Perennial Vegetables

For lazy gardeners such as ourselves nothing beats perennial vegetables. Plant ‘em once and you’ve got food for years. For novice gardeners, perennials are plants that, unlike say broccoli (an “annual”), don’t need to be replanted every spring. The best known perennial vegetable in the west is probably asparagus which, given the right conditions, will produce fresh stalks for years. But there are many thousands more perennials little known to North American gardeners that are a lot easier to grow than fussy asparagus.

Unfortunately, there used to be a lack of information about edible perennials until the publication of Eric Toensmeier’s excellent book, Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles. We’ve got a few of the species Toensmeier mentions: artichoke, prickly pear cactus, stinging nettles, crosnes (more on those in another post) and goji berries. Edible Perennials contains growing information for each species offering something for every climate in North America.

Up to now many of these plants were hard to find, but growing interest in edible perennials and the power of the internet has brought many of these species into our backyards. See the Mother Earth News Seed Search Engine on the right side of this page to hunt down some of the more rare items.

Now, time to fertilize those goji berries and ponder the controversial air potato.

We sometimes make mistakes . . .

Some time ago we printed the wrong email address for Franchi seed distributor Craig Ruggless. His correct email address is: [email protected]. Send him a note and he’ll send you a catalog. Check out Craig’s blog here or drop by his booth at the Sierra Madre farmer’s market on Wednesdays.

We’ve been using Franchi seeds for years and have been consistently impressed with the results.

Sky full of Paw Paws

Mrs. Homegrown Evolution is deeply concerned about Mr. Homegrown Evolution’s midlife obsession with rare fruit trees. The California Rare Fruit Grower’s Fruit Gardner Magazine is the new Hustler around here. And now our fruit tree internet video porn needs have been satisfied. This week, the always superb Sky Full of Bacon video podcast from Chicago’s Michael Gebert serves up a tour of Oriana Kruszewski’s orchard which contains Asian pears, paw paws and black walnuts trees. Kruszewski’s knowledge, enthusiasm and perseverance is inspiring.


Sky Full of Bacon 08: Pear Shaped World from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

A Purple Dragon Carrot


It’s purple, it’s fairly tasty and it came from Seeds of Change. [Please note, Homegrown Evolution Reader Jeremy comments: "Seeds of Change, those super-friendly people who are owned by the Mars Corporation, who tried to shut down the HDRA's Heritage Seed Library, and who registered am ancient Hopi "mandala" as their trade-mark? Enjoy." Thanks Jeremy, we'll be doing some research on this one.] According to the seed package it was bred by someone named John Navazio who I can find no information about on the internets. John clearly has more important things to do than updating a Facebook page.

My dragon carrots grew without a hitch in our “guerrilla” parkway garden. As you can see from the photo, the carrot has a deep purple color reminiscent of the domesticated carrot’s wild ancestors, which were probably tamed in what is now Afghanistan. Wikipedia identifies the purple hue of these carrots as anthocyanin a possible source of antioxidants and a common pigment in many red-hued fruits and vegetables.

Also note all that foliage. It’s edible. I tossed the carrot tops in with some couscous, olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a tasty dinner. The carrots themselves were served as a side dish mixed with a dressing made out of olive oil, lemon juice and salt.

Native Plant Workshop

Vitus californica covering our ugly chain link fence

There’s a couple of common misconceptions amongst novice gardeners about native plants:

1. If you use native plants the whole garden has to be natives.
In fact, it’s great to mix natives with non-native plants. The natives bring in beneficial wildlife, are hardy and are efficient in terms of water use. Flexibility is key here–go ahead and mix natives with vegetables, fruit trees and other climate-appropriate plantings.

2. Natives aren’t edible.
Many natives yield edible and medicinal crops. In North America the best way to delve into this topic is to figure out the plants that Native Americans in your area used.

3. Southern California is a desert and native plants are desert plants.
Coastal Southern California has a Mediterranean climate not a desert climate and native plants adapted to this region do not look like desert plants. Coastal natives can be very lush and attractive.

Note: the workshop listed below has been postponed due to rain. See the Green Beacon Foundation website for more information.

In order to dispel these myths and offer practical advice, a new non-profit organization, the Green Beacon Foundation is hosting a native plant talk and demonstration conducted by Lisa Novick of the Theodore Payne Foundation. Theodore Payne is a great resource for finding native plants and seeds and, in Southern California, now is the time to get those natives in the ground. Here’s the 411 on the workshop:

“The Green Beacon Foundation (GBF) located in historic Elysian Heights serves as a community resource for the public to have tactile experiences of “going green,” through on-going workshops, lectures, and tours.

The Green Beacon Foundation is hosting Lisa Novick of the Theodore Payne Foundation who will present the lecture entitled, “Why Plant Natives?”on Saturday, February 7th. at 2pm. If you have always wanted to learn more about California Native plants and how to incorporate them into your garden, this is the event you’ve been waiting for!

Native plants not only save water, they save species. Learn about crucial native plant-animal relationships and gardening to attract birds, butterflies and hummingbirds.

With only 4% of our wild lands left, urban and suburban native plant gardens will be the “make or break” difference to the support and preservation of bio-diversity.

Lisa will show and tell you about several varieties of native plants as well as provide samples for sale.

Immediately after the lecture in the garden we will be conducting a tour of the house to show and tell you about green products and renovation processes that will help save money while caring for the earth.

Suggested donation for the lecture and the tour: $10 each

Please RSVP for address to Julie Solomon:

[email protected]

or call 323.717.9636″

Spreadin’ Seed

The past week was spent feverishly spreading genetic material around. No, we weren’t backstage with Metallica. We’re talking plants. Here’s a few ways we’ve been spinning the genetic biodiversity wheel in the past week:

Seed Swaps
Yesterday was International Seed Swap Day of Action, sponsored by Food not Lawns. We celebrated the day in Altadena with a bunch of local gardening enthusiasts and countless boxes of seeds. We got seeds for Armenian cucumbers, red ruffled pimento peppers, feverfew, echinacea and zucchini among others. In return we gave away okra, cosmos, and mystery seeds from my mom’s Greek neighbor. A seed swap makes a great excuse for a party and a great time was had by all.

The Neighbors
My mom’s elderly neighbor, who spends each summer in his native Greece, loves to garden and grows, among many other things, at least four different kinds of arugula, which he calls, “the Greek Viagra”. He gave us seeds for two different arugulas, some basil from the northern mountains of Greece and countless other untranslatable plants, and packed them up for us in blue medicine bottles. We’ve grown his vegetables before and, while we can’t vouch for the aphrodisiac qualities and don’t stoop to Viagra jokes, they taste really great.

Seed Savers Exchange
Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit member supported organization that maintains a seed bank of over 25,000 varieties of vegetables. You can order seeds from them at www.seedsavers.org.

Catalogs
We’ve been obsessed with the Italian seed company Franchi for almost ten years now. Meeting the west coast distributor Craig Ruggless at the seed swap and seeing his display racks of seeds was the horticultural geek equivalent of bumping into a rock star. Craig’s got a blog here and, in addition to distributing seeds at local nurseries, he can be found at the Sierra Madre farmer’s market on Wednesdays. Craig also has a mail order operation–send an email to him at [email protected] and he’ll send you a catalog.

Lastly, if you aren’t already, consider collecting as many seeds as possible from your garden to save and share. Here’s some seed saving directions for common vegetables.

Italian Dandelion Redux

Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus)
It’s been a difficult winter growing season here in Los Angeles. Our unpredictable Mediterranean climate has thrown a few curve balls in the past few months courtesy of an ocean temperature phenomenon known as La Niña which has caused alternating periods of cool weather followed by 80º days and little rainfall. Our deciduous trees did not loose their leaves until after New Years, most of the winter vegetables we planted seem unhappy and to top it all off someone took all of the shallots and daikon radishes that were growing in our illegal sidewalk garden before they were ready to harvest.

All this leads me to muse about things that are really easy to grow and tough even in the strangest of weather. On this, the occasion of our 400th post, I had intended to discuss my favorite, indestructible vegetable, a leaf chicory popularly called Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus). Doing a Google search for it revealed, ironically, that I have already blogged an ode to Cichorium intybus. Let’s just say that despite the erratic weather, the Italian Dandelion soldiers on, providing nightly dinners of strong flavored greens (tasting delicious, incidentally, mixed with turnip greens). Horace, writing (blogging?) in a similar climatic region 2000 years ago writes “Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea, me malvae” (“As for me, olives, chicory, and mallows provide sustenance”).

It’s a comfort in these uncertain times to observe such a hardy plant. While my cabbage and kale wither under the hot sun and an army of aphids, the Italian Dandelion seems immune to both pest and disease. And, nearby, volunteer mallow hints at a spring of easy foraging. Horace was on to something.

And to all who responded to my call for urban homesteaders: I’m overwhelmed by the response (and the emails!). You are all an incredible inspiration and, like my botanical friend Cichorium intybus, a sign of abundance in the midst of adversity.

Jujube and Goji Fever

Jujube Photo from the Papaya Tree Nursery

Tucked into a residential neighborhood in a corner of Los Angeles’ vast San Fernando valley, the Papaya Tee Nursery, sells a dazzling array of exotic fruit trees, countless species and varieties you’ve never heard of. Papaya Tree’s proprietor Alex Silber, with his encyclopedic knowledge and stream of consciousness delivery, comes across at first as, well, unusual, until you realize that it’s not Alex that’s off kilter but the rest of the world. Who’s more sensible: someone who has a backyard full of the best fruit you’ve ever tasted, or the rest of us who know nothing other than flavorless, supermarket produce? There’s a whole world of flavor that our backyards could produce and Alex just might be Southern California’s exotic Johnny Appleseed.

Homegrown Evolution took a trip to Papaya Tree two weeks ago with bench pressing spotter, activist and blogger Creek Freak (whose book Down by the Los Angeles Riveris on my must read list). Creek Freak detailed his experience here on the Eco-village garden blog, and came back from Papaya Tree with an unique variety of jujube (Zyzyphus jujuba) which Alex Silber calls the Chang Jujube. Alex’s father got the original Chang tree as a gift from a friend in Asia. For those of you who have never had a jujube, it has a flavor somewhat like a date, (hence the popular name “Chinese date”). Most of the jujubes I’ve sampled at farmers market taste, charitably, like slightly sweet Styrofoam packing materials. Alex was nice enough to send us home with a bag full of dried Chang jujubes which convinced even the skeptical Mrs. Homegrown Evolution that this variety of jujube tree is well worth growing. The Chang jujube, unlike most varieties, is self pollinating and therefore does not require a partner. The Chang also has a distinctive, narrow and upright growing pattern, making it an ideal tree for small spaces. Jujube trees are an amazingly adaptable, deciduous tree, tolerating cold but preferring hot summers to produce good fruit which can be eaten fresh or dried. Once dried, the fruit stores for many months.

Goji berries (Lycium barbarum)

While Creek Freak came back with his jujube, Mr. Homegrown Evolution snagged three small goji berry bushes (Lycium barbarum). Goji berries created a frenzy in new age circles a few years back, with some extraordinary health claims, and currently fetch $14 for a pound of dried berries at Whole Foods. What attracted us to the plant is its alleged tolerance to living in proximity to black walnut trees, notorious for producing their own herbicides. We ended up planting them elsewhere in the yard, since our black walnut area is a bit too shady, and we’ll report back on how they do. Supposedly the leaves are edible as well, for those of you keeping score on the alternate uses of fruits and vegetables.

Note that the Papaya tree nursery is by appointment only and can be reached at (818) 363-3680. No mail order except for miracle fruit berries (see those strange berries and some video of the Papaya tree nursery here).

Secondary and Edible

Homegrown Evolution is headed to San Francisco for the week on business and will be away from computers (thankfully). Along the way we’ll be enjoying the agricultural vistas of California’s Central Valley via Amtrak’s lumbering San Joaquin train. In the meantime, please take a look at this fascinating link, the secondary edible parts of vegetables. Cucumber stem tips and young leaves for dinner anyone?

The Squirrel Menace

In our garden squirrels are a serious problem. Their worst offense is grabbing avocados off our tree, taking a few small bites and then dropping them on the ground for our Doberman to finish off. This year only five avocados made it into the kitchen. Today’s New York Times has just about the only effective solution. Anyone for squirrel tacos with guacamole?

“With literally millions of squirrels rampaging throughout England, Scotland and Wales at any given time, squirrels need to be controlled by culls. This means that hunters, gamekeepers, trappers and the Forestry Commission (the British equivalent of forest rangers) provide a regular supply of the meat to British butchers, restaurants, pâté and pasty makers and so forth.

The situation is more than simply a matter of having too many squirrels. In fact, there is a war raging in Squirreltown: invading interlopers (gray squirrels introduced from North America over the past century or more) are crowding out a British icon, the indigenous red squirrel immortalized by Beatrix Potter and cherished by generations since. The grays take over the reds’ habitat, eat voraciously and harbor a virus named squirrel parapox (harmless to humans) that does not harm grays but can devastate reds. (Reports indicate, though, that the reds are developing resistance.)”

Two tangents here:

1. Please note the dapper gamekeeper photographed for the story. Here at Homegrown Evolution we think it’s about time the work clothes with tie look, such as this gamekeeper’s traditional hunting attire, makes a comeback. No more walking around in pajamas!

2. We’ve got another excuse to replay this old video:

Thanks to neighbor Lora Hall for the link to the New York Times story!