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.

The Three Sisters

Due to the rigors of finishing our book The Urban Homesteader due out from Process Media next spring we were late getting around to planting our parkway vegetable garden. To review, the parkway is that space between the sidewalk and the street that belongs to the city but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. The city, of course, wants us all to plant a lawn so that fat people can easily plop out of their Escalades unimpeded. We decided to grow food instead and despite the presence of many building inspectors reviewing our expensive foundation work nobody seems to care about the two large raised beds we installed. In fact one of our neighbors has planted her own parkway vegetable garden just down the street.

Since it was so late (July) we decided to cultivate heat tolerant vegetables and upped the ante by planting the Native American three sisters–corn, beans and squash. The three sisters are textbook permaculture, the idea being that the beans nitrogenate the soil and climb up the corn while the squash provides mulch. All plants are useful and you end up with an interdependent, self-sustaining beneficial feedback loop. Some people add a fourth sister, Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) which attracts pollinating insects for the corn and squash.

We added a drip irrigation system on a timer (more on that in a later post) which has seemed to keep the plants healthier by preventing watering mishaps due to those flaky hung-over mornings. We planted corn seeds from the Not a Cornfield project, a variety of squash called Cucuzzi, and two beans from seeds we saved from last season (the tasty Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco and attractive but not so tasty scarlet runner bean).

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.