Back to the Ranch

Ranch photo from the Huntington’s Ranch blog.

I’ve never had so much fun at a symposium as I did at the Huntington’s urban agriculture blow-out this weekend. The two day event launched the Huntington’s new experimental urban agricultural station known as the “Ranch” and featured a diverse bunch of speakers. The Ranch will provide much needed information on edible landscapes and food forestry, particularly for those of us in the southwest. Designed by Scott Kleinrock, the Ranch, with its combination of fruit trees, intensive vegetable plantings and California natives is already stunning–by next year it will be a paradise. The Ranch has a blog at http://huntingtonblogs.org/theranch/.

Some highlights from the symposium after the jump:

Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local FoodAuthor Gary Nabhan presented “Adapting Food Production to a Hotter, Drier World: Using Agricultural Stations to Train Future Farmers.” Nabhan stressed the dire situation those of us living in arid climates face with climate change and the importance of experimental stations such as the Ranch in figuring out next steps. You can read some of Nabhan’s articles on his website at http://garynabhan.com/.

Dr. Susan Mulley of Cal Poly Pomona presented the results of her research in a surprisingly engaging and amusing lecture, “Are Vegetables Private?” and Other Questions: Belief and Perception and Their Impacts on Urban Agriculture.” Mulley’s work involves surveying the general public and landscaping professionals on their aesthetic likes and dislikes. The data she presented during the lecture involved perceptions of residential and institutional edible and native landscapes. Not surprisingly, the general public tends to favor landscapes that are orderly and neat while landscape professionals are more comfortable with “wildness.” The take-away for me is that those of us in the “urban farm” movement need to be more cognizant of aesthetics. As Mulley put it, most people prefer landscapes that show, “the human touch.” I think it would be best to work with that human touch rather than fight it.

Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms told the story of her journey to make a living as an urban farmer growing and selling cut flowers. Kolla began by emphasising something most people don’t know, that most cut flowers you buy at markets are drenched in pesticides. Kolla’s entrepreneurial efforts were soon thwarted by NIMBY neighbors whose complaints to local inspectors resulted in the birth of the Urban Farming Advocates. The UFA went on to craft, along with the city’s planning department, the “Food and Flowers Freedom Act” which made it legal in the city of Los Angeles to grow fruits, nuts and flowers and resell them.

Kelly and I spoke next in a rambling and bizarre lecture that involved vegetables, barefoot running and humanure among other topics. Kelly kept things on track, as usual, and headed off my tendency towards pretentious quotes. I did get to use my favorite Marshall McCluhan saying, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.”

Darren Butler presented a talk entitled, “Food Forestry and Living Systems” that echoed Nabhan’s call for for food forestry research in our arid climate. I’m looking forward to taking Butler’s grafting workshop this winter.

Edible LandscapingThe day concluded with a dazzling presentation by Rosalind Creasy whose groundbreaking book Edible Landscaping has just been updated. As Mulley’s research proves, if we want to get more folks to replace their lawns with more useful plants we’ve also got to pay attention to aesthetics. Creasy, through her gardens and writing, has proven that useful and beautiful can be one and the same. My other thought on hearing Creasy’s lecture is that perhaps we’d be better off not using the phrase “urban farming.” “Edible landscaping” or “edible landscapes” would be more accurate and less likely to bring up bad associations some people have with agriculture.

I’ve left out a lot of details on this amazing conference and may write a few more blog posts to unpack what I learned. Congratulations to the hard working staff of the Huntington for pulling off an auspicious debut for the Ranch.

Skid Row Community Garden Gets SIPs

Novice gardeners + hot rooftop accessible only by many flights of stairs = perfect opportunity to use self irrigating pots.

Two master gardeners, Anne Hars and Maggie Lobl asked me to show them how to put together some SIPs (read more about what a SIP is here) for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, which works with homeless and low-income residents on skid row.  Hars, Lobl, myself and a bunch of folks from LACAN put together a few SIPs and planted vegetables on the LACAN rooftop. The plants are thriving in a space where previous attempts at container gardening met with mixed success.

Gardening, like all the ways we humans interact with our surroundings is all about context. If you’ve got soil, as I’m lucky to have, work with that first. But if you have only a sunny rooftop or balcony and/or limited gardening experience SIPs are a great tool. They almost guarantee success, which is encouraging for people who have never gardened before. 

Read Jeff Spurrier’s article about the LACAN SIP garden in the LA Times, “Skid Row Community Garden: bounty by the bucket.”

Ridiculous New Parkway Planting Rules for Los Angeles

Neatly mowed bermuda grass and weeds–no permit required!

The city of Los Angeles just announced new guidelines for parkway plantings. The new rules allow residents can plant ten different species of drought tolerant turf alternatives in addition to approved street trees and drought tolerant turf species. It sounds great . . . until you read the fine print.

Those drought tolerant turf alternatives, which include chamomile, yarrow and even strawberries, must be kept “mowed.” If you want to grow any of these plants taller than 2 inches or ones not on the list you’ve got to submit drawings, apply for a permit and pay at least $400, possibly more. Ironically, the cover of the guidelines shows a picture of a mature yarrow plant of the sort you’d have to go through the permit process to grow under the new guidelines.

If anything the city has it backwards. After all, I doubt many homeowners are going to get down on their knees with scissors to trim their turf alternatives. Instead it will be yet another chore for LA’s legion of gas powered mow and blow “gardeners.” Why not charge a permit and fees to have a lawn or lawn substitute and give a free pass to drought tolerant plants under 36 inches in height? Or, better yet, simply give a small property tax break to anyone who installs drought tolerant, plants that that provide habitat for beneficial wildlife. It’s a program that might pay for itself in reduced storm water runoff, just to name one benefit. And why can’t you grow edible plants?

Another concern the city has is liability. If someone trips on a tall plant I’ve put planted in the parkway the city could be sued. It’s a curious argument to make considering that Los Angeles has essentially given up on sidewalk maintenance. A landslide that closed a sidewalk on nearby Sunset Blvd has languished unrepaired for eight months. They’ve also given up on maintaining boulevard median strips–most are at least knee deep in weeds.

Alas, this is a typical policy move for Los Angeles. They jump on the bandwagon, but get all the details wrong.

The Big Apple

Homegrown Neighbor gave us this gigantic apple as a gift. The smaller one is for scale, and it’s your typical smallish (i.e. not grocery store large) organic apple.

We suspect Monster Apple is not for eating, only for marveling. It’s a Gordon apple, grown at the esteemed Eco-Home here in Los Angeles. According to HN, the other apples on the tree were large, too, but this one was the daddy of them all.

Advances in Gardening: The Trough of Garlic

Remember a while back I posted a picture of Erik in a manly pose, whomping our patio with his sledgehammer? He took out a strip of concrete and built this over the hole: a new planting bed.  That’s the Germinator on the right, butting up to it and my Fan behind it.  When we’re done with all this redoing, we’ll clean everything up and take some wider shots so it all begins to make sense. For now–believe me–it’s better to keep to limited views!

Right now,  as its name suggests, this new bed is planted with garlic–and a few shallots. Rather as I had with medicinal herbs, for years I’ve been tucking garlic in here and there all over the garden. And while that’s a fine strategy, especially if you believe in its use as a companion plant, it’s a real treat to be able to plant a ton of garlic all at once.

But this isn’t a dedicated garlic bed. Remember, in gardening, you have to keep your crops circulating. Repeated plantings of the same veggie in the same place is just begging for trouble. After the garlic harvest, we’ll add the bed to the rotational schedule. Perhaps next it will hold Swiss chard, or carrots. When you’re trying to rotate crops in a small yard, every new bed helps. Even small ones. This is one reason we squeezed this one out of our patio.

Note that like The Fan, The Trough is also covered with hoops and netting to keep skunks and squirrels (and chickens) out until the plants get established.

Grow Your Own!

If you haven’t grown garlic, it’s super easy. Just break up a head of garlic and plant the individual cloves pointy end up under an inch or so of soil, about six inches apart. You’ll want to use only big fat cloves, not those skinny ones that sit in toward the core.

You can use regular old organic garlic that you’d buy at the store or the farmers’ market. Some warn against this, saying the heads might be treated with anti-sprouting agents, but I’ve never had a problem. Diseases of different sorts may also be a problem, now that I think about it. And I don’t like to think about it, because I love shoving random garlic from my kitchen into the ground. It’s just plain fun. But if you plan ahead, you can order safe, untreated garlic from seed companies, and even better, you can choose from a wide variety of heirloom and gourmet varieties suited to you individual climate.

Too late for us this year, a friend gave us an enthusiastic recommendation: a variety called Music. Check it out. Perhaps we’ll plant this one next year.

Here in LA, we plant garlic in the fall, between Halloween and Thanksgiving for a spring harvest. You’ll have to check local wisdom to find out when you should plant yours, but we’ve heard that in cold winter climates you also plant garlic around this time–the only difference being that the bulbs overwinter under the snow and sprout in the spring. Ours are already sprouting, sped up, I think, by our insane hot/cold weather cycles this fall.

One last tip: garlic likes mulch. In the bed above, you’ll see the straw mulch covering most of it. The shallots are on the far, bare end. We’ve never grown them before, but apparently they don’t like mulch.  Everybody has to be a diva.

Should you really want to become a garlic expert, there’s a book on the subject: Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers.

Advances in Gardening: The Screens of Discretion

When our friend Tara helped us reconceptualize our back yard, one of the first things she did was wave toward our compost pile and chicken supply zone, and say, “You’ve got to screen off all that crap.”

Of course! We had to take control of the view. Ahhhhh…..

So Erik built this screen. He started using a pre-made trellis material, but tricked it up.  Behind it you can see the massive compost pile. The structure on the left is the end of the hen house. We’d been stacking straw bales and wood chips there. Now we can hide all that behind the screen–and maybe there will even be room for that ugly steel can back.

It’s a shady spot, but Tara thinks it gets enough light to grow raspberries. If you look close you can see two tiny raspberries planted at the foot of each screen.

Aesthetic improvement + new growing space for food = pretty cool

Advances in Gardening: Introducing the Germinator™

I’ve built a kind of seedling Guantanamo which I’ve dubbed the “Germinator™.” Why? Two reasons:

1. Damn squirrels and chickens. Both have gotten into my seedling flats in the past and wreaked havoc. This is why the Germinator™, for most of the year, has a wire mesh top. That wire mesh also takes down the harsh Southern California sun a notch so the flats don’t dry out.

Univent Greenhouse Automatic Vent Opener2. During the cooler spring season, I can trade out the wire mesh for a translucent plastic top and I’ll have a cold frame. Last year my tomato seeds failed to germinate due to cold weather. I’ve vowed not to let that happen next year.

I’m going to trick out the hinged top of the Germinator™ during the cool months with a Univent Greenhouse Automatic Vent Opener, a gadget that promises to automatically open and close the top. The Univent requires no batteries or power and aims to maintain a temperature range between 62-73 F. We’ll review the Univent when we try it next year.

So far the Germinator™ has worked well, providing a safe haven for our winter seedlings: artichoke, spigarello broccoli, nettles, sweet peas, white sage, Italian dandelion, chard and more. We could sow directly in the ground but, due to construction of our new garden infrastructure, starting seedlings in flats allowed me to get going ahead of time.

Advances in Gardening Series: The Fan

Yet another heat wave slowed our backyard redesign project, but the weather is looking more cooperative at last and things are coming along. What we thought we might do over the next few days is share some of the new things we’ve put in, and how/why we built them, just in case any of it might be useful to you.

Everything is pretty rough and ragged right now, but it will be fun to report back in a couple months and do a compare/contrast.

The Concept:

Above you see the bones of my herb fan (and lots of chaos beyond). This space used to be my herb patch, which consisted of a bunch of random plantings, some perennial, some seasonal. It somewhat useful and occasionally attractive, but  didn’t earn its keep. So what I’ve done is split my herb production into two categories: kitchen and medicinal.

The kitchen herbs are going to live in a smaller planter box, all compact and tidy (because really, how much marjoram do you need?). This new bed, The Fan, is for medicinal annuals, because I need more space to produce them in useful quantities. For instance, you need a good number of chamomile plants if you want enough to put away for tea and a little more for salves. With this in mind, I’m going to rotate “large” crops of annuals through this space, one variety per wedge.

This winter’s fan is planted with, from left to right, Calendula, chamomile and bread seed poppies. I started the Calendula and chamomile in flats ahead of time, simply to get a head start, then transplanted them into their wedges this week. Poppies don’t like to be transplanted, so I sowed those seeds today.

The original herb garden was a rough quarter circle. We kept that footprint, but used spare bricks to divide the shape into 3 smaller wedges. The bricks give me a way to walk between the wedges without compacting the soil. 

The Process:

To prepare the ground…

I first forked the original soil, because while it’s not bad soil, it was compacted. Poppies have deep taproots. Like carrots, they need loose soil, so I really worked their wedge deep. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have done the same for all the wedges. Then I spread 1″ of good homemade compost over the whole area and a bit of alfalfa meal and forked that in about 3 inches deep. Then I watered deeply to prepare for planting.

By the way, I made a mistake at this stage. While merrily amending and forking the soil, I forgot that chamomile likes crappy soil.  With chamomile, hard conditions yield many blossoms. So by putting my chamomile in a deluxe bed, I may have guaranteed myself lots of foliage and few flowers. We’ll see. The lesson? Pay attention. Don’t garden on autopilot.

Next I coiled drip tubing in each wedge…

pinning the tubing down with bent wire. Erik did the heavy lifting in setting up the drip system a couple of years ago. Now when we want to irrigate, we just have to move the tubes around or switch them out as necessary. You can see the tubing snaking around in the photo. Soon as the plants get a little bigger it will become invisible. The mainline tubing is visible at the bottom of the photo–this is where all the little tubes plug in. That will also be obscured later.

The final step is to protect newly planted seeds and seedling from marauding critters.

We do this by stretching bird netting over wire hoops. Bird netting, also called aviary netting, is a super light, fine plastic netting that can be bought at most nurseries. You can drape trees or garden beds with it to protect them when in fruit, or when plants are tiny and tempting.

Erik says he’ll do a whole post on the wire hoops one day, but right now can’t remember the name of the wire. But he gets in the chain-link fencing section of the Home Despot. But basically, it’s a sturdy galvanized wire. Because it’s sold in circular bundles, it’s easy to cut off a piece and use it as a hoop. The cut ends get thrust in the ground and the netting is spread over the arch. We weigh the ends down with bricks or boards. You can see the bricks on the far left wedge above–if not the netting itself.  This system isn’t elegant, but it’s temporary, and it works.

Now all I have to do is top water…

until the plants get roots deep enough to take advantage of the drip. It’s nice to have the chamomile and Calendula so far along. These seedlings are too big for bugs to bother, and should do fine. The poppies I planted by simply sowing the seed thick on the surface of the soil, and patting them down a bit.  When they germinate, there will be tons of teeny sprouts, and I’ll have to thin them ruthlessly so that each poppy has lots of breathing room. I’ve made the mistake in the past of planting them too closely. When you do that, they get spindly and sad.

And that’s that. I can hardly wait to see the beds fill in.

Tune in next time for… The Germinator!


Return of Bean Friday: Bean Broth or “Tuscan Crazy Water”

Yep, Bean Friday rears its head again–or is it Frugal Friday?

Whatever it is, I’ve got this thrifty idea for you. I read about in The Italian Country Table, by Lynn Rossetto Casper. We’ve had this book for years and years, and it has some really good recipes in it that have become standards in our house, along just with a couple of duds. I’d not paid attention to her entry on “Crazy Water” before, but by her introduction, I realized it was just the sort of thrifty cooking we’ve been focusing on here during Bean Fest. The only question for me was whether this recipe was a keeper or a dud, because it sounded pretty strange. The truth is it’s sort of in between.

According to Caspar, Tuscans like to cook beans with plenty of aromatics in lots of water, and then reserve that water as a broth. The bean broth is called Acqua Pazza, crazy water.

“This soup is a revelation” is how she opens the recipe. And later she claims it could be mistaken for chicken broth. That might be the problem–I was expecting twinkling lights and perhaps a chorus from a boys’ choir when I tasted it. What I got was a swallow of thin broth which tastes mostly like warm water when it first hits the tongue, but really does have a very nice, savory aftertaste. It’s delicate.

Caspar suggests serving it in bowls with croutons. I don’t have that much faith in it. But it is a decent vegetarian stock. It goes very well over rice, and I suspect it would be an excellent broth for cooking rice and other grains. I am fond of the waste-not, want-not philosophy behind it, and also the time saving angle. You can make a pot of beans for dinner, and end up with a supply of broth as a side benefit.

So now that all of those qualifications are done, this is how you make the broth:

First, you can’t use just any dried bean. Use light beans, like cannellini, pinto or borlotti. She particularly recommends chickpeas. I used pintos. Don’t use any dark or earthy bean, like black beans or black eyed peas. For fresh beans, she recommends cranberry beans or scarlet runners.

Basically you’re making a pot of beans with extra water. Simple stuff. I doubled her recipe, which only called for 1 cup of dried beans. I soaked 2 cups of dried pintos overnight. The next day I drained them and put them in a heavy pot and poured 2 inches of fresh water over them. To that water I added:

  • 8 fresh sage leaves
  • 6 good sized cloves of crushed garlic
  • 1 medium onion sliced in half and studded with 4 whole cloves

(Just fyi, her recipe calls for 8 sage leaves per 1 cup of dried beans. I chose not to double the sage.)

Throw these seasonings in with the beans. Bring the pot to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Don’t stir. This is supposed to make the broth clear. (It didn’t really help in my case). Foam might appear on top of the water–it did for me, but it vanished by the end of the cooking time.

Simmer the beans on low, covered, until tender but not falling apart. My pintos cooked in only 30 minutes. A speed record! The plenitude of water means you don’t have to worry about sticking or burning.

At the very end, add salt and pepper.

Strain the broth from the beans. She notes that the Tuscans dress these beans at the table using salt, pepper, olive oil and maybe vinegar.  I tried it, and it’s fine. Solid. Not super exciting, but healthy and hearty. I served the beans over rice with some of the broth. Another possibility, maybe a better possibility, would be to reserve the beans for a higher purpose, like frijoles refritos, or hummus-like applications.

The broth doesn’t keep. You know how stinky beans can get when forgotten in the fridge. I don’t even want to know what might happen to this broth. So use it the next day, or freeze it for the next time you need stock.

I got about 6 cups of bean broth from this recipe.

Anyone done anything similar? Any advice?

Chickens in the House!

Mrs. Homestead here:

I’d planned to give you all a progress report on the backyard redesign, which features such wonders as the Germinator ™, the Trough of Garlic ™, the Fan of Pharmacy ™ and the Screens of Discretion (also tm).

But the camera crapped out on me. So, until I figure it out (Which means until Erik gets home and I can shove the darn thing at him and say, “Fix your camera!”),  I’m offering up this picture of a home invasion, poultry style.

Don’t know about you other chicken keepers, but our ladies are obsessed with the house. If they’re loose, they sit on by the back door and watch us through the glass. And if we leave the door open, they try to venture inside–though they don’t seem to much like the texture of kitchen floor. We don’t let them stay, but it’s funny to watch them try to creep in.

I was cracking up when I took this picture. You probably can’t see it, but our Red there, Stewpot, is pecking at a jar of popcorn–and encountering the phenomenon of glass for the first time. She thought she’d hit the mother lode.