Dry Farming

Jethro Tull–the agriculturalist not the rock flutist

According to a 2010 report by Ceres “Water Risk in the Municipal Bond Market,” Los Angeles ranks number one in water supply risk. But we’re not alone. Many other US cities including Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas also face a future of water insecurity.

Due to these water risks we’d all do well to consider ways to grow edibles without supplemental irrigation. This may sound absurd at first, but I’ll note that in our garden we’ve discovered, quite by accident, that many plants such as prickly pear cactus, cherry tomatoes, cardoon and pomegranates will do just fine in a climate where it doesn’t rain for six months out of the year.  Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch proved that you can grow chard in Southern California with almost no irrigation through a hot summer (the chard thrived in the Ranch’s food forest under almost complete shade).

As an avid gardener in a dry climate I certainly use a lot of water for my vegetables. Most modern vegetables are adapted to copious watering. But this was not always the case. A classic book Dry Farming by John Andreas Widtsoe, first published in 1911 and available as a free download in Google Books, describes how many farmers got along without the modern conveniences of supplemental irrigation.

A dry farmed wheat and alfalfa field in Wyoming from Dry Farming

Other than the advice to till frequently (tilling, among other things, destroys beneficial fungal networks), Dry Farming has some good tips:

  • Maintain soil fertility 
  • Plant deeply
  • Plant varieties adapted to dry farming
  • Know when to plant
  • Pay attention to soil structure

The main takeaway for us home gardeners will be the development of drought tolerant veggies. Native Seed Search is a good start, but seed saving will be the ultimate solution. We’re simply going to have to breed drought tolerance back into our water hungry vegetables. Combined with passive water collection techniques such as sunken rather than raised beds, those of us in arid climates can grow a surprising amount of food with a lot less water.

Clarification: dry farming is not growing during the rainy season (which is called “rainfed agriculture”). Dry farming uses strategies to store water in the soil during the rainy season and then grow during the dry part of the year. Though controversial, dry farming traditionally involves tilling.  It also requires much greater spacing of plants. For more information see the website of the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative.

Organic Gardening Magazine Tests Seven Different Potato Growing Methods

Doug Hall, writing for Organic Gardening magazine, did a test of seven different potato growing methods: hilled rows, straw mulch, raised beds, grow bags, garbage bags, wood boxes and wire cylinders. His conclusion? Raised beds worked the best giving the highest yield. Some of the other methods worked well too, though I wonder about black materials, such as grow bags, in our hot climate.

The last time we grew potatoes we used a stack of tires. Results were mixed. I think painting the tires white to reflect heat might have worked better. For most of you reading this, the opposite would probably be true. Black materials such as tires or grow bags would help keep your ‘taters warm in cool climates.

Read Hall’s article here: “7 Ways to Plant Potatoes

And let us know how you grow your potatoes . . .

Spigarello: Nature’s way of saying that broccoli is so over

Spiga-what-the-who-now? The wavy leaved stuff is the spigarello. The flowers are arugula.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Spigarello, more properly called Cavolo Broccolo a Getti di Napoli, is a leafy green that tastes a lot like broccoli. But unlike broccoli, you eat the leaves instead of the flowers.

Unlike many of the “exotic” Italian greens we grow, this one is not bitter, and probably will pass muster with those who are fussy about vegetables. To me, it tastes like broccoli, but better. A little like broccoli sprouts. Or a cross between broccoli and kale. Let’s just put it this way–I fell in love with it the first time I took a bite of it a Winnetka Farms. The texture of the leaves is sturdy but tender.

It’s very easy to grow. If you don’t give in to temptation and eat it prematurely, each seedling will grow into a big, sturdy plant. I think of them as broccoli trees. You harvest the leaves as you need them, leaving the plant intact to generate more leaves. Eventually it produces tiny white flowers the bees love.

We’ve never had any luck growing regular broccoli–I really resent fighting off aphids and cabbage worms for months, all for the privilege of harvesting one lousy head somewhere down the line. For that reason, we’ve always grown broccoli rabe instead, and I like that too, but rabe has a more aggressive flavor than either broccoli or spigarello, while spigarello has that true broccoli mildness.

We’ve been growing this as a winter crop in our southern California climate (I believe we planted the seeds back in November, and it’s still going strong).  Fundamentally, Spigarello is a cool season vegetable that can take some frost. That means it’s suited to be a spring or fall crop in 4-season climates. All in, in deciding how and when and where to plant it, I’d just pretend it was kale.

Our source for seeds was our friends at Winnetka Farms who sell heirloom Italian vegetable seeds at gardenedibles.com. They are out of stock right now, but will have more in the fall.

Update 4/2/13: Our friends no longer sell this, but you can get Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Foglio Liscia at Seeds from Italy (growitalian.com).

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  • Interesting side note from Mr. Homegrown:  Sources I’ve come across cite spigarello as a kind of primitive ancestor vegetable of either broccoli or broccoli rabe.
  • Translation request: Do any Italian-speaking readers want to help us with the translation of the full Italian name? We’re thinking it might be something like “Jetting Cabbage Broccoli from Naples”–but we could be very wrong about the getti.

More On Preventing Plants From Falling Over

Mrs. Homegrown’s post on her storm-flattened flax patch reminded me that I had a photo I took while taking John Jeavons’ Biointensive workshop earlier this month. In front of Jeavons is a bed of fava beans, also notorious for falling over in the slightest breeze. The randomly strung network of twine will support the fava as it grows.

You can see from my own fava bed below that I could have benefited from this low tech solution:

While I didn’t lose any fava in the storm, the plants are sprawling all over the adjacent, narrow path making it difficult to harvest.

As Jeavons says, the expert is the person who has made the most mistakes!

Survival Gardening

One of many survival garden pitches.

Listen to AM radio for more than a few minutes and you’re bound to hear an ad touting seeds and “one acre survival gardens.” The implication is that hordes of foreclosed zombies will soon empty the shelves of the local Walmart and leave us all bartering for gas with our carefully stored heirloom pole bean seeds.

But it does raise the question of how much space you need to grow all your own food. It’s been on my mind since attending John Jeavons’ three day Grow Biointensive workshop where we spent a fair amount of time, calculator in hand, figuring out how many calories you can squeeze from small spaces.

What gets left out in the “survival garden” sales pitches is that, if you want real self-sufficiency, you’ve also got to maintain the soil fertility that you deplete by harvesting. To do that you need to grow all your own compost. For this, Jeavons suggests what he calls “carbon and calorie crops” things like corn and wheat where you get both something edible and a lot of biomass for your compost pile. In Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot “sustainable one person mini-farm” scheme, 60% of your growing area is devoted to these compost and calorie crops. The remainder is planted in 30% high calorie root crops, such as potatoes, with just 10% of the garden devoted to the usual tomatoes and greens.

The residents of Biosphere 2, using Jeavons’ techniques claimed that enough food could be grown for one person on as little as 3,403 square feet. Jeavons has shown that you could use less space, but you better like eating a lot of potatoes.

In reality, there’s probably too many variables, such as climate, to get an exact figure on how much space you need to grow enough food for one person. And let us not forget the novice survival gardener’s experience (I’m amused at the thought of those one acre survival gardeners busting open that paint can full of seeds for the first time having never gardened before). And if you want livestock, the acreage requirements jump considerably.

But considering that it takes, according to Jeavons, between 15,000 and 30,000 square feet for commercial agriculture to provide the same calories as Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot mini-farm, we’d do well to pull out those calculators on occasion. With just 176 square feet of vegetable beds at the Root Simple compound, our goal is self-reliance, not self-sufficiency. Do you think our post-apocalyptic overlords will feed us in exchange for blogging for them?

Grow Biointensive Videos

I’ve often threatened that our next book would adapt the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders into a vegetable gardening guide. Obsessive/compulsive? Here’s how you plant radishes . . .

Wherever I fall in the diagnostic manual, the vegetable gardening method I’ve used for the past few years has been based on John Jeavon’s “Biointensive” method as described in his book How to Grow More Vegetables. This past weekend I made the pilgrimage to Jeavon’s Willits, California headquarters to drink the Kool-Aid at the foot of the master and take a three day Biointensive workshop.

The Biointensive method involves growing compost crops, double digging and tight spacing. Jeavons aims to produce a complete diet in as little space as possible while maintaining soil fertility with few outside inputs. Unlike most garden gurus Jeavons backs up his ideas with meticulous research which draws on his background in workplace efficiency.

He’s also generous and “open source” with his techniques. The workshop was reasonably priced for three full days of instruction. Should you not be able to get to Willits, Jeavon’s non-profit Ecology Action has produced a well made series of instructional videos that you can view online here. I’ve created a playlist of the complete set of these videos below:

Now, I’m so fired up from the workshop I’ve got to get away from this computer and out into the garden!

Vegetable Garden Update: Too Much Salad

It’s amazing what you can grow in just a 4 foot by 8 foot area. From top to bottom in the picture above:

Escarole mix: Misticanza Di Indivie E Scarole
Lettuce: Lattuga Quattro Stagioni
Chicory: Cicoria Variegata Di Castelfranco
Dandelion Greens
Swiss Chard: Verde Da Taglio

Approximately half the bed is devoted to salad makings. Combined with another 2 foot by 4 foot area of arugula elsewhere in our yard, we’ve had a whole lot of salads this winter. Mrs. Homegrown would probably say too many salads. She’s also tired of me pointing out, each time I prepare a salad, that it’s made with fancy-pants Italian varieties.

But these greens are tasty and eye catching. Not even “Whole Paycheck” carries this stuff–you gotta grow it yourself. I got these seeds from the good folks at Winnetka Farms who run an heirloom seed store. I, pretty much, just call up Craig at Winnetka Farms and ask him what I should plant.

I grow salad greens by sowing the seeds densely in blocks and thinning as we eat. The dandelion greens and chard are started in flats and transplanted as John Jeavons recommends in his book How to Grow More Vegetables. I grow most of these cool season vegetables under a thin row cover material called Agribon-15 to keep out cabbage worms that go after the chard.

Stay tuned for more vegetable gardening updates including a few disasters.

Our Winter Vegetable Garden

Favas n’ peas

It’s a blessing and a curse to live in a year round growing climate. Winter here in Southern California is the most productive time for most vegetables. It also means that there’s no time off for the gardener or the soil. In the interest of better note keeping, what follows is a list of what we’re growing this winter in the vegetable garden. We’ll do an update in the spring to let you know how things grew. For those of you in colder climates these would be “cool season” vegetables and it’s never to early to start planning.

For just about the tenth season in a row we’ve sourced all of our seeds from two venerable Italian companies, Franchi and Larosa. Why? You get a ton of seeds in a package and they’ve always, without exception, germinated well and yielded beautiful vegetables most of which can’t be found in even the fanciest restaurant in the US. Frankly, every time I try another seed source I’m disappointed. I also like Italian cooking with its emphasis on flavorful ingredients prepared simply–no fussy sauces or complicated recipes.

Salad Makings

First off an endive and escarole mix from Franchi Seeds recommended and sold to us by our friends at Winnetka Farms. Looking forward to this one.

“Cicoria Variegata di Castelfranco”
A  bitter and beautiful chicory, also recommended by our Winnetka pals along with:

“Lattuga Quattro Stagioni”
A butterhead type lettuce.

Arugula “Rucola da Orto” from Larosa seeds.
You can never plant enough arugula, in my opinion.

Greens

Rapini “Cima di Rapa Novantina”
I grow this every year. It’s basically my favorite vegetable–much more flavorful and easier to grow than broccoli.

Spigariello broccoli.
A large plant resembling kale. You eat the leaves and flowers. Used in “Minestra Nera” or “Black Soup,” which consists of this vegetable and cannelini beans. More info here.

Fava and bush peas
I’ve rotated in legumes in the bed we grew tomatoes in during the summer. The fava came from seeds saved by the Winnetka farm folks and from our own garden. The bush peas are “Progress #9″ from Botanical Interests.

Chard “Bieta Verde da Taglio”
A tasty, thick leaved chard from Franchi seeds.

Dandelion greens, “Cicoria Selvatica da Campo”
A truly idiot proof vegetable. Bitter and easy to grow.

Parsnips “Prezzelmolo Berliner”
The first time I’ve ever tried to grow parsnips.

Radishes “Rapid Red 2 Sel. Sanova”
Mrs. Homegrown complains that I never plant radishes. This year I addressed that grievance.

Beets “Bietolo da Orto Egitto Migliorata”
A repeat from last year, these are tasty red beets.

Buck’s horn plantain also known as “Erba Stella”
An edible weed.

Stinging nettles
One of my favorite plants. It’s begun to reseed itself in the yard. Useful as a tea and a green.

For more information on when to plant vegetables in Southern California, see this handy chart. And let us know in the comments what you’re growing or plan to grow during the cool season.

LA Times Calls Vertical Gardens in a Dry Climate a Bad Idea

Wooly Pockets at Homeboy Industries

Writing for the LA Times, Emily Green has penned a skeptical look at wall-based growing, “The Dry Garden: A skeptic’s view of vertical gardens.” I’m in complete agreement with Green and wrote about this silly trend back in July. Says Green of a garden in Culver City that uses the Wooly Pocket vertical system,

“The concrete wall behind the bagged-and-hung garden is wet with runoff from an automated drip system. The sacks are calcified with irrigation scale. Even in an open-air setting, get close and there is a whiff of mold. It’s hard to imagine a less savory or more whimsically destructive system for a region in a water crisis.”

Amen. We need more critical thinking like this, especially when it comes to schemes with “eco” or “sustainable” pretensions.

Plantago coronopus, a.k.a. Buckhorn Plantain, a.k.a. Erba Stella

Cruise down the produce isle of a supermarket in the United States and you’ll only find highly domesticated foods. Thumb through the pages of the Silver Spoon (the Joy of Cooking of Italian Cuisine) and you’ll discover entire chapters devoted to the use of wild or semi-wild plants.

This summer I grew one of these semi-cultivated Italian vegetables, Buckhorn plantain (Plantago coronopus) also known as Erba Stella and Barba di frate (friar’s beard). It’s a mild, ever so slightly bitter green I found delicious boiled and sauteed with garlic and olive oil. The Silver Spoon suggests cooking it with either pancetta or anchovies.

As for growing Plantago coronopus, let me put it this way, if you can’t grow it consider giving up gardening. I left some in my seedling flat and, with just three inches of soil, it produced a viable crop. It’s a weed. While I’ve seen it described as a cool weather green, it grew fine this summer (admittedly a very mild summer here in Los Angeles). Do an English language search for this plant on the interwebs and you’ll get tips on the right herbicide to use to rid your lawn of it.

Another winner from Franchi seed company!