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?

Barefoot Running Update

ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free RunningWhile I was running last week a fellow barefoot runner stopped me to tell me that he thought that I was still heel striking, an error in form that can cause a long list of injuries. I took out a video camera the next day and videotaped myself running. He was right. As it turns out, simply ditching shoes is not enough to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of bad habits.

I turned back to a book by Danny Dreyer, ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running. that was recommended to me when I first went down the barefoot path. Dreyer is a friend of barefoot running guru Ken Bob Saxton, though the book is not about running sans footwear. Instead it covers form, emphasizing a mid-foot strike that minimizes shock to knees and heel.

I’ve been enjoying the audio version of this book, ChiRunning: A Training Program for Effortless, Injury-Free Running, that I checked out from the library. I’ve found it handier than the text since I’ve it’s easier to listen to the exercises rather do them while trying to hold a book.

See my original post for more info on barefoot running. “No Shoes, No Problem.” Funny thing is, even heel striking without shoes, while not good, was still better than heel striking with shoes. I’ve had absolutely no running related pains since I started barefoot running several months ago even with my bad form.

I realize that many of you are not runners, but I bring up this subject on this home economics related blog since I think it begs the question, “what other products in our lives are unnecessary and detrimental?” Cleaning products? Pharmaceuticals? If this blog post by Brooks shoe CEO Jim Weber is any indication, the folks with the money are a bit scared at the thought that we might all wake up some day to the realization that we don’t need their products. Mahatma Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

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.”

Trapping bees out of a kitchen vent

With a growing awareness of the plight of honeybees more people are calling on the services of beekeepers rather than exterminators. And, thanks to a crash course in bee removal and relocation from Backwards Beekeeping guru Kirk Anderson, I’ve managed to help relocate about ten or so hives, giving them new homes with Los Angeles’ hobby beekeepers. Each removal has been different and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But with each experience I’ve learned valuable lessons. Last week I started my first solo “trap-out.”

In a trap-out you make a one way exit for bees that are somewhere they aren’t wanted, in this case a kitchen vent. Foraging bees leave the hive but can’t come back in. Next to the one way exit you place a “nuc” box (a cardboard box that holds five frames) that contains open brood comb, cells with eggs and larvae, from another hive. The workers can’t get back into their old home, adopt the brood comb in the box and use it to create a new queen. The process takes at least four to six weeks since you have to wait for the old queen to stop laying eggs and for all the bees in the wall to make their way out. At then end of the six weeks the beekeeper takes away the nuc box, now hopefully full of bees with a new queen. After I remove the nuc box I’m going to open up the vent and clean out any remaining comb and honey. I’ve heard of opening back up the old hive and letting the bees clean out the honey, but I’d be worried they would move back in. And what happens to the old queen is a mystery to me. Different sources give conflicting information. She either flies off, dies or fights her way into the new colony.

The alternative to a trap-out is to do a “cut-out” opening up the wall and physically removing the bees and their comb. Cut-outs are traumatic for the bees and make an incredible mess of the house. The advantage is that the removal is over in one day at the most. In this case I decided to do a trap-out so that I could save the homeowner, on a fixed income, from the expense of having to replace the kitchen vent the bees are living in.

Her house, cantilevered over a steep hillside in the Hollywood Hills presented a few challenges. I had to work from above, leaning over the edge of the roof to attach the escape cone to the vent. One thing I’ve learned is to have everything fabricated and all tools ready before beginning any structural bee removal. You need to act carefully and decisively when you’ve got thousands of pissed off bees flying around. I made the cone out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth attached to a rectangular piece of the same material to block off the entire vent. I smoked the bees to calm them down. Next, I leaned over the edge of the roof and quickly hammered the cone in place with roofing nails. It would have been better to attach the cone early in the morning before the bees had left for the day, but logistically this was impossible for me. As soon as nailed the escape in place a large cloud of returning workers started bearding at their former entrance at the base of the cone. Another angry contingent pinged the front of my veil. Using rope, I lowered the nuc box with the open brood in it and secured it to a concrete block I placed on the roof. When I came back the next day the bees had calmed down and were starting to come and go from the nuc box. Some were still “bearding” at their old entrance.

There are two kinds of one way exits. You can make one by creating a cone, at least a foot long out of 1/8 inch hardware cloth with a 3/8 inch opening at the end. This is enough, usually, to throw off the bee’s precise orientation to their old entrance. They leave but can’t come back in. Alternately, you can use a Porter bee escape, a spring loaded device that lets bees out but prevents their re-entry. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the bees figure out how to get back through the cone. In that case you can put another cone around the existing cone. The bees entering the second cone end up back outside. The disadvantage with the Porter bee escape is that its small springs can sometimes fail under the strain of thousands of workers passing through. My neighbor Ray, a beekeeper and airline mechanic, examined the two bee escapes sold by our local supplier. Not surprisingly, the English made escape was superior to a Chinese made model which had a poor connection between the springs and plastic body.

There’s a lot that can go wrong. In a trap-out that I’m helping Ray with underneath a poorly constructed concrete patio, the bees keep finding new ways to chew their way out. This could be interesting if we were dealing with a wall and the bees were to find their way into the house. With the patio it’s simply frustrating. The bees gave up on the brood and now we need to find more and wait another six weeks for the process to end. With my kitchen vent bees I blocked off the grill above the stove with metal screen and aluminum foil. Next time I’ll use sheet metal. The bees have chewed their way underneath the aluminum foil. The screen keeps them out of the house, but the foil is amplifying their buzzing. I’ve created an unintentional acoustic bee amplifier which is disconcerting to the homeowner! I also had to come back and rig up a sheet metal tray underneath the vent to catch the bits of comb, mites and dirt that the bees shed. While my trap-out seems to be working, I still have to keep my fingers crossed that the bees make a new queen and that she mates without getting eaten by a bird or squashed on a windshield. And Kirk is right, the process is more about managing the people than the bees. You have to have a homeowner who is willing to stick with a six week process and tolerate a box of bees strapped to the side of their house.

Still, I really enjoy the process. It combines a few of my favorite things, nature, heights, low-tech gadgets and diplomacy. I wish I could do this more often but we don’t have room in our yard for bees.

For more information on the trap-out process see, Charles Martin Simons’ article “Fundamentals and Finesse of Structural Bee Removal.”

If you’re in LA and have bees you need relocated call the Backwards Beekeepers rescue hotline at (213) 373-1104.

And lastly, while I love bees I would not want them in my house. Prevent what could be an expensive problem by making sure that small cracks on the outside of your house are sealed off.

Laundry to Landscape 2.0

I just installed a “laundry to landscape” greywater system at the house of Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall using greywater guru Art Ludwig’s free open-source plans. It was a cinch. And, thanks to a revision in the California plumbing code last year, it’s legal with no permit required.

I started in the laundry room by rigging up a three way diverter valve so that Lora can route the greywater back to the sewer if it’s been raining too much or if she’s bleaching her Prada (not likey, by the way). The diverter, somewhat of an exotic plumbing part, was ordered off of Ludwig’s website. At $47 it was the most expensive part of the system, but it’s well built.

Next, I rigged up two check valves, essentially a one-way gate, one to prevent greywater from siphoning back into the washing machine and another to act as a vent. You could also just use a six foot section of pipe as a vent, but Lora’s overhanging roof made that impossible.

The most labor intensive part of the process was digging the trench for the pipe out in the garden. Lora decided how many outlets she wanted in the garden and we consulted the “calculator” on Ludwig’s site (more of a chart than a calculator, actually, since he’s done the math for you). The calculator basically gives a range of outlet sizes and numbers so that you can get an even flow to the outlets but not risk burning out the washing machine’s pump. With nine outlets Ludwig suggests a 3/8-inch hole. We simply drilled 3/8-inch holes in the bottom of the PVC pipe that we ran out into the garden. The outlets flow into mini-mulch basins along the side of some perennial shrubs and a few small fruit trees.

Altogether it took just a few hours. Lora ran a load of clothes immediately and it worked perfectly. It was one of the easiest home improvement projects I’ve done. No cursing whatsoever! Now Lora can’t wait to do the laundry. She, of course, uses only Oasis Biocompatible Laundry Detergent. Note that many “eco” detergents will kill terrestrial plants–I’ll do a blog post on this shortly, as I discovered one major manufacturer claiming that a detergent was safe for greywater only to discover that it contained several different sodium compounds, definitely bad for soil!

Ludwig gives both a version of this project in PVC and another in HDPE plastic. I chose to work with the politically incorrect PVC since I couldn’t find the groovier 1-inch HDPE in less than 300 foot rolls. If any of you know of a source where you can get 1-inch HDPE by the foot, please let me know in the comments.

If you’d like to do this yourself the plans are all on Ludwigs site under Laundry to Landscape. In addition to the plans there is a parts list for both the PVC and HDPE versions and the aforementioned calculator.  If you don’t think you can do it yourself (remember it’s easy!) you could conceivably hand the plans to a handyman. A plumber would be too expensive, in my opinion.

See also Ludwig’s book The New Create an Oasis with Greywater.

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!