Vegetable Gardening for the Lazy

One of the problems with growing vegetables is all the labor involved–starting seeds, composting, watering and watching out for bugs. It’s worth it, of course, for the tasty rewards, but many busy folks are simply too exhausted after work or corralling the bambinos to pick up a shovel and garden. For those who’d rather sit on the porch with a martini than laboring in the field, and we often include ourselves in that category, perennial vegetables can put food on the table year round without the hassle of having to plant seeds every spring. Here’s a roundup of our top four favorite edible perennials we have growing in our humble garden.

1. Tree Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala–I think). This strange but attractive member of the Brassica family, pictured above (in a protective cage to fend off our chickens and Doberman), goes under a confusing number of popular names. The specimen given to us by Trathen Heckman of the Petaluma based Daily Acts (thanks again Trathen!), has matured into what looks like a four foot tall kale plant gone to seed, except it hasn’t gone to seed. The leaves are mild flavored and we’ve eaten them both cooked and raw. The problem with this plant is finding one. Search for it on the internets and you’ll find other people searching for it. So dear readers, leave a comment on this post if you know of a good source either local or mail order. We’ll definitely be making some cuttings, as it would be nice to have more than one.

2. Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). A member of the sunflower family, this North American native produces an edible tuber that, while hard to clean, is worth the effort. It’s invasive which, from the perspective of the martini swilling gardener, is a plus since it means never having to propagate more. We planted ours in the spring from tubers we picked up in the produce section of our local market, Trader Joes. You may be able to find Jerusalem Artichioke at fancy food markets such as Whole Foods. Stick those grocery store bought tubers in the ground and in a few months you’ll have a field of these things.

3. Regular old Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus). Here’s a perennial for those of us lucky enough to live in a Mediterranean climate. In foggy coastal areas artichokes thrive year-round. Here in inland Los Angeles they die back in the summer. We cut them to the ground in June and wait for them to come back in the fall. Artichokes are a handsome, large plant that produces one of the most delicious of all vegetables.

4. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). We won’t natter on about this one, as we’ve covered the edible leaves here, jam making with the fruit here, avoiding the spines here and penned a very early potty-mouthed love letter to the plant here. Needless to say, a plant that needs no added water or fertilizer and grows in dismal, alkaline soil while producing an abundant crop is a plant that allows more time to get the perfect vermouth/gin ratio for those late afternoon cocktail sessions on the urban homestead.

Steal this Book!

Our book has been released! It’s available wherever books are sold, or you can get an autographed copy from us over on the right side of this page. Tell your friends and family! Blog, twitter, friend, digg and yell! From the press release:

The Urban Homestead is the essential handbook for a burgeoning new movement: urbanites are becoming farmers. By growing their own food and harnessing natural energy, city dwellers are reconnecting with their land while planting seeds for the future for our cities.

Whether you’d like to harvest your own vegetables, keep heirloom chickens, or become more energy independent, this smartly designed handbook has step-by-step instructions to get you homesteading immediately wherever you may live. It is also a guidebook to the larger movement, pointing you to the best books and internet resources on self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Learn how to:
• Grow food on a patio or balcony
• Preserve or ferment food and make yogurt and cheese
• Compost with worms
• Keep city chickens
• Divert your grey water to your garden
• Clean your house without toxins
• Guerilla garden in public spaces
• Create the modern homestead of your dreams

Written by city dwellers for city dwellers, this illustrated, two-color guide proposes a paradigm shift that adds joy to our lives, strengthens our communities, and supports our planet. Includes copious illustrations, project ideas, resources, and first person anecdotes from urban homesteaders across the country.

Authors Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen happily farm in their Echo Park bungalow and run the urban homestead blog: www.homegrownevolution.org.

By the way, that’s not us on the cover–those be models. Since we’ve just about given up on privacy here’s a photo of us on the right (by Caroline Clerc). And, for the record, we don’t have a modernist house!

A special thanks to all our contributors–you’ll be getting a complimentary copy soon.

Mistakes we have made . . .

There’s a kind of boastful blogging style that, I’m afraid, we here at Homegrown Evolution have been guilty of. Simply put, we’ve failed to detail all our blunders. These mistakes and accidents, some funny, others painfully disappointing, have more instructional value than our successes. And oh, how many blunders there have been in the past ten years. It’s about time to round up the top 6. I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten, but here’s a start.

1. Installing a water garden.

That water garden looks great in the picture above. That was before the neighborhood raccoons spent several nights a week treating it like rock stars used to treat hotel rooms, and before scum and slime clogged up the pump. While the pump was solar powered, the profligate use of water was not the best example to set here in draught prone Los Angeles. After a few months we gave up, filled it in with soil and now strawberries grow there happily. We hear that Materials and Applications, a neighborhood landscape architecture firm that runs an amazing outdoor gallery, has stopped designing water features unless they are supplied by rainwater. Sounds like a good idea to us! And with the chickens we did not want to provide habitat for raccoons.

2. Mixing Chicken Breeds

Speaking of chickens, a friend of ours who grew up on a farm confirmed that “chickens are racists”. Like talk radio hosts, hens will pick on anyone who is different. In our case, our green egg laying and weird looking Araucana gets the crap beaten out of her by the Rhode Island Red and one of the Barred Rocks. If I had it do do all over again, I’d get four Barred Rocks. They’re dependable layers and don’t make much of a fuss.

3. Planting stuff that doesn’t grow in our Mediterranean climate

As our permaculture friend David Khan likes to say, “work makes work.” Plants that need lots of tending and attention, nine times out of ten, end up unhappy. When they croak it leads to a downward spiral of disappointment and frustration. Just recently a hops plant I tried to grow up and died on me. I stormed around the kitchen cursing for a few minutes before I realized that, once again, I had failed to follow my own advice–plant in season and in respect of place. Hops belong in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, the heat loving prickly pear cactus in our front yard provides both tasty nopales and fruit reliably every year while growing in terrible alkaline soil with no added water or fertilizer. The problem with the prickly pear is that it is too prodigious, and that’s the kind of problem you can hope for as an urban homesteader.

3. Newspaper seed pots

Those newspaper seed starting pots we linked to earlier this year . . . well, there seems to be a problem with them. I think the newspaper is wicking the water away from the soil. While in Houston recently, I took a class from a master gardener in plant propagation and we used regular plastic pots, a thin layer of vermiculite over the potting soil and a plastic bag over the pot. It seems to work better. The other blunder here is posting about something before testing it.

4. Pantry Moths!

A few years ago, using our solar dehydrator (we’ll post about that soon), we dried a summer’s worth of tomatoes to use during the fall and winter. We put the entire harvest in one large jar. Several months later we had a jar full of pantry moth larvae. This is the entomological version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, a mistake we won’t soon repeat. Now we split dried goods into multiple jars so that in case some critters get it to one we’ll still have others.

5. Buying a wonky house with poor professional guidance

Be careful choosing a Realtor–pick one who has been recommended to you by someone you trust. Be especially careful picking a home inspector–pick an independent one–not one recommended by the seller or buyer’s agent. Our inspector spent a very short time in our house and ignored large problems, in my opinion, because it was in his favor for the house to sell so that he could continue his relationship with our agent. It’s an inherent conflict of interest for the inspector to have a connection to either real estate agent.

6. Planting a lawn

We weren’t always the Molotov cocktail tossing vegetable growing radicals that we are now. Just after we bought this place ten years ago we planted a lawn in the backyard. With some temporary fencing, we roped it off from the Doberman to allow it to grow. After a month the lawn matured into a lush green carpet . . . but it only lasted five minutes. That was the time it took for the Doberman to gracefully leap over the barrier and run in circles, causing chunks of turf and newly amended soil to fly all over the yard.

Let’s do the math–in a dry place like Los Angeles–lawn=crime. On top of the waste of water they simply don’t look good here without massive inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and gas powered lawn mowers. Sorry, but I hate lawns and will not ever be convinced otherwise. Got kids? That’s what mulch is for. Fuck the lawn. Fuck all it stands for.

The Conclusion

I guess the lesson here, with all of these missteps, is persistence. Push through the blunders and the light will shine. And a promise–we here at Homegrown Evolution we will do a better job detailing our mistakes.

The kids are all bikin’


Image via Bikeblog

We’ll close out bike to work week with a roundup of the week’s hijinks before we get back to our other obsessions–vegetables and booze.

Mr. Homegrown Evolution delivered a PowerPoint on behalf of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative conference. We talked about the pragmatic details of biking in L.A. (hint–route choice!) and pitched the notion of changing our built environment to encourage walking and cycling. Here in Los Angeles, with the majority of bike commuters being poor folks of color, making our city more bikable is a civil rights issue.

For an overview of the bike to work day festivities (which ironically, since they take place in the middle of a weekday, tend to involve mostly the self-employed or unemployed) read Damien Newton’s post on the excellent Streetsblog LA. Elsewhere the fabulous Enci, our actor/cyclist comrade, had another run-in with a particularly angry bus driver and Mikey Wally managed to get banned for life from both Dodger Stadium and CALTRANS headquarters for doing skids on his fixie.

Lastly, the group calling themselves the Crimanimalz released a second freeway cycling video that has now gone around the world thanks to BoingBoing. No doubt, this ride will inspire debate.

More Cargo Bike Porn

In honor of bike to work week another round of cargo bikes, this time with photos courtesy of comrade Colin Bogart, former board president of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. These bikes were part of this February’s North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Portland. Get our your wallet, because these wheels are spendy.

Here’s a very heavy looking bike for carrying your apples around with. It’s by Black Sheep Bikes of Fort Collins Colorado.

Frances Bike’s bakfiet. Looks to me like a giant colander with wheels.

A very beautiful, retro styled bike by Alternative Needs Transportation.

A bike from Ahearne Cycles.

Looks like the golfing crowd has a “plan b” just in case the shit comes down and there’s no way to charge the carts. Of course by that time we’ll have ripped up the courses to plant food and Tiger will use his swing to wield a scythe.

More on that nice rooftop garden . . .

Bruce F. the creator of that nice rooftop garden we featured last week dropped us a note to say that he kept a diary about the process that you can read here, via the Daily Kos. Bruce also mentioned a few other interesting links:

Humanure Composting via Feral Scholar

A fiery essay, The Politics of Food is Politics via Counterpunch

and A 35-Point Practical Guide for Action by Bruce himself

Thanks Bruce F! And we’ll be back soon after we recover from our weekend trip to the emergency room (kidney stones–ouch!).

Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not too Much

In the course of writing and researching our book, The Urban Homestead, coming out this June, we learned a lot about contemporary agricultural practices. And what we learned sure ain’t pretty. It has made our trips to the supermarket, to supplement the food we grow at home, a series of moral dilemmas. Where did this food come from? How was it grown or raised? What are these mysterious ingredients? Our book contains practical how-to advice for ways to deal with these supermarket conundrums by learning to grow your own food.

Journalist Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, recently wrote an editorial, “Why Bother” in the New York Times Magazine arguing that it’s time for us all to think about planting some vegetables. He has a new book, In Defense of Food an Eater’s Manifesto, that addresses the ethical decisions we face in our trips to the supermarket. In this engaging, hour long lecture at the Google headquarters, Pollan gives some practical advice for navigating those dreadful supermarket isles. Put it on while you cook dinner:

Cargo Bike Roundup

With May official bike month in the U.S., we’ll begin the festivities with a roundup of cargo bikes and trikes courtesy of Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell. These puppies answer the common objection to biking, “but I’ve got shit to carry!”

We imagine this sturdy old model, pictured above, delivering barrels of sauerkraut, blood sausage and hefeweisen to the local Bier Garten. The bike equivalent of the sturdy old Frau behind the bar at our local German watering hole, the Red Lion. This is Utility with a capital U.

Sadly, Mr. Homegrown Evolution has forgotten every word of his college German, so all we can make out is that this bike represents the Grüne Liga, some sort of environmental organization. Don’t know if this trike is an ad, or if the Grüne Liga uses it to distribute literature or environmentally correct currywurst.

We imagine this bike belongs to some way eurotrashy DJ dude who uses it to shuttle his 100 kilo collection of Eurodisco hits to all the hot Berlin nightclubs. Gotta say that while we dig the European commitment to biking, health care and the environment, it’s their terrible music that keeps us firmly planted in America. If you don’t believe me, spend some time watching this Eurovision song contest clip by way of an example.
Via Facebook, Russell Bell wrote us to ask about the trike pictured above manufactured by a British outfit called Cycles Maximus which Russell wants to use to deliver produce to a local farmer’s market. Go Russell! We had to plead ignorance never having used one of these things, but as long as you don’t have any big hills or angry motorists it should work just fine.

Sadly in our corner of Los Angeles we have both big hills and angry motorists, which is why Homegrown Evolution uses the amazing Xtracycle for our cargo trips since I can’t imagine riding a wide cargo trike in L.A. With the Xtracycle, cargo cinches up tight in the back making for a narrow profile. This allows passage through tight spaces, such as our substandard bike lanes and busy traffic. You pretty much ride it like you would any other regular bike. Surly has recently come out with a sturdy frame/Xtracycle combination.

Local biking comrade Josef Bray-Ali just picked up a Dutch cargo bike called a bakfiet similar to the one pictured above. You can read his review here. A local Los Angeles dealer, bucketbike.com has started importing bakfiets and other European style bikes to America.

We’ve found hauling cargo on a bike to be tremendously enjoyable. It’s an entertaining challenge to see how many ridiculously heavy things you can carry. Sixty pounds of dog food, bags of concrete, soil and many loads of groceries have all traveled on our Xtracyle. It’s allowed us to get rid of one of our cars and save thousands of dollars. While many of the bikes above are on the expensive side, if you replace a car with them you’ll come out way ahead. And again, it’s just plain fun, which is all that really matters.