A Tour of the Homegrown Evolution Compound

It’s about damn time we gave an overall tour of the Homegrown Evolution digs, at least to dispel some misconceptions out there (more on those at the end of the post). Let’s begin with the front yard, pictured above.

Our house sits up about 30 steps from the street level. Running the laundry water out to the front (using Oasis Biocompatible Detergent), has really made the plants happy. The front yard has a mix of prickly pear cactus, Mexican sage, wormwood, rosemary, lavender, California poppies, and nasturtiums. All low maintenance, drought tolerant, hardy stuff. At the top, not visible in the photo, are the fruit trees we planted and described in an earlier post. Due to extensive foundation work (note to potential home buyers: don’t buy a house on a hill!) we’ve only recently been able to work on the top part of the front yard.

Next the backyard, pictured above (click to bigulate). The extreme wide angle makes it look a lot bigger than it actually is. In reality, the backyard is about 35 feet by 50 feet. Starting on the left and moving right, is an arbor occupying the former space of a terrible add-on that we demolished (and carried down the stairs by hand–once again, don’t buy a house on a hill!). In the background is the chicken coop and run, with the herb garden in the foreground. Just to the right of the chicken run are several large artichoke plants. Behind that and out of sight, is a 4′ x 8′ raised bed for vegetables. Next to the shed is a small orange tree, just planted, that replaced the fig tree we tore out. Dominating the right side of the photo is the avocado tree. Next to that tree is a small dwarf pomegranate, and on the extreme right is another raised bed with strawberries, garlic, mint and a native grape vine, just about to leaf out.

Now to correct some misconceptions:

Our place looks like Versailles. Truth is, at some times, our garden looks terrible. It depends on the season, and the amount of time we have to put into it. It looks good now, but in December it looked like crap. We try to plant things that do well in our climate and provide food, medicine or habitat for birds and beneficial insects. But we’ve made plenty of mistakes, and continue to do so.

We’re survivalists. Can we live off our yard? No. Can we make a meal with stuff from the yard? Yes, but we go to the supermarket just like everybody else–there’s no room for a wheat field after all, nor do we grow coffee or a host of other necessary staples. But, we seldom buy greens at the store, and almost never buy herbs or eggs–we’ve got that taken care of in the garden. In the summer we have lots of tomatoes, and right now we have a few avocados. When the fruit trees mature in a few years we’ll have fruit.

We’re hippies. Don’t get us wrong, we love hippies. We have no problems with cob ovens shaped like psychedelic snails, but that just ain’t our style. We’ve tried to keep things low key, just like our humble 1920s bungalow. This grape vine trailing up the arbor we built sums up our visual style:

Lastly, we like to tuck in a few attractive edibles (packed tightly, as you can see) wherever we can, like this magnificent cabbage, so beautiful we hate to harvest it:

We’re not quite back . . .

In response to numerous requests, Homegrown Evolution had intended to give a photo tour of our Los Angeles compound, but computer problems are preventing this. You will all have to settle for the drawing above while we resolve vexing software/hardware issues.

Though not Luddites, we’ve been contemplating a break from staring at computer screens. And less computering time means we’ll have a few moments to give the hovercraft a tuneup.

Mulberries

The Mulberry trees (Morus nigra) along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou are producing their delicious fruit. The picture above is an immature berry–this particular tree produces a dark purple berry when ready to eat. Some sources on the internets, as well as Delena Tull’s excellent book Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest warn against consuming the unripe fruit, claiming that doing so produces an unpleasant, mildly psychedelic experience. Apparently you throw up, fall on the ground and become convinced you’re going to croak. We wonder if this is a myth, like the story about boy scouts roasting hot dogs on Oleander sticks (yes, Oleander is very poisonous, but apparently the boy scout story is an urban legend).

We found the Mulberries sweet and delicious. It’s a fruit that doesn’t ship well, hence its absence in our crummy supermarkets.

Cooling with Beer . . . Cans

Root Simple dropped by Houston’s famous Beer Can House, created by John Milkovisch in the 1960s and 70s. We won’t plumb the messy depths of the meaning of “visionary art”, the academic art Mafia’s euphemism du jour for this stuff–we’ll leave that to our art bloggin’ amigo Doug Harvey.

So sidestepping the whole debate over the intentions of its creator, we’ll point out that all of Milkovisch’s house mods have both aesthetic and practical benefits. The beer can cladding that covers the entire exterior of the house means never having to paint the underlying wood. The concrete yard means never having to mow a lawn (we’d prefer vegetation but Milkovisch’s concrete work is, like the rest of the house, magical).

But on to our favorite detail. It’s damn hot in Houston most of the year, and to deal with the blazing sun on the south side of his humble bungalow, Milkovisch crafted this intricate, shimmering screen made of beer can tops and bottoms that hangs from the roof line like an aluminum grass skirt. Not only does it shade the windows and walls, producing a dramatic decrease in cooling bills, but it also functions as a pleasing wind chime.

We’ve been thinking of doing something similar on the hot south side of our house, except with deciduous vines. That way, we’ll let light in during the winter and have a living shade wall during the summer. Perhaps we’ll grow beans and become Los Angeles’ Bean House.

The Beer can house is located at 222 Malone Street in Houston, Texas and is lovingly cared for by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.

Allium ursinum

Allium ursinum, a.k.a. Ramsons (in English), and Bärlauch (bear leeks, or wild garlic in German), are a member of the chive family so named because they are a favored food of bears and wild boar. People can eat em’ too, with both the bulb and leaves making a tasty addition to a number of dishes (see a detailed report on Allium ursinum in the Plants for a Future website).

Favoring semi-shade, Allium ursinum thrives in moist, acidic soil–forest conditions, in other words. In short, not appropriate for our climate in Los Angeles, but folks in the northwest might consider planting some. Like all members of the Allium species it’s toxic to dogs, but we’ve never had a problem with our dog eating onions (he prefers raiding our avocado tree and tomato bushes for illicit snacks).

Special thanks to Steve Rowell of the Center for Land Use Interpretation for the photos and report. Rowell spotted this tasty vegetable at a farmer’s market in Berlin where they are a popular seasonal addition to cafe menus and even to packaged items like pesto and ravioli. If only we’d catch on to the seasonal thing in America . . .

The Great Sunflower Project

Help determine the health of urban bees with a citizen science experiment called the Great Sunflower Project. It’s simple and free. Just register at the Great Sunflower Project website and you’ll be sent a package of wild annual sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus). Twice a month you’ll get an email to remind you to time how long it takes for five bees to visit your sunflowers.

Sounds like it has drinking game potential, though that might lead to inaccurate results . . .

A Seed Pokin’ Thingy

Planting seeds seems like a simple task, and yet when you’re faced with hundreds of tiny seeds and dozens of pots it can take a surprising amount of time. Thankfully there’s an elegant and simple tool that can make life easier during planting season.

To make this handy tool all you need to do is take a sick (something smaller than a chopstick is ideal) and stick it into a wine cork. You use the cork end to gently tamp down the soil and the stick end to make small indentations in which to pitch your seeds.

Homegrown Evolution learned about this tip thanks to a seed propagation class we took at Urban Harvest, a non-profit located in Houston, Texas dedicated to, “Working with gardens and orchards to build healthy communities.” A special thanks to instructor Jean Fefer, an organic gardening expert and a Harris County Master Gardener and Plant Propagation Specialist. We heartily recommend Urban Harvest’s programs and classes to anyone interested in learning how to grow your own food.

In Praise of Disorder

Loose chickens in Houston

A neighborhood whose demographics fall somewhere between the extremes of the crack den and the country club presents just the right level of civic inattention to allow the urban homesteader to get away with many of the illegal projects profiled in this blog: greywater, backyard poultry, and front yard vegetable gardening, to mention just a few. Ideally you have a balance between order and disorder–neither gunfire nor the prying eyes of city inspectors. Where I’m staying in Houston, with its flocks of loose chickens, packs of feral dogs, and broken down bungalows seems just about right. Our neighborhood in Los Angeles is seeming less ideal with the news from Mrs. Homegrown Evolution, that we’ve earned our first citation, an indicator that our neighborhood is tilting dangerously towards the country club side of the demographic equation.

Nine years of dog ownership have gone by with no problems until this week, when a new neighbor decided to report our dog and several others in the neighborhood to animal control for barking. We have to buy a $100 dog license (while not a Ron Paulista, I tilt libertarian enough to not want any stinking licenses), and wait fifteen days to see if we need to go to a hearing, all for an elderly and well behaved Doberman who spends most of his time indoors, has no access to the front yard and goes promptly to sleep at 10:00 p.m.

Thanks to an alert teen just down the block, we know the identity of the uptight yuppie who ratted us out. Now the neighborly and gentlemanly thing to have done would have been to come over, knock on the door and have talk to us face to face. We’d be happy to work something out–keep the front window closed perhaps. Most of us on the block know each other and have never had any problems getting along. But it’s also Los Angeles, a car-centric city where people lead lives of isolation and rage, locked in metal and glass cages, braving hellish traffic on the way to twenty hour a day shifts churning out sitcoms and bad movies. Los Angeles has the community spirit of an anonymous internet chat room, with meaningful dialog replaced by never ending flame wars.

It’s also America, where the majority of the population is clinically depressed. And one of the indicator behaviors for depression is an irrational fixation on minor annoyances, like barking dogs, leaf litter, raccoons and group bicycle rides. Go to any neighborhood meeting, and you’ll see medicated NIMBYs lashing at all of life’s minor indignities.

Our homes and neighborhoods need the liberation that comes with a creative and healthy level of chaos. Visionary Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, who passed away recently, conceived his life’s work when faced with the task of making safer streets in a small Dutch town that had run out of money. He fixed the problem with the radical idea of removing almost all the traffic lights, signs, curbs even the lane stripes, creating a concept known as “shared space.” Monderman asks, “Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People . . . have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”

When we have to think for ourselves, we cooperate, solve problems, and come up with creative solutions. A healthy dose of chaos is always the best place to start.

Nopales Season

It’s nopales (the pads of the prickly pear cactus for you Yankees) season at the Homegrown Evolution compound. Our prickly pear has thrown off so many leaves that a neighbor dropped by last week to ask for some. We filled a bag for her and declined the dollar she offered us.

To cook up our nopales we use a simple recipe found in Delena Tull’s book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. First scrape off the spines with a knife and chop a pad (one pad per person). Boil for 10 minutes. Next, put 1/3 cup whole wheat flour, 2/3 cup cornmeal, 1 teaspoon chili powder, salt and pepper in a bag and shake with the boiled chopped nopales. Fry up in a pan and you’ve got a delicious side dish.

One of the charms of the prickly pear cactus, in addition to the food it provides, is its ability to survive drought and fend off pests. Sadly, it’s not as indestructible as it seems. The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum was introduced into the Caribbean in the 1950s and has slowly worked its way to Florida and Mexico. It may soon reach Texas and California. The USDA is hoping to halt the spread by releasing sterile moths.

And speaking of Texas, for the next two weeks Homegrown Evolution will be in residence in Houston where it’s also nopales season. If we see any Cactoblastis cactorum, we’ll deal with them Texas style: