Herbs


Yarrow in full bloom on Rockwood Street in Los Angeles

I was bicycling home from the Echo Park pool today when I came across this spectacular display of multiple colors of blooming yarrow. I had to take a picture and share it with the greater blogosphere, because I am a big fan of yarrow.

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Bobby and Josh resting on our laurels

Thanks to great work by Bobby and Josh today, and lunch provided by Zoe, we finally finished building the second planter bed at the north end of the bulbout in front of Los Angeles Eco-Village. There’s background on the bulbout and before pictures here, and a post on our first completed raised bed thereon.

More pictures and description follows.

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My garden today: Thai Green Lettuce - grown from Seeds of Change seeds. Also onions from starters from Sunset Nursery, and some arugula just sprouting in the foreground.

I thought I’d share an exchange that I recently had with my friend Angelo Logan – regarding what crops to grow in the winter in Southern California. He wrote:
Joe, I am looking for advice about winter gardening. I want to know what to plant now, if there is anything i can plant, or is it too late. If you can give me some advice that would be great, if not can you refer me to some one?

My response is below. Note that this is pretty climate-specific – It should apply to pretty much anywhere in the Los Angeles Basin… where we have this great semi-arid mediteranean climate that’s splendid for growing  just about anything any time.  Depending on where you live and grow, this may or may not be applicable. I highly recommend asking someone who lives around for advice on what works for your area. You might go to a local garden/nursery store or a farmer’s market and ask people who are selling starter plants.

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Here are some garden photos I took last week of some of the promising new developments to come along in March. Spring things are happening in the garden! Arranged in alphabetical order… apologies for my blurry cell phone pictures.

The distinctive maroon bloom of Amaranth

The Distinctive Maroon Bloom of Amaranth

Amaranth is one of plants that you grow once and it generates enough seeds to keep popping up in various places in your garden each year. This one is about 2-3 feet tall, but it can get taller than I am (6’3″) sometimes. I’ve never harvested the actual tiny grain (anyone out there have simple instructions for this?) but I do use the young leaves in salads. I’ve also heard (from Ysanne Spevack of Organic Foodee, whom I met through Erik Knutzen of Homegrown Evolution) that the flower itself is edible, too – just cut it up and put it in salads.

Baby Artichoke Begins to Emerge

First Baby Artichoke Begins to Emerge

I grow a lot of artichoke – one of those great perennials that just keeps giving. The first of the chokes are starting to develop… though it will still be another month or so before the early ones will be ripe enough to eat. The one in the photo is in the middle of the my biggest, seemingly nearly monster-sized plant. The fruit pictured though is only maybe 2-inches in diameter.

Bright Blue Borage Flowers

Bright Blue Borage Flowers

Borage is one of those old-fashioned companion plants that you’re supposed to grow somewhere in your garden (also in this group are rue and yarrow… and some others that I will remember as soon as I hit “publish”.) Like amaranth, borage comes back year after year, a bit more than I really want it to. Mine grows out of interstices in in urbanite bed-wall. It has little blue flowers that face downward. They’re edible, tasting like a mild drop of honey. I put them in salads to add a little color.

Yellow Calendula Flowers Starting to Bloom

Yellow Calendula Flowers Starting to Bloom

Calendula is just starting to bloom. Another simple-to-grow plant that keeps coming back year after year (do you detect a theme here?) It has some medicinal uses, though I just grow it for the bright yellow flowers.

New Jujube Growth

New Jujube Growth

In mid-January, we planted a jujube tree. At the time it was completely dormant, bare and a little spindly-lookin’. I just had to trust that it would happily re-emerge from its slumber. I was a tiny bit worried about it for a month and a half, while I built a fancy-looking, perhaps overly-eleborate and formal rainwater harvesting ring to direct water toward its roots… thinking that it would sad if my high expectations for the tree might be unmet. Now, as you can see from the photo, it’s leafing out nicely.

Peach Blossoms

Peach Blossoms

The peach tree that I was pruning in December is flowering and leafing out. The bees love it. Below it is California poppy and yarrow. A few times I’ve had to trim back broken branches as it gets abused by passers-by.

Yarrow A-blooming

Yarrow A-blooming

And how could it be an area that Joe stewards unless there was plenty of yarrow? The very earliest of the yarrow flowers are already in bloom, with plenty more about to burst open.

Bobby bringing the flat of Thyme to Eco-Village on the rack on the folding bike

Bobby bringing the flat of Thyme to Eco-Village on the rack on the folding bike

After today’s March for Water, neighbor Bobby Gadda and I dropped by Sunset Nursery today to pick up some plants for the bulbout. We got some plants for the existing planter – including sage, lavender, rosemary, Santa Barbara daisies, and another kind of daisy with a sort of pale purple center with yellow dots. We biked them all home and planted them right away.

We also got some plants for the planned next planter, which will go in the north end of the bulbout. These included a flat of ground-cover thyme to plant in the interstices of the next planter, which we’re planning to start work on next Saturday March 28th (tentatively starting at 9am – all welcome.) The last saturday of each month, L.A.Eco-Villagers hold a work party. Responsibility for organizing the work party rotates among those of us who volunteer.

Thyme growing in the interstices

Thyme growing in the interstices

Here is a shot of the same type of thyme as it grows in the walls of one of the urbanite raised beds in the garden I tend. The thyme grows slowly, but ultimately resembles a sort of splashing and dripping mortar between bricks. This is about one and a half years after I planted it. It definitely is happiest in the south-facing walls where it gets the most sunlight.

Now that I’ve got you excited to try this at home, I have to publish a couple of disclaimers… The best thyme for ground cover is not the best thyme to use as a spice. The thyme (I am pretty sure it’s called elfin thyme) that grows most tightly and covers most, has even tinier leaves that they typical already-very-small-leaf thyme (which I think is called wooly thyme.)  Wooly thyme grows more like a single-stem plant than a groundcover.  Wooly thyme does spread, slowy, too – though it doesn’t achieve the coverage the elfin thyme does.  The thymes I use most frequently is the lemon and lime thymes… though I use these only rarely anyway (mostly mashed up in salad dressing) because it’s cumbersome to deal with such small leaves.  As much as I like to grow elfin thyme for the way it makes the garden walls look… and I justify its presence in my garden as a spice… I’ve never actually used this elfin thyme as a spice. It’s also never seems to quite achieve perfect coverage… some areas proliferate, some decline. There’s a dead area about midway up the left edge of the photo above.

Anyhow, come help us plant more thyme at this Saturday’s work party!

Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire (Random House 2001)

Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire (Random House 2001)

I enjoyed this selection from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, so I figured I’d share it here, though it doesn’t specifically pertain to eco-village gardens.

The book explores the history and culture of four plants that humans have shaped and that have in turn shaped humans. The plants are the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato. This is a selection from the section on marijuana, starting from page 118:

I sometimes think that we’ve allowed our gardens to be bowdlerized, that the full range of their powers and responsibilities has been sacrificed to a cult of plant prettiness that obscures more dubious truths about nature, our own included. It hasn’t always been this way, and we may someday come to regard the contemporary garden of vegetables and flowers as a place almost Victorian in its repressions and elisions.
For most of their history, after all, gardens have been more concerned with the power of plants than with their beauty – with the power, that is, to change us in various ways, for good and for ill. In ancient times, people all over the world grew or gathered sacred plants (and fungi) with the power to inspire visions or conduct them on journeys to other worlds; some of these people, who are sometimes called shamans, returned with the kind of spiritual knowledge that underwrites whole religions. The medieval apothecary garden cared little for aesthetics, focusing instead on species that healed and intoxicated and occasionally poisoned. Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells” – in our vocabulary, “psychoactive” plants. Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), and the skins of toads (which contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen). These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based “flying ointment” that witches would administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.
The medieval gardens of witches and alchemists were forcibly uprooted and forgotten (or at least euphemized beyond recognition), but even the comparatively benign ornamental gardens that came after went out of their way to honor the darker, more mysterious face of nature. The Gothic gardens of England and Italy, for example, always made room for intimations of morality – by including a dead tree, say, or a melancholy grotto – and the occasional frission of horror. These gardens were interested in changing people’s consciousness, too, though more in the way a horror movie does than a drug. It’s only been in modern times, after industrial civilization concluded (somewhat prematurely) that nature’s powers were no longer any match for its own, that our gardens became benign, sunny, and environmentally correct places from which the old horticultural dangers – and temptations – were expelled.

The eco-village garden has a couple of dead trees… maybe we should do a grotto too?

El Muro del Jardin de Nuestra Senora de la Bulbout

El Muro del Jardin de Nuestra Senora de la Bulbout

Thanks to the hard work of quite a few LA Eco-Villagers and a few of our neighbors and even some folks from the city of Los Angeles… we’ve got a new raised garden bed in a space that just over a year ago was parking. Special thanks to one of our newest members, Bobby Gadda, for working on this from the start and seeing it through to completion last Saturday.

It’s in the bulbout – which you can read about here, here and here. It’s made of urbanite.

The urbanite is un-mortared, so we can change it around later if we want. The top layer is built out of concrete pieces salvaged from where we’re de-paving out back. We used a lot of large pieces because sometimes the youth walking home from the nearby Virgil Middle School like to do their job and fool around as they walk down our street and test out just how indestructible things are. Hopefully the big pieces will hold themselves in place. We’ll see how it does.

The walls double at seating/benches. I was happy to see them already being used as such by Virgil Adult School students last Monday night.

We planted some already, but it probably needs more. In the walls (between the urbanite layers) there’s mint, yarrow, oregano, strawberries and a few kinds of thyme. I like the way that these plants will spread to create a sort of green wall. In the bed itself, there’s artichoke, cardoon, poppy, onion, basil, California fuschia, and calendula. We’ll see what’s happy growing there… and what the neighborhood foot traffic allows to stay and thrive.

Here’s another shot of the new arrival. Looking forward to the plants growing in.

The garden bed wall facing the street will become greener as the plants grow in

The garden bed wall facing the street will become greener as the plants grow in

(Cross posted at LAEV Garden Blog and LAEV General Blog.)

Yarrow Flowers

Yarrow Flowers

Folks at LA Eco-Village tease me for my infatuation with yarrow… a wonderful plant that I will expostulate upon here.

Yarrow’s fancy official name is Achillea millefolium. Achillea refers to Achilles – the Greek warrior and later Greek myth – who was a soldier who took yarrow into battle, as was the custom in those days, to be used as a coagulant for applying to cuts and other wounds. Millefolium means “thousand leaves,” referring to yarrow’s multi-part leaves. Yarrow is found in many places around the globe, but the yarrow that I plant, grow, and propagate is California native yarrow, originally from the nursery at the Theodore Payne Foundation.

It’s a low-profile perennial. The leafy plant gets to about ~6-10-inches tall, and will send up a ~2-foot-tall flower stalk with dozens of small white flowers. Some other yarrows I’ve seen have had yellow or pink flowers. The small flowers attract beneficial insects, such as bees, ladybugs, and wasps.

Though I grow it mostly for its looks (it’s always green and needs very little water,) yarrow has all kinds of medicinal qualities. As I mentioned before, it’s a coagulant, plus it’s medicinal – used, often in combination with other medicinals, to treat colds and flus. I remember reading somewhere that it’s good for rejuvenating one’s skin, if one adds it to one’s bath. I tried this once, and didn’t notice much. The flower-stalks are very straight and were used by Chinese to practice I Ching. The yarrows stalks were tossed onto a diagram to generate divinations of the future.

According to the book Companion Plants and How to Use Them by Helen Philbrick and Richard Gregg (printed by the Devin-Adair Company originally in 1966):

“Yarrow increases the aromatic quality of all herbs. In small proportion, as in a border, Yarrow helps most vegetables. Yarrow will grow in a narrow bed as it does not mind being trampled.”

“Yarrow is in general a good companion for medical herbs.”

I first learned about yarrow as a suggested drought-tolerant alternative to a grassy lawn. I think that was around the early 1990′s. I remember someone describing a yarrow lawn, with its small white flowers as looking like the stars in the night sky. Here are links to photos of a successful yarrow lawn and a blog about another “almost like a turf lawn, if viewed from a distance”. About 8-9 years ago, I tried doing a small area as a yarrow lawn. The area I chose was a small parkway (between the street and the sidewalk) on Bimini, near the fire hydrant and telephone pole more-or-less at the property line between the two buildings that eco-village owns. The area is subject to quite a bit of foot traffic, hence held very compacted soils which grew lots of weeds. The yarrow didn’t do too well underfoot, but did just fine right around the hydrant and pole, presumably because it wasn’t stepped on as much there. It grew there for a few years fairly happily, though it did need quite a bit of weeding, lest devil grass and other weeds reclaim the spot. I let it go when I severely neglected my garden while writing my LA River book in 2005, and that small area was actually paved as part of the Shared Streets project earlier this year.

Even when most of my garden looked awful from neglect (in the aforementioned 2005), I grew a few things (nothing better than home grown tomatoes), and suprisingly, my neglected yarrow survived in few spots in my garden. It’s a plant that can take a lot of abuse and come back. In some spots, it appears to have died off on the surface, then it grows back up from the roots after fall rains.

Yarrow Edge (in foreground of picture - note that it's very happy though most of the rest of the garden is pretty sparse)

Yarrow Edge (in foreground of picture - note that it's very happy though most of the rest of the garden is pretty sparse)

It is very easy to propagate – just dig it up from the roots, then stick it back in wherever you want it. Most of the time even very small pieces will root and survive. It likes being crowded in next to solid things like rocks, pavers, sidewalks, etc. You can see it growing through the interstices of the broken concrete trincheras. It’s ok in full sun and tolerates quite a bit of shade. I tend to grow it around the edges of my garden and don’t really water it, but it gets some (usually too much) when I am watering the veggies around it. In areas where I have it growing and established by itself, I tend to water it less than once a week and it does fine. In fact, it gets so much water when it’s in the edge of the vegetable beds that it spreads out… at some points becoming a nuisance (dare I say… a weed?) In those cases, I just pull most of it out and plant it elsewhere.

A few years ago, when Bip and Raul were visiting from Mexico City, we did a silkscreen workshop. At the time, I did a t-shirt design that some folks have been calling the eco-village logo (it’s really another story, but I am not that comfortable with calling something I’ve designed a logo – logos tend are about paring down and simplification of identity into a highly readable brand, and I am more interested in expressing complexity, diversity, and funkiness.) Anyhow, for the silkscreen design, I hand-lettered the words Los Angeles Eco-Village and then I took a flowering stalk of yarrow and put it onto a photocopy machine. I thought that the design turned out well. Federico later adapted it to a design that graces our wiki, skillfully building the word “wiki” out of pieces of other letters.

One of the things I like to do when I am not sure what to do in my garden – often when I am contemplating a big project, but am procrastinating on starting it – I will pull some yarrow and start it in pots, so that I will have plenty to plant in the future. When I get around to that big project, yarrow is usually one of the first things I will plant there. So… I usually have quite a bit of it rooting and ready to give away whenever anyone expresses interest. Feel free to drop by and I can give you a complimentary starter.

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