Cichorium intybus a.k.a. Italian Dandelion


Our illegal parkway garden has got off to a slow start this season due to low seed germination rates. We’ve compensated with a trip to the Hollywood farmer’s market to pick up some six-packs of seedlings. One plant we made sure to get is Cichorium intybus, known in Italian as “cicoria” or chicory, but somehow, in the case of leaf chicory, mistranslated as “Italian dandelion,” probably because the leaves resemble the common dandelion weed, Taraxacum officinale (a relative which is also edible).

Both Cichorium intybus and its weedy cousin share a powerfully bitter taste that took our supermarket weaned taste buds some time to get used to the first time we tasted this plant. Changing the cooking water a few times if you boil Italian dandelion is one way to deal with the bitterness, but we prefer to just throw it together with some fat in a frying pan, such as olive oil and/or pancetta. We also add some hot pepper flakes for a nice hot counter-punch. Italian dandelion makes a good companion to balsamic vinegar marinated pork or game (squirrels perhaps–they’ve been stealing our lemons!).

The big taproot this perennial plant has means that it can bust through crappy soil. The bitter root can also be ground up to make a coffee substitute or flavor additive. Never having tried this we’re a bit sceptical, especially since it lacks caffeine, but it’s worth an attempt this coming year.

Since we purchased seedlings we have no idea what cultivar we’re growing, but seeds are available from Seeds from Italy, which has an astonishing number of varieties.

And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma

The ducks of Petaluma Urban Homestead

A big thanks to Suzanne and Paul of Petaluma Urban Homestead for giving us a tour of their bit of heaven on earth. Root Simple forgot to bring the camera so you’ll have to check out their blog to see what they are up to. They make a damn good hard cider by the way.

We also had the privilege of meeting the inspiring Trathen Heckman of Daily Acts, publisher of the journal Ripples. If that wasn’t enough, Suzanne took us to an open house at the Center for Regenerative Design to see the wonders of permaculture applied to the breathtaking northern California landscape.

We’re back and fired up to work on our own humble plot here in Los Angeles which is looking a little neglected after a busy fall. More soon . . .

Doing the doo-doo with you


Tim Dundon, also known as the “King of Compost” and “Guru of Doo-Doo”, dropped off a three cubic yard load of what he calls a “weapon of mass creation”–a fragrant mass of horse dropings and stable bedding. Dundon, who has a tendency to speak in rhymes and spontaneously break out into song, also left us with quite a load of his philosophy, spending an hour on our porch weaving a stream of consciousness revolving around his core belief, that delivering his compost is a way of spreading the life force to counter what he sees as our death obsessed culture.

Dundon’s views his compost, which he alternately calls “Doo-Doo”, “craptonite” and “craptonium”, as a key component in a visionary life-affirming world view which he hopes to spread to schools and prisons. And with the writers strike is on, Dundon hopes that someone will create a reality TV show to help dissemenate his message. At one point, between digressions about the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, Sung Myung Moon, his brother who belongs to the Bohemian Grove, the Illuminati (which he hopes to counter with his own “Illumipotty”), he suggested teaming up with Yoko Ono. If that reality show ever happens with Yoko as the co-star you can bet that Homegrown Revolution will hook up the TV again.

Part of Dundon’s justified paranoia stems from his multiple run-ins with the “Man” over the past few years. Dundon ran afoul of the law and neighboring yuppies for tending what he called Zeke’s Heap, a 40-foot-high mountain of compost in west Altadena. An article in the LAWeekly covers the whole colorful saga including a trial in which Dundon in the guise of one of his alter-egos, “Zeke the Sheik”, fought marijuana charges,

“In a floor-length caftan and a blue headdress, Zeke spoke only in rhymes — including a 20-minute statement that kept the room in stitches. One prosecutor claimed it was “the funniest, most hilarious” trial he had ever experienced. Dundon was facing up to six years in prison, but was sentenced to 18 days in jail. Since then, he says, he’s heard that a law professor at UCLA uses State of California v. Dundon as a case study to suggest that “the right rhyme for the right crime will get you less time.”

For us we’re hoping that Dundon’s compost will give life to the dead soil excavated and spilled out on the front slope of our house during extensive foundation work that we had to complete earlier this year to keep our 87 year old house from sliding down the hill. Dundon says that his “Doo Doo” becomes a sort of life-giving satellite of the Garden of Eden he has created around his own house. We were able to share some of this compost with the CEC (Chief Executive Composter) of Elon Schoenholz Photography who dropped by and ended up literally shoveling shit and helping us carry some of it up the front slope. Thanks Elon! And thanks Tim for spreading life and love.

Make sure to visit Tim’s website – www.2doo.com.

Here’s a video from the 2Doo website:

Mahonia gracilis – Mexican Barberry

One of the biggest challenges at the Homegrown Revolution compound has been finding useful plants that will grow in our shady backyard. Not having to provide supplemental irrigation would be another definite plus. Unfortunately very few plants fit those stringent requirements.

We came across some seeds recently for a plant called Mahonia gracilis or Mexican Barberry, but there’s very little information about this medium sized shrub, native to Mexico (or China depending on which source you believe). The Plants for a Future database report states that the plant grows in dry ravines of pine forests and produces an edible berry. But as usual most other sources don’t comment on the edibility of the fruit.

To add to the paucity of information and general confusion, some botanists argue that the family name is incorrect and that it should be called Berberis gracilis. Some sources place it on a deep shade list, while others say it needs dappled sun.

We’ll throw it open to all the Homegrown Revolutionaries out there. Do any of you have experience with this plant?

Capparis spinosa – Capers

Capparis spinosa

When we changed the name of this occasionally updated string of musings from SurviveLA to Homegrown Revolution to make it more national, as the publisher of our upcoming book the Urban Homestead requested, we had one big challenge. While Mrs. Homegrown Revolution hails from the snowy mountains of Colorado, Mr. Homegrown Revolution has never lived anywhere else other than sunny Southern California. And neither of us have tended plants outside of this Mediterranean climate, one of the rarest types of climatic zones on the planet.

But if we’ve learned anything universal about growing food it has been to work with nature rather than against her, or as we prefer to say–don’t fuck with nature. For those of you who live where it gets cold, fucking with nature means trying to grow a fig tree. For us it meant trying to grow a lawn, a foolish water-wasting mistake we made in our pre-SurviveLA days. Working with nature means finding plants that belong in a climate similar to your part of the world. We’re not native plant fascists and will gladly source plants from other similar climates, but we don’t believe in nursing sickly plants that can’t take our heat, or need lots of water.

This season we’ve pledge not to be tempted by the allure of the seed catalogs. We’re going to grow edible and useful plants that thrive in Mediterranean places. Thankfully that includes a lot of interesting options, some of which we already have–figs, artichoke, grapes, prickly pear cactus, rosemary, thyme and lavender.

One new addition that we’re planting from seed is Capparis spinosa, commonly known as capers. Every year we make faux capers from nasturtium seed pods, but this year we thought we would start the real thing. The caper bush is an attractive plant that tolerates bad soil and dry conditions, in short perfect for the front slope of our little hilltop compound.

But nature could still screw with us. Capers are notoriously difficult to start from seeds (which we ordered from Trade Winds Fruit). According to Purdue University’s Center for New Crops and Plant Products,

“Caper seeds are minuscule and are slow to nurture into transplantable seedlings. Fresh caper seeds germinate readily – but only in low percentages. Dried seeds become dormant and are notably difficult to germinate and therefore require extra measures to grow. Dried seeds should be initially immersed in warm water (40°C or 105°F ) and then let soak for 1 day. Seeds should be wrapped in a moist cloth, placed in a sealed glass jar and kept in the refrigerator for 2 – 3 months. After refrigeration, soak the seeds again in warm water overnight.”

We’ll also need to wait a few years before we have a crop. But if our capers manage to establish we’ll be letting nature work for us.

UPDATE
It looks like we may be fucked, so to speak (sorry for the potty talk–too many cocktails tonight perhaps). Homegrown Revolution reader Brian writes:

“you are brave. but potentially foolish. this thing is one of the toughest plants i’ve ever grown in the south bay. i eventually ordered a tiny little plant, i think from papa geno. anyway, good luck with the seed, i know i wasted 2 years on them before i caved and went for the cutting. even now, this thing is fickle. so far, my little plant is on year 3, ( so, year 5 of my project ), is about a foot in diameter, and i get about 15 flowers a summer. about enough for one dinner of puttanesca. still, i persist! go forth and conquer!”

UPDATE II

Brian was right! Many months later I have an inch tall, very weak seedling. Lesson: plant first, blog later!

Tree Spinach – Chenopodium giganteum

For most of the country planting time is far off but for us, here in the Homegrown Revolution compound in Mediterranean Los Angeles, it’s time to start the winter garden. The billowing clouds of apocalyptic smoke from the fires ravaging the suburban fringes of our disaster prone megalopolis are the only thing that keeps us inside today, giving us time to contemplate one of the seed packets that has crossed our desk, Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a “tree spinach”.

The Chenopodium family encompasses what less enlightened folks call “weeds” such as lambs quarters (also edible we’ll note), but also contains cultivated crops such as Quinoa and Epazote. Tree spinach is a tall, hardy annual that easily reseeds itself and can become invasive–but we give extra points for the combination of invasive and edible.

Tree spinach contains saponins and oxalic acid, substances which the Plants for a Future database notes can cause nutritional and medical problems. Note to all the raw food fetishists out there–cooking takes care of both oxalic acid and saponins.

We ordered our tree spinach from Trade Winds Fruit but it’s also carried by Seeds of Change. We’ll post a full report if and when we get our first harvest.

See the update on our first harvest.

We Grow Houses

The last time a television news crew showed up near our domicile we were living in San Diego for a brief stint in grad school and those dozens of microwave relay trucks that showed up were beaming vital information about the former apartment of Gianni Versace assassin and spree killer Andrew Cunanan. So when we spotted a NBC news truck near the Homegrown Revolution compound we assumed our Los Angeles neighborhood had produced a new celebrity killer.

It turned out instead to be a photo op for the County of Los Angeles Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures who had deployed the truck pictured above to spray pesticide due to an invasion of the oriental Fruit Fly Bactrocera dorsalis. Two traps in the area picked up some specimens of this interloper which can quickly turn a fruit harvest into a maggot infested disaster. The eradication technique used, the “male annihilation technique” or MAT, sounds like something out of radical feminist and Andy Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto. MAT is conducted by spraying hundreds of trees and utility poles in the affected area with a gel-like substance consisting of a male attractant (methyl eugenol) combined with a pesticide called Naled (trade name Dibrom). Male fruit flys seek out the attractant and die leaving a feminist paradise and killing out the species within two generations. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture the attractant is species-specific and won’t attract beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies. Public information officer Ken Pellman, on the scene to deal with NBC, assured me that I wouldn’t have any trouble unless I “licked the utility poles” and went on to say that the Naled application would prevent larger applications of pesticides should oriental fruit flys establish large populations down the road. Perhaps.

While toxicity concerns are probably more of a problem in broader applications, (Naled is used for mosquito control and sprayed in much greater quantities for that purpose), a breakdown product called dichlorvos can enter the environment and has been linked with cancer in humans. Naled is also highly toxic to bees and butterflies. We’d also note that any pesticide tends to lose effectiveness over time due to natural selection creating creating pesticide resistance. If any of those male fruit flys survive they may end up breeding offspring who can lick those utility poles and come back for more.

Another question to ask is the validity of the oriental fruit fly detection methods. During the last big fly invasion of the Mediterranean fruit fly, which our spokesman described as a “public relations nightmare” due to the aerial spraying campaign, a number of entomologists questioned whether traps were picking up new infestations or just sporadic discoveries of a permanent population. If it’s a permanent population the spraying is merely a kind of pesticide theater meant to make it seem like something is being done. Meanwhile we invite future agricultural catastrophes through our world economy which allows us the luxury of out of season, mediocre fruit year round all the while inviting in exotic pests.

Whether or not Naled poses a toxicity problem for our neighborhood (it certainly poses a health risk for the workers as that inflatable hand demonstrates), we at Homegrown Revolution have a more basic solution–let’s start growing our own fruit here in Los Angeles County again. We could start by replacing useless street plantings with a city-wide orchard for instance. Ultimately global trade is the culprit in this outbreak and we’ll note that several oriental fruit flys were found in traps located near the harbor where all that cheap crap from China comes in for the Wal-marts of our debased country. We noted the lack of local agriculture to Pellman and he remarked that Los Angeles County used to be the wealthiest agricultural county in the United States back in the 1950s. Now he said, “we grow houses”.

How Not to Grow Potatoes


Despite doing everything wrong we had a more bountiful than expected harvest of potatoes this summer season. We grew our ‘taters in a stack of tires. Used treads, due to their ubiquity along the sides of our blighted streets, ought to be named the official city flower of Los Angeles, but we digress. The idea with ‘tater tire stacks is that you add another tire as the plant grows and in so doing encourage the plant to throw out more roots. At the end of the season you kick over the tire stack, which will end up being about three to four tires high, and feast on many pounds of ‘taters.

Just don’t do what we did and try to grow them from sprouting supermarket potatoes. Experts recommend buying special seed potatoes which are certified not to carry any of the diseases that plague this member of the nightshade family. We knew better but felt lazy about ordering seed potatoes. Our potato plants looked sad, failed to flower and eventually died. Much to our surprise when we finally got around to knocking down our ‘tater tire stacks after over a month and many complaints from visiting aesthetes, we discovered a trove of potatoes at the bottom. Amazingly after stewing in the summer heat for at least a month we still had a meager harvest. And speaking of heat, we suspect that potatoes may do better here in Southern California in the winter and we’re going to try it again soon–this time with seed potatoes.

If any of you loyal readers have any ‘tater growing experiences please share them with us. And don’t worry, we haven’t read Benton’s book and won’t resort to the same cheap white trash humor.

Seed Review: Thompson & Morgan Golden Berry

In a new feature on Homegrown Revolution we’ll review the success and flavor of our crops beginning with Physalis pruinosa, a.k.a ground cherry, husk cherry, or strawberry tomato. When we planted these seeds we posted on the confusing array of names that this neglected branch of the nightshade family has gathered over the years–we’ll use the scientific name in the interest of precision.

Our Physalis pruinosa, planted in April has born fruit for the past two months and seems to be nearing its end of production. We agree with Steven’s comment on our original post that the flavor is not as pronounced as some would have you believe. The fruit tastes like a slightly sweet tomato with, sad to say, a slight hint of gastric reflux. Perhaps it would be tastier cooked down into a jam but we don’t have enough of a crop to make more than one small jar. The plant itself grew easily with no pest problems, but did start to look unhappy in the heat of the summer.
We probably won’t grow it again, but will let the plant reseed itself. The chickens have spent some time pecking at the fallen fruit and seem to enjoy it about as much as we do, which is to say not all that much.