Cichorium intybus a.k.a. Italian Dandelion


Our illegal parkway garden has got off to a slow start this season due to low seed germination rates. We’ve compensated with a trip to the Hollywood farmer’s market to pick up some six-packs of seedlings. One plant we made sure to get is Cichorium intybus, known in Italian as “cicoria” or chicory, but somehow, in the case of leaf chicory, mistranslated as “Italian dandelion,” probably because the leaves resemble the common dandelion weed, Taraxacum officinale (a relative which is also edible).

Both Cichorium intybus and its weedy cousin share a powerfully bitter taste that took our supermarket weaned taste buds some time to get used to the first time we tasted this plant. Changing the cooking water a few times if you boil Italian dandelion is one way to deal with the bitterness, but we prefer to just throw it together with some fat in a frying pan, such as olive oil and/or pancetta. We also add some hot pepper flakes for a nice hot counter-punch. Italian dandelion makes a good companion to balsamic vinegar marinated pork or game (squirrels perhaps–they’ve been stealing our lemons!).

The big taproot this perennial plant has means that it can bust through crappy soil. The bitter root can also be ground up to make a coffee substitute or flavor additive. Never having tried this we’re a bit sceptical, especially since it lacks caffeine, but it’s worth an attempt this coming year.

Since we purchased seedlings we have no idea what cultivar we’re growing, but seeds are available from Seeds from Italy, which has an astonishing number of varieties.

Tree Spinach – Chenopodium giganteum

For most of the country planting time is far off but for us, here in the Homegrown Revolution compound in Mediterranean Los Angeles, it’s time to start the winter garden. The billowing clouds of apocalyptic smoke from the fires ravaging the suburban fringes of our disaster prone megalopolis are the only thing that keeps us inside today, giving us time to contemplate one of the seed packets that has crossed our desk, Chenopodium giganteum a.k.a “tree spinach”.

The Chenopodium family encompasses what less enlightened folks call “weeds” such as lambs quarters (also edible we’ll note), but also contains cultivated crops such as Quinoa and Epazote. Tree spinach is a tall, hardy annual that easily reseeds itself and can become invasive–but we give extra points for the combination of invasive and edible.

Tree spinach contains saponins and oxalic acid, substances which the Plants for a Future database notes can cause nutritional and medical problems. Note to all the raw food fetishists out there–cooking takes care of both oxalic acid and saponins.

We ordered our tree spinach from Trade Winds Fruit but it’s also carried by Seeds of Change. We’ll post a full report if and when we get our first harvest.

See the update on our first harvest.

How Not to Grow Potatoes


Despite doing everything wrong we had a more bountiful than expected harvest of potatoes this summer season. We grew our ‘taters in a stack of tires. Used treads, due to their ubiquity along the sides of our blighted streets, ought to be named the official city flower of Los Angeles, but we digress. The idea with ‘tater tire stacks is that you add another tire as the plant grows and in so doing encourage the plant to throw out more roots. At the end of the season you kick over the tire stack, which will end up being about three to four tires high, and feast on many pounds of ‘taters.

Just don’t do what we did and try to grow them from sprouting supermarket potatoes. Experts recommend buying special seed potatoes which are certified not to carry any of the diseases that plague this member of the nightshade family. We knew better but felt lazy about ordering seed potatoes. Our potato plants looked sad, failed to flower and eventually died. Much to our surprise when we finally got around to knocking down our ‘tater tire stacks after over a month and many complaints from visiting aesthetes, we discovered a trove of potatoes at the bottom. Amazingly after stewing in the summer heat for at least a month we still had a meager harvest. And speaking of heat, we suspect that potatoes may do better here in Southern California in the winter and we’re going to try it again soon–this time with seed potatoes.

If any of you loyal readers have any ‘tater growing experiences please share them with us. And don’t worry, we haven’t read Benton’s book and won’t resort to the same cheap white trash humor.

The Three Sisters

Due to the rigors of finishing our book The Urban Homesteader due out from Process Media next spring we were late getting around to planting our parkway vegetable garden. To review, the parkway is that space between the sidewalk and the street that belongs to the city but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. The city, of course, wants us all to plant a lawn so that fat people can easily plop out of their Escalades unimpeded. We decided to grow food instead and despite the presence of many building inspectors reviewing our expensive foundation work nobody seems to care about the two large raised beds we installed. In fact one of our neighbors has planted her own parkway vegetable garden just down the street.

Since it was so late (July) we decided to cultivate heat tolerant vegetables and upped the ante by planting the Native American three sisters–corn, beans and squash. The three sisters are textbook permaculture, the idea being that the beans nitrogenate the soil and climb up the corn while the squash provides mulch. All plants are useful and you end up with an interdependent, self-sustaining beneficial feedback loop. Some people add a fourth sister, Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata) which attracts pollinating insects for the corn and squash.

We added a drip irrigation system on a timer (more on that in a later post) which has seemed to keep the plants healthier by preventing watering mishaps due to those flaky hung-over mornings. We planted corn seeds from the Not a Cornfield project, a variety of squash called Cucuzzi, and two beans from seeds we saved from last season (the tasty Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco and attractive but not so tasty scarlet runner bean).

Plum Lemon Tomato Power’s Heirloom Tomato

Congressional hearings today revealed that the FDA inspects fewer than 1% of food imports, yet another reason among many to grow your own food. While we have a less than lush vegetable garden this summer, we do have a decent crop of tomatoes thanks to a trip out to Encino a few months ago for Tomato Mania the Lollapalooza of tomato seedling sales. Unfortunately, to add to the ignominy of our white trash gardening efforts, we somehow mislaid the names of the tomatoes we planted making our reporting efforts incomplete. We do know the name of the wondrous plum lemon tomato pictured above, well worth planting again next year. It’s a meaty, sweet, yellow tomato delicious both fresh and dried. Allegedly the seeds for this tomato originally came from an elderly seed seller in a bird market in eastern Moscow which the Russian police have since shut down due to an outbreak of H5N1 bird flu.

Speaking of disease, while the FDA missed those loads of melamine laced pet food from China, they did somehow manage to track 1,840 confirmed cases of food-borne illnesses in domestic tomatoes.

Again, urban homesteading revolutionaries, GROW YOUR OWN!

We found that label and it’s a tomato called “Power’s Heirloom”. Here’s how the Seed Saver’s exchange catalog copy describes it, “First offered in the 1990 SSE Yearbook by Bruce McAllister from Freedom, Indiana. His seed originated in Scott County in southwest Virginia over 100 years ago. Heavy yields of 3-5 oz. yellow paste tomatoes. Similar to Amish Paste, great flavor. Indeterminate, 85-90 days from transplant.” We hugely recommend this delicious tomato and consider it to be the tastiest tomato we’ve ever grown–meaty and flavorful.

Artichoke Season at the Homegrown Revolution Compound


You can’t ask for a more perfect plant than the Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) which is also one of the most ideal plants for our climate here in coastal California. Let’s count the other reasons:

  • They are perennial, producing and abundant crop starting with the second year.
  • Artichokes are attractive, making an ideal choice for edible landscaping.
  • They spread like crazy.
  • Suckers can be transplanted elsewhere.
  • They’re damn tasty either steamed, combined with pasta or made into an omelet.

They do best in foggy coastal places but will also grow in the warmer interior where the Homegrown Revolution compound resides. In cooler locales they will thrive all year round. In warmer places they die back in the summer but return like crazy in the early spring. We just cut them to the ground when the leaves die off. It’s a huge plant so make sure you give them plenty of room–at least a six foot diameter circle, preferably more, for each plant.

The only drawback is that aphids love them, so they require constant spraying down with a hose to blow off the damn things, not to mention thorough cleaning in the kitchen. Our love of artichokes means that we’ve gotten used to eating the occasional aphid.

They may even have medicinal uses according the the Plants for a Future Database (which only gives them a measly 3 out of 5 score for usefulness!),

The globe artichoke has become important as a medicinal herb in recent years following the discovery of cynarin. This bitter-tasting compound, which is found in the leaves, improves liver and gall bladder function, stimulates the secretion of digestive juices, especially bile, and lowers blood cholesterol levels.

The artichoke is also the primary ingredient in Cynar, a aperitif distributed by the Campari group. No doubt, Cynar may become the primary libation around the Homegrown Revolution compound this summer . . .

How to Stake Tomatoes

Our tomato staking method around the Homegrown Evolution compound is simple and lazy. We plant our tomatoes and then surround them with rolled up concrete reinforcing wire. Normally used to reinforce concrete slabs, reinforcing wire comes in 3 1/2′ by 7′ sections. We use a circular saw with a metal blade on it to cut off the bottom rung, so as to leave spiky wires with which to stick the reinforcing wire tubes into the ground, but this is not absolutely necessary.

Once in place that’s it. According to So Cal gardening guru Pat Welsh, tomatoes surrounded by a reinforcing wire staking system need not be pruned nor will they need any additional staking.

Over time the reinforcing wire rusts lending the garden a certain deconstructed vibe.

Purple Sicilian Cauliflower


The Homegrown Revolution compound’s purple Sicilian cauliflower (Cavolfiore di Sicilia Violetto from Seeds from Italy) from our illegal parkway garden is now ready for the table after four months since planting from seed. Cauliflower needs some attention; it needs to be kept moist and it’s prone to aphids, but the little buggers can be blasted off with a hose fairly easily. While the plant takes up a lot of room and doesn’t yield a lot per square foot, what most folks don’t seem to know is that the leaves of cauliflower and broccoli plants are edible as well, although best when small.

Ultimately if you’ve got the space cauliflower is worth the effort, especially this particular variety, since when it gets down to it, the Man’s cauliflower at the supermarket just does not compare to the rich flavor of our home grown version. And if flavor isn’t enough to convince you to grow your own, cauliflower is one of those plants that demonstrates the groovy world of fractal geometry, where the smallest parts of the plants maintain the geometry of the whole. Take a look at the even more fractal broccoli cauliflower mashup, chou Romanesco.