The binoculars are always close at hand

A typical breakfast scene: Erik surveys the neighborhood from our “hilltop aerie.” What’s he looking at? Perhaps a lithesome jogger? Actually, no. When I took this picture he was admiring something poking out of a recycling bin over on Coronado Terrace.

I’ve never quite got used to my man’s propensity to snatch up the binoculars, but I don’t really disapprove either. Erik is a peculiar peeping tom. His viewing interests fall into 3 categories:

1) Scavenge opportunities
2) Happily spotting people and/or dogs we know on the street. Sort of as a sport. (“There goes Blackie!”)
3) Foiling wrongdoers. Because he’s so nosy, he knows who lives here, and has interfered with nefarious activities in the past (casing, tagging, etc.).

Grow Biointensive Videos

I’ve often threatened that our next book would adapt the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders into a vegetable gardening guide. Obsessive/compulsive? Here’s how you plant radishes . . .

Wherever I fall in the diagnostic manual, the vegetable gardening method I’ve used for the past few years has been based on John Jeavon’s “Biointensive” method as described in his book How to Grow More Vegetables. This past weekend I made the pilgrimage to Jeavon’s Willits, California headquarters to drink the Kool-Aid at the foot of the master and take a three day Biointensive workshop.

The Biointensive method involves growing compost crops, double digging and tight spacing. Jeavons aims to produce a complete diet in as little space as possible while maintaining soil fertility with few outside inputs. Unlike most garden gurus Jeavons backs up his ideas with meticulous research which draws on his background in workplace efficiency.

He’s also generous and “open source” with his techniques. The workshop was reasonably priced for three full days of instruction. Should you not be able to get to Willits, Jeavon’s non-profit Ecology Action has produced a well made series of instructional videos that you can view online here. I’ve created a playlist of the complete set of these videos below:

Now, I’m so fired up from the workshop I’ve got to get away from this computer and out into the garden!

Our sky, post-storm

I’m just putting this up as a memorial to winter. It’s over, and I already miss it. From now on the Southern California skies will be relentlessly azure, unmarred even by clouds, except for a brief period of chronic overcast called “June gloom.” We may not see rain again for 9 months.

Borage: It’s what’s for dinner

image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Our friend Milli (Master Gardener of the Milagro Allegro community garden) stopped by today to pick up some sourdough starter. On seeing our back yard swamped abundant with borage (Borago officinalis), she mentioned that she’s been really digging borage tacos lately. This was very exciting news to us, because we’d never eaten our borage leaves–only the flowers.

So tonight I went out and cut a whole mess of stiff, prickly borage leaves. The prickles vanish on cooking. Some sources say only to use small leaves for cooking but I say fie to that. I used leaves of all sizes and after cooking there was no difference between them. Borage is actually rather delicate under all its spikes and cooks down considerably in to a very tender, spinach-like consistency.

Instead of making little tacos with it, we folded it into tortillas with a bit of goat’s milk gouda to make yummy green quesadillas–a quick, light and satisfying meal at the end of a busy day.

How did we cook it? –>


We cooked the borage as we cook all of our greens, no matter what kind. It seems we can’t be bothered to develop any variations on this theme. First we saute chopped garlic in lots of olive oil along with chile pepper flakes, then add piles of chopped wet greens–any greens– to the pan. These get tossed until they wilt to the point where we want them, which varies. If any green seems particularly tough, we put a lid over the skillet for a moment to steam them. Salt and pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon finishes them off.

I used this technique on the borage and it came out very nice. Tender, as I said, with pleasing bit of cucumber flavor. There is also the faintest hint of a mucilaginous texture, but nothing off-putting. Borage is a cooling herb, like mallow (Malva sylvestris)–which we like to eat as a green as well. Because of this cooling quality, both are refreshing to eat, especially on a hot day. I’m writing this a few minutes after dinner and this coolness lingers in my throat. It’s also supposed to be a soothing, grounding herb and now I’m wondering if I don’t feel a bit more grounded, too, post-quesadilla.

Borage is also a medicinal plant–as a compress, tea, tincture or oil extract it has different uses and effects, which will have to be covered in another post.

More people are familiar with borage’s star-like edible flowers, which can be preserved in sugar for cakes, or tossed into salads. I’ve heard of freezing them in ice cubes for fancy drinks, which is a lovely idea.

Obligatory health warning:  I’m going to quote this directly from the very useful Plants for a Future database, from their entry on borage:

The plant, but not the oil obtained from the seeds, contains small amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can cause liver damage and liver cancer[238]. These alkaloids are present in too small a quantity to be harmful unless you make borage a major part of your diet, though people with liver problems would be wise to avoid using the leaves or flowers of this plant.

Also, I’ve seen warnings regarding pregnant and nursing women eating borage here and there, too, although I don’t know the exact reasons for the warning. As per usual, check with your doctor if you have concerns.

We figure as long as we’re only eating borage a few times a week, and only for a limited period–”borage season,” as it were–these pyrrolizidine alkaloids are not going to get us down.

Least Favorite Plant: Unkown

This is my first contribution to a regular feature here on Root Simple: the Least Favorite Plant. For me it’s a tie for least favorite between Manroot (I’m sure my adversarial obsession with this plant will compel a future post) and this tree that I have yet to identify (please help in the comments if you know what it is).

[update: The Root Simple Community has correctly identified the tree as Osage Orange or Bois d’Arc. Thanks everyone for the comments!]

I tried to have the tree removed by professionals a few years ago but the stump just keeps growing despite all of the terrible things we’ve done to it including cutting the stump, stripping the bark and severing roots.
The thorns are extremely wicked. Thick leather gloves are no match for this plant. I have taken to working without gloves since they offer no protection and I can be more nimble and careful without them. Someone could make a very realistic crown of thorns with the thin branches of this tree.
When cut it exudes a white glue like sap that is stickier than pine sap but more viscous so it quickly spreads everywhere.
This is where we stand after a 3 year battle and that’s after the initial tree was removed. I hope I’ve finally won.

Poached eggs and greens on toast with wildflowers

 Mrs. Homegrown here:

This is a fancy iteration of one of our springtime go-to dishes: eggs and greens on toast. Today, Erik was inspired (perhaps by the spirit of Spring?) to sprinkle nasturtium blossoms and little arugula flowers over the plate.

It was dee-lish–so much so I had to blog it. I sincerely hope we haven’t blogged this before, but it seems like we would have, because we make this dish so often.

Anyway, it’s easy to make:


All you have to do is cook up a mess of greens of your choice: steam them, saute them, do whatever you like. The greens can be spiced up with onions, garlic, hot pepper, etc.–or absolutely plain.

At the same time, get some water going for poached eggs. While that’s heating, toast up some nice big slices of bread. Dress that toast how you like–with butter, olive oil, S&P, a rub of garlic, maybe a bit of some gourmet spread you’ve got in the fridge–whatever.

(And by the way, just because it’s not part of our plan doesn’t mean that some bacon or ham might not have a place in this scenario.)

When the water is simmering, crack the eggs in and cook until they’re poached and still runny–for us, that’s two minutes. This dish is all about runny yokes. When you carve into it, the yoke runs everywhere, coating the greens, soaking into the bread, and doing unspeakably yummy things with the cheese. If you’re no fan of yolk, this is not your dish. Without the yoke factor, it’s not half as good. (We know this because we sometimes overcook the eggs, and then there is much sadness as we pick at our dry toast.)

While the eggs are poaching, pile the greens on the toast. When the eggs are done, slide the eggs on the greens. Add some S&P.

The final stage is cheese. This time, Erik just dusted the whole thing with grated parmesean. You can go one step further and lay thin slices of the cheese of your choice over the eggs, then pop it under the broiler ’til the cheese melts.

Serve it fast, while it’s hot, and the yoke is flowing like golden lava.

Regarding the flowers: Nasturtium flowers are edible, mildly spicy to taste, and strong enough to be tossed in a salad. Arugula flowers (got by letting your arugula go to flower) are delicate white little things. They don’t keep at all–you have to deploy them as soon as you pick them–but they have a very pleasant, sweet flavor all their own. Sometimes I eat them off the bush, much to the consternation of the bees.

Self-Watering Containers in Mother Earth News

We’re proud to announce that Mother Earth News online is excerpting the project, How to Build a Self-Watering Container from our book, The Urban Homestead.

We heart Mother Earth News. If you haven’t visited their site, do so. You’ll find a treasure trove of homesteady-type information to peruse.

(Here’s a hint about that article: there are illustrations, but they’re not embedded in the text. Look for the link to the “Image Gallery.”)

Thirsty bees

Did you know bees need to drink water? They seek out shallow water sources like puddles and bird baths.

Even if you don’t keep bees, you can help out our little pollinator friends (and a host of other wildlife) by keeping a bird bath or even just putting a saucer of fresh water out for them. You can do this even if you don’t have a yard–try keeping a saucer of water on, say, a balcony railing or in a window box.

If you keep it full, and in the same location, word will spread and the bees will come and belly up. It may take a couple of weeks for a worker to discover the water source, but once she does, she will take that information back to her hive and they will never forget where it is.

The benefit to you is that if bees are coming to drink in your yard, they’ll do you the return favor of pollinating your garden.

Bees are not known as good swimmers, so it really helps if you put a stone or something in your bird bath–even in a saucer–so they have somewhere safe to perch while they drink. We keep this odd calcified beach-thing in our bird bath. (Don’t worry, it’s not salty anymore.) The bees really dig the way the water rises up into the nooks and crannies.  I dare say our bath is one of the most popular bee bars in town.
One of the busiest bee hang outs we’ve ever seen is a piece of modern sculpture by Aristide Maillol at the Getty Center. It’s this massive marble block thing that is skinned with a continuous flow of water. On one nice spring day we watched as hundreds of bees used it as their drinking fountain. If you ever happen to go to the Getty, check it out. It’s down in the little garden at the base of the hill where the trams come and go. Nice to see modern sculpture is good for something. ;)

Nurturing the Next Generation of Nature Lovers

Recently, a friend of mine took her daughters for a visit to their pediatrician. She was shocked when her doctor told her on average a child in the Los Angeles area only spends 15 minutes outside each day.
I have always been interested about how children forge a relationship with the world outside. What happens when the door from inside to outside is opened? Is the child given the time and space to build a relationship?
Since becoming a parent, my interest has become even more acute. I discovered Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder where he takes a critical look at children’s shrinking access to unstructured time outdoors. Louv asks who will protect the world outside if they have no connection to it? He argues that the next generation of nature lovers will only grow when they have the space and time to be outside and fall in love.
I think it merits more than 15 minutes a day, but that’s a start.