Let’s Get Biointensive

I picked up a handy tip on plant spacing from John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables. Jeavons dislikes rows and instead uses the triangular spacing of the French biointensive method. You can view a nice diagram of biointensive spacing on the LandShare Colorado website. And see some images of the way Jeavons’ spaces his garden on This Girl’s Gone Green. Triangular plantings squeeze more veggies into small spaces. The tight spacing, with leaves allowed to just touch each other when the plant is mature, also creates a living mulch which shades the soil and saves water.

Jeavons suggests cutting out some triangles in different sizes to assist in planting. Using scrap wood, I made triangles in 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 15-inch sizes, taking the spacing suggestions in Jeavons’ charts for the seeds I had planted in flats. When it came time to transplant the seedlings I used the triangles to create hexagonal blocks of tightly spaced veggies. Cutting a notch in the corners of the triangles would be a slight improvement and allow for easier planting.


I could end this post leaving you all to admire my pretty little seedlings planted in neat biointensive rows. But here at Homegrown Evolution we believe in telling the truth. Growing vegetables has its frustrations. The day after I planted our winter vegetable garden (we have two growing seasons here in Southern California), we had a freak October heatwave, causing a panicked run to the nursery to buy some shade cloth. This was followed by one of Mr. Homegrown’s notorious gardening meltdowns, dreaded by the very patient Mrs. Homegrown. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that I got that shade cloth up in time.

Favorite Plants- New Zealand Spinach

New Zealand Spinach, Tetragonia tetragonioides.


When the lettuce wilts in the heat, caterpillars and aphids destroy the kale and your swiss chard is plagued by powdery mildew…. there is New Zealand spinach.
It is not a true spinach but is in a genus all its own. The leaves are triangular in shape, and very succulent. They grow on long, rambling stalks. The seeds are triangular as well and the plant will reseed if you let it. It tends to spread and grow low to the ground. It can be used as a living mulch since it so effectively covers the soil in a vegetable bed.
This green keeps on growing and seems to be unaffected by the bugs and problems that affect other greens. I have seen it growing wild among the rocks right along the ocean, so it can handle saline soils. This is a very robust plant. It tolerates drought, bugs, salt and poor soil. And it does much better in heat than true spinach which just bolts in Southern California’s heat. New Zealand spinach can be grown in the summer when other greens may not grow so well.
My front garden be is pretty much all New Zealand spinach now. The drip watering system broke and most of the plants withered and died or were mercilessly attacked by bugs. But this plant kept on going strong.
I have been growing it for many years and find it a reliable plant. In The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy writes, “New Zealand spinach makes a marvelous temporary ground cover, is good in hanging baskets, and will cascade over the sides of planter boxes. Grow it on the patio so it will be close at hand to add to your morning scrambled eggs along with dill and cheese.”
I have so much in my garden right now that I may do a big harvest and blanch, chop and freeze it for later use. I make a lot of green lasagnas with massive quantities of NZ spinach. I saute it with onions and garlic and put thick layers of spinach sandwiched between noodles and cheese.

When life gives you greens, you can’t go wrong. I have heard that it is edible raw but I prefer it cooked.

Give it a try in your garden if you haven’t already.

Chicken Coop Deconstructed

Homegrown Neighbor here. I volunteer at a local high school with an agricultural program. Remember that we are in the middle of Los Angeles and agriculture is largely a thing of the past here.

This school is one of the last public high schools in the area to have space devoted to an orchard, garden and farm. Right now it is home to a goat, a Vietnamese pot bellied pig, dozens of rabbits and two hens. As can be expected, the program hasn’t gotten the respect and resources it deserves in the last few years. Things look a little scraggly, the orchard is filled with weeds and most of the barns haven’t been touched in thirty years, now housing only spiders.

This program is special of course because it allows city kids to have access to green space, get outside and get close to a pot bellied pig- all rare experiences around here.

My current project is rehabbing the old chicken coop. I brought in my friend Justin, curator of the local arts space Echo Curio and a fellow master gardener to help. He has the building and construction skills that I lack.

This week the students took off all of the old plywood, chain link and chicken wire.

The students loved destroying the old structure. They got to use crowbars and hammers after a little safety lesson. Dust and spiderwebs flew everywhere. They practically had to be dragged back to the classroom at the end of the period because they were having so much fun they didn’t want to stop. The old chicken coop is now stripped down to the studs. As soon as we can get the supplies, we will start rebuilding. The students will get some real hands on construction lessons and get to build it themselves. Once the paint drys the school will be ready for a big flock of chickens. I think the coop could handle about 20.

Next we’ll rehab the big barn and get mini goats and dwarf sheep. This is going to be a jewel of an urban farm and a great educational space!

Least Favorite Plant: Tree of Heaven

Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop’s new ghetto palm farm. Photos from the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop.

Riding on the Amtrak San Joaquin train two weeks ago I discovered a new metric: the economic health of a city can be judged by the size of its trees of heaven (aka Ailanthus altissima, aka “ghetto palm”). The higher the ghetto palms, the more likely a city is to be in the crapper.

Tree of heaven is a super weed much reviled by gardeners and landscapers for its unstoppable ability to grow in nearly every climate in the most inhospitable conditions. In a move that will raise a lot of horticultural hackles, the Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has gone beyond the “if you’ve got lemons make lemonade” phase of their project and has deliberately planted a ghetto palm farm. From their press release:

“Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has established its first Tree of Heaven Farm on a vacant Detroit city lot for future harvest. We planted seedlings in beds of car tires. The tires protect the young trees while they are growing but also determine their lifetime to a size when the trunks are suitable for processing. We assume this period of growth to be approx. 40 years. Within this timespan we will maintain the plantation and keep the lot free of any kind of real estate speculation or building activity. The plantation has been realized with the support of the SMART Museum of Art, University of Chicago and a documentation is on display in the current Heartland exhibition.”

The Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop has turned sculptures and made furniture out of tree of heaven for a few years now. They’ve also come up with a stinky tree of heaven sauna:

“We have another small installation in the SMART Museums Heartland exhibition: A humidifier is installed in the museum lobby. The water tank of the device contains some pieces of Tree of Heaven wood (coll. Ghetto Palm). This is how the active substances get extracted in traditional Chinese medicine to cure a wide range of ailments from digestion problems, mental conditions, balding, to asthma and even cancer. In these tough economical times, a constant flow of steam will benefit all visitors with the spirit of this true Detroit resource.”

Invasion biology becomes art. If you can’t beat em’ you might as well find a use for em’.

Kimchi Secrets Revealed

Kimchi champion Granny Choe at Krautfest 2009 – photo from Eating L.A.

The last time I tried to make the spicy Korean fermented cabbage dish known as kimchi it was such a disaster that Mrs. Homegrown exiled the batch to the back porch where it rotted for a good two months before we got around to sending it to the landfill. At Krautfest 2009, which we helped organize back in September, we had the great privilege of learning to make kimchi from kimchi entrepreneur Oghee “Granny” Choe. And thankfully, Pat over at Eating L.A. has put Granny Choe’s recipe online for all to enjoy here. Having tasted Granny Choe’s kimchi, I can tell you that it’s not to be missed even for the kimchi-phobic.

You can order Granny Choe’s kimchi online at grannychoe.com.

Granny Choe also has a nice recipe for a savory kimchi pancake here.

Here’s some photos of Krautfest 2009 via Mark Frauenfelder.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Grub


Why start the day with the Wall Street Journal when the real excitement is to be found in periodicals such as Backyard Poultry Magazine? While our broke nation can’t afford missile shields or moon trips anymore, at least it’s comforting to read in the pages of BPM that the citizens of Bonner Springs, Kansas can visit the brand new National Poultry Museum. This month’s issue of BPM also has a fascinating article by Harvey Ussery, “Black Soldier Fly, White Magic” on raising black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) grubs as poultry and fish feed.

“If we offer the grubs 100 pounds of food wastes, for example, they will reduce it to 5 pounds of residue usable as a superior soil amendment, in the process generating 10 and possibly up to 20 pounds of live grubs that can be fed to livestock; in addition to liquid effluent (how much depends on the moisture content of the feeding materials) which can be used to feed crops. Hey, wait a minute–what happened to the “wastes”? There is absolutely no waste remaining after this conversion–it has all been transformed into valuable resource.”

To raise Hermetia illucens you put vegetable and fruit trimmings in a container with a small opening for the black soldier fly females to fly in and lay their eggs and a method for the grubs to climb out of the compost. You can also feed them small amounts of fish and meat but they can’t digest cellulesic materials. A company called ESR International markets a black soldier fly growing system called the BioPod™ at www.thebiopod.com. A spiral ramp in the BioPod™ allows the grubs to scamper out of the feeding materials and launch themselves into a bucket. Each morning you empty a bucket full of grubs for your grateful chickens or fish, making sure to reserve a few to ensure future black soldier fly generations. Adult black soldier flies don’t bite and are only interested in flying around looking for sex and, in the case of the females, to find a good place to lay eggs.

At $179, the BioPod™ is above our humble slacker budget level, but you can make your own out of the ubiquitous five gallon bucket. While I haven’t tested this design, there’s some simple plans on this informative blog devoted to the black soldier fly. The author of this blog, “Jerry aka GW,” cautions that growing grubs requires attention to detail and will be easier in warmer climates such as the southeast and west coasts of the US where soldier flies can be found in the wild. While you can buy black soldier flies to populate your composter, it will be easier to grow them where they already live. Here’s another DIY grub composter. If any of you have experience with building one of these please leave a comment.

And while you’re ditching the Wall Street Journal, why not skip the Netflix this evening! Here’s a video on grub growin’ complete with a dramatic musical conclusion:

The crank in me has to add that simple ideas like becoming a grub cowboy are more exciting, and have greater potential than all the Priuses and algae fuel schemes combined. Growing grubs is an activity many of us have done accidentally. Making use of those grubs is just a matter of inserting ourselves into one of nature’s clever recycling schemes.

Root Knot Nematodes, Meliodogyne spp.

Root knot nematodes are my current sworn enemy in the garden. They are very frustrating because unless you know what to look for, you may never know you have a problem. Nematodes are microscopic soil dwelling roundworms. There are many different kinds of nematodes and not all are garden pests. However, the root knot nematode is a very annoying pest indeed. Above ground, plants are stunted. Below ground, the little guys are sucking on the plant’s roots and robbing it of nutrients. This weakens the overall root system, starves the plant and allows entry points for fungus and disease. Bad stuff.

I have had plants that mysteriously won’t grow. No amount of fertilizer, water or sunlight seems to make them happy. Then, I pull out the plant and find the tell-tale sign of root knot nematodes- galls on the roots. The roots are stunted and distorted. They look like they are covered in tumors.

According to my California Master Gardener Handbook, plant parasitic nematodes (including the root knot type) can form complexes with pathogenic fungi in the soil. The pathogens and nematodes work together to damage the plant. Susceptible plants are damaged more than would be predicted from each pathogen alone. They are in cahoots! What is a gardener to do?
Nematodes are known to affect many valuable crop plants. There are chemical treatments available, but for a home gardener who wants to be organic, the options are more limited. I read somewhere that adding organic matter can help by encouraging beneficial soil microbes. I tried that. Plants were still stunted. So I bought nematodes to kill the nematodes. They are supposedly beneficial nematodes that prey on root knot nematodes. Of course, you can’t see nematodes so I felt like I could be the Emperor with no clothes. I have no idea whether there was something in the package or not, much less what the invisible material may do in the garden. But I was desperate so I shelled out the money to give it a try. I applied the beneficial nematodes in my garden and at a client’s house. So we have two experimental plots. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Of course, you can always grow plants that are resistant or not affected by parasitic nematodes. I have noticed that new zealand spinach is totally immune. While other plants are stunted and won’t grow, new zealand spinach flourishes. So if all else fails, I’ll always have that.

Made in the shade- Passive cooling

We just survived another major heat wave here. People and plants were positively melting. The sidewalks were veritable solar cookers. I’m sure I could have fried an egg on the sidewalk outside my house.

I prefer not to crank the air conditioning, so I have been thinking a lot lately about simple ways to cool ourselves and the spaces we inhabit.
Air conditioning is the main mechanical means by which we cool buildings these days. However, there are several ways that we can cool buildings without plugging in so much as a fan. These technologies are referred to as passive. They don’t require any kind of motor or electricity, just a some good planning and design.
If one were designing a building from the ground up there are myriad features that can help that building use a minimum of mechanical heating or cooling mechanisms. There is no one size fits all design. Passively heated and cooled buildings are adapted to local climate conditions. Current construction practices tend to favor the same type of ramshackle 2×4 and drywall buildings from California to Long Island, and all the climate zones in between. Just stick an air conditioner on top, put in a heating unit, and you’re done. Sadly, most buildings are an energy efficiency disaster. Poor design is so prevalent, it is shocking once you know what to look for. Have you ever leaned up against a stucco or brick wall on a hot day? Ouch! You can literally burn your skin off.
However, a passive building in the humid South, might feature carefully placed windows to maximize air flow. In the desert Southwest, where temperatures can be scorching in the summer and freezing in the winter, thick, heavy walls of adobe, strawbales or rammed earth provide protection from extreme weather conditions.
Here in the Homegrown neighborhood, most of us live in old houses that are not designed with passive solar features. The Homegrown Evolution house is practically a greenhouse. My house is about 20 degrees hotter at night than it is outside. All of the hot air gets trapped and has no where to go. The windows are poorly placed allowing for little cross ventilation. Hot air rises so we need windows up high. Do you hear me architects?
Yet there are simple things those of us with old houses can do. I already mentioned window placement. Vents up high could also work. Insulation is of course a must. I had my attic insulated a few years ago and now I don’t need to run the heater nearly as much in the winter. I’m not sure what effect it has on the summer heat, because it still feels pretty darn sweltering in here.
Shade is an easy way to keep things cool. Shade can be utilized inside and out. An outdoor seating area begs for shade. This can be achieved with trees and shrubs or vines trained over a trellis. A roof structure of some sort can also provide shade for outdoor areas. If you have pets that spend time outside, make sure to provide them with a cool, shady spot for hot summer days.
Trees can also provide valuable shade for your house. Leafy trees will protect your house from the direct rays of the sun. Shade prevents solar heat gain. Pure and simple. Deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the Winter can allow sunlight to enter your house in the cool season, making them ideally suited to passive heating and cooling.
You can also shade your windows. Solar shades project out over a window, thus blocking the highest angle of the sun. When the angle of the sun is lower and the heat and sun less extreme, in Winter and during sunset and sunrise in summer, sunlight can still get in the windows. A roof that projects past the walls of the house serves the same purpose by also blocking the highest angles of the sun.
I chose to employ this technology and give myself more growing space by building an arbor on the back of my house.
This shades the back of my house and makes it look much nicer at the same time. I have planted hardy kiwi on it. The kiwi will help to provide shade, give me tasty fruit, and because it is deciduous, it will die back in the Winter to allow in a little more light. Brilliant.
This of course is just a few of the things you can do to use less energy to heat and cool your home. But I hope it provides a little inspiration and gets some of you out there to reach for a shovel instead of a thermostat.

A Cheap Soil Testing Service

I’ve started a new method in the garden: test the soil, amend according to the recommendations and grow. Lather, rinse, repeat. In many parts of the U.S., you can get free or low cost soil tests from your county extension service, but not here in Los Angeles. Some time ago I answered a reader’s question about where to get soil testing done, only to have to correct my response several times. Last week, Homegrown Evolution pal and the editor of Cool Tools, Elon Schoenholz, gave me a definitive answer on where to send soil for testing: the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Department of Plant and Soil Sciences Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory. A standard soil test is $9, $4 more for the standard test plus organic matter. The standard tests includes heavy metals. That’s a bargain, and you don’t have to be a resident of Massachusetts. They also offer compost, fertilizer and plant tissue tests at reasonable prices.

Read a review of UMASS soil testing by master gardener Amy Thompson at Cool Tools.

New Chicken!

I just couldn’t wait to announce the arrival of my new hen. The Chicken Enthusiasts club I started had our first meeting on Saturday. Twenty five people attended. Not too bad for a group that just started a month ago. The meeting was really fun, much chicken knowledge was exchanged and we all got to enjoy meeting other like minded folks.

At the meeting, this chicken arrived in need of a new home. Since I recently lost a hen, it made sense that I offer her a new abode. She is in a cage inside the coop for a few days, at the recommendation of a more experienced chicken keeper in the group. Today I let her out for a bit and the other chickens instantly attacked. Even my tiny silkie bantam got in on the
aggression. So back to the little cage she went. I’ll let her out again tomorrow when I can spend more time supervising. Hopefully they will establish the pecking order and everything will calm down.
She is an araucana type chicken and seems very sweet and mellow. She lets me pick her up and seems to enjoy being hand fed. Upon being attacked by the others, she instantly submitted, crouching in a corner.

She laid an egg yesterday and it was a pretty pale green color. I’m very excited about the new addition to the flock.