Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rejuvenation Through Saving Seeds

"Institutions do not save seeds- humans with hearts do."
- Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, 2013 Annual Conference and Campout, Seed Savers Exchange

This post was updated on July 22, 2017

This year I attended the 37th Annual EcoFarm Conference held at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California, as a gift to myself at the start of the new year. I greatly looked forward to spending quality time with organic growers and advocates. I always learn something, connect with interesting people, and return rejuvenated and inspired with a renewed commitment to my work with edibles and seed saving. The theme of this years' conference was 'Cultivating Diversity', as in people, as well as seeds. It's a theme close to my heart, as an immigrant and a seed steward.

So I got to thinking about seeds and my ancestral origins. And as I day-dreamed about the coming spring planting season, strong emotions were stirring within. I'm passionate about seeds- they truly stir up my emotional side. It's taken me a while to understand why and to be able to begin to express it words. Seeds, especially for edibles, have been saved by humans for many thousands of years. First Nation Peoples consider them as "living, breathing, ancestors" in a literal, not figurative sense. And in fact, viable seeds ARE alive, and they are handed down through families and communities to this day, although alarmingly, much less so. These are true heirloom varieties that are a crucial means by which we carry on our culture, whether it's rooted in Native American traditions or in a family group of immigrants, perhaps generations ago.

In my family, favas are a must-have spring food that I grow annually

We all have family food stories with origins in those who came before us, if we dig deep enough. For immigrants like me, those connections to my cultural foods are strong. I arrived in the USA with my parents and brother from Chile many years ago as an infant, but I grew up around an extended family and community of Chileans. It was years into adulthood before I realized that many of our favorite Chilean dishes originated with Native Peoples in the region, especially the Mapuche ("people of the earth"). In fact many of our words in Chilean Spanish have their roots in Mapuche language (Mapudungun).

Beans and fresh corn with basil is a typical Chilean food combination

So it's not surprising that my garden reflects my cultural roots, a mix of what the European conquistadors brought with them and Native foods: different types of common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), fava beans, salad greens, artichokes, squashes, and various perennial herbs are my staples, including two shrubs of Lemon Verbena for herbal tea (Aloysia triphylla), native to Chile and Argentina. 

Squash is another family favorite 

I recently received a precious gift of seeds from Chile: winter squash, beans, a sweet pimento pepper and a spicy pepper, plus corn seeds with which to make a favorite national dish, pastel de choclo (derived from the Mapuche word for corn). Through my research I discovered that some of the old seed varieties are stewarded by dedicated guadadores de semillas or seed savers, same as in the USA, but not accessible to me, (as far as I know). 

My harvest of beautiful runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus)

I have been conducting seed trials of heirloom seeds as a volunteer for Seed Savers Exchange for several years, and this work as been very satisfying. At the 2017 EcoFarm conference I was fortunate to meet Rowen White and participate in her 'Seed Seva' online training that weaves Native Peoples' traditional seed practices with western methods. She is indeed a knowledgeable and precious mentor.

My current focus is finding seeds of Native crops in a responsible manner, perhaps rare ones, and putting my effort into growing, eating, and respectfully maintaining these- what I believe to be a worthy cause. It is both tragic and traumatic that many tribes have lost the seeds specific to their People as an outcome of colonization- seeds that were essential to the continuation of their cultures. A good place to start is Native Seeds/Search in Arizona, specializing in seeds for crops suited to arid areas, as well as Indigenous in origin (quite relevant to our dry and warming climate in California).

My passion for saving seeds has been rejuvenated by doing my small part to ensure that these irreplaceable treasures are never lost again, and equally important, honoring my ancestors from the southern part of the continent.
Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Edible Landscaping Your Front Yard - Start Now

Striking ornamental kale can be planted among edible kale

Fall is just ahead and it’s the perfect time for bold action: adding edibles to your suburban front yard. If you have a conventionally landscaped front yard and you aren’t sure how to begin, here are some ideas to help you get started.

Getting Started
For the front yard there is still an aesthetic norm to overcome in lawn-centric suburbia, but that convention has been shifting steadily.  Growing vegetables, herbs, and fruit boldly in plain sight needn’t be the eyesore of the neighborhood if you give some thought to how they will fit into your garden design. In my opinion, both edible and ornamental plants coexist in a beautifully in a garden. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

America spinach with violets

To start, you'll have to consider the exposure to direct sunlight, at least 4-6 hours per day, and the condition of the soil. Check with your local UC Master Gardeners for more details on planting and soil prep for your region. They will also have seasonal planting charts. Sign up for their excellent monthly newsletter that reminds you about seasonal garden tasks, including planting edibles.

Below are some simple ideas for small additions with the potential for a big impact.

Where to Add Edibles Now
Flower Beds and Borders:
If you have existing flowerbeds, that’s a great place to begin. If not, you might consider removing a strip or patch of lawn to make a combined flower and edibles bed. This would be nice as border along a walkway or fence, or even in the center of a lawn (remove and prepare a square or round shaped patch). Small shrubby herbs such as thyme (choose from lemon or lime thyme) or sage (add a trio of culinary sage with blue-gray leaves, tri-color sage edged with purple, cream and green, and yellow sage) fit well among flowers, and they hold up to the mild frosts in our San Francisco Bay Area. Rosemary is a popular, large landscaping plant that is covered with sweet blue-lavender or purplish flowers for months of the year. 

Trailing rosemary is attractive, fragrant, and great for cooking

You can easily slip in vegetable seedlings when planting out flowering annuals or among bulbs.  Spinach, lettuces, kale (including ornamental kale), and Asian greens, can be grown in fall since they prefer cooler temperatures and can be grown during winter in our region. These leafy green veggies will add attractive foliage to a bed of flowers, and if you really want to be on your game, plant edible and beneficial flowers, such as calendulas, and add nasturtiums and marigolds for summer.

The viola family, which includes violets and pansies, are good cool weather choices for fall and are high impact for their varied colors. This group is semi-perennial in mild winter climates and provides lots of blooms fall through spring, going dormant in hot summer weather (some will reseed). For annuals such as nasturtiums, which are frost tender, wait until spring. But beware: if you buy nursery seedlings make sure they were grown without pesticides and herbicides, otherwise, don't eat the flowers!

Artichokes have spectacular foliage, but need space

Go Big and Bold with Artichokes
If you have the space for them, artichokes are a spectacular addition to the garden. Their bold foliage is striking, and in spring they'll reward you with edible artichoke heads. I particularly love the violet ones, such as Violetto and Purple of Romagna. Romanesco is a tightly rounded variety that is tinged with purple. The green globe types have equally beautiful foliage. Fall through early summer is the best time for artichokes. They tend to go dormant with the heat of summer, at this point you can cut them back and keep them mulched. Mine are shaded in the later part of the afternoon for the hot sun so they begin to sprout new growth if I water them occasionally during summer. Towards fall they really start to bulk up.

All of them will eventually yield huge flowers with purple stamens if you leave the heads on the plants. I always leave a few to flower, then watch the bees enjoy them!

Artichokes will eventually explode with purple flowers if they aren't harvested

Planting into containers is another great way to experiment with edibles since containers can be moved around, grouped in different locations or used as a welcoming feature on a porch. Numerous colors, sizes, shapes and textures are available to match or brighten up your existing landscape. Containers filled with flowers and lettuce are sure to be a conversation piece. For the coming cool months you could pair lettuce, kale, or spinach, in containers with edible flowers for a beautiful display. Mix with ornamental kale for an extra showy focal piece.

Showy heirlooms: Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas date back to 1892

I also love growing snap peas and snow peas over winter and early spring. They are beautiful on a trellis, and you can plant flowers and leafy greens around them. I have several different trellises in the front yard of different types and sizes for climbing edibles. Lovely bicolored Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas resemble sweet pea flowers (which are NOT edible) and would be a winning combination with cool season flowers in your front yard.

Start Small, But Start Now
Eating sweet crisp pea pods with fresh salad greens and herbs, plus edible flowers from your own front yard may inspire you to expand your edible landscape into a beautiful productive kitchen garden by the time spring rolls around. A good approach is to start gradually. You can start this fall by adding these varieties that will overwinter well, then plan to add warm season edibles in spring and summer. Enjoy learning as you grow, gather ideas about what you enjoy growing and eating, and design features you’d like to add. If you are new to growing vegetables and herbs, getting some experience first will help shape your overall landscaping goals.

Note: during our cool and rainy months in California you will have to have a plan for slug and snail control. Handpicking in the early morning or evenings is effective if you keep at it. You can supplement handpicking with a sprinkle of  a non-toxic product such as Sluggo.

A earlier version of this post was published in March 1, 2012 at Eat Drink Better

Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke

Friday, July 22, 2016

My Three Elements of Garden Design

A concept sketch for a client 
There is an awful lot to consider when designing a garden, besides the aesthetic design part.

I sat down a while back to organize my thoughts for a presentation at Foothill College's Environmental Horticulture and Design program, about how I approach a garden design project. There are numerous things to consider, but I was able to condense it down to three categories with basic points for each.

An edible garden I designed where the landscaper built beautiful raised beds

My categories below are all equally important, but sometimes one or another becomes the dominating constraint:

  • The site: climate zone, exposure (sun/shade, wind), topography, current condition of soil &; existing plant material, etc.
  • Type of garden maintenance desired for upkeep
  • Use sustainable practices and climate appropriate plants
  • Budget 

  • Plant likes and dislikes, style of garden desired, color preferences
  • Allergies, other concerns (example- poisonous plants)
  • Kids, pets
  • What will the garden be used for? 

Besides listening carefully to our clients, a designer's job is to come up with interesting and exciting possibilities that fit their lifestyle. I try to come up with at least one or two ideas that are "out of the box" to nudge my clients into thinking creatively about using their new garden space for maximum quality of life. 

In addition to select native and ornamental plants, many succulents are "climate appropriate" for our area

  • Style of house (architecture), style of existing garden (things that will stay)
  • Views (desirable & not), what can be leveraged to advantage?
  • Dominant existing features (walls, large trees, colors) elements adjacent to the property
  • Creating a beautiful planting design and suggesting enhancements (complimentary containers, water features, hardscape, etc.)


After gathering and considering all of the elements above I ask, "how can I create a beautiful and satisfying garden for this client that is in harmony with the environment?"

As daunting as this task may seem, I find it helpful to remind myself what I was taught in my design classes: 
A “Problem” (or constraint) Is An Opportunity
For example: California's drought has created a myriad of opportunities for creatively rethinking what we plant in our gardens, and how we use them. I think this topic would be a great blog post! Stayed tuned...

Echeveria cante is a lovely succulent that adds style and beauty without a lot of fuss
Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke