Nopales Season

It’s nopales (the pads of the prickly pear cactus for you Yankees) season at the Homegrown Evolution compound. Our prickly pear has thrown off so many leaves that a neighbor dropped by last week to ask for some. We filled a bag for her and declined the dollar she offered us.

To cook up our nopales we use a simple recipe found in Delena Tull’s book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. First scrape off the spines with a knife and chop a pad (one pad per person). Boil for 10 minutes. Next, put 1/3 cup whole wheat flour, 2/3 cup cornmeal, 1 teaspoon chili powder, salt and pepper in a bag and shake with the boiled chopped nopales. Fry up in a pan and you’ve got a delicious side dish.

One of the charms of the prickly pear cactus, in addition to the food it provides, is its ability to survive drought and fend off pests. Sadly, it’s not as indestructible as it seems. The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum was introduced into the Caribbean in the 1950s and has slowly worked its way to Florida and Mexico. It may soon reach Texas and California. The USDA is hoping to halt the spread by releasing sterile moths.

And speaking of Texas, for the next two weeks Homegrown Evolution will be in residence in Houston where it’s also nopales season. If we see any Cactoblastis cactorum, we’ll deal with them Texas style:

Planting a Mini-Orchard

Ignore the bucket in this illustration! See update below.

Update 3/13/2011: I met Brad Lancaster last night and he told me that he and Art Ludwig no longer use the upside down bucket described in this post. The reason is that detergents can build up in the hole. In my experience the bucket was also an unnecessary step. While I have a clay soil, the hillside drains fairly well. A properly sized mulch basin should suffice to allow greywater to infiltrate. Also, the new generation of washing machines use a lot less water than the old one that I still have. Other than the unnecessary bucket and the persimmon tree (died, for some unknown reason) this greywater application has worked very well. Our fruit trees are lush and happy.

With the news that Lake Mead could go dry by 2013 we figured it was about time to figure out how to grow food with very little water in a Mediterranean climate that gets on average 15 inches of rain a year (3 inches last year). Our water worries sparked the beginnings of our draught tolerant mini-orchard. Thankfully greywater and some tough, water sipping trees make it possible.

Step one was figuring out how to reuse our washing machine water (read our earlier post on the washing machine surge tank we built). Step two was matching that washing machine water output to the right kinds of plants for the mini-orchard. We settled on the three “Ps” — pomegranate, persimmon, and pineapple guava, plus a mission fig tree to replace the substandard one we cut down (even though God Hates Figs!). The advantage with these four trees is that they can survive, once established, should we find ourselves unable to use any water due to the aforementioned bad-ass draught scenarios.

Our house sits on a small hill, with the front yard sloping down towards the street. We placed the trees at the top of the slope and made mulch basins like the one illustrated above. The outlet chamber consists of a upside down three gallon bucket with a bunch of holes punched in it. The purpose of the outlet chamber, which is buried in the mulch basin, is to help the greywater infiltrate our heavy clay soil. To use it we simply place the hose coming from the surge tank into the hole in the top of the outlet chamber. We cover this hole with a brick when not in use. The photo below shows the digging of the mulch basin and the installation of the outlet chamber in progress:

The completed mulch basin and (hard to see) pomegranate tree to the right. We used straw for mulch We use wood chips for mulch (replaced the straw):
These craptacular photos don’t show the details very well, but the mulch basins were dug in such a way to also catch rainwater as it flows down the hill. Both rainwater and greywater work their way into the soil and slowly move down the hill over the course of many months. Since installing the greywater system we’ve seen previously sad plantings we did years ago of rosemary, wormwood and Mexican sage thrive. And we’ve got lots of nopalitos coming our way from the prickly pear plants.

For more information on these simple, water saving strategies see Brad Lancaster’s excellent book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands.

Damned Figs!


“In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.”
-Matthew 21:18-19

We find it hard to cut down a mature tree, especially a fruit tree. But after living with a substandard fig tree for ten years we finally understood this biblical episode, and chopped the sucker down.

Our holy land type climate in Los Angeles makes it a cinch to grow figs. It also makes it possible for all the fig trees in the neighborhood to hybridize. We speculate that the previous residents of our humble compound let a feral fig tree grow. Unfortunately this tree produced fruit with the texture of Styrofoam packing materials and the flavor of . . . Styrofoam packing materials. We tried everything from drying to making jam with these accursed figs but never got satisfactory results. During the day flies laid their larvae in the fruits yielding gooey masses that would drop to the ground to provide rotting fig feasts to visiting rats and possums.

We replaced the fig tree with the Valencia orange tree in the photo above. One of the most important lessons we’ve learned in our ten years at this address is that if you’re going to plant a tree to choose varieties carefully and, when space is at a premium, plant trees that yield food or medicine. We’ve also never regretted cutting down the forest of useless trees we found when we first moved here–Frederic Law Olmstead cut down a few thousand to build Central Park after all.

More on our new front yard orchard soon (which, of course, includes a fig tree).

UPDATE:

Homegrown Evolution reader Krystel sent us a link to a very amusing site, God Hates Figs.

Gardening Classes at Silver Lake Farms

Local gardening guru Tara Kolla, who we met in the course of writing our book the Urban Homestead, will be hosting a series of very reasonably priced classes at her beautiful urban farm in Silver Lake beginning in March. Topics include vermicomposting, organic gardening and more. Full information on the Silver Lake Farms website. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, we highly recommend taking a class or two, and sign up early as space is limited.

How to Homestead

Homegrown Evolution’s Self Watering Container video is up on the brand new site How to Homestead, described by its creators as:

“the only site on the web providing you with a collection of how to homestead videos to stream or download. No longer relegated to the rural sphere, homesteading can be done anywhere and we are here to show you how.”

With many homesteading activities, from chicken slaughtering to tortellini making, internet based video is a useful resource when you don’t have a friend or relative to show you a skill first hand. Kudos to the How to Homesteaders and we look forward to future episodes on this nicely designed site.

To celebrate the launch of howtohomestead.org, director Melinda Stone will be presenting an evening of short films and performances about self-sufficiency and sustainable DIY activities at San Francisco’s ATA space, located at 992 Valencia Street on March 29th at 8:30 p.m. For more information on this screening see www.othercinema.com.

Daikon Radish!

We’ve had a crappy vegetable harvest around the Homegrown Evolution compound this winter though, as you can see from the picture above, the artichokes and rosemary in the background are thriving as they always do. Here in Los Angeles, winter is usually the best season for growing things, as perverse as that may sound to folks in the rest of the US. But for us, some combination of bad timing (not getting stuff in early enough), depleted soil and cold temperatures have contributed to a less than stellar garden.

But in the midst of this failure we’ve had a few successes. Last year we made daikon radish pickles from radishes we picked up at our local farmer’s market. (see here for our post and a recipe). This year we grew our own daikon radishes. Like all radishes, daikons grow fast and are as hardy as weeds. Radishes are defiantly the “gateway drug” of vegetable gardening. Grow them, and you’ll be on your way to tougher to grow things like broccoli and cauliflower. Like all root vegetables loose soil is a plus, especially for daikons, so it’s best to grow them in a raised bed.

We’ve also discovered that all radish greens are edible, as they are members of the cruciferous vegetable family, which includes broccoli, cabbage, kale and many others. With many of the root vegetables we’ve grown, especially beets, we’re actually more fond of the greens.

Now if we had the money for a contest, we’d offer a free Homegrown Evolution branded thong (we’re working on that so be patient) for the first person to find the grazing chickens in the picture.

Save the World–Poop in a Bucket


Learn about composting your own poo by checking out our new post, How to Save the World by Pooping in a Bucket, at the consciousness shifting blog Reality Sandwich, for which we write a regular column.

And should you want more potty talk you’re in luck due to a minor sewage synchronicity going on in the magazine/internet world. As we wrote our meditation on human waste, a number of other stories on the subject came out at the same time:

  • A Mother Earth News reader submitted a photo and description of a handsome sawdust privy made out of an old garden hose box. Very clever!
  • Science Daily reports on Converting Sewage to Drinking Water.
  • So take that laptop into your “meditation room” and get some reading done!

    Growing Potatoes in Tires


    Chicago homesteader extraordinaire Nance Klehm, temporarily in residence here in Los Angeles, gifted us with some beautiful seed potatoes which we just planted. As we did last year, we’re growing them in used tires filled with compost (see our surprise potato harvest in a post from last September). As the plant grows you add another tire to the stack, causing the growth of more potatoes. An alternate method, suggested by Homegrown Revolution reader Chris, is to dig trenches and mound up earth around the base of the potato plant as it grows.

    We’ve planted earlier this year, to see if our potatoes will do better in Southern California’s mild spring weather. One disadvantage to this earlier planting might be all the rain we get in January and February. Soggy soil can cause the potatoes to rot before they start growing. We’ll keep our fingers crossed–we’ve had a streak of bad luck with our plantings this winter.

    Incidentally, Nance will be delivering a lecture and walk at Machine Project on Sunday February 10th at 1 p.m. See the Machine Project website for more information.

    Turnip Greens via The Silver Spoon

    It took us way to long to discover that turnip greens are edible. They’re better than the turnips themselves, in our opinion. So how did we finally figure this out? The answer is by thumbing through a cookbook everybody interested in growing their own vegetables should own, The Silver Spoon*, which has a section devoted just to turnip green recipes.

    The Silver Spoon is a 1,263 page cookbook recently translated into English. It’s the Joy of Cooking for Italians, except instead of tuna noodle casseroles and other American cooking abominations, the Silver Spoon will tell you what to do with a cardoon, a carp, or the aforementioned turnip greens among many other edibles. While we appreciate the crusty old Joy of Cooking’s advice on cooking raccoon, The Silver Spoon is so good that we feel like throwing out all the other cookbooks we have.

    But back to the greens. Turnip greens have massive quantities of vitamins A, C and K and a pleasant mild taste. The leaves have some barbs on them which disappear during cooking. In past years we have grown an Italian variety called Rapa da Foglia senza Testa or “rabe without a head”. A better name for it would be “turnips without the turnips”, as it’s a kind of turnip green. This year we’re growing turnips for Ms. Homegrown Revolution’s fermentation experiments and the greens have been a side-benefit.

    *Note this link will take you to our new online bookstore. Tacky? Perhaps. But we’re capitalists.