Help Us Choose a Grain Mill

At the Huasna Valley wheat farm I blogged about yesterday, they have a grain mill made by a company called All Grain Mills out of Utah. What the farmer liked about this company is that the mills they make have stone wheels instead of steel. Steel burrs can heat up and destroy the enzymes in the wheat. Furthermore these All Grain mills are considerably less expensive than other ones I’ve seen. I’d like to know if any of you readers have one of these All Grain Mills? If so, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in recommendations for other mills.

And I can’t help but comment on the aesthetics of the All Grain Mills. The company’s website is so bare-bones it’s almost hip (promising in my opinion when you’re looking for pre-interweb technology). And that fake wood paneling reminds me of my childhood:

Why we love fennel

Fennel is an invasive plant, and there are plenty of fennel haters out there, many of them our friends, but every year we let a stand or two of wild fennel take root in our yard anyway. We just had to pause now, while the fennel is high, to say that we love it, because it is hardy and beautiful and grows with no water and no encouragement. Feral fennel bulbs aren’t as good as cultivated bulbs for eating, but we eat the flowers, the fronds and the seeds from these wild stands.

But the real reason we let it grow is because fennel attracts more beneficial insects than any other plant, native or imported, that we’ve ever grown in our yard. It’s impossible to photograph, but our fennel stand is swarming all day, every day, with flying insects of every sort, honeybees, wasps, butterflies, ladybugs and many, many small pollinators which we cannot name. At least ten species at any given glance. It is truly a sight to behold.

Sonora Wheat at the Huasna Valley Farm

Ron Skinner

I had the great privilege this week of visiting the Huasna Valley Farm in California’s central coast run by Ron and Jenn Skinner whose visible joy is infectious. The Skinners grow Sonora wheat, an heirloom variety brought to the Southwest by the Spanish.

Sonora wheat is well suited to dry desert and Mediterranean climates. It produces a cream colored flour that was historically used for tortillas and posole. The Skinners served us some Sonora whole wheat biscuits that tasted as light as white flour but with a rich and complex flavor.

Jenn Skinner

To fight weeds (the big bugaboo of wheat farming) the Skinners plan on introducing Black Medic (Medicago lupulina) a leguminous plant that will fix nitrogen and out-compete unwanted weeds. The tall stalks of Sonora wheat will allow the medic to grow far below the seed heads. This is in contrast to conventional wheat farming with its short varieties and heavy reliance on herbicides. Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution” used Sonora wheat to create Sonora 64, an early green revolution wheat. Ironically, as we face an uncertain energy future, we may have to go back to the original Sonora wheat as it performs better in organic circumstances and needs less water than modern wheat varieties.

Ron shows off the combine.

One of the challenges the Skinners faced in farming just a few acres of wheat was figuring out how to harvest it. Large industrial farms use enormous and very expensive combines. Small and medium sized combines simply aren’t manufactured anymore. Luckily the Skinners found a vintage Allis-Chalmers combine across the road which Ron and his son disassembled and rebuilt.

I bought twenty pounds of Sonora wheat flour and a few pounds of wheat berries and am really looking forward to baking with it. I might even grow my own mini-Sonora wheat field this winter (you plant it here in Southern California in January for harvest around the 4th of July.

For more information on Sonora wheat see:

The Huasna Valley Farm website, particularly their informative newsletters.

Sustainablegrains.org has a Sonora Wheat tortilla recipe.

Slow Food USA has a page on the history of Sonora wheat.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, join the Los Angeles Bread Bakers to participate in farm visits, baking classes and oven building sessions.

And a special thanks to LABB member Joseph Shuldiner for arranging this trip!

Quick and Easy Fire Starters

I came across these fire starters this week while sorting out our camping gear, and thought I should blog about them. Then I realized we already have–long, long ago: way back in 2006, when we were all young and innocent.

These little babies are made out of paper egg cartons, dryer lint and old candle stubs. Once lit, they burn long and mightily. I always keep one down at the bottom of my backpack, along with the first aid kit. They’re really handy for starting fires, especially for the fire-challenged, or to give you extra security when you’re working in difficult conditions. Best of all, they cost nothing, and take only a few minutes to make.

Read our original post for the how-to’s.

Vertical Garden Success!

Regular readers of the blog know that we’re dubious about vertical gardening, but this is a vertical garden we can really get behind. Here, a cherry tomato is growing out of a crack in a retaining wall in our neighbor’s yard. (It’s just off our front stairs, and is almost certainly an offspring of one of our tomatoes) It is thriving with no water whatsoever. You can’t see them in this picture, but there’s tons of fruit on it. And its tomatoes were ripe before any of our pampered plants were bearing. 

Moral: Plants grow well where plants want to grow.

Bee Hotel

From an old beekeeping book (thanks Steve!),  How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey:

This is probably the finest bee hive in the world. It was built by E. S. Williams, St. Petersburg, Florida, who spent 6 months constructing it. It holds two standard 10 frame hive bodies and a bottom board. The second story lifts off for hive manipulations. It is wired for 110 volt current, has window shades and curtains. The front plastic doors swing easily and fit snugly. There is a flag pole, also a sign, that is not pictured here. This has been displayed at the Kentucky and Florida State Fairs. It is unusual items like this that make a few fair exhibits stand out.

 Not sure the bees appreciate that electricity.

Cornmeal Zucchini Pancakes

  
More things to do with zucchini!
Many of you know Rosalind Creasy, Queen of the Edible Landscape. If you don’t, look her up. She wrote Edible Landscaping, among others. It turns out that she’s not only an amazing gardener, one who makes colors and textures sing, who makes edible gardens more beautiful than any ornamental garden I’ve ever seen, but she cooks, too.  Darn her and her…her…competence!!!
Erik found her Recipes from the Garden at the library and brought it home. This is the first thing we’ve cooked from it, but we liked it a lot. These are savory pancakes that suit for breakfast, brunch, or even dinner. I imagine if you made them without the onions they could be served sweet, with syrup or jam, as a veggie-infused breakfast pancake. 
Note: She calls for yellow zucchini or summer squash, but we used green zucchini.
Cornmeal Zucchini Pancakes
1 1/4 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon of sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 cup of grated zucchini, yellow or green, or yellow summer squash
3 tablespoons yellow bell pepper, diced fine (we skipped this)
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
Salsa for serving, homemade or store-bought, optional. 
(We just chopped up some red onion and cherry tomatoes and called it salsa, but I think a fruity salsa (e.g. mango) would be really good with this.)
In a big bowl fork together the dry ingredients (the first list). In a smaller bowl mix the wet ingredients (the second list). Dump wet ingredients on top of the dry and mix just until incorporated–Creasy says “until barely moist.”
Cook these like any pancake: in a greased skillet over medium heat until they’re golden brown and the sides are firm. Keep the finished ones warm in the oven while you cook the rest.
They keep well in the fridge. I just ate one for breakfast after rewarming it in frying pan. Still tasty after 3 days!

Droopy Leaves are Not a Good Thing

Droopy Dawg

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So I just learned I’ve been taken in by a popular myth. You know how in the summer, the leaves of some plants go droopy in the heat of midday, then bounce back when it cools off? I’d heard…somewhere…who knows how these things get planted in your brain…that this was nothing to worry about. I’d also heard that was ineffectual, anyway, to water them midday.

Well, I was wrong. Erik just sent me a link to a post from one of his favorite blogs, WSU Extension’s The Garden Professors titled Hot Weather and Not-So-Hot Advice, which scientifically refutes this myth, and gives us permission to water midday, if necessary, to save the plants.

In a nutshell, droop is bad. Droop is stress. There should be no droop.

Are Raised Beds a Good Idea?

Raised bed fail. Our appalling parkway beds. Extra demerits for having used treated lumber! *

Raised beds have some pluses and minuses. Lately I’ve been thinking about their drawbacks. Namely:

  • Cost
  • How fast they dry out in a hot climate.

Now I can also think of a few reasons one might want to grow vegetables in a raised bed:

  • You do a soil test (and you should do a soil test, especially if you live in an urban area) and the results come back showing that you have heavy metals in your soil.
  • You live in a very wet climate.
  • A disability prevents you from kneeling or leaning over to garden.
  • Your soil has no contaminants, but has some other problem, say bad texture or lots of buried rocks/chunks of concrete.
  • You have dogs/rabbits/chupacabras, etc. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that for Southern California and, by extension, any dry climate, raised beds are a bad idea unless, of course, you have any of the issues mentioned above. Particularly in the summer, the raised beds I have in the parkway, pictured above, have performed poorly. So poorly, that I’m going to remove them soon. If a soil test shows high heavy metal levels I’ll just go with some ornamental/insectary plants.

 Above, broom corn (Sorghum bicolor) doing just fine straight in the ground.

A partially sunken bed. Extra points for finding the stinkhorn mushroom.

This bed is somewhat of a compromise. I cut the bed in half lengthwise to make it half as tall as it used to be thus getting two beds for the price of one. Then I sunk it into the ground In effect, the veggies are in the ground but I still have the neatness and defined borders of a raised bed.

Again, if you’re in Seattle raised beds are probably a good idea. But here in SoCal, I’m going to skip them from now on if just because of how much water they waste.

*ETA: A note from Mrs. Homegrown re: that topmost picture of the sad, sad raised beds. They look terrible because after a couple of seasons of struggling with mysteriously declining crops within their borders, we’ve given up on them and did not plant them this spring. I don’t want anybody thinking they look so poorly *only* because they are raised beds. That pair of beds has produced very well in the past, but has some sort of soil problem now–one which we can’t figure out. So I wouldn’t agree with labeling the picture “raised bed fail”– it’s more of a gardener fail. It may have something to do with the fact that they are raised, that the soil texture has deteriorated over time due to the elevation–that is Erik’s theory. I’m not so sure that’s all that is going on. Nonetheless, I do agree with the overall point of this post: that in this climate sunken beds make a lot of sense.