Grow the Soil

Above, proof of the adage that you grow the soil not the plants. On the left a vigorous eggplant growing in high-end potting soil in a self-watering container. On the right a spindly, nitrogen starved specimen of the same variety of eggplant, planted at the same time, in our parkway garden. The container eggplant on the left is larger, has greener leaves and is obviously more healthy. The stunted eggplant on the right is the victim of depleted soil.

There’s some irony here. With our book release and press folks coming around to see things we’ve been doing too much planting and not paying enough attention to soil quality. Here’s two options we should have taken to help out that sickly eggplant in the raised bed (other than the expensive route of new potting soil):

1. Sheet Mulch

A concept from the permacultural toolbox, sheet mulching involves making a soil boosting lasagna consisting of a layer of compost or manure, newspaper to hold in moisture, and a thick application of mulch consisting of hay, stable bedding, or other bulk materials. Full instructions here via Agroforestry.net. See Toby Hemenway’s introductory permaculture guide Gaia’s Garden for a similar sheet mulching technique.

2. Cover Crop

An alternate soil building method would have been to simply give the beds a rest for a season and plant a nutrient-building and soil-busting mix of clovers and legumes. Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply has a nice selection of annual cover crops here. We used their dryland mix to deal with the bad soil in our front yard and we’ll re-sow it again this fall. Cover crops send down roots that break up soil, with the legumes used to fix nitrogen–it’s a great way to amend a large area with almost no work involved.

Here at Homegrown Evolution we don’t believe in tilling soil. Tilling soil disrupts the natural balance of soil microbes and minerals and requires hard physical labor, thus interfering with other important activities such as cocktail hours and general laying about. It’s better to let nature do the work for you. Both sheet mulching and cover crops mimic the way forests and chaparral ecosystems take care of themselves. In natural settings, leaves fall and stay in place (no ‘mow and blow’ guys in the forest!) and weeds do the tilling.

Dookie in the Tomatoes

Our first tomatoes of the season are just beginning to ripen, coinciding nicely with the multi-state cow poo in the roma scare. Allow me to speculate wildly about the cause of the current epidemic, tracing the cause step by step from the beginning:

1. We begin not with the tomato farm, but instead with manure from that wonder of industrialized agriculture, the concentrated feed lot, where thousands of cattle stew in their own filth. Immunosuppressed cattle on these feed lots act as ideal Petri dishes for all kinds of diseases including salmonella. At these massive operations, cattle feed on corn even though, biologically, they were meant to eat grass. To counter the deleterious effects of feeding them the wrong food, they are pumped full of antibiotics which, due to the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest, creates new generations of antibiotic resistant infections. Concentrating them so close together further facilitates the spread of exotic strains of all manor of nasty things including salmonella.

2. Manure from the feed lot either runs off accidentally onto a neighboring tomato farm or is exported as fertilizer intentionally. At some point, manure gets on a tomato, either on the farm or after being shipped.

3. A salmonella infected tomato arrives at a centralized packing facility where it is loaded into a massive water bath by underpaid workers to mingle with thousands of other tomatoes. The water bath acts as our second salmonella Petri dish along the tomato’s path to our table. Alternately, a blade used to automatically slice tomatoes gets infected with salmonella, thereby spreading the bug to all the other pre-sliced tomatoes headed to the food assemblers (a more accurate term than “chef”) at America’s fast food establishments.

4. After leaving the packing facility, Salmonella infected tomatoes get shipped all over the country and perhaps the world, thereby sentencing thousands of people to multi-day commode-sitting hell. Some immunosuppressed folks, sadly, die.

5. The government announces, acting in the interest of the big agricultural players, “our food system is actually safer than ever”, and congratulates themselves for their quick diagnoses of the exact strain of salmonella and its source–in this case, tomatoes processed by careless workers at a packing facility. Hearings ensue, and a few months later they announce a new series of bizarre regulations. Tomato packing facility washing equipment must now be maintained at the precise temperature of 163º F for 5.375 minutes minimum. Problem solved. Mainstream journalists move on to the next hot topic.

Now I could be completely incorrect in my assumptions about this month’s tomato scare–it’s just a guess. But let me offer a few solutions that would take care of the problem no matter what caused this most recent outbreak:

1. If you can, grow your own tomatoes and make your own fertilizer. Yes, it’s possible (but a lot less likely) to get salmonella from your own home grown produce, but at least you and your family will be the only one infected.

2. Support small family farms. Again, a small family farm could cause a salmonella outbreak, but it would effect far fewer people. Decentralization at all points in the agricultural supply chain is the solution to greater food security, not further concentration. Unfortunately our government is on the take from the big players and promulgates regulations that make it impossible for small family farmers to make a living. Read Joel Salatin’s book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal” for more on how agricultural regulations are at the heart of our food safety problems.

3. Don’t wash produce until just before it is prepared. At it turns out, washing upsets the natural balance of harmful and beneficial bacteria present on fresh produce. Food microbiologist Keith Warriner has found that a beneficial bacteria called Enterobacter keeps salmonella in check. Wash off the Enterobacter and salmonella thrives (read more on this theory at New Scientist). The same holds for washing eggs–bad idea.

I count myself very fortunate to have a bit of land to grow some tomatoes and feel sorry for those who don’t have this luxury. I wish more journalists would spin this story as a reason to build more community gardens and allow apartment dwellers to grow some food on the roof. It leaves me eating that big juicy roma tomato, pictured above, with all the smugness of a Prius driver in the HOV lane.

Casting out the lawn

One technique for learning to draw is to study the negative space, the empty space around the subject you’re trying to capture. Doing so shortcuts our mind’s tendency to distort and stereotype the subject, say a building or a face. Draw the negative space, and you’ll be more likely to realistically capture the outline of your subject rather than ending up with the stick figures and child-like representations our mind naturally tends to portray.

In our cities negative space, the open spaces between buildings, consists of vast seas of parking and empty, unused lawns. We all tend to filter out these spaces, failing to comprehend their size and ubiquitousness. Thankfully there’s a growing awareness that our city’s negative spaces are in fact negative, that they contribute to blight, profligate use of resources and our general unhappiness.

But a consciousness shift is underway led by forward thinking folks like the parishioners of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in West Los Angeles who have teamed up with the non-profit organization Urban Farming to rip up their entire 1,200 square foot south lawn to plant vegetables for the congregation and the LAX Food Pantry. From their press release:

“Holy Nativity is a strong community center with focus on faith, hope, diversity, community and environment. The new Community Garden garden provides solutions to the issues of food insecurity, access to fresh produce, education on healthy eating, greening the environment, rising food costs and the importance of donating to those in need. Urban Farming and Holy Nativity, along with the project’s partners, will have a celebration event on Sunday, June 8. This garden is a partner in the Urban Farming campaign, “INCLUDE FOOD™ when planting and landscaping”.

During World War II, twenty million people planted “victory gardens” at their homes. They grew 40% of America’s produce. We did it then, we can do it again.”

Kudos to Holy Nativity and Urban Farming for this initiative and we hope the idea spreads to other churches, synagogues an mosques across the land–I wish I could attend the opening, but I’ll be assisting with the Bike Coalition’s annual River Ride fundraiser (not to late to sign up for that LA cyclists!). To those who can make it to Holy Nativity, the festivities run from 2 t0 5 p.m. this Sunday June 8th. Holy Nativity is located at:

6700 W 83rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(310) 670-4777

I had wanted to make a clever biblical reference at the beginning of this post and suggest that now, in 2008, Jesus would rip up the lawn, with the same fervor that he chased away the inappropriate money changers who did business in the temple. Dusting off the bible, however, I discovered that Jesus also shooed off some livestock during that episode. But with our increasing food troubles, I’d like to think that today, in addition to the vegetables, Jesus would welcome livestock back to the church grounds (cathedrals were used in the Middle Ages as barns, after all).

For more info and photos, see Holy Nativity’s Community Garden page.

Garlic!

Our parkway guerrilla garden, profiled in last week’s Los Angeles Times article, which is now linked on BoingBoing, yielded up an impressive garlic harvest this season.

Garlic is one of the easiest crops for us to grow here in Southern California. You just take the large, outer ring of cloves from store-bought garlic and stick them in the ground with the pointed side up interspersed throughout your other plantings–wherever you have some room. We plant them around Thanksgiving and harvest in late May/early June when the stalks begin to turn brown and fall over. After you harvest your garlic, don’t wash it just knock the dirt off, then let it “cure” with the stalks and roots intact in a dry place inside until the stalks are entirely brown. Premature cutting of stalks or roots can lead to rot. After your garlic is dry then you can trim it to just the bulbs and store it somewhere cool and dark (not the fridge!). We’re going to put ours in a double brown bag in our strange subterranean garage–a cellar or basement would also work.

With our mild winters and warm summers, California is the ideal place to grow garlic, but there are special varieties for cold climates that you can mail order. The University of Minnesota Extension has a nice page on growing garlic in cold places.

A Mystery Philippine Vegetable

Some TV folks were here to interview us about guerrilla gardening, following up on the story that mentioned us in the LA Times this week. We did the interview down in the parkway next to our illegal street-side vegetable garden. I nattered on about reclaiming wasted space, staying in touch with nature, the value of homegrown food, dodging the authorities and knowing where your carrots come from. I harvested for the camera, an unimpressive string bean and two small cucumbers.

On a whim, I suggested that we visit the parkway garden that inspired us to plant our own. Just two blocks away, this parkway garden is the handiwork of a retired couple from the Philippines. As luck would have it, the couple pulled up during our interview. Julie (I’m afraid I can’t spell her last name) stepped out of her car and proceeded to give us a tour of her “guerrilla” garden, talking about–guess what–reclaiming wasted space, staying in touch with nature, the value of homegrown food, dodging the authorities and knowing where your bitter melon comes from. The only differences between our two spiels–the bitter melon, and Julie’s lack of Generation X irony and a blog.

I think the TV folks were hoping for something more telegenic, sexy and radical, to fit the “guerrilla gardening” story, like say the image on the left. They were, perhaps, less excited by some ordinary middle-aged to elderly residents of Echo Park passionately talking about vegetables.

Their loss our gain. As a parting gift Julie gave us this leafy green whose name, I’m afraid, I can neither pronounce nor remember. She told us to parboil it and season with soy sauce. Any guesses readers as to what this is?

Homegrown Evolution in the LA Times

Today’s Los Angeles Times Home and Garden section has a story on Guerrilla gardening, “Guerrilla gardener movement takes root in L.A. area”. The article mentions our parkway vegetable garden, which consists of two 6-foot square raised beds with two wire obelisks to support beans and tomatoes. We constructed it in October of 2005 and have grown a few season’s worth of crops.

Here’s our parkway garden just after putting it in. We installed raised beds because of the compacted, poor quality soil.

Winter and early spring is the best season for most vegetables here in Los Angeles. In January of 2006 we had a riotous crop of sweet peas, greens, calendula and garlic.

This past winter we planted dandelion greens, collards, garlic and more sweet peas.

Last summer we had a mini corn field.

Lastly, a shot from the summer of 2006 of tomatoes supported by one of the obelisks.

With a backyard dominated by two large shade trees, the parkway, with its excellent sun exposure, is the best location for us to grow food. We invite neighbors to share our harvest, and to answer a commonly asked question, we’ve never had a problem with anyone getting greedy and taking all the tomatoes.

Vegetable Gardening for the Lazy

One of the problems with growing vegetables is all the labor involved–starting seeds, composting, watering and watching out for bugs. It’s worth it, of course, for the tasty rewards, but many busy folks are simply too exhausted after work or corralling the bambinos to pick up a shovel and garden. For those who’d rather sit on the porch with a martini than laboring in the field, and we often include ourselves in that category, perennial vegetables can put food on the table year round without the hassle of having to plant seeds every spring. Here’s a roundup of our top four favorite edible perennials we have growing in our humble garden.

1. Tree Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala–I think). This strange but attractive member of the Brassica family, pictured above (in a protective cage to fend off our chickens and Doberman), goes under a confusing number of popular names. The specimen given to us by Trathen Heckman of the Petaluma based Daily Acts (thanks again Trathen!), has matured into what looks like a four foot tall kale plant gone to seed, except it hasn’t gone to seed. The leaves are mild flavored and we’ve eaten them both cooked and raw. The problem with this plant is finding one. Search for it on the internets and you’ll find other people searching for it. So dear readers, leave a comment on this post if you know of a good source either local or mail order. We’ll definitely be making some cuttings, as it would be nice to have more than one.

2. Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). A member of the sunflower family, this North American native produces an edible tuber that, while hard to clean, is worth the effort. It’s invasive which, from the perspective of the martini swilling gardener, is a plus since it means never having to propagate more. We planted ours in the spring from tubers we picked up in the produce section of our local market, Trader Joes. You may be able to find Jerusalem Artichioke at fancy food markets such as Whole Foods. Stick those grocery store bought tubers in the ground and in a few months you’ll have a field of these things.

3. Regular old Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus). Here’s a perennial for those of us lucky enough to live in a Mediterranean climate. In foggy coastal areas artichokes thrive year-round. Here in inland Los Angeles they die back in the summer. We cut them to the ground in June and wait for them to come back in the fall. Artichokes are a handsome, large plant that produces one of the most delicious of all vegetables.

4. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). We won’t natter on about this one, as we’ve covered the edible leaves here, jam making with the fruit here, avoiding the spines here and penned a very early potty-mouthed love letter to the plant here. Needless to say, a plant that needs no added water or fertilizer and grows in dismal, alkaline soil while producing an abundant crop is a plant that allows more time to get the perfect vermouth/gin ratio for those late afternoon cocktail sessions on the urban homestead.

Mistakes we have made . . .

There’s a kind of boastful blogging style that, I’m afraid, we here at Homegrown Evolution have been guilty of. Simply put, we’ve failed to detail all our blunders. These mistakes and accidents, some funny, others painfully disappointing, have more instructional value than our successes. And oh, how many blunders there have been in the past ten years. It’s about time to round up the top 6. I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten, but here’s a start.

1. Installing a water garden.

That water garden looks great in the picture above. That was before the neighborhood raccoons spent several nights a week treating it like rock stars used to treat hotel rooms, and before scum and slime clogged up the pump. While the pump was solar powered, the profligate use of water was not the best example to set here in draught prone Los Angeles. After a few months we gave up, filled it in with soil and now strawberries grow there happily. We hear that Materials and Applications, a neighborhood landscape architecture firm that runs an amazing outdoor gallery, has stopped designing water features unless they are supplied by rainwater. Sounds like a good idea to us! And with the chickens we did not want to provide habitat for raccoons.

2. Mixing Chicken Breeds

Speaking of chickens, a friend of ours who grew up on a farm confirmed that “chickens are racists”. Like talk radio hosts, hens will pick on anyone who is different. In our case, our green egg laying and weird looking Araucana gets the crap beaten out of her by the Rhode Island Red and one of the Barred Rocks. If I had it do do all over again, I’d get four Barred Rocks. They’re dependable layers and don’t make much of a fuss.

3. Planting stuff that doesn’t grow in our Mediterranean climate

As our permaculture friend David Khan likes to say, “work makes work.” Plants that need lots of tending and attention, nine times out of ten, end up unhappy. When they croak it leads to a downward spiral of disappointment and frustration. Just recently a hops plant I tried to grow up and died on me. I stormed around the kitchen cursing for a few minutes before I realized that, once again, I had failed to follow my own advice–plant in season and in respect of place. Hops belong in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, the heat loving prickly pear cactus in our front yard provides both tasty nopales and fruit reliably every year while growing in terrible alkaline soil with no added water or fertilizer. The problem with the prickly pear is that it is too prodigious, and that’s the kind of problem you can hope for as an urban homesteader.

3. Newspaper seed pots

Those newspaper seed starting pots we linked to earlier this year . . . well, there seems to be a problem with them. I think the newspaper is wicking the water away from the soil. While in Houston recently, I took a class from a master gardener in plant propagation and we used regular plastic pots, a thin layer of vermiculite over the potting soil and a plastic bag over the pot. It seems to work better. The other blunder here is posting about something before testing it.

4. Pantry Moths!

A few years ago, using our solar dehydrator (we’ll post about that soon), we dried a summer’s worth of tomatoes to use during the fall and winter. We put the entire harvest in one large jar. Several months later we had a jar full of pantry moth larvae. This is the entomological version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, a mistake we won’t soon repeat. Now we split dried goods into multiple jars so that in case some critters get it to one we’ll still have others.

5. Buying a wonky house with poor professional guidance

Be careful choosing a Realtor–pick one who has been recommended to you by someone you trust. Be especially careful picking a home inspector–pick an independent one–not one recommended by the seller or buyer’s agent. Our inspector spent a very short time in our house and ignored large problems, in my opinion, because it was in his favor for the house to sell so that he could continue his relationship with our agent. It’s an inherent conflict of interest for the inspector to have a connection to either real estate agent.

6. Planting a lawn

We weren’t always the Molotov cocktail tossing vegetable growing radicals that we are now. Just after we bought this place ten years ago we planted a lawn in the backyard. With some temporary fencing, we roped it off from the Doberman to allow it to grow. After a month the lawn matured into a lush green carpet . . . but it only lasted five minutes. That was the time it took for the Doberman to gracefully leap over the barrier and run in circles, causing chunks of turf and newly amended soil to fly all over the yard.

Let’s do the math–in a dry place like Los Angeles–lawn=crime. On top of the waste of water they simply don’t look good here without massive inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and gas powered lawn mowers. Sorry, but I hate lawns and will not ever be convinced otherwise. Got kids? That’s what mulch is for. Fuck the lawn. Fuck all it stands for.

The Conclusion

I guess the lesson here, with all of these missteps, is persistence. Push through the blunders and the light will shine. And a promise–we here at Homegrown Evolution we will do a better job detailing our mistakes.

More on that nice rooftop garden . . .

Bruce F. the creator of that nice rooftop garden we featured last week dropped us a note to say that he kept a diary about the process that you can read here, via the Daily Kos. Bruce also mentioned a few other interesting links:

Humanure Composting via Feral Scholar

A fiery essay, The Politics of Food is Politics via Counterpunch

and A 35-Point Practical Guide for Action by Bruce himself

Thanks Bruce F! And we’ll be back soon after we recover from our weekend trip to the emergency room (kidney stones–ouch!).