Local Food


small artichoke, big hand

Last weekend, I finally spotted baby artichokes on the way. It’s been a wet season for the artichokes – the love all the rain, interspersed with sunny days like this great La Niña winter has given us. The perennial artichoke plants, which die back each summer then re-grow from the roots, seem bigger than ever. The tiny chokes in the center of the plants – they’re, of course, the flower – should grow into yummy full-sized delicacies in a little over a month. I can hardly wait!

Radishes growing in my front yard raised bed

Introducing the radish. Yes, you’ve met before… but perhaps it’s time to become better acquainted.

Radishes are one of two plants that come highly recommended for beginning gardeners – because they’re so easy to grow. It seems like the seeds all germinate, and come up something like one or two days after one starts watering them. The young leaves are very recognizable once you’ve grown them before. Then, in less than a month (instant gratification in garden-time), you’ve got something edible and even familiar-looking.

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Persimmon fruit in my hand, persimmon tree in the background

Persimmon fruit in my hand, persimmon tree in the background

We’ve got a persimmon tree which we don’t get a lot of fruit from. It’s not that our tree doesn’t yield, but between the squirrels, birds and passersby, I think I only had 2 or 3 persimmons from the tree last year.

Persimmons are orange-colored fruit, about the consistency of an apple, and very sweet and yummy. I thought that they were mosty from asia, but wikipedia tells me that there are various varieties from all over, including the Americas. The two varieties that I know of are very different. Our tree and my favorite kind of persimmon is the “Fuyu,” which seems to be the most accessible, easy to eat variety. Fuyus can be eaten like an apple. They’re firm and as they ripen they get softer, until they’re a little bit gooey. I love to cut them up and add to hot or cold cereal. There’s also Hachiya, which are said to be astringent. You can’t eat Hachiyas until they get really gooey. They tend to be good for baking into persimmon bread or cookies.

At least 15 years ago, eco-villagers planted a persimmon tree at the lot at the northeast corner of Bimini Place and White House Place. When the school district decided to tear down the house at that lot, about 2 years ago, we moved the tree to its current location along the alley at the south end of the Bimini Terrace. It’s now very visible to folks walking on the front sidewalk or down the alley. I think that plenty of the Korean halmonis recognize it as gam namu.

When squirrels nibble or birds peck at the fruit it looks like this (sorry blurry photo but you get the idea):

Learning to share our persimmons with other creatures

Learning to share our persimmons with other creatures

The fruit is mostly ripe right now, which seems slightly early – If I recall correctly, they generally ripen in November and December. Maybe it’s global warming or the hot dry summer or just natural variation.

Today I noticed that there were a lot of ants on the tree. At first I assumed that they were going to some of the fruit that looks like the photo above… but on closer inspection I saw that they were especially busy on one branch, which had a great deal of some sort of black lump creatures (which I think are called scale?) on it. Here’s a shot of that branch, which I immediately cut off:

Some kind of scale?

Some kind of scale?

I scoured the tree and could only find a few more of these black lump creatures, mostly right next to ripe fruit. If anyone knows what these are called, and has any recommendations for keeping them under control (using non-toxic tools,) please post in the comments.

I know that ants were probably using tools long before humans were. Ants use aphids to get nutrition from other plants. Aphids are said to be very slow moving messy eaters, so ants help them get around, then eat their leftovers. Ants also harvest and spread molds and various other things that we human gardeners perceive as diseases when ants do their own harvesting of our cultivars. The ants have been really going to town this past summer… I will have to make sure they don’t do too much damage to the persimmon tree.

I recommend a couple of videos that I think are really inspiring for gardeners and farmers to grow our food in harmony with nature. They’re both from a site called Ted.com which features lots of really informative talks about science, technology, creativity, brains, art…

Eduardo Sousa and his Geese

Eduardo Sousa and his Geese

The first talk is by a chef named Dan Barber. It’s all about a Spanish farmer named Eduardo Sousa. Sousa produces foie gras (French for “fat liver”)  a substance that I was unfamiliar with until I heard this talk. Foie gras a delicacy made from goose liver. Sousa farms in such a natural way that wild geese come to stay and live with his domesticated geese. The talk is about permaculture, slow food, history, and the joy of great food as the “expression of nature.” Barber’s excellent talk includes a quote I really liked – from Jonas Salk: “If all the insects disappear, life on earth as we know it would disappear within fifty years. If human beings disappeared, life on earth as we know it would flourish.”  

The second talk is  by Michael Pollan, who should be familiar with readers of this blog from this earlier post. His talk is sort of a  whirlwind tour of many of the themes his book The Botany of Desire. He suggests that we could see much of humanity as a vast conspiracy of “corn’s scheme for world domination.” The talk concludes with a great profile of Joel Salatin’s permaculture farm in Virginia which is “well beyond organic agriculture.” 

Don’t spend tooooo much time on Ted.com, but check out these two talks, and let them inspire you to get out and garden!

Chokes in front of the Bimini Terrace

Chokes in front of the Bimini Terrace

Mmmmmm… Lots and lots of artichokes in the harvest right now. Artichokes are a relatively trouble-free perennial. Each year they fruit around April-May, then die back above ground in June. In September, they grow plenty of “pups”, maybe three to eight little plants growing from various points on the existing roots. At that point, you can split the roots and plant them as a half-dozen plants. I usually try to do this every other year with mine. The second year growth is very good… but then it seems like the plants get crowded, so splitting them spreads them out. For the most part, they don’t get many insect pests… an excellent plant… and a yummy lunch today!

The same artichokes from a different angle

The same artichokes from a different angle

Pomegranate Flower

Pomegranate Flower

As I mentioned in my last post, the spring gardens are getting down to business… Nature (or at least the somewhat-controlled version that we cultivate) doing her job, having lots of sex. Here’s a shot of the pomegranate out back in bloom.

Pomegranate is a desert plant, thrives on neglect and very little water. The most difficult thing about the plant (it’s nearly more bush than tree) is that it wants a pretty severe pruning seeming all the time, as it shoots up lots of sprouts.

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.

Ripe Jujube Fruit - Photo from Papaya Tree Nursery

Ripe Jujube Fruit - Photo from Papaya Tree Nursery

There’s a spot at the top of the trincheras garden (in the front yard of the Bimini Terrace building where I live) where a tangerine tree was planted. The tangerine struggled there and never really did well and never yielded fruit. I had hoped that, as part of the trincheras project, I could build a sort of berm around the tree in order to help capture and infiltrate rainwater… but… alas… before I got there the tree pretty much died.

I say pretty much died, because the entire top of the tree did die, but there was one sucker alive that was coming out of the rootstock. Like most nursery-bought fruit trees, the tangerine tree was grafted. The top is a clone of a good fruiting tangerine tree; the bottom is a tree that grows more rigorous roots… so it’s not really worth saving if just the rootstock is growing, because it’s very unlikely that that will provide good fruit.

All this to say that there’s a spot at the top of the trincheras where I’ve been thinking a new tree needed to be planted. Fall/winter is the best time of year for planting trees (and other perennials), so I had been thinking about wanting to get a tree into the ground there.

Enter, stage left, Erik Knutzen. Erik is the co-author of the Homegrown Evolution blog. I also highly recommend the book he co-authored The Urban Homestead. Erik and I work out together at the downtown YMCA. He mentioned that he was hoping to visit a couple of unusual nurseries in the valley and I requested to tag along. We planned to visit the Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery (in Sunland) and the Papaya Tree Nursery (in Granada Hills.) I needed to pick up some native plants at Theodore Payne for a landscaping project that I am doing for a friend’s mother – but I will leave that story for another blog entry.

Homegrown Evolution in the Papaya Greenhouse

Homegrown Evolution in the Papaya Greenhouse

On to the Papaya Tree Nursery. Papaya is located in the middle of an unassuming suburban neighborhood in the northwest end of the San Fernando Valley – about as far from LA Eco-Village as you can get and still be in the same city. It seemed like we might have the wrong address, but we pulled up and the proprietor Alex Silber was unloading bundles of bare-root trees being delivered by a big truck. Turns out the place is open by appointment only… but Silber was nice enough to accommodate us. He needed to finish unloading and watering the trees being unloaded, so he invited us to go back and explore. The home has a very large backyard, which is highly organized and packed to the gills with all kinds of wonderful trees – pomegranate, tangerine, cherimoya, jakfruit, coffee, caperbush, sapote, Persian mulberry, and much much more. It’s actually pretty incredible that we can grow all these exotic fruit trees in Southern California. On the left is a shot of Erik in the walk-in greenhouse that covers a small portion of the yard.

Erik was looking for quince (which they actually don’t carry) and gojiberry (which they do carry.) Erik has black walnut trees in his backyard. These walnut trees’ roots secrete a substance that inhibits many plants from growing nearby. Quince and gojiberry are two plants that aren’t inhibited growing by walnutes.

I asked Alex about jujube. He responded asking me if I had read about his special jujube trees – a variety called Chang. I’d heard that one needed to plant two jujube trees for them to fruit well. His variety didn’t need two trees. It fruited heavily. It’s drought tolerant. It grows in a “columnar” shape which makes it pretty manageable to garden under, with mainly vertical growth it shouldn’t get too huge and shade too much of the garden. It’s a variety that was given to his father by a old Chinese man. If you’ve never had a jujube (pronounced “jew-jew-bee,”) it’s a bit hard to describe – but it’s more-or-less like a sort of nutty apple flavor. The fruit can be eaten fresh and crisp, though it’s also very common dried. In Asia, I am told, dried jujubes are used for soups, teas, and medicines.

I also asked about citrus, and managed to hear stories about sapote and mulberry (all of which Papaya Nursery has incredibly special versions of) before ultimately deciding to purchase a jujube tree. We picked out a tree that had a relatively thick trunk, and was a little taller than I am. With no small effort, we loaded it into Erik’s car and brought it back to eco-village.

Semi-Circle Ring of Urbanite around the Jujube

Semi-Circle Ring of Urbanite around the Jujube

Last Saturday, Federico and I planned out where it would go. We put a placeholder stick in the ground, tied a string to it and traced a circle. It’s a fairly large space (about 5 feet in diameter.) We lined it with a level semi-circle of urbanite, allowing an opening at the upstream end for rainwater to enter and soak into the root area. Federico, eco-village’s mushroom aficionado, suggested that we use old phone books that would serve a double purpose – acting like a sponge to soak up water and serving as a matrix to grow oyster mushrooms. You can see some phone-books buried spine down in the lower left of this image. We’re actually going to rework the phone-book scheme, though, because it turns out that we need to inoculate the mushrooms into the phone-books before we bury them, then we need to cover them with mulch. We’ll have to report more on how that goes in a later installment.

Somer and Hunter watering the newly planted Jujube tree

Somer and Hunter watering the newly planted Jujube tree

On Sunday, eco-villagers Hunter, Jimmy, Somer, and I dug out the circle and a much deeper portion in the middle and planted the tree. I have to say that nearly every time I’ve planted a tree, it has been after digging and digging and deciding that it’s about deep enough… then later I regret that I didn’t dig just a few inches deeper, so the tree would be ever so slightly below grade, so it would actually collect rainwater, instead of shedding it. This passive rainwater harvesting strategy is a trick that I learned from hearing presentations and reading books by Brad Lancaster. Once we got it plenty deep, we planted the tree, which, once out of the pot and into the ground, was just shorter than I am.

There are still some edge treatments that I plan to do around the circular root area, and we’ll add the phone books, mushrooms, and plenty of mulch… but I was really happy to get the tree into the ground… and look forward it fruiting, hopefully starting this summer.

I wanted to share this photo to show how the Bimini Terrace used to look before the bulb-out went in during the Spring of 2008.

This is the Bimini Terrace new terraced garden made with urbanite in 2006, before the bulb-out went in during the spring of 2008

This is the Bimini Terrace new terraced garden made with urbanite in 2006, before the bulb-out went in during the spring of 2008. Notice the street painting in the forefront which was part of the City Repair Project completed in 2005. The street paintings were covered up during the City's street construction program in 2008, so it was all newly asphalted. But-t-t-t, we hope to have another intersection repair project with all you great artists out there soon.

Last Sunday, George Patton and I decided to take on the task of weeding out the devil grass that’s growing below the peach tree in front of las trincheras. This is a tree that’s planted in a parkway hole carved into the sidewalk.  The tree has been pretty much neglected, as well as being abused by cars colliding with branches, as well as occasional abuse from pedestrians passing by and breaking branches. The devil grass below it is pretty rampant, which I think drains water and energy from the tree. It has hardly fruited at all for years… so we figured it was time to give it some care, in hopes of a fruitful spring.

Here’s a before picture, including myself sitting around hard at work:

Joe and the Neglected Peach

Joe and the Neglected Peach (photo: Maeve Johnston)

I sat down and began to pull weeds. There were quite a few sucker (leggy green) branches that were shooting up from the base of the tree, some of these were poking right into my face as I weeded. It’s generally a good idea to cut off these suckers, especially when they’re often growing out of the rootstock of a grafted tree. The rootstock is usually something fairly fast-growing, and it’s grafted onto the bottom of a slower-growing good-fruiting variety tree. Suckers grow off of the good fruiting varieties, too, and should be cut there, too – as they generally are less strong than other branches and I think that they generally fruit less.

I got our my loppers and started cutting away some of the suckers. To see into the interior of the tree, I pulled off some of the leaves… and I got to thinking… it’s the middle of December and this peach tree still has its leaves. Usually these leaves are falling in November or so, and we pull of the last of the leaves as we prune in December. It’s good to denude the tree of leaves when pruning for a few reasons: it signals the tree to go dormant for a bit, and it takes away old dead leaves that can pass diseases on to the new leaves.

We’ve had such a warm fall that our leaves haven’t really fallen much (as seen in the photo above.) I think it’s a sign of global warming… which is disorienting some of our plants. We had serious record-breaking heat waves in September and even into late October, and a lot of the fall vegetables are behaving a bit erratically – growing crooked and drunken-looking. This is mostly the cabbage family – a lot of the broccoli and cauliflower seems more stunted stunted and twisty than usual… Onions, too. To me it seems as if they’re disoriented by the summer weather, but it could be just soil or neglect or natural variation.

So back to the tree. The leaves were very easy to pull off; the tree had begun to let go of them. The way tasks happen in the garden, I cleared of some of the leaves and some more and some more… and then I was far enough along that I just finished it off. I had started some pruning, then decided to just complete the job.

As I mentioned, this tree is growing in the parkway, with the sidewalk to one side and the street to the other. For these trees, I prune them in a somewhat espalier-style, so that growth is focused parallel to the curb and not a lot of the tree sticks out into the sidewalk or street. Here’s an after shot – yes, it’s bare, but this is what a peach tree is supposed to look like in Southern California in December!

Peach Tree All Pruned (Perhaps this looks kind of dead compared to the other picture, but, trust me, this is how a happy and healthy peach tree looks in the Southern California winter)

Peach Tree All Pruned (Perhaps this looks kind of dead compared to the other picture, but, trust me, this is how a happy and healthy peach tree looks in the Southern California winter)

After pruning, George and I weeded away the devil grass and moved on to other garden tasks. Like most garden work, it’s not quite done – I plan to build up a small lip around the base of the tree, in order to harvest rainwater. I did this at the base of the adjacent apple tree and it seems to work ok, and I have an idea for improving on the design slightly. Once I complete it around the base of the peach, I’ll let all you LAEV Garden Blog readers know.

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