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.

Dookie in the Tomatoes

Our first tomatoes of the season are just beginning to ripen, coinciding nicely with the multi-state cow poo in the roma scare. Allow me to speculate wildly about the cause of the current epidemic, tracing the cause step by step from the beginning:

1. We begin not with the tomato farm, but instead with manure from that wonder of industrialized agriculture, the concentrated feed lot, where thousands of cattle stew in their own filth. Immunosuppressed cattle on these feed lots act as ideal Petri dishes for all kinds of diseases including salmonella. At these massive operations, cattle feed on corn even though, biologically, they were meant to eat grass. To counter the deleterious effects of feeding them the wrong food, they are pumped full of antibiotics which, due to the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest, creates new generations of antibiotic resistant infections. Concentrating them so close together further facilitates the spread of exotic strains of all manor of nasty things including salmonella.

2. Manure from the feed lot either runs off accidentally onto a neighboring tomato farm or is exported as fertilizer intentionally. At some point, manure gets on a tomato, either on the farm or after being shipped.

3. A salmonella infected tomato arrives at a centralized packing facility where it is loaded into a massive water bath by underpaid workers to mingle with thousands of other tomatoes. The water bath acts as our second salmonella Petri dish along the tomato’s path to our table. Alternately, a blade used to automatically slice tomatoes gets infected with salmonella, thereby spreading the bug to all the other pre-sliced tomatoes headed to the food assemblers (a more accurate term than “chef”) at America’s fast food establishments.

4. After leaving the packing facility, Salmonella infected tomatoes get shipped all over the country and perhaps the world, thereby sentencing thousands of people to multi-day commode-sitting hell. Some immunosuppressed folks, sadly, die.

5. The government announces, acting in the interest of the big agricultural players, “our food system is actually safer than ever”, and congratulates themselves for their quick diagnoses of the exact strain of salmonella and its source–in this case, tomatoes processed by careless workers at a packing facility. Hearings ensue, and a few months later they announce a new series of bizarre regulations. Tomato packing facility washing equipment must now be maintained at the precise temperature of 163ยบ F for 5.375 minutes minimum. Problem solved. Mainstream journalists move on to the next hot topic.

Now I could be completely incorrect in my assumptions about this month’s tomato scare–it’s just a guess. But let me offer a few solutions that would take care of the problem no matter what caused this most recent outbreak:

1. If you can, grow your own tomatoes and make your own fertilizer. Yes, it’s possible (but a lot less likely) to get salmonella from your own home grown produce, but at least you and your family will be the only one infected.

2. Support small family farms. Again, a small family farm could cause a salmonella outbreak, but it would effect far fewer people. Decentralization at all points in the agricultural supply chain is the solution to greater food security, not further concentration. Unfortunately our government is on the take from the big players and promulgates regulations that make it impossible for small family farmers to make a living. Read Joel Salatin’s book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal” for more on how agricultural regulations are at the heart of our food safety problems.

3. Don’t wash produce until just before it is prepared. At it turns out, washing upsets the natural balance of harmful and beneficial bacteria present on fresh produce. Food microbiologist Keith Warriner has found that a beneficial bacteria called Enterobacter keeps salmonella in check. Wash off the Enterobacter and salmonella thrives (read more on this theory at New Scientist). The same holds for washing eggs–bad idea.

I count myself very fortunate to have a bit of land to grow some tomatoes and feel sorry for those who don’t have this luxury. I wish more journalists would spin this story as a reason to build more community gardens and allow apartment dwellers to grow some food on the roof. It leaves me eating that big juicy roma tomato, pictured above, with all the smugness of a Prius driver in the HOV lane.

Garlic!

Our parkway guerrilla garden, profiled in last week’s Los Angeles Times article, which is now linked on BoingBoing, yielded up an impressive garlic harvest this season.

Garlic is one of the easiest crops for us to grow here in Southern California. You just take the large, outer ring of cloves from store-bought garlic and stick them in the ground with the pointed side up interspersed throughout your other plantings–wherever you have some room. We plant them around Thanksgiving and harvest in late May/early June when the stalks begin to turn brown and fall over. After you harvest your garlic, don’t wash it just knock the dirt off, then let it “cure” with the stalks and roots intact in a dry place inside until the stalks are entirely brown. Premature cutting of stalks or roots can lead to rot. After your garlic is dry then you can trim it to just the bulbs and store it somewhere cool and dark (not the fridge!). We’re going to put ours in a double brown bag in our strange subterranean garage–a cellar or basement would also work.

With our mild winters and warm summers, California is the ideal place to grow garlic, but there are special varieties for cold climates that you can mail order. The University of Minnesota Extension has a nice page on growing garlic in cold places.

A Mystery Philippine Vegetable

Some TV folks were here to interview us about guerrilla gardening, following up on the story that mentioned us in the LA Times this week. We did the interview down in the parkway next to our illegal street-side vegetable garden. I nattered on about reclaiming wasted space, staying in touch with nature, the value of homegrown food, dodging the authorities and knowing where your carrots come from. I harvested for the camera, an unimpressive string bean and two small cucumbers.

On a whim, I suggested that we visit the parkway garden that inspired us to plant our own. Just two blocks away, this parkway garden is the handiwork of a retired couple from the Philippines. As luck would have it, the couple pulled up during our interview. Julie (I’m afraid I can’t spell her last name) stepped out of her car and proceeded to give us a tour of her “guerrilla” garden, talking about–guess what–reclaiming wasted space, staying in touch with nature, the value of homegrown food, dodging the authorities and knowing where your bitter melon comes from. The only differences between our two spiels–the bitter melon, and Julie’s lack of Generation X irony and a blog.

I think the TV folks were hoping for something more telegenic, sexy and radical, to fit the “guerrilla gardening” story, like say the image on the left. They were, perhaps, less excited by some ordinary middle-aged to elderly residents of Echo Park passionately talking about vegetables.

Their loss our gain. As a parting gift Julie gave us this leafy green whose name, I’m afraid, I can neither pronounce nor remember. She told us to parboil it and season with soy sauce. Any guesses readers as to what this is?

Homegrown Evolution in the LA Times

Today’s Los Angeles Times Home and Garden section has a story on Guerrilla gardening, “Guerrilla gardener movement takes root in L.A. area”. The article mentions our parkway vegetable garden, which consists of two 6-foot square raised beds with two wire obelisks to support beans and tomatoes. We constructed it in October of 2005 and have grown a few season’s worth of crops.

Here’s our parkway garden just after putting it in. We installed raised beds because of the compacted, poor quality soil.

Winter and early spring is the best season for most vegetables here in Los Angeles. In January of 2006 we had a riotous crop of sweet peas, greens, calendula and garlic.

This past winter we planted dandelion greens, collards, garlic and more sweet peas.

Last summer we had a mini corn field.

Lastly, a shot from the summer of 2006 of tomatoes supported by one of the obelisks.

With a backyard dominated by two large shade trees, the parkway, with its excellent sun exposure, is the best location for us to grow food. We invite neighbors to share our harvest, and to answer a commonly asked question, we’ve never had a problem with anyone getting greedy and taking all the tomatoes.

Vegetable Gardening for the Lazy

One of the problems with growing vegetables is all the labor involved–starting seeds, composting, watering and watching out for bugs. It’s worth it, of course, for the tasty rewards, but many busy folks are simply too exhausted after work or corralling the bambinos to pick up a shovel and garden. For those who’d rather sit on the porch with a martini than laboring in the field, and we often include ourselves in that category, perennial vegetables can put food on the table year round without the hassle of having to plant seeds every spring. Here’s a roundup of our top four favorite edible perennials we have growing in our humble garden.

1. Tree Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala–I think). This strange but attractive member of the Brassica family, pictured above (in a protective cage to fend off our chickens and Doberman), goes under a confusing number of popular names. The specimen given to us by Trathen Heckman of the Petaluma based Daily Acts (thanks again Trathen!), has matured into what looks like a four foot tall kale plant gone to seed, except it hasn’t gone to seed. The leaves are mild flavored and we’ve eaten them both cooked and raw. The problem with this plant is finding one. Search for it on the internets and you’ll find other people searching for it. So dear readers, leave a comment on this post if you know of a good source either local or mail order. We’ll definitely be making some cuttings, as it would be nice to have more than one.

2. Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). A member of the sunflower family, this North American native produces an edible tuber that, while hard to clean, is worth the effort. It’s invasive which, from the perspective of the martini swilling gardener, is a plus since it means never having to propagate more. We planted ours in the spring from tubers we picked up in the produce section of our local market, Trader Joes. You may be able to find Jerusalem Artichioke at fancy food markets such as Whole Foods. Stick those grocery store bought tubers in the ground and in a few months you’ll have a field of these things.

3. Regular old Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus). Here’s a perennial for those of us lucky enough to live in a Mediterranean climate. In foggy coastal areas artichokes thrive year-round. Here in inland Los Angeles they die back in the summer. We cut them to the ground in June and wait for them to come back in the fall. Artichokes are a handsome, large plant that produces one of the most delicious of all vegetables.

4. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). We won’t natter on about this one, as we’ve covered the edible leaves here, jam making with the fruit here, avoiding the spines here and penned a very early potty-mouthed love letter to the plant here. Needless to say, a plant that needs no added water or fertilizer and grows in dismal, alkaline soil while producing an abundant crop is a plant that allows more time to get the perfect vermouth/gin ratio for those late afternoon cocktail sessions on the urban homestead.

A Tour of the Homegrown Evolution Compound

It’s about damn time we gave an overall tour of the Homegrown Evolution digs, at least to dispel some misconceptions out there (more on those at the end of the post). Let’s begin with the front yard, pictured above.

Our house sits up about 30 steps from the street level. Running the laundry water out to the front (using Oasis Biocompatible Detergent), has really made the plants happy. The front yard has a mix of prickly pear cactus, Mexican sage, wormwood, rosemary, lavender, California poppies, and nasturtiums. All low maintenance, drought tolerant, hardy stuff. At the top, not visible in the photo, are the fruit trees we planted and described in an earlier post. Due to extensive foundation work (note to potential home buyers: don’t buy a house on a hill!) we’ve only recently been able to work on the top part of the front yard.

Next the backyard, pictured above (click to bigulate). The extreme wide angle makes it look a lot bigger than it actually is. In reality, the backyard is about 35 feet by 50 feet. Starting on the left and moving right, is an arbor occupying the former space of a terrible add-on that we demolished (and carried down the stairs by hand–once again, don’t buy a house on a hill!). In the background is the chicken coop and run, with the herb garden in the foreground. Just to the right of the chicken run are several large artichoke plants. Behind that and out of sight, is a 4′ x 8′ raised bed for vegetables. Next to the shed is a small orange tree, just planted, that replaced the fig tree we tore out. Dominating the right side of the photo is the avocado tree. Next to that tree is a small dwarf pomegranate, and on the extreme right is another raised bed with strawberries, garlic, mint and a native grape vine, just about to leaf out.

Now to correct some misconceptions:

Our place looks like Versailles. Truth is, at some times, our garden looks terrible. It depends on the season, and the amount of time we have to put into it. It looks good now, but in December it looked like crap. We try to plant things that do well in our climate and provide food, medicine or habitat for birds and beneficial insects. But we’ve made plenty of mistakes, and continue to do so.

We’re survivalists. Can we live off our yard? No. Can we make a meal with stuff from the yard? Yes, but we go to the supermarket just like everybody else–there’s no room for a wheat field after all, nor do we grow coffee or a host of other necessary staples. But, we seldom buy greens at the store, and almost never buy herbs or eggs–we’ve got that taken care of in the garden. In the summer we have lots of tomatoes, and right now we have a few avocados. When the fruit trees mature in a few years we’ll have fruit.

We’re hippies. Don’t get us wrong, we love hippies. We have no problems with cob ovens shaped like psychedelic snails, but that just ain’t our style. We’ve tried to keep things low key, just like our humble 1920s bungalow. This grape vine trailing up the arbor we built sums up our visual style:

Lastly, we like to tuck in a few attractive edibles (packed tightly, as you can see) wherever we can, like this magnificent cabbage, so beautiful we hate to harvest it:

Nopales Season

It’s nopales (the pads of the prickly pear cactus for you Yankees) season at the Homegrown Evolution compound. Our prickly pear has thrown off so many leaves that a neighbor dropped by last week to ask for some. We filled a bag for her and declined the dollar she offered us.

To cook up our nopales we use a simple recipe found in Delena Tull’s book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. First scrape off the spines with a knife and chop a pad (one pad per person). Boil for 10 minutes. Next, put 1/3 cup whole wheat flour, 2/3 cup cornmeal, 1 teaspoon chili powder, salt and pepper in a bag and shake with the boiled chopped nopales. Fry up in a pan and you’ve got a delicious side dish.

One of the charms of the prickly pear cactus, in addition to the food it provides, is its ability to survive drought and fend off pests. Sadly, it’s not as indestructible as it seems. The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum was introduced into the Caribbean in the 1950s and has slowly worked its way to Florida and Mexico. It may soon reach Texas and California. The USDA is hoping to halt the spread by releasing sterile moths.

And speaking of Texas, for the next two weeks Homegrown Evolution will be in residence in Houston where it’s also nopales season. If we see any Cactoblastis cactorum, we’ll deal with them Texas style: