats, bees and chickens as well as how to get rid of your lawn. There’s also a nice article by John Jeavons, who developed the Grow Biointensive method, and wrote the seminal book How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits.

Check your local newsstand for Urban Farm or pick up a copy of the premiere issue here.

Hops in Containers

This spring I set out to answer the question, “can hops be grown in self-irrigating pots?” Answer, as you can see from the photo above: YES! For those of you not familiar with Self-Irrigating Pots or SIPs we have an earlier post on the subject.

Hops rhizomes, planted April 9, 2009

For our hops SIPs I modified a storage bin using Josh Mandel’s instructions (pdf). Back in early April, I obtained four hops rhizomes (two cascade and two nugget) from my local homebrew shop. You can also get rhizomes from many online sources. I chose cascade and nugget because I heard that they are two of the best varieties for Southern California. Both did well, with cascade being the most vigorous. The smell of the maturing cones is heavenly and the plant is quite beautiful, providing some much needed shade for the porch.

Nugget on the right, Cascade on the left

The only suitable place to grow this massive plant at our small house just happened to be by the front porch. This arrangement ended up being ideal–we’re on a hill and I simply attached some twine along the roof and put the SIPs down below the porch. I can simply stroll out on the porch and harvest the blossoms without having to balance on a tall ladder. Having the hops cones at eye level lets me access the cones when they are ready to pick and lets me monitor the health of the plant. I’ll also to be able to continuously harvest rather than having to cut down the entire plant. Alternately I’ve seen hops trellises rigged with pulleys so that you can lower the “bines”, as they are called, for harvesting.

Hops farmers in England demonstrating why you need to think about trellising.

With a western exposure the hops get morning sun and shade in the afternoon, which seems to be perfect in our sunny, dry and hot Southern California climate. The only problem I’ve had is a bit of rust, but it doesn’t seem to have spread too badly. Hops suck up a lot of water and, thanks to the SIPs, I only have to water once a day.

The SIPS are full of potting mix with a ring of organic fertilizer placed on top of the soil as specified in Josh Mandel’s directions. I have periodically added an organic liquid fertilizer to the water reservoirs as hops need a lot of nitrogen.

Cascade cones almost ready to harvest in late July

I don’t know how my hops will do in SIPs the second year, and I’m considering planting them in the ground if I can find a suitable place. I suspect that hops are a good candidate for pairing with a greywater source and I’m thinking about ways to do this.

Now that I’ve grown hops, I’m tempted to go to the next level. The local Rite Aid? How about we replace it with a field of barley? I’m anxious to swing a scythe again.

Stay tuned for info on a hops growing workshop with Boris Price and the folks at Silver Lake Farms to be hosted at the Homegrown Evolution compound this month. Look for the announcement on our blog this week.

Author and Urban Farmer Novella Carpenter Rocks Los Angeles

Yesterday, Homegrown Evolution had the great privilege of meeting urban farmer and author Novella Carpenter who was in Los Angeles to deliver a lecture and sign her new book Farm City. She’s a phenomenal speaker, both hilarious and inspiring. What we like most about Carpenter is her honesty in describing the ups and downs of raising pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys, rabbits and more on squatted land next to her apartment in Oakland. As she put it, “I don’t like to sugarcoat things.” As owners of a garden that is often a little rough around the edges, we were inspired by this photo of her squated garden that she showed during her lecture. We could have listened for hours to her stories of dumpster diving for pig feed, gardening in a neighborhood where “crack zombies” and prostitutes come out at night and how the local Yemeni liquor store owner came over to show her how to slaughter her mean goat. If you have a chance to hear her speak, make sure to go!

We’ve read excerpts from Farm City and Carpenter is a terrific writer. In addition to her books and articles she blogs at ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com and offers workshops on raising and slaughtering animals for meat in the city. And like Carpenter, we also fantasize about trading the bicycle for a mule. Time to print up the “one less bike” saddle stickers . . .