Interview With Apartment Gardener Helen Kim

We got a lot of emails after posting the image above of Los Angeles based photographer Helen Kim’s astonishing windowsill garden. It’s a great example of what you can do with a small amount of space, and brings to mind William Morris’ advice, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. Helen graciously sat down for an email interview to talk about her beautiful and useful garden:

HOMEGROWN EVOLUTION: What’s your advice to folks who would like to try growing plants in an apartment windowsill?

HELEN KIM: Well, since I didn’t start with any particular plant knowledge or skills (just a feeling that it would be lovely to have living things around my apartment–besides my dog–to take care of and watch grow), I guess I’d just say just ‘hop in!’ For me, it’s been something of a hit-and-miss experimental approach: finding out which plants do well in which windowsills (I have six sets of large windows facing every direction except north). It takes a little doing, and I’ve lost a few here and there. I started years ago with French breakfast radish seeds, which didn’t go so well–they needed too much attention and too much water–and the few small radishes I ended up with a few months later were eaten and gone in a few seconds! Then I planted mint because I felt increasingly silly buying plastic packets of it in the supermarket, only to watch it wither in my fridge since I only needed a couple leaves of it for whatever recipe. To my surprise, the mint grew like crazy with minimal care–good for me since I’m running around a bunch and not particularly attentive. That was pretty encouraging, so I got more and more… figuring out, as I went along, which plants could survive my temperament. Rosemary seems to be pretty kill-proof, too.

HE: What have been some of the other successful/unsuccessful plants you have grown?

HK: Now that I’ve realized the south-facing windows are best for edibles, the most successful have been: lemon grass, rosemary, green onions, mint, mustard greens, parsley, cilantro, oregano, thyme, basil, Thai chili peppers, okra, chives, stevia, lemon verbena, tarragon, dill, and sorrel. The least successful have been: beans, cucumber, arugula, tomato, squash, Swiss chard, leeks, spinach, and corn. All of these were a complete wash last year! But the happy upshot is that, this year, I planted them at my mother’s house – in the two huge beds she has there. All that space and sunlight has made them pretty happy. While it was a bit of a bummer to not have them at arm’s reach at my place, it was nice at least to figure out I could use my windowsill as a kindergarten (I started a lot of these from seed in little peat pots) before sending them off to bigger pastures. And, since I visit every two weeks, I always come back home with an armload of this or that. I’ve had a strawberry plant that is doing pretty nicely these days at my place, but not bearing much fruit… so I’ll be shipping him off mom’s in a couple weeks.

HE: What do you use as fertilizer?

HK: Shockingly, I suppose, before this year I didn’t use anything! I always thought plant vitamins, ‘food,’ and fertilizer were a bunch of hooey. But a friend recently gave me a little lecture on the importance of fertilizer and I thought I’d finally give it a whirl… and I have to say that, yes, the plants are a bit happier than they were this time last year. I’ve been using Dr. Earth fertilizer and making fertilizer tea.

HE: Did you choose your apartment with the idea that you’d be gardening in it? If so, what should a prospective renter look for?

HK: I had three main things on my mind when I was looking for an apartment: the place would need to comfortably house me, my dog, and my plants. There were so few buildings that would take a pet, so that narrowed the field considerably. This small field became even smaller when I noticed many of the buildings had windows that swung outwards (impossible if you intend to water your plants). There was only this one building that fit the bill, so I moved in. On the first day, I realized the screens were impossible to remove (to water, etc…) without mangling. The building manager at the time told me that the screens were non-removable (what?!). So I measured all the windows, went to the hardware store, and had them make removable screens, voila. Maybe I should mention, too, that the management recently ripped out all the shrubbery in front of the building. I assumed they were going to put in something else in imminently, but a couple months went by… so, a few weeks ago, I started putting succulent cuttings around the perimeter.

HE: We understand you had some trouble with the MAN. What happened and how did you handle it?

HK: After a couple years of living here, another building manager informed me that the plants on the windowsills were violating building codes and that I’d have to remove them all. I wrote him a letter back saying that the plants were supported by steel mesh baskets and lashed to building with 50 lb. picture wire. I never heard back from him and he was replaced by another in a long line of building managers. Several years of walk-through inspections have come and gone, and nobody has mentioned it since. While I still wonder as to what the actual law is on windowsill plants, I’m not about to stir the pot by clarifying it with the management here.

HE: You’re an amazing chef–you won me over to the concept of cold soup with that delicious leek soup you dropped off the other week. What sorts of things do you cook with plants you grow on your windowsill?

HK: Aww, thanks, glad you liked it! Personally, I wouldn’t have made it through this summer without cold soups! The potato/peas/leek cold soup was made with sorrel from the windowsill. A couple weeks ago, I grabbed the lemongrass and Thai chilies and cilantro from the window and made tom yum goong soup. The chives are great with egg salad and capers. With the dill, tarragon, thyme, and parsley I usually make grilled fish. Whenever I come back from my mother’s I use the tomatoes to make bruschetta… and add my basil. Or I make salsa and add the cilantro. Or I use the oregano to make spaghetti sauce. Cactus salad is also good with the cilantro and oregano. The spinach and chard from my mom’s I usually blanch, then cool… and add garlic, sesame oil, salt, pepper, and green onions from the sill–good with the fish as a side. I use a bunch of the green onions whenever I make hot soup with noodles. And, for awhile there, I was making pasta with Swiss chard and mushrooms (with garlic and a bit of butter) just about every day! The mustard greens I like to have with my scrambled eggs… or, of course, for some pizzazz in any salad. I pounded the heck out of some dried stevia yesterday morning and added it to my coffee… and was surprised at how sweet it was. The mint is great to slice up and just throw in a glass of ice water. And it’s a must for my favorite summer beverage: glass of ice, shot of tequila, top with tonic water, squeeze in half a lime, and add a bunch of crushed mint. The okra plants are going great guns and I’m looking forward to cooking something non-slimy with them! … but I still haven’t gotten around to making any tea with the lemon verbena…

HE: We heard that some of the plants have a special significance for you

HK: Yeah, shortly after I moved in, my grandmother died and I inherited some of her plants–mostly succulents. So when the building manager told me I’d have to remove all the plants, I kind of panicked–but you know how that story worked out. They’re now living happily on two of the east-facing windows. The two windows on the south house the edible plants–which pans out nicely for my lazy self, since they’re right by the kitchen. And the one west-facing window (the shadiest) has my wonderfully-weird euphorbias. it took me awhile to come around to the sensible idea that it’s best to separate the edible plants from the poisonous ones!

HE: There was quite a reaction when I posted the photo of your garden.

HK: I was happy that some folks commented on the windowsill (blog picture) being nice looking! But, really, that was a new transformation from the beginning of this summer. I mean, I’ve had many of the same plants over the years in, more or less, the same arrangement. But, several months ago, a new neighbor moved into the apartment building next door. Their window is a little below my kitchen window, just three feet away. In the nine years I’ve lived here, the various neighbors have always kept the blinds and the window mostly shut. When this new neighbor decided to keep the blinds open day and night, I saw clear into the living room and kitchen… and, whenever I puttered around with the plants, I was looking straight onto their mattress. Without any effort on my part, all of a sudden I was getting way too much aural and visual information! So I worked a little bit at creating some visual privacy for all of us: I hoisted the further-back plants up on multiple bricks and replanted so that the taller plants blocked the bed-view somewhat… and left the closer plants on sill-level. The step-terrace-thingie was a nice aesthetic result – but totally an accidental by-product stemming from dumb necessity. But, rats, this new plant curtain hasn’t shielded me much from the squabbling. Sigh…

HE: Thanks Helen!!!

Vegetable Gardening With Dogs

We love all dogs and live with an elderly Doberman Pincher. But gardening with dogs can definitely have its challenges, especially when your trusted companion has a taste for heirloom tomatoes. On the right, the aftermath of one of our dog’s nightly tomato raids, this time targeting our healthiest and most productive vine, a variety called Giant Syrian. The dog has managed to claim all but a few of the tomatoes off this vine, knocking off many unripe ones in the process. FYI, the Giant Syrian tomato is our favorite variety this year, producing large, flavorful and meaty fruit. Hopefully the Doberman will leave a few for us. [Update: an alert reader has pointed out that tomatoes are toxic to canines. The ASPCA says that the green parts are toxic, but others claim that both the ripe and unripe fruit are also a problem.]

On the subject of tomatoes, here’s a very beautiful and useful website with pictures and descriptions of many heirloom tomato and vegetable varieties: the Heirloom Vegetable Archive.

Two Girls Fight Produce Stand Closure

Several readers sent me a link to a ridiculous story about two young girls busted for selling homegrown produce in front of their house (watch the video via KGO-TV San Francisco). You should check it out if just to see the amazing garden this family seems to have. Their struggle reminds me of the equally ridiculous taco truck war raging here in Los Angeles. Funny how this allegedly capitalist country seems to stamp down the entrepreneurial spirit when it emanates from the hoi polloi.

Ramshackled!

We had the great pleasure this weekend of meeting the folks behind the paradoxically named blog Ramshackle Solid. Both of our “compounds” have a wonky old house sitting on an awkward hillside, so we had a lot to talk about and we look forward to visiting the Ramshackle casita one of these days. In the meantime, due to the wonders of the internets, we can all take a tour via the blog. Make sure to check out their whimsical rebar bean poles, pictured above, complete with instructions on how to make one.

Bar Codes on Veggies


Via the trade journal Wireless Watch Japan comes a story on Japanese cell phone users with built in QR bar code readers using their phones to check food safety,

“Forget any assumptions about Hicksville. Japanese farmers have little fear of technology. Rural Ibaraki Prefecture has turbo charged their QR coding for agricultural products tagging a wide variety of vegetables grown in that prefecture. Ibaraki Prefectural authorities and the JA Ibaraki Prefecture Central Union of Agricultural Cooperative cooperating with other farming and agricultural associations are adding QR code labels right at the point of origin. In the supermarket, consumers use camera equipped cell phones to scan the QR code on the label. The code links to a mobile website detailing origin, soil composition, organic fertilizer content percentage (as opposed to chemical), use of pesticides and herbicides and even the name of the farm it was grown on. Consumers can also access the same information over the Ibaraki Agricultural Produce Net website by inputting a numbered code on each label.”

Though we’re not Luddites, we have mixed feelings about this idea. On the one hand, it would be a great way to figure out where our food comes from, who grows it and how it was produced. The Japanese system even let’s you see pictures of the farmers who grew your produce. On the other hand, its application in the United States would also be a way for large agribusiness concerns and their friends in government to further marginalize small scale farmers unable to afford the technology, or unwilling to subject themselves to Byzantine regulatory schemes biased towards the big guys (see Joel Salatin’s book Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal for more on how food safety regulations, like these, are often just a ruse to put small organic farmers out of business by making them adhere to rules to expensive to follow). This bar code scheme also raises privacy concerns. Will cell phone companies and supermarkets conspire together to gather marketing information on individuals? If I buy a Twinkie will my health insurance rates go up?

Even if you don’t speak Japanese you can kind of figure out how the system works by visiting the Ibaraki Agricultural Produce Net.

In August, Way Too Much Squash

On the left a zucchini. Do I need to say anything about zucchini? What to do with it, perhaps, since prodigiousness is the zucchini’s modus operandi, but that bottomless subject would be best left to the proprietor of a an all zucchini blog. Rather, let’s take a brief look at the specimen on the right.

Meet the awkwardly named Early Prolific Straightneck Summer Squash. It’s an open pollinated heirloom variety named as an “All-America Selection” in 1938 (AAS is kind of like a dog show for seeds run by the National Garden Bureau). We grew our EPS from Botanical Interests seeds we got at our local nusery.

Our EPS squash has lived up to its name, having grown rapidly, producing tasty summer squash with a zucchini-like flavor and consistency. Unfortunately, all squash that we have grown here has been subject to powdery mildew, a white fungus that spreads rapidly across the leaves of the plant. Our coastal climate, with hot days and cool, moist nights is not the optimal growing climate for squash, which prefer dryer conditions. We’re not big on spraying stuff (even if it’s harmless–we’re also cheap and lazy), so next summer season we’ll search out varieties resistant to mildew. For those of you who are also cursed by mildew, here’s a list from the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension (PDF) of mildew resistant squash and pumpkin varieties.

So now, dear readers, please tell us what the hell are you doing with all that squash you grew this summer . . .

Speakeasy – this Sunday

Just a reminder that Homegrown Evolution will be speaking at the Smart Gals Speakeasy this Sunday August, 17th at 7 p.m. in Los Feliz. We’ll do some hands-on apartment gardening, play some games and listen to the music of our friends Triple Chicken Foot, who will bring their brand of foot stomping roots music to what will be a fun evening.

Location and details:
Mt. Hollywood Underground
4607 Prospect Avenue, Los Feliz
Admission: $15.00
Information and passwords: 323.302.2257 or www.smartgals.org
(not just for chicks)
Remember the passwords: “Polycultural Evolution…”

…Spread the Word

Salsa Dancing in a World Without Oil

For those of you in the Los Angeles area here’s some events to mark on the calendar:

SALSA SALSA

What: Salsa Salsa, a Celebration of Love Apples

Type: Public Art Event in which we make salsa while dancing to salsa music together.

When: Sunday, August 17th, 3 to 7 p.m.

Where: Farmlab, 1745 N. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012

Free to the public

SALSA SALSA is a harvest festival inviting the citizens of Los Angeles to come make and taste tomato salsas while listening and dancing to salsa music. SALSA SALSA is a celebration of public space and the culmination of the LOVE APPLES project in which 72 tomato plants were installed on 12 traffic islands in LA and carefully tracked to see which thrive and which perish, à la Survivor. LOVE APPLES is a collaboration between the art collective Fallen Fruit (www.fallenfruit.org) and Islands of LA (www.islandsofla.org). The artists of Fallen Fruit investigate urban space, ideas of neighborhood and new forms of located citizenship and community all through the lens of fruit. Islands of LA is an art project that is turning traffic islands into territories of art to create community, foster discussion and explore the use and availability of public space.

LOVE APPLES is an experiment in public space in the city of Los Angeles, imagining new ways in which such spaces could be utilized to make our communities more livable and engaged. It promotes community awareness, sharing, food safety, public resources, and organic gardening.

LOVE APPLES is also a celebration of public art and of activated citizen artists. The festival doubles as a thank you to the range of artists, arts and community organizers whose assistance in response to the Department of Public Works’ concerns helped rescue the project. These include: Dorit Cypis (Foreign Exchanges), Jenna Didier of Materials & Applications, Jon Lapointe & Otoño Luján of Side Street Projects, Jay Belloli from The Armory Center for the Arts, and Zazu Faure & the others in the Glassell Park community gardeners. In particular we’d like to thank Al Nodal and the Department of Cultural Affairs, including Joe Smoke, Pat Gomez, Nicole Gordillo, and Felicia Filer. Cultural Affairs came to the meeting with us and we think it is awesome to see them so visibly supporting new public art in LA.

We are thrilled to hold this event at Farmlab, a project by the artist Lauren Bon which serves as a catalyst for community involvement and change through the development of art actions, projects, and otherwise. Farmlab is dedicated to the preservation and perpetuity of all living things.

PLEASE JOIN US from 3 to 7 p.m. on Sunday August 17th at Farmlab (1745 N. Spring Street) to make salsa and dance together. Meet new people and talk about the future shape and texture of life in this city, including the artists and organizers listed above. Bring your homegrown or street-picked tomatoes and collaborate with your neighbors on new and remarkable salsas. Bring a friend – this event is free to the public.

Life After Oil

The Environmental Change-Makers of Westchester (Los Angeles) present a series beginning September 14th called, “Life After Oil:Designing the Transition”. From their announcement:

Join us as we explore the Transition Towns concept that is catching on like wildfire in the UK. What Can We Do about peak oil and global warming? The answers are in our neighborhoods and communities.
Through the Transition concept, we take a positive, forward-thinking view of what the future will hold for our area in the time beyond oil.
  • Sunday, Sept. 14, 6pm – Movie “The End of Suburbia” followed by community discussion
  • Saturday, Sept. 20, 9am-5pm – “Designing the Transition” – a full day conference exploring the Transition concept
  • Thursday, Sept 25, 7-9pm – Peak Oil Community Discussion – the first followup event to the Transition conference
  • Thursday, October 23, 7-9pm – “Power Down”

Location, details and registration information here.

The High Cost of Golf

Though I’m partial to my Xtracycle cargo bike, once in a while I’ll rent a pickup truck to haul some big items. Yesterday it was time to get a bunch of straw bales to use as bedding for the chickens. While driving by a public golf course on the way to the feed store, the windshield suddenly shattered startling me and my passenger, Ari of Islands of LA, who had come along to help out. Instictively, we ducked thinking that someone was shooting at us. Though my heart was racing, I soon realized the culprit: a errent golf ball sent hurdling over the fence by some anonymous, impossible to trace Tiger Woods wannabe. We circled back to the club house to file a report with the manager of the course and begin the long tedious process of settling the insurance claims.

So what does this have to do with urban homesteading? A lot. It’s time for another anti-golf rant. Here are my problems with golf (especially municipal golf courses):

1. The colossal mis-allocation of land. Wouldn’t a lot more people benefit from a large community garden instead of a golf course? Most people in Los Angeles and many other big cities live in apartments and don’t have any space to grow their own food. Meanwhile, waiting lists for plots in community gardens grow longer for lack of space. Most neighborhoods, of course, have no community garden at all. According to the City of Los Angeles’ 2006-07 budget, city run golf courses account for 1,500 acres of LA’s meager 8,520 acres of developed park land, meaning that 17% of park land is devoted to wealthy, middle-aged men with a taste for polo shirts and plaid pants.

2. Unfair subsidies. That errant ball came from a course owned, paid for and maintained by the City of Los Angeles. I’m sure the municipal courses bring in revenue (the city budget reports $18,000,000 from golf course use fees), but I doubt this offsets their costs (I was unable to find the cost of golf facilities in the same budget–coincidence?). I suspect we all pay for these city golf courses through our taxes. The city of Los Angeles operates the largest municipal golf course system in the United States according to the Mayor’s 2008-2009 budget. I love sports, participate in a few and believe that recreational facilities should be subsidized. But I also believe in a return on that investment. We should subsidize recreational facilities that encouraging physical activity, health and well being. Investing in initiatives and facilities that get people to exercise pay for themselves in the long run in reduced health care costs and a healthier, happier population. But is golf the kind of exercise we should subsidize? No way. Especially since on many courses, including some municipal courses in Los Angeles, players are required to drive a golf cart to speed play and increase the number of people who can use the course at any given time. I also believe in democracy. I say let’s put it to a vote: should the city fund golf courses or soccer fields? I suspect, in Los Angeles, soccer fields would win by a landslide.

3. Water. We’ve got a many year long draught here in the southwestern U.S. that shows no signs of letting up soon. Modest water rationing requirements are in effect, but that municipal golf course green I was forced to visit looked, well, very green. The amount of water used to irrigate the world’s golf courses could support 4.7 billion people at the U.N.’s daily minimum according to the Worldwatch Institute. Let’s not even get into the deleterious effect of herbicides. And while we’re on the topic of water I’ll point out that the two city running paths I use have no drinking fountains.

4. Golf kills. If I had been on my bike or going for a run I could have been killed by that ball. The supreme irony is that the stretch of road on which my rented pickup truck’s windshield was shattered is the same spot where the Department of Water and Power puts on a lame, drive-through Christmas light show that is, in effect, a city sponsored multi-month traffic jam. They ban bikes during this period because they say it isn’t safe. My friends Stephen and Enci have pointed out to our city officials that banning bikes on a city street is a violation of the state vehicle code that defines bicycles as vehicles. So far the light show, despite opposition from neighbors and the Sierra Club is poised to continue this winter. But I digress. Let’s just say that I’ll think twice before I ride down this street on a bike again, and it won’t be because of the light show.

The Griffith Park municipal course, from whence that windshield smashing golf ball originated, is the birthplace of the municipal golf course system in the U.S. It’s well past time for government subsidized golf to end. Let’s tear up those courses and go for a run, play some soccer, create wildlife habitat and plant some food.

A Grand Tour

Say howdy to Wendy and Mikey, intrepid homesteaders from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Thanks to the wonders of internet video we can all see what they’ve been up to: a long list of activities that includes, papercrete, oyster mushroom cultivation, DIY drip irrigation, vegetable gardening, rainwater harvesting, dome building and more.


The Grand Tour from Mikey Sklar on Vimeo.

Wendy and Mickey blog about their activities at blog.holyscraphotsprings.com.

Here at Homegrown Evolution we’d like to start featuring more profiles of what you, our readers, have been up to. Please drop us a line, a link, a video or some photos–we’re interested in any effort, from the simple to the grand.