“Pruning is an art,” says Florence Nishida, the founder of LA Green Grounds.
And a daunting one at that.
Fruit trees are pruned in their dormant stage, and several needed winter pruning at the garden, including the fig, stone fruit and pomegranate trees. So, with attention to Covid-19 social distancing, three people gathered with Florence to do some pruning.
Pruning is done to keep a tree at a particular size, to keep the tree healthy and to ensure bountiful fruit. And that’s just the start. Particular branches should be cut – as Florence noted, the three Ds: dead, deranged and diseased branches. And the cuts need to be made in particular ways. For instance, cuts should be made cleanly, just above a node of new growth.
It’s important to learn from someone who knows how to prune, or to hire an experienced person. If you want to learn more, we recommend taking a look at a book called, reasonably enough, How to Prune Fruit Trees, by R. Sanford Martin. It’s a small book, originally published in 1944, and covers dozens of varieties.
LA Green Grounds is blooming as the new year begins. Everywhere you look there are flowers, frequently with bees or hummingbirds feasting on them. The white and purple fava flowers that soon will yield delicious beans, the marigolds that were planted into the garden after the holiday of Dia de los Meurtos, the vibrant pigeon pea bushes and so many more. Come by, take a look, but of course wear a mask and make sure there are not many people around.
The summer squash plants at LA Green Grounds spread on the ground, with a couple of zucchinis growing unnoticed till they were nearly the size of a hefty baguette. So it's understandable that the long green fruit on a nearby vine seemed like just another sort of squash.
Ah, but it wasn't. We've produced our first luffah (or loofah), and on the vine they look quite a bit like summer squash. But it’s another story once harvested.
"It was a lot of fun, peeling back the skin and voila, there was a sponge!" said Florence Nishida, the garden founder.
Luffah is in the gourd family, and can be eaten if cut when it’s young and abut 6 inches long. But leave the fruit to mature, which can mean two feet long, and you’ve got a bathtub accessory. It’s a scruffy sponge, often used to exfoliate the skin. Make sure to rinse it and dry it out after use to keep it free of bacteria.
Let the luffah dry out in the sun before using it. You can save the seeds for next season.
- Contributed by LAGG Garden Keeper Mary M.
I'm not sure why the usually dark-red-skinned Japanese sweet potato that we planted in the LAGG Teaching Garden grew to be light-colored potatoes, but their taste was great! It is also known as satsumaimo.
I finally baked mine last night.
We pulled them about three weeks ago.
Remember: sweet potatoes should be allowed to cure for at least two weeks after harvested. Don't wash the skin or scrub it hard to remove soil. The skin is very tender for a few weeks. To keep them in storage to cure without drying out, wrap each in two layers of newspaper, or a paper bag might work.
When ready, wash the skin well. Scrub lightly.
Bake in oven at 350 degrees until you can smell it cooking. Depending on the size and thickness, this is about 30 to 45 minutes. Squeeze it (through a pot holder, or use a fork) and remove from the oven when tender. Try not to over cook.
To serve, slice in half and add a bit of butter and eat hot. Delicious.
- Florence Nishida/Master Gardener & LAGG Founder
These hearty plants, with their delicate flowers, are popping up all over LA Green Grounds, in the beds set aside for plants, in the paths, around the compost. They are fava bean plants, and they do much more than produce beans.
Favas, also called broad beans, come in many colors and are delicious when cooked, but many people plant them as a cover crop because they are good at fixing nitrogen in the soil. Cover crops are used to protect and improve the soil – a great, inexpensive alternative to fertilizers.
When Florence Nishida began LA Green Grounds, the soil was "packed down, never cultivated before, and who knows whatever spilled or was used there," she said. "Our garden didn’t even have weeds growing – oh, a couple of bindweed."
She decided the garden needed plants that would add nutrients, would penetrate the ground with their roots and would provide food.
But before planting the favas, she and other volunteers used shovels and pick-axes to open the cement-hard ground, she said. They added city-made compost, about 6 inches thick, and mulch. On that, Nishida scattered beans in January 2016.
"It was surprising how many germinated," she said. "That spring, we had a pretty good crop of fava beans, scattered throughout the garden."
The beans – along with California poppies – were dropped without regard to what was a bed or what was a path.
Growers don’t always wait for their cover crops to produce food; often, they cut the plants down before that so they can plant other things. But at LA Green Grounds, the favas were left growing until they went to seed.
"After that year, we had an abundant fava bean crop - so much that it was nearly a fava bean jungle" each of the next three or four years, Nishida said. In 2019, gardeners cut many of them down to make way for other things. Nishida said her philosophy is to let them grow unless the space is needed.
Once the plant produces its seed pods, the nitrogen is being used by the plant, rather than collecting in the roots. But if the plants are pruned, as they are now, the cut pieces can be chopped for compost or used as mulch.
"Anyway, it's like the welcome guest who came for dinner and never left," she said.
The black and white flowers on the plant, if left, will mature into thick pods. The beans are flat seeds found in the pods.
If you are intrigued, fava is a cool-weather crop that can be planted in fall for spring harvest, and at home you don’t need to spread them everywhere.
The pods are edible when young, and one year, volunteer Beth Goldfarb roasted them for the garden volunteers.
It’s more common to eat the beans. They’re a bit labor intensive to prepare because once you’ve shelled them, there’s another skin on each bean to remove. In spring, they’re delicious with spring onions and mint. They can be sauteed or pureed as a dip. They star in the traditional Egyptian dish called ful. Here’s one of many ways to prepare it.
- LAGG Garden Keeper Mary M.
LA Green Grounds found a couple of ways to celebrate the end of a year that made us feel unmoored at best. We considered authorities’ advice to remain at a distance. And we tried to look ahead, with a wishing tree and seeds.
In a red, decorated box at the garden, there are seeds for the taking if you would like to plant fava beans, which are delicious and great for fixing nitrogen in the soil, or if you would like a pigeon pea bush that provides beautiful flowers as well as food.
And in a less concrete but deeply felt way, we are looking toward 2021 with a wishing tree, or in our case it’s a bush. Florence and volunteer Ruth set it up at the eastern edge of the garden, with small slips of paper hanging from branches. Each one carries someone’s wish.
If you want to hang a wish but find the supply of paper out, just use what you have. And then tie it on to one of the twiggy branches of the Mulefat shrub (Baccheris salicifolia). That's the graceful, tall shrub at the curve of Carmona Avenue and Boden Street.
I left my wish last week, but I’d happily endorse the others I read, too. One asked for “less divisiveness and more kindness in the world.” Another: “peace in your thoughts, strength in your words, joy in your heart.”
When it’s time for the paper to come down from the bush, it will go into our compost pile.
Like the wishing tree idea? Check out the one at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge, which has more than 10,000 wishes on it.
There's more to eat than seeds from some of those tall yellow sunflowers you may have seen at LA green Grounds over the summer.
After the flowers bloom, when the stem is dry and looks ready for the compost pile, a gentle pull will yield a bunch of sunchokes -- a delicious vegetable rarely seen even at farmers' markets.
Obviously a root vegetable, sunchokes also are called Jerusalem artichokes and earth apples. They are native to central North America and were widely grown for food before the arrival of Europeans.
Sunchokes are distantly related to artichokes. But it's distant, and there's no connection to the city of Jerusalem. But Los Angeles has a role in the sunchoke name: Frieda Caplan, an L.A. produce wholesaler, invented it in the 1960s when she was trying to revive the plant's appeal.
Two reasons come to mind when wondering why sunchokes are not more popular. They're rather ugly and misshapen. And they are rather expert at producing gas.
But they are so delicious, with a delicate, sweet flavor a little reminiscent of potatoes. And they could not be easier to cook.