Homegrown Evolution on WAMC

Kelly and I will be on WAMC, Northeast Public Radio’s Roundtable show on Earth Day, April 22nd at 9:15 am EST. You can listen in online here.

Earth Day will be a busy one for us as Erik will also be on a panel for the National Conversation on Climate Action at 2 pm PST at MTA headquarters. More info here.

We’ll close the day with a book signing at an innovative new neighborhood market called Locali. We’ll be there at 7 pm PST and hope to see some locals.

Satan’s House Plant: More on Asparagus setaceus/plumosus

It seems like we hit a raw nerve with our mention of one of our least favorite plants, Asparagus setaceus. Just in a case you’d like to know more about this demonic plant, Mr. Subjunctive, a garden center employee with a fantastic blog, Plants are the Strangest People, has a detailed post about Asparagus setaceus (apparently also known as Asparagus plumosus).

Shiitake Happens


Well, actually, shiitake doesn’t happen. It’s back to the drawing board for our first experiment in mushroom growing. We ordered a kit and dutifully followed the directions, but a combination of high temperatures and too much or too little water resulted in the result you see above, what looks like a cake with a skin disease. And even if we got a crop the cost of the kit was too high to make the process economical.

The kit came pre-inoculated with spore that, given the right conditions, should have produced a block full of tasty shiitakes. Instead we got what mushroom folks call “aborts”, mushrooms that grow a bit and then stop. Aborts are potentially edible, but you need to pick them before they rot. Picking off the aborts can also prevent the rest of the growing medium from becoming infected with unwanted molds.

It’s now way too hot in our house to grow mushrooms and we’ll have to wait until next winter for any further experiments. We’re going to try some different methods and will report back on the results. Tips from readers are appreciated.

And speaking of reader tips, an anonymous commenter on our self irrigating planter post noted that indoor marijuana farmers have been experimenting with container gardening for years and that Homegrown Evolution would be wise to take a look at the kind of innovation that comes with higher (so to speak) profit margins. Good point. In trying to find better sources for information on small scale indoor mushroom growing (other than the current go-to expert who will remain nameless and who I think is a bit of a hype-meister) I kept coming across books on growing the sort of mushrooms that cause visions of plant gods and lizard people. It’s proof that good ideas often come from the combination of improvisation and subterfuge. Just take a look at prison improvised weapons and booze to see what resourceful folks with time on their hands can come up with. We certainly don’t grow anything illegal here, but we like to keep an open mind when it comes to our sources.

For those who would like to read more about growing mushrooms at home here’s one way to do it.

Least Favorite Plant: Asparagus Fern (Asparagus setaceus)


Today, a new feature on the blog: least favorite plants. I’ve always thought that it’s more fun to read a bad review than a glowing one, so why not extend the concept to the plant world? But we’re not going to rant about “weeds”, which Ralph Waldo Emerson defined as, “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” As active foragers we’ve found virtues in what most people think of as weeds, plants like broadleaf plantain and stinging nettles. Instead we’ll focus our horticultural wrath elsewhere.

Asparagus Fern (Asparagus setaceus) is the scourge of my backyard gardening existence and a plant many will recognize from floral arrangements. The bozos who owned our house before us planted one of these nasty things underneath the avocado tree. It entangles itself through the branches of the tree, winding it’s way upwards as much as ten feet in a season. It’s impossible to pull out of the ground and its sharp thorns make thick gloves essential when attempting to beat it back. When I saw a vendor at a farmer’s market selling potted Asparagus setaceus, I felt like I was witnessing a crack dealer in an elementary school lunchroom. As a houseplant it’s probably fine, but in our climate where it can grow outside you should keep this out of the hands of neophyte gardeners.

Asparagus Fern ain’t a fern but it is a relative of asparagus. The shoots may or may not be edible depending on who you talk to. Even if you could eat the shoots, you would have the world’s smallest side dish. Breed a one inch tall pig and you could make tiny pork chops to go along with your buttered Asparagus setaceus.

Thankfully for most of the readers of this blog, Asparagus setaceus is not cold hardy. It’s originally from South Africa which has an identical climate to LA, meaning this house plant can easily escape here and wreak havoc amongst the palm trees and smog.

Now, what rogue state can I get to carpet bomb my Asparagus Fern patch?

Cargo Bikes Rule the World


It’s hard to improve on a design as simple and elegant as the bicycle. It’s a bit like trying to redesign the fork or chopstick. But every once in a while a new idea comes along. We could debate the merits of the spork, but I’d rather focus on the current cargo bike revolution taking place in the workshops of bike builders around the world. One such innovator is Lane Kagay who operates a one man cargo bike/rack operation out of Eugene Oregon called CETMA Cargo. Check out his designs at cetmacargo.com.

Los Angeles Chicken Produces World’s Largest Egg


Well, I exaggerate a bit. Neighbor Lora Hall rushed over this afternoon to show us an egg as big as the Dodger Stadium parking lot produced by her hefty Cornish Cross hen who goes by the name “Chickenzilla”. It was the same day that we found a tiny shell-less egg in our chicken coop. For your amusement we’ve lined up a set of freakish and normal eggs above. From left to right, a banty egg, one of our Plymouth Rock’s eggs, Chickenzilla’s big-ass egg and, on the ruler, the shell free egg.

Chickens have been bred to be egg laying machines. Occasionally an egg will emerge before it’s time and you get an egg without a shell. Conversely some eggs will stay in longer and get big. You also get oddly shaped eggs on occasion. It’s perfectly normal if these freak eggs happen once in a while. If you get a lot of strange eggs it may be a sign of disease or nutritional deficiencies.

Hall’s Cornish Cross chicken, incidentally, is a meat chicken that is not meant to live beyond a few weeks. Chickenzilla is remarkably healthy for a year old Cornish. They are bred to put on weight quickly and often can’t support their own weight should they somehow skip the butcher’s block. Permaculturist Harvey Ussery has a nice article in Backyard Poultry magazine on alternatives to the Cornish Cross if you’re interested in keeping meat chickens (or interested in knowing where your meat comes from as Cornish Cross chickens are what you get at the supermarket). Meanwhile Chickenzilla is happily living out her years and producing eggs the size of the national debt. Stimulus omelet anyone?

Fava Fava Fava

Fava bean mania has descended upon the Homegrown Evolution compound this spring. I can’t say enough good things about fava beans (Vicia fava): they taste good, the plant fixes nitrogen into the soil, making it an ideal cover crop, and it’s attractive.

If harvested small you can eat fava raw but I prefer to remove the skins and briefly boil the seeds (around five minutes). Once boiled, fava can be used in a variety of dishes from soups to salads. We just toss them with olive oil, white wine vinegar, mint, garlic and feta cheese.

Curiously, some folks (mostly male and of Mediterranean or black African ancestry) are allergic to fava. In fact, babies in Italy are tested at birth for this condition. “Favism” is extremely rare, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

Here in Los Angeles we plant fava in the late fall/early winter for a spring harvest. In most of North American you’ll plant it after the last frost.

Self Irrigating Planter Resources

Homegrown Evolution is up in San Francisco this weekend to do a talk about the world of self-irrigating planters (also known as SIPs or self-watering planters or a couple of other variations on that general verbiage). In our opinion SIPs are the food growing tool of the aspiring urban agriculturalist. Make or buy one of these things and vegetable container gardening is a breeze. No need to water your pots three times a day during the summer! For those who can’t make our talk, and as a resource for those who can, we thought we would put all the Internet resources in one place in this here blog post.

SIP hacker and horticultural Internet hero Josh Mandel’s original pdf instructions for how to make your own.

Mandel’s revised instructions with thoughts on how to eliminate the use of PVC plastics when building a SIP.

Where to buy a SIP: earthbox.com. Even if you build your own, you should follow the Earthbox company’s user guide for how to fill the box, what kind of soil to use and how to fertilize.

For a nice example of rooftop and window gardening with SIPs see the Green Roof Growers of Chicago.

How to make a small SIP with soda bottles. Here’s another variation with conventional pots.

Last night we went to a wonderful screening organized by the folks at How to Homestead. They have an interesting SIP variation made with milk crates profiled in a how-to video by Mariana Lopez. She also offers a recipe for a DIY potting mix in that same video.

Ohio State University Extension Service’s list of vegetable varieties for container gardening. These are varieties with smaller root systems that do well in small pots.

Lastly, all of Homegrown Evoution’s self watering container posts.

Visit the Eco-Home

Julia Russell is Los Angeles’ original urban homesteader. If you haven’t visited her beautiful “Eco-Home”, now is the time. She’s a pioneer in edible landscaping, solar power, and many other things we all now take for granted. Best of all, you can take a tour:

“Since the 1970’s, April has been home to Earth Day. The theme for this year’s Earth Day is “the Green Generation,” and what better way to strengthen your role as part of this movement than by learning how to make your own life more earth-friendly and sustainable by joining us for an Eco-Home tour this April.

Visit Eco-Home for one of this April’s Eco-Home Tours on Sunday, April 12 and Sunday, April 26 from 2 P.M. to 4:30 P.M. In addition to learning how to begin or expand your personal urban garden, the tour will also display new technologies that will help turn any house into a green environment.

The Tour is conducted by Eco-Home Network, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public on how to make lifestyle choices that protect the environment and improve quality of life. The Eco-Home is located in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Call 323-662-5207 for reservation and directions. Requested donation for the tour is $10 per person. Please make your reservations by the Friday before the tour.”

For more information, visit the website at ecohome.org.”

Why Lycra is a Bad Idea

Robert Hurst, author of the how-to book on how to ride a bike in the city, The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st-Century America says, “the thought of cyclists pedaling around in their standard everyday garb is heartening. The more riders who do this, the more obvious it will be to the general public that cycling is about straight utility in addition to recreation and exercise, an important point that has yet to penetrate the thick skull of American society.”

We’re all for utility, but how about utility with style? It looks like the Brits are ahead of us in this department with the recent revival of riding tweeds. There’s a Tweed Cycling Club, a funny article in The Chap (pdf), a photogenic London tweed ride, and let’s not forget our stylish American friends Hen Waller (of chicken fame) who operate vélocouture and are also fans of tweed.

As I prepare to step on a train to head to San Francisco with my bike and usual slovenly attire, I only wish the journey could be as stylish and civilized as this old film the folks at the Tweed Cycling Club dug up:

See part II of that film here.