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?

Vegetable Gardening With Dogs

We love all dogs and live with an elderly Doberman Pincher. But gardening with dogs can definitely have its challenges, especially when your trusted companion has a taste for heirloom tomatoes. On the right, the aftermath of one of our dog’s nightly tomato raids, this time targeting our healthiest and most productive vine, a variety called Giant Syrian. The dog has managed to claim all but a few of the tomatoes off this vine, knocking off many unripe ones in the process. FYI, the Giant Syrian tomato is our favorite variety this year, producing large, flavorful and meaty fruit. Hopefully the Doberman will leave a few for us. [Update: an alert reader has pointed out that tomatoes are toxic to canines. The ASPCA says that the green parts are toxic, but others claim that both the ripe and unripe fruit are also a problem.]

On the subject of tomatoes, here’s a very beautiful and useful website with pictures and descriptions of many heirloom tomato and vegetable varieties: the Heirloom Vegetable Archive.

In August, Way Too Much Squash

On the left a zucchini. Do I need to say anything about zucchini? What to do with it, perhaps, since prodigiousness is the zucchini’s modus operandi, but that bottomless subject would be best left to the proprietor of a an all zucchini blog. Rather, let’s take a brief look at the specimen on the right.

Meet the awkwardly named Early Prolific Straightneck Summer Squash. It’s an open pollinated heirloom variety named as an “All-America Selection” in 1938 (AAS is kind of like a dog show for seeds run by the National Garden Bureau). We grew our EPS from Botanical Interests seeds we got at our local nusery.

Our EPS squash has lived up to its name, having grown rapidly, producing tasty summer squash with a zucchini-like flavor and consistency. Unfortunately, all squash that we have grown here has been subject to powdery mildew, a white fungus that spreads rapidly across the leaves of the plant. Our coastal climate, with hot days and cool, moist nights is not the optimal growing climate for squash, which prefer dryer conditions. We’re not big on spraying stuff (even if it’s harmless–we’re also cheap and lazy), so next summer season we’ll search out varieties resistant to mildew. For those of you who are also cursed by mildew, here’s a list from the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension (PDF) of mildew resistant squash and pumpkin varieties.

So now, dear readers, please tell us what the hell are you doing with all that squash you grew this summer . . .

A White House Vegetable Garden

Via a post by Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing, one man’s plea to turn the White House lawn into a kitchen garden:

I’ll note that the last person to try to convince a president to plant veggies was the always forward thinking Alice Waters, the proprietor of Berkeley California’s Chez Panisse. Waters asked then president Bill Clinton to grow some vegetables at the White House. Clinton responded, “send me the seeds Alice” only to renege on the idea, claiming that it would interfere with the historic and formal White House garden plans. But what about that White House putting green?

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom broke ground this summer on a kitchen garden at city hall. Former mayor “slick” Willie Brown responded lamely, “You start having cows and chickens and goats and other things at Civic Center and I’m not sure it’s a good idea.” We’ll see if the next president, whoever he is, has the courage to plant veggies. I would love to see a goat interrupt a press conference.

Tomato Review #2 Banana Legs – it don’t look like a banana and it don’t got legs

It’s raining tomatoes here at the Homegrown Evolution compound and time for the second in our series of tomato reviews. Today, Banana Legs, a determinate variety with yellow flesh and light green streaks. It has a mild, low acid flavor and a meaty texture. Not bad, not thrilling, not nearly is as good as a similar looking tomato we grew last year, Power’s Heirloom.

We grew our Banana Legs in a self watering container (SWC) and it produced a respectable amount of fruit. With a sunny balcony, folks in apartments could do the same. For our container we used a repurposed storage bin and we’d recommend the largest container you can find for tomatoes or sticking to tomato varieties specifically bred for containers. As soon as the large root system of a tomato plant gets down into the water reservoir at the bottom of an SWC you can get some leaf curl. This did not seem to reduce the output of our plant, but it was somewhat ugly looking. We also made the dumb, lazy mistake of not caging the plant and it sprawled helplessly over the sides of the planter, probably reducing our yield. Here’s the way we normally cage our tomatoes when we’re not too busy blogging. You can also check out Bruce F’s nice staking system for his rooftop garden in Chicago.

Verdict: we gotta get some of those Power’s Heirloom seeds next season, but I’ll save a few of the Banana Legs seeds for the sake of variety.

Terror of Tiny Town

The Homegrown Evolution in-box overfloweth this week with news of the cute and the tiny. Yesterday’s post about our miniature Red Currant tomatoes prompted Bruce F of Chicago to inform us that he’s working on the world’s smallest kale plant. He’s growing them in self-watering containers made with old pop bottles (more info on how to make a pop bottle self-watering container here and here). These pop bottle containers look like they’d work well for starting seeds, as they provide a constant source of water.

Nance Klehm, another intrepid Chicago resident, informed us that someone just gave her two bantam chickens for her backyard, the perfect compliment to her chihuahuas. Some say that bantams are better for smaller backyards due to their diminutive size. Readers with bantam experience please let us know what you think about keeping bantams vs. normal chickens as we only have experience with SUV sized poultry.

The photo above is, incidentally, a scene from Werner Herzog’s brilliant and inexplicable film “Even Dwarfs Started Small”.

Tomato Review #1 Red Currant–The World’s Smallest Tomato

Due to poor planning in our garden this year we’ve had a bit of a “need to get produce at the supermarket” gap. Ironically, the first bit of homegrown produce to appear this summer came in the form of what we’re calling the world’s smallest tomato: an heirloom variety Mrs. Homegrown Evolution picked up at this year’s Tomato Mania sale called Red Currant (Solanum pimpinellifolium). This is a domesticated version of wild tomato plants originating in Mexico, and produces fruit measuring about one centimeter across. Red Currant is an indeterminate tomato, with a delicious, sweet taste. A malfunctioning drip line has has meant that our specimen probably did not get enough water, but nevertheless it has managed to produce fruit despite looking unhappy. If we had more than the paltry number we’ve produced, they’d make for a tasty addition to a salad. That malfunctioning drip line means that all we have is enough for the world’s smallest BLT. If only we could find a pig the size of a cellphone.