Planting a Mini-Orchard

Ignore the bucket in this illustration! See update below.

Update 3/13/2011: I met Brad Lancaster last night and he told me that he and Art Ludwig no longer use the upside down bucket described in this post. The reason is that detergents can build up in the hole. In my experience the bucket was also an unnecessary step. While I have a clay soil, the hillside drains fairly well. A properly sized mulch basin should suffice to allow greywater to infiltrate. Also, the new generation of washing machines use a lot less water than the old one that I still have. Other than the unnecessary bucket and the persimmon tree (died, for some unknown reason) this greywater application has worked very well. Our fruit trees are lush and happy.

With the news that Lake Mead could go dry by 2013 we figured it was about time to figure out how to grow food with very little water in a Mediterranean climate that gets on average 15 inches of rain a year (3 inches last year). Our water worries sparked the beginnings of our draught tolerant mini-orchard. Thankfully greywater and some tough, water sipping trees make it possible.

Step one was figuring out how to reuse our washing machine water (read our earlier post on the washing machine surge tank we built). Step two was matching that washing machine water output to the right kinds of plants for the mini-orchard. We settled on the three “Ps” — pomegranate, persimmon, and pineapple guava, plus a mission fig tree to replace the substandard one we cut down (even though God Hates Figs!). The advantage with these four trees is that they can survive, once established, should we find ourselves unable to use any water due to the aforementioned bad-ass draught scenarios.

Our house sits on a small hill, with the front yard sloping down towards the street. We placed the trees at the top of the slope and made mulch basins like the one illustrated above. The outlet chamber consists of a upside down three gallon bucket with a bunch of holes punched in it. The purpose of the outlet chamber, which is buried in the mulch basin, is to help the greywater infiltrate our heavy clay soil. To use it we simply place the hose coming from the surge tank into the hole in the top of the outlet chamber. We cover this hole with a brick when not in use. The photo below shows the digging of the mulch basin and the installation of the outlet chamber in progress:

The completed mulch basin and (hard to see) pomegranate tree to the right. We used straw for mulch We use wood chips for mulch (replaced the straw):
These craptacular photos don’t show the details very well, but the mulch basins were dug in such a way to also catch rainwater as it flows down the hill. Both rainwater and greywater work their way into the soil and slowly move down the hill over the course of many months. Since installing the greywater system we’ve seen previously sad plantings we did years ago of rosemary, wormwood and Mexican sage thrive. And we’ve got lots of nopalitos coming our way from the prickly pear plants.

For more information on these simple, water saving strategies see Brad Lancaster’s excellent book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands.

Damned Figs!


“In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.”
-Matthew 21:18-19

We find it hard to cut down a mature tree, especially a fruit tree. But after living with a substandard fig tree for ten years we finally understood this biblical episode, and chopped the sucker down.

Our holy land type climate in Los Angeles makes it a cinch to grow figs. It also makes it possible for all the fig trees in the neighborhood to hybridize. We speculate that the previous residents of our humble compound let a feral fig tree grow. Unfortunately this tree produced fruit with the texture of Styrofoam packing materials and the flavor of . . . Styrofoam packing materials. We tried everything from drying to making jam with these accursed figs but never got satisfactory results. During the day flies laid their larvae in the fruits yielding gooey masses that would drop to the ground to provide rotting fig feasts to visiting rats and possums.

We replaced the fig tree with the Valencia orange tree in the photo above. One of the most important lessons we’ve learned in our ten years at this address is that if you’re going to plant a tree to choose varieties carefully and, when space is at a premium, plant trees that yield food or medicine. We’ve also never regretted cutting down the forest of useless trees we found when we first moved here–Frederic Law Olmstead cut down a few thousand to build Central Park after all.

More on our new front yard orchard soon (which, of course, includes a fig tree).

UPDATE:

Homegrown Evolution reader Krystel sent us a link to a very amusing site, God Hates Figs.

Something for Nothing – Wild Mustard Greens


Sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch, which was the case for us yesterday after discovering a large stand of white mustard (Sinapis alba) growing at the end of a nearby dead end street. Mustard grows all over the neighborhood, but rarely in a place out of dog pee range like this little patch. Classified by the USDA as a noxious weed, the leaves have a pleasant and pungent flavor and can be eaten raw or cooked. From the Plants for a Future database entry:

“Leaves . . . A hot pungent flavour, especially if eaten raw. Young leaves are used as a flavouring in mixed salads, whilst older leaves are used as a potherb. Seed – sprouted and eaten raw. The seed takes about 4 days to be ready. A hot flavour, it is often used in salads. A nutritional analysis is available. The seed can be ground into a powder and used as a food flavouring, it is the ‘white mustard’ of commerce . . . The pungency of mustard develops when cold water is added to the ground-up seed – an enzyme (myrosin) acts on a glycoside (sinigrin) to produce a sulphur compound. The reaction takes 10 – 15 minutes. Mixing with hot water or vinegar, or adding salt, inhibits the enzyme and produces a mild bitter mustard.”

And speaking of urban foraging, we’ve been inspired by our visitor from Chicago, Nancy Klehm. Hear an interview with her, “Foraging for Food on the Streets of L.A.“, on Weekend America. Happy foraging . . .

Arundo dorax

My native Los Angeles and Houston, where Homegrown Evolution is in temporary residence, have a lot in common. Both are real cities, unlike the Disneyfied theme parks that New York and San Francisco have become. Both Houston and Los Angeles have lots of heavy industry and working ports. Visit the docks in Manhattan or San Francisco and you’ll find expensive restaurants and boutiques. Like the port of Los Angeles, along Houston’s Bayous you’ll find refineries, factories and scrap metal yards. And both L.A. and Houston have clogged mega-freeways.

Add to these parallels, an abundance of Arundo dorax, a giant invasive reed known by the popular name, Carrizo. According to Delena Tull’s excellent book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest, Arundo dorax seeds can be ground into a flour, the young shoots are edible and a kind of candy can be made from the stems. Just like bamboo, the tough stems make excellent building materials, which is why the plant was originally imported to California in the early 19th century.

Arudo dorax often finds a home alongside river banks, and in Los Angeles massive amounts of it wash up on the beach after big storms. The plant’s prodigious spread and ability to crowd out native species puts it on many a bad-ass plant list. Homegrown Evolution’s attitude is–like it or not it’s here, so we might as well learn to work with it, just like the folks I saw the other day who repurposed this abandoned (and wind damaged!) gas station for an impromptu barbecue.

Sadly I wasn’t able to get a picture of them, but the BBQ smelled good.

Feral Tomatoes on the Bayou

While walking along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, just next to a concrete plant and under a bridge we stumbled on some feral tomatoes. We theorized that some fast food meal pitched in the gutter found it’s way into this meandering, heavily industrialized waterway. The tomatoes separated from the cheeseburger, floated to the surface of the water and were deposited on the muddy banks of the bayou. Houston’s hot and humid climate sprouted the seeds and the result is the plant below.

Back with more foraging tales soon once we’ve returned from Texas.

Gardening Classes at Silver Lake Farms

Local gardening guru Tara Kolla, who we met in the course of writing our book the Urban Homestead, will be hosting a series of very reasonably priced classes at her beautiful urban farm in Silver Lake beginning in March. Topics include vermicomposting, organic gardening and more. Full information on the Silver Lake Farms website. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, we highly recommend taking a class or two, and sign up early as space is limited.

How to Homestead

Homegrown Evolution’s Self Watering Container video is up on the brand new site How to Homestead, described by its creators as:

“the only site on the web providing you with a collection of how to homestead videos to stream or download. No longer relegated to the rural sphere, homesteading can be done anywhere and we are here to show you how.”

With many homesteading activities, from chicken slaughtering to tortellini making, internet based video is a useful resource when you don’t have a friend or relative to show you a skill first hand. Kudos to the How to Homesteaders and we look forward to future episodes on this nicely designed site.

To celebrate the launch of howtohomestead.org, director Melinda Stone will be presenting an evening of short films and performances about self-sufficiency and sustainable DIY activities at San Francisco’s ATA space, located at 992 Valencia Street on March 29th at 8:30 p.m. For more information on this screening see www.othercinema.com.