Favorite Plants- New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides.


When the lettuce wilts in the heat, caterpillars and aphids destroy the kale and your swiss chard is plagued by powdery mildew…. there is New Zealand spinach.
It is not a true spinach but is in a genus all its own. The leaves are triangular in shape, and very succulent. They grow on long, rambling stalks. The seeds are triangular as well and the plant will reseed if you let it. It tends to spread and grow low to the ground. It can be used as a living mulch since it so effectively covers the soil in a vegetable bed.
This green keeps on growing and seems to be unaffected by the bugs and problems that affect other greens. I have seen it growing wild among the rocks right along the ocean, so it can handle saline soils. This is a very robust plant. It tolerates drought, bugs, salt and poor soil. And it does much better in heat than true spinach which just bolts in Southern California’s heat. New Zealand spinach can be grown in the summer when other greens may not grow so well.
My front garden be is pretty much all New Zealand spinach now. The drip watering system broke and most of the plants withered and died or were mercilessly attacked by bugs. But this plant kept on going strong.
I have been growing it for many years and find it a reliable plant. In The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy writes, “New Zealand spinach makes a marvelous temporary ground cover, is good in hanging baskets, and will cascade over the sides of planter boxes. Grow it on the patio so it will be close at hand to add to your morning scrambled eggs along with dill and cheese.”
I have so much in my garden right now that I may do a big harvest and blanch, chop and freeze it for later use. I make a lot of green lasagnas with massive quantities of NZ spinach. I saute it with onions and garlic and put thick layers of spinach sandwiched between noodles and cheese.

When life gives you greens, you can’t go wrong. I have heard that it is edible raw but I prefer it cooked.

Give it a try in your garden if you haven’t already.

My Big Fat Greek Squash


Every time I visit my mom, her Greek neighbor pops over the fence to offer me seeds and plants. He visits Greece each summer and comes back with seeds for plants whose names he can’t translate into English. As a result I always have a few mystery Greek vegetables growing in the garden. This spring he gave me a squash seedling he had propagated. It grew into a massive vine and produced two winter squashes whose weight exceeded the capacity of my kitchen scale. I harvested them last month and we’ve been eating a lot of squash!

The skin turned a kind of manila envelope color and the flesh was a deep orange. It kind of looks like a butternut squash on steroids. The flavor resembled pumpkin, but tasted a lot better than most pumpkin I’ve had. We roasted one squash to make squash tortellini among other dishes. The best recipe, however, was for a savory winter squash pie (galette) out of Mark Bittman’s book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (thanks to Bruce of the Green Roof Growers for suggesting this book). Bittman’s spicy winter squash galette recipe is here on MSNBC along with a video of him making it. I’ll note that the online recipe is different from the one in the book which calls for a longer baking time. My galette was in the oven for over an hour, but I did not cook the squash as long in the frying pan as Bittman does in the video. I’m sure either way will work, and this has to be, seriously, one of the best things I’ve ever cooked. It would make a great substitute for the always dry Thanksgiving turkey.

And I’ve made a mental note to myself to grow more winter squash next year. I like the taste better than summer squash and you can store it in the pantry for later use (hence the “winter” in the winter squash).

If you’d like to hazard a guess as to what this squash is called (especially if you’re Greek), please leave a comment.

City Farm Chicago

Chicago’s City Farm is a stunning bit of green smack in the middle of the concrete jungle, sandwiched between the remnants of the controversial Cabrini-Green housing project and the Gold Coast. A program of the non-profit Resource Center, City Farm sells produce to chefs, operates a vegetable stand and provides opportunities for economically under-developed neighborhoods.

City Farm is a mobile endeavor. The basic idea is to take advantage of some vacant land and, when the inevitable development comes, pull up everything and move on. Assuming that urban land is contaminated, the City Farm folks simply piled up about three feet of compost, soil and mulch right on top of the broken concrete and asphalt of its current location. All that soil will move when the yuppie condos replace the salad greens and radishes. City Farm is an idea that makes sense in big U.S. cities which, despite astronomical real estate prices, have large amounts of unused space.

The growing season is just starting up at City Farm and I’ll have more photos when I get back to Los Angeles (forgot a camera cable thingy). Many thanks to Nancy Klehm for hosting me here, filmmaker Deborah Stratman for loaning me a bicycle and to Lora Hall for the fantastic guest blogs.

Stickers for the Organic Gardener


Via BoingBoing a clever re-purposing:

“Evil Mad Scientist Labs wants you to proudly label your organic garden with these handsome “Now Slower and with More Bugs!” stickers, originally produced to adorn software products. The influence of the Slow Food movement is increasing, and gardening is getting ever more popular. Even the tech bloggers are posting about local pollinators and getting beehives. In this environment, it is fitting that a new use has been found for our Now Slower and with More Bugs stickers, which were first seen in the wild back in December 2007. If you find a good use for them, we’d love to see pictures in the flickr auxiliary!”

Fava Fava Fava

Fava bean mania has descended upon the Homegrown Evolution compound this spring. I can’t say enough good things about fava beans (Vicia fava): they taste good, the plant fixes nitrogen into the soil, making it an ideal cover crop, and it’s attractive.

If harvested small you can eat fava raw but I prefer to remove the skins and briefly boil the seeds (around five minutes). Once boiled, fava can be used in a variety of dishes from soups to salads. We just toss them with olive oil, white wine vinegar, mint, garlic and feta cheese.

Curiously, some folks (mostly male and of Mediterranean or black African ancestry) are allergic to fava. In fact, babies in Italy are tested at birth for this condition. “Favism” is extremely rare, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

Here in Los Angeles we plant fava in the late fall/early winter for a spring harvest. In most of North American you’ll plant it after the last frost.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage, just about to bloom.

Borage is an ugly sounding name for a beautiful and useful plant. The moniker is probably a corruption of the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq or “father of sweat”, a reference to it’s diaphoretic qualities1. Both the leaves and the blue flowers (sometimes white flowers) are edible and have a refreshing cucumber like taste. Borage is an annual herb that we plant in the late fall here in Los Angeles for an early spring bloom, but in most other parts of North America you’ll plant it in the spring after the last frost. Ours survived a winter outbreak of aphids, but is now thriving.

We toss the flowers and leaves into salads as a flavoring. In fact we enjoyed a memorable borage spiked salad on a recent Greyhound bus trip to Las Vegas we took for a book appearance. Thankfully for our fellow passengers, we did not break out into a borage induced sweat.

For more on the medicinal qualities of borage, including “dispelling melancholy” (useful for bus layovers in Barstow, incidentally) see the borage entry in the Plants for a Future database.

Veggie Trader

Media theorist Douglass Rushkoff has a great new radio show and podcast on WFMU called Media Squat. On the first episode he speaks eloquently of the power of developing local currencies through concepts such as time banking (see our local Echo Park Time Bank for a great example of that) and how these local efforts could be the way out of our current economic morass. Rushkoff is especially interested in the roll the Internet can play in setting up new local economies.

Homegrown Evolution just got an email about a nice example of the potential for using the Internet for localizing. Veggie Trader is a new web based service for distributing and trading excess produce.

“Using Veggie Trader is free and easy. It works like classified advertising. You post a listing describing the excess produce you have and what you’d like in return, and then you wait for a response…

Or, if you’re looking for local produce, you simply enter your zip code and see what your neighbors have available. You can also post specific produce you’re looking for in our Wanted section and see which of your neighbors answers your request.”

We plan on speaking to the folks behind it to get more details and hope to post the first Homegrown Evolution podcast about it soon. It will be interesting to see if the Veggie Trader takes off.

Perennial Vegetables

For lazy gardeners such as ourselves nothing beats perennial vegetables. Plant ‘em once and you’ve got food for years. For novice gardeners, perennials are plants that, unlike say broccoli (an “annual”), don’t need to be replanted every spring. The best known perennial vegetable in the west is probably asparagus which, given the right conditions, will produce fresh stalks for years. But there are many thousands more perennials little known to North American gardeners that are a lot easier to grow than fussy asparagus.

Unfortunately, there used to be a lack of information about edible perennials until the publication of Eric Toensmeier’s excellent book, Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles. We’ve got a few of the species Toensmeier mentions: artichoke, prickly pear cactus, stinging nettles, crosnes (more on those in another post) and goji berries. Edible Perennials contains growing information for each species offering something for every climate in North America.

Up to now many of these plants were hard to find, but growing interest in edible perennials and the power of the internet has brought many of these species into our backyards. See the Mother Earth News Seed Search Engine on the right side of this page to hunt down some of the more rare items.

Now, time to fertilize those goji berries and ponder the controversial air potato.

Italian Dandelion Redux

Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus)
It’s been a difficult winter growing season here in Los Angeles. Our unpredictable Mediterranean climate has thrown a few curve balls in the past few months courtesy of an ocean temperature phenomenon known as La Niña which has caused alternating periods of cool weather followed by 80º days and little rainfall. Our deciduous trees did not loose their leaves until after New Years, most of the winter vegetables we planted seem unhappy and to top it all off someone took all of the shallots and daikon radishes that were growing in our illegal sidewalk garden before they were ready to harvest.

All this leads me to muse about things that are really easy to grow and tough even in the strangest of weather. On this, the occasion of our 400th post, I had intended to discuss my favorite, indestructible vegetable, a leaf chicory popularly called Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus). Doing a Google search for it revealed, ironically, that I have already blogged an ode to Cichorium intybus. Let’s just say that despite the erratic weather, the Italian Dandelion soldiers on, providing nightly dinners of strong flavored greens (tasting delicious, incidentally, mixed with turnip greens). Horace, writing (blogging?) in a similar climatic region 2000 years ago writes “Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea, me malvae” (“As for me, olives, chicory, and mallows provide sustenance”).

It’s a comfort in these uncertain times to observe such a hardy plant. While my cabbage and kale wither under the hot sun and an army of aphids, the Italian Dandelion seems immune to both pest and disease. And, nearby, volunteer mallow hints at a spring of easy foraging. Horace was on to something.

And to all who responded to my call for urban homesteaders: I’m overwhelmed by the response (and the emails!). You are all an incredible inspiration and, like my botanical friend Cichorium intybus, a sign of abundance in the midst of adversity.