Plantain!

Homegrown Revolution neighbors Annelise and Eric intercepted us on our nightly dog walk and not only invited us up to their front porch for a glass of wine, but also sent us away with a couple of plantains harvested from their next door neighbor’s tree. It’s exactly what we’d like to see more of–folks growing food instead of lawns and everyone sharing the abundance.

While there’s a lot of banana trees in Los Angeles they tend not to yield edible fruit since our climate is not quite hot and humid enough. But plantains, judging from the delicious taste of the ones we fried up, are a different story. They do require a lot of water to grow, but greywater expert Art Ludwig calls bananas (the same family as plantain) “the premiere plant for greywater in warm climates”. You can bet that as soon as the building inspectors sign off and leave the scene of our newly retrofitted foundation at our crumbling 1920s vintage compound we’re going to try to figure out a way to route the shower drain out to a new mini-grove of plantain.

We’ll be our own banana republic and do the world a favor considering the amount of blood that has been spilled bringing bananas to North America. Witness Chiquita’s recent admission to teaming up with right wing terrorist groups in Columbia.

In the meantime, for the Homegrown Revolution readers out there in warm climates here’s the lowdown on growing bananas and plantain.

A Prickly Harvest

So what’s wrong with this picture? Those who have harvested the delicious fruit of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) will recognize the wisdom of using tongs to avoid the thousands of tiny painful spines (technically called glochids). But truly experienced prickly pear harvesters immediately see the foolishness of not wearing gloves even when wielding those tongs. We know better, yet we’re feeling the the pain of a few dozen almost microscopic barbed glochids sticking out of our palms.

But it’s worth it. Prickly pear fruit, despite those painful glochids, are one of our favorite crops here on our humble urban homestead (though, truth be told, a certain co-homesteader here resents the invisible glochids that inevitably end up on the kitchen countertop, not to mention the hundreds of seeds in the fruit itself). But you must respect a plant that can produce fifty pounds of fruit, not to mention edible leaves on just the three inches of rain we received in this very dry year. In the Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles, prickly pear needs no additional irrigation, needs no pesticides or fertilizers, tolerates terrible soil and produces useful food. It’s the perfect plant for the lives of folks too busy to tend fussy non-native plants.

On the first anniversary of Homegrown Revolution, formerly known as SurviveLA, and a year after our last prickly pear fruit harvest season, we can now announce why, ironically, we’ve been too busy to keep up with our vegetable beds–next spring the good folks at Process Media will be releasing our book The Urban Homesteader. While we’ve been negligent in some of the small scale agricultural duties we profile in the book, at least we have our prickly pear cactus to keep us in fruit this summer.

And due to the unusual quantity of fruit our prickly pear has gifted us with we’re experimenting with making jelly to deal with the abundance. We’ll share the recipe and other prickly stories this coming week . . .

A Self-Watering Container in a Pot

The serendipitous discovery of two three-gallon margarine containers behind a dodgy local bakery has led to the yuppification of our self-watering container (SWC) garden. We posted earlier on how to make these handy containers, which have a reservoir of water at the bottom that keeps the soil at a uniform moisture level. We also made a video about them that we’re amused to report has been “favorited” on Youtube by pot growers.

You fill SWCs up via a pipe and they can go at least a week between waterings. It is, in our opinion, the only way to grow water-needy vegetables reliably in a container. We have used them to successfully grow eggplants, tomatoes, collard greens and blueberries (note to the DEA: no cash crops at the Homegrown Revolution compound!). With our backyard looking fairly ugly this summer we’ve backpedaled on our earlier strident post about how we don’t care if our patio looks like a methamphetamine lab, and have dressed up one of our SWCs.

Here’s how we did it:

First we stuck our three gallon self watering container inside of a large pot we had sitting around.

Next we filled the SWC with potting soil (note: you must use potting soil in a SWC). We filled the void between the SWC and the pot with rocks.

We used a plastic garbage bag as a mulch layer to help hold in the water.
A bag full of small river rocks provides an attractive cover to hide the plastic. Slice a hole in the plastic mulch layer and the pot is ready for planting.

Plum Lemon Tomato Power’s Heirloom Tomato

Congressional hearings today revealed that the FDA inspects fewer than 1% of food imports, yet another reason among many to grow your own food. While we have a less than lush vegetable garden this summer, we do have a decent crop of tomatoes thanks to a trip out to Encino a few months ago for Tomato Mania the Lollapalooza of tomato seedling sales. Unfortunately, to add to the ignominy of our white trash gardening efforts, we somehow mislaid the names of the tomatoes we planted making our reporting efforts incomplete. We do know the name of the wondrous plum lemon tomato pictured above, well worth planting again next year. It’s a meaty, sweet, yellow tomato delicious both fresh and dried. Allegedly the seeds for this tomato originally came from an elderly seed seller in a bird market in eastern Moscow which the Russian police have since shut down due to an outbreak of H5N1 bird flu.

Speaking of disease, while the FDA missed those loads of melamine laced pet food from China, they did somehow manage to track 1,840 confirmed cases of food-borne illnesses in domestic tomatoes.

Again, urban homesteading revolutionaries, GROW YOUR OWN!

We found that label and it’s a tomato called “Power’s Heirloom”. Here’s how the Seed Saver’s exchange catalog copy describes it, “First offered in the 1990 SSE Yearbook by Bruce McAllister from Freedom, Indiana. His seed originated in Scott County in southwest Virginia over 100 years ago. Heavy yields of 3-5 oz. yellow paste tomatoes. Similar to Amish Paste, great flavor. Indeterminate, 85-90 days from transplant.” We hugely recommend this delicious tomato and consider it to be the tastiest tomato we’ve ever grown–meaty and flavorful.

Growing Chayote

On our morning dog walk Giovanni, one of our neighbors, kindly gave us a pair of fresh chayote off of his backyard vine which covers a trellis over his carport. Giovanni has wisely intertwined the chayote with an equally prodigious passion fruit vine making for a combo that produces many pounds of fruit all summer long.

Chayote (Sechium edule), for those not in the know, is a wonder plant of the gourd family hailing from Mexico and Central America. It has a mild slightly sweet cucumber-like taste. They can be boiled, pan fried, steamed, baked, pickled or chopped up and tossed raw in a salad. Though requiring a fair amount of water, it grows like a weed here and one vine can easily produce eighty pounds of fruit. Another mark in its favor is that Chayote is a perennial and, to top it all off, the young leaves and root are also edible and the tough stalks can be made into rope.

We started a chayote plant a few months ago by simply buying a few at our local market, letting it sprout on our counter top and then planting it in the ground. Since the fruit contains only one seed you don’t need to extract it–you plant the whole thing. They are very susceptible to rotting when first planted so that may explain why we got only one out of three to grow.

Chayote is traditionally grown up over a trellis or roof and we’re growing ours on a bare trellis that covers a deck in the back yard. We’re hoping the chayote will give us a summer of both fruit and shade!

Blueberries in a Self Watering Container


It may not be pretty but Homegrown Revolution has blueberries.

To grow blueberries in a warm climate such as Los Angeles you’ll need to choose a heat tolerant southern highbush variety. Southern highbush blueberries are hybrids that don’t require the winter chilling of their northern relatives. Blueberries also need cross pollination so they should be planted in pairs. We mail ordered two different varieties, “Oneal” and “Misty” in bare root form earlier this year from Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply.

Blueberries require an acidic soil, of the sort you’d find in a wet forest climate, so we planted them in a self watering container with a home made soil mix made up of 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 wood chips and 1/3 azalea mix.

Their special soil requirements and shallow roots make blueberries an ideal plant for self watering containers. And attention apartment homesteaders–blueberries will work nicely on that south facing balcony.

Physalis pruinosa a.k.a. “Ground Cherry”

While strolling the nursery seed isle this weekend looking for things to plant for our summer food needs, Homegrown Revolution came across a strange fruit we’ve never heard of, Physalis pruinosa, a.ka. ground cherry, a.k.a. husk tomato. a.k.a. strawberry tomato. Homegrown Revolution hates to throw around scientific names for plants but in this case we have to because the common names get so confusing. The back of the Tompson & Morgan seed package mis-labels this plant as the “Cape Gooseberry” (“Cape Gooseberry” is actually the very similar Physalis peruviana).

Physalis pruinosa is part of a genus Physalis of the nightshade or Solanaceae family, which includes edible plants such as tomatoes and potatoes, and psychotropic plants such as datura and tobacco. Many plants of the nightshade family combine edibility and toxicity–Physalis pruinosa has edible fruit that tastes something like a cross between a pineapple and a tomato, with the rest of the plant being poisonous.

The Physalis genus, which includes Physalis pruinosa, is somewhat of a neglected backwater of the nightshade family with a number of very similar plants that produce sweet berries including the aforementioned Physalis peruviana or Cape Gooseberry, Physalis heterophylla, also known by the unappetizing name “Clammy Ground Cherry”, Physalis philadelphica, the Purple Ground Cherry, Physalis pubescens also known as the Ground Cherry and Husk Tomato, Physalis viscosa, the Sticky Ground Cherry and the much more common (at least in our neighborhood) Physalis ixocarpa or Tomatillo. To add to the confusion several hybrids exist of these plants. Clammy ground cherry pie anyone?

As for the fruit of Physalis pruinosa itself, it does not ship well, hence you’ll never find it in American supermarkets, which only seem to carry things that have been shipped for thousands of miles and are therefore both durable and, inevitably, tasteless. Cultivating strange things like this is one of the best arguments for growing your own food–access to flavorful and exotic fruits and vegetables.

The very similar Cape Gooseberry (Physalis perviana) is commercially cultivated in many places in the world but is not considered an important crop. It is most commonly used in jams and pies. According to the Horticulture department of Purdue University,

In England, the cape gooseberry was first reported in 1774. Since that time, it has been grown there in a small way in home gardens, and after World War II was canned commercially to a limited extent. Despite this background, early in 1952, the Stanford Nursery, of Sussex, announced the “Cape Gooseberry, the wonderful new fruit, especially developed in Britain by Richard I. Cahn.” Concurrently, jars of cape goosebery jam from England appeared in South Florida markets and the product was found to be attractive and delicious. It is surprising that this useful little fruit has received so little attention in the United States in view of its having been reported on with enthusiasm by the late Dr. David Fairchild in his well-loved book, The World Was My Garden. He there tells of its fruiting “enormously” in the garden of his home, “In The Woods”, in Maryland, and of the cook’s putting up over a hundred jars of what he called “Inca Conserve” which “met with universal favor.”

Our package of Physalis pruinosa was priced at a staggering $3.99–a lot considering the package only contained 12 seeds. You can be certain that we’ll be doing some seed saving on this one if we get a successful crop! The googling required to sort out the many common names of Physalis pruinosa revealed an intriguing source of seeds, Trade Winds Fruit, located in Chula Vista. Trade Winds carries a number of nightshade family plants including four from the Physalis genus and even something called Solanum uporo or Cannibal’s Tomato, so called because it’s well suited for making a sauce compatible with human flesh.

We’ll forgo the cannibal recipes, at least for now . . .

Cooking with Poo

Homegrown Revolution Toronto correspondent Nicholas Sammond wrote us this morning asking if it would be possible to generate enough methane in his new abode via a composting toilet to cook with. It’s a great question since once abundant natural gas is getting scarce and expensive here in North America, and the desperation has gotten to the point that large and dangerous liquefied natural gas terminals are in the proposal stage across the continent.

Unfortunately, as individuals we produce just enough methane gas each day to barely heat a cup of tea. If you own pigs, it’s a different matter. Francisco X. Aguilar of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester has come up with a simple way for folks with a few pigs to generate methane with little more than a big plastic bag. Each day you add one bucket of excrement and five buckets of water. In return you get “biogas” and usable compost.

Some clever artistes have turned biogas into art. A Danish collective who call themselves Superflex have created a biogas system involving an bright orange ball to collect biogas and claim that just two cows will generate enough gas for 8 to 10 people.

SurviveLA is working acquiring a herd of water buffalo for Silver Lake. Next step will be to tear up the asphalt parking lot of the RiteAid for pasture. A plastic bag, some pvc pipes, and we’re in business.

Fallen Fruit

Homegrown Revolution tagged along on a neighborhood tour with the beige jump-suit clad fruit foraging collective known as Fallen Fruit. Our capable guides, David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young, led a group of well over fifty folks through a hilly part of Silver Lake just above the 99 cent store in search of street grown loquats, (in great abundance right now) kumquats, oranges, lemons, bananas, carob trees and more. We all ended up back at LA’s non-profit du jour, Machine Project for banjo music and samples of the evening’s harvest.

At times our tour group, resembled a sort of pedestrian critical mass as startled motorists gawked at the sight of people actually walking in LA. Along the way Fallen Fruit eloquently stated the case for public edible plantings and a plea for a neighborhood dynamic based on sharing a street-grown harvest. Like the folks behind Rebar, who turn parking spaces into temporary parks, Fallen Fruit’s mission ultimately is to get us to profoundly reconsider our neglected and underutilized public spaces. And these citrus revolutionaries have issued a manifesto:

A SPECTER is haunting our cities: barren landscapes with foliage and flowers, but nothing to eat. Fruit can grow almost anywhere, and can be harvested by everyone. Our cities are planted with frivolous and ugly landscaping, sad shrubs and neglected trees, whereas they should burst with ripe produce. Great sums of money are spent on young trees, water and maintenance. While these trees are beautiful, they could be healthy, fruitful and beautiful.

WE ASK all of you to petition your cities and towns to support community gardens and only plant fruit-bearing trees in public parks. Let our streets be lined with apples and pears! Demand that all parking lots be landscaped with fruit trees which provide shade, clean the air and feed the people.

FALLEN FRUIT is a mapping and manifesto for all the free fruit we can find. Every day there is food somewhere going to waste. We encourage you to find it, tend and harvest it. If you own property, plant food on your perimeter. Share with the world and the world will share with you. Barter, don’t buy! Give things away! You have nothing to lose but your hunger

They also have a set of handy maps of publicly accessible fruit in a couple of neighborhoods and a video for those who missed the fun last night. Rumor has it they will be doing a jam making session sometime this summer and SurviveLA will be there.

Now we just need another collective of clever revolutionaries to deal with LA’s other great street resource–abandoned mattresses and couches.

Artichoke Season at the Homegrown Revolution Compound


You can’t ask for a more perfect plant than the Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) which is also one of the most ideal plants for our climate here in coastal California. Let’s count the other reasons:

  • They are perennial, producing and abundant crop starting with the second year.
  • Artichokes are attractive, making an ideal choice for edible landscaping.
  • They spread like crazy.
  • Suckers can be transplanted elsewhere.
  • They’re damn tasty either steamed, combined with pasta or made into an omelet.

They do best in foggy coastal places but will also grow in the warmer interior where the Homegrown Revolution compound resides. In cooler locales they will thrive all year round. In warmer places they die back in the summer but return like crazy in the early spring. We just cut them to the ground when the leaves die off. It’s a huge plant so make sure you give them plenty of room–at least a six foot diameter circle, preferably more, for each plant.

The only drawback is that aphids love them, so they require constant spraying down with a hose to blow off the damn things, not to mention thorough cleaning in the kitchen. Our love of artichokes means that we’ve gotten used to eating the occasional aphid.

They may even have medicinal uses according the the Plants for a Future Database (which only gives them a measly 3 out of 5 score for usefulness!),

The globe artichoke has become important as a medicinal herb in recent years following the discovery of cynarin. This bitter-tasting compound, which is found in the leaves, improves liver and gall bladder function, stimulates the secretion of digestive juices, especially bile, and lowers blood cholesterol levels.

The artichoke is also the primary ingredient in Cynar, a aperitif distributed by the Campari group. No doubt, Cynar may become the primary libation around the Homegrown Revolution compound this summer . . .