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.

Nitrogen Deposition

Thanks to the millions of SUV driving knuckleheads out there we may not have to take a whizz in our compost pile after all. It turns out we have ample free nitrogen fertilizer in the form of air pollution which settles back down to the earth in a process science types call nitrogen deposition.

According to Edith Allen, a professor of botany at UC Riverside,

“Nitrogen deposition occurs at high levels in southern California, and is fertilizing our wildlands . . . While growers and gardeners may appreciate this free fertilizer, it promotes the growth of weedy species in our forests, shrublands, deserts and grasslands. The invasion of weeds is a huge problem for maintenance of our fragile biodiversity, which is already impacted by development.”

The photo above shows the leaves of some of the bean plants at the SurviveLA compound. We believe that the dark droplets are diesel particulate and other crap that comes out of the tailpipes of all those trucks that lumber through our neighborhood carrying cheap crap from China from the Port of Los Angeles to all the Wal-Marts in flyover country.

Thanks must go in part to our new Los Angeles Department of Transportation chief Gloria Jeff for insisting that those trucks must keep moving and doing everything she can to keep LA the smog-spewing auto-addicted poster child for bad urban planning. So Gloria-will you be joining us for salad tonight? Don’t bother bringing any dressing.

Rapini!


This morning SurviveLA harvested our first crop of the winter, delicious broccoli rabe, from our illegal parkway garden.

Broccoli rabe or rapini, is often described as being bitter, but I think it would be better to describe store bought broccoli as band and rapini as “flavorful”. Actually rapini is not related to the broccoli plant and is instead more closely related to turnips. The variety we planted is called Cima di Rapa Quarantina and is available from growitalian.com.

Thanks Los Angeles for not enforcing your parkway codes! Sometimes LA’s lack of attention to sidewalks (at the current rate, no joke, it would take 200 years to fix LA’s crumbling pedestrian infrastructure) has its advantages.

Kent’s Composting Tips and Secret Weapon

Today in our continuing dialog on composting, a guest post from Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition board member, Kent Strumpell who we met up with at this week’s inspiring LACBC awards gala:

I’m sure there are more correct procedures, but this is what I’ve found works.

I use a compost bin that has direct soil contact. I think this allows the introduction of soil organisms and serves to drain the pile if it gets too wet. I’ve done this same process with free standing piles as well.

I start with a small pile of dry leaves and add a load of kitchen scraps. I also add a couple shovels-full of rich soil to get things started, particularly with some worms and bugs to propagate the new pile. I’m not fastidious about what goes in, so the occasional fish and chicken scraps and leftover cat food gets into the mix, even oily stuff, but mostly it’s the usual veggies, fruits, paper napkins, etc. Though experts say no fats should go in, I’ve yet to see (or smell) a problem.

Each time I add new kitchen scraps, I add 1-2 shovels-full of dry leaves and some water if needed, turning and mixing the old and new stuff with a cultivator or shovel to aerate the pile. The proportion of dry to wet material is important. There should be enough dry leaves so the compost is kinda’ fluffy and moist, not soggy, but the dry material shouldn’t overwhelm the wet either.

Now the secret. I cut a piece of black 6 mil vinyl to approximately cover the pile and lay this directly on top of the compost (anything similar will work). I’ve found this helps keep the pile moist when I’m not able to check on it (sometimes for a week or two) and the bugs and worms seem to thrive underneath this membrane. I got the idea after noticing that I’d find rich bug habitat under boards, etc. laying around my yard. My compost piles teem with worms, sow bugs and other critters, all working hard for me. If you do a free standing compost pile, cut the plastic big enough to cover to the ground and hold it in place with rocks or bricks.

I add my scraps about once or twice a week. I don’t use the pile to consume large quantities of leaves, I just add enough of them to keep things in balance. It easily keeps up with my kitchen scrap production and gives me a rich, dark compost about like coffee grounds when it is done. I draw finished stuff off at the bottom occasionally. Or, if I want to use the whole batch, I stop adding to it for a few weeks so it can digest everything.

Bitter Greens

Today we continued our winter planting in our illegal parkway garden adding arugula, a green that America has suddenly discovered after last month’s factory farming spinach nightmare. We also added a tough and bitter leaf chicory from our friends at Grow Italian. Hopefully, by succession planting we should have a winter and spring full of green, if somewhat bitter vegetables.

How do we prepare these bitter greens around the compound? Very simply — in a pan with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Sometimes we add some Parmigiano Reggiano. Fresh, strong tasting vegetables don’t need much else.