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.

Secondary and Edible

Homegrown Evolution is headed to San Francisco for the week on business and will be away from computers (thankfully). Along the way we’ll be enjoying the agricultural vistas of California’s Central Valley via Amtrak’s lumbering San Joaquin train. In the meantime, please take a look at this fascinating link, the secondary edible parts of vegetables. Cucumber stem tips and young leaves for dinner anyone?

End of Season Tomato Review

Homegrown Evolution had ambitious plans to review each and every tomato variety out of the garden this year, but alas, we fell behind in our bloggulating duties and planted way too many tomatoes. So here, as “winter” appears in Southern California (it’s raining, that’s how you tell), we’ll review what worked and what didn’t work.

The tastiest tomato award goes to the Pineapple variety pictured above. Not only did this heirloom tomato have the best flavor, it was also the prettiest tomato we’ve ever grown, a brilliant yellow with streaks of red in the middle of the fruit when you slice it. And they’re just about as big as a Cadillac Escalade. We saved some seeds and will definitely be growing these again next year.


The most productive, trouble free and productive tomatoes this year were plain old Romas and San Marzanos, both of which provided a summer of tomato sauce and enough extra fruit to do some canning. Two hybrid cherry tomatoes we grew in self watering containers, Sun Gold and Sweet 100 also did well. The Romas have the additional benefit of being fusarium wilt and verticillium resistant. It may be organic gardening heresy to say this, but hybrid tomatoes such as Roma are the best varieties for beginning gardeners to grow due to their trouble free and disease resistant qualities. The down side is that you can’t save the seeds.

We also grew Syrian Giants, but unfortunately our Doberman Pincher ate most of them on late night raids. Perhaps because the Syrians grew in less than ideal partial shade conditions, they weren’t that tasty. See also our earlier reviews of Banana Leg and Red Currant varieties.

Most of the tomatoes were grown in cages made from concrete reinforcing wire (instructions on making tomato cages here) in raised beds with a drip irrigation system as pictured above. As an experiment for folks in apartments or with limited space, we grew a bunch of tomatoes in self watering containers on a strip of concrete next to the back wall of our garage (note crappy picture below). You’ll see that we were too lazy to put the container tomatoes in cages–don’t do this as you’ll have a sprawling ugly mess! Nevertheless, the containers worked.

So readers, leave some comments! Tell us your favorite tomatoes this season. Weigh in on the heirloom vs. hybrid issue. We’re sure that forward thinking folks planning seed purchases for the spring would appreciate the advice.

What to do with all those hot peppers: Harissa!

Lyn, a reader in Canada with way too many hot peppers on hand, asked us what we thought we should do with them. We have the same problem here this year, an overabundance of very large, hot Italian Long Peppers. Thumbing through some recipe books we realized that we had all the ingredients to make Harissa, a spicy Moroccan condiment. The recipe is simple and quick. We cut open five of our hot peppers, discarded the seeds, and combined them in a food processor with:

1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp caraway seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp fresh mint
3 garlic cloves

Turn on the food processor and add enough olive oil to form a paste. That’s it. Harissa will last several weeks in the fridge or you can freeze it. You could also can it, but you’ll need a pressure canner as this is a low-acid food (even though it’s fiery).

And speaking of fiery, though we should know better (having once accidentally inhaled hot pepper seeds), we disregarded warnings about wearing rubber gloves when slicing the peppers. At the risk of providing too much information, a post Harissa making trip to the bathroom led to, shall we say, burning sensations for Señor Homegrown Evolution!

Burning sensations aside, Harissa is a very tasty and spicy addition to almost any meal, not just Moroccan dishes. We still have peppers to deal with, so our next project will be to experiment with pickling them. Readers–what’s your favorite way to deal with hot peppers?