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.

Parkway Plantings

The cow dookie in the spinach scandal of the past month (for more on that read this excellent article) should prompt everyone to consider planting your own garden.

Hopefully Homegrown Evolution won’t be buying any bagged vegetables this winter since we just planted our parkway garden this afternoon after installing a drip irrigation system (more on the drip system in a later post). Winter is the best growing season for vegetables here in Los Angeles, and now is the time to start planting.

Our parkway garden consists of two 1.8 x 1.8 meter raised beds with a central wire frame obelisk in each bed to support beans. We ordered all of our seeds this winter from Seeds from Italy and have begun succession planting seeds every two weeks.

North Bed as of October 2, 2006

In the north bed we have:

Broccoli Rabe – Cima di Rapa Novantina, which matures in 55 to 80 days and Cima di Rapa Quarantina, which matures in 32 to 35 days. Broccoli is somewhat difficult to grow and requires vigilance to keep pests under control, and frequent fertilizer applications (organic, of course). The faster growing Quarantina, is easier to grow since the crop is produced faster and bugs have less time to munch on it. We grew both of these varieties last year and marveled at the taste of fresh broccoli, which is nothing like the bland crap in our supermarkets.

Cauliflower – Cavolfiore di Sicilia Violetto. This purple Sicilian cauliflower is stunning and tasty. Again, far superior to the tasteless white stuff our country’s factory farms crank out.

Beets – Bietola da Orto Cylindra. We actually like the leaves better than the roots and this variety is supposed to produce a nice beet green.

Radicchio Rossa di Treviso. Homegrown Evolution has yet to produce decent radicchio. We’re giving it another try this winter.

South Bed as of October 2, 2006

In the south bed:

Agretti – a trendy vegetable with some blue state types. We’ve never had it, probably because we don’t haunt expensive Italian eateries in the yoga mat totin’ and Lexus drivin’ sectors of our fair metropolis. We suspect that Agretti is going to be extremely bitter, just like the Italian dandelion greens we grew a few years back. You cook these bitter greens in olive oil and garlic and you get used to the strong taste. It’s a reminder that the bastards who control what passes for agriculture in this country have taken all the flavor out of our vegetables.

Rapa da Foglia senza Testa, i.e. rabe without a head. Yet another bitter vegetable, this is a kind of turnip green that looks kind of like broccoli rabe, except that you eat the leaves. A bit susceptible to bugs, but we had a successful crop last year.

Carrots – Carota Pariser Market. This is a small round carrot that French folks apparently like.

Around the wire obelisks, that give our street garden a certain gravitas in addition to supporting climbing plants, we have planted a very exotic looking bean called Borlotto lingua di Fuoco or “Tongue of Fire” (a reference to Pentecost we suspect rather than the cheesy 1970s Italian thriller). This is a pole bean with a brilliant red color that, sadly, disappears after cooking.

One of the nice things about planting the seeds in our street garden this afternoon was chatting with the folks who come by. Sadly, we found out that one neighbor is breaking up with his wife and needs to find an apartment. But on a happier note, another neighbor reminisced about his Italian grandfather who grew lots of vegetables and even made his own wine in the Bronx. Hmm, wine . . .

Garden Like a Pirate

“Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by Laws which rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery.”
- Captain Bellamy from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson

In honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, we at Homegrown Revolution would like to introduce the concept of Pirate Gardening. Pirate Gardening involves claiming unused land that does not belong to you for growing food crops. The first bit of land we hijacked was our own parkway, that bit of dirt between the sidewalk and the street that technically belongs to the city, but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. It’s yet another space, like the vast asphalt hell of parking lots, garages, freeways, car lots, auto repair shops, and junkyards in our car-obsessed city dedicated to the needs of the personal automobile.

We decided to flaunt the city’s strict rules about this space which dictates the kind of things that can be planted (basically nothing that would inhibit someone from getting out of their Hummer), and plant a vegetable garden instead. The idea was twofold: to provide vegetables for ourselves and our neighbors, and to do it in a way that would be aesthetically pleasing. Now, if we lived in some tight-ass place like Beverly Hills or Glendale some bureaucrat would, no doubt, have busted us by now, but in the City of Los Angeles, where code, building and traffic enforcement are non-existent, nobody seems to care. If we were Republicans we could probably have dug our own open pit mine or built our own miniature coal fired power plant without any City of LA official giving a damn.

For our piratical parkway garden we built two six by six foot raised beds, filled it with quality garden soil, and stuck in two matching wire obelisks for growing beans and tomatoes. Much to our surprise it has been a big success – we had a bumper crop of carrots, beans, turnips, garlic, onions, and beets in the winter and our summer crop was cherry tomatoes. Currently the beds are empty as we wait for this incredibly hot summer season to cool down (thanks for the global warming everyone!) and we are just about to plant an assorted winter crop of beans, broccoli, and assorted greens.

We’ve encouraged neighbors to help themselves to vegetables from the parkway garden, though few have. What has been nice has been the conversations We’ve had with neighbors while watering and tending the space. Several neighbors have said that it encouraged them to plant their own vegetables, albeit in their back yards. With more people growing vegetables our neighborhood becomes more self-sufficient and a wasted space has been reclaimed.

If all such marginal spaces, parkways, freeway embankments, vacant lots, and median strips were claimed by piratical gardeners and used for growing food, nobody would ever need to buy crappy supermarket produce. It’s time to seize all unused urban land matey and remember the words of Captain Bellamy as you do so, “I am a free prince”.

Grow Italian!

It’s almost time to start planting seeds for the most productive growing season in Southern California – winter. While our friends in the cold parts of the country will be freezing their asses off we’ll be picking gourmet salads (sorry to rub it in). Since the climate here is like southern Italy, we like to plant Italian varieties. Which brings us to the source of many of our seeds at the Homegrown Evolution compound, Seeds from Italy.

Italians dig vegetables, and the offerings of the Franchi Co., which the folks at Seeds from Italy import, show a tremendous diversity of species and varieties. Why grow the same boring vegetables supermarkets carry anyways? Also, Italy and California both have similar climates. We’ve been growing Franchi vegetables for several years now and have enjoyed everything from sweet beans to powerfully bitter weed-like greens. The purple Sicilian Cauliflower we grew last year was a revelation – fresh cauliflower is a billion times better than store bought cauliflower though, along with broccoli, it can be challenging to grow and it takes up a lot of room. It was still worth it, as was the somewhat less difficult to grow quick maturing broccoli rabe Seeds from Italy caries.

Our seed selection committee is meeting this week to decide on what we’ll be growing and we’ll get more specific in subsequent posts. We’re intrigued with agretti, and we’ll be looking at more perennial vegetables after the multi-year success of our artichoke plant. We’re also jumping on the permaculture bandwagon this year with an experiment in the backyard. And look for more root vegetables in our illegal parkway garden.

Lest we come across as Eurotrashy, here’s two domestic seed companies that have interesting varieties:

Seeds of change.

Native Seeds which sells Native American seeds

By the way, for us in L.A. the back of the seed packages have no connection with our climate. You need a book like Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening to set you straight on what to plant and when to plant it. Now get out there and plant some seeds.

Mutant Squash


Today’s incredible picture comes from photographer, bike cultist, and composting Culver-Town revolutionary Elon Schoenholz. It’s a freak squash that grew out of his regular old household compost. The funny thing is that nobody at the Shoenholz Compound – neither Elon, wife Bryn nor new bambina Nusia eat squash – so the origin of this new hybrid compost squash is a mystery.

This brings up a bit of botany. Plants “do the deed” with flowers which contain both male (pollen-producing stamen) and female (carpels) organs. Flowers produce seeds, which depending on how they were pollinated may or may not produce offspring that resemble the parent. Some plants pollinate themselves before the flower opens thus producing seeds that are the same variety as the parent. Other plants rely on insects and birds for pollination and can produce offspring that are hybrids if the pollinating bug or bird happened to visit another variety. Squash has completely separate male and female flowers that appear on the same plant, a characteristic called monoecism (from the Greek meaning “same household”) which is an evolutionary strategy for avoiding self-pollination. Corn is another example of a monoecious plant. Plants can only cross pollinate within their own species so watermelons can’t cross with lettuce, for instance. But there are many different varieties of squash, everything from butternut squash to spaghetti squash to various inedible gourds, so you can get some very freaky mutant cross-breeds. Results of these hybrids can be unpredictable. with accidental squash hybrids tending to get tough. But some hybrids are a crap shoot that pays off. The SurviveLA compound has wild cherry tomatoes that have self-seeded for years with excellent results–producing some of the best tomatoes we’ve ever eaten, with no work whatsoever on our part. But this summer they seem to have hybridized again and now yield less flavorful fruit.

More information on the botany of pollination and advice on saving vegetable seeds can be found in this excellent article. Also of note, the new issue of Make Magazine, the Popular Mechanics of the geeky hipster art school crowd has a story on “hacking your backyard plants”. But in the meantime, a tip of the SurviveLA hat to a new squash variety: Cucurbitaceae Nusia.

Get Off Your Ass and Plant a Survival Garden!

Tired of going to the market to buy crappy vegetables that taste out of season no matter what time of year it is? Tired of garlic from China and grapes from Chile? Why waste land, if you have it, on things you can’t eat? And why not have some fresh produce on hand in case of the inevitable zombie invasion.

Now, vegetable gardening takes some practice and unfortunately very few books deal with the specifics of Los Angeles’ unique Mediterranean climate. Most gardening books and the information on the back of seed packets are written for schmucks in the northeast who have to deal with things like cold weather. This is why you need a copy of our So-Cal homegirl Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening Guide which deals with more than just vegetables. Looking like an extra from the gardening club scene in the Manchurian Candidate, Pat Welsh has written a book with a handy to-do list for each month, useful since maintaining a vegetable garden here over a year-round growing season can get complicated especially if you want to keep a steady stream of produce on the table. In general, remember that winter here is the best time for most crops with the summer reserved for stuff that can take the heat like tomatoes and basil.

So get out there and plant your own food and remember our rule here around the Homegrown Evolution homestead: if you gotta water it you gotta be able to eat it.