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.

Rapini is the New Broccoli

When I tried to grow broccoli in the past I got more aphids than produce. Plus broccoli takes up a lot of room in the garden for a very small return, which is why I’ve switched to rapini instead.

Rapini, according to Wikipedia, is known under a confusing jumble of names including broccoli rabe, broccoli raab, broccoletti, saag, broccoli di rape, cime di rapa, rappi, friarielli, and grelos. It’s a member of the brassica family and is closely related to the turnip. And, unlike most vegetables found in our supermarkets, it actually tastes like something, with a mustardy bitterness I really love.

I planted about 18 square feet worth and Mrs. Homegrown and I have been eating it for weeks tossed in pasta, omelets and on its own. Both the flowerettes and the leaves are edible. The plant continues to send up flowers even after the center one is picked, so you can get a continuous harvest for a few weeks. I’ve had some aphids, but nothing like when I’ve tried to grow broccoli or cauliflower. It’s a cool season crop, so here in Los Angeles we plant it in the fall for a winter harvest. You just gotta pick those flower buds soon, before they actually start to flower, otherwise you’re in for extra bitterness.

The variety I planted is another winner from the Franchi seed company, Cima di Rapa Quarantina. As this vegetable doesn’t ship well, it’s an obvious choice for the home garden. While fresh homegrown broccoli is amazing, I still like the stronger flavor of rapini better.

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)

A tasty Italian chard: Bieta Verde da Taglio

A few folks have written to ask what we’re growing in our winter vegetable garden and we’ve been late to reply. Since we’re in USDA zone 10 and seldom get freezing weather here in Los Angeles, we can grow year round. One of my favorites this winter has been a Swiss chard variety from Italy called Bieta Verde da Taglio or “Green cutting chard”.

Verde da Taglio has thin stems and thick leaves. It ain’t as pretty as the rainbow colored chards we are also growing, but it tastes better, in my opinion. Steam it, fry it up with some garlic and olive oil and you’re set.

Verde da Taglio is sold by the Franchi company, which I have a brand allegiance to as fanatical as the worst Apple computer partisan. Is Franchi the new Apple? I predict we’ll see folks tossing their iPhones for packs of rapini way before that Mayan calendar thingy comes to pass.

We got our Bieta Verde da Taglio seeds from growitalian.com a couple of years ago and they are still viable. But, thanks to Craig Ruggless, our local Franchi seed representative, you can now find these seeds in some nurseries and stores here in California. You can also order from Ruggless via the catalog on his Franchi Seeds USA Facebook page.

Great Seeds Grow Great Gardens

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I have a very exciting announcement to make. As you may recall, I volunteer at a school garden at North Hollywood High. Well, it is more than a garden. There is an orchard, a flower and herb garden, a pig and a goat. We are almost done with our chicken coop and hope to get some hens in there in the new year.

I have been trying to think of ways to raise money to support our school garden project. So we have partnered with one of my favorite seed companies, Botanical Interests, to fundraise for the school garden. If you click on the url above, or on the image in the sidebar and purchase seeds, a portion of the proceeds will go to support the garden project.
Botanical Interests is a family owned company. Their seeds are untreated and non-GMO. I have grown a lot of vegetables from their seed and I have always had great germination rates and healthy plants. They have a great selection of vegetables, herbs and flowers to choose from. My very favorite plant from their collection is the Italian Nero Kale. I eat huge, heaping kale salads from my garden on a regular basis. I didn’t used to like kale, now I love it.
And of course seeds make great gifts. Seed packets make great stocking stuffers, or cute adornments on packages. Botanical Interests also offers great collections of seeds such as a children’s garden collection and an heirloom tomato seed collection. What a perfect gift for any gardener or nature lover. So please, click through our website, tell your friends and buy some seeds!
Francine, our mascot pot-bellied pig, thanks you.

Without Merit: poison in your compost

An image from Washington State University’s aminopyralid bioassay instructions.

Another thing to worry about! In the past two years farmers and gardeners in the UK and US have experienced the unintended effects of a powerful herbicide called aminopyralid, sold by Dow Chemical under the brand names Merit and Forefront. This herbicide is used to control weeds such as thistle, knapweed and yellow starthistle.

The problem is that aminopyralid survives the digestive systems of animals pastured on land sprayed with it, as well as compost piles made from their manure. Most other herbicides break down eventually, but this stuff sticks around. An organic farmer using compost contaminated by aminopyralid could lose crops and organic certification for years. If that isn’t enough to worry about, two other nasty herbicides, picloram and clopyralid have also contaminated compost piles around the world.

But what about us backyard gardeners? How can aminopyralid effect us? I’m fond of using a bit of horse manure in my compost pile. It’s free for the taking and helps heat up the pile. But if the horses were fed hay grown on land sprayed with aminopyralid I could lose my veggies, particularly tomatoes, lettuce and legumes which are highly susceptible to this chemical.

So what can we do? First the practical: test your compost. Washington State University has instructions for performing a simple test here (pdf). Basically, you plant three pea seeds in a 50/50 blend of compost and potting mix and compare their growth against a control group of three pea seeds grown in just potting mix. If you use manure in your compost pile and you don’t own the animal it came from, this test should be routine.

Secondly, a political solution: the Rachel Carson Council suggests writing two EPA officials to suggest banning a trio of deadly herbicides that includes aminopyralid: Kathryn Montague at [email protected], and Dan Kenny at [email protected].

For more information on aminopyralid, picloram and clopyralid see the Rachel Carson Council’s Killer Compost Q&A.

Read the articles in Mother Earth News by Barbara Pleasant that tipped me off to this problem, “Milestone Herbicide Creates Killer Compost” and “Contaminated Compost: Coming Soon to a Store Near You.”

Here’s a technical discussion of aminopyralid for those familiar with biochemistry.

From Ohio State University, a fact sheet on the equally bad clopyralid and some charts showing the persistence of other herbicides.

Lastly, beware of the recommendations of agencies tasked with the eradication of invasive weeds. The California Invasive Plant Council, in a 2006 publication on Yellow Starthistle management (availiable here as a pdf), recommends using both aminopyralid and clopyralid and fails to warn of their persistence. The USDA, Department of Defence and the Army Corp of Engineers assisted with that publication. Looks like these agencies need a little reflection on the laws of unintended consequences.

Row Covers in a Warm Climate

The aftermath of a skunk rampage.

Here’s an unintended organic gardening chain of events:

1. Scoop up multiple trash bags full of fruit scraps from Fallen Fruit’s jam making event at Machine Project.

2. Add this large bounty of organic material to the compost pile.

3. Watch as a bunch of beetle larvae hatch and devour the fruit and other goodies in the compost pile.

4. Sift compost and feed most of the larvae to a happy flock of hens.

5. Add compost to the vegetable garden.

6. Plant seedlings.

7. Wake up the next morning to find out that skunks have spent the night rampaging through the vegetable beds in search of the remaining grubs. Yell in frustration at the sight of all the uprooted seedlings that took a month to grow in flats.

Now I knew that skunks were a problem at our place, and I had covered the beds each night with some spare shade cloth to keep them out. But on this particular evening I had forgotten to cover the beds. PepĂ© le Peu had destroyed a month’s worth of work.

Setting about to find a solution, I considered everything from high powered weapons to peeing off the front porch to spreading batches of compost for the hens to pick through. Not wanting a visit from the LAPD, I settled on floating row covers, a light fabric that is used to exclude pests and protect plants from frost. Row covers would also take care of another persistent problem, cabbage worms. But here in USDA zone 10, where we have only occasional frosts, row covers have the potential to make growing conditions too warm. Thankfully I was able to get a roll of an extremely light row cover material called Agribon 15. Agribon makes a range of row covers in varying thicknesses. Agribon 15 is the lightest and is used mainly to exclude pesky insects. It has also worked with the skunks, who seem unwilling to poke through the flimsy fabric. Those of you in colder places should use a heavier cover to retain more heat.


I drilled holes in the corners of the beds and bent some scrap PVC pipe to create hoops to hold the row cloth above the plants. Agribon is so light that you can just put it on top of many plants without hoops.


Now I can sleep at night knowing that my beds are locked down in a kind of “vegetable Guantanamo”.


Johnny’s Seeds sells Agribon 15 in 250 foot rolls for $45. Seeds of Change sells it in 5o foot lengths for $26. It would make sense for most urban homesteaders go in with a few friends on a roll.

Watch a video on how to install row covers at Johnny’s Seeds.

Digital Farming- What’s The Deal?

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So here in the world of urban homesteading things can get pretty busy. We can become so preoccupied with work, chickens, vegetable gardening, cooking, cleaning, blogging duties and email that we can miss some of the things going on in the world. I do like to occasionally check in with the world at large by reading the newspaper. I just read an article that I have to comment on.

A recent New York Times article titled, ‘To Harvest Squash, Click Here,‘ introduced me to the world on online farming. Apparently people spend a lot of time “farming” on line. Twenty two million a day in fact, according to the article. There are several farming games on Facebook, Farmville being the most popular. You can get seeds to plant, watch your crops grow and then harvest them. Some people are so addicted that they are eschewing real life responsibilities and social obligations to harvest their virtual soybeans.
It is even suggested that the popularity of these farming games is indicative of a collective yearning for a more pastoral life. I’m not sure I get this. I spend all day outside in the dirt making things grow. At sundown, I lock up the chickens. Then I harvest something to make into dinner or on a special evening, I’ll make a big batch of jam or sauce and spend hours canning. I’d rather spend as little time online as possible.
I can’t wrap my head around how a video game can in any way replicate the experience of farming. I may be an urban dweller, but I get my satisfaction by getting real, not virtual, dirt under my fingernails. Can any one explain this trend to a clueless non-gamer like me?

A Warning About Straw

Claude Monet used straw (or is that hay?) for art. We use straw to catch chicken droppings!

Straw is a very inexpensive and useful material for composting, mulching and animal bedding (we use it for all of these purposes). If you use it for mulch you’ll probably get some seeds that will germinate, but I’ve never found it to be a big problem in a small vegetable garden. I get my straw from the feed store, but you can often get it for free from yuppies on Craigslist who have bought it to give their parties the Hee Haw ambiance we enjoy 24/7 at the Homgrown Evolution compound. If you buy it from the feed store remember to ask for straw, not hay. Hay is green and a lot more expensive. You feed hay to your horses.

But one warning from my friend, permaculturalist David Kahn. It’s tempting to pick up bales that stores have used after Halloween, but make sure they weren’t treated with fire retardant. Fire retardant has some nasty chemicals in it you don’t want in your garden. When in doubt, just go to the feed store–straw it ain’t expensive!

Addendum 10/27/09: Reader Polyparadigm raised another potential issue with using straw in your garden or compost pile: halogenated pesticide/herbacide residues. Clopyralid is an example–while banned for use in lawns in many places it’s still allowed on hay and grain crops . All the more reason to grow your own mulch and carbon materials if you can–don’t throw out those fall leaves! Here’s what Polyparadigm says:

“I’m glad I read through to the end! I was thinking this would be a warning about clopyralid and its close cousins. Which bears some mention: Halogenated pesticides aren’t broken down by any but a few soil organisms.

Clopyralid and aminopyralid mimic the hormones in broad-leaf plants, causing them to grow un-evenly and die from wrong-facing, crinkled leaves and other symptoms. Grasses are un-affected, so fields of grain and lawns have been sprayed with this sort of chemical, as a cheap way of keeping broad-leaf competitors at bay for a few years.

These chemicals have a half-life of 11 months in hot compost, and are often applied at such high rates that certain plants won’t grow in garden soil dressed with finished compost from a mix of sources, if one of those sources is a treated lawn or field.

A quick bioassay will test for this in straw: peas sprouting from soil mixed with that straw will look deformed if the field that grew the straw was treated. Browns of a similar texture from a source you know to be clean should probably be used for a control group.”

Stirred, Not Shaken


“Matter is never without spirit and spirit is never without matter.” – Rudolf Steiner

This past weekend I had the good fortune of attending an amazing workshop in biodynamic gardening taught by master gardener Dory Rindge. For those of you unfamiliar with biodynamics, it’s a system of agriculture based on the work of early 20th century philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner.

In the 1920s, at just the point when chemical fertilizers where catching on, Steiner proposed a radical return to organic farming. Biodynamic agriculture combines common sense practices such as composting with strange esoteric rituals. The oddest aspect of biodynamics involves the “preparations”, a specific set of substances made of manure, silica and herbs that are buried in cow horns, bladders and skulls. After a few months they are unearthed, ritually stirred and applied to soil and compost piles. Steiner has the biodynamic farmer spray these preparations on soil, plants and compost piles to act as a kind of homeopathy for the land.

While we did not make our own preparations in class (it’s complicated!) we did a ritual stirring with pre-made preparations in buckets of water. Using sticks we created vortexes in the buckets, alternating in clockwise and counterclockwise motions. We then divided the mixture and rushed home to spread it on our gardens.


I was excited and inspired by the class, a feeling which deepened when manure filed horns appeared to me in a dream. In my dream I interpreted the symbolism of the horns–that they represented a higher world unified with the earth by being buried and containing manure. It’s a symbol that recalls the ouroboros, the snake chasing it’s own tail, representing the cycles of nature, combined with the “as above, so below” gesture the magician in the tarot deck is making below. All this makes more sense if you compost!

Now I’m a big fan of the scientific method (yea soil tests!) but I’m increasingly dissatisfied with our modern culture’s overly materialistic world view. As the subtitle of this blog hints at, “cultural alchemy”, I’m interested in symbolism. But I agree with our our instrutor Rindge that it’s important not to get dogmatic about this stuff.

And I could care less about the science of the preparations. If you are, here’s a study that says its hokum and here’s another one that says they work (pdf). To focus on the biochemistry of the preparations seems to me to be asking the wrong questions. What I like most about biodynamics is its sense of intention. It’s an intention that ties us to the land, to the elemental spirits of plants and animals that were tangible to our ancestors. We could all use ritual that ties us to nature and I look forward to stirring preparations and perhaps making them with a few close friends. In fact, I’m much more excited about making preparations than it buying a package through the mail. Steiner’s set of herbs all grow well here and many of them I have already. But a cow is kinda hard to come by in Los Angeles. While it may be heresy to some, perhaps we’ll have to come up with some modifications to the rituals that make sense in this particular place and time.

More on biodynamics, specifically planting by the cycles of the moon and planets, when Mr. Homegrown gets back from San Antonio next week.