Malabar Spinach

Red Malabar Spinach

Red Malabar Spinach

Malabar spinach is the plant to grow to fit the niche for “summer greens” in your garden. I grow kale and collards through the winter for greens to harvest fresh for our dinner table from fall to spring, but they don’t do well in hot weather. Neither does regular spinach, which likes the same cool temperatures as kale and collards. Despite its name, Malabar spinach (Basella alba or Basella rubra) is not related to regular spinach (Spinacia oleracea).

I first saw Malabar spinach growing in my daughter’s garden. She only had a few plants and they were crawling prolifically along the top of a fence that supported other crops. It was abundant, provided a cooking green for summer meals, and was colorful with its glossy green leaves and red stems. Last year when I put up the trellises over my paths I thought that was just the thing to try there. (You can read about those trellises I made from livestock panels at http://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/trellis-your-garden-paths/. )

Green Malabar Spinach

Green Malabar Spinach

When ordering seeds in early 2013, I saw Malabar spinach offered in a seed catalog and ordered it. What I didn’t know is that there are two types of Malabar spinach. What I bought was green Malabar (Basella alba). What I was anticipating was red Malabar (Basella rubra). My 2013 crop of Malabar spinach had thick green stems and didn’t climb well. In fact, it was slow to grow at the beginning of the summer. Later in the summer it was abundant, but it never grew as tall as the red variety. I’ve had the pleasure of taking a sneak peek at David Kennedy’s upcoming book Eat Your Greens: the surprising power of homegrown leaf crops, published by New Society and due to be in the bookstores about October 1. Kennedy, who refers to this crop as vine spinach, says the red variety produces best in early to mid summer and the green variety produces best in late summer to fall. Both varieties will succumb to frost. That explains why not much was happening with my Malabar spinach early in the summer last year when I was anxious to have it take off up the trellis.

Red Malabar spinach on a trellis.

Red Malabar spinach on a trellis.

This year I am growing the red variety of Malabar spinach and am pleased with it. I planted the seed at the base of both sides of my trellis, but something happened to keep it from growing on one side. Many things this summer have kept me distracted and failing to replant when necessary, so that side never got replanted. The side that it is growing on looks great! I can pick the leaves from a standing position as I walk through my garden, harvesting this and that for dinner. Those red stems are edible, also. The path between two sections in my garden is behind the climbing spinach you see in the photo. As you can see, it climbs the trellis well, providing shade to the path, and is colorful. I just have to smile when I see it. If I would have given this crop any attention at all, other than putting the seeds in the ground one time, I would have had Malabar spinach coming up over the top of the trellis from the other side.

My friend Brent tells me that it reseeds readily, so to expect volunteers to pop up next year. In his book, David Kennedy says the red variety will do that, but the green variety often flowers too late to produce viable seed before frost. Malabar spinach is an easy-to-care-for crop in my garden. The only attention I have given it is to redirect the vines to the trellis when they stray into the path. This crop doesn’t have the tendrils to reach out and grab the trellis that squash plants have.

If you want to add a tasty addition to your garden that thrives in hot weather, I encourage you to plant Malabar spinach.Homeplace Earth

Collection of strainers and colanders to clean seeds. Find these in your kitchen or at yard sales-BLOGIt is easy to talk about saving seeds and what a good thing it is to do. In fact, I wrote a whole book about that—Seed Libraries and other means of keeping seeds in the hands of the people. You will be able to read it when it becomes available in late January/early February 2015. I’ve been working on it all year and have now submitted it to New Society Publishers. In the coming months it will be going through the editing process and everything else involved in bringing a book to fruition. In Seed Libraries I give some tips about saving seeds, but it is not about the ins and outs of seed saving. Rather, it is about how to establish a community seed saving project and keep it going.

I thought I’d give you a preview of the photos that will appear on one of the eight color pages in my new book. You can read all you want about when to harvest the seeds, but when it comes right down to physically doing that, I’m sure you will have some questions. When saving seeds you need a way to separate the seeds from the chaff and you can do that using seed screens. As you will see, there are seed screen options to fit all budgets. The first photo shows my collection of colanders and strainers. You probably have these items in your kitchen already. When I visit yard sales I keep an eye out for ones that might have different size holes than what I already have. These work great and the price is right. However, the holes are not always the size I want to work with.

Homemade seed screens-BLOGThese two wood-framed screens were made with scrap wood and hardware cloth. The smaller one has ¼” holes and the larger one has ½” holes. The smaller one is borrowed from a friend. I made the larger one to facilitate working with beans and cowpeas. I can thresh the beans from the dried pods in an old pillowcase by hitting it with a piece of old broom handle. Everything gets poured out of the pillowcase onto the screen. The wood sides keep things contained so I don’t have pods and beans all over the place. When we moved to our five acre farm thirty years ago, I found an old screen like this in a shed. I made my new one to the same dimensions. I added the wooden blocks in the corners to strengthen the frame and to keep seeds from getting caught in the corners, and made a box to fit under the screen frame to catch the seeds.

With half-inch holes, some chaff comes through with the beans. Chaff that is smaller than the seeds can be quickly dispelled by pouring everything through a screen that is slightly smaller than the seed, holding the seed back and letting the chaff and dust through. I usually use this system for cowpeas and you would think that the quarter-inch screen would do that job for me, however I need something just a little smaller. Some of the cowpeas pass through the quarter-inch spaces. If I was trying to sort the seeds to save the largest, that would be an advantage.

Interchangeable sieves found at an Indian grocery store. Cost less than $15-BLOGThanks to my friend, Molly, I discovered the 4-in-one sieves that are available at Indian grocery stores. There is one stainless steel frame that is 8 ½” in diameter and four interchangeable screens—the holes in the largest are 1/8”. My interest in these screens is in working with the small seeds. Currently I have kale seeds to thresh with these screens. The screens are lightweight, don’t take up much space, and have the size holes that I want. For home use, this does well and should last a good while, but it is not going to stand up to the abuse that the screens in the first two photos will. At a cost of less than $15, these screens are a good deal.

Seed cleaning screens. Cost about $190-BLOGBy contrast, here is a professional set of eight screens that will take much handling for years to come. With eight different sized holes, you could surely find the size you needed. The price for these screens is about $190. With the other options available, you would have to be a serious seed saver to invest in something like this. Or maybe you just have more money than I do. These screens would be good for farms with many different people handling them and lots of seeds to thresh.

kale seeds-BLOGMy last photo is not in the book. It shows threshed kale seed put through the small yellow plastic strainer, with the pods left behind in the strainer. It works just fine! I acquired this strainer when my mother was going through her cupboard to give me a few things. I asked about the strainer and she said she didn’t think I would want it because it was plastic. She was right—I avoid plastic in my kitchen, but this strainer stays with my seed saving supplies. I like it because the holes are small rectangles, rather than circles. If you are a seed saver, take a look around your kitchen before you spend money on seed cleaning screens. What you need might already be there—at least to get you started.Homeplace Earth

Michigan Street Allotment Garden

Michigan Street Allotment Garden

I am fortunate to have a large garden with about 4,000 sq. ft. of bed space, not counting paths. My plantings include grains and cover crops and when I take a notion to add something else of interest, I can usually find space with careful management. Recently I had been wondering what people choose to plant when they have very limited space, such as in a community garden. I had the opportunity to get a close look at community gardens on our recent trip to Victoria, British Columbia. We were on the West Coast for the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington on May 31-June 1. Wanting to make the most of that trip, my husband and I traveled to Victoria for a few days and had a wonderful time. We stayed at the James Bay Inn and were within walking distance to almost everything we wanted to see, including the Victoria Public Library that hosts a new seed library.

The first community garden we visited was the Michigan Street Allotment Garden. It was a picture of abundance! The perimeter was a wall of raspberries and the beds were overflowing with produce, flowers, and sometimes fruit. You could feel the good energy just by being there. There were about 20 garden beds, each measuring about 4’ x 16’. Their garden shed was a cob structure. That was great to see. I had a nice conversation with Jill, one of the gardeners there. She was enjoying the evening in the garden in her motorized chair reading a book. Her garden bed looked terrific. She told me that the garden had been there for many years, but this would be the last. The property was being sold for development. That was pretty sad to hear. Unfortunately, it is the plight of many gardens that have been allowed to flourish on empty lots. On the bright side, there are plans to make space available elsewhere in the community for the gardeners.

James Bay Allotment Garden

James Bay Allotment Garden

The next garden we visited was the James Bay Allotment Garden which has 54 plots. It was right next to a community baseball field. There is a four year waiting list for space there. A plot costs $50 per year and the spots were bigger than the ones on Michigan. There is equipment in a shed for all to use. There were some seeds in the shed, creating an informal exchange. Some of the plots, but not all, had fences around them. I’ve included a photo of a garden plot with a fence so you could sense how large it was—sorry, I didn’t record the size. Notice the plastic boxes wired to the top of the fence that hold strawberries. Besides strawberries, some plots had blueberry bushes in them and I may have seen a fig tree there. I know I saw figs somewhere. There were creative trellises and season extension devices in all the community gardens we visited.

Fernwood Community Garden

Fernwood Community Garden

We went to the Fernwood Community Garden which was right next to the Victoria Compost Education Center. Most of the 34 garden plots there had wood borders, but the one in this photo had a border of stone. Raspberries can be seen in the corner to the left. I saw raspberries in many garden plots, except for the ones on Michigan Street, of course, since they already had a community hedge of raspberries. In all the community gardens I saw fava beans growing—flowering or already with pods thick with seed. Victoria has a milder climate overall than Virginia, but cool nights throughout the summer. In Virginia the temperature had already gotten sufficiently high to cause fava blossoms to drop by the first week in June. Sugar snap peas were also a popular crop in the gardens. Tomatoes were often in season extension structures because of the cool nights. They need the heat to make them tasty. That’s not a problem in Virginia.

Agnes Street Community Garden

Agnes Street Community Garden

The last community garden was the largest. The Agnes Street Community Garden has been in existence for over 40 years and has more than100 garden plots. Most plots are 20’ x 50’, giving the gardener 1,000 sq. ft. to play with. In the other gardens I saw chairs and compost bins within the plot space. Those things were here, also, with the addition of greenhouses in many gardens. I chose this photo to represent the Agnes Street gardens because it showed the numerous greenhouses and to show the compost bin on the corner of a garden plot. I don’t know if it was intentional for plants to be growing out the sides in the openings of the enclosure, but I couldn’t help wonder how many potatoes could be grown in there. You could build a large compost pile in the fall that would need to be cured through the next summer. In the spring you could tuck potatoes into the openings of the bin and let the plants grow out the sides. You would need to dig out the compost to harvest the potatoes, but that might be a good time to move the compost out of that bin to see what you have anyway. Then the bin would be available to start a new pile, or to be moved to a different location. The land for this community garden is leased by the Agnes Street Gardeners’ Association from the Municipality of Saanich and is administered by the Saanich Parks Department. According to their website, there is a $10 membership fee and a yearly charge of $60 per year for a full plot / $30 per year for a half plot. A monthly meeting is held that, although open to all members, is usually attended by about a dozen. It is an opportunity for exchange of information and seeds and plants.

The gardeners I talked with all said they learned from the other gardeners and and enjoyed the interaction. Although many of the gardeners are retired, I talked with two women in their garden plots who had young children. With the pathways clearly marked, the children can enjoy the space and experience their parents and others growing food for their tables. We only had time to visit four, but there are community gardens all over Victoria and you can find the list here. Wouldn’t it be great if every city had such a list?

We had a wonderful time in Victoria—and I haven’t even told you about the seed library yet! If you are traveling and want to avoid the tourist traps, I highly suggest finding out where the community gardens are and meeting the locals. You will find new friends in the gardens. Thank you to my new friends, who I met in the gardens in Victoria, for making our visit so pleasant.Homeplace Earth

SeedLibraries coverI have been hard at work researching seed libraries for my upcoming book Seed Libraries and other means of keeping seeds in the hands of the people. Look for it to be published by New Society Publishers in early 2015. In my April 2, 2013 post I wrote about the background of seed libraries. You can find the ins and outs of setting one up at www.seedlibraries.weebly.com. Until now, all the information has been made available through http://www.richmondgrowsseeds.org/, but that will be changing. The same person is behind it–Rebecca Newburn–no matter what web address it is. Newburn has done a wonderful job of establishing a seed library in Richmond, California with the idea of creating a model for others to follow. The post I’m writing now will take you beyond the mechanics of starting a seed library. Here are my suggestions:

  • Find partners to work with you. A seed library is too big of a project to tackle alone. Besides, it is an endeavor to benefit the community, so get the community involved. Look for both seed savers and planners for your team.
  • With your partners, decide your mission. A mission statement will help clarify your goals for yourself and for those who will be participating with you. My book will have a list of phrases others have used in their mission statements to give you some ideas for yours.
  • Find a space for your seed library. Public libraries are great because they already have people coming in and out and can provide back-up resources of books and DVDs, not to mention lighted parking, restrooms, and meeting rooms.
  • seed cabinet at Washington County Public Library, Abingdon, VA

    seed cabinet at Washington County Public Library, Abingdon, VA

    Gather seeds to share. Seed companies often have seeds to give away that were left from the previous year. You may need to pay postage to get the free seeds. If you want certain varieties and the freshest seeds, you will have to buy them. Begin early finding local seed savers to donate seeds to your project.

  • Preserve the stories that come with the seeds. If someone has grown the seeds, there will be a story. Seeds and the stories that come with them connect us to one another and to our culture.
  • Learn all you can. Learning to save seeds is a holistic approach to gardening and ensures having seeds that are attuned to your region in this time of climate change.
  • Get the word out. How will people know you are there if you don’t tell them? Call the radio and TV stations and use social media. Set up a website and a Facebook page.
  • The best way to learn something is to teach others. Since seed saving is a part of gardening that many often don’t know about, a seed library needs to have an educational component to it in order to teach others about seed saving. If you can’t be the teacher, find someone who can.
  • kale going to seed

    kale going to seed

    Promote seed gardens. Rather than only thinking of the flower or vegetable harvest, plan gardens around having seeds as a crop. Some crops are harvested when the seeds are mature, such as tomatoes. Other crops need to be left on the plants for much longer– maybe until the next year– before a seed crop can be harvested. The learning is in the doing. Find a place to plant something and watch for the seeds.

  • Celebrate all aspects of the cycle of life. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Make sure a well-meaning volunteer doesn’t deadhead the flowers when the blooms fade. You know, the ones you were going to be saving seeds from. Make sure everyone involved knows what to look for. Post signs if you have to. Have both learning and social events to keep your seed savers engaged and celebrate with all your senses.

These ideas will give you something to think about besides the details of distributing the seeds, which will be in the book, also. I’ll be speaking at the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington on Saturday, May 31. My presentation is Grow a Sustainable Diet, the title to my first book. In order to make the most of this trip across the country, I will take some extra days for travel and take a break from this blog. You’ll next hear from me on June 17. There are three years worth of blog posts you can read if you are missing my posts, but I suggest you step away from the computer and get out to your garden. Homeplace EarthHave fun!




Coldframe Lids

coldframe 4 lids onI have known for the past two weeks that the subject of my blog would be coldframes—I don’t always know what I’ll write about that far ahead. However, I thought the title would be Coldframe Transplants. Before I began writing the new post I reviewed my previous posts about coldframes and realized that I had written much of what I would say this time in Use Your Coldframe All Year last May. So, I encourage you to read that post. I had taken some good photos of my coldframe in April and realized that I could focus this post on coldframe lids.

The coldframe in the photo is 4’x 8’ and has four 2’x4’ lids made from twinwall polycarbonate panels. They were made from one 4’x 8’ twinwall panel that friends gave me when they were replacing the glazing on their solarium. I have considered putting wood frames around the twin wall panels to protect the edges, but haven’t gotten around to it. With a coldframe this big, using one panel for a lid would be awkward to use and to store. My previous coldframe was 3’x 6’ because I was given a piece of glass that size that I framed in wood. One advantage of that lid was that it was heavy enough not to blow off in the wind when I had it lifted on one side for venting. A disadvantage of that lid was the weight and size when I stored it in the barn for the summer.

coldframe-4 lids openI have never liked using hinges on coldframe lids because hinges would limit their use. I want to be able to move the lids around or take them off completely. When I taught at the community college one of the projects I assigned was to plan a season extension structure for a 4’x 25’ bed—complete with a drawing of the design, list of materials, and how it would be used. If the students chose to use a series of coldframes I always warned them I would take off points if there were hinges on the coldframe lids. Sometimes you need to take them all the way off. If you tilt them back, as in this photo, there needs to be room for them behind the coldframe.

coldframe vented at the topThese panels are relatively light. If I had them lifted on one side to vent, the wind may blow them off. It can get pretty windy in the spring. I was gone for five days the second week of April. Things were just coming up in there, so I wanted to keep the lids on while I was gone. However, looking ahead to the weather, it looked like some days would be quite warm. I decided to turn the panels parallel to the long sides of the coldframe and lower them a bit, leaving a vent space at the top. That would keep everything warm enough, but not too hot. It was nice that the day before we left for the trip we had an inch of rain—with the panels off.

coldframe lids stacked - BLOGSometimes I stack the panels on the coldframe if I want to vent it a little more than I did when I went on the trip recently, but still keep some protection there. If I was going to vent that way more than a day or two, I would not stack the panels, but take two away so as not to prevent light transmission. The extra panels can lean against the side or back of the coldframe, ready to put back on when needed. When I store the panels for the summer they only take the footprint of one panel.

Your coldframe lids might be old windows or wooden frames covered with plastic. Consider all the different ways you might use them before building your coldframe, so as not to limit your possibilities.  By this time of the year, you may be frost free and can store your lids for the summer, but your coldframe will still be of service as a space to grow transplants all through the growing season.Homeplace Earth

GrowSustDiet~Cat100%25I will be at the the Ashland Farmers Market on Saturday, May 3, from 9am-noon with my books and DVDs. I was one of the founding farmers of the market in 1999 and it has been nice to see how much the market has grown over the years. It will be exciting to be back on opening day 15 years later. After growing food to sell locally for 10 years, I left the markets after the 2001 season to focus on teaching and on exploring sustainable food production from the garden all the way to the table. In the years since, my students have been customers, vendors, and market managers at the Ashland Market and at many more markets around the state.

When I was selling at the Ashland Market, and even before that, people would often approach me with questions about organic growing. I began to teach out of self-defense. I was instrumental in developing the Sustainable Agriculture program at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Goochland and taught there from 1999-2010. My daughter, Betsy Trice, teaches those courses now.

garden plan dvd coverhomeplaceearth imageI developed the DVDs about garden planning and cover crops from what I was teaching. They are part of the curriculum at the college and are great for people to use as teaching tools for themselves or with groups. My book Grow a Sustainable Diet is also a teaching tool. When you read it I hope you feel like I was right there with you. Just as if you were in my class, there are worksheets to use and references to point you to more information on many topics.

The Ashland Farmers Market is in Ashland, Virginia at 121 Thompson St, behind the Town Hall. See you there on Saturday!

Zero Waste Events

zero waste recycle containersToday is Earth Day, so zero waste events are a good thing to talk about. Imagine having an event with a large number of people and having no waste! That is my idea of something called a zero waste event. Others may have alternate ideas, such as sorting out the recyclables and compostables before taking the rest to the landfill, but that’s a start. When I taught at the community college one of the projects I had my students do was to write a paper on the composting topic of their choice from my list of six. The topics were (1) institutional food wastes, (2) animal carcass composting, (3) manure management, (4) bioremediation, (5) construction and demolition debris, and (6) zero waste events. At the time I chose those topics there was little information on many of them and I gave them articles from BioCycle magazine to get them started.

I was reminded of that when I attended the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC recently. Always looking out for the environment, Mother Earth News is careful when it comes to putting on their Fairs. Instead of single trash barrels, there were three containers in each spot. As you can see in the photo, each had a sign identifying what to put where. There was a place to deposit things destined for recycling, composting, or the landfill. The signs, lid tops, and plastic bag liners were color coded to further keep things straight. landfill sign-zero waste events  The signs indicated this was managed by Danny’s Dumpster. I didn’t find Danny, but when I spotted one of his employees I stopped him to ask some questions. Danny’s Dumpster works with businesses and events on a regular basis. They even have their own composting facility and sell compost. Their website says that Danny’s Dumpster specializes in waste reduction while striving to make environmentally responsible decisions both affordable and convenient. Affordable and convenient are what everyone has been waiting for. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t want to go out of their way or spend extra money to recycle. It will be nice to see this become the way of all trash haulers.

compost sign--zero waste eventsThis business is beginning to work with schools to take their cafeteria waste. In the mid-1990’s I volunteered with the garden program at my children’s elementary school and pioneered composting the cafeteria waste right at the school. The students put their food waste and paper napkins into the recycle bins and two students were assigned to empty the bins into the compost piles each day, along with leaves for the needed carbon. It worked great, but not too many adults really understood the importance of what we were doing, or the necessity. That system operated for the four years I was a volunteer, but didn’t continue more than about a year after that. My experience at the school made me realize that I needed to devote my time to teaching adults so that more of them would understand, putting more people out there to teach the children and others. Those elementary school students are adults now. They know this can work because they were doing it way back when. Maybe they’ll be the ones to make a difference in their communities.

recycle sign-zero waste eventsWhat are you throwing away? Each household should sort its own waste and try to have less (or none). A compost pile can take care of the food scraps, but there are lots of other waste items to contend with. When food goes from the garden to the table, there are no containers to dispose of. Furthermore, when it is preserved at home, the containers that are required can be used over and over. I still use canning jars I bought 40 years ago. Packaging is a big waste. Bringing less stuff home of any kind will reduce the packaging you have to throw away. In your household can you have a zero waste event and really make it zero waste? We worked with that goal in mind when our daughter got married in 2010. We came close with less than a full bag of trash for the landfill. You can read what we did at http://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/homegrown-wedding/.

It is encouraging to see how much the subjects I assigned are in the news in the years since I first gave my students that project. Animal carcass composting was thought to be quite an unusual subject at the time and much of the available information was about poultry farms composting, rather than incinerating, dead chickens, although composting roadkill was the subject of a BioCycle article. Virginia now has a composting program primarily for deer killed on I-81 in the western part of the state. The resulting finished compost will be used in landscape maintenance. Demolition debris is being separated and recycled. Brown fields are being cleaned up with bioremediation. As a society we are beginning to take more of a holistic approach to what we do, taking into account the complete cycle of our resources and our actions. There just might be hope for the world after all. Homeplace Earth


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