Staking Tomatoes with Concrete Reinforcing Mesh

For years we’ve been using concrete reinforcing mesh to stake our tomatoes. It’s a 6-inch square grid of wire and is used to reinforce concrete slabs. I buy it in 3 1/2-feet by 7-feet sections at my local home improvement center. To make a tomato cage with it you find a flat stretch of patio or driveway and bend the wire into a tube. I overlap it a bit and tie it together with wire.

This year, thanks to a tip from Craig Ruggless, I decided to double the height of the cages using two per plant to make them 7-feet high. As the plant grows, you simply tuck the vines into the cage, with no pruning necessary. But you do have to stay on top of the tucking, otherwise you risk breaking off stems. Since a 7-foot cage can be very top heavy I staked them deep into the ground with some rebar I had laying around. Long wooden stakes would work just as well. You could also choose to grow shorter tomato varieties. The San Marzano tomatoes in the middle of the picture above are half the height of the other two and way more productive.

Another staking option is to buy Texas Tomato Cages for $99 for six 24-inch by 6-foot cages. The advantage with the Texas cages is that they fold flat when not in use. The disadvantage is the price. If you buy your concrete reinforcing mesh in bulk, on long rolls, the price would be significantly less than the Texas Cages and I think reinforcing wire is just as attractive if rolled carefully.

I would avoid the tiny, flimsy conical cages I’ve seen for sale at most nurseries as almost every tomato plant will easily outgrow them and stems will break as they spill over the top.

For a roundup tomato staking techniques see the Santa Clara County Master Gardeners website.

And leave some comments about your favorite staking and/or pruning methods.

Foreclosure Garden Foreclosed

Neighbor, artist and master gardener Anne Hars took over the front yard of a foreclosed triplex earlier this year and planted a vegetable garden. The triplex had fallen in to disrepair and had become notorious for housing a bunch of gang members.  The police evicted the gangsters and the building fell into disrepair.

The garden Anne planted in the spring had just begun to bring forth its bounty.

Then, this past week, an unpleasant man showed up claiming to work for Bank of America.

That was the end of the garden.

As Anne put it, “this is how the banks take care of their property…”

Read the whole saga on Anne’s blog, theforeclosuregarden.blogspot.com.

Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter

Magenta Spreen Lambsquarter (Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a. “tree spinach”) has reemerged in our garden via the compost pile. It’s a striking edible weed, part of the family that encompasses spinach, quinoa and epazote. Seeds of Change sells this beautiful variety, oddly named “Magenta Spreen.” Like other members of the Chenopodium family it has a fair amount of oxalic acid which could be a problem if it’s all you ate. Even though I’m prone to kidney stones I’m not concerned about oxalic acid in moderation. Cooking reduces oxalic acid as well as saponins that the leaves also contain.

The Plants for a Future database entry on Chenopodium giganteum has a few cultivation details,

“An easily grown plant, succeeding in most soils but disliking shade. It prefers a moderately fertile soil. This species is closely related to C. album, and was probably derived from it through cultivation. The tree spinach is sometimes cultivated for its edible leaves, there are some named varieties. ‘Magentaspreen’ is a vigorous plant growing 1.5 metres tall. It has large leaves, the new growth is a brilliant magenta colour. Tastiest when young, the leaves are eaten raw or cooked like spinach. A warm climate is required in order to ripen the seed.”

Chenopodium giganteum has a tendency to become invasive, but I prefer to think of it as what Craig Ruggless of Garden Edibles calls a “happy wanderer.”

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?

Growing and Preparing Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus)

It’s the ultimate pain in the ass vegetable to prepare and I’ll probably get in big trouble in native plant circles for even mentioning it, but just last night I fried up my first successful plate of homegrown cardoons (Cynara cardunculus).

Not the most attractive blanching job, admittedly.

All ready to prepare

The cardoon is a close relative of artichoke, identical in appearance, except that the flowers are much smaller and the plant tends to get a lot bigger. Instead of eating the flowers, as with artichoke, you eat the stems. But first you’ve got to take some extra steps. When it gets around 3 feet tall you tie all the stems together and cover it in cloth, burlap or newspaper to blanch it for two to three weeks, leaving the top few inches of leaves to poke out of the covering. I once tried to eat an unblanched stem and it was bitter and tough so, in my experience, the blanching is a necessary step.

Pullin’ off the stringy bits

To prepare it you take the blanched, tender inner stems and pull off the stringy bits on the back, being careful to avoid the sharp edges (did I mention that this is a pain in the ass food?). Chop the stems into two inch strips and drop them into acidified water to prevent discoloration. Next boil the crap out of them. You might also be able to bake the crap out of them, but I have not tried this. I boiled them for 25 minutes. After boiling I fried them in a pan with garlic and olive oil and topped them with salt and Parmesan cheese. They are somewhat bland with a faint taste reminiscent of artichokes. They’d probably taste better paired with a heavy meat dish or as part of a stew. I’ve also seen recipes where they are drenched in cream and cheese.

In our Mediterranean climate cardoons are a perennial, though if you harvest them they’ll effectively be an annual. Here in Los Angeles you plant them in the winter/fall for a spring/summer harvest. The cardoon I harvested was “dry farmed” with no supplementary irrigation and planted itself. Elsewhere you would plant them a couple of weeks after the last frost and blanch them before they get too big.

When I mentioned to a native plant expert I greatly respect that I had them in my garden she read me the riot act. Cardoons are remarkably resilient and invasive. Hailing from the Mediterranean, they’ve taken over large parts of the New World. The brilliant purple flowers release thousands of tiny seeds, each with their own fibrous parachute that caries them hundreds of feet in the slightest of breezes. Charles Darwin mentions cardoon in The Voyage of the Beagle,

“In the latter country alone [Uruguay], very many (probably several hundred) square miles are covered by one mass of these prickly plants and are impenetrable by man or beast. Over the undulating plains, where these great beds occur, nothing else can now live.”

My own thoughts about “invasives” are closer to David Theodoropoulos than the nativists–best to work with invasives rather than fret about them. Homo Sapiens are the ultimate invasive species, after all, and I’ll take the cardoons over the oil spills, any day.

Seedling Disaster!

“No one talks of failure as anything but shameful; this is wrongheaded and foolish . . . Mistakes are synonymous with learning. Failing is unavoidable. Making is a process, not an end. It is true that deep experience helps avoid problems, but mainly it gives you mental tools with which to solve inevitable problems when they come up.”

-Tom Jennings, as quoted in Mark Frauenfelder’s excellent new book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World 

Oh, but those mistakes sure can be frustrating especially when they happen in the garden!  I’ve had nothing but bad luck germinating seeds this spring for our summer garden and, as a result, our vegetable beds are as bare as the Serengeti. What happened? Here’s a list of possibilities:

  • watering too much
  • watering too little
  • damping off 
  • unseasonably cold weather (we germinate outside here)
  • the occasional hot day on top of cold evenings
  • the mindset of the gardener: being in a hurried, stressed mood as we finished our next book

Nature being a complex system, you can often get stacking problems that make figuring out what went wrong difficult. I’m leaning towards the cold weather as I’ve noticed some of the seeds I planted starting to come up as it has warmed up. Lesson: you’ve gotta watch the weather reports even in a mild climate such as ours or invest in heating mats or a cold frame. 

Despite my pledge to grow vegetables only from seeds, panic over a summer without homegrown tomatoes prompted me to call Garden Edibles owner Craig Ruggless to see if he had any seedlings. Thankfully he had some heirloom tomato seedlings that he gave to me in return for helping him try to capture a swarm of bees that had shown up in his olive tree (unsuccessfully, it turned out–more on that misadventure in another post). At least I’m not alone. My friends in Chicago, the Green Roof Growers, had their own tomato seedling apocalypse.

I once saw Julia Child on Martha Stewart’s show demonstrating how to make an elaborate dessert called a Croqembouche, a pyramidal tower of cream filled pastry balls. Stewart and Child built separate Croqembouche towers. At the end of the demo Stewart’s was perfect and Child’s was, well, a big mess. Yet Julia soldiered on, laughing at her mistakes. My pledge with the garden is to try to do the same and have fewer of my notorious garden meltdowns when the inevitable crisis happens. So what if it ain’t perfect around here? Now Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown neighbor should make note of that pledge . . .

Readers, please feel free to share some recent disasters.

Ordo Ab Chao

There’s a lot of conflicting advice in the vegetable gardening world. You’ve got your square footers, biointensivists, permaculturalists and survival gardeners, just to name a few. The truth is these often conflicting techniques probably all work for someone. I’ve been thinking lately that the next book we write should be a version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders turned into gardening advice.Got attention deficit disorder? Well, here’s how ya mix up your own potting mix.

Face it, we’re all in the diagnostic manual somewhere. I suffer from a chronic lack of organizational ability. Square foot gardening has never worked for me–I just can’t keep up with the schedule. For some folks, I’m sure it works great. John Jeavons’ biointensive methods, however, have worked well for me. That is, when I actually follow his advice. I offer as evidence two beds from our winter garden. The one above, containing chard, carrots and beets turned out really well. It has produced an abundant and attractive harvest. The one below, on the other hand, is a mess.

The difference: planning. Whereas some people can probably improvise a vegetable garden, my unique place in the diagnostic manual means that I benefit from some degree of organization. With Jeavons, you project how much of a particular vegetable you’d like and plant with tight hexagonal spacing. Plan ahead and you get an abundant and attractive garden assuming you’ve taken care of your soil. At least it works for me.

My new commitment for our summer garden is to carefully choose what I’m going to grow, how much of it to plant, and stick with the program. No last minute improvising. And better note taking! I attempted to weigh vegetables this winter, earning the scorn of Mrs. Homegrown who deemed it too male an approach, too much about bragging rights. All that weighing took away note taking time from what would have been more useful information: when things were planted, transplanted and harvested.  That data could help prevent gaps in the garden in the future and clarify the best times to plant, information that’s hard to come by in our unique Mediterranean climate. Not to say that weighing is without merit–it would be a good way to compare  methods–but I’m going to leave that to academic researchers and Mr. Jeavons. I’m also trying to figure out a way to share my gardening diary with other people in the L.A., area via Google docs so that we can all compare notes. More on that once we get our next book done!

As for keeping track of planting times, simply hanging the Stella Natura calendar by the stove has done wonders. I now keep better records of planting and transplanting dates. Cooking while looking at the calendar prompts me to plan ahead and think about the things I actually like to eat. Less turnips next year and more arugula!

Leave a comment about your vegetable gardening methods and, if you’re so inclined, your place in the diagnostic manual!

Bulk Bin Microgreens

Sunflower seed germination test
An admission: both Mrs. Homegrown and I are sprout haters. We love the people who sprout, but not the sprouts. Perhaps it’s just the association with 1970s era health food restaurants or macramé. Sprout lovers out there are welcome to try to convince us otherwise, but I’ll warn you that numerous good-hearted attempts have already failed. But we’re both open to the microgreen idea. Microgreens are allowed to grow longer than sprouts and require either soil or some kind of fertilized growing medium. Usually you harvest when the first true set of leaves appear.
While we’ve never intentionally grown microgreens we’ve always thinned seedlings by eating them. And trays of microgreens are a great way for folks in apartments with sunny balconies or south facing windows to grow a little of their own food. You could also easily grow them under fluorescent lights.
Many seed companies offer microgreen mixes and seeds in bulk. Prices are reasonable considering that you need a lot of seed. But, being cheap, I was curious to see if I could germinate seeds from a health food store bulk bin. I chose my least favorite health food store, a depressing space tucked into a mini-mall where the isles are redolent with that unmistakable and unidentifiable 1970s health food store scent. Is it some chemical reaction between soy, wheat grass and carob fumes? But I digress.

For the sake of science I chose this forlorn store, which will remain nameless, since I assumed the stuff in their bulk bins has been sitting around a long time and I wanted to test seed of questionable viability. This store sells seeds for sprouting and microgreens, such as radish at around $9 a pound. The much cheaper bulk bin items, however, are all around $1 to $2 a pound. Of course, most don’t have microgreen potential, but I found a few that do and set about to perform a germination test to see how well they would work. The test consisted of putting the seeds in a folded and moistened paper towel and placing the towel and seeds into a sealed plastic sandwich bag. Here are the results:

Amaranth
I’d say above 90% of the seeds germinated. Amaranth seeds are so small that it was impossible for me to count out a precise number, but it looks like virtually all sprouted.
Popcorn
10 our of 10
Sunflower
7 out 10
Fava
A complete bust, but I will try again in soil rather than in a towel.

Good results considering the circumstances. I’m interested in hearing if anyone else has tried bulk bin microgreens, and if so what other seeds you have grown as microgreens not sprouts. If that’s you give us a shout in the comments.

Seeding Change

Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall is in the New York Times this week in an article by Michael Tortorello, “Packets Full of Miracles.” Tortorello asks six gardeners to pick out their favorite seed varieties. Homegrown Neighbor chose New Zealand spinach, Nero de Toscana kale, Red orach, Sugar Ann snap pea, Crimson California poppy and Verbena bonariensis.

I’m sure Homegrown Neighbor would appreciate a reminder that if you buy seeds from Botanical Interests using the link on the right side of this blog, 40% of your purchases will go to supporting the ag program at North Hollywood High. Let’s get that chicken coop paid for! Fellow Angelino Caitlin Flanagan be damned!
It’s also a good moment to point out the reasons it’s best to grow from seed rather than buying seedlings at your local nursery. You get many orders of magnitude more selection, it’s much cheaper and you prevent the spread of soil diseases. Last year a fungal disease, late blight, infected gardens due to seedlings grown at large nurseries in the south and sold at big box retailers up and down the east coast (read more about that in an excellent editorial, You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster) . Plant seeds and you help keep your garden disease free.
Spring is just around the corner. Time to order those seeds! Leave a comment with your favorite varieties.

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.