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26 January 2009

Change Is Inevitable...

Pickled beets just as the lids are popping as they cool (a sure indication that they have sealed properly) are a popular condiment at my table. These Golden Beets were prepared by high school students (golden beets don't bleed and stain like their red counterparts) who were much chagrined to learn they needed to wait six (S-I-X!!!) weeks before tasting the fruits of their labors.

I come to my environmentalism against the grain, by which I mean, I live in West-crises?- What-crises?-wood, California, a upscale portion of Los Angeles. My little bungalow home not only has no insulation, but a fellow can actually feel the breeze flow through on blustery days. Waking up here is like coming to in a refrigerator; it is frequently warmer outside than in. I bound out of bed, dressing quickly, pulling on my wonderful shawl collar wool sweater, a wool beret and tie a wool scarf around my neck. After pulling on my down booties, I thank God that I can sip wonderfully hot coffee and write on a laptop where the electronics within warm my fingers on the keyboard.

I rent my little bungalow. I have done a number of things to mitigate the lacks of this home and this is where I find myself after I've done what I can do. I live in a sweet little part of Los Angeles and I pay a ridiculously low rent which makes me loathe to ask for changes from my landlady. I do not run the electric heater that is a part of this house, I use a portable electric heater when I must. I have a propane heater that warms me as I dry from my shower and dress. From the McMansions going up all around me and the Hummer homes that dot my neighborhood, I feel my carbon footprint is a pretty good departure from my neighbors'.

Looking to others for comparison, however, is not valuable or instructive. My own footprint has progressively lessened over the past few years. I find that mark more useful to consider as my measure progress. Sadly, many lag considerably behind others in getting the message. I cannot fathom how the family down the street can consider the impact as they commence to remodel a perfectly usable bungalow into our latest McMansion, while the conscious among us have turned off sprinklers, cut heat, and changed our lifestyles towards reducing our impact on the earth.

Still. A quick look at the future convinces me that certain parts of our economy will change as the tanker sinks on cheap, easy oil.

In my home, and all of those around me, there is no pantry. Someone with carpentry skills and some entrepreneurial acumen could figure out strategies by which existing homes, no matter how small or large, can be retrofitted with something that can be a pantry to store food that is either grown at home, or purchased in season at a local farmers market. Something that can approach a root cellar to hold root crops as they were once held in homes all over America would be much more valuable in the coming years than a big screen TV. And would be produced locally by local craftspeople and not built of plastic (destined for the inevitable landfill) and imported from thousands of miles away.

Canning jar manufacturers have disappeared over these past few decades. Now it is sad to report that the two remaining icon brands of home canning are, in fact, owned by the same company. The only brands available for most Americans putting food by are Ball and Kerr, neither owned by Ball or Kerr, but by Alltrista Corporation. Even the original brand of canning jars, once the ubiquitous Mason jar, has completely become the pleasure of collectors and no longer makes appearance in the canners arsenal. (More information on the history of canning jars can be found at this link.)

Alltrista could do itself proud by expanding its offerings to the home consumer and building on the possibility that homemakers of the very near future will want to decrease their dependence on canned products shipped in at dubious expense from overseas containing products that has little oversight in it's production and quality control.

Most landgrant colleges have not only master gardener programs, but master home canners programs as well. As the economics of the last eight plus years have trimmed the budgets of these venerable institutions, many of these very essential programs have been cut. I was the recipient of this downsizing in a dichotomous moment. I learned of the sale of jars and equipment of the Los Angeles County Master Home Canners program in 2005 and was one of only a few that showed up to purchase these remains of the defunct program. For a song (a melancholy song at that), I ended up with a much used and sad looking Excalibur dryer that had seen much better days (but still performs like the thoroughbred champion it is) and numerous canning jars of many different shapes and brands. Several of these gorgeous jars end up in my homemade pesto and jams that I take a manifest pride in producing.

And these products, by a strange twist of fate have again become part of the educational system. I have taught several different people how to preserve food using the glass jars and others use my dryer to create dried fruits and herbs for storage.

So. I am busy attending to my own carbon footprint as best I can. I anticipate, eagerly, a time and a place where I have the resources to further reduce my carbon footprint and live a life that impacts this world less. That time will come and I do what I can in the meantime to move towards that goal. I grow a lot of fresh, organic produce; not nearly as much as I would like, but I strive towards more every year. I continue to learn more ways of cooking at home and keeping the food in ever-decreasing usage terms (dried foods, like beans, continue to be a foodstuff for a very long without electricity or propane). Food produced and stored locally are ways to divest myself from the consumption of oil. Driving the speed limit (God bless my right foot with lightness and my rear view mirror with forgetfulness for the hordes of Californians held up in my plodding wake) is one way that I am trying to immediately lower my dependence on oil no matter what model of car I drive. It would do me well to park the car more often as well – walking and biking are not only ecologically sound, but have health ramifications that my doctor would rejoice at as well.

I have often held to the conviction “What blesses one, blesses all.” There is no doubt that changes afoot will negatively impact some business and skill sets, just as wholesale adoption of the automobile in the early 1900's had a huge impact on the employment prospects of, say, wheelwrights and others. That does not mean that wheelwrights had to go on the dole. It does mean that there had to be changes made. A fellow in wheelwright school in 1914 might well have looked into the crystal ball of his day and thought, “gosh, maybe I should reconsider my plan to feed my family.” That change of plans does not necessarily mean the devastation of a life.

We have all adapted our lives to accommodate the personal computer – for better or for worse. We will all soon get to adapt again. One of the very (very) few things I actually remember from my 9th grade biology class (I failed biology twice in high school and as a senior had to take it a third time to facilitate my graduation – I could not do the required dissection of frogs and worms and finally was put into an honors class where I could replace animal dissection with a study of plants), that life may be defined as the ability to change.

How alive we all actually are will determine, in ever increasing measure, how successfully we can navigate the immediate future crises. I shall knit myself an even warmer scarf. Too bad I can't grow the sheep for the wool!


19 January 2009

“Cultivated by A Community”

A community project, finished persimmon jam cools before being stocked. A friend with a fruit filled persimmon tree, desiring a willing accomplice, found me with my canning equipment and stove. We put up about 27 half pints of memorable eating. Persimmon jam has a taste that makes me think of mangoes with overtones of a kind of smokiness. It's a complicated, but mouth watering flavor.

Many Americans have no place to garden, they live in apartments and condominiums or the earth around their homes is just too shady. But wanting to grow vegetables and fruit for food or just wanting the pleasure of plunging their fingers in the cool moistness of the earth, a community garden might be their answer.

A community garden (defined as “a piece of land cultivated by members of a community, esp. in an urban area”) is usually a vacant lot or other unused land that some public body sets aside for people to grow some of their own vegetables (some gardeners do grow flowers, but the focus of most community gardens is primarily food). In some communities, Los Angeles among them, community gardens are sponsored by the city itself. Most of our community gardens are on LA Parks and Recreation land and are nominally under their control – although in practice, community gardens in LA have charters and are self-governed. In other communities (and some other in Los Angeles), community gardens are created by churches, schools, or other groups of people. The garden is laid out, plot sizes are agreed upon and a process to enlist gardeners promulgated. Plots in most gardens I have seen are between ten by ten to twenty by twenty feet. Some are smaller and some are larger (especially in communities where land is not as dear as it is in Los Angeles), but most gardens have plots about that size.

Those things are probably all decided long before the gardener comes on scene (for how to set up a community garden, see the American Community Gardening Association web site). What a gardener finds once assigned a plot is likely to be a new world completely populated by gardeners from many different cultures. This is, of course, less true in homogeneous communities, but in communities with any kind of diversity, the diverse populations of community gardens can be astounding. In my time at a nearby community garden, Ocean View Farms, I had neighbors from Mexico, Iran, France, other states, and England. All age groups were represented and all levels of gardening experience were present in all age groups. Among all these different people I learned gardening techniques and recipes for the use of the bounty of the garden from cultures the world over.

Almost thirty years later, I attribute my time at Ocean View Farms as pivotal in my gardening education. I learned more about gardening and what to do with the harvest that radically changed me – my experience before this had all been in the insular world of my childhood way back in Kansas. In the community garden, I learned to grow mint, artichokes, asparagus, paste tomatoes, yellow and purple beans, peppers and garlic – all food plants I had never seen in the soil because they were not in my family's pantry. I learned as well how to garden in a twelve month growing season.

The Los Angeles Times carried a story on community gardens on January 10th – as a board member of the American Community Gardening Association, I was able to offer some perspective on community gardens in Los Angeles. The Times article traces the progress of community gardens from the Victory Gardens of WW II – which, themselves were an outgrowth of the Liberty Gardens of WWI. History shows that whenever we are confronted with unprecedented disaster, we go back to the garden. Sometimes that disaster can be an internal emotional disaster. But returning to the garden has enabled more than one distraught person to feel as though they had taken their lives into their own hands. Truly it is meaningful to feel that you can feed yourself no matter what befalls the world or yourself. Many times, under duress and ready to give up, going to the garden has lifted my spirit enough to carry on.

If you have no place to grow your food, look into a local community garden. If you become a community gardener, consider joining the American Community Gardening Association and amalgamate your voice with theirs. With them and your community garden, you will learn to garden better, teach someone else to garden better and cultivate your own peace at the same time.

And you will have fresh tomatoes. Or 27 half-pints of persimmon jam that tastes like smokey mangoes. Life doesn't get any better.


February's Garden

Summer's harvest from last year include these gorgeous peppers (what did I plant last year?) and San Marzano tomatoes. Both were prolific and delicious. When summer is over, I don't want to touch another tomato, but by February, I'm getting geared up for a fresh BLT!

The short days of winter are getting perceptibly longer. We are half way to the Spring Equinox, which is half way to the Summer Solstice. These dates became important in an agrarian culture and as one gets more involved in gardening, it is easy to see the reasons that these dates were important to people dependent on knowing what to do and when to do to necessary to stay alive.

Valentines' Day is my traditional weekend for starting my tomato crop for the coming year. One method I have done in the past was to use fluorescent tubes about 6 inches above the pots for the beginnings of tomatoes – I have also started them outside with a heating mat to keep the soil warm; with enough sun that works well enough. Peppers and eggplant are started about 2 weeks later. As seedlings, they cannot be allowed to dry out and they must be protected from predation, it doesn't take even a small critter many bites to entirely remove a plant less than an inch tall.

Basil. We must plant more basil. Is there such a thing as enough basil? Basil is planted right along with tomatoes – isn't that just poetic? I like the 'Genovese Profusitissimo' variety of basil – large productive, heavenly perfumed leaves that are the basis for my pesto recipe that has become the basis for my annual Pesto Day Celebration, my annual harvest festival. I make about 9 dozen half pints of The Gardenmaster's Special Pesto and it is well loved in the community. The recipe, which follows, is nothing special, the spectacular results are exclusively due to the ingredients: Genovese Profusitissimo basil and heirloom garlic combined with cheese, pignolis, olive oil, a little pepper and salt. Viola!

Make sure to cover the pesto tightly or store in an airtight container immediately after making it. The top layer will discolor faster than the rest you can keep a thin layer of oil on top to stop oxygen from getting to the pesto and causing discoloration, but this will add more oil to the pesto each time you use it. Some of us think this is not a problem.
2 cloves of garlic
1½ Tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
¾ cup plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the ingredients, except the ½ teaspoon olive oil, in a food processor and process until a puree forms, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Transfer to an airtight container and pour the remaining ½ teaspoon of olive oil over the pesto, covering completely. Cover and refrigerate until needed (the pesto keeps for a long time, tightly covered, but loses it’s bright green color after the first day).

And then I think “baseball”. (“Wait until next year”, is the universal call among gardeners and baseball players everywhere.) Dodger spring training in Arizona starts next month. Win or lose, I’ll be out in my garden soon, radio in hand. Something about that baseball optimism dovetails nicely with my gardening optimism. You don’t have to “think baseball”, but I do and it lifts my spirit.

With any amount of luck, this is our rainiest month. That means we won’t need to be watering too much. I have more or less permanently built up beds with paths between them, so walking through a wet garden isn’t that big of a deal. If your garden isn’t laid out like that, take care not to walk through your garden when it’s thoroughly soaked. Your footprints will compact the soil and cause needless grief later when the soil has dried out. Especially in clay soil.

February is positively the last month to dormant-prune fruit trees. One cannot plan that they won’t have broken dormancy any later than this. See flowers? That’s “broken dormancy” in a nutshell, the sap is running inside the tree and pruning after that drains more of the tree's vitality – mind you pruning late won’t kill your tree, some folks do this kind of pruning regularly – it’s my preference to do my pruning with the least harm to the tree and for me, that means before the sap begins to run and that means December or January in a Zone 24 climate. I have learned over the last few years that my nectarine and peach trees break dormancy first.

Don’t forget to deal with slugs and snails. In these wet, cooler months, these little mollusks multiply with alarming proficiency and present huge problems. You can't get rid of them forever, they are migratory, so even if you could rid yourself of every single one in your garden on Tuesday, you'd have a whole new supply by Friday coming in from next door. And more on Saturday. It's baffling.

Some gardeners keep a five gallon bucket on hand with soapy water in it and drop the critters in for a quick death. Others put a board down with one end slightly raised. Slugs and snails will congregate there and can be simply crushed. Good for the soil. A fairly new product, 'Escar-go' is on the market and is non-toxic to mammals (you, your children and dogs and cats etc), and is actually beneficial to the soil. Slugs and snails eat it and die. Probably not as humane as crushing them, but more acceptable in polite society.

No matter what you do, you will probably always have problems with snails and slugs in our climate unless you are fortunate to have a possum on hand. These homely marsupials consume slugs (mostly) and will resort to snails if hungry enough. I am fortunate in The Learning Garden to be blessed with a possum or two that have negated any need to bait or board for snails and slugs.

Broccoli is being harvested, along with cauliflower, cabbage, peas, scallions, carrots, radishes, beets, new potatoes, chard, kale, and lettuces by the bushel. The garden looks stellar at this time of year, it is bursting with produce of deep green, blue green, punctuated with red and yellow (chard) flags.

Don't stop planting lettuce, that will continue right up through May. It is easy for us because we are so close to the Pacific Ocean – my cool season plantings can stretch through all months except late July through late September. Warm season crops aren't nearly so flexible because our night temperatures are never that high.

The real summer garden begins to take shape next month...


16 January 2009

Gardening and The Holy Grail

One of the best garden helpers I know, the Italian honey bee, is an imperiled species. Those that remain are essential to agriculture as pollinators of almonds and a considerable number of fruits. Although many things have been suspected as weakening the honey bee, allowing their natural enemies to decimate whole colonies of these beneficial insects, there is still a lot of mystery and unanswered questions about what is really happening to them.

Gardening is a science and an art. Because it is an art, there is no exclusively 'right' way to garden beyond water, light and a substance to hold the plants more or less upright. There are as many different ways to garden as there are gardeners and none of these is the Absolute Truth. Most gardeners know this and so see themselves on a quest of learning to find the ways that work for them; they keep notes (on paper or in their head) from which they vow that next year will be better. As we age, some of us find 'on paper' essential while others seem to get more sanguine with age, but the art of garden journaling is a whole 'nuther post unto itself.

Invariably, however, some, usually new gardeners, or even non-gardeners, feel they have found the Holy Grail of gardening and proselytize their new found Truth with all the fervor of a religious devotee. Condemning the Great Unwashed masses of other gardeners who haven't found this Truth, or, worse, violate it, the devotees alienate and isolate themselves from other gardens and practice their new found nirvana in groups of the like-minded or in solitude.

Those of us who have gardened for a few years have seen more than one movement sweep the fancies of gardeners. In one of California's previous water crises of the late 1980's, everyone, including myself, became fanatical about native gardens – using our water saving native plants that are certainly more attractive and interesting (I thought then and I think now) than succulents or a 'lawn' of rocks. My favorite instructor of that time, Robert Smaus who wrote for the LA Times for many years, cautioned me that he had gone down that same garden path a few years earlier and felt he had been 'burned' when the whole thing shifted and suddenly California Natives were out and lawns back in.

Though I did proselytize for our own native plants as ornamental gardens, I could never give up my love of veggies and fruit. So I was never a whole-hearted convert to natives. Natives, as Smaus predicted, went out of fashion again, although, they never faded completely away this time and I have remained on the outskirts of the movement cheering every lawn removed for food or for native habitat (which is really food for the native, and often endangered, wildlife that we overpopulating humans have helped destroy). We see California natives returning again with our current acute water shortages and, perhaps, with each successive wave, the planting of natives recedes less and less and the number of quiet native plant gardeners grows.

The current Holy Grail is permaculture. I am interested in permaculture, I have a friend that says I am one. But I don't belong to any permaculture societies I see springing up, although I see permaculture can contribute ideas to how we garden (and it has certainly attracted a lot of gardeners, usually a reticent and non-congregating constituency, to gather together on a regular basis, that in itself an almost frightening unnatural act). I don't think permaculture is – or, for that matter, can be - the alpha and omega of food production. There are needs it cannot fulfill and there are places it will not suffice. I believe we all have a lot to learn from permaculture (the word is a marriage of "permanent agriculture") and in fact, would point everyone to a fabulous book, first published after WWI and republished in the 1950's that predates the current movement. J. Russel Smith's Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (available from Amazon for $60 which is considerably more than I paid for it!) is a book far ahead of its time and should be required reading for anyone concerned with the state of the world's agriculture.

As a tool in a kit box of tools that gardeners can use, one among many, I think permaculture should be included. I have borrowed planting ideas and techniques from a good many of different ways of gardening and from that mix, I have forged a gardening style that works well for me. I continue to experiment and learn; and I also realize that a technique that failed here, might work there and just because this technique worked once, doesn't mean that it will always work. It is part and parcel of being a gardener and it is one of the more exciting facets of this never ending quest. A garden is a living thing and as such, is never truly done. Even the so-called perfect garden begs to be tinkered with and improved upon. And there is always that recalcitrant plant that either refuses to thrive or just plain croaks. Spring comes too soon, too late or not at all. It rains too much; it rains too little and it rains over there and not here. It's a challenge to keep the weather in check, even when we enlist Divine Authority by prayer, dance, song or invective.

With most other arts, there is an end-point. Paint a picture and sooner or later, you frame it and put it on the wall. Write an essay and after you've edited it till your blue in the face, you send it off to be published. Not so a garden. Even if you do it perfectly (and how often does that happen?), sooner or later, you know you will tear it all out and start again. A garden is really never done. A with all life, it's a never ending evolution. I hope some permaculturists morph into open minded gardeners and I hope that open minded gardeners will learn and incorporate ideas from permaculture. We need to be part of the same thrust to feed the world and to preserve the green spaces for everyone and progress towards a more viable agriculture all the way around.

We have all seen the Thomas Jefferson quote, “Though an old man, I am but a young gardener,” and those of us who have gardened for a time, know that there is no Holy Grail. This year builds on last year. Practical experience is the way we all learn.

A garden, where one may enter in and forget the whole world, cannot be made in a week, nor a month, nor a year; it must be planned for, waited for and loved into being. -- Chinese Proverb

I believe all gardens are like that.

15 January 2009

Gossypium arboreum: The Cotton Tree

In the Garden, on our youngest cotton tree, you can see the distinctive leaf shape and, somewhat obscured, an open cotton boll waiting to be picked. Only a few feet away on the right, pedestrians hurry on their way never noticing this little wonder.

I have spent some moments today with cotton seeds. We are growing two types of cotton here at the Garden, one is the usual cotton grown in the large fields of many southern states and the other is ignored by our culture altogether, a cotton tree. I wanted to ascertain how many seeds I had for the cotton tree so a class could learn to grow seeds using these.

Both our cottons are species of the Gossypium genus. The tree is G. arboreum while the annual plant is probably G. hirsutum, from which about 90% of the world's cotton fabric comes from. I understand that other civilizations have used the cotton tree for fabric (and may well still), but in our culture, the mow, blow and go culture, we have always preferred the annual plants for production for the most part. We like to plant our field with a crop in nice long straight rows and then when it's all ripe, come in and grab it all and run off to the next project. Mind you, this is the 'efficient' way of doing things, although, I would contend that we've given a lot of ourselves away in order to pacify the God of Efficiency and have gotten more trouble for our effort than we often care to admit.

I won't postulate that we give the annual cotton up, but I would suggest that many folks could find happiness with a cotton tree. It will never be a cotton of commerce because it bears a little here, a little there and would drive an agribusinessman out of his mind. But a person who would like to spin some cotton and maybe make some things from cotton, this might be the absolute ticket. After a few years, a couple of trees could make one very happy.

At The Learning Garden, we have several young cotton trees. At this point, the oldest is no more than three years old. Yet we picked a goodly amount of cotton from it – probably not enough to make much more than a wash rag or a wash towel, but, they are young. And on their own for all practical purposes; they don't get watered or cared for especially well.

Our cotton trees are no more than five feet tall right now, but The Huntington has the same species and theirs is over twelve feet. I have seen it with more cotton on it than we get on our two in a full year. The production ability is there to produce enough cotton to make a thing or two from one tree.

I don't know how hardy this species is – we are in USDA Zone 12 which isn't very challenging as far as cold goes, and we are so close to the ocean we aren't really that challenged for heat either. The one at the Huntington does experience an occasional frost and certainly has to deal with warmer weather than we have, so I'm thinking it's safe to consider it to about Zone 9, but then again, I play the lottery, you might want a second opinion.

In separating seeds from the cotton bolls, I did find the annual cotton to be somewhat softer. However, I am not a spinner. I would like to see a spinner come out here and make a comparison between the two. I know the man who planted our fiber arts garden, a spinner and a dyer, was fine with the cotton from the cotton tree, but he's no longer coming out and I would like to be able to report the specific differences of the two.

Cotton has a lovely flower, similar to a hibiscus, to which it is related. The cotton flower starts out pastel yellow and fades to a pastel mauve before turning almost black and falling away. It is replaced by the cotton boll, the swelling ovaries holding the cotton seeds suspended in the cotton itself. It swells to the size of a small lime and, as it dries, splits open revealing three segments of cotton. For students of history, removing the cotton from the boll is very instructive as to why this is not the kind of work one would willingly sign on to do. The tips of the split boll are sharp and few bolls can be picked in a hurry (farm workers have always had to hurry) without getting punctures in your fingers that are painful and loose blood.

Cotton is a fascinating plant - especially the tree - and always provokes a lot of fascination and questions. An easy to grow small tree, it could find a home in the smallest urban yard, and would even do quite well in a container. I recommend it!


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