Vertical Vegetables

Frederick Law Olmstead’s office has a 19th century “vertical garden.” Vines!

I was somewhat dismayed to see a local newspaper article touting a company that sells a $1,000 vertical vegetable garden system to schools. The company has a plan to sell this system nationwide. The problem is that I have serious doubts about the long term viability of vertical garden walls for a number of reasons: irrigation, maintenance and start up costs just to name a few. And I’m not alone. The New York Times did some critical reporting on the subject of vertical garden systems in a recent article, “Gardens That Grow on Walls.”

For certain plants vertical growing might work. I haven’t tried it, but this DIY vertical succulent garden in Sunset Magazine certainly is striking. But vegetables? Their roots need space and you’d need to do a lot of watering to keep a vertical vegetable wall happy.

All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!But growing vertically does not have to mean attaching roots to a wall. I can think of two simple vertical vegetable garden strategies where that $1,000 would go a lot further. How about simply favoring fruits and vegetables that either grow vertically naturally, say pole beans, grapes, peas or kiwi or that can be convinced with a bit of pruning to go vertical, such as tomatoes, melons and winter squash? Mel Bartholomew has some nice vertical gardening tips in his classic book Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!. Build some raised beds next to a wall or saw cut out the concrete, plant in the ground and you’re in business.With some slings for the fruit, you can even grow watermelons vertically.

EARTHBOX GARDEN KIT GREENAlternately, buy or make some self irrigating planters (SIPs) and put them next to a wall. See the Green Roof Growers for what can be grown vertically with SIPs made from scavenged five gallon buckets. Or you can buy a commercially made SIP kit from the Earthbox company for around $50. The nice thing about SIPs is that they are fairly idiot proof and easy to maintain. A SIP is as close to “plant and forget about it” as you can get with vegetables. In short, perfect for schools where maintenance is always an issue.

As one of the vertical wall landscape designers admitted in that New York Times article, “in nature, you don’t have vertical dirt.” Why fight nature?

Yet more reasons not to wear lycra

Towards a more bikable/walkable US on this 4th of July, a nice quote about America’s silly relationship with cycling from bikesnobnyc:

“I may be naive, but I continue to believe that one day humanity will reach a point at which we will no longer need to feel special while we do something normal. Putting on pants will cease to be the subject of a feature article. The notion of a “bike culture” will dissolve like body paint in the rain. Riding a bicycle in street clothes will no longer be “cycle chic.” Best of all, we will no longer need to be cultural aspirants or fashion models to ride to the store, and the simple act of buying something at that store will not need to be a statement about “sustainability.” Instead, we will be regular schlubs doing regular crap, and we will be confident enough to do so without naming it and without baring our inner thigh sideburns in the process.”

The glass is half full–even if it’s full of greywater


Mrs. Homegrown here:

In this blog and in our books, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of accepting failure as part of the process of living a more homegrown lifestyle. Disasters of different sorts are inevitable. Sometimes they’re part of the learning process. Other times they’re acts of nature that you just have to shrug off. This year we’ve had lots of failures in the agricultural line. It’s been the theme of the year.

For instance, we lost the grape which covers our back porch to Pierce’s disease. No shade for us this summer. Then we had to pull out our citrus trees because there’s a new citrus disease in California, very similar to Pierce’s disease. We blogged about the crookedness and incompetence of the teams sent by the CDFA to intimidate people in our neighborhood into allowing them to spray our yards. Rather than allow them to apply imidacloprid to our vehemently organic garden, we’ve pulled the trees. They were young in any case, barely giving fruit yet. For all the Safety Theater going on, this citrus disease is not going to be stopped by spraying, only by breeding disease resistant varieties. So we figured we may as well pull trees which are doomed to die a few years from now anyway and replace them with non-citrus trees. Nonetheless, that left us with holes in our yard.

Then we had root nematodes in one of our garden beds, and crappy results in another for reasons still unknown. Our first batch of summer seedlings did not thrive, and had to be restarted, which has put us far behind. It’s almost July and our tomatoes haven’t even fruited. We planted our front yard bed with amaranth seeds, and a stray dog dug them all up. We planted a back bed with beans, and the chickens got loose and dug those all up as well.

But the other day I was looking at the photos stored on our camera, and realized that for all this, there were successes this year, and moments of plenty, beauty and grace. It’s far too easy to focus on the failures and forget what goes right. So from now on we’re going to document our yard and other projects more diligently, so that we can look back on both the failures and the successes with a clear eye. It did me good to see these photos, which I’m going to share with you:


The front yard isn’t looking bad. Not organized, but at least not barren.

Lesson the First: make weed-like plants the backbone of your yard, meaning edible plants that grow no matter what–which kind of plants will vary by region. Grow fussy annuals too, if you want, but have these survivors as back up. And learn how to cook them. For instance, we get nopales from that huge cactus that is swamping our hill. The cucumbers may refuse to set fruit, but the cactus pads offer reliable eating for several months, and then the cactus fruit forms, and we have a second harvest. Nopal is the gift that won’t stop giving.

Another fail-proof crop in this region is artichoke. I really don’t know why every house in SoCal doesn’t have one in its yard. Every year we eat artichokes until we’re sick of them, and the only downside is that they spread like mad, as you can see below:


But is that really such a problem? Too many artichokes? Oh noes! Ours grow happily entwined with fennel (which was too small at the time to be seen in the shot above). Fennel is another weedy survivor here. We can harvest the bulbs, or eat the flowers and fronds, or do nothing and just let the pollinators have at it. Today I was sitting by the fennel patch. The flowers are full of pollen, and the air above it looked like LAX: honeybees, wasps, orchard mason bees, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name, butterflies, ladybugs…. I’d need a fancy camera to capture all that action, but here’s a shot from the spring:


And then there’s always the reassurance of a sturdy old fruit or nut tree. Most of our trees are young–planted by us. They have yet to reach their productive days, but we have an old avocado tree. It bears fruit every year, but every 3rd year it gives a bumper crop. And this was one of those years. They’re the best avocados, too–buttery to the extreme. We literally do nothing for this tree, and it gives us this:


We had plentiful greens this year during our winter growing season, mostly turnip and beet greens, bitter Italian greens and Swiss chard. The hoops you see support light row cover material to keep insects away. Our beds look like covered wagons a lot of the time!


We’ve had some nice food this year, too, some of which was documented. Good to look back on.

A salad made with our greens, our pomegranates, and Erik’s notorious pickled crosne:


Or this salad of greens, avocados, nasturtium and arugula flowers, all from the yard:


Ooh..there’s this. Our carrot crop wasn’t big, but it was good. Yellow carrots. They got chopped up and roasted and tasted like candy:

And then there’s the creature comforts. Our chickens are doing well, still laying and haven’t been pecking on each other so much. I took this picture during one of their outings, when they were patrolling the herb bed:

Our dog is very old, so every day with him counts. There’s lots of pics of him on the camera, because he’s such a sexy senior citizen:


And there’s no comfort like a good Neighbor. Particularly one who carries a huge knife and knows how to use it:

And when the going gets tough, we can remember to take pleasure in the ephemeral. Blueberry flowers are worthy of haiku:


It doesn’t rain much in LA, and even when it does, rainbows are a rarity. But we had this one:


Life’s not so bad.

Pakistan Mulberries

Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall was nice enough to drop off some freshly picked Pakistan mulberries (Morus macroura) gleaned from a house sitting gig. It’s one of the tastiest fruits I’ve ever had, very sweet, kinda like nature’s version of a Jolly Rancher. If you’ve never had a Pakistan mulberry it’s not surprising as it’s a fruit that simply doesn’t ship well.

Here’s what the California Rare Fruit Growers say about it,

“Originated in Islamabad, Pakistan. Extremely large ruby-red fruit 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches long and 3/8 inch in diameter. Flesh firmer than most other named cultivars. Sweet with a fine balance of flavors. Quality excellent. Tree spreading with large heart-shaped leaves. Recommended for the deep South and mild winter areas such as southern California, but usually performs satisfactorily in cooler areas.”

According to the Plants for a Future database the Pakistan mulberry is hardy down to -5 and -10°c and has both male and female flowers on the same tree. If I had the space, which I don’t, I’d definitely plant one.

That would have been the conclusion of this blog post had I not done an image search that turned up this:

Apparently chicks dig Pakistan mulberries or at least that’s the impression that a nursery down in Georgia (that I’m not gonna name cause the reviews are not so good) would like us to think. And the same nursery that generated the image above also has a page of religious videos, one of which (“The Cursed Fig Tree”) addresses the “God hates figs” controversy we dealt with some time ago. I can’t figure out if the videos are sincere, art, shot by kids, visionary public access or all of the above. We’ll leave it to post-structuralists readers of this blog wasting time at work to figure that out. 
Art theory tangent aside, damn, those Pakistan mulberries are good!

Made By Hand

Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway WorldJungian analyst James Hollis speaks of two gremlins that meet us at the foot of the bed each day: fear and lethargy. As DIYers, gardeners, poultry keepers and fermentation fetishists, our worst enemy is a crippling fear of failure and the lethargy that results when we try to avoid challenges by surfing the Internet, watching TV, or just staring into space. To embrace failure is the only way to learn. Hollis quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, “our task is to be defeated by ever larger things.”

BoingBoing co-founder and Make Magazine editor in chief Mark Frauenfelder has a new book Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World that chronicles his quest to do the kinds of activities we cover on this blog: vegetable gardening, keeping chickens, fermentation, beekeeping and more. While Made by Hand is not a how-to book it is, paradoxically, the most practical DIY book I’ve read in a long time. Why? Because it’s all about facing that fear of failure, the single greatest obstacle to actually getting out there and doing things. In the book Frauenfelder quotes überDIYer Mister Jalopy,

“People are afraid that they’re going to screw something up, that they’re going to ruin something. And unfortunately, it’s valid–they will. You will screw up. Things will be broken. But that’s the one step to overcome to get on the path of living this richer life of engagement, of having meaningful connections to the objects around you. It’s that necessary step you have to take–the courage to screw things up.”

I picked up Made by Hand and couldn’t put it down. I’ve done most of the activities Frauenfelder writes about and made many of the same mistakes. In the past month I’ve had an especially frustrating series of DIY setbacks. I’ve also, directly because of reading this book, faced my fear of failure and had a series of creative breakthroughs.

The world does not need more “experts.” What we need are the brutally honest voices of  “practitioners” like Frauenfelder, people who do things and have the courage to fail. As Ulysses says in the Odyssey, “I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardship, and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to pieces, then I will swim.”

Food and Flowers Freedom Act Update

Yesterday the Food and Flowers Freedom Act passed the city council and awaits the mayor’s expected signature. It goes to show that revising outdated codes pertaining to local agriculture can be, at least here in Los Angeles, non-controversial. In fact, those of us at the meeting to support the act left before the vote was taken. It tuned out the council was pre-occupied with a contentious debate over rent control that ended in a fight breaking out and the council chambers being cleared. At least, it seems, we can all get behind locally grown fruit and flowers. For more information on the history of the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, see the website of the Urban Farming Advocates.

The Food and Flowers Freedom Act Needs Your Support

UFA supporters at a commission meeting back in March

Local food is coming to Los Angeles. Friday May 21st, the Los Angeles City Council will vote on amending city code to allow growing and selling fruit and flowers within city limits. If you live in the area, the Urban Farming Advocates can use your support at tomorrow’s meeting. From the UFA website:

We will assemble between 11 and 11:30am in the Council Chamber at City Hall.

Friday morning, May 21, 2010

Los Angeles City Hall
200 North Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 485-2121

If we’re gonna be called the “land of the fruits and the nuts,” we might as well live up to it! Hope to see some of you downtown tomorrow.

Urban Homestead on Craigslist. Act Now!

I’ve always been uneasy with the moniker “urban homestead.” It’s the title of our book (what else could we have called it?), but it’ not really accurate. The activities we describe are also practiced by suburbanites and people in rural places. And “homestead” is not technically accurate–all the readers of our book, I’m fairly certain, either own or rent their property. The term is also loaded with some not so nice cultural baggage as this blog post points out.

The earliest reference I can find to an “urban homestead” is a 1976 article in Mother Earth News describing Berkeley California’s Integral Urban House.

I’m fairly certain the term has caught on and is here to stay after discovering a Craigslist real estate listing in Livingston Montana using the term:

$269500 / 4br – Urban Homestead (524 S. 10th,)
It’s the best of both worlds…you can be self-reliant and live in town. Inside, this home features 3+ bedrooms, 2 baths, an office or hobby room, reading area, and large family room, plus cold-storage for canned goods. Outside, there are raised organic garden beds, a chicken coop, a koi pond and apple, cherry and plum trees for sustainable food production. There is an efficient furnace and a low-emissions woodstove for auxillary [sic] heat. This wonderful home is located across from the city water works park and just 2 blocks from schools, the clinic, Sacajawea Park and the Yellowstone River. This property is perfectly set up for those with a green thumb or those who wish to live a greener lifestyle! For more photos and a downloadable pdf brochure go to http://www.ecorealestatesource.com/urbanhomestead.pdf. Call Mary 406-599-9889 or Dixie 406-223-1225 to preview. MLS#168742 ”

Does the sofa double as a composting toilet?

O.K., I see a microwave, but where the hell is the pickle crock?

Can we keep the Buddha if we eat the koi?

If any of you buy it, I’ll throw in a free copy of our book but you gotta take down that Thomas Kinkade print.

Kidding aside, it’s kind of amazing to see a real estate agent touting a chicken coop rather than demanding it to be removed in order to sell the house. Maybe things have changed.