L.A. at Home

Design, Architecture, Gardens,
Southern California Living

Category: Urban Farming

BuBees beehive: modern architecture for the urban bee

BuBees beehive
Backyard beekeeping is the buzz of urban farming, with some wanting to replenish bees disappearing through Colony Collapse Disorder and others simply wanting to harvest home-grown honey. Now a Malibu business called BuBees is making beehives that are as fashionable as the city dwellers keeping them.

Designed by commercial artist and Art Center College of Design graduate Steve Steere, the $300 hives are a blend of form and function. A so-called top bar design, BuBees beehives mimic the way bees live in nature. The 36-by-18-inch living space is equipped with 24 bars, under which the bees build their combs. Two solid boards that run the width of the hive can be moved to make the space smaller or larger depending on how many bees adopt the hive. A viewing window lets beekeepers see inside the space, which can accommodate thousands of the pollinators.

For beekeepers who want honey, the top bar system allows easy harvesting. Just lift out one of the bars, cut off the comb and smash it in a bucket.

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Growing passion fruit: It's easy if you can beat the bugs

Passion fruit vinePassion fruit vines have been threaded on a chain-link fence between the Fountain Avenue Community Garden and the school next door. For about two years, the plant’s growth was lackluster. But once its roots got established, the vine exploded with, well, a passion. Now it’s up in the pine tree over the garden and is spreading around the corner, covering at least 50 feet of chain link.

“We plan to have crawling vines, a wall of green, all around the garden,” gardener Charlene Gawa said. This winter the plant was loaded with fruit, but gardeners couldn’t enjoy the harvest. Schoolkids picked the fruit, usually when it was still green (even though it won't ripen when off the vine).

Considered a pest by some and even banned in some community gardens, passion fruit comes in more than 500 varieties. Originating in Paraguay, Brazil and parts of Argentina, passion fruit is grown throughout the tropics now. Its juice is used in processed drinks, but it’s best enjoyed raw: guava-like flavor, flowery bouquet and custardy texture that creates a jelly-like umami moment that would seem impossible to duplicate. For added effect, chew the crunchy seeds.

“We would just go up into the mountains [of Honduras] and pick them and they were quite sweet,” said Jamie Inashima, staff member and resident bug expert at Sunset Nursery. “We’d crack them open like eggs and suck out the inside.”

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Valerian: sleep aid for humans, catnip for felines

ValerianThe Global Garden, our series on multicultural L.A. as seen through the lens of its landscapes, returns to the Fountain Avenue Community Garden this week, where Charlene Gawa has planted a soothing bit of botanical history called valerian.

The 10th century name stems from the Latin verb meaning "to heal." It was popular among ancient cultures from Europe to Asia; one variety was used by Native Americans, sometimes as a food. The root of Valerian is used as a relaxant and sleep aid, its popularity as an herbal medicine diminished with the rise of the synthetic Valium.

Although the flowers smell pleasant -- a cross between vanilla and cherry pie -- the feathery leaves and roots are odoriferous. Old socks is the most common descriptor. Cats adore it. If not planted away from felines, it will be reduced to a nubbin quickly. You can rub cat toys with the leaves or make a satchel to keep Tabby happy. Dogs and rats also like the smell.

Discourage digging by planting valerian firmly in the ground and mounding rocks around the base.  Originally a marsh plant, this perennial is a heavy feeder. It can take partial sun or shade, getting as tall as 5 feet. If harvesting the roots is your aim, clip off flowers to encourage growth below soil. Wash and clean the roots and then toast (don't burn) in a low-heat oven until they become brittle.

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Garden hoses often contain phthalates and lead, study says

DogwithgardenhoseGarden hoses and other popular gardening products often contain toxic chemicals, including phthalates, lead and bromine, according to a study released Thursday. The report from the nonprofit environmental research group HealthyStuff.org in Ann Arbor, Mich., found that 70% of the 179 garden products it tested contained chemicals of "high concern."

The study screened 90 garden hoses, 53 gloves, 13 kneeling pads and 23 garden tools purchased from popular retailers including Lowe's, Home Depot, Target and Wal-Mart. Of the garden hoses tested, 100% of PVC hoses contained phthalates --  a chemical used to soften plastics -- which critics say may be linked to birth defects and breast cancer.

Thirty percent of all the tested products contained more than 100 parts per million of lead in one or more component. The Consumer Product Safety Commission limits lead to 100 ppm in children’s products. The study said lead and phthalates in water hoses and gloves exceeded allowable levels that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has established for other products, and that the lead in brass fittings for garden hoses exceeded standards for brass fittings in residential water fixtures as set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

"Garden hoses are the product we're most concerned about," said Jeff Gearhart, research director for  HealthyStuff.org. Vinyl garden gloves also were of concern. Four pairs in the test contained phthalates.

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L.A. Arboretum to open sustainable garden for festival

L.A. Arboretum to open sustainable garden for festival.
Considering all the attention that backyard chicken coops and edible landscapes have gotten, homeowners have few public places to see these ideas in practice. The newly redesigned Garden for All Seasons, under construction this week and scheduled to open for this weekend's Grow! festival at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia, was conceived for just that purpose.

Arboretum-Japanese-plumThe Garden for All Seasons is a demonstration site for sustainable living practices. Visitors walk through a landscape dotted with fruit-producing trees from around the world, past a pond fed with rainwater collected on-site and through to a netted enclosure housing raised vegetable beds, a worm farm, compost bins and a chicken coop. (That's a Brazilian grape tree, top; Japanese plum tree, upper right; and flowering pomegranate tree, lower right.) Arboretum-pomengranate

“We wanted homeowners to feel they could adapt it and make it their own,” said Amy Korn, who designed the space with her partner, Matt Randolph, of the landscape architecture firm kornrandolph in Pasadena. Even a pond fed with water from a cistern is meant to be inspiration, she said. “Maybe it’s not this grand thing, but the idea that collection and circulation is something they can do as well.”

An 8-foot-wide concrete walkway shuttles water to paver stones, sand, a gravel trench and a system of underground pipes that collect and recirculate the water using pumps that are meant to eventually run off solar power. The pond is planted with edibles that serve a secondary purpose: keeping the water clean.

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The Global Garden: Yacon, Peruvian sweet root

To some gardeners, it's yacon. To others, Peruvian sweet root. Still others call it Peruvian ground appleTo some, it's yacon. To others, Peruvian sweet root. "My partner is from Peru," L.A. gardener Derbeh Vance said. “The yacon produces a root that looks like a sweet potato, and is like a jicama or a sweet potato."

Fresh yacon tastes like a cross between a melon and an apple, explaining why yet another common name is Peruvian ground apple. Originating in the Andes, yacon was used as roadside fast food for travelers between Incan cities, according to some historical accounts.

Vance grew one that reached more than 10 feet, sending out leaves that looked like sunflowers, a distant cousin. One day, after the flowers had started to fade, he noticed the ground underneath was swollen. He figured he had gophers.

"So I chopped it down and started digging," Vance said, "and I got 60 pounds from one plant."

Vance works at Project Angel Food and brought part of his unexpected harvest there, asking a chef to use his imagination. "It was so crispy and fresh and sweet that I worried they wouldn't hold up well to cooking," he said. "We had them mashed, toasted and broiled, and it turned out wonderfully. The baked were the best."

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At Coyote House, every day is an Earth Day

Coyote House night
Oh, how far we've come from Earth Days past — when the phrase “green home” conjured images of straw-bale structures, when solar panels seemed like such an earnest novelty, when “LEED certified” hadn't yet crept into public consciousness.

With Earth Day 2012 almost upon us, nearly 60,000 homes in the United States are in the process of being certified in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Education and Environmental Design program, according to Nate Kredich, the organization's vice president of residential market development. Need more convincing proof of just how far we've come? Take a peek at the new home of architect Ken Radtkey and landscape architect Susan Van Atta.

PHOTO GALLERY: 26-picture tour of Coyote House

INFOGRAPHIC: How the garden roofs, cisterns and other green elements work

The husband and wife's three-bedroom house nestled into a Montecito hillside is dubbed the Coyote House, partly after the name of the couple's street, partly after the howling critters in the area. Beyond its abundance of energy- and water-saving features, however, the house is notable for its utter normality: On the most basic level, it is simply a comfortable and beautiful family home.

Coyote House veranda“Designing sustainably was a given for us,” says Radtkey, founder of Blackbird Architects, a Santa Barbara firm with an emphasis on sustainable design. “But the most important goal was to make a great home.”

To that end, the house starts with a modern take on the veranda, right. A covered room overlooking the front garden has a sliding screen and front and back sets of glass pocket doors that can open to the outdoors or seal it off in various ways, depending on the season and weather.

A dozen highly flammable eucalyptus trees — by coincidence, cut down just months before the November 2008 Tea fire that swept through the region — were used to build the front door, kitchen table, bookcases, stairs and banister. Other materials used for interior appointments were sustainable too: Cabinets are bamboo, the floors are cork or salvaged stone, most of the walls unpainted plaster.

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Mud Baron, an evangelical force in school gardens

Mud Baron

It’s not easy to keep pace with the youth gardening evangelist Mud Baron — in the real world or the virtual one. To keep up, you need to relentlessly advocate for schoolyard gardens full of food and flowers. You need be a constant presence on Twitter. (He has more than 24,000 followers.) You need to schlep all over Southern California to collect seeds. And you need to be willing to make people mad, to push teenagers to get dirty and to nudge companies to make donations.

A bearded, baggy-pants wearing Unitarian, Baron might quote Cicero, Lou Reed, Jonathan Swift or Wynton Marsalis to make a point. But he’s also not above poop jokes born of the manure that feeds the gardens.

Essentially unemployed — or at least without a regular paycheck — he hustles at every opportunity. When he leaves a high school garden in Pasadena, he picks a plastic pail full of radishes as a gift for a café. Another day, after working in a garden in San Pedro, he brings a bartender a big bouquet that gets set in an ice bucket by the register.

Mud BaronBaron, rarely without his San Diego Padres cap on his head and his pruning shears in his pocket, is a rabble rousing master gardener with a floral arranger’s touch. Or, as he likes to say, he has tattoos of Martha Stewart and Cornel West on his behind. (We didn’t check, but his girlfriend says that’s not literally true.)

The idea is that no school garden should fail for lack of stuff — so he rustles up seeds, small seedlings called plugs, worm castings, compost, bulbs. Black plastic sheets discarded on a film set become liners for mulch. Last year, he says, he raised $5 million in in-kind donations.

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Fenugreek: homegrown greens, backyard spice rack

FenugreekIt’s easy to think of fenugreek as something you're more likely to find in a spice rack than in a garden, but with almost no effort, it's easy to keep in both places. Fenugreek originated in western Asia and southern Europe, where it was used as a medicine, food and forage crop. The seeds were eaten boiled, like lentils, and used as an ingredient in incense. (Seeds were found in King Tut’s burial chamber.)

Nowadays the seeds are used as a flavoring for soups and cheeses, among other things, and delivering a scent that's vaguely similar to maple syrup. In India, the Middle East and parts of East Africa, the leaves are used like spinach and added to sauces and vegetable dishes.

“You have to grow quite a bit,” said Rishi Kumar, who runs the Growing Home urban farm in Diamond Bar. “But the good thing is that it grows very quickly. We trim the tops, and you need a massive amount of it because it cooks down a lot." The most popular dish, Kumar said, is leaves with finely chopped potatoes fried in clarified butter. "That's it. It has such a strong flavor you don't need to add any other spices."

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What to plant: Five edible picks from Lauri Kranz

Lauri Kranz gardeningLauri Kranz, who has built a following as an edible gardening consultant in the Hollywood Hills, shares her five favorite picks of the moment: Dragon's tongue beans, Ananas Noire tomatoes, cucumbers, butternut squash and country gentleman corn. Keep reading for why she likes these crops, and where she goes to get seeds and seedlings.

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