Garden Like a Pirate

“Damn ye, you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by Laws which rich men have made for their own security, for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery.”
– Captain Bellamy from A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson

In honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, we at Homegrown Revolution would like to introduce the concept of Pirate Gardening. Pirate Gardening involves claiming unused land that does not belong to you for growing food crops. The first bit of land we hijacked was our own parkway, that bit of dirt between the sidewalk and the street that technically belongs to the city, but is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain. It’s yet another space, like the vast asphalt hell of parking lots, garages, freeways, car lots, auto repair shops, and junkyards in our car-obsessed city dedicated to the needs of the personal automobile.

We decided to flaunt the city’s strict rules about this space which dictates the kind of things that can be planted (basically nothing that would inhibit someone from getting out of their Hummer), and plant a vegetable garden instead. The idea was twofold: to provide vegetables for ourselves and our neighbors, and to do it in a way that would be aesthetically pleasing. Now, if we lived in some tight-ass place like Beverly Hills or Glendale some bureaucrat would, no doubt, have busted us by now, but in the City of Los Angeles, where code, building and traffic enforcement are non-existent, nobody seems to care. If we were Republicans we could probably have dug our own open pit mine or built our own miniature coal fired power plant without any City of LA official giving a damn.

For our piratical parkway garden we built two six by six foot raised beds, filled it with quality garden soil, and stuck in two matching wire obelisks for growing beans and tomatoes. Much to our surprise it has been a big success – we had a bumper crop of carrots, beans, turnips, garlic, onions, and beets in the winter and our summer crop was cherry tomatoes. Currently the beds are empty as we wait for this incredibly hot summer season to cool down (thanks for the global warming everyone!) and we are just about to plant an assorted winter crop of beans, broccoli, and assorted greens.

We’ve encouraged neighbors to help themselves to vegetables from the parkway garden, though few have. What has been nice has been the conversations We’ve had with neighbors while watering and tending the space. Several neighbors have said that it encouraged them to plant their own vegetables, albeit in their back yards. With more people growing vegetables our neighborhood becomes more self-sufficient and a wasted space has been reclaimed.

If all such marginal spaces, parkways, freeway embankments, vacant lots, and median strips were claimed by piratical gardeners and used for growing food, nobody would ever need to buy crappy supermarket produce. It’s time to seize all unused urban land matey and remember the words of Captain Bellamy as you do so, “I am a free prince”.

Moringa!


Photo by Harvey McDaniel

One of the big inspirations for starting our front yard urban farming efforts at the SurviveLA compound is a Philippino neighbor of ours who has turned his entire front yard and even the parkway into an edible garden featuring fruits and vegetables from his native land, most of which we have never seen before. This morning, while walking the dog, I found him cutting hundreds of long seed pods off of a small attractive tree. He didn’t know the English name of the tree, but he told me that he likes to slice the seed pods and cook them with chicken.

Thanks the the “internets” I was able to figure out that the tree is the “Moringa oleifera”, a truly miraculous tree that, in addition to producing edible seed pods, is also used by indigenous people for regulating blood pressure, dealing with joint pain and treating inflammation. The seed pods can be pressed to produce a high quality cooking oil. The leaves are also edible and the plant is drought tolerant and will grow in poor soil. Native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas, the Moringa tree is cultivated in many parts of Asia as well as Mexico and Africa.

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The immature green pods, called “drumsticks” are probably the most valued and widely used part of the tree. They are commonly consumed in India, and are generally prepared in a similar fashion to green beans and have a slight asparagus taste. The seeds are sometimes removed from more mature pods and eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. The flowers are edible when cooked, and are said to taste like mushrooms. The roots are shredded and used as a condiment in the same way as horseradish, however it contains the alkaloid spirochin, a potentially fatal nerve paralyzing agent, so such practices should be strongly discouraged.

The leaves are highly nutritious, being a significant source of beta-carotene, Vitamin C, protein, iron and potassium. The leaves are cooked and used as spinach. In addition to being used fresh as a substitute for spinach, its leaves are commonly dried and crushed into a powder, and used in soups and sauces.

The seeds may be crushed and used as a flocculant to purify water. The Moringa seeds yield 38–40% edible oil (called Ben oil, from the high concentration of behenic acid contained in the oil) that can be used in cooking, cosmetics, and lubrication. The refined oil is clear, odorless, and resists rancidity at least as well as any other botanical oil. The seed cake remaining after oil extraction may be used as a fertilizer.

The bark, sap, roots, leaves, seeds, oil and flowers are used in traditional medicine in several countries. In Jamaica, the sap is used for a blue dye.

The flowers are also cooked and relished as a delicacy in West Bengal and Bangladesh, especially during early spring. There it is called Sojne ful and is usually cooked with green peas and potato.

Some organizations are promoting this miracle plant as a way to deal with malnutrition, since its ability to tolerate drought while still producing edible leaves makes it highly desirable.

We like plants like this that have multiple purposes, since in addition to food and medicine the attractive Moringa tree also provides shade. The goal that we have set for the new SurviveLA landscaping is that every plant must have multiple uses with priority given to stuff that is edible. We suspect there may be a Moringa Tree in our future.

Grow Italian!

It’s almost time to start planting seeds for the most productive growing season in Southern California – winter. While our friends in the cold parts of the country will be freezing their asses off we’ll be picking gourmet salads (sorry to rub it in). Since the climate here is like southern Italy, we like to plant Italian varieties. Which brings us to the source of many of our seeds at the Homegrown Evolution compound, Seeds from Italy.

Italians dig vegetables, and the offerings of the Franchi Co., which the folks at Seeds from Italy import, show a tremendous diversity of species and varieties. Why grow the same boring vegetables supermarkets carry anyways? Also, Italy and California both have similar climates. We’ve been growing Franchi vegetables for several years now and have enjoyed everything from sweet beans to powerfully bitter weed-like greens. The purple Sicilian Cauliflower we grew last year was a revelation – fresh cauliflower is a billion times better than store bought cauliflower though, along with broccoli, it can be challenging to grow and it takes up a lot of room. It was still worth it, as was the somewhat less difficult to grow quick maturing broccoli rabe Seeds from Italy caries.

Our seed selection committee is meeting this week to decide on what we’ll be growing and we’ll get more specific in subsequent posts. We’re intrigued with agretti, and we’ll be looking at more perennial vegetables after the multi-year success of our artichoke plant. We’re also jumping on the permaculture bandwagon this year with an experiment in the backyard. And look for more root vegetables in our illegal parkway garden.

Lest we come across as Eurotrashy, here’s two domestic seed companies that have interesting varieties:

Seeds of change.

Native Seeds which sells Native American seeds

By the way, for us in L.A. the back of the seed packages have no connection with our climate. You need a book like Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening to set you straight on what to plant and when to plant it. Now get out there and plant some seeds.

Mutant Squash


Today’s incredible picture comes from photographer, bike cultist, and composting Culver-Town revolutionary Elon Schoenholz. It’s a freak squash that grew out of his regular old household compost. The funny thing is that nobody at the Shoenholz Compound – neither Elon, wife Bryn nor new bambina Nusia eat squash – so the origin of this new hybrid compost squash is a mystery.

This brings up a bit of botany. Plants “do the deed” with flowers which contain both male (pollen-producing stamen) and female (carpels) organs. Flowers produce seeds, which depending on how they were pollinated may or may not produce offspring that resemble the parent. Some plants pollinate themselves before the flower opens thus producing seeds that are the same variety as the parent. Other plants rely on insects and birds for pollination and can produce offspring that are hybrids if the pollinating bug or bird happened to visit another variety. Squash has completely separate male and female flowers that appear on the same plant, a characteristic called monoecism (from the Greek meaning “same household”) which is an evolutionary strategy for avoiding self-pollination. Corn is another example of a monoecious plant. Plants can only cross pollinate within their own species so watermelons can’t cross with lettuce, for instance. But there are many different varieties of squash, everything from butternut squash to spaghetti squash to various inedible gourds, so you can get some very freaky mutant cross-breeds. Results of these hybrids can be unpredictable. with accidental squash hybrids tending to get tough. But some hybrids are a crap shoot that pays off. The SurviveLA compound has wild cherry tomatoes that have self-seeded for years with excellent results–producing some of the best tomatoes we’ve ever eaten, with no work whatsoever on our part. But this summer they seem to have hybridized again and now yield less flavorful fruit.

More information on the botany of pollination and advice on saving vegetable seeds can be found in this excellent article. Also of note, the new issue of Make Magazine, the Popular Mechanics of the geeky hipster art school crowd has a story on “hacking your backyard plants”. But in the meantime, a tip of the SurviveLA hat to a new squash variety: Cucurbitaceae Nusia.

Maggots!

Like a lot of the agricultural duties around our urban homestead, composting requires time and initiative. Unfortunately both our garden and our energy level are at a low point, both sapped by the record breaking heat – anyone see Al Gore’s movie? The result of this lack of effort has been the maggot party currently going on in our compost pile.

The best compostin’ revolutionary I ever met, photographer Becky Cohen maintained a three pile system contained in bins she made out of scrap lumber. When the first bin would fill up, Becky would transfer the contents to the next bin, thus aerating the pile and creating room for additional materials. This aeration, combined with making sure to keep the pile moist produced a hot pile that kept the pests away and produced a high quality compost in a relatively short period of time – a few months. You can find instructions on how to build this type of compost system with used pallets on this web site.

Other composting systems include the lazy person’s single plastic bin, which you can make out of a garbage can, or you can buy a specialized composting bin. This is what we use around the Survive LA compound. The process is simple – put compostable materials (no meat, fish or oils!) into the bin, keep it moist but not wet, and wait a year. Also remember not to put weeds in the pile as the seeds can spread to wherever you use the compost. To speed up the decomposition process in a single pile composter, you can remove the compost contents, mix them up with a pitchfork, and put them back in the pile. Our composter is bottomless, so the soil underneath the bin gets fertilized as the compost decomposes, so when we move the pile the previous spot becomes a fertile new planting area.

There are also expensive tumblers, that rotate the compost in a large barrel. We’ve never tried one of these things and reviews that we’ve seen are mixed.

With any compost pile it’s best to maintain a 50-50 ratio of carbon material to nitrogen materials. Carbon materials are essentially everything that is brown, like dead leaves, sawdust and dry grass. Nitrogen materials include fruit, vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. The type of pile you construct depends upon the materials you have available to compost. Becky had lots of grass and leaves on a fairly large piece of property and the three pile system seemed the best to deal with a large amount of materials. We purchased our bin from the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation which hosts informative workshops where you can purchase a plastic compost bin for half price. The workshops are held at the Griffith Park Composting Education Facility.

The compost bin should be easily accessible from the kitchen, but far enough away so that compost problems, like smells and rodents don’t migrate to living quarters. Our pile is located too far from the kitchen, so in our laziness stinky piles of rotting fruits and vegetables often gather on the kitchen counter.

The presence of maggots in our pile indicates that we have an overabundance of kitchen scraps and a pile that is not hot enough. Turning the pile – much easier to do in the three pile system, increases the temperature and kills off the larvae. Another option is to put the kitchen scraps in a worm composter and use the big outdoor compost pile for leaves and other materials that flys are not attracted to. Worm composting is the best option for apartment dwellers.

But let’s get to the real reason we’ve brought up the topic of maggots. It’s really just to mention an exotic cheese from the island of Sardinia called formaggio con vermini, a pecorino cheese infested with live maggots. It’s apparently somewhat of a macho thing to eat this stuff and connoisseur insist that the maggots be active and wiggling. Like compost, cheese is a living system and formaggio con vermini may be the ultimate expression of life expressed in a food. Americans, unfortunately, both in their choice of presidents and their eating habits reject such exuberant expression of life. The French marketing guru Clotaire Rapille made this observation about how to sell cheese to Americans:

“In America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge. I know the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is the way you market cheese in America.”

Paradoxically the life in the compost pile – the unwanted maggots- are there because we neglected our duties and treated the pile as a morgue for our unwanted food scraps, without properly aerating it, without giving the pile water and attention.