Molto bene!

Mallo2011, a reader in Italy, just commented on our how to build a self watering container post. We’re so pleased to hear that he’s happy with his SWC, that we thought we’d move his comment and the pic of his new baby here for you all to see:

Hi from Italy
this is just to thank you for your easy tutorial for a DIY self-watering container.
Actually, at least in my Town, those containers are way too much expensive to buy!

Your SWC looks fantastic Mallo! Congratulations, and happy growing!

Skid Row Community Garden Gets SIPs

Novice gardeners + hot rooftop accessible only by many flights of stairs = perfect opportunity to use self irrigating pots.

Two master gardeners, Anne Hars and Maggie Lobl asked me to show them how to put together some SIPs (read more about what a SIP is here) for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which works with homeless and low-income residents on skid row.  Hars, Lobl, myself and a bunch of folks from LACAN put together a few SIPs and planted vegetables on the LACAN rooftop. The plants are thriving in a space where previous attempts at container gardening met with mixed success.

Gardening, like all the ways we humans interact with our surroundings is all about context. If you’ve got soil, as I’m lucky to have, work with that first. But if you have only a sunny rooftop or balcony and/or limited gardening experience SIPs are a great tool. They almost guarantee success, which is encouraging for people who have never gardened before. 

Read Jeff Spurrier’s article about the LACAN SIP garden in the LA Times, “Skid Row Community Garden: bounty by the bucket.”

Rooftop Garden Classes

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Los Angeles has sprouted a very cool rooftop garden. Here where January temperatures are often in the 70′s, buildings aren’t designed to hold snow, meaning that our roofs usually can’t hold much weight. So rooftop gardens are rare.

But on the border of Little Tokyo, skid row, and a warehouse district, an old seafood warehouse rooftop has been turned into a gourmet garden atop the home of artisan food purveyor Cube Marketplace.

Full disclosure: I’m the lucky gardener. And this weekend I’ll be teaching a Fall Gardening Class and a class on new ways to use common garden herbs. For more information or to sign up for the classes click here.

The classes are part of a quarterly pop-up marketplace. Even if you don’t want to take the classes, this is an opportunity to come and check out the garden. I love watching the bees pollinate the flowers and then looking out at the view of Downtown Los Angeles and the industrial sprawl down below. It is delightfully incongruous.

Self Irrigating Pot Patent from 1917

I’ve often blogged about the convenience of self irrigating pots (SIPs), containers that have a built-in reservoir of water at the bottom. They work well for growing vegetables on patios and rooftops. You can make your own or purchase one from several manufacturers. I had thought that Blake Whisenant, a Florida tomato grower and Earthbox company founder, had invented the SIP in the 1990s, but it turns out that the idea came much earlier. Reader Avi Solomon, sent me a surprising link to a patent for a SIP, dated 1917, by a Lewis E. Burleigh of Chicago. From the patent description:

“My invention is concerned with flower and plant boxes, and is designed to produce a device of the class described in which the proper moistening and aeration of the soil in it can be easily and cheaply effected by simply pouring water into the funnel with which it is provided until the proper amount is supplied, which amount will be indicated by the overflow from a suitably located aperture in the side thereof.”

Other than the use of gravel in the water reservoir, Burleigh’s SIP closely resembles the Earthbox and SIPs I have built out of five gallon buckets and plastic storage bins.

The interwebs reveal only one detail about Burleigh, that he owned a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. From this one factoid I infer that he had money and a progressive inclination. The SIP idea took another eighty years to finally catch on.

For more SIP information:

Read our many posts on SIPs

And visit our SIP gardening friends, the Green Roof Growers.

If SIP litigation history fascinates you, read a preliminary injunction and memoradum (pdf) between the manufacturer of the Earthbox (Laminations Inc.) and a company they accused of infringing on their patent, Roma Direct Marketing LLC, makers of the “Garden Patch.” SIP. I’ll also note that the Earthbox folks sent Josh Mandel a cease and desist letter related to Mandel’s DIY SIP website. My editorial: lets make the SIP open source as the 1917 patent suggests it ain’t a new idea.

Vertical Vegetables

Frederick Law Olmstead’s office has a 19th century “vertical garden.” Vines!

I was somewhat dismayed to see a local newspaper article touting a company that sells a $1,000 vertical vegetable garden system to schools. The company has a plan to sell this system nationwide. The problem is that I have serious doubts about the long term viability of vertical garden walls for a number of reasons: irrigation, maintenance and start up costs just to name a few. And I’m not alone. The New York Times did some critical reporting on the subject of vertical garden systems in a recent article, “Gardens That Grow on Walls.”

For certain plants vertical growing might work. I haven’t tried it, but this DIY vertical succulent garden in Sunset Magazine certainly is striking. But vegetables? Their roots need space and you’d need to do a lot of watering to keep a vertical vegetable wall happy.

All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!But growing vertically does not have to mean attaching roots to a wall. I can think of two simple vertical vegetable garden strategies where that $1,000 would go a lot further. How about simply favoring fruits and vegetables that either grow vertically naturally, say pole beans, grapes, peas or kiwi or that can be convinced with a bit of pruning to go vertical, such as tomatoes, melons and winter squash? Mel Bartholomew has some nice vertical gardening tips in his classic book Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!. Build some raised beds next to a wall or saw cut out the concrete, plant in the ground and you’re in business.With some slings for the fruit, you can even grow watermelons vertically.

EARTHBOX GARDEN KIT GREENAlternately, buy or make some self irrigating planters (SIPs) and put them next to a wall. See the Green Roof Growers for what can be grown vertically with SIPs made from scavenged five gallon buckets. Or you can buy a commercially made SIP kit from the Earthbox company for around $50. The nice thing about SIPs is that they are fairly idiot proof and easy to maintain. A SIP is as close to “plant and forget about it” as you can get with vegetables. In short, perfect for schools where maintenance is always an issue.

As one of the vertical wall landscape designers admitted in that New York Times article, “in nature, you don’t have vertical dirt.” Why fight nature?

That ain’t a bowl full of larvae, it’s crosne!

Mrs. Homegrown, justifiably, gives me a hard time for growing strange things around the homestead. This week I just completed the world’s smallest harvest of a root vegetable popularly known as crosne (Stachys affinis). Crosne, also known as Chinese artichoke, chorogi, knotroot and artichoke betony is a member of the mint family that produces a tiny edible tuber. While looking like any other mint plant, the leaves have no smell. The tubers look all too much like the larval form of the Michelin tire mascot and have the taste and texture of a Jerusalem artichoke.

Crosne on left, actual larvae on right

What happened to the larvae on the right after the photo shoot?

I got the tubers, that I planted last year, from Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, who always has an amazing booth full of produce at the Hollywood farmer’s market. I asked Alex if he thought I could grow them here in Los Angeles. He said that he wasn’t sure, but that he thought that where he grew crosne, at a higher altitude with a much colder winter, would be more conducive to producing a good crop of tubers.

What crosne leaves look like

Self irrigating pots, post crosne harvest

Undaunted, I planted two self irrigating planters made from storage bins with about twelve or so tubers. Throughout the year the foliage was lush and finally died back in late November. It was really easy to grow, just like any other mint. It grew to about 1 1/2 feet and never produced flowers. I’m sure in wetter places it would be invasive. I spoke to Alex at the market again in December and he told me to pull the tubers out around Christmas. Alex was right, I didn’t get a very big crop–LA is probably not the best climate for this plant. No crosne banquet this winter. But I did get enough to make a jar of pickles with.

I feared that it would be as hard to clean as Jerusalem artichoke, but a few blasts of the garden hose took off most of the dirt. French folks cook crosne in butter. I decided to pickle them in white vinegar using a recipe for Jerusalem artichoke. The recipe I used was a little too heavy on the mustard, otherwise I’d pass it on. The addition of some tumeric gave the pickles an appealing yellow color. I’ve been tossing them into salads to the horror of Mrs. Homegrown, who is not a fan of my crosne pickles.

Eric Toensmeier, author of Perrenial Vegetables has a YouTube tour of his garden where you can see how he grows crosne. Toensmeier interplants it with other root crops that mature at the same time, so you get a mix of things at harvest.

The Plants for a Future entry on Stachys affinis has some nice information on how to grow it.

Edible Rooftop Gardens

Homegrown Neighbor here:

As long as we are asking our readers for ideas, I have a few projects I could use your help on as well. I am looking for an edible rooftop garden to visit. Ideally it would be in Southern California, but I may also visit Austin, Texas. So either L.A. or Austin gardens would work. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows of a great rooftop edible garden, but I’d really like to find ones that I can visit.
The picture here is of an urban farm in Chicago that I visited this summer. It isn’t on a roof, but it is smack dab in the middle of the city and was pretty impressive.
And since I may be visiting Austin, I’d like to know of any cool projects or people I should visit there. Anyone who brews beer, builds bikes, does some serious composting, is an urban farmer or raises chickens would be great. And I’d love to see some community gardens. So Texas, I want to hear from you.
Thanks,
Homegrown Neighbor (Lora)

Events in Los Angeles This Weekend: SIP Workshop and Maria’s Garden

Saturday (i.e. TODAY!)

On Saturday November 14th Kelly and I will be doing a Self Irrigating Pot (SIP) workshop in Westchester at 3 p.m. SIPs are a great way for folks in apartments to get into small scale vegetable gardening. Best of all the workshop is FREE FREE FREE! Here’s the location:

Playa Del Oro at 8601 Lincoln Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90045

Sunday

Anne Hars, who lives a few blocks from us, helped save another neighbor’s garden from a management company that wanted to remove it. Tomorrow, Sunday the 15th, Anne has organized a work party to tidy up the garden and she’s looking for volunteers and a few donations of pots, mulch and soil. The fun begins at 9 am at 421 North Coronado Street.

“This is a great opportunity to help a Senior Citizen in need and spend the day puttering around in the garden! We need people of all skill levels from beginners to experts. Landscape Designer Maggie Lobl has kindly worked out a design approach and will help co-ordinate activities.”

For more info see Anne’s website.

Hops in Containers

This spring I set out to answer the question, “can hops be grown in self-irrigating pots?” Answer, as you can see from the photo above: YES! For those of you not familiar with Self-Irrigating Pots or SIPs we have an earlier post on the subject.

Hops rhizomes, planted April 9, 2009

For our hops SIPs I modified a storage bin using Josh Mandel’s instructions (pdf). Back in early April, I obtained four hops rhizomes (two cascade and two nugget) from my local homebrew shop. You can also get rhizomes from many online sources. I chose cascade and nugget because I heard that they are two of the best varieties for Southern California. Both did well, with cascade being the most vigorous. The smell of the maturing cones is heavenly and the plant is quite beautiful, providing some much needed shade for the porch.

Nugget on the right, Cascade on the left

The only suitable place to grow this massive plant at our small house just happened to be by the front porch. This arrangement ended up being ideal–we’re on a hill and I simply attached some twine along the roof and put the SIPs down below the porch. I can simply stroll out on the porch and harvest the blossoms without having to balance on a tall ladder. Having the hops cones at eye level lets me access the cones when they are ready to pick and lets me monitor the health of the plant. I’ll also to be able to continuously harvest rather than having to cut down the entire plant. Alternately I’ve seen hops trellises rigged with pulleys so that you can lower the “bines”, as they are called, for harvesting.

Hops farmers in England demonstrating why you need to think about trellising.

With a western exposure the hops get morning sun and shade in the afternoon, which seems to be perfect in our sunny, dry and hot Southern California climate. The only problem I’ve had is a bit of rust, but it doesn’t seem to have spread too badly. Hops suck up a lot of water and, thanks to the SIPs, I only have to water once a day.

The SIPS are full of potting mix with a ring of organic fertilizer placed on top of the soil as specified in Josh Mandel’s directions. I have periodically added an organic liquid fertilizer to the water reservoirs as hops need a lot of nitrogen.

Cascade cones almost ready to harvest in late July

I don’t know how my hops will do in SIPs the second year, and I’m considering planting them in the ground if I can find a suitable place. I suspect that hops are a good candidate for pairing with a greywater source and I’m thinking about ways to do this.

Now that I’ve grown hops, I’m tempted to go to the next level. The local Rite Aid? How about we replace it with a field of barley? I’m anxious to swing a scythe again.

Stay tuned for info on a hops growing workshop with Boris Price and the folks at Silver Lake Farms to be hosted at the Homegrown Evolution compound this month. Look for the announcement on our blog this week.