16 December, 2015

Ballona Wetlands In Peril

This image appeared in my Facebook newsfeed while we waited to speak
opposing the building of yet another hotel, damning the little wetland
we have left in Los Angeles County to destruction. I would like to credit the artist,
but I don't have that information. 
Just another hotel.  We have a few already in Los Angeles, but yesterday, the County Board of Supervisors voted to build yet another hotel.

This time, they are building it in one of the few remaining wetlands in this county; the one with the easiest access to city schools for field trips to a truly natural environment. Ballona Wetlands is a small parcel, but because of it's unique position with a freshwater marshland up against a saline marshland, it is home to an astonishing diversity of wildlife that is the pleasure of so many Angelenos in our concreted city (and county).  

The fight will go to the courts, and now Ballona Institute has an appeal for money to bring the fight to the courts. So often we are led by newpapers and other news sources to see these as fights of one endangered species against human activity and who needs the 'black livered whosamawatchacallit' anyway?  That's a false dichotomy which divides humans and obfuscates the reality of our choices.   But it's not a valid argument. It is not 'us against them.'  It is us against ourselves to find a better way to do things, a better place to build things, a better world for all inhabitants.  

Our nation and our state have passed laws that recognize the health of our planet is wholly dependent upon diversity and the inclusion of all species in our world to maintain the processes of the planet.  Wetlands, especially coastal wetlands like Ballona, are homes for an amazing number of species that depend on this unique environment.  In fact, while wetlands account for a very small portion of the earth's ecosystem acreage, they account for the miraculous number of species that survive there.  

Here's a photo of a portion of the Marina Marsh & Meadow,
part of the historical Ballona Wetlands.
Feeding grounds for Herons, Egrets and Songbirds.
This is yet another glaringly flawed project that destroys OUR quality of life.  The hotel will add more congestion to an already frustratingly difficult commute. The loss of birds that use this on their commute from North to South and back again will leave our skies and our hears more dark. Our community, as a whole, much poorer than before.  The destruction of the wetlands will be a stain on this generation of Angelenos.  We must not let it happen.  Please help us protect the environment; that would be the right thing for "Wise, wise man," the literal translation for Homo sapiens sapiens.


14 December, 2015

"Close to" Grandpa's Cornbread - A Family Tradition

Making cornbread has been very important to me. As a child, often times Grandpa, my mother's father, Jacob Anderson, would make cornbread on cold evenings. We ate it, as we ate many things, with milk and sugar over it and maybe some chunks of Cheddar cheese and bologna to round out the fare. It was simple and humble. He let me help in stirring the cornmeal up and taught me how all went together.  As soon as I turned 18 I forgot all that, after all, I was going to leave all that 'farmer' stuff behind.

Fast forward.

In my thirties, I suddenly began to want to recreate that cornbread of my youth. The ingredients were hazy, but how it looked, how it tasted remained vivid. I searched out recipes and had the good sense to buy a cast iron skillet and season it properly. I searched all over for recipes – most of them had additives that would have offended my English/Irish heritage – like jalapenos and spices. We ate very plainly.

Finally, I hit on a simple recipe that was very close to the taste and texture I remembered and with an attention to detail that would aghast most of my close companions (I'm not known as a "detail man"), I worked it out. I learned that ingredients were only a small part of making a good cornbread.

1 c cornmeal
1 c flour
3 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 each egg
1 c milk
¼ c melted butter

First, the cast iron is essential. Secondly, using any oil but butter is a no-no. The two are necessary for the process and your good results are in the processes.

This cast iron pan has seen a lot of cornbread
I'm eating some of this one when I finish this post.
Add the butter to the skillet. Turn on the oven for 400º place the pan with butter in it into the oven as it warms. Having a hot skillet to start the cornbread is very important. Now combine all the dry ingredients, the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, a pinch of salt and sugar. Mix well.

When the butter is melted, remove from the oven and add the melted butter to the dry ingredients, scraping as much of the melted butter from the pan as you can quickly do. At this point, everything rests on getting the mixed batter into the pan and into the oven as quickly as possible. Once the dry ingredients are moist, they begin to interact chemically with one another and if you want a light and fluffy cornbread, you cannot waste any time in this phase. 

I usually add the milk before the egg simply because I am afraid of solidifying any part of the egg with the hot oil  It's never happened, but somehow I remain afraid of it.  Mix all together until evenly moist, pour back into the hot pan and get it into the oven for 30 minutes at 400º F. Allow to cool before cutting and enjoy it, however you eat your cornbread.

So, ingredients aside, use a hot pan to pour the batter into, and once you have added moisture to the dry ingredients, working quickly is the most important part of making a good cornbread.  I hope you enjoy this once in a while.  

Maybe with hunks of Cheddar and bologna.  


07 December, 2015

Introduction to Sequestering Carbon In The Soil For Gardeners

Prosopis velutina - a mesquite from Sonoran Arizona
probably is one of the plants of our future
We already know that the level of carbon in the atmosphere is beyond acceptable levels. No agreement in France or anywhere else is going to reduce the level of carbon to levels that are necessary for the human species to survive without some pretty radical changes in our relationships with the planet and our human activities.

On the global level, governments are merely trying to cope with mitigating the damage we've caused and the resultant damage humans will suffer in turn. We already know about acidification of our oceans and the indication that the ocean's temperature increase of only .3ºF has started release of plumes of methane – another greenhouse gas – from the ocean floor. If this loop becomes established it could mean that NOTHING humankind can do to prevent collapse of our world's ecosystem. I'm not trying to paint a more bleak picture than there is already. It is pretty scary.

As usual, with these global environmental problems, individuals feel powerless to make substantial changes that can influence the outcomes. In this case, farmers can play a significant role and gardeners can also contribute. The way I advocate we garden already sequesters carbon in the soil and now we know how to even more effectively sequester carbon by combining parts of the garden that were formerly segregated and to interplant annuals with perennials. Simply using appropriate actions in our farming and gardening, we can emphasize carbon sequestration in the soil. It is a win/win propostion.

An important vehicle for moving carbon into soil is root, or mycorrhizal, fungi, which govern the give-and-take between plants and soil. According to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, plants with mycorrhizal connections can transfer up to 15 percent more carbon to soil than their non-mycorrhizal counterparts. The most common mycorrhizal fungi are marked by threadlike filaments called hyphae that extend the reach of a plant, increasing access to nutrients and water. These hyphae are coated with a sticky substance called glomalin, discovered only in 1996, which is instrumental in soil structure and carbon storage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises land managers to protect glomalin by minimizing tillage and chemical inputs and using cover crops to keep living roots in the soil.  Yale University Research Report, Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?

Research suggests that it is more beneficial to have plants with an active mycorrhizal community. This aligns with the very propositions I have been proposing for over 15 years. The Yale report mentions that pesticides and fertilizers interrupt the biological cycle and the presence of the mycorrhizae, which is prerequisite for sequestering carbon in the soil.

The following gardening practices are included:
  • Conservation tillage – minimize or eliminate manipulation of the soil for food production. Including leaving crop residues on the soil surface. Reduces soil erosion and improves water use efficiency and increases carbon concentrations in the top soil. Avoids disruption to the mycorrhiza in the soil and provides channels for water to penetrate more deeply in the soils.
  • Cover cropping – use of crops such as clover, alfalfa and small grains for soil protection and improvement between seasons of growing food. Cover crops enhance the soil structure and add organic matter to the soil making it better for carbon sequestration.
  • Crop rotation – by rotating crops in succession in the same area, we mimic the diversity of natural ecosystems more closely. How effective this is, however is related to the crops involved and the amount of time devoted to each one. (Millet is shallow rooted and is less efficacious than the same amount of time devoted to alfalfa which has a massive root structure.)
  • Zero use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides – already noted as detrimental to mycorrhiza/soil relationships – all of these are petroleum products that kill off the mycorrhiza in the soil and ruin exactly what you are trying to build. Besides, we will need to wean ourselves off petroleum anyway, might as well start now learning how to do without the stuff. Once you accept NOT using these items, it doesn't take long for one to learn how to live without them and soon you see how superfluous they were all along.
  • Mulching – placing organic matter over the soil and allowing it to breakdown without disturbing the process sequesters carbon. This is what creates the bases of all you want to achieve. Don't scrimp.
  • Growing perennial crops – often with interspersed annual crops where practical, leaving the detritus on the soil between growing seasons. Perennial crops lend themselves to soil sequestration better than annual crops and survive untoward weather fluctuations on a seasonal basis without dying. Their mere presence makes cultivation more difficult and ensures a limited disturbance of the soil.

Keeping in mind those practices, let's concentrate on perennial crops as they afford the easiest effort to go with no-till and will increase the carbon in the soil with very little effort on our part.
Perennial crops include a wide variety of different crops and more are coming online all the time.

Trees – nut and fruit trees are the first that come to mind. Plant a tree and, all things being equal, you have food production for many years to come – even decades. In our area, apple, almond, apricot, avocado, citrus, figs, peaches, pears (only a few varieties work here), persimmon, pomegranates, nectarines, and others are easy, requiring only a little pruning attention annually and certainly no plowing. Clover and other ground cover crops grown in between your trees and other perennials will enhance your soil and increase the sequestration of carbon.

There are many shrubs and similar plant forms that are wonderful for sequestration.

Beans – some of the climbing beans are really perennials – like Christmas Lima, Scarlet and other runner beans
Bramble berries
Blue Berries
Cactus – certain varieties
Jerusalem artichoke
Kiwi fruits
Onions (bunching or walking onions)
Wheat – perennial types

There are several perennial varieties of wheat and I have heard of perennial varieties of other grains as well. These are going to be quite important in the our very near future. I would encourage everyone to keep an eye out for them and eagerly try growing and using them. I do not believe this list is exhaustive. Keep your eyes open for other opportunities to plant food once and harvest over and over again.

What I am expressing is very much like the concept of the 'food forest' found in permaculture and in many other approaches to gardening. Other terms that might be encountered include Agroforestry or Woody Perennial Polycultures. These are essentially the same practice varying only in the fine print.
Furthermore, with these no-till techniques, we are just starting to transition to more permanent groupings of ever-bearing, perennial food plant groupings that include natural windrows, water harvesting/filtration and wildlife habitats – in addition to feeding the world.

The most important point is to leave the ground as little disturbed as possible. Try to avoid that in all your gardening activities of planting, weeding and harvesting. Whatever causes the soil the least manipulation, this is the goal to strive for.

This style of gardening also encourages beneficial insects, pollinators and is, of course, wholly organic. The food grown will have an overall better nutrition and will be less work. It will, of course, probably be less “neat” in the modern way of thinking, but that is merely a human construct. There are different levels of 'neatness' that are more important!


02 December, 2015

Plant Propagation for Gardeners Starts in January

No, I am not smoking - I have a part of a plant
in my mouth to keep it moist before grafting.

It seems amazing that it's already time to think about making new plants from old, but here we are looking at Winter Quarter for 2016.  I teach about four different courses for UCLA Extension and of all the classes I teach, the one I enjoy the most, is Plant Propagation.  

In the first place, I have always been a seed starter and now the whole thing with seeds has become so important to me in so many different ways, it is a joy to share these wonderful living pieces, and their amazing abilities and significance.  The mystery of starting plants from seeds is dispelled and we learn to unlock their secrets.  

There are many other ways to make new plants that are very easy to do once you know the why and the how.  We cover that as well.  And it's really cool when you can make six new rose bushes in a few minutes (and waiting a few months!).  

More than all else, though, for me, is grafting.  I love grafting and there is a story I tell about getting hooked into grafting.  It was a very unusual graft you won't see very often. I have lived for the opportunity to try it and if all goes according to my plans, we will get to do in this edition of Plant Propagation.  I have never had this chance before and may never have again - so this is a once in a lifetime opportunity!  

This is the book on grafting.  Unlike all the more modern, pretty picture books, this one tells you about every single kind of graft for every single purpose possible!  An amazingly thorough and comprehensive book, it has no equal - none that come close.  It has been around, in one form or another, since the 1800's. Out of print as of 2003, I begged Chelsea Green Publishing to bring this book back and they did!  I have all the other books, you can see them if you wish, but spend your money on this and you will thank me for it.  

If you don't already have a knife and a pair of pruners, don't buy any until you've been through the first lecture of this course - we'll talk about the different knives and pruners and you can put your hands on them and see how each feels to you. 

The other book I use in this course is this one.  It is not a particularly fascinating read, but it has these charts you can refer to whenever confronted with a plant to propagate and no data on how it's done.  A good reference book on your shelf if you do any amount of propagation.

This class is a great deal of fun for everyone and a learning experience unlike most classes these days:  you get the data you need in one minute and the next minute you are applying that data to a living plant and changing it's life! 

These are skills that were common among a majority of the people of the world just a generation or two ago, but now, only a select few who know this material and can put it to use! It is really satisfying and magical when you become one of the ones in the know!

Classes meet at The Learning Garden, on the campus of Venice High School where we have abundant material to work with .  The class is  sessions long, meeting on Sundays, 1 to 5:00 PM, starting in January on the 10th.  

There is still some space left - sign up while you can!  Hey, what a great Christmas present - for yourself even!  Register through UCLA Extension here.


01 December, 2015

Perennial Foods for a Toasty Future

Mesquite - one of the plants we might find as a major food source
in the future of global climate change.

No matter what it's called – Global Warming, Global Climate Change or, as I like to call it Global Weirdness – might be already influencing our gardens.
  • Why is that our apple trees never went dormant?
  • Why do we have really low temperatures (for Los Angeles) followed by a heat wave of unsettling proportions?

Honestly, I don't know if these are the effects of global anything – and in truth, we'll only see it in hindsight anyway. But, this topic is valuable for your garden today whether or not we'll be toasty.

Perennial food plants, giving you harvests year after year without being replanted, are less affected by bad weather or unseasonal storms or weather patterns. Some of our best food comes from these plants and most of them are easier to grow and maintain with only a little training. 

This Saturday, December 5th!  10 AM, $20 - no RSVP required.  Pay by PayPal to greenteach at gmail dot com or by cash or check at the gate.