Least Favorite Plant: Ficus benjamina

Photo by Elon Schoenholz

While Ficus benjamina, a.k.a. “weeping fig”, is one of my least favorite trees, my most favorite photographer, Elon Schoenholz is currently posting a series of ficus tree images on his blog. Schoenholz, wisely, takes a neutral stance on this hot button tree describing Ficus as,

“L.A.’s favorite underappreciated, unheralded, unfavorite curbside flora. I have no real love for these trees, per se, no sentimental attachment. They just express form and mass and scale and human intervention in a way that I enjoy, like nothing else in the urban landscape as I encounter it.”

He’s wise to be neutral. A civil insurection broke out in Santa Monica over plans to replace ficus trees with ginko trees in the downtown area. Hunger strikes were threatened and activists chained themselves to their beloved Ficii. In the end 23 Ficus trees were removed by the city.

In colder climates Ficus benjamina is strictly a houseplant. Here in Southern California it can leave the 1950s era office buildings and public access TV sets that are its normal habitat and wander the great outdoors. Once outside Ficus goes about lifting sidewalks with its massive roots and creating canopies so dense that the public space beneath them is as dark as the depths of the Amazonian jungle.
Ficus also seems to inspire what I call obsessive-compulsive topiary, so nicely chronicled in Schoenholz’s photos. Just as when you’re holding a hammer everything looks like a nail, when you’ve got a gas powered trimmer in your hand, and a Ficus tree in front of you, well, you just gotta go at it. Geometrical topiary that looks great in the gardens of Versailles, does not necessarily translate well on the sun-baked asphalt-lined traffic sewers of the City of the Angels. But Schoenholz’s photos do make a persuasive case for what could be termed “outsider topiary.”
To be fair, Ficus benjamina is not without some benefits. It’s one of the plants NASA studied for its use in improving indoor air quality. But as the horticultural equivalent of the Nagel print, perhaps it’s time to replace a few of them with its edible cousin Ficus carica.

Ficus fans and foes alike should visit Schoenholz’s Etsy store for some handsome photos of what city employees can do with those power trimmers.

Bulk Bin Microgreens

Sunflower seed germination test
An admission: both Mrs. Homegrown and I are sprout haters. We love the people who sprout, but not the sprouts. Perhaps it’s just the association with 1970s era health food restaurants or macramĂ©. Sprout lovers out there are welcome to try to convince us otherwise, but I’ll warn you that numerous good-hearted attempts have already failed. But we’re both open to the microgreen idea. Microgreens are allowed to grow longer than sprouts and require either soil or some kind of fertilized growing medium. Usually you harvest when the first true set of leaves appear.
While we’ve never intentionally grown microgreens we’ve always thinned seedlings by eating them. And trays of microgreens are a great way for folks in apartments with sunny balconies or south facing windows to grow a little of their own food. You could also easily grow them under fluorescent lights.
Many seed companies offer microgreen mixes and seeds in bulk. Prices are reasonable considering that you need a lot of seed. But, being cheap, I was curious to see if I could germinate seeds from a health food store bulk bin. I chose my least favorite health food store, a depressing space tucked into a mini-mall where the isles are redolent with that unmistakable and unidentifiable 1970s health food store scent. Is it some chemical reaction between soy, wheat grass and carob fumes? But I digress.

For the sake of science I chose this forlorn store, which will remain nameless, since I assumed the stuff in their bulk bins has been sitting around a long time and I wanted to test seed of questionable viability. This store sells seeds for sprouting and microgreens, such as radish at around $9 a pound. The much cheaper bulk bin items, however, are all around $1 to $2 a pound. Of course, most don’t have microgreen potential, but I found a few that do and set about to perform a germination test to see how well they would work. The test consisted of putting the seeds in a folded and moistened paper towel and placing the towel and seeds into a sealed plastic sandwich bag. Here are the results:

Amaranth
I’d say above 90% of the seeds germinated. Amaranth seeds are so small that it was impossible for me to count out a precise number, but it looks like virtually all sprouted.
Popcorn
10 our of 10
Sunflower
7 out 10
Fava
A complete bust, but I will try again in soil rather than in a towel.

Good results considering the circumstances. I’m interested in hearing if anyone else has tried bulk bin microgreens, and if so what other seeds you have grown as microgreens not sprouts. If that’s you give us a shout in the comments.

More Fun With Food Preservation

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I realized the other day that I had too much produce and decided to do something about it. There is kale coming out of my ears, celery wilting in the fridge, lettuce is bursting out of the garden and some of my farmer friends gave me a bunch of bell peppers they were just going to throw away. So I decided to use one of the easiest food preservation techniques around- freezing.
The kale, celery, bell peppers and some sad looking carrots were the most pressing candidates for preservation. The kale I washed, roughly chopped, blanched in boiling water and then let it cool for a few minutes before putting it into freezer bags. Quick and simple. Now I can add the frozen kale to pasta dishes, eggs, soups, stir fry or many other dishes.
Then I diced the celery, bell peppers and carrots and a few cloves of garlic. I snacked on some slices of bell pepper along the way.
Next I placed the mixture into ice cube trays then filled the trays with water. The result is some lovely, colorful veggie cubes. After a night in the freezer I took the cubes out of the trays and put them into freezer bags as well. I have been using these to add to a lot of soups and sauces. The cubes impart a lot of flavor so I’m really happy with them. The frozen cube method is popular for preserving basil or pesto but can be used in so many fun ways. I encourage you to get creative and let whatever is sitting in the fridge or wilting on the kitchen counter inspire you.

Seeding Change

Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall is in the New York Times this week in an article by Michael Tortorello, “Packets Full of Miracles.” Tortorello asks six gardeners to pick out their favorite seed varieties. Homegrown Neighbor chose New Zealand spinach, Nero de Toscana kale, Red orach, Sugar Ann snap pea, Crimson California poppy and Verbena bonariensis.

I’m sure Homegrown Neighbor would appreciate a reminder that if you buy seeds from Botanical Interests using the link on the right side of this blog, 40% of your purchases will go to supporting the ag program at North Hollywood High. Let’s get that chicken coop paid for! Fellow Angelino Caitlin Flanagan be damned!
It’s also a good moment to point out the reasons it’s best to grow from seed rather than buying seedlings at your local nursery. You get many orders of magnitude more selection, it’s much cheaper and you prevent the spread of soil diseases. Last year a fungal disease, late blight, infected gardens due to seedlings grown at large nurseries in the south and sold at big box retailers up and down the east coast (read more about that in an excellent editorial, You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster) . Plant seeds and you help keep your garden disease free.
Spring is just around the corner. Time to order those seeds! Leave a comment with your favorite varieties.

Compost Pail Comparison

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Just a quick product review.

Containers to hold your kitchen scraps are now common accoutrements sold in home stores. The idea is you fill them up as you prepare food and they are able to store the coffee grounds and broccoli stems without getting any flies or foul smells until you have a chance to get out to the compost pile.
I used to use a large yogurt container for this and store it in the fridge. The problem was, the container was way too small so I still had to empty it practically every day. If I was preparing a lot of veggies I would overflow, with scraps piling up on plates on the counter. My kitchen looked dirty and embarrassing. So the idea of a larger container to hold my food waste is appealing.
My kitchen has stainless steel appliances so when I saw a coordinating compost pail at a big box store, I had to indulge. But the honeymoon ended quickly. I recently bought a pail that I like much better. So I thought I would share the information.
So the pail on the right, with the holes on the top is my old compost pail. The pail comes with these removable carbon filters. A word to the wise. Never, ever purchase a product like this. I am convinced that it is a poor design, made to force you into buying more carbon filters. I actually had fruit fly larvae embedded in one of the filters. My roommate refused to even open the thing.
The pail is hard to clean. It is always scummy. The top little handle part fell off and it is inside the lid somewhere under the carbon filter. Too many parts.
The pail on the left is my new pail. It is from Gardener’s Supply Company. The design is simple- a pail and fitted lid. No holes, no carbon filters. And it is about half the price of the other one. It can go in the dishwasher and is easy to clean overall. Simple design, no parts to purchase later, I love it. It fits several days worth of kitchen scraps unless I’m doing a big meal for guests. I like only having to empty the pail every three or four days.
Of course any vessel with a fitted lid would work to hold your kitchen scraps. Many everyday containers could be used for this purpose. But I love that this one matches my kitchen and looks neat and tidy. I like that it is easy to clean, dishwasher safe, slick and shiny. No one knows what is rotting on my kitchen counter when I hide it in this pretty pail.

Bread and Transformation

I’ve not tried Reinhart’s baking method (even though I once had one of his books out of the library), but I like this 2008 Ted talk on the alchemical symbolism of bread. If you’re either a baking or brewing geek like me it’s worth a view.

The baking method I’ve used for over a decade is from Nancy Silverton’s book Breads from the La Brea Bakery. You use a sourdough starter and at least half the flour must be white to get it to leaven properly. I’ve had great results, but would like to someday make a loaf entirely from whole wheat with a sourdough starter. Reinhart, in his book Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor claims to be able to do just that and not end up with a hockey puck. If you’ve tried his method (and gone through his very lengthy directions) leave a comment!

That ain’t a bowl full of larvae, it’s crosne!

Mrs. Homegrown, justifiably, gives me a hard time for growing strange things around the homestead. This week I just completed the world’s smallest harvest of a root vegetable popularly known as crosne (Stachys affinis). Crosne, also known as Chinese artichoke, chorogi, knotroot and artichoke betony is a member of the mint family that produces a tiny edible tuber. While looking like any other mint plant, the leaves have no smell. The tubers look all too much like the larval form of the Michelin tire mascot and have the taste and texture of a Jerusalem artichoke.

Crosne on left, actual larvae on right

What happened to the larvae on the right after the photo shoot?

I got the tubers, that I planted last year, from Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, who always has an amazing booth full of produce at the Hollywood farmer’s market. I asked Alex if he thought I could grow them here in Los Angeles. He said that he wasn’t sure, but that he thought that where he grew crosne, at a higher altitude with a much colder winter, would be more conducive to producing a good crop of tubers.

What crosne leaves look like

Self irrigating pots, post crosne harvest

Undaunted, I planted two self irrigating planters made from storage bins with about twelve or so tubers. Throughout the year the foliage was lush and finally died back in late November. It was really easy to grow, just like any other mint. It grew to about 1 1/2 feet and never produced flowers. I’m sure in wetter places it would be invasive. I spoke to Alex at the market again in December and he told me to pull the tubers out around Christmas. Alex was right, I didn’t get a very big crop–LA is probably not the best climate for this plant. No crosne banquet this winter. But I did get enough to make a jar of pickles with.

I feared that it would be as hard to clean as Jerusalem artichoke, but a few blasts of the garden hose took off most of the dirt. French folks cook crosne in butter. I decided to pickle them in white vinegar using a recipe for Jerusalem artichoke. The recipe I used was a little too heavy on the mustard, otherwise I’d pass it on. The addition of some tumeric gave the pickles an appealing yellow color. I’ve been tossing them into salads to the horror of Mrs. Homegrown, who is not a fan of my crosne pickles.

Eric Toensmeier, author of Perrenial Vegetables has a YouTube tour of his garden where you can see how he grows crosne. Toensmeier interplants it with other root crops that mature at the same time, so you get a mix of things at harvest.

The Plants for a Future entry on Stachys affinis has some nice information on how to grow it.

Avatar: I’m not lovin’ it.


Since it just won the Golden Globe award for best picture and several other garden blogs have commented on it, I think it’s time to take a break from blogging about nettles and weigh in on James Cameron’s Avatar. For the five or so folks who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a plot summary: An evil corporation sets up shop on a far off planet, “Pandora”, to mine a rare mineral necessary for the next generation of iPhones. Unfortunately, said planet is occupied by a tall blue Rastafarian/Smurf people who practice a quaint religion centered around a fiber optic tree (what Doug Harvey describes as the “Gaia Hypothesis Shrub”). The blue folks also have fiber optic connections in their pony tails, kinda like this:


In Pandora’s jungle, everything is bioluminescent and all the plants are networked with the fiber optic shrub. Even the flying lizards have fiber optic appendages. The tall blue smurf folks can plug into these connections and control the flying lizards and five-legged horses. Oddly, when the blue people make love they don’t seem to connect up their fiber optic pony tails (would that make for an R rating?). Best of all, Sigourney Weaver discovers that the quaint religion, which involves sitting in a lotus position and swaying in front of the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub, is all based on SCIENCE since the fiber optic network is just like the internets back on earth not some woo-woo esoteric thing.

Spoiler alert–a disabled veteran, using a fancy wii controller mounted inside a tanning bed becomes a blue person and, by jacking into a really big flying lizard, defeats the evil corporation. In the final scene the disabled veteran, now fully smurfed-out, uses a spear to tip over the corporate general who is walking around in a top-heavy robot thingy. Sigourney Weaver dies and gets sucked up into the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub. Or, that’s my memory of it. I got kinda distracted by the 3D Imax Sensurround experience.

As for Avatar’s ideas about nature, one of Cameron’s workers must have done a brief one page summary of Paul Stamet’s mushroom writings for the busy director. The whole fiber optic natural network subplot in Avatar is reminiscent of the discovery, thanks to advances in DNA testing, of what may be the largest living organism in the world, the underground mycelial network of a massive honey mushroom Armillaria ostoyae that covers some 1,500 acres in Washington. Mix mushrooms with undersea landscapes and you’ve got Cameron’s jungle. Add the fiber optics and you’ve got a computer geek’s vision of Mother Earth.

What bugs me about the critical reaction to Avatar is the idea that the movie somehow represents a yearning for contact with the natural world (ironic in a movie that substitutes flesh and blood actors with digital puppets). In fact, Avatar is an artifact of a culture profoundly out of touch with nature. and serves only to further that disconnect by embedding the myth of disconnect in our popular imagination. How deeply offensive it is–how simple minded and tech biased–to suggest that nature is something we can “plug into,” Matrix style, as if we’re somehow separate from the world around us, aloof from it until we choose to interact with it. We are one with the natural world, always have been, always will be. We are born jacked-in, but we learn to ignore it.

What really frightened me about the Avatar and all the critics who loved it, is how the movie’s protagonist redeems the natural world by becoming virtual. Sure, he becomes flesh and blue blood in the end but only after all those virtual hours in the tanning bed. In this way Cameron’s movie inverts Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant Solaris (not to be confused with the George Cloony remake). The doomed astronauts of Solaris descend into madness because they loose touch with the natural world and can no longer distinguish the virtual from the real. In the film worried government officials dispatch a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, to find out what is going on aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Kelvin spends his last days on earth deep in the woods at his fathers remote cabin. Once in space Kelvin loses touch with reality. His dead wife appears to him, simultaneously real and virtual. Jerry Mander describes Solaris in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:
“Without concrete reality, which is to say, contact with their planetary roots, they are adrift in their minds: insane. All information has become believable and not believable at the same time. It has become arbitrary. There is no way to separate the real from the not-real. Although the astronauts know this, since there is nothing that is not arbitrary, except each other, all information is equal. It is impossible to determine which information to act on . . .

Finally, the message of the film is clear. The process of going insane began long before the launch into space. It began when life moved from nature into cities. Kelvin’s ride from woods to city to space was a ride from connection to disconnection, from reality to abstraction, a history of technology, setting the conditions for the imposition of reconstructed realities by a single powerful force.”

Tarkovsky says far more about our alienation from the natural world in Solaris’ highway scene than Cameron can ever hope to and he does it without dialog or special effects. In the clip below, the people in the car have left the countryside, a peaceful interval of grounded-ness. Now they’re traveling to the city, and from the city, to space. The long silent car ride shows their transition from the natural world, to the dislocation and isolation of the city freeway system, setting them up for the final dislocation and madness of the space station.

As if we didn’t need more proof that our culture is dangerously losing touch with reality, like the doomed astronauts of Solaris, along comes the newfangled form of depression,”Avatar Blues,” a sadness that fans suffer knowing they cannot actually live on Pandora. CNN offers this helpful suggestion,

“Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing “Avatar” video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities.”

Here’s our own suggestion for folks longing for Pandora. Go outside. Find a plant, any plant. A tree, a weed growing out of the sidewalk. Spend a few moments with that plant, observing what it looks like, how it grows, how it makes you feel. Believe what you hear, what you feel, what you imagine. There’s no need for tanning beds and fiber optics. You’re already jacked into a world 10 billion times richer and more imaginative than Pandora. To see it you just have to open your eyes.

Weeds into Fertilizer

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Nettlemania continues here at Homegrown Evolution.
It is raining which means even more nettles are on their way! My plants have set seed and there are tiny nettle plants popping up all over the place.
But I want to tell you about my latest nettle experiment. I am going to ferment nettles into a liquid fertilizer. I placed a bunch of whole nettle plants into a large plastic trash can. I am going to stir the mixture everyday for a few minutes to add oxygen into the system. The oxygen will feed bacteria that will break down the nettle and I guess produce some good byproducts in the process. After three weeks I will use the final brew as a liquid fertilizer for my garden. I will try to take pictures while it ferments to share with you. Supposedly this will not only add nitrogen but also valuable trace minerals to my soil. While the stirring adds oxygen, overall this is an anaerobic process. The plants are sitting in stagnant water most of the time and apparently get quite stinky. But I have learned that stinky things, when applied in the garden, are often very good things. Cleaning the chicken coop always produces a good product for the garden.
Nettles, like comfrey, are good at taking up minerals and other nutrients from the soil. Nettles are rich in iron, silica, calcium, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. These are all things that plants need for healthy growth. This makes nettles useful for making your own fertilizer. They can accumulate nutrients and minerals in their biomass. When they break down in a compost pile, or in this case in the water, they release the nutrients. Many of these elements can be difficult for other plants to access in the soil. Nettles just happen to be very good at taking up nutrients from relatively poor soil.
The point here is let your weeds rot in water and you get a nice fertilizer. This is better than water into wine as far as I’m concerned. Which reminds me that I want to try making dandelion wine this spring….
So many of the plants that people consider weeds, like dandelion and nettle, are nutritious and medicinal plants. My favorite part is that they are easy to grow and don’t need good soil, need no fertilizer and don’t require watering. Perfect.

Urban Chicken Classes

Homegrown Neighbor here:

If you are in L.A. come check out my Intro to Urban Chickens class this Saturday at The Learning Garden in Venice. More info at our Chicken Enthusiasts site. The class is just $10 and if you have never been to The Learning Garden it is a real treat. It is one of my favorite gardens in our fair metropolis. The class is at 10:30 am and will be followed by a general meeting of local chicken enthusiasts.
If you aren’t local but want to learn about chickens there are of course many resources out there. And if you already have chickens maybe you can share your knowledge in your community. I know that I certainly wish I new more when I got started. But its live and learn.
Sadly, not all the chickens lived. But the hens helped me to meet my fellow urban homesteading neighbors…… and the rest is history.
The chickens helped us to create community in our neighborhood so now we are helping others to use poultry to promote neighborly public relations and local food.
In the photo above Peckerella and banties Lita and Debbie eat an over ripe persimmon. Okay, Peckerella got most of it, but the banties stood up for themselves and stole a few bites.