Erik Talks Straw Bales on C-Realm Radio

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KMO with his new straw bale garden.

Instead of producing our own podcast this week, I had the honor of being on C-Realm Radio in Vermont, hosted by my favorite podcaster (and, as of last month, radio host) KMO. The topic is straw bale gardening. KMO talks first to straw bale garden expert Joel Karsten. Then I chime in enthusiastically on the topic. I’m followed by gardener and artist Lauren Blair. We’re all sort of an opening act for an entertaining 1990s era recording of Terrance McKenna thoughtstyling about “linguistic objects”.

One interesting point that Karsten raises is the issue of persistent herbicides in straw bales. He says its not a problem to worry about. I suggest doing an bioassay to rule out the possibility so, in a way, we contradict each other. Karsten may be right, but I need to do some more research on the subject. If any of you know if persistent herbicides, such as Clopyralid, Aminopyralid, Aminocyclopyrachlor and Picloram, are still an issue for gardeners, please let me know in the comments.

Coffee Grounds in the Garden

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According to a handy fact sheet from Washington State University, Coffee grounds will buzz your garden. Coffee grounds build humus, boost nitrogen, phosphorus and zinc, bind pesticides and toxins, prevent bacterial and fungal infections and feed earthworms. Authored by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Urban Horticulturist and Associate Professor, this peer-reviewed pamphlet also provides a set of suggestions for using coffee grounds in the garden:

  • Coffee grounds should be composted before used as a soil amendment but can be used fresh as a mulch.
  • Fresh grounds are phytotoxic, so keep them away from direct contact with roots.
  • Coffee grounds will not necessarily make your soil more acidic.
  • Don’t use coffee grounds where you are starting seeds.
  • Despite rumors, coffee grounds do not repel pests.
  • Let coffee grounds cool before adding to compost bin so you don’t kill beneficial microbes. And don’t let coffee grounds amount to more than 20% of your compost pile.
  • Don’t add coffee grounds to vermicomposting bins.

If you’re using coffee grounds as a mulch Chalker-Scott has two suggestions:

  • Apply a thin layer (no more than half an inch) of coffee grounds. Cover with a thicker layer (four inches) of coarse organic mulch like wood chips (Chalker-Scott 2015). This will protect the coffee grounds from compaction.
  • Don’t apply thick layers of coffee grounds as a standalone mulch. Because they are finely textured and easily compacted, coffee grounds can interfere with moisture and air movement in soils.

Rucola Selvatica A Foglia D’ulivo: the arugula you’ve never heard of

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If I could boil down my vegetable gardening advice to one sentence it would probably be: just grow stuff that does well and tastes good. Let some other schmuck fight aphids on those Brussels sprouts. Another bit of advice is that you can never have enough arugula. The stuff at the market is wilted, tasteless crap. Grow your own and you’ve got an incredible diversity of arugula varieties to choose from.

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This year I grew two varieties from Franchi, Rucola Coltivata Sel. Ortolani and Rucola Selvatica A Foglia D’ulivo. Arugula falls into two categories, “wild” and “cultivated,” though since a seed company is cultivating and selling “wild” varieties it does seem strange to call them “wild”. It might be more accurate to describe them by taste with the cultivated varieties being mild tasting and the wild types being sharp and spicy. Plants in the Brassicaceae family such as arugula cross readily and there’s a befuddling array of popular names, but I think both of these varieties are Eruca sativa.

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The Rucola Selvatica A Foglia D’Ulivo or olive leaf arugula has a much sharper, almost bitter flavor. It also doesn’t look like the cultivated varieties. Were it not for the distinctive taste, I wouldn’t even recognize the plant. The leaves are indeed shaped like olive leaves and the edible flowers are yellow rather than the usual off-white.

I sow blocks of arugula seed every two weeks in the winter to guarantee a continuous supply. We had some hot weather so it went to seed a little faster than usual. One of the reasons I like arugula is that there are no insect problems, at least here in Los Angeles.

My mom’s late Greek neighbor used to grow at least four varieties of arugula every year and treasured the different flavors. He also used to refer to arugula (and many other greens) as the “Greek Viagra.” There is, apparently, a history of the use of arugula as an aphrodisiac in Mediterranean cultures. According to some sources, you have to cut the arugula with lettuce (a calming plant) so that the salad bowl doesn’t lead too directly to the bedroom.

Find more arugula varieties at growitalian.com.

Do you have a favorite arugula? As usual, I love hearing from our Italian readers about the special culinary uses of specific varieties. And, in this election year here in the US, I’m a little surprised that arugula has not come up as a campaign issue like it did in 2008.

Avid Gardener Series: Responsible Water Usage for Edible Landscapes

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UPDATE: Sorry to say that this class has been cancelled due to lack of enrollment. We’re going to rework the content into a one day or afternoon class. Watch Root Simple for the announcement and we hope to see you at the Huntington!

Hey gardeners, we’re teaching a three part edible landscaping course April 2, 9, and 16 from 9 a.m.- 12 p.m. at the Huntington Ranch.

Learn creative ways to grow a delicious, drought-conscious garden in this hands-on series. Sessions will take place in The Huntington’s Ranch Garden and will address drip irrigation, greywater systems, plant selection, mulch and soil health, and more. The Huntington Ranch is a beautiful edible gardening demonstration area that is seldom open to the public.  The class will focus on growing food in our increasingly dry and challenging Southern California climate.

Ill advised grafting projects

Many thanks to Dr. Brew for alerting us to this Simpsons routine about crossing tomatoes with tobacco. I took a look at the research on grafting tomatoes to tobacco root stock (though it seems Homer crossed the seeds) and the technique shows some promise. According to this study,

Tobacco grafting had a positive effect on the tomato plant cultivation performance; the onset of flowering was almost 15 days earlier and the tomato flower and fruit yields increased in both tomato cultivars. Tobacco grafting resulted in 5.0% and 30.1% increase in total fruit weight for cv. Sweet and cv. Elazig, respectively. Because the level of nicotine was within acceptable ranges, tobacco-grafted tomato fruits were considered to be safe for consumption. Self-grafted tomato cultivars also had flowering time onsets almost 11 days earlier. However, self-grafting caused 6.0% and 7.6% less total fruit yield per cv.

It does remind me of the unsuccessful attempt back in the 1970s to graft hops onto cannabis root stock with the goal of creating a legal looking plant containing THC. The grafts take but the “Hopijuana” plants contain no THC. No doubt this is a huge disappointment to the microbreweries of Colorado.