The Green Cone

SurviveLA contributor and neo-country singer Corey Travis, currently on tour with his band in London, Malta, and Tunisia, sends us word of a “kitchen waste eliminator” called the Green Cone, that he bought after seeing a review in that modernist porn magazine Dwell. The cone part of the Green Cone sits on top of a basket buried in the ground. You put your kitchen waste in the cone, add some “accelerator powder” provided by the company, and let the waste dissolve into the ground. The system is similar to dog waste disposal products such as the “Doggie Dooley” and is basically a primitive septic tank, that turns solid waste into liquids which then, if all goes well, percolate into the soil.

The Green Cone, supposedly digests all kitchen waste including meat, fish, bones, animal waste, and dairy products, items not recommended in most compost piles due to the fact that they smell bad while decomposing, attract pests, and could possibly transmit Salmonella and E. coli bacteria if used on food crops. The green cone is, however, not a composter and the end result should not be used as garden compost due to the fact that home compost piles usually can’t generate enough heat to kill the bad bacteria in meat and animal waste. For the reasons you shouldn’t put meat products in compost piles check out the excellent composting safety tips found at the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

The Green Cone could work as a good solution for folks who don’t have much of a garden, have access to a small bit of soil, and want to lesson the amount of waste going to the landfill. The key thing will be to see how well the waste dissolves, since most septic systems have to be pumped out occasionally. We’re also curious to see if any bad smells or critters manage to break into the cone. Once again the Green Cone is a septic system and not a solution for anyone who wants to create compost for a food garden.

Lastly, we don’t know if this will work in a Green Cone, but a town in Sweden has an even more advanced waste disposal plan, which involves a new kind of funeral rite, where bodies are freeze-dried, ground up and spread on trees as compost.

Beads and Roman Sandals Won’t Be Seen

I wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed tee shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia.” – Kurt Cobain

After installing the new herb spiral in the backyard a certain member of the SurviveLA compound, commenting on the design, remarked facetiously, “Welcome home brother.” For those not in the know, that particular phrase is the greeting at any event sponsored by the Rainbow Family of Light, a group of hippies that have met each year in a different state for the annual “Rainbow Gathering” ever since 1972.

Now the topic of hippies is controversial around the SurviveLA compound, but first things first — we ain’t hippies. In fact at every hippie thing we’ve been to, including the Rainbow Gathering in Arizona in 1998 (along with art critic and thoughtstylist Doug Harvey), we always hear the word “narc” whispered behind our backs probably due to our short hair and white-bread appearance. But, the fact is we love hippies despite the lentil-filled coolers, naked yoga, dream catchers and tie-dye. We’re all trying to make the world a better place, after all.

It’s curious though, that when you grow your own vegetables and don’t buy into some of the other crap our ever-present consumer culture demands of us somehow you automatically get labeled a hippie. While sadly the original hippie movement went astray, we “dig” the new and more pragmatic kind of hippie stuff happening over at Arthur Magazine. Besides, in the end, we’re all untied against the “Man”.

Somehow this long winded rant leads us back to the creation of the herb spiral which replaced an overgrown patch of lavender. Built with concrete salvaged from some recent demolition work the spiral also has a set of bamboo poles in the center to grow pole beans in the winter and tomatoes in the summer. The concrete spiral functions as a path to pick the herbs which include thyme, sage, chives, garic chives, tarragon, and chamomile. Our design is a modification of the permacultural herb spiral which is essentially a mound. In the permaculture version the water hungry plants are placed at the bottom of the mound and the dry plants at the top, the idea being that the water collects towards the bottom of the mound shaped spiral. We didn’t do the mound thing out of laziness and a lack of materials, and because the herbs we planted don’t require much water anyways.

As for the spiral shape itself, we’d like to think that it’s our little tribute to Robert Smithson, more than Jerry Garcia.

Parkway Plantings

The cow dookie in the spinach scandal of the past month (for more on that read this excellent article) should prompt everyone to consider planting your own garden.

Hopefully Homegrown Evolution won’t be buying any bagged vegetables this winter since we just planted our parkway garden this afternoon after installing a drip irrigation system (more on the drip system in a later post). Winter is the best growing season for vegetables here in Los Angeles, and now is the time to start planting.

Our parkway garden consists of two 1.8 x 1.8 meter raised beds with a central wire frame obelisk in each bed to support beans. We ordered all of our seeds this winter from Seeds from Italy and have begun succession planting seeds every two weeks.

North Bed as of October 2, 2006

In the north bed we have:

Broccoli Rabe – Cima di Rapa Novantina, which matures in 55 to 80 days and Cima di Rapa Quarantina, which matures in 32 to 35 days. Broccoli is somewhat difficult to grow and requires vigilance to keep pests under control, and frequent fertilizer applications (organic, of course). The faster growing Quarantina, is easier to grow since the crop is produced faster and bugs have less time to munch on it. We grew both of these varieties last year and marveled at the taste of fresh broccoli, which is nothing like the bland crap in our supermarkets.

Cauliflower – Cavolfiore di Sicilia Violetto. This purple Sicilian cauliflower is stunning and tasty. Again, far superior to the tasteless white stuff our country’s factory farms crank out.

Beets – Bietola da Orto Cylindra. We actually like the leaves better than the roots and this variety is supposed to produce a nice beet green.

Radicchio Rossa di Treviso. Homegrown Evolution has yet to produce decent radicchio. We’re giving it another try this winter.

South Bed as of October 2, 2006

In the south bed:

Agretti – a trendy vegetable with some blue state types. We’ve never had it, probably because we don’t haunt expensive Italian eateries in the yoga mat totin’ and Lexus drivin’ sectors of our fair metropolis. We suspect that Agretti is going to be extremely bitter, just like the Italian dandelion greens we grew a few years back. You cook these bitter greens in olive oil and garlic and you get used to the strong taste. It’s a reminder that the bastards who control what passes for agriculture in this country have taken all the flavor out of our vegetables.

Rapa da Foglia senza Testa, i.e. rabe without a head. Yet another bitter vegetable, this is a kind of turnip green that looks kind of like broccoli rabe, except that you eat the leaves. A bit susceptible to bugs, but we had a successful crop last year.

Carrots – Carota Pariser Market. This is a small round carrot that French folks apparently like.

Around the wire obelisks, that give our street garden a certain gravitas in addition to supporting climbing plants, we have planted a very exotic looking bean called Borlotto lingua di Fuoco or “Tongue of Fire” (a reference to Pentecost we suspect rather than the cheesy 1970s Italian thriller). This is a pole bean with a brilliant red color that, sadly, disappears after cooking.

One of the nice things about planting the seeds in our street garden this afternoon was chatting with the folks who come by. Sadly, we found out that one neighbor is breaking up with his wife and needs to find an apartment. But on a happier note, another neighbor reminisced about his Italian grandfather who grew lots of vegetables and even made his own wine in the Bronx. Hmm, wine . . .

Garden Like a Pirate

“Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by Laws which rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery.”
- Captain Bellamy from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson

In honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, we at Homegrown Revolution would like to introduce the concept of Pirate Gardening. Pirate Gardening involves claiming unused land that does not belong to you for growing food crops. The first bit of land we hijacked was our own parkway, that bit of dirt between the sidewalk and the street that technically belongs to the city, but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. It’s yet another space, like the vast asphalt hell of parking lots, garages, freeways, car lots, auto repair shops, and junkyards in our car-obsessed city dedicated to the needs of the personal automobile.

We decided to flaunt the city’s strict rules about this space which dictates the kind of things that can be planted (basically nothing that would inhibit someone from getting out of their Hummer), and plant a vegetable garden instead. The idea was twofold: to provide vegetables for ourselves and our neighbors, and to do it in a way that would be aesthetically pleasing. Now, if we lived in some tight-ass place like Beverly Hills or Glendale some bureaucrat would, no doubt, have busted us by now, but in the City of Los Angeles, where code, building and traffic enforcement are non-existent, nobody seems to care. If we were Republicans we could probably have dug our own open pit mine or built our own miniature coal fired power plant without any City of LA official giving a damn.

For our piratical parkway garden we built two six by six foot raised beds, filled it with quality garden soil, and stuck in two matching wire obelisks for growing beans and tomatoes. Much to our surprise it has been a big success – we had a bumper crop of carrots, beans, turnips, garlic, onions, and beets in the winter and our summer crop was cherry tomatoes. Currently the beds are empty as we wait for this incredibly hot summer season to cool down (thanks for the global warming everyone!) and we are just about to plant an assorted winter crop of beans, broccoli, and assorted greens.

We’ve encouraged neighbors to help themselves to vegetables from the parkway garden, though few have. What has been nice has been the conversations We’ve had with neighbors while watering and tending the space. Several neighbors have said that it encouraged them to plant their own vegetables, albeit in their back yards. With more people growing vegetables our neighborhood becomes more self-sufficient and a wasted space has been reclaimed.

If all such marginal spaces, parkways, freeway embankments, vacant lots, and median strips were claimed by piratical gardeners and used for growing food, nobody would ever need to buy crappy supermarket produce. It’s time to seize all unused urban land matey and remember the words of Captain Bellamy as you do so, “I am a free prince”.

Moringa!

One of the big inspirations for starting our front yard urban farming efforts at the SurviveLA compound is a Philippino neighbor of ours who has turned his entire front yard and even the parkway into an edible garden featuring fruits and vegetables from his native land, most of which we have never seen before. This morning, while walking the dog, I found him cutting hundreds of long seed pods off of a small attractive tree. He didn’t know the English name of the tree, but he told me that he likes to slice the seed pods and cook them with chicken.

Thanks the the “internets” I was able to figure out that the tree is the “Moringa oleifera”, a truly miraculous tree that, in addition to producing edible seed pods, is also used by indigenous people for regulating blood pressure, dealing with joint pain and treating inflammation. The seed pods can be pressed to produce a high quality cooking oil. The leaves are also edible and the plant is drought tolerant and will grow in poor soil. Native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas, the Moringa tree is cultivated in many parts of Asia as well as Mexico and Africa.

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The immature green pods, called “drumsticks” are probably the most valued and widely used part of the tree. They are commonly consumed in India, and are generally prepared in a similar fashion to green beans and have a slight asparagus taste. The seeds are sometimes removed from more mature pods and eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. The flowers are edible when cooked, and are said to taste like mushrooms. The roots are shredded and used as a condiment in the same way as horseradish, however it contains the alkaloid spirochin, a potentially fatal nerve paralyzing agent, so such practices should be strongly discouraged.

The leaves are highly nutritious, being a significant source of beta-carotene, Vitamin C, protein, iron and potassium. The leaves are cooked and used as spinach. In addition to being used fresh as a substitute for spinach, its leaves are commonly dried and crushed into a powder, and used in soups and sauces.

The seeds may be crushed and used as a flocculant to purify water. The Moringa seeds yield 38–40% edible oil (called Ben oil, from the high concentration of behenic acid contained in the oil) that can be used in cooking, cosmetics, and lubrication. The refined oil is clear, odorless, and resists rancidity at least as well as any other botanical oil. The seed cake remaining after oil extraction may be used as a fertilizer.

The bark, sap, roots, leaves, seeds, oil and flowers are used in traditional medicine in several countries. In Jamaica, the sap is used for a blue dye.

The flowers are also cooked and relished as a delicacy in West Bengal and Bangladesh, especially during early spring. There it is called Sojne ful and is usually cooked with green peas and potato.

Some organizations are promoting this miracle plant as a way to deal with malnutrition, since its ability to tolerate drought while still producing edible leaves makes it highly desirable.

We like plants like this that have multiple purposes, since in addition to food and medicine the attractive Moringa tree also provides shade. The goal that we have set for the new SurviveLA landscaping is that every plant must have multiple uses with priority given to stuff that is edible. We suspect there may be a Moringa Tree in our future.

Grow Italian!

It’s almost time to start planting seeds for the most productive growing season in Southern California – winter. While our friends in the cold parts of the country will be freezing their asses off we’ll be picking gourmet salads (sorry to rub it in). Since the climate here is like southern Italy, we like to plant Italian varieties. Which brings us to the source of many of our seeds at the Homegrown Evolution compound, Seeds from Italy.

Italians dig vegetables, and the offerings of the Franchi Co., which the folks at Seeds from Italy import, show a tremendous diversity of species and varieties. Why grow the same boring vegetables supermarkets carry anyways? Also, Italy and California both have similar climates. We’ve been growing Franchi vegetables for several years now and have enjoyed everything from sweet beans to powerfully bitter weed-like greens. The purple Sicilian Cauliflower we grew last year was a revelation – fresh cauliflower is a billion times better than store bought cauliflower though, along with broccoli, it can be challenging to grow and it takes up a lot of room. It was still worth it, as was the somewhat less difficult to grow quick maturing broccoli rabe Seeds from Italy caries.

Our seed selection committee is meeting this week to decide on what we’ll be growing and we’ll get more specific in subsequent posts. We’re intrigued with agretti, and we’ll be looking at more perennial vegetables after the multi-year success of our artichoke plant. We’re also jumping on the permaculture bandwagon this year with an experiment in the backyard. And look for more root vegetables in our illegal parkway garden.

Lest we come across as Eurotrashy, here’s two domestic seed companies that have interesting varieties:

Seeds of change.

Native Seeds which sells Native American seeds

By the way, for us in L.A. the back of the seed packages have no connection with our climate. You need a book like Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening to set you straight on what to plant and when to plant it. Now get out there and plant some seeds.

Mutant Squash


Today’s incredible picture comes from photographer, bike cultist, and composting Culver-Town revolutionary Elon Schoenholz. It’s a freak squash that grew out of his regular old household compost. The funny thing is that nobody at the Shoenholz Compound – neither Elon, wife Bryn nor new bambina Nusia eat squash – so the origin of this new hybrid compost squash is a mystery.

This brings up a bit of botany. Plants “do the deed” with flowers which contain both male (pollen-producing stamen) and female (carpels) organs. Flowers produce seeds, which depending on how they were pollinated may or may not produce offspring that resemble the parent. Some plants pollinate themselves before the flower opens thus producing seeds that are the same variety as the parent. Other plants rely on insects and birds for pollination and can produce offspring that are hybrids if the pollinating bug or bird happened to visit another variety. Squash has completely separate male and female flowers that appear on the same plant, a characteristic called monoecism (from the Greek meaning “same household”) which is an evolutionary strategy for avoiding self-pollination. Corn is another example of a monoecious plant. Plants can only cross pollinate within their own species so watermelons can’t cross with lettuce, for instance. But there are many different varieties of squash, everything from butternut squash to spaghetti squash to various inedible gourds, so you can get some very freaky mutant cross-breeds. Results of these hybrids can be unpredictable. with accidental squash hybrids tending to get tough. But some hybrids are a crap shoot that pays off. The SurviveLA compound has wild cherry tomatoes that have self-seeded for years with excellent results–producing some of the best tomatoes we’ve ever eaten, with no work whatsoever on our part. But this summer they seem to have hybridized again and now yield less flavorful fruit.

More information on the botany of pollination and advice on saving vegetable seeds can be found in this excellent article. Also of note, the new issue of Make Magazine, the Popular Mechanics of the geeky hipster art school crowd has a story on “hacking your backyard plants”. But in the meantime, a tip of the SurviveLA hat to a new squash variety: Cucurbitaceae Nusia.

Maggots!

Like a lot of the agricultural duties around our urban homestead, composting requires time and initiative. Unfortunately both our garden and our energy level are at a low point, both sapped by the record breaking heat – anyone see Al Gore’s movie? The result of this lack of effort has been the maggot party currently going on in our compost pile.

The best compostin’ revolutionary I ever met, photographer Becky Cohen maintained a three pile system contained in bins she made out of scrap lumber. When the first bin would fill up, Becky would transfer the contents to the next bin, thus aerating the pile and creating room for additional materials. This aeration, combined with making sure to keep the pile moist produced a hot pile that kept the pests away and produced a high quality compost in a relatively short period of time – a few months. You can find instructions on how to build this type of compost system with used pallets on this web site.

Other composting systems include the lazy person’s single plastic bin, which you can make out of a garbage can, or you can buy a specialized composting bin. This is what we use around the Survive LA compound. The process is simple – put compostable materials (no meat, fish or oils!) into the bin, keep it moist but not wet, and wait a year. Also remember not to put weeds in the pile as the seeds can spread to wherever you use the compost. To speed up the decomposition process in a single pile composter, you can remove the compost contents, mix them up with a pitchfork, and put them back in the pile. Our composter is bottomless, so the soil underneath the bin gets fertilized as the compost decomposes, so when we move the pile the previous spot becomes a fertile new planting area.

There are also expensive tumblers, that rotate the compost in a large barrel. We’ve never tried one of these things and reviews that we’ve seen are mixed.

With any compost pile it’s best to maintain a 50-50 ratio of carbon material to nitrogen materials. Carbon materials are essentially everything that is brown, like dead leaves, sawdust and dry grass. Nitrogen materials include fruit, vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. The type of pile you construct depends upon the materials you have available to compost. Becky had lots of grass and leaves on a fairly large piece of property and the three pile system seemed the best to deal with a large amount of materials. We purchased our bin from the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation which hosts informative workshops where you can purchase a plastic compost bin for half price. The workshops are held at the Griffith Park Composting Education Facility.

The compost bin should be easily accessible from the kitchen, but far enough away so that compost problems, like smells and rodents don’t migrate to living quarters. Our pile is located too far from the kitchen, so in our laziness stinky piles of rotting fruits and vegetables often gather on the kitchen counter.

The presence of maggots in our pile indicates that we have an overabundance of kitchen scraps and a pile that is not hot enough. Turning the pile – much easier to do in the three pile system, increases the temperature and kills off the larvae. Another option is to put the kitchen scraps in a worm composter and use the big outdoor compost pile for leaves and other materials that flys are not attracted to. Worm composting is the best option for apartment dwellers.

But let’s get to the real reason we’ve brought up the topic of maggots. It’s really just to mention an exotic cheese from the island of Sardinia called formaggio con vermini, a pecorino cheese infested with live maggots. It’s apparently somewhat of a macho thing to eat this stuff and connoisseur insist that the maggots be active and wiggling. Like compost, cheese is a living system and formaggio con vermini may be the ultimate expression of life expressed in a food. Americans, unfortunately, both in their choice of presidents and their eating habits reject such exuberant expression of life. The French marketing guru Clotaire Rapille made this observation about how to sell cheese to Americans:

“In America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge. I know the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is the way you market cheese in America.”

Paradoxically the life in the compost pile – the unwanted maggots- are there because we neglected our duties and treated the pile as a morgue for our unwanted food scraps, without properly aerating it, without giving the pile water and attention.

Worm Composting

Today’s tip comes from neo-country singer and South Pasadena-by-way-of-Texas resident Corey Travis (web site under development). Corey brings up the topic of worm composting, suggesting a book called “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Mary “Worm Woman” Applehof. Now we haven’t read this book, but having tried worm composting you will definitely need some advice either from the “internets” or from a book.

We tried worm composting here in the compound garden a few years ago and found the process somewhat difficult. Unlike our present lazy composting methods, worm composting requires a certain amount of time and effort. When you start a worm composting system you are acquiring pets – worm pets, that need just the right amount of water (too much and they’ll drown, too little and they will be unhappy), and food (if all your meals are at In and Out Burger they won’t get enough grub or if you are some kind of hippie vegan they won’t be able to keep up with the waste). You must also sift and separate the worm casings from the worms themselves from time to time. One advantage to worm composting is that you can theoretically locate the worms under your sink, providing a close destination for disposing of your kitchen scraps. However, you can find yourself with unpleasant smells and fruit flies if you add too many scraps for the little buggers to digest. We had problems maintaining the correct moisture level in the bin and ended up drowning a bunch of the hapless critters when we accidentally left the worm composter out in the rain. In the end we released our worms into our large compost pile, where they live very happily, occasionally humming the tune “Born Free.”

There’s been some grumbling that SuriviveLA has not offered any advice to our apartment livin’ brothers and sisters. Worm composting is an excellent an option for apartment dwellers looking to recycle their kitchen scraps. The whole set up is isolated in a plastic bin which can live in the kitchen or in a cool, shady spot on the balcony. The worm castings (poop, if you will) are odorless and make an outstanding fertilizer that you can use on your own potted plants or give to friends with gardens. Believe us, they will be very happy with your gift of worm poop. Do not let SurviveLA’s failure discourage you from giving this excellent technology a try. Just be sure to study up on it first.

Get Off Your Ass and Plant a Survival Garden!

Tired of going to the market to buy crappy vegetables that taste out of season no matter what time of year it is? Tired of garlic from China and grapes from Chile? Why waste land, if you have it, on things you can’t eat? And why not have some fresh produce on hand in case of the inevitable zombie invasion.

Now, vegetable gardening takes some practice and unfortunately very few books deal with the specifics of Los Angeles’ unique Mediterranean climate. Most gardening books and the information on the back of seed packets are written for schmucks in the northeast who have to deal with things like cold weather. This is why you need a copy of our So-Cal homegirl Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening Guide which deals with more than just vegetables. Looking like an extra from the gardening club scene in the Manchurian Candidate, Pat Welsh has written a book with a handy to-do list for each month, useful since maintaining a vegetable garden here over a year-round growing season can get complicated especially if you want to keep a steady stream of produce on the table. In general, remember that winter here is the best time for most crops with the summer reserved for stuff that can take the heat like tomatoes and basil.

So get out there and plant your own food and remember our rule here around the Homegrown Evolution homestead: if you gotta water it you gotta be able to eat it.