Moldy Grapes!

We had a nice conversation with BoingBoing blogger and Make Magazine editor Mark Frauenfelder about how important mistakes are in the DIY life, so here’s two more recent blunders for ya’ll, courtesy of Mrs. Homegrown Evolution.

Recent failure #1: Inedible Pickled Grape Leaves

We have grape leaves. Lots of them. Our two table grape vines are a little hesitant to really bust out, but our native grape (Vitus californica) has taken over the entire south facing wall of our garden, and is threatening the neighbor’s house. The chickens like grape leaves, fortunately, so I have something to do with the prunings, but I wanted to do more.

I’m a big fan of dolmas, so thought I’d try to pickle some grape leaves. Skimming the internet for recipes, I saw, as usual, many contradictions [Mr. Homegrown's editorial note here--first mistake--internet recipes are notoriously unreliable. I know this because I've promulgated bad recipes myself!]. I found a recipe attributed to Sally Fallon which called for no pre-cooking at all, just pickling in whey and salt. I saw others that recommended pressure canning and I don’t have a pressure canner.

What I ended up doing was blanching the grape leaves before I pickled them, hoping that would soften them up some, but not so much that they would disintegrate when rolled. I was sure to only pick the youngest, freshest leaves.

I should have done a small test batch, but went nuts and filled a half-gallon jar with many rolled up bundles of leaves, and covered it in a brine and whey pickling solution. A week later I tasted the leaves. They looked right, they tasted right, but no matter how much I chewed, the leaves didn’t break down. I ended up with a mouthful of cud.

Now the question is whether wild grape leaves simply aren’t edible, or if I should try it again, and this time boil the beejeezus out them. I think I’ll do a beejeezus test run, and report back.

Has anyone out there done this successfully?

A second level of grape leaf failure:

While fermenting, a mold developed at the top of the jar, because a couple of the rolls crested the surface of the brine. One way to keep veggies below the brine is to weight them down somehow. In this case, I had a baggy full of salt water (salt water so that if it leaked, it wouldn’t dilute the brine) sitting at the top of the jar. But I didn’t pay attention to the jar during the fermentation, and a couple of the rolls popped up at the sides and mold set in––a kind of fluffy, spider-webby black mold that crept from the exposed bundles up the sides of the jar.

The lesson to be learned here is to pay some minimal amount of attention to your pickles while they’re fermenting. But notice, the mold didn’t keep me off trying the leaves. I just extracted the bad bundles, cleaned the sides of the jar, and sampled leaves that were not touched by mold.

By the way, I don’t always weight down my pickling veggies. For quick ferments, like the daikon radish pickles which I make all the time, I just turn the jar on end every day, sometimes more than once a day, for the 5 days or so it takes to pickle. I just leave them out where I can see them so I don’t forget to turn them. After they go in the fridge, mold doesn’t seem to be a problem. But for a longer ferment, like sauerkraut, you really do have to keep the food below the brine with weight.

Recent Failure #2: Moldy Chamomile Tea

We had a bumper crop of chamomile this year, due to generous volunteerism on its part. Several large plants sprung up in unlikely spots and thrived with no help at all. I harvested lots of the flowers so I could have chamomile tea in the cupboard until next spring.

The mistake I made in this case was not drying the flowers enough before I transferred them to a jar. I thought they were dry, but they weren’t, and they went off in storage. I noticed the flowers looked a little strangely colored, and one whiff in the jar told me all I needed to know. Mold had set in. A jar of chamomile should smell like heaven.

This was another pantry disappointment, similar to, but not nearly as devastating, or disgusting, as the loss of our sun-dried tomatoes to pantry moths.

Like the moldy grape leaves, this was really a matter of not paying attention. Mold in general is a certain sign of not paying attention. I am also guilty of rushing. Certainly, you don’t want to leave your drying herbs out for so long that they lose flavor. Storage in glass, in the dark, is essential for protecting those volatile oils, but the herbs really have to be crumbly dry before they go in jars.

By the way, the secret to a good chamomile harvest is constant picking. Don’t be afraid to pick the flowers. The more you pick, the faster it will make more flowers. Like, overnight. I swear. Just pinch the heads off. And you use the whole flower, dry or fresh, to make tea. If a little stem gets in there too, it’s not going to hurt anything.

Grow the Soil

Above, proof of the adage that you grow the soil not the plants. On the left a vigorous eggplant growing in high-end potting soil in a self-watering container. On the right a spindly, nitrogen starved specimen of the same variety of eggplant, planted at the same time, in our parkway garden. The container eggplant on the left is larger, has greener leaves and is obviously more healthy. The stunted eggplant on the right is the victim of depleted soil.

There’s some irony here. With our book release and press folks coming around to see things we’ve been doing too much planting and not paying enough attention to soil quality. Here’s two options we should have taken to help out that sickly eggplant in the raised bed (other than the expensive route of new potting soil):

1. Sheet Mulch

A concept from the permacultural toolbox, sheet mulching involves making a soil boosting lasagna consisting of a layer of compost or manure, newspaper to hold in moisture, and a thick application of mulch consisting of hay, stable bedding, or other bulk materials. Full instructions here via Agroforestry.net. See Toby Hemenway’s introductory permaculture guide Gaia’s Garden for a similar sheet mulching technique.

2. Cover Crop

An alternate soil building method would have been to simply give the beds a rest for a season and plant a nutrient-building and soil-busting mix of clovers and legumes. Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply has a nice selection of annual cover crops here. We used their dryland mix to deal with the bad soil in our front yard and we’ll re-sow it again this fall. Cover crops send down roots that break up soil, with the legumes used to fix nitrogen–it’s a great way to amend a large area with almost no work involved.

Here at Homegrown Evolution we don’t believe in tilling soil. Tilling soil disrupts the natural balance of soil microbes and minerals and requires hard physical labor, thus interfering with other important activities such as cocktail hours and general laying about. It’s better to let nature do the work for you. Both sheet mulching and cover crops mimic the way forests and chaparral ecosystems take care of themselves. In natural settings, leaves fall and stay in place (no ‘mow and blow’ guys in the forest!) and weeds do the tilling.

Bookin’

Many thanks to all of you who have ordered books from us. We were able to get the books out yesterday via our wondrous Xtracycle with a boost from the US Postal Service. And also, a note to our contributors–thanks and your books are in the mail as well. For those of you thinking of ordering some we have more available!

Urban Homestead Book Signing and Lecture


We’ll be delivering a lecture and and book-signing on the theme of “Low-tech is the new high-tech” at the Eco-Village Thursday the 26th of June. Here’s the 411:

Los Angeles Eco-Village
CRSP Institute for Urban Eco-Villages
and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition
present

THE URBAN HOMESTEAD
Talk, Slide Show and Book-Signing
with Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen
Thursday June 26th 2008 7:30pm
at Los Angeles Eco-Village
117 Bimini Place, LA 90004
Directions at www.laecovillage.org
Suggested donation $5, no one turned away for lack of funds
Books sold separately for $15

Come hear the authors of the Homegrown Evolution blog and get yourself a copy of their brand-new book ‘The Urban Homestead,’ which covers various topics from raising chickens, to carrying cargo on your bicycle, to canning produce from your garden, to harvesting rainwater, and much more! All very inexpensive and step-by-step instructions. The book is an important addition to the shelf of every Angeleno concerned about sustainability, self-sufficiency, and living a high-quality low-impact lifestyle.

For more information, email [email protected] or call 213.738.1254

Admission proceeds will benefit both the Eco-village and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

We’re Back!

I remember seeing the New York based planning and transportation website Streetsblog and wishing that we had something like it here in Los Angeles. Well we do thanks to the work of Damien Newton who we were honored to be interviewed by last month. Read his interview of Mr. Homegrown Evolution rambling about bike issues here on Streetsblog Los Angeles. Damien also interviewed us on the hot topic of growing food at home for the L.A. Times Emerald City blog. Thanks Damien!

Above, the backyard looking surprisingly decent for summer (of course I’ve framed out the area that the chickens made into a moonscape).

I don’t hear you singing in the wire . . .

AT&T has yet to restore our phone and Internet service. To those who have ordered books I apologize for the delay (we’re also waiting for a new shipment from our publisher). It looks like it will be Monday before we will have anything other than smoke signals to communicate with, unless we shift to HAM or pirate radio (perhaps a good idea considering AT&T’s repair service–I’d hate to see what they’d be like in an earthquake).

In the meantime we leave you with a song that seems appropriate under our circumstances, Wichita Lineman, often described as the “first existential country song”:

Dookie in the Tomatoes

Our first tomatoes of the season are just beginning to ripen, coinciding nicely with the multi-state cow poo in the roma scare. Allow me to speculate wildly about the cause of the current epidemic, tracing the cause step by step from the beginning:

1. We begin not with the tomato farm, but instead with manure from that wonder of industrialized agriculture, the concentrated feed lot, where thousands of cattle stew in their own filth. Immunosuppressed cattle on these feed lots act as ideal Petri dishes for all kinds of diseases including salmonella. At these massive operations, cattle feed on corn even though, biologically, they were meant to eat grass. To counter the deleterious effects of feeding them the wrong food, they are pumped full of antibiotics which, due to the evolutionary principle of survival of the fittest, creates new generations of antibiotic resistant infections. Concentrating them so close together further facilitates the spread of exotic strains of all manor of nasty things including salmonella.

2. Manure from the feed lot either runs off accidentally onto a neighboring tomato farm or is exported as fertilizer intentionally. At some point, manure gets on a tomato, either on the farm or after being shipped.

3. A salmonella infected tomato arrives at a centralized packing facility where it is loaded into a massive water bath by underpaid workers to mingle with thousands of other tomatoes. The water bath acts as our second salmonella Petri dish along the tomato’s path to our table. Alternately, a blade used to automatically slice tomatoes gets infected with salmonella, thereby spreading the bug to all the other pre-sliced tomatoes headed to the food assemblers (a more accurate term than “chef”) at America’s fast food establishments.

4. After leaving the packing facility, Salmonella infected tomatoes get shipped all over the country and perhaps the world, thereby sentencing thousands of people to multi-day commode-sitting hell. Some immunosuppressed folks, sadly, die.

5. The government announces, acting in the interest of the big agricultural players, “our food system is actually safer than ever”, and congratulates themselves for their quick diagnoses of the exact strain of salmonella and its source–in this case, tomatoes processed by careless workers at a packing facility. Hearings ensue, and a few months later they announce a new series of bizarre regulations. Tomato packing facility washing equipment must now be maintained at the precise temperature of 163º F for 5.375 minutes minimum. Problem solved. Mainstream journalists move on to the next hot topic.

Now I could be completely incorrect in my assumptions about this month’s tomato scare–it’s just a guess. But let me offer a few solutions that would take care of the problem no matter what caused this most recent outbreak:

1. If you can, grow your own tomatoes and make your own fertilizer. Yes, it’s possible (but a lot less likely) to get salmonella from your own home grown produce, but at least you and your family will be the only one infected.

2. Support small family farms. Again, a small family farm could cause a salmonella outbreak, but it would effect far fewer people. Decentralization at all points in the agricultural supply chain is the solution to greater food security, not further concentration. Unfortunately our government is on the take from the big players and promulgates regulations that make it impossible for small family farmers to make a living. Read Joel Salatin’s book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal” for more on how agricultural regulations are at the heart of our food safety problems.

3. Don’t wash produce until just before it is prepared. At it turns out, washing upsets the natural balance of harmful and beneficial bacteria present on fresh produce. Food microbiologist Keith Warriner has found that a beneficial bacteria called Enterobacter keeps salmonella in check. Wash off the Enterobacter and salmonella thrives (read more on this theory at New Scientist). The same holds for washing eggs–bad idea.

I count myself very fortunate to have a bit of land to grow some tomatoes and feel sorry for those who don’t have this luxury. I wish more journalists would spin this story as a reason to build more community gardens and allow apartment dwellers to grow some food on the roof. It leaves me eating that big juicy roma tomato, pictured above, with all the smugness of a Prius driver in the HOV lane.

Staycationing

Due to some sloppy utility work (thanks for the outsourcing DWP!), our phone and internet service are out for the next few days. Mrs. Homegrown Evolution is in San Francisco with our only cell phone.

To those of you who have ordered books I apologize for the delay.

Casting out the lawn

One technique for learning to draw is to study the negative space, the empty space around the subject you’re trying to capture. Doing so shortcuts our mind’s tendency to distort and stereotype the subject, say a building or a face. Draw the negative space, and you’ll be more likely to realistically capture the outline of your subject rather than ending up with the stick figures and child-like representations our mind naturally tends to portray.

In our cities negative space, the open spaces between buildings, consists of vast seas of parking and empty, unused lawns. We all tend to filter out these spaces, failing to comprehend their size and ubiquitousness. Thankfully there’s a growing awareness that our city’s negative spaces are in fact negative, that they contribute to blight, profligate use of resources and our general unhappiness.

But a consciousness shift is underway led by forward thinking folks like the parishioners of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in West Los Angeles who have teamed up with the non-profit organization Urban Farming to rip up their entire 1,200 square foot south lawn to plant vegetables for the congregation and the LAX Food Pantry. From their press release:

“Holy Nativity is a strong community center with focus on faith, hope, diversity, community and environment. The new Community Garden garden provides solutions to the issues of food insecurity, access to fresh produce, education on healthy eating, greening the environment, rising food costs and the importance of donating to those in need. Urban Farming and Holy Nativity, along with the project’s partners, will have a celebration event on Sunday, June 8. This garden is a partner in the Urban Farming campaign, “INCLUDE FOOD™ when planting and landscaping”.

During World War II, twenty million people planted “victory gardens” at their homes. They grew 40% of America’s produce. We did it then, we can do it again.”

Kudos to Holy Nativity and Urban Farming for this initiative and we hope the idea spreads to other churches, synagogues an mosques across the land–I wish I could attend the opening, but I’ll be assisting with the Bike Coalition’s annual River Ride fundraiser (not to late to sign up for that LA cyclists!). To those who can make it to Holy Nativity, the festivities run from 2 t0 5 p.m. this Sunday June 8th. Holy Nativity is located at:

6700 W 83rd St
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(310) 670-4777

I had wanted to make a clever biblical reference at the beginning of this post and suggest that now, in 2008, Jesus would rip up the lawn, with the same fervor that he chased away the inappropriate money changers who did business in the temple. Dusting off the bible, however, I discovered that Jesus also shooed off some livestock during that episode. But with our increasing food troubles, I’d like to think that today, in addition to the vegetables, Jesus would welcome livestock back to the church grounds (cathedrals were used in the Middle Ages as barns, after all).

For more info and photos, see Holy Nativity’s Community Garden page.

Rainwater Harvesting with Joe Linton

With the driest spring on record here in Los Angeles, water and where to get it ought to be on all of our minds in this drought prone metropolis. Thankfully, artist, author, Los Angeles River expert and co-founder of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition Joe Linton will be teaching a workshop on rainwater harvesting at the Los Angeles Eco-Village on Saturday, June 14, 2008 from 9 am to 3 pm at L.A. Eco-Village (Directions)

Here’s a description of the workshop from the Eco-Village’s website.

This workshop is part of a continuing series in “hands-on” urban permaculture and includes:

  • An overview presentation on Los Angeles water issues, including local multi-benefit watershed management efforts.
  • A tour of Los Angeles Eco-Village stormwater harvesting landscape features, including the Bimini Slough Nature Park.
  • A hands-on workshop to build terraced swales to detain and infiltrate storm water
  • This workshop focuses on building earthworks that gather and infiltrate rainwater in the landscape. It does not cover rainwater harvesting with cisterns, which we anticipate will be the subject of a future hands-on permaculture workshop, hopefully in early fall 2008. Watch for details.

Fee: $35 (sliding scale available) – bring a bag lunch.
Registration required: 213/738-1254 or [email protected] (workshop size limited)

About Joe Linton
Joe is an artist and urban environmental activist. He’s been involved for many years in efforts to restore and revitalize the Los Angeles River, including writing and illustrating the guide book Down By The Los Angeles River (Wilderness Press 2005). Joe is a long-time resident member of Los Angeles Eco-Village and a co-founder of the LA County Bicycle Coalition.