Saturday, August 3, 2013

Maximize Free Ecosystem Services in Your Garden

Carpenter bees are one of our local pollinators

By adopting certain practices you can maximize numerous free “services” to create a healthy and thriving garden, courtesy of Mother Nature. All you have to do is to make a safe home for her critters. A healthy garden doesn’t need extensive and expensive inputs such as pesticides, herbicides or even large amounts of fertilizers. In fact, you have to avoid using these toxic products.

I’m referring to ecosystem services, and what I mean is this: 
If your garden is a healthy ecosystem it is easier and less expensive to maintain, and it's healthier for you and the environment.

What are Ecosystem Services?
In a nutshell they are things that nature provides when the right conditions exist. The ecosystem services most important for home gardeners include: pollination, pest control, fertility through decomposition of organic matter, healthy soil leading to healthy plants, ambient climate control, food production, and even remediation (breakdown) of harmful contaminants.

Silver thyme in flower is much loved by bees

Here’s more on these points:

Some edibles depend entirely on pollination to produce any crop at all, while others produce a better crop when pollinated. For example, include flowering plants that attract pollinators when you plant your vegetable garden and they will pollinate your crops for an optimal harvest. This is especially important for squashes and cucumbers which rely on pollination. Many fruit and nut trees require pollination, including certain varieties of apples, most plums, pluots, pears, cherries (except sour cherry) and nuts. To read more about attracting pollinators go to this Xerces Society page.

Pest Control
Birds, wasps, and other predatory insects will keep the “bad” bugs under control. They will also kill a certain amount of ”good bugs”, but a balance will eventually be established.  Efficient predators such as wasps prey on many insects and their larvae that feed on plants. It's critical that you don't use any toxic chemicals if you want to establish beneficial insects in your garden. Birds forage on the ground for insects and they also pick them off of foliage. Set out bird baths with water to attract them, and make sure they have shrubs and trees for their nests. To learn more about biological pest control go to this UC Davis page.

Crimson clover is another bee magnet

Decomposition and Healthy Soil
A healthy garden ecosystem is supported by healthy soil. A key process at work in the soil food web is the decomposition and recycling of organic matter. We typically remove valuable sources of organic matter when we rake up leaves, grass clippings, and other trimmings from our garden. We can return these to the soil in the form of compost, use a chipper to make mulch, or use wood chips as mulch. Mulch added around your plants to cover any bare soil, will be a source of organic material that will breakdown over time while it helps retain moisture. Composting your yard and kitchen waste is one of the most valuable practices you can do at home. There are many methods and you can find one that suits your lifestyle.

Soil is alive and teeming with microorganisms as well as larger creatures such as nematodes and earthworms, and many others. If you take time to build up your soil with good compost and provide proper amounts of moisture, your plants will thrive and be better able to access nutrients, resist diseases and insect damage. Read more about the soil food web.

A lovely flowering dogwood tree

Climate Control
Trees are essential for providing many much needed ecosystem services in suburban and urban areas. Not only do they shade our homes and offices but they also transpire water vapor, which cools the local environment around them. This added moisture creates favorable conditions for both plants and animals. Trees mitigate the "heat island" effect caused by overdeveloped areas that are low on vegetation. In dry climates like California, trees are an essential natural resource. And of course they also provide important habitat and food for birds, insects, and mammals. It’s true that when you cut down a tree you are destroying an entire ecosystem.  

Organically grown home-garden harvest- it's dinner time!

Food Production
Our food producing plants are fascinating - watching luscious tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce grow and transform into delicious food is magical. You can maximize your pleasure and quality of life by growing an endless variety of herbs, fruits, and vegetables to enjoy with your family, neighbors, and friends. Why not use your precious resources of land and water to grow at least some amount of food?
But besides food, edible plants contribute to a healthy garden ecosystem. For example, by letting herbs flower they attract scores of beneficial insects in addition to providing fresh herbs for your meal. Try oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, and parsley for starters.

Flowering parsley attracts beneficial insects

Bioremediation of Soil Contaminants
Through the process of decomposition some soil contaminants are eventually broken down. This process is a feature that can be leveraged through the use of compost (through the microorganisms). It has been used in clean ups for PCB, diesel fuel, and other petroleum type contaminated soils, to name a few. However, if you suspect that your soil is contaminated, you need to have it tested. I'm not suggesting that you should attempt to clean up serious or dangerous contamination on your own. I mention it here to show the power of natural processes.
To read more go here.

In my next post: Tips and strategies for creating a garden ecosystem.

Photo credits: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Visit 11 Edible Gardens on the Edible Landscaping Tour

A lush front yard with squashes and watermelons among the flowers

The rampant abundance of delicious summer crops may have you daydreaming about how to add more vegetables and fruits to your home garden. Going on a local self-guided tour of unique and notable suburban edible landscapes is a fantastic way to get inspired with great ideas and a perfect opportunity to meet enthusiastic gardeners who love sharing their gardens. 

Here on the San Francisco Peninsula we are fortunate indeed to have Common Ground’s annual Edible Landscaping Tour coming up on July 20th, now in its 7th year. 

An apple espaliered on a fence is attractive and a good use of space

I've been on the organizing committee for several years now and I'm always delighted by the innovative ways that gardeners incorporate food plants, raising chickens, ducks, rabbits and bees on their suburban lots. Some take a decidedly urban farm approach, while others integrate fruit trees and vegetable gardens into their otherwise ornamental landscapes.

Keeping chickens and beehives is no longer rare in suburbia

Either way, each garden is beautiful, interesting and a reflection of the family's lifestyle and their quest to create a higher quality of life right at home.

Beans displayed on a teepee of bamboo poles

And it's a natural step to spread goodwill and delight by sharing extra fruit, eggs and beans with neighbors and friends. 

A young girl cuddling her chicken

From my perspective, gardening is not just a pleasant leisure-time activity, it’s critical for a healthy future. 

It's about:

  •  building a supportive community around growing food organically and sustainably in our suburban neighborhoods.  
  • understanding where our foods comes from and connecting with the Earth's processes that support this almost magical ability.

Grape vines on this pergola create an outdoor dining room

When I visit these gardens I see simple everyday acts that have deep meaning and far reaching consequences.

Vegetable beds decorated with children's tiles

When I reflect on all of the trouble in our world, these simple positive acts seem like a profound way to add much needed joy at a very basic level. 

That's why the Edible Landscape Tour is at the top of my "must do" list every summer!

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Friday, June 21, 2013

Grandma Hadley's Heirloom Lettuce Lives On

Surely Grandma Hadley would be surprised to learn that I'm enjoying her beautiful lettuce in my garden in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was growing it in southern Illinois in 1915, according to her granddaughter, who passed the seeds on to her niece.

 Grandma Hadley's lettuce at a young stage

It came into my hands because this forward-thinking niece donated seeds to Seed Savers Exchange in 1988 for safe keeping.  Now, over two decades later it is being tested in a handful of gardens across the country through Seed Saver's Exchange Member-Grower Evaluation Network (M-GEN) in an effort to collect details on its cultivation and just as important, its flavor and texture. Ultimately, Grandma Hadley's lettuce will be preserved by being offered in their seed catalog. Those who grow, eat it and share it, will ensure that it will not be lost. 

To me this means more choice when I want to grow my own lettuce, which is a staple at my house!

From left to right: Grandma Hadley's, Merveille de Quatre Saisons,  Renee's Container Babies

It's thrilling to grow something in my garden that very few people have ever seen or tasted, let alone cultivated in their gardens.  It feels precious, and a privilege to be entrusted with the promise of plenty that rare seeds bring.

And this succulent, tender butter-head lettuce is worth saving- it has striking blue-green leaves edged with a delicate burgundy and it makes a lovely salad. 

Blue-green Grandma Hadley's lettuce with garden flowers 

Lettuce seeds are easy to save and I'm letting several of the plants go to seed. I'm looking forward to  sharing them with family, friends and neighbors.  I'm happy that this deserving heirloom will live on to feed and delight many more gardeners for some time to come.

Look for it from Seed Savers Exchange, perhaps as soon as next year.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Monday, April 22, 2013

Gardeners, Are You Ready For a Seed Trial?

My 2013 trial beans from Rancho Gordo

Have you considered participating in a seed trial?  It's a meaningful way to take your gardening to another level. Don't be afraid to give it a try. All you need are basic gardening skills and experience growing from seed to maturity (especially with annuals: vegetables, herbs or flowers).

The Purpose of Seed Trials
The reasons for conducting seed trials are to gather details about the performance of a particular plant in different parts of the country, therefore in diverse climate zones, growing conditions and different growers. This "crowdsourcing" approach has been very effective for organizations such as non-profit Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, and specialty grower, Rancho Gordo in Napa, California.

The information gathered from teams of gardeners and farmers enables the organization to offer rare varieties to the public with instructions and details about planting, growth habit and eating quality. Harnessing the efforts of growers is an invaluable resource for keeping the thousands of historical and heirloom edibles in circulation and in preventing their extinction.

My saved Madeira beans from the Rancho Gordo 2012 trial

Collecting Data From Your Trial
So besides the fun of trying out new varieties of edibles, you can feel good about contributing to their preservation. Among the data the participants are typically asked to record are: number of days to germination, rate of germination, days to flowering, days to maturity, size at maturity, and eating quality. Photographs may also be requested.

And if your crop fails, that's important information too- insect pests, animals, unexpected weather, and diseases,  these are the realities of gardening.

Madeira beans are a type of cranberry bean with striking colored pods

In my experience, participants are volunteers and are not paid, but the seeds are supplied free of charge. As a gardening geek, I love getting the trial seeds in the mail- they are in plain packages with no pictures and no instructions. It's exciting to grow them out and discover each new variety.

Seed Saver's Heirlooms
Some of these, particularly from Seed Savers, are very precious and there is only a limited amont of seed available. The majority of the seeds they save from extinction are sent to them by ordinary folks who have grown the seed within their families or with neighbors for generations. Saving the seeds from the trial is usually not required, but I always save some to grow again and share, and in the end, that's the goal with heirlooms.

Rancho Gordo- Saving the World's Beans One at a Time
Steve Sando, owner of Rancho Gordo, became a collector, grower, and supplier of a diverse array of beans, many of them rare, that he brought to the United States from his travels abroad. In some cases he has contracted with small heirloom bean growers in Mexico (see Rancho Gordo-Xoxoc Project) as a way to give them a market, which makes it possible for them to keep their farms and livelihood. And what beautiful beans they are!

Beans hold a special place in my heart. I grew up eating lots of beans, lentils, and garbanzos in my Chilean family, and I love them all. And because I don't eat meat (except seafood), I was thrilled to discover I could grow protein rich food in my own garden.

2013 Seed Trials
This year I'll be trialing two beans from the Putla region of Mexico for Rancho Gordo, and an heirloom lettuce called "Grandma Hadley's" for Seed Saver's M-GEN project.  If you are interested in learning more about the M-GEN project or participating, contact them at:

Three Heart lettuce from my 2012 Seed Savers trial

Read my post about the Rancho Gordo bean trial.

If you would like some over-the-top inspiration about getting involved in saving seeds, watch this short presentation by Simran Sethi, in a TED talk she gave on April 2, 2013. Beautiful.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Friday, March 8, 2013

Fire Fighter Grows Community Through Gardening

A fruit tree in bloom at the fire house

Firefighter paramedic Mike Robbins, not only serves our community of Mountain View, California,  by risking his life to save others, but he serves up fresh vegetables to his teammates through his love of gardening. Mike established an edible garden with vegetables and fruit trees at Mountain View Fire Station 1, that not only provides fresh produce for the station's meals together, but he also shares the bounty with the neighbors in his residential location near downtown.

I met Mike when he and his fellow fire fighters dropped into the Chez TJ kitchen garden last Spring to chat about our mutual passion for growing food. What a great idea to have an edible garden at a fire station - because as Mike has found, it's also therapeutic and relaxing to work in the garden.

Firefighter and EMT Joe Wortham in the firehouse garden

For those in stressful jobs, the activity of growing and sharing food together is certainly nurturing, nourishing, and sustaining in many ways. I dropped by the fire house recently to how the garden was coming along and to say hello. Mike had been deployed elsewhere for the day, but I met his crewmates, Joe Worthman and Steve Desirio, both fire fighters and EMTs (paramedics). 

They were happy to show me the garden, and I even cajoled one of these camera shy heroes, (Joe) into a photo. Apparently the urban legend about all fire fighters being handsome heartthrobs is true, as you can see for yourself in the photo above. Fire fighter Steve Desirio is an avid gardener at his home in San Francisco, where he grows edibles all year-round (in the fog, no less) and even starts his veggies from seed. They both gave abundant credit to Mike by saying that the garden is all his doing.

You can read an engaging article about Mike and his garden on California Bountiful Magazine.

A big thank you to Mike and his crewmates for their service to our community!

Photo: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fava Shoots: From Garden to Plate

Fava shoots have become popular, and I think it's a great way to get the most out of a powerhouse cool-season vegetable. Fava plants grow big and vigorously, so eating the young leaves in a saute or lightly steamed is taking good advantage of this hardy legume. I noticed that my local farmer's market had bundles of them for sale last year in the spring.

Fava Shoots Fit for High Cuisine
At the Chez TJ restaurant garden the fava beans my son and I planted last fall are now about a 3 feet high and looking lush. The funny thing is that Executive Chef Jarad Gallagher and his staff are raiding the young leaves from the tender plants for the restaurant.

Head gardener Louise Christy remarked that they might prevent flowers from forming and therefore won't get beans come springtime. But we are always happy when the kitchen garden gets used by the staff, whether it's for the restaurant or for their own meals, and we welcome creative uses of the edibles!

Pretty fava flowers attract bees in my winter garden

Simple Saute with Fava Leaves 
Pick shoots of fresh young leaves (usually found towards the top) to saute with olive oil as you would for spinach, or ask for them at your farmer's market. They taste a bit like like fresh green peas.

The flowers are also tasty in salads, but I hate picking them because that means less beans- and when it comes to favas I'm greedy!

This spring try a simple salad of  fava beans with new potatoes  

Planning for Spring Fava Harvest
In my home garden I have my usual fava plantings in both front and back yards and they are full of flowers. Fava beans love our mild winters on the SF Peninsula and I always make sure we have plenty of tender tasty beans in spring, but I think I'll go ahead enjoy a few shoots while I wait.

For fava recipes, including soup, and tips on growing them click here.
For the fava spring salad recipe, go here.

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Jerusalem Artichoke and Roasted Squash Soup

At this time of year we are really enjoying the Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes) that we grew last summer, especially in hearty and elegant soups. The string of cold frosty mornings have sweetened the tubers in the ground and they are crisp and delicious.

Jerusalem Artichoke and Roasted Squash Soup
We eat them raw in salads or pureed with other vegetables in velvety soups. Last week I made a wonderful soup with roasted Musque de Provence, a gorgeous French heirloom winter squash, Jerusalem artichokes, onion and a bit of pipin apple.

Cast iron cookware is perfect for a slow saute for soup
See my recipe for creamy no dairy soup featuring Jerusalem artichokes and just add squash instead of the carrots in the recipe. Try adding a few chunks of apple too. The flavors blended beautifully.

Growing Jerusalem Artichokes: Free Food!
Growing Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) is easy and they are very prolific. That's why I call them "free food".  I'm constantly amazed at the tasty bounty they provide with very little effort on my part. Read my blog about growing them, (including how to manage their spreading), which includes a recipe for sauteing them with mushrooms.

Plant them in spring (they are frost tender) and begin harvesting in the fall, preferably after frosts have begun.

Jerusalem artichokes (sunflower family) are native to North America

Cooking with Cast Iron
And by the way, I love my cast iron Lodge combination cooker in the photo above. The lid is a saute pan and the 3 quart pot is fantastic for delivering even heat when sauteing vegetables, and cheap too (when you compare to high-end dutch ovens). These things will last forever with the proper care. Cooks respect their quality and simplicity (no they are not paying me to say this- really!).

Try finding Lodge cookware at your local hardware store as they may be cheaper there, than in a cookware shop.  At our house we are big fans of cast iron cooking, and I confess to owning a big, beautiful, blue Staub dutch oven, besides our Lodge pieces.

But I'm still trying to forget what we paid for it- ouch.

My niece, the talented food blogger and printmaker, Janina Larenas got us hooked on cast iron. I know there are more of you out there with a favorite cast iron piece- am I right?

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Friday, January 4, 2013

Frost Hardy Lettuce Thrives in the Winter Garden

Each winter I'm amazed at the hardiness of lettuce. You would expect this delicate leafy vegetable to shrivel and die at the first hint of frost, but I'm always surprised and charmed by its hardiness. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we've been getting regular frosts and I've learned that lettuce survives this quite well.

The photo above shows one of my favorite lettuces: Yugoslavian Butterhead, completely frosted in the morning. It looked as if it had been candied in sugar. This lettuce is both beautiful and delicious for salads, and most welcome in the winter months.

The photo below shows this variety as grown the spring in my front yard beds:

Beautiful and elegant Yugoslavian Butterhead lettuce

Other lettuces I enjoy growing and eating are: the unusual Cracoviensis with striking bronze foliage, tender Three Heart lettuce, an heirloom I recently trialed for Seed Savers Exchange (now available through them), and Merveille de Quatre Saisons, another butterhead type (Marvel of Four Seasons- why use the original French name? So that we can trace its history and can correctly identify it in the future).

Cracoviensis (left) and Three Heart in my trial bed last spring

I leave you with this lovely photo of my frosted ornamental kale:

Share your lettuce tips: are you growing lettuce this winter? what varieites perform best in your area? in the ground or under cover?

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke