Monthly Archives: February 2010

Picking Favorites – East Bay Nurseries

Spring Time!

Not all vegetable sections are created equal.  Some nurseries concentrate on culinary herbs while others focus on ancient Italian heirlooms.  After staring for several minutes at a laminated placard describing scarlet runner beans that failed to mention nitrogen fixation, ediblity or perennialization, I decided to develop  a “permaculture rubric” to evaluate our local nurseries.  In the next few weeks I will be piling on tweed sports coats, fake mustaches and flower print dresses – doing a little investigative work.  Which nurseries are selling what edibles?  Where do they buy their plants from?  How many perennial edibles do they carry?  What are their top sellers?

I hope that conducting some on the ground research will not only direct readers to nurseries that stock useful plants, but will also illuminate current trends in the retail vegetable market.  How much demand exists for what vegetables?  Is there an opportunity for nurseries to be educational and demonstration sites for unusual, but incredibly useful and important plants?  I would like to know how the retail market is positioning itself to attract the burgeoning wave of well-informed urban gardeners.

To begin this investigation.  I  would like to see what your favorite East Bay nurseries are.  Please vote below.  I understand that certain nurseries maintain specific niche markets.  Perhaps vote on the nursery you most regularly attend. Thanks for your  input.



Filed under Field Trips, Plants, Projects

Nitrogen Fixation for Dummies

“Fava Beans are wonder plants, not only do they grow delicious fat meaty beans, they fix nitrogen, essentially fertilizing your garden for you!  MAKE SURE to plant a thick fava bean cover crop in your garden this winter  ”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and uttered this phrase in the last couple of years.  I’ve practically forced fava beans and clover down friend’s throats, sneaking into gardens late at night to sow row after row during the winter months. The nitrogen-fixing missionary, saving depleted gardens from ruin. Last Sunday after listening to a fellow student talk about Vetch’s “nitrogen-fixing” abilities a slow, terrifying realization crept in:


I felt like a doctor who flunked most of medical school, prescribing potent medications after reading glossy pharmaceutical adds in magazines.  In an effort to restore my integrity and investigate this astonishing process, I’ve compiled a detailed microbiological summary of nitrogen-fixation.

Highschool Flashback!  Let’s start with the Nitrogen Cycle:

The Nitrogen Cycle

78% of our atmosphere is composed of Nitrogen gas (N2).  Plant life cannot access gaseous nitrogen and to useful to living organisms it must first be “fixed” transformed form a gas into a solid.  This can happen in 3 and in more recent times 4 ways.

1.  LIGHTNING STRIKES – start  erecting lightning rods over your garden in the winter.  Bolts of energy fix a small percentage of earth’s solid nitrogen.

2.  Free floating Nitrogen-fix Nitrogen using a special enzyme.

3.  Nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in symbiotic relationships with most legumes and a few other scattered plant species fix nitrogen into Ammonia (NH4+), a usable form for plants and other nitrifying bacteria

Fritz Haber

4.  Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch completely altered our species course of development when they discovered how to fix nitrogen in the lab.  Many argue this was the most important and influential discovery of modern science and ammonia derived from the Haber-Bosch method, support a third of our world’s population.  Fritz was responsible for first demonstrating the process in 1909 which Bosch improved and standardized.  The Haber-Bosch method requires an immense amount of energy, but provides ALL of the ammonia and nitrogen rich fertilizers we so heavily depend on in modern agriculture.  Each year 100 million tons of fertilizer produced with the Bosch method are added to our increasingly anemic and disappearing topsoil. Haber went on to produce nitrate bombs, chlorine and  Zyklon B used in Germany’s extermination camps.  Evil Science.

Symbiotic Nitrogen-Fixation

All plants require nitrogen (N) as a fundamental building block of nucleic acids, proteins and other nitrogen based compounds.  Unlike carbon-dioxide, plants cannot simply breath in atmospheric Nitrogen, it must be extracted from the soil. MILLIONS and MILLIONS of dollars and barrels of oil are mashed together by a few large corporations to provide most of the fertilizer used by commercial farmers. Fertilizer is typically high in nitrogen, super charging the plants and creating this kind of obscenity:

Big Boy

Most of the best nitrogen fixers are in the Leguminoase (legume) family.  Only a handful of other non-leguminous species can fix nitrogen.  Spread throughout many different plant families, they are typically trees or herbaceous shrubs such as the alder tree.

Farmers have been rotating crops with legumes for thousands of years to add nitrogen into their soil.  During the 17th century rather than letting a field sit fallow a four crop rotation with clover was used in many parts of Europe.  Today it is common practice for organic and non-organic farmers to sow a nitrogen-fixing cover crop during the winter months.

It is important to give credit where credit it is due.  A pea plant cannot actually fix nitrogen for itself and its neighbors, but it does form a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium leguminosarum biovar viciae, a bacteria that forms nodules on the Pea’s Roots.

Here is how it works:

Root Hair Infection

As the Pea Plant’s roots establish, they emit flavinoids that attract and encourage growth of a particular strain of rhizobium bacteria co-adapted to grow with the pea.  Rhizobiums free-floating in the soil cannot fix nitrogen, they must couple with a legume in a mutualistic exchange.  The flavinoids released by the Pea roots into the soil activate Nod genes in the bacteria which will cause effective strains to begin nodule formation.  To form this symbiotic relationship the bacteria must first “infect” the Pea’s root hairs.  Binding to individual hairs, the Rhizobiums secrete Nod factors which cause the root hair to curl.  This allows the bacteria penetrate the root hair and introduce an infection thread which infiltrates root cell tissue and disperses additional Rhizobia.  Clumps of Rhizobia undergo a morphological change and develop into Bacteriods.  Clumps of bacteriods form the white nodules found on a legume roots a few weeks after rhizobia infection.

Rhizobium Nodules

Rhizobia use nitrogenase, an incredible catalyst to overcome the immense activation energy required to split the N-N triple bond.

N2 + 6 H + energy → 2 NH3

Nitrogenase necessitates a great deal of chemical energy which it receives from the plant in form of proteins and carbohydrates.  Rhizobia in the bacteriods turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia NH4+, a form of nitrogen that plants can easily use.  The pea plant also provides Legahaemoglobins that bind to oxygen molecules providing oxygen for rhizobia respiration.  If you ever cut open one of the white nodules on your legumes roots, you may see a red tint to the nodules innards.  Like Hemoglobin, legahaemoglobin is red when exposed to oxygen.

Even when harvested Nitrogen-Fixing plants can enrich your soil.  I find the best way to use these plants is to “chop and drop” as your winter cover crop is just beginning to flower, chop all the favas and vetch down letting the plant decompose on top of your soil.   A lot of the nitrogen is stored in the plant body and will go to waste if you let the plant flower.  Unless of course you want to harvest some fava beans.  I will also interplant or lay a ground cover of nitrogen-fixing plants in my spring and summer gardening.  Use these plants as much as possible!


Filed under Nitrogen Fixing, Permaculture, Plants

Pounds of Free Food – A Mushroom Foray at Salt Point State Park

Das Right

Crawling around on all fours, sliding underneath huckleberry thickets and old decaying redwood logs, nothing is more satisfying than stumbling across a thick patch of black trumpet mushrooms.  Before filling nearly two bags with trumpets, hedgehog, golden foot and a few lonely chanterelles I called out for my friend Bo to share the bounty.  Mushroom foraging brings out a feral, child like excitement in human beings. It’s incredible to watch.  80-year-old grandmothers wandering into the woods with bright purple canes and sweat pants, screaming with delight and blowing their whistles when they find a patch of fungi.  Our species has been foraging for millenia and nothing makes me feel more grounded than scrambling through the forest on a quest for edible mushrooms.

During the rainy months the Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA) leads forays on the third Saturday of each month.   The three-hour drive from Oakland to Salt Point State Park is absolutely stunning.  Redwood, Redwood, more Redwoods and then suddenly out of now where: The Pacific Ocean and  rolling grassy cliffs that remind me of Harold and Maud scenes.  Parking is eight bucks.

Note: For all edible mushrooms it is important to correctly identify before you place it in your forage basket and before you throw it in a skillet. I take no responsibility for your  lack of mushroom identification skills.  This is not a guide but merely a brief introduction to several edible species.  Go with someone who truly knows what they are doing to learn your edibles and look-a-likes.  I have had major freak-outs about mushrooms and thrown whole baskets away.  It’s absolutely worth being sure… some of the babies will have you bidding on black market livers and kidneys in two or three days.

About 45 people gathered around one of SOMA’s guides.  The group splits up into four separate forays.Today we were looking for these delicious mushrooms:

"Craterellus cornucopioides

Black Chanterelle

Black Chanterelle or Black Trumpet- Craterellus cornucopioides

This is a highly tasty morsel of a mushroom that often remains undetected (unpicked!) because  of its black fruiting body.  In the shade it can practically camouflage into the forest duff.  The hunt for the Black Chanterelle is often described as a search for a hole in the ground.  This mushroom is easy to identify and is a great mushroom for beginners because it doesn’t have close poisonous look-a-likes.

Black Chanterelle’s have a funnel shape with smooth grey outside and a dark black inside and top.  They grouped in clusters and are often found underneath Huckleberry Shrubs, Madrone and Oaks.  Their spore print is pale buff.

Further information about Black Chanterelles and some great recipes.

Hedgehog – Hydnum umbilicatum

"Hydnum umbilicatum"


Hedgehog mushrooms are great species to teach beginning mycologists because they are so easily identifiable by their underbelly teeth that literally look like hedgehog. spines.  Hedgehogs are a late season mushroom found among oaks, madrone and under huckleberries.

More information about Hedgehogs and some great recipes.

Yellow Foot or Winter Chanterelle – Craterellus tubaeformis

"Craterellus tubaeformis"

Yellow Foot

A late winter chanterelle pops up right when you start to miss the acorn-yellow chanterelle- how convenient.  This mushroom is pretty easy to identify by its yellow stipe, veins (not gills), hollow stem and dimpled cap (sometimes the  stem is hollow all the way through to the cap).  I found clumps and clumps and clumps of these guys underneath huckleberry shrubs. Like any mushroom foray, getting off the beaten path and bushwhacking like a drunk brown bear is the best method for finding hidden patches.

More information about the Golden Foot and some great recipes.

Pig’s Ears – Gomphus clavatus

Pig's Ears

Pig’s Ears are edible, but often are considered less desirable than other late winter species.  They are found in large clumps with chanterelle style veins.  The funnel-shaped fruiting body is found under conifers.

More information about Pig’s Ears and a funny recipe that will give you an idea of how desirable this puppies are.

The rain will be pouring this week and next weekend should be a good time to go out hunting.  I suggest waiting a few days after the rain stops so that everything has a chance to dry out.  If you don’t have the essential pocket guide “All the Rain Promises and More” by David Arora already, I would suggest picking it up.  Also long but slightly narrow wicker basket is best for protecting your precious finds.


Filed under Field Trips, Foraging, Fungi

Scarlet Runner Bean – Phaseolus coccineus

"Phaseolus coccineus"

Scarlet Runner Bean

Scarlet Runner Beans!  This nitrogen-fixing legume is not only delicious, beautiful and easily grown in the Bay Area – it’s a perennial.  The advantages to planting perennials are numerous.  For starters, you don’t have to re-seed each season saving you time and money.  Because perennials have several years (in this case usually three) to thrive, their root systems are quite established and can pull important nutrients from deep in the soil.

The Scarlet Runner Bean is hardy to zone 10 and pollinated by bees!  Soak the seeds prior to planting and make sure to find a sunny position with ample room for the legume to “run” climb sometimes as high as two meters.

Find more information here and a salad recipe here.

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Filed under Beneficial Insectary, Edible, Nitrogen Fixing, Plants

Siberian Pea Shrub – Caragana arborescens

"Caragana arborescens"

Siberian Pea Tree

The Siberian Pea Shrub is a nitrogen-fixing perennial shrub that can be planted with success in the Bay Area.  Growing 4-6 meters tall it grows edible seed pods that are somewhat bland, but can be added to other meals.  This plant provides excellent chicken forage and can be grown inside fenced chicken areas because of its height.

Siberian Pea Shrub’s have been used as living fences and are noted for their “attractive” quality when attempting to distract deer from the rest of the garden.

The Pea Shrubs root system is extensive and the shrub should be used to mitigate erosion and build wind blocks.  This shrub is pollinated by bees!!

Plant on a sunny edge in your garden or in the chicken area (if the seedling is tall enough) and harvest the small, but highly nutritious seeds in the Spring and  Summer.

More information here.

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Filed under Beneficial Insectary, Edible, Nitrogen Fixing, Permaculture, Plants

City Sown Officially Born!!

Hello Everyone!

As an urban gardener and a permaculturalist in the East Bay, I hope to provide an important resource for our curious community.  This is my third season growing vegetable starts in Oakland for nurseries and individuals in the community. The growing momentum of interest in urban gardening coupled with growing need for local food production and food justice work has been a constant inspiration.  This blog is a fusion of several  interests.  It will include adventures, projects, plant descriptions and philosophical musings.  It will also function as my nursery’s website, where lists of the plants I have available and coming soon can be found at the Available Plants! page.  For plant inquires please contact

We are fortunate to have an amazing climate in the Bay Area that permits a wide range of temperate and sub-tropical species.  From blueberries to bananas, there are many different species that one can experiment with in our bio-region.  My main mission is to provide hearty, well adapted annual and perennial edible plants individuals, nurseries, landscapers, non-profits and any other interested planters in Oakland and Berkeley.   Introducing more unusual species into the retail chain will hopefully build awareness and demand for an assortment of incredibly useful, but relatively unknown plants.  Selling plants to nurseries and other for-profit operations enables me to donate many more plants to our community!  Contact me for veggies!

All plants are grown with organic potting soil and cared for on the roof of an Oakland warehouse.  A huge expense and externality in the nursery business is transportation costs.  By locating the nursery operation within the urban framework, plants can be delivered by bike cart.  There are numerous arguments for buying locally produced goods: creation of local jobs, utilization of local resources, transportation costs diminished, stronger relationships and interdependency… the list goes on and on.  There are a sea of rooftops spread across our cities.  I hope that this project/business/community endeavor, can serve as an example of how to manage our city’s negative space in an ecologically intelligent manner.

I look forward to growing your plants, talking about ways to incorporate and address your needs as a business and working with community members eager to grow their own food.

Let the Planting Begin!


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Filed under Permaculture