Least Favorite Plant: Asparagus Fern (Asparagus setaceus)

Today, a new feature on the blog: least favorite plants. I’ve always thought that it’s more fun to read a bad review than a glowing one, so why not extend the concept to the plant world? But we’re not going to rant about “weeds”, which Ralph Waldo Emerson defined as, “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” As active foragers we’ve found virtues in what most people think of as weeds, plants like broadleaf plantain and stinging nettles. Instead we’ll focus our horticultural wrath elsewhere.

Asparagus Fern (Asparagus setaceus) is the scourge of my backyard gardening existence and a plant many will recognize from floral arrangements. The bozos who owned our house before us planted one of these nasty things underneath the avocado tree. It entangles itself through the branches of the tree, winding it’s way upwards as much as ten feet in a season. It’s impossible to pull out of the ground and its sharp thorns make thick gloves essential when attempting to beat it back. When I saw a vendor at a farmer’s market selling potted Asparagus setaceus, I felt like I was witnessing a crack dealer in an elementary school lunchroom. As a houseplant it’s probably fine, but in our climate where it can grow outside you should keep this out of the hands of neophyte gardeners.

Asparagus Fern ain’t a fern but it is a relative of asparagus. The shoots may or may not be edible depending on who you talk to. Even if you could eat the shoots, you would have the world’s smallest side dish. Breed a one inch tall pig and you could make tiny pork chops to go along with your buttered Asparagus setaceus.

Thankfully for most of the readers of this blog, Asparagus setaceus is not cold hardy. It’s originally from South Africa which has an identical climate to LA, meaning this house plant can easily escape here and wreak havoc amongst the palm trees and smog.

Now, what rogue state can I get to carpet bomb my Asparagus Fern patch?

Fava Fava Fava

Fava bean mania has descended upon the Homegrown Evolution compound this spring. I can’t say enough good things about fava beans (Vicia fava): they taste good, the plant fixes nitrogen into the soil, making it an ideal cover crop, and it’s attractive.

If harvested small you can eat fava raw but I prefer to remove the skins and briefly boil the seeds (around five minutes). Once boiled, fava can be used in a variety of dishes from soups to salads. We just toss them with olive oil, white wine vinegar, mint, garlic and feta cheese.

Curiously, some folks (mostly male and of Mediterranean or black African ancestry) are allergic to fava. In fact, babies in Italy are tested at birth for this condition. “Favism” is extremely rare, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

Here in Los Angeles we plant fava in the late fall/early winter for a spring harvest. In most of North American you’ll plant it after the last frost.

Self Irrigating Planter Resources

Homegrown Evolution is up in San Francisco this weekend to do a talk about the world of self-irrigating planters (also known as SIPs or self-watering planters or a couple of other variations on that general verbiage). In our opinion SIPs are the food growing tool of the aspiring urban agriculturalist. Make or buy one of these things and vegetable container gardening is a breeze. No need to water your pots three times a day during the summer! For those who can’t make our talk, and as a resource for those who can, we thought we would put all the Internet resources in one place in this here blog post.

SIP hacker and horticultural Internet hero Josh Mandel’s original pdf instructions for how to make your own.

Mandel’s revised instructions with thoughts on how to eliminate the use of PVC plastics when building a SIP.

Where to buy a SIP: earthbox.com. Even if you build your own, you should follow the Earthbox company’s user guide for how to fill the box, what kind of soil to use and how to fertilize.

For a nice example of rooftop and window gardening with SIPs see the Green Roof Growers of Chicago.

How to make a small SIP with soda bottles. Here’s another variation with conventional pots.

Last night we went to a wonderful screening organized by the folks at How to Homestead. They have an interesting SIP variation made with milk crates profiled in a how-to video by Mariana Lopez. She also offers a recipe for a DIY potting mix in that same video.

Ohio State University Extension Service’s list of vegetable varieties for container gardening. These are varieties with smaller root systems that do well in small pots.

Lastly, all of Homegrown Evoution’s self watering container posts.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage, just about to bloom.

Borage is an ugly sounding name for a beautiful and useful plant. The moniker is probably a corruption of the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq or “father of sweat”, a reference to it’s diaphoretic qualities1. Both the leaves and the blue flowers (sometimes white flowers) are edible and have a refreshing cucumber like taste. Borage is an annual herb that we plant in the late fall here in Los Angeles for an early spring bloom, but in most other parts of North America you’ll plant it in the spring after the last frost. Ours survived a winter outbreak of aphids, but is now thriving.

We toss the flowers and leaves into salads as a flavoring. In fact we enjoyed a memorable borage spiked salad on a recent Greyhound bus trip to Las Vegas we took for a book appearance. Thankfully for our fellow passengers, we did not break out into a borage induced sweat.

For more on the medicinal qualities of borage, including “dispelling melancholy” (useful for bus layovers in Barstow, incidentally) see the borage entry in the Plants for a Future database.

Veggie Trader

Media theorist Douglass Rushkoff has a great new radio show and podcast on WFMU called Media Squat. On the first episode he speaks eloquently of the power of developing local currencies through concepts such as time banking (see our local Echo Park Time Bank for a great example of that) and how these local efforts could be the way out of our current economic morass. Rushkoff is especially interested in the roll the Internet can play in setting up new local economies.

Homegrown Evolution just got an email about a nice example of the potential for using the Internet for localizing. Veggie Trader is a new web based service for distributing and trading excess produce.

“Using Veggie Trader is free and easy. It works like classified advertising. You post a listing describing the excess produce you have and what you’d like in return, and then you wait for a response…

Or, if you’re looking for local produce, you simply enter your zip code and see what your neighbors have available. You can also post specific produce you’re looking for in our Wanted section and see which of your neighbors answers your request.”

We plan on speaking to the folks behind it to get more details and hope to post the first Homegrown Evolution podcast about it soon. It will be interesting to see if the Veggie Trader takes off.

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

The tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), one of the most adaptable and notoriously “invasive” species in the world, earned its nickname “ghetto palm” for its propensity to grow in disturbed and neglected areas. Ailanthus altissima doesn’t seem to care much about climate and grows just about everywhere–hot, cold, humid, dry–with the exception of Homegrown Evolution’s temporary residence in the Swedish Arctic. Odds are you’ve got one of these supertrees busting up through some nearby broken asphalt.

One of my hosts, Swedish artist Ingo Vetter, is a member of a unique artists collective, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, that has experimented with using the wood of this abundant tree. While not easy to work with (it tends to warp quickly), they’ve managed to produce some remarkable objects:

The Sami Way

What’s more impressive? That humans figured out how to live in the arctic or that we figured out how to collateralize debt obligations? As we deal with the consequences of the latter it’s nice to reflect on those thousands of years spent herding reindeer. It’s also comforting to know that there’s still some folks left who know how to take care of reindeer even if they now use snowmobiles.

Homegrown Evolution had the privilege of meeting Nils Anders Kuhmunen today, along with a bunch of art students, in an arctic village in northern Sweden. Kuhmunen is a Sami, an indigenous people populating the northernmost parts of Scandinavia and part of Russia. The Sami tended reindeer for thousands of years. The pictures of our visit speak for themselves (though you won’t be able to taste the delicious reindeer meat Kuhmunen served).

A wooden form of the traditional circular Sami hut.

Kuhmunen speaking eloquently about what can only be called arctic permaculture, life in touch with the cycles of life and the importance of context specific design.

And speaking of context, the smoke of the fire rising up through a hole in the roof. The dirt floor is insulated with a layer of burnt twigs, followed by moose skins and a top layer of reindeer fur. It works. It was bitter cold outside and toasty in the hut.

Kuhmunen and grandchild feeding the reindeer some lichen.

Not only does Nils Anders Kuhmunen herd reindeer, he also has a website.

Loquat or Noquat?

We get questions. As generalists and writers, not experts, we do our best to answer them. We’ll throw this one out to the readers. Charles Chiu writes to ask if the tree above is a loquat. My vote is no. It doesn’t quite look like the loquat tree, from our neighborhood, pictured below.

Opinions? If not a loquat what is this tree?

Karp’s Sweet Quince

Our good friends Nance Klehm and neighborhood fruit guru Lora Hall both had the same suggestion for our small, steeply banked and awkward front yard: plant lots of fruit trees and keep them pruned. Thus began our mini-orchard, delayed for many years by messy foundation work. One of the newest additions to the mini orchard is a bare root tree we ordered from the Raintree Nursery, Karp’s Sweet quince. As you can see from the photo above it’s just started to leaf out.

Quince (Cydonia oblonga), a tree native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, has rich, symbolic meanings to cultures in these parts of the world. Biblical and classical references translated in English as “apples”, in most cases, most likely refer to quince (it was probably a quince and not an apple or Cheeto that Adam tempted Eve Eve tempted Adam with).

Most quince must be cooked to render it edible with way too many recipes to mention in a short blog post, everything from jams to Spanish tapas dishes. Having to cook the fruit and the tree’s susceptibility to fire blight disease means that it has fallen out of favor in the US. There are a few varieties that can be eaten raw including Karp’s quince, which the USDA’s Germplasm Resources Information Network describes:

“Grown in the Majes Valley in the province of Arequipa in southern Peru. C. T. Kennedy of the California Rare Fruit Growers received this from David Karp of Venice, California, who says it is called ‘Apple Quince’ in Peru. It is juicy and non-astringent and can be eaten fresh. Karp obtained scions from Edgar Valdivia who grows this quince in Simi Valley California, and whose relatives had brought the cultivar from Peru. The Valle de Majes is a fertile valley between 200 and 800 meter above sea level with a warm climate year round.”

Quince trees can be grown in many different climates, but the “edible when raw” varieties tend to do better in warm places such as here in Los Angeles. What little information I could dig up on the internet about Karp’s quince (also known as Valdivia quince) concerned some controversy about just how edible the fruit is when raw. Mr. Karp, if you’re out there please get in touch with me, I’d love to hear more about the story of this variety! And readers, if you’re quince aficionados, please leave some comments.

Perennial Vegetables

For lazy gardeners such as ourselves nothing beats perennial vegetables. Plant ‘em once and you’ve got food for years. For novice gardeners, perennials are plants that, unlike say broccoli (an “annual”), don’t need to be replanted every spring. The best known perennial vegetable in the west is probably asparagus which, given the right conditions, will produce fresh stalks for years. But there are many thousands more perennials little known to North American gardeners that are a lot easier to grow than fussy asparagus.

Unfortunately, there used to be a lack of information about edible perennials until the publication of Eric Toensmeier’s excellent book, Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles. We’ve got a few of the species Toensmeier mentions: artichoke, prickly pear cactus, stinging nettles, crosnes (more on those in another post) and goji berries. Edible Perennials contains growing information for each species offering something for every climate in North America.

Up to now many of these plants were hard to find, but growing interest in edible perennials and the power of the internet has brought many of these species into our backyards. See the Mother Earth News Seed Search Engine on the right side of this page to hunt down some of the more rare items.

Now, time to fertilize those goji berries and ponder the controversial air potato.