A Tour of the Homegrown Evolution Compound

It’s about damn time we gave an overall tour of the Homegrown Evolution digs, at least to dispel some misconceptions out there (more on those at the end of the post). Let’s begin with the front yard, pictured above.

Our house sits up about 30 steps from the street level. Running the laundry water out to the front (using Oasis Biocompatible Detergent), has really made the plants happy. The front yard has a mix of prickly pear cactus, Mexican sage, wormwood, rosemary, lavender, California poppies, and nasturtiums. All low maintenance, drought tolerant, hardy stuff. At the top, not visible in the photo, are the fruit trees we planted and described in an earlier post. Due to extensive foundation work (note to potential home buyers: don’t buy a house on a hill!) we’ve only recently been able to work on the top part of the front yard.

Next the backyard, pictured above (click to bigulate). The extreme wide angle makes it look a lot bigger than it actually is. In reality, the backyard is about 35 feet by 50 feet. Starting on the left and moving right, is an arbor occupying the former space of a terrible add-on that we demolished (and carried down the stairs by hand–once again, don’t buy a house on a hill!). In the background is the chicken coop and run, with the herb garden in the foreground. Just to the right of the chicken run are several large artichoke plants. Behind that and out of sight, is a 4′ x 8′ raised bed for vegetables. Next to the shed is a small orange tree, just planted, that replaced the fig tree we tore out. Dominating the right side of the photo is the avocado tree. Next to that tree is a small dwarf pomegranate, and on the extreme right is another raised bed with strawberries, garlic, mint and a native grape vine, just about to leaf out.

Now to correct some misconceptions:

Our place looks like Versailles. Truth is, at some times, our garden looks terrible. It depends on the season, and the amount of time we have to put into it. It looks good now, but in December it looked like crap. We try to plant things that do well in our climate and provide food, medicine or habitat for birds and beneficial insects. But we’ve made plenty of mistakes, and continue to do so.

We’re survivalists. Can we live off our yard? No. Can we make a meal with stuff from the yard? Yes, but we go to the supermarket just like everybody else–there’s no room for a wheat field after all, nor do we grow coffee or a host of other necessary staples. But, we seldom buy greens at the store, and almost never buy herbs or eggs–we’ve got that taken care of in the garden. In the summer we have lots of tomatoes, and right now we have a few avocados. When the fruit trees mature in a few years we’ll have fruit.

We’re hippies. Don’t get us wrong, we love hippies. We have no problems with cob ovens shaped like psychedelic snails, but that just ain’t our style. We’ve tried to keep things low key, just like our humble 1920s bungalow. This grape vine trailing up the arbor we built sums up our visual style:

Lastly, we like to tuck in a few attractive edibles (packed tightly, as you can see) wherever we can, like this magnificent cabbage, so beautiful we hate to harvest it:

Allium ursinum

Allium ursinum, a.k.a. Ramsons (in English), and Bärlauch (bear leeks, or wild garlic in German), are a member of the chive family so named because they are a favored food of bears and wild boar. People can eat em’ too, with both the bulb and leaves making a tasty addition to a number of dishes (see a detailed report on Allium ursinum in the Plants for a Future website).

Favoring semi-shade, Allium ursinum thrives in moist, acidic soil–forest conditions, in other words. In short, not appropriate for our climate in Los Angeles, but folks in the northwest might consider planting some. Like all members of the Allium species it’s toxic to dogs, but we’ve never had a problem with our dog eating onions (he prefers raiding our avocado tree and tomato bushes for illicit snacks).

Special thanks to Steve Rowell of the Center for Land Use Interpretation for the photos and report. Rowell spotted this tasty vegetable at a farmer’s market in Berlin where they are a popular seasonal addition to cafe menus and even to packaged items like pesto and ravioli. If only we’d catch on to the seasonal thing in America . . .

A Seed Pokin’ Thingy

Planting seeds seems like a simple task, and yet when you’re faced with hundreds of tiny seeds and dozens of pots it can take a surprising amount of time. Thankfully there’s an elegant and simple tool that can make life easier during planting season.

To make this handy tool all you need to do is take a sick (something smaller than a chopstick is ideal) and stick it into a wine cork. You use the cork end to gently tamp down the soil and the stick end to make small indentations in which to pitch your seeds.

Homegrown Evolution learned about this tip thanks to a seed propagation class we took at Urban Harvest, a non-profit located in Houston, Texas dedicated to, “Working with gardens and orchards to build healthy communities.” A special thanks to instructor Jean Fefer, an organic gardening expert and a Harris County Master Gardener and Plant Propagation Specialist. We heartily recommend Urban Harvest’s programs and classes to anyone interested in learning how to grow your own food.

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.