Tag Archives: Gardening

Mulberry = Angel Food

Fruitless Mulberry

Mulberry!

I really wish our cities were littered with Mulberry trees.  Wait….  they are. Unfortunately most of the mulberry trees planted in Western urban areas do not bear any fruit.  Ornamental, but sterile, these fruitless trees not only take up important growing space, but cause serious bouts of berry craving.

As the super stars: pear, apple, plum, peach and apricot attract fruit growers across the U.S. with their juicy round fruit, mulberries are somewhat of a wallflower in the West.  Unfortunately, mulberries are not widely cultivated as a commercial crop because the berries are so fragile and hard to transport. I’ve only found a handful of fruiting mulberry trees in the Bay Area, compared to the hundreds and hundreds of lemon trees… too bad.

The mulberry situation improves the farther East you head.  The Red Mulberry tree (Morus rubra) is native to eastern North America, ranging from Vermont to Florida and as far west as South Dakota. Mulberries were an important food staple for Native American tribes, but today mulberry trees are far less prevalent.

Mulberry Fruit

Mulberry trees have been are incredibly important in Chinese culture.  The white mulberry (Morus alba) was cultivated 4000 years ago for silk worm production.  In Chinese medicine the fruit is used to treat greying hair.  The leaves are antibacterial and are used to treat eye infections and flu.  Tinctures from the bark are used to treat a number of common ailments, notably toothaches.

Mulberry!

Look at this berry!!

The largest mulberries come from Black Persian Mulberry trees (Morus nigra) which in California typically fruit in July. These berries can  be four inches long and when timed right taste great.  They do have an intense acidic/tart taste coupled with high levels of sugar.  Most people absolutely love them.

The Morus alba mulberry tree is allegedly as good as the Black Persian berry.  Look for “Oscars” and “Pakistan” varietals.

Mulberry trees are self-fertile and prefer well-drained soil.  They should be planted in a sunny spot where they have plenty of room to grow.  They will reach height 30 to 40 feet over the years.  It takes a while for the tree to get established and you probably won’t be eating mulberries for five or more years. Delayed gratification.  Everyone in your neighborhood will love you after 15 years when the tree reaches full production level.

More information about mulberry trees.  Information about which varieties test the best!  Burnt Ridge is a great nursery to order a Mulberry tree from or check out Spiral Gardens in the East Bay.

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Planting Justice and CitySown Team Up!

Exciting news!!

Planting Justice and CitySown are teaming up this Spring to grow plants.  This is an exciting collaboration and large shift in CitySown’s purpose:

Tree Tomato or Tamarillo

Imagine a table of tomato starts…  On the wooden table is a small placard describing Planting Justice a local non-profit that grew these particular varieties.  Large placards rate the plants’ edibility, medicinal value and give detailed growing instructions.  There are many varieties of tomatoes that fruit well in the bay area.  On the ground near the legs of the table is a flat of tomato trees for sale.

As a board member of Planting Justice and a full believer in the organization’s mission and business structure, we will be using my roof top nursery to produce starts for Planting Justice.  We will be starting to sell to local nurseries in the Bay Area.  CitySown will still list free available plants for local gardeners, but the site will primarily function as an informational hub for urban permaculturalists.

Two roof-tops are better than one!

Check out Planting Justice’s first rooftop garden

Look out for more information about this partnership soon!

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Turn your Compost into Mushrooms!

Mushroom cultivation may seem daunting and mysterious, but with time and effort, unused shady spots can become productive mushroom farms.   Urban permaculture can be challenging.  We are constantly presented with “less than ideal” growing conditions: three hours of sun a day and contaminated soil are just a few examples.  The freeway underpass lined with chain-link fence, the old Superfund site where school buses were maintained, a shady weed ridden ally. Hopefully the process described below will inspire you to start utilizing some of these less desirable zones and grow pounds of mushrooms at the same time.

Shaggy Mane

The Story of the Shaggy Mane

For my Dad’s 60th birthday I gave him the idea of a present.  A small note with a few well-intentioned drawings of mushrooms sprouting up around our property.  For the last 2 months Isaac and I have been deep in the laboratory, sterilizing, inoculating and building an army of mycelium.  Isaac has been cultivating oyster, shiitake and reishi mushrooms for years and is incredibly knowledgeable.  He has been a great mentor and leader for my journey into the world of fungus.  We chose three species of mushrooms to cultivate in outdoor patches and oak logs: The Garden Giant (Stropharia rugosoannulata), Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) and the Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus).  This first post will focus on our experience cultivating the Shaggy Mane.

Note: Mushrooms are fascinating creatures that are more closely related to humans than plants.  They form giant mycelial webs that function as a “forest internet” transporting information and nutrients to different plants.  Mycelium is the white mold like strands that collect nutrients.  Mushrooms are the actual fruiting body that contain reproductive spores.

Step 1:  Making Agar

We started with a master Shaggy Mane culture that can be purchased at Spore Works or for a far more expensive, but commercially rigorous strain: Fungi Perfecti. Rather than extracting massive amounts of mycelium from the master strain, we started by brewing up some agar solution.  This way, a small portion of the master strain can be grown out before being added to the growing substrate.

To make Agar (mushroom food) we used this recipe: Potato Dextrose Yeast (PDY).  Isaac uses a whiskey bottle with a hole in the cap to pour the piping hot agar into sterilized petri dishes.  Let the Agar cool overnight.

Step 2: Inoculating the Agar

Wait a couple days for the Agar to set.  Before we inoculated the plates we inspected them to see if the agar had cooled and molded evenly.  Keep an I out for the evil Trichoderma, the most common fungi contaminating mold.

We used a home-made sterile glove box to inoculate the agar plates.  Using a scalpel we cut “sunflower seed size” pieces of mycelium from the master colony and placed it onto the agar plates.  Being sterile is really important.  Bring a towel soaked with rubbing alcohol  into the glove box with you to clean the scalpel in-between inoculations.  Once each agar plate has been inoculated, re-wrap the petri dishes in cellophane and put them somewhere dark and warm.

Step 3: Sterilizing the Substrate

Pressure Cooker

So much birdseed!  Wild birdseed is high in nutrients and cheep.  Before introducing the mycelium into the birdseed it must be sterile.  Fill  wide-mouth quart mason jars with birdseed that is soaked to the consistency of a dry sponge. Drill four small holes into the metal top of the mason jar.  You’ll need to get some tyvek from somewhere, packaging envelopes work pretty well.  Cut large squares that can fit completely over the top of the jar.  The order  is Jar, tyvek square, screw top, tinfoil.  Unscrew the jars a quarter turn from tight and  put them in a pressure cooker.  The pressure cooker is probably the most expensive investment in the whole process.  I suggest looking on craigslist.

To start the cooking process, fill the pressure cooker  a fourth of the way full, put it on the stove with the pressure valve open until it gets heated up and then after it hot close the valve.  Lower the stove to medium heat.  Aim to cook the bird seed for at 15 psi for 60 minutes.  Here is a great step by step documentation of sterilizing birdseed (by a blogger growing magic mushrooms).

Step 4: Inoculating the Substrate

Mycelium on an Agar Plate

Back to the glove box!  Scalpel pieces of the agar quickly into the sterilized mason jars and seal them  back up.  The more meticulous and obsessive you are the better.

Step 5: Feeding the Machine!

After three or so weeks the mycelium will run through the birdseed and create something that looks like this:

Healthy Mycelium

Before transferring the Shaggy Mane mycelium make sure you have about 6 shovel full of decomposed horse manure and compost.  Drill holes in the bottom of a plastic tub for drainage.

Plastic Tub

Drilling the holes with a hole saw!

Drill Holes

Smell the substrate.


Gavin Smelling the Compost

Mix it up all nice.

Isaac Mixing the Substrate

Open up the jars and spread the mycelium in layers (lasagna style) throughout the substrate.

Spreading the Mycelium

Put the tub somewhere dark and dry.  In a month, check to see if the mycelium has spread through the compost.  Have a spot picked out on your property where you can mix a big pile of compost and decomposed horse manure.  Layer the inoculated substrate in lasagna style and let it sit.  If built correctly, the patch should produce for years.  Make sure to add more manure and compost each year and you will have shaggy manes for a long time.

I understand this process may seem daunting for the first time mushroom grower:

I’ll let you know how the Shaggy Mane harvest turns out.

Over and Out.

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My Favorite Tuber so far: Yacon – Smallanthus sonchifolius

Imagine biting into a watermelon, but instead of a juicy and watery mess, your teeth slid through a crisp, apple like texture.  This tuber is angel food.  Filled with inulin, a sweet indigestible sugar (few calories),  this tuber is the dieters dream.  It is also my dream and several of my friends dreams to have an army of Yacon spread across Oakland.  The plant does extremely well in the Bay Area.

Yacon is a perennial tuber in the Asterids family, closely related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes.  Native to the Andes, it is an important South American domesticated crop.  Yacon syrup is a grabbing attention as a health product for its immunity boost and digestion assistance

Yacon should be planted early in the Spring to allow ample time for crown roots to form before winter.  This is less of a concern in the Bay Area where our few frosts won’t threaten root structures.  Find a sunny spot with healthy soil.  Yacon can grow as tall as 2 meters and will produce small yellow flowers.  These plants are incredibly productive, yields of 2 kilos per plant have been documented.  You can store the edible roots for several months after harvest.

When you dig up the root system in Autumn, look for two different types of root structures.  The large potato looking tubers are the one’s you should harvest to eat. Smaller structures with eyelets and should be divided and planted again for the Spring.  Don’t let the roots dry out while you store them to plant in the Spring.

Yacon leaves and stems can be cooked as vegetables in a stir fry or salad.

Here is additional information on Yacon.  Here you can order root crowns if your friends or local nurseries don’t have any extra for you.

Look how excited these guys are about their Yacon Harvest:

Spec that Pather’s Sweatshirt!

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BASIL Seed Exchange Soiree

Already kicking myself for not starting 4 flats of veggies a week ago, showing up to a room, jam-packed full of enthusiastic gardeners caused an upwelling of giddy excitement and mild stress.  Every year I am reminded Spring is fast approaching, when I attend the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) seed exchange in February.

Gardeners

This event is a little bit like a Star Trek convention for urban gardeners.  Plastic tables strewn about display hand written signs separating the room into plant families.  In the middle: root crops, along the window: Brassicas and crammed in the back of the room hid the nightshade and goose foot family.

Seeds!

The entire office of the Sierra Club next door was a flower seed bouquet.

Scurrying from table to table to the rhythm of a seven piece bluegrass band, gardeners traded their saved seeds from last season and filled envelopes with new varieties to plant in the garden.  I practically ran to the root crop table to grab some of the bright orange and green Oca tubers hidden behind a 5 gallon bucket of sun chokes.  I had been trying to get my hands on this somewhat rare Andian Perennial for sometime.

Sun Chokes

This event is a wonderful gathering of farmers and Bay Area gardeners.  The room is alive with knowledge and experience.  You will see Merritt Permaculture teachers, homesteaders, West Oakland food-justice gardeners, organic farmers from Bolinas, WOOFers and an assortment of community food activists.

Pumpkin Seeds

As small seed operations focusing on heirloom varieties are bought out by large corporate seed producers such as Monsanto (recently bought Seminis the leading vegetable seed producer in the U.S.), local seed saving and exchange is becoming an increasingly important resource.  Genetic lines and heirloom breeds that are not economically viable are often discontinued, eliminating bio-diversity in our gardens and farms.  If your city doesn’t yet have a seed interchange library, start one!  For inspiration visit Seed Savers Exchange.  If you become a member for $40 dollars or $25 reduced rate, you will have access to over 13,571 unique varieties of vegetables!

If you plan on saving your own seed, I suggest you start with beans and peas.  These are some of the easiest species because they won’t easily hybridize with other plants in the neighborhood.  Steer far away from corn, which necessitates many rows to harvest rigorous seeds.  Seed to Seed is an excellent book on seed saving.

The BASIL library is open for rummaging during the week at the Ecology Center. Plan on attending the BASIL seed exchange next February.  You’ll get in free if you bring your own saved seeds!

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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.

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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 HAVE NO IDEA HOW A PLANT ACTUALLY “FIXES NITROGEN”

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!


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