The Tale of the Tomatillo
The Islas Marias are an archipelago in the Pacific some 60 miles offshore of Nayarit that have served as a Mexican Federal Prison Colony. I’ve never been there, but when we pick tomatillos I’m prompted to think back on Tia Maria “Pistolitas,” because her husband served a life sentence there, having been convicted of growing opium poppies and making black tar heroin back in Jalisco. “Pistolitas” means “little pistols,” and I’m not quite clear on how Maria first earned her name, but I remember her as somewhat of a firecracker by nature; a curandera, or natural healer, a defiant and outspoken lesbian grandma, a farmworker, as well as being a part time “coyote” who brought people across the border deserts ahead of every strawberry season. She was Ramiro’s auntie, or “Tia,” and I lived with Ramiro Campos and his family here for a couple of years back in the early ’90s. Besides Ramiro and his wife, Amparo, and their two children, I shared the house with his big sister, Maria. Ramiro’s uncle Raul and his wife, Maria, were frequent visitors to the ranch, as was Maria Pistolitas, his Tia from the other side of his family. Having one Maria go by the moniker “Pistolitas,” was helpful in keeping all the Marias sorted out.
Ramiro, Raul, Amparo, Maria, Maria, and I, were all sitting around the fire one evening in the yard, warming tortillas on a grill and sharing some beer and tacos. It was summer, so we had plenty of tomatoes, cebolla de rabo verde, or green-tailed onions, jalapeño peppers, and tomatillos. The women were making salsa by grilling the tomatillos, chilis and green onions over an open fire until they were slightly charred and softened by the heat, and then they’d mash it all together with a squeeze of lemon in their stone “molcajete” or mortar, using a stone “mano,” or pestle. With a lemon and limes hanging from the fruit trees growing not more that 20 yards from the fire, the smell of grilling jalapeños in the air, a handful of goats scandalizing just beyond the fence and peering through the woven wire fence at us, and with the Ranchero music playing low on the radio it was a very Mexican scene and a very pleasant evening. Ramiro was moved to philosophize: “You know, Andres,” he said. “This is really a paradise. We’re at the end of the road and the gate is closed, so we have all the privacy a person could want. With squash and garbanzo and corn and cilantro and chilis and corn growing in the garden, we’ve got almost everything we want.”
“What’s missing,” I asked?
“Tomatillo de Milpa,” Ramiro answered.
“These tomatillos are fine,” he said, gesturing to the big green tomatillos that were sizzling and popping on the grill. He and I both worked on Riverside Farms back then, and he’d brought the big, green tomatillos home from work where we had a big patch of them to harvest for our farmers market customers.
“But back home on our ranch in La Barca we’ve got the wild tomatillos growing all over the place. You don’t have to plant them, or water them, or anything; just send the kids out to pick them when they’re ready. They’re small, but they have less juice so they keep better, and the flavor is great, and they grill up well. The salsa is “mas autentica” con tomatillo de milpa.”
“Luckily,” he continued, “Mi Tia Pistolitas is coming up from La Barca next week to visit, and I’ve asked her to bring me a handful from the ranch so we can plant them here.”
That was thirty years ago. Maria Pistolitas came to visit and she brought up a small paper bag with a handful of small, half-purple tomatillos de milpa for Ramiro to plant. The “milperos,” as they’re called, did great. Amparo and Maria harvested some of them, and the squirrels and crows and mice harvested some of them. Milperos don’t need a gardener’s attention to thrive; they just do their thing, and now we have milperos growing everywhere on the farm, whether we want them or not. I have a milpa, or corn patch, and of course the milperos have popped up there. But they’re also growing in the zinnias, they’re growing among the roses and lemons and cacti, and they’re even showing up in the old water troughs I’ve filled with soil and planted out in Hoja Santa.
But the tomatillos in this week’s harvest share box are the milpero’s larger, domesticated cousins called “Toma Verde.” Toma Verde tomatillos are fine, and they are the backbone of the green salsa industry. They pick quick and cook quickly. The variety is reliably disease free and pest resistant for the most part, and the variety is familiar to most consumers. We will have the tomatillo de milpa later in the season when the plants are heavily loaded with their tiny fruits and all we have to do to “pick” them is pull up the plants and shake them.
And what happened to Ramiro? He and Amparo saved up their money when they lived with me and bought a house in San Juan Bautista. When the housing market was going through a periodic peak they sold their California home, moved back to Jalisco and bought a goat ranch. Ramiro started a small goat dairy. It’s a success story of sorts, but it’s not a simple “happily ever after” fairy tale because there are problems with armed gangs there that never was an issue in the past, and cartel violence casts a worry over everything. The last time I spoke with Ramiro he had taken to sleeping in his barn loft with an assault rifle, ready to fend off the rustlers who would steal his quality dairy goats to slaughter and sell for meat on the black market. I wish Ramiro and his family the success they’ve worked so hard to achieve. The Campos family is gone from here, but hardly forgotten, since their tomatillos de milpa have made themselves at home here.
© 2022 Essay and photos by Andy Griffin
Just Around the Corner
Broadly speaking, there are two principal categories of tomatoes; “determinate,” and “indeterminate.” Once a determinate tomato plant has matured, it sets all the flowers it’s ever going to have in one big flush. A pollinated tomato flower is just an impregnated embryo dressed up in a skirt of petals. So, just as a determinate tomato sets all of its flowers at one time, it follows that the fully developed fruits all mature at once. I don’t have anything against determinate tomatoes, but I don’t grow them. Determinate varieties of tomato are best suited for large scale farming operations that mechanically harvest their crops. The machines that harvest the tomatoes make one pass through the field, mowing down the plants and shaking the fruits from the vines and they leave a tangled mess of thrashed vines in their wake. Machine harvesting is cheaper than picking the crop by hand, but if a farmer wants to have a series of harvests of determinate tomatoes they need to plant a series of successive crops. Mechanized harvests of determinate tomatoes make the most sense for farms that are big enough to afford the machines and have enough space for a series of plantings. Determinate tomato breeds find their highest purpose in producing the tons and tons of fruit that are needed for processed tomato production. Most tomato juice, tomato sauce, and canned tomatoes that are commercially available come from determinate varieties. The clockwork precision with which these modern, determinate tomato varieties mature on a schedule allows canneries to operate with production contracts that guarantee a steady flow of raw, cheap product into their factories. My farm is tiny and I serve a local community of home cooks who are doing their own canning, so determinate varieties are not relevant to our needs.
We grow indeterminate varieties of tomato. We are picking by hand and we have a small crew doing all the work so it makes sense for us to grow varieties of tomatoes that live for a long season and yield a modest crop of fruit week after week. That said, we usually make two or three separate plantings of each variety of tomato over a period of eight weeks so that we can be more assured of a steady harvest. And planting several sets of indeterminate tomatoes helps us guarantee that we will have a crop to sell, even if we suffer some problem in the field, like a destructive heat wave, a devastating fungal blight, a plague of pest insects, or an unseasonal heavy rain. At one time or another in the past we have suffered each of these environmental dramas. Luckily, this year, so far at any rate, the slot machine we call a tomato farm has been coming up cherries. In fact, since cherry tomatoes are small and they ripen fast compared to their larger cousins, they’re always our first tomato. Our early crop of cherry toms is kicking in now, and we’ll have two more plantings to pick after this first planting is slowing down. If we lived in the tropics where it never frosts, these cherry tomato plants would likely live for several years. Up here on the 38th parallel the cold weather of late fall will eventually kill them but, with any luck, we’ll have cherry tomatoes all the way to Halloween, and in an exceptional year we may even have a few baskets for Thanksgiving.
One of our main crops of larger tomatoes are the Early Girl tomatoes, which we grow without using any irrigation- a practice called “dry-farming.” When you “dry farm” a crop, you plant it early in the season while the soil still has a lot of moisture near the surface. As the air temperatures rise and subsoil water level recedes, the tomato plants send their roots deeper and deeper into the soil as they chase the water down. Deeper soil typically has less humus in it and more minerality. Flavor in fruit and color in flowers doesn’t come from the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus that promote vegetative growth so much as from the trace elements of various minerals available in the soil. Any wine grower can wax eloquent about “terroir,” but what they’re really talking about is flavor as an expression of local minerality. Fruit from the same breed of plant grown in different terrain will taste different due to the different spectrum of trace elements that the plants take up, as well as the consequence of varying local climatic conditions. Sicily has won wide fame around the world for the flavor of its tomatoes, and while Latin pride may account for a certain amount of bragging, there’s no doubt that the volcanic ash from Mt Etna has blessed Sicily with an amazing profile of minerals and trace elements that enrich the soil. We can’t compete with Sicily because we have no Etna nearby, but we are at almost the same latitude as Ragusa, Sicily, we enjoy a Mediterranean climate that is similar to theirs. When we dry farm our tomatoes we get their roots down past our super rich topsoil and into the mineral zone. Early Girls come “early,” and we’ll make our first pass through the field on Monday, but it will likely be a few more weeks until we see our first meaningful harvests.
Another crop that we dry farm are the Piennolo tomatoes. You may have seen Piennolo tomatoes in magazine articles about the food traditions of Italy. There is the custom of pulling the green Piennolo plants up by the roots at the end of the season when the cold weather approaches and hanging the vines from the ceilings of Italian kitchens and the green fruits will supposedly ripen within the reach of the cook’s outstretched arms during the winter. We got our seed from my friend, Annabelle, who manages Star Route Farm in Bolinas. As near as I can tell, this variety is very similar to the Principe Borghese tomato that we have grown in the past. Besides being useful as a fresh ingredient, Piennolo tomatoes are also much esteemed as the best crop for sun dried tomatoes. Being as we dry farm our Piennolo tomatoes, the fruits don’t have excessive moisture to begin with, and we plan on drying a quantity of ours and packing them in the local Belle Farms olive oil. We will have some dried Piennolo for sale late this fall, but we will have plenty to sell fresh too in case you want to dry or can your own. The crop looks great so far, but they are never “early,” and I imagine we’ll see our first good harvests by the beginning of August.
Our crop of San Marzano tomatoes are doing fine too. (Photo at top of unripe green San Marzanos). San Marzanos are much appreciated by consumers because their dense, sweet flesh makes for a wonderful sauce. You don’t see San Marzanos so often in major retail settings here because the “sauce niche” is typically covered by cheap, mass produced determinate varieties, but the San Marzano is an iconic Italian variety and you can see it’s distinctive, long, bullet shaped image on the labels of a million cans of imported tomato sauce. It could be that many US growers steer away from raising San Marzanos because the vines can be subject to various diseases. Since we’ve lost a crop or two over the years we take care to plant several sets of San Marzano each year in case we lose one. It’s so far, so good for our San Marzano crop this season, and I expect the first harvests by late July or early August. The heaviest harvests will fall through September and early October, but the first harvests are just around the corner, so buy your jars and make your plans now.
Our heirloom tomatoes are about to start too. The Cherokee Purples are always the earliest color to present itself in the spectrum, and we harvested half a dozen boxes last week, which is a good first pass. The Pink Brandywines, Yellow Brandywines, and Marvel Striped tomatoes will follow. We have lots of fresh basil planted, so Caprese salad is just around the corner too. We had a trial run on a Caprese salad in our own kitchen last night and enjoyed it with a bottle of wine from our neighbors at El Vaquero winery. They’ve opened up a tasting room with live music and trivia nights just around the corner from our home farm in Corralitos- and next to our friends at Alladin Nursery who are letting us set up our “honor stall flower stand” in front of their store. Thanks, Gustavo and Alladin staff. Starr has been making herb salt in advance of the harvest so that when the fresh crop comes we have some to sell. Herbed salt brings out a delightful taste in the tomatoes. She also has been preparing a wide range of dried herbs for all the canners out there, like oregano, thyme and marjoram. Get ready now while we have lots in stock. And stay tuned for an upcoming Tomato Palooza in an area near you. We’re also planning a U-Pick event at our home ranch this fall for our dry-farmed Piennolo tomatoes. Keep an eye on the newsletters for updates.
Thanks, Andy and the Crew at Mariquita
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin and Starling Linden
Where Has All the Water Gone
Water witching works like a charm. Or not. Some people call the ancient practice “dowsing.” Others call it “magic.” It works like this; cut a young, but firm, forked branch from a tree- preferably a willow if you’re dowsing for water- and trim it so that it is shaped like a “Y” with each arm or leg about 12 to 18 inches long. Grasp your forked branch with both hands, palms up, each hand holding on to one of the outstretched arms of the Y, and with the leg of the Y pointing out in front of your body like the bowsprit of a sailing ship. Keep your willow “bowsprit” level in front of you as you walk around the area in which you are searching for water. If you are sensitive — and if there is a hidden water deposit below — the witching wand will dip down to point to the underground water source as you pass over.
Archeologists will tell you that people have been divining the presence of water in this way for thousands of years. There are images that depict these dowsers at work carved in the walls of Egyptian tombs and scratched down in antique Chinese etchings. Some people even swear by dowsing as a way to find other hidden resources, like underground veins of gold or lost cell phones. But other people think that dowsers are frauds, or worse. Over the years I’ve asked a number of professional well diggers what they think.
Jack Edsberg dug my newer well twenty five years ago. He was one of four different well diggers I sought bids from, and it was interesting to see how little they varied in what they all said to me. I’ll quote (or paraphrase) Jack and let him speak for all the well diggers I’ve met, because they seemed to speak like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. In fact, the only difference between what any of them said was the price they asked for their services. In the end, I went with Jack Edsberg, not because he was the cheapest, but because he’d also been a local farmer for many years, and I got along well with him.
“Andy,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if dowsing works or not. If you want an electric pump you’re going to have to dig the well near an existing power drop, because lawyers, guns, and money aren’t enough to get PG&E to extend a new line these days. You’d need lots of time for them to get that done, so if you want water in this life you’ll dig next to an existing power pole. And since the county has a mandatory setback of 25 feet from any property line for any new well, and since this pole is the end of the line for PG&E, you’re going to want to dig here.” And he pointed to the same spot, 30 feet from our property line, 20 feet from the power line, and 10 feet from my house that every other well digger had pointed to. “Also,” he said, “I charge by the foot, whether or not I hit water.”
Well diggers are careful not to promise that they will find water for you. But they’ll usually offer an informed opinion on what they think is going on under the ground. Here too, I found that the well diggers spoke in unison. “We’re going to get some water within the first 50 feet,” Jack said, “but we’re going to drill right past it. It’s just surface water, and we’re aiming for a bigger aquifer that’s around 160 feet down. It’ll have better water and more of it. It’s an aquifer that’s flowing down from the Sierras.” Our house is at about 38 feet elevation and we’re about three miles from the coastline, as the seagull flies, so I’d imagine any water flowing past under our house will seep into the ocean at about 140 feet under the waves. It was surprising- and sobering- to find out our water comes from the Sierra. When you think about it, my farm is pretty close to the end of the line for this underground river, and there are LOTS of pumps “upstream” between our fields and the Sierra snowpack.
Jack did hit a modest flow of water through a vein of gravel about 25 feet below the surface and then the drill bit into a deep and dense layer of clay. He poured a plug of concrete around the well shaft to keep any of the surface water from draining down into any deeper aquifer. At around 160 feet below the surface he hit the first trace of the water he was looking for and he stopped drilling at 250ft. With the pump installed I was drawing twenty gallons a minute from 160 feet, with a 70 foot column of water below. Everything went just as every well digger had projected. They get around, and an old well digger, like Jack, has been to many, many wells over the landscape and over the years as they do their work digging or repairing wells, and they keep notes. Sometimes talking to them can be eye-opening.
During the last drought I had an emergency with my newer well, and I feared I’d run out of water. Jack had passed away, but the well digger that took my call could have been his brother. “It’s a pump problem,” he told me after some preliminary tests. “You’re looking good water-wise with about 10 gallons a minute, pumping from 180 feet down.”
That didn’t sound so good to me since we’d been pumping twice as much per minute from 20 feet higher twenty years before. So our water table had dropped considerably. I was telling the well service guy all about my worries, but he put a hand up and told me to relax.
“I just came from a job off of San Miguel Canyon, where it comes into the Valley by the railroad, and the fellow there said his pump had burned out. The pump was fine but his well was dry- and they were pumping from 750 feet.”
That was alarming news. I have farmed out in that neighborhood, and that area used to be a wetlands, crawling with crawdads, frogs, and turtles. It’s my understanding that those wetlands were drained for farming by the Slavic immigrants who came into the Watsonville area in the late 1800s from the Adriatic. The flooded land was cheap because the Gringos didn’t want it for their cattle pasture and it didn’t have redwoods for logging, so the Slavs bought it, drained it, and were rewarded with some of the richest farmland you can imagine. You still see the Slavic names all over town; Scuritch, Marinovitch, Matulich, Pavitch, etc. Their ancestors laughingly call themselves the “Sons of Vitches”, and quite a few of them are still farming.
In 1990 I was farming out in that neighborhood and our farming neighbor across the road was a very successful conventional grower named Bukonovitch. His label was “Boogie Woogie,” and his cartons had the outline of a saxophone printed on the sides. But “Boogie,” as he was known, lost all his jazz cool when he found out that we were growing vegetables organically right across the road from him. “You can’t do that,” he hollered at us, all red-faced and agitated. He was worried that we’d “infect” his crops with all the pests we were breeding and harboring. Boogie thought that organic growing couldn’t be done and we were dirtbag hippies for even trying. There was no reasoning with him. “But we’re doing it!” we replied. Nowadays organic farming is widespread across the Pajaro Valley. But clearly water supply is a looming problem, even if the crisis is underground and out of sight.
It would be good if everybody learned more about the security and stability of their own water supply. Now that I know my water table has dropped by a foot a year I’m certainly more aware of water and how much I’m using. We are not going to have enough water in the future for everybody in California to do what they like, so controls are inevitable and hard policy choices will have to be made. Does it make sense to use the state’s scarce water resources to irrigate alfalfa for an overseas market? Or, why should we, the public, watch as the water table in the Central Valley is drained to grow almonds for export by a few large landowners, when that water might be more equitably shared among numerous interests, including communities and wildlife? Or, have we ever looked honestly at what the impact is on our environment of turning so much “water into wine.” In a future newsletter I’ll tell you a counterintuitive and happy story about our older well.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photo by Starling Linden
A Hollywood Drama
If a prominent plant family were ever to be cast for one of Hollywood’s full-on “franchise treatments,” with a series, some movies, then spin-offs, with prequels and sequels and endless branding and merchandising opportunities, then certainly the Mints deserve consideration; consider the family’s sweeping cast of characters with their aromatic flair and drama:
The mint family is now properly known as the “Lamiacea,” and there are over 230 different genera within it. The family was once called the “Labiatea” until the taxonomists changed everything around to make botany fun and challenging. Think of the present day English royal family, which used to be the “House of Saxe Coburg and Gotha” until the First World War made a German surname unpalatable to the English Monarch, so he changed the family name to “House of Windsor,” renaming his dynasty after their principle castle of Windsor. The mint family- or Lamiacea– even have royalty in their blood. “Basil” even means “regal,” and basil is in the mint family, and they are worth a miniseries all on their own.
Basils are richly scented with evocative, spicy perfumes. They are reputed to be good in the kitchen and in bed. One of them, Tulsi, is even a Goddess. There are many branches in the mint family, but a common thread that almost all the distant cousins share is that they are fragrant. When I was reading up on the mint family I was surprised to even find that the teak trees are mints! I wonder what their foliage smells like? Then I remembered that when I helped a friend with his basil farm down in Todos Santos, we had a Genovese basil plant at the edge of the field that escaped getting turned under by the disk at the end of the season. When next spring came that plant had grown a trunk as thick as my arm and was as tall as I was. And I read that wood of Tulsi basil is carved into prayer beads.
Then there are the so-called “mints,” themselves, those aromatic herbs that have lent their common name to the family Lamiaceae. There’s Peppermint to clean up your breath, while Pennyroyal mint is known for being a folk abortifacient. Spearmint takes you to the horse races for a proper mint julep and Applemint tea soothes your jagged nerves. Mints come from all over the world and influence all the cuisines that they touch. The Mints could carry a travel-the-world cooking show all by themselves. From Vietnam to North Africa to England mint just keeps popping up on menus in fancy drinks and herbal tisanes, in stews and salads, and in rubs, jellies, and marinades.
Lavenders are mints too. Like their cousins, they’re fragrant. And, as with other mints, their stems are square. Lavender plays a “walk-on role” on the dessert menu, and it shows up in fancy cocktails and in candies, but it’s a full-on megastar in the perfume business. And it’s one of those rare plants whose name is synonymous with a color and an attitude; remember the Lavender Panthers?
People aren’t the only creatures that appreciate mint. There are mints for cats, like catnip, catmint, and cat thyme. And there are mints to attract bees, like Bee Balm, and mints to repel fleas, like Rosemary. Sages are mints, and many of them are extremely attractive to birds. Pineapple sage leaves makes a nice calming, herbal tisane for a human but the Hummingbirds come to the plants to tank up on sugary nectar from the plant’s long red flowers and they get a sweet rush that gets their tiny hearts pumping up to 1,260 beats per minute. Culinary sage is revered as an herb for roasting game birds, but it’s also synonymous with wisdom, and a “sage” is a wise man.
There’s also a sage called Salvia divinorum, the “Diviner’s sage,” that can bring on hallucinations and other altered states of consciousness. The New Riders Of The Purple Sage were a drugged up country rock band back in the 70s in the Bay Area, whose songbook emphasized mescalito and marijuana but, oddly, not the psychedelic Diviners’ sage. Their band name alluded to the dime store western novel “Riders of Purple Sage,” by Zane Gray. Ironically, the Great Basin desert’s sagebrush that Zane Grey romantically infused with his purple prose is not a true sage, or even a mint family member, but actually belongs to the Artemisia clan. But what family drama would be complete without some interloper trying to seize the family’s inheritance?
Oreganos and marjorams are mints that typically enjoy sunnier, drier, and more well-drained conditions. We speak of “Italian oregano,” “Greek oregano,” and “Sweet Marjoram,” and “Za’atar,” or “Syrian marjoram,” but, as so often in life, once we leave the precise, library-like confines of taxonomy behind and go out into the field, we encounter a more confusing family dynamic. The oreganos and marjorams grow wild, as well as in the garden, and they interbreed willingly. They’ve been carried by gardeners and traded around the world to the point where precise origins and genetic makeup of any particular plant are blurred with time. It’s probably more correct to think of the different types of oregano/marjoram as being “points along a spectrum,” or salient characters from a hybrid swarm. There’s drama there, but if herb makes your red sauce piquant, it’s all good.
Thyme to end…Thymes are mints too. We’ve got “regular” thyme in our gardens, and Lemon thyme, Silver thyme, creeping thyme, and Lime thyme. In fact, many of the mint family members grow well here, and Starr has been drying many of them for use in the kitchen, bath, flower or in the teacup.
Throughout the season we can offer:
English and French Lavender wands, loose Lavender florets, and Lavender bath salts
Za’atar, or Syrian Marjoram
and Plenty of Thyme
Plus we’ve got garden Sage planted and on its way, and of course we have Lemon Balm and Lemon Thyme to keep our Lemon trees company. And we even have Lemon Verbena, which isn’t (at this moment) technically a mint, but there are taxonomists who would like to put it in the Lamiaceae. If anybody can make taxonomy sexy, spicy, comforting, or hallucinatory, it would be the mint family.
Everyone take your places…Ready…Camera…Action!
Andy & the crew at Mariquita Farm.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin & Starling Linden
When I think about the desirability and feasibility of a farm saving its own seed, my mind turns from considering the actual mechanics of how to go about maintaining and reproducing healthy seed stock to reflecting on the high cost of rent. A look back at the business practices of The Beatles is illuminating, as well. Yeah, yeah, yeah! So here’s my perspective:
The first thing to bear in mind is that a seed crop inevitably takes a lot more time to realize its potential than would the harvest of the same plant grown for the consumer. Take lettuce, for example; if a romaine lettuce seed can sprout and grow into a plant that is the ideal size for harvest in 60 days, then the same plant grown for a seed crop would still have to grow until it is mature enough to flower. After flowering, the seed grower still has to wait for the pollinated lettuce flowers to set seed and then dry down to the point that the seeds can be easily threshed and collected. By now, you’re talking about almost a year of time invested by the farmer in a seed crop of lettuce. Crops other than lettuce might take even longer to produce. Celery can grow a whole year before it bothers to send up a seed stalk, and the celery plant might only produce the mature seed after 18 months. The time that a seed crop takes to produce is a very important consideration because “time is money” and, if you’re renting the space you’re growing on, then rent exercises a constant force of gravity on your decision making process.
I’m farming within several miles of the ocean near Santa Cruz, with one rented parcel and one field I own. The landowners are not managing most of the farmland around here. Maybe the owners’ grandparents were farmers, or their great-grandparents, but the present day owners are often/usually the descendants of the historical farmers and they are the beneficiaries of family trusts that rent the land to the contemporary farmers. The Monterey Bay Area is a very pleasant place to live so there’s constant market pressure on landowners to develop rural land into housing. If you see a large tract of ground being farmed around here anymore you can assume that it is such good farmland that it is worth keeping in agriculture. Out along San Andreas Road, for example, within sight and sound of the waves breaking on Sunset beach, the farmland will rent for at least $2,500/acre per year, and in some cases even more than that. That land is great for strawberry production. If you’re a landowner with a 40 acre parcel there you’d be a fool to be a farmer. Forty acres rented for strawberry production yields $100,000 to the landlord with payments due on the first day of the year. You’d be super lucky to realize that kind of income actually growing crops on that ground, and you’d be subject to every vulnerability and liability that every grower faces. There are hardly any crops other than strawberries that can hope to cover the upfront costs of such expensive land and seed crops definitely don’t “pencil out.”
Further up the Pajaro Valley, away from the ocean, where the conditions for strawberries are not quite so perfect, the price per acre may fall to $2000/acre by Murphy’s Crossing Road or even to $1800/acre out by the county line. By the time you get to Hollister, where the land is not cool enough for strawberries, land rents may only total $700 or $800/acre, which is cheap enough to allow production of cheaper crops, than strawberries, like summer squash, broccoli, sweet corn, or peppers, but the land is still not cheap enough to make the costs of managing the land for most seed crops. There actually are a number of seed companies located in the Hollister/Gilroy area, but they are mostly focused on the breeding and development work for new crop varieties. Not only is the Hollister/Gilroy area a great environment for growing a wide range of floral and edible crops, the neighborhood is also a pleasant (if expensive) place for the seed scientists to live and do their work. But once a target crop has been “improved” under “laboratory conditions” by the plant scientists, then the actual bulk seed production is farmed out to a grower in some other part of the world. Seed companies look for places where the climate and environmental conditions are acceptable, but the cost of land is low and the cost of labor is cheaper than dirt. Here’s where the Fab Four are worth remembering.
When The Beatles were starting out as teenagers they got their chops down by playing all night long in the strip clubs along the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany. They played loud and they played covers of other artists’ music, emulating their heroes, like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, or the Isley Brothers. But by the time they were recording their third album, A Hard Day’s Night, they’d learned that they’d make the most money if they composed and performed their own songs. Critics could listen to their music and hear echoes of all the influences that they’d absorbed. “Cultural appropriation” you could say, if you listen to “Back in The USSR,” for example, and hear Chuck Berry. But unlike some of their contemporaries who signed their names to other people’s work, the Beatles themselves were always clear about their admiration of the musicians that inspired them and keen to give credit where credit was due. If you want to look at glaring examples of “Cultural appropriation” look at the behavior of the big seed companies.
Seeds, like songs, used to be passed from one generation to the next. Who wrote “Shady Grove” and when did they do it? Who saved the first Scarlet Runner bean seed from a wild plant to sow in their garden? With music, the folk tradition guarded and honored the roots of the music even as successive generations of artists reinterpreted the melodies and themes of the songs they’d grown up with. With agriculture, the different varieties of crop plants were selected for over generations by tribal people you’ll never hear of, and women probably did most of the work. When a seed company takes a traditional, open pollinated crop like corn, which was nurtured out of wild nature by the indigenous people in the mountains of Central America, and they “improve” it, they can get a patent for their creation and start earning money. They don’t have to share any of the profits of their work with the people who did 99% of the historical work of selecting from the raw materials of nature. Just as the Beatles chose to focus on recording their own songs, however derivative they may have been of other artists’ music, the seed companies can choose to focus on producing and selling the “improved ” varieties of trusted, traditional crops that they hold patent rights on. The more successful seed companies buy out the less successful ones that were selling traditional, un-patented seed and close them down to gain more control of the market, or they may keep the brands alive but replace the open pollinated seeds with their proprietary varieties. And the price of seed to the grower goes UP, UP, UP!
Yes, because seeds are like songs, a grower can make their own music and produce their own seed. If a seed variety gets expensive enough, maybe it even becomes worthwhile to produce it on rented land in the first world. But besides rent costs, there are also other management issues that complicate seed saving. With some crops that are pollinated by the wind, like corn, it can be hard to find a spot that is isolated enough so that the seed crop is not negatively affected by being cross pollinated by another crop. With crops that insects or bats pollinate there can be isolation problems too, but they can be managed by tenting the mother plants with a system of screens. All in all, saving seed can be fun and interesting, but it can be a distracting hassle if the income of the farm is primarily derived from the sales of food crops. At Mariquita Farm I can’t really afford to save much of my own seed for the reasons outlined above, but I’ve always done it when driven to it by scarcity or frustration. Take the Scarlet Runner bean that evolved in Central America that I’ve alluded to as an example:
Following the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Scarlet Runner bean made its way by donkey back and sailing ship from the mountains of Oaxaca to ports of Japan. Japanese farmers took the culture of this bean up and in time selected the largest beans to replant until they’d achieved an absolutely giant bean, which they called the “Akahana mame.” Because the cool, coastal conditions on my farm in Corralitos mimic the original mountain conditions where the runner bean evolved, I know I can grow good Akahana mame here. For years I’d been getting the seed from Kitazawa Seeds, an Oakland based seed company that traded in Asian crop varieties. Their seed was good, but expensive, so I began saving my own seed and, boy, am I glad I did. Last winter Kitazawa Seed got sold to a larger company, and I just went on the new website to see about getting some more Akahana mame seed. I’ve got a few blank spots in the beds that I could fill out and I’ve planted all my own seed. But the new owners want- get this!!!- $92.88/pound for their runner bean seed! Ninety-two dollars and eighty- eight cents per pound! Peaches H. Christ! Here’s the link.
So yes, I’ll be saving more Akahana mame seed going forward. Luckily for me, I own a patch of ground that is only suited for small-scale production, and rent is not an issue. My field is isolated, so I don’t face difficulties with cross pollination, plus I’m crabby enough at the seed companies to make the work of sorting and selecting seed a satisfying task. Here are some pix of our Akahana mame beds. A bean we can all get excited about.
Andy & the crew at Mariquita Farm.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin
Basil, the backyard gardener and amateur ethno botanist from Basel, took a step into the basilica of St Basil’s Cathedral, clutching a bunch of basil in his right hand. He glanced around, to the left and to the right, hurriedly, uneasily, and frequently, before advancing to the altar, as though there might be a basilisk lurking in the shadows. But why was Basil so timid and frightful? He, of all people, should have known that he was both armed, and armored, by the little bunch of herb in his hand.
Basil is not just an aromatic herb in the mint family. A lot of people don’t know this, but basil is the only cure for the bite of the basilisk. True, basilisks are extremely ferocious and cruel magical reptiles, ready and able to kill with just a glance, and they spread a wave of toxic venom in their wake, but they are helpless in the presence of basil in the same way that vampires can’t cope with garlic. The word basil in ancient Greek meant “monarch” or “Kingly.” But just as the basilisk earned its name and reputation as the “King of Serpents” by virtue of its deadly and uncanny powers – and because of the crown shaped crest on its head- so the most royal and powerful of herbs got named “Basil.” Basil, the good herb, trumps the basilisk, the evil serpent. And basil isn’t only good at counteracting the effects of basilisk venom. All manner of evil creatures are repelled by basil, from the common housefly to the Prince of Hell and the Lord of Flies, Beelzebub himself.
Basil the gardener reached the altar and placed the bunch of basil from his garden next to an open Bible. When it came time the Priest could choose to use this herbal offering as a tender and aromatic wand with which to sprinkle holy water on the gathered worshippers. With the orthodoxy of the Greek Orthodox in mind, Basil had brought the tiny-leaved, sweet scented Greek basil to the basilica, not the muskier, more clove-like Tulsi basil that is revered in Hindu tradition as a manifestation of the Goddess Tulsi.
Basil grew many kinds of basil in his garden back in Basel because there are many kinds of basil with many different uses. All basil varieties originally evolved in Southeast Asia, and in a warm tropical climate they can all be short-lived perennials. At home back in India, Tulsi basil can grow to be quite large and woody and those woody stems are carved into prayer beads. In ancient Greece and Rome there were basil varieties that were used in the manufacture of perfumes that were used by kings to mask their royal odors. Meanwhile, in a more Italian context, history tells us that vases of fresh basil were used by the romantically inclined as gifts to express the tender feelings they have for their lovers.
Basel, in Switzerland, does not have the most appropriate climate for growing basil. So to grow his basil in Basel Basil used a greenhouse setup to get his plants through the cold winters of Central Europe. Besides the Tiny leafed Greek Basil, he also grew Purple or Opal basil, Lemon scented basil, Anise scented basil, and Genovese basil, but all under glass. The Swiss city was named Basel because it was once a Roman city, and the center of power in any Roman area was the basilica, where the monarch or king held court. Basil, the gardener, should have known that he too came into this world endowed with the name, meaning “kingly,” yet he fled the basilica of Saint Basil’s Cathedral like a thief, once he’d left his little bundle of basil on the altar. Why?
I can only speculate, but perhaps Basil was fearful because he was a Western foreigner in Moscow, in Red Square, in the belly of the beast, so to speak. The original Saint Basil had been called “A Fool for Christ” and “The Wonderworker of Moscow” because he shoplifted to feed the poor, he went about naked in the streets, and he chastised the autocrat of the day, Ivan the Terrible, for being so terrible. The Moscow church that, ironically, was built by Ivan the Terrible became the most iconic structure in Russia and was named after Saint Basil to honor him for his humane instincts. But times have changed in Moscow and there’s a new Ivan the Terrible in town.
We’re all going to need a lot of basil going forward. Luckily, I’ve planted basil and this week we can enjoy our first harvest. With the onset of warm weather we should soon have a lot, but if you’re going to have a lot of something it might as well be basil. It’s such a useful herb; the mere scent of basil is uplifting. Basil can attract lovers and repel demons and flies. Basil is useful in religious ceremonies and may, in fact, be divine. Oh, and the Italians make pesto with it.
Get a bottle of our Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil grown from Belle Farms in Aptos, CA., pine nuts, a nice lemon and a fine loaf of sourdough bread and you are set for next week.
Andy & the crew at Mariquita Farm.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin
The Many Cats of Mariquita
Oh, my God, the violence lay hidden in their hearts! One little old lady said she kept a loaded rifle by her sliding glass door so that if she saw one she could open the door… and open fire. Another woman said she connected a garden hose from the exhaust pipe of her husband’s Cadillac so that she could gas them to death.
I’d been invited to speak to a local Watsonville ladies’ garden club about the principles of organic agriculture but it turned out they were more interested in murdering gophers than they were in hearing about cover crops, beneficial insects, or mulches. “How do you fight gophers?” they asked me. So I told them about my black cat. That was years ago, and since that time, that cat and several others have come and gone from the farm, but I’ve loved and appreciated all of them. Here are their stories:
I was still working on Star Route Farm in Bolinas in 1983 when my first cat came to me. Two Israeli women were working on the farm at the time, Estee and Mirav. They’d been front line nurses in the Israeli Army during the Lebanon War, and when their tour of duty was finished, they came to the San Francisco Bay Area to unwind and recuperate their spirits by working on an organic farm and playing at being hippies. Estee and Mirav missed the Summer of Love by 16 years, but they enjoyed the tranquility that Bolinas had to offer, and since they’d grown up on an agricultural kibbutz they had lots of prior farming experience. After work they liked to take a stroll around the farm, and one summer evening they passed by the trailer where I was staying. I greeted them, and Mirav had a question for me.
“You have a pot?” she asked.
Mirav and Estee spoke Hebrew amongst themselves, and they were fluent in French, but their command of English was still charmingly erratic. “You want to borrow a pot?” I replied.
“No, no, what you say?” Mirav asked. “You have a little pot?”
“You want to buy pot?” I asked.
“No, no, no,” Mirav laughed. “You have a little pot friend?”
“A pet friend? I asked.
“Yes, yes, a pot friend!”
I told them that maybe I did. I’d noticed that somebody had come in through my trailer window when I was gone and licked the corners off a cube of butter that I’d had on the counter. So I put out a dish of cat food on the floor and left the window open, and soon I had a friendly black cat sharing my trailer- and hunting for gophers on the farm. Obviously, his name was “Pot Friend.”
I was surprised a few weeks later to hear a horse snorting outside my trailer, and when I opened the door, a nude woman riding bareback confronted me. “You stole my cat,” she said.
“No, I didn’t!” I said. “A black cat showed up here and I fed it.” Pot Friend came down the trailer steps and passed us by, paying her no mind. But he stayed with me, even when I moved to Santa Barbara to work on Winchester Canyon Ranch, and then again when I moved up to Watsonville and worked on Riverside Farms. Pot Friend’s black coat was salted with white by the time my kids were born and I was farming with Julia, but he was Mariquita Farm’s first official Farm Cat.
Our second cat, Taco, came to me by virtue of a tragic accident. A fellow who worked for us had a brother who was killed in a drunk driving accident. The whole family picked up and left with the body for Mexico, and on their way out they dropped a litter of kittens off at a farm field we were leasing. The kittens were tiny, and terrified. They hid under a pallet of cartons and survived by licking the grease off the tin foil the farm workers had wrapped their tacos in. I caught one little kitten and brought it home. He was a lovely, long-haired cat with Siamese “points” and I named him “Taco.” Taco survived and eventually thrived. He became Pot Friend’s gopher hunting companion and was the first cat my kids can really remember.
Sarah and Clara came next after a neighbor’s cat had a large batch of kittens. Sarah and Clara were more pets at first than “farm cats” and they played with the kids. I think pets are important for kids because they can teach a child how to express love and kindness. And, until “The lion lies down with the lamb,” it must be noted with sadness that pets can teach a young person how to deal with loss. Besides our “official farm cats” we also have our fair share of predatory wild cats, like Bobcats and Mountain lions. Yes, we have lots of coyotes too, and since they make so much noise they end up taking the blame for most disappearances, but I’m convinced that the Bobcats are often the culprits; it’s just that they come and go with such stealth. Sarah and Clara did grow up to be hunters, but we lost Clara.
Sarah lost a leg to cancer, and she became a full-time house cat. Sarah liked to sleep on my Fender amplifier when I played my electric guitar, and since I play an orange Gretsch 6120, like Duane Eddy and Poison Ivy, I called Sarah my “Rockabilly Hep Cat.”
After Sarah passed away Starr and I adopted two kittens from the local shelter and she named them “Samson & Deliah,” after the Reverend Gary Davis song that was popularized by the Grateful Dead. Samson is still with us, and he’s as beautiful and lordly as an apricot blonde male cat born under the sign of Leo can be. But Delilah tended to wander into the forest where the wild things are, and one day she didn’t come back. We felt sad that Samson didn’t have company so we kept our ears open for kittens. When our friends, Todd and Jordan, who have Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove and who put our farm’s produce in jars for us, bought a place in upper Carmel Valley, we were gifted two matching tabby kitten twins. The rural property that they purchased had an unruly tribe of feral cats on it, so they set about catching them and spaying and neutering them and finding homes for the kittens.
The two kittens showed up early in the whole Covid drama, and they very much lightened the mood for us. They were small and wild, but proved to be very sweet and tameable. We initially named them “Cachagua & Tassajara” after landmarks in the neighborhood they came from, but Starr shortened the names to “Casha and Tassa.” The sisters are not quite identical, but they can be hard to tell apart from a distance, so they are often known as “This and That,” as in “this cat” versus “that cat.” This and That have turned into good hunters, and they’re helping Samson to keep the ever-present population of gophers in check.
Because we love our cats and appreciate their efforts, we have planted plenty of catnip around the farm so that they can pepper all their hard farm labor with moments of euphoria. Catnip is in the mint family, but it tolerates relatively dry conditions. We have it planted on a sunny slope and it’s thriving. Catnip is one of those plants that could become a weed if we let it, but we clip it and dry it before it goes to flower. Catnip dries well and remains pungent. It’s spring now, and the plants are growing fast so Starr has been keeping the dehydrators working around the clock.
If you want to treat your cat to a whiff of locally grown, aromatic, organic catnip, now is the time to get it. Or maybe you want some for yourself. Catnip is usually thought of as a cat herb, but people do make aromatic herbal infusions from it that are reputed to be good for treating colds, fevers and flues, and dried catnip is used as a seasoning in some cuisines. I offer it to my restaurant customers and I’ve noticed that the places that focus on Italian food buy it. I need to ask them how they’re using it. Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, has a scent that is not unlike its cousin Nepitella, or Calaminta nepeta, also known as “Roman mint.”
Tassa likes to hang out when we garden. She is Mariquita Farm’s “spokes cat” and social media influencer. She enjoys and endorses our catnip products and personally oversees the harvests. Check out the shop store, we are harvesting today!
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin and Starr Linden
Three Weeds’ Tales
Here’s an irony: My father was a California Native plant ecologist who dedicated his life to the study and preservation of native species, and yet I grew up to be at least partly responsible for introducing at least three weeds into the California ecosystem. If a weed is a “plant out of place,” then every weed must have an appropriate place that it naturally comes from and also a story of how it immigrated to its new environment. Here are the stories of three different weeds that I can tell from first hand experience.
My father, Dr. James Griffin, would have been 90 last week, and he’s been on my mind a lot. He didn’t do marine botany, but it was hard to find a dirt road or trail in this state that he hadn’t made his way down at least once to inventory the vascular plants. He’d be the first one to tell you that a vast amount of the plants that blanket California’s wild lands are invasive species. The grasses that cover the fields with green in the spring and gold in the summer are Mediterranean annual species that came into California as burrs and stickers in the tails of the long horned cattle that the Spaniards brought with them from Europe through Mexico.
Arugula is such a popular salad green on the West Coast that right wing pundits have chosen it as the appropriate fodder for bicoastal elitist libs, but arugula started out as a little weed in the barley fields of ancient Egypt. Arugula is in the mustard family and has always been a popular salad herb. The Egyptian farmers that cultivated some of history’s first fields of grain would have plucked the broad, tender leaves of young arugula from between the slender young, emerging blades of barley so that the grain crop wouldn’t be choked out. The arugula “weeds” were eaten too, but they needed to be controlled lest they damage the cash crop. As the culture of grain spread north out of the fertile crescent, arugula followed along. Soon Greek peasants were sowing grain and weeding – and eating the arugula. Then came Italy, then France. But if arugula traveled to France as a weed it flew into California on a magical white tablecloth.
Nowadays, with the oceans of pre-washed salad greens available in every supermarket, it can be hard to remember when salad greens like arugula were hard to find in California. My first job on a vegetable farm was working on a little Biodynamic, French intensive garden on Garden Highway, just north of Sacramento. The farm’s owner worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and they bought all the produce. They wanted tender young greens like arugula for their mesclun salads. Because the arugula seed was next to impossible to source, the restaurant brought us back packets of seed from France. When I went to work on Star Route Farm in Bolinas we ended up working with them too and we made endless plantings of arugula. Inevitably, some of that arugula went to seed along the edges of the field, where a stray plant here or there conspired to escape the disc harrow when the fields were turned under.
Twenty years after I left Star Route Farm, I was there on a visit, and I took a walk up Pine Gulch Creek, which borders one of the fields. I was surprised and amused to see a number of arugula plants growing wild in the weeds beyond the edge of the tilled beds. And I found a number of wild mustards that appeared to have leaves that had many characteristics of arugula, as though the two cousins had crossed. I wouldn’t worry about spoiling the gene pool for the wild mustards, though, since the wild mustards were also invasive species from the Mediterranean that have made California their home.
The second weed that I’m at least partially complicit in introducing is the Tomatillo de Milpa. Everybody is familiar with the tomato-like and tomato sized Tomatillo that is so common in Mexican cuisine. But the large, green, commercial tomatillo has an unruly, weedy cousin, the Tomatillo de Milpa, which sets a generous crop of tiny, somewhat dry and acidic fruits that range in color from green to straw to purple.
The plant has its fans. Zuni Cafe, for example, has often requested the “Milperos” in lieu of the plumper, more commercial cultivar. I hadn’t heard of the crop before I moved to Watsonville. I shared my home here with the Campos Family for a couple of years, and they were from a ranch outside of La Barca, Jalisco. “Country living is great,” Ramiro Campos told me one day. “It’s so nice to have lots of space and keep donkeys and chickens and have a big garden.” So I invited Ramiro to make a garden here, and he went after the task with gusto. He showed me a handful of tomatillos de milpa that he’d brought with him from his home ranch to plant because, as he said, “no garden should be without a tomatillo de milpa.” And we’ve had tomatillos de milpa ever since. These humble plants express a vitality and fertility that rivals any other weed I’ve ever met. But at least I can make a really nice green salsa without leaving the property almost any day in the summer or fall.
My last weed is another refugee from Southern Europe. Nepitella is a mint family member that prefers a very well drained soil and can tolerate drought. It seems as though every region has a native mint, which is appreciated for its unique culinary properties. Nepitella is also known as “Roman mint,” and it is a popular herbal accent to many a Roman and Tuscan dish. When I was regularly selling in the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco, a frequent market shopper brought a nepitella plant to my stall from his family’s garden in Rome. “I’ll give you the plant if you’ll grow it and bring it to market so that I can have a bunch of it now and then.” I’d had customers, like Delfina in the Mission or Scoma’s in the Marina, asking after nepitella, so I went after the task with gusto.
Ever since then, this perennial herb has been a steady, if slow, seller. At one point, years ago, I planted it at the edge of my home field so that I could keep enough going to satisfy my customers without getting in the way of regular use of the field. When the sales picked up I moved my planting to the greenhouse where I could be more assured of steady winter production. This spring I was walking my fence lines at home, looking for a hole where a marauding tribe of deer might have broken through into my farmed ground. I didn’t find any holes in the fence, but I did find a vibrant population of hardy nepitella plants beyond the fence and spreading down into the Pinto Creek gulch. The Romans may like nepitella, but the deer sure don’t; the plants were fluffy, aromatic, and happy. What would my father think? I’d have to make him a pasta dish and season the sauce with some fresh nepitella to justify myself.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin
I Beg Your Pardon
“April showers bring May flowers,” goes the old saying. If they were being accurate, the cliche makers of olde could have added: ”…and weeds too.” After a punishing period of drought we’ve finally had a few April showers, so we can expect plenty of weeds in May. I’ll be crabby about all the weeding we have to do this spring, but today, instead of complaining about the added labor costs, I’d like to change up the narrative and talk a bit about the positive role weeds can play in agriculture if we let them. But first, what is a weed?
Weeds are perhaps most charitably defined as “plants out of place.” This formula sounds good as a start but this clever quip reveals more about the person speaking than it does the plant in question. An objective observer has to ask, “‘Out of place’ according to WHO?” Take the archetypal “weed,” Cannabis sativa, for example. Talk about a “plant out place;” weed is a plant SO “out of place” that its very existence has been outlawed by the US government.
Not that the Cannabis plant itself cares about what governments think. From its humble roots as an aromatic herb growing in the wilds of central Asia, Cannabis sativa has not only continued to thrive in its natural habitat but has spread all over the world as a cultivated crop, finding its way into indoor closets and warehouses. It has even escaped cultivation to exist as a feral “weed” in ditches and fields in North America. People have taken advantage of this plant as a source of fiber, as a medicine, as an oil producer, as a food, and as a drug, and cannabis has taken advantage of people to care for it and propagate it.
Cannabis, like all “weeds,” is a plant that exists in relation to people. Our relationship with weeds is fraught; we resent the success that weeds enjoy in spite of our objections, so we have forgotten much of what weeds can teach us and we invent new ways to try and destroy them. In trying to rid ourselves of weeds we sometimes blindly contaminate our own water supplies with herbicides. But we might have fewer “weeds” if we learn to see how such successful plants can have a valued place in our world.
Many people would be surprised to learn that many of the “weeds” that populate our gardens were plants that we once cultivated in our gardens. Lactuca serriola, for example, which gardeners variously and inconsistently refer to as “wild lettuce,” “prickly lettuce,” or “Sow thistle” is the ancestor of the lettuce that’s for sale in the market. Not only is it edible, Sow thistle has more nutrients in it than “regular” lettuce. Lambsquarters, aka “dungweed” or “Goosefoot,” is an antique form of spinach. Stinging nettles, or Urtica dioica, is another “weed” that was imported here to the Americas from Europe as a food crop. French purslane, or Portulaca oleracea, is a common garden pest – until you learn to eat it! The Mexicans know this “weed” as verdolaga and esteem its use in the kitchen as a cooking green, like spinach. I’ve also enjoyed fresh purslane as a main ingredient in a flavorful, spritely Moroccan salad.
If more of us learned to use the weeds in our garden we’d have fewer “weeds” and a more diverse gardenscape. But weeds are perverse, temperamental and ornery. Besides being higher in vitamins and minerals than many of their more modern, refined, and esteemed cultivated cousins, many edible weeds are quite high in irony; I’ve been amazed to see that whenever I begin to make money by selling the weeds from my fields they tend to disappear from the rows.
The high nutrient value of weeds is not lost on the insects that feed on food crops. When I worked on Star Route Farm in the early 1980s my employer, Warren Weber, taught me to use some weeds as insect trap crops. Shepherd’s Purse, or Capsella bursa-pastoris, is a little weed in the Brassica family that would often germinate along with our rows of kale and broccoli. And frequently we would be plagued with wild mustards and wild radishes too, which are also brassicas, just as the kales and broccolis are. Warren said, “If we wait to weed out the kale and broccoli, the flea beetles will feed on them instead of our crops.” I observed that, time and time again, this was true. The insect pests preferred the weeds! So we would wait until the kales and broccolis were past their infancy and big enough to withstand the flea beetles before we cleaned out the “weeds” that the pests were feeding on, and our crops were happier for it.
When I was farming on my own and raising artichokes, I learned to leave a fringe of thorny, mean, milk thistle, or Silybum marianum, growing at the edge of the field, and they would tend to draw off most of the Artichoke plume moth, whose wormy larvae can bore into the tender artichoke buds. Then one day a visiting chef, Tiny Maes, who worked at Kokkari, a Greek restaurant, showed me how young Milk thistle plants can be used as a traditional, rustic, winter ravioli filling. Thistles, like so many other weeds, are forgotten foods
Besides being food crops and/or insectary crops, some weeds are valuable tools in monitoring soil health. Nettles will only germinate in soils that are very rich in nitrogen. Often you’ll find nettles thriving in abandoned corrals or fields where cattle or horses left lots of dung years before. When I see lots of nettles popping up I know that spinach, lettuce, and chard will all grow well, because they need lots of nitrogen to do well. But as the ambient nitrogen levels drop because the resource has been depleted then the nettles will disappear, and I’ll know it’s time to fertilize again.
Weeds can tell you when to plant too. Purslane, for example, only germinates when the soil is warm, so the first day I see a purslane sprout in the bed I know I can safely plant the seeds for a whole range of summer crops that would rot in cold soil. When the wild Tomatillo weeds sprout I know I can safely plant tomatoes. Other weeds can suggest crops to grow too. When there’s a lot of Poison Hemlock, or Conium maculatum, in a field you can bet that carrots will grow well there, as both plants are in the Umbellifer family. A healthy field of weeds promises a healthy field of crops (with enough work) just as a field where even the weeds struggle probably won’t bear happy vegetables without a lot of help.
Weeds are a problem, but they are not the worst problem a farm can have. Since they are almost inevitable companions if you don’t want to use herbicides, it can be good for a farmer’s mental health to remember their benefits. The days are getting longer, the soil is getting warmer, and because we had some nice rain, we’ll soon have a vigorous crop of weeds. Where it is convenient, I’ll wait as long as I can to turn the weeds under. Their roots reach down into the soil and bring up valuable minerals. Before they go to seed I’ll turn them under and treat them as a “cover crop.” Weeds will get the last laugh, I’m sure, but they can be useful jokers.
This week I’m putting Purslane or “vedolaga” in the harvest box. It’s hard to say this is a really a “weed” since I’ve grown it for several customers who have Mexican restaurants. Treat it like spinach and you’re off to a good start. It’s good in soups too. I used to grow it for Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco, and I bought the “Improved” French Purslane seed from a seed company but, irony of ironies, Chef Amyrll Shwertner prefered the wild, “weedy” form of the plant because it was smaller leaved and looked better on the plate. The Purslane seeds I’d bought became the weed!
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Andy Griffin
With the tomatoes going into the ground this week, and with our first harvest share boxes for the Bay Area going out for delivery, Starr and I took a brief getaway down to Ventura ahead of what we hope will be a very busy season. It was a very mellow scene with warm weather, gentle breezes, a white beach, and surfers bobbing in the waves. We took a walk down the esplanade, and it was the typical zoo of Southern California humanity: tattooed women on unicycles, rainbow-clothed Deadheads selling bootleg swag in the shade of the palm trees, a gentleman taking his 6 foot boa constrictor for a walk on the lawn, and of course there was a fruit vendor.
We stopped at the fruit vendor’s cart and bought a serving of chopped, fresh, fruit. It felt very much like being back in Mexico. Mango, watermelon, cucumber, pineapple, cantaloupe, and jicama chopped and tossed with the juice of a fresh lemon and then dusted with red chile powder. As I watched the waves roll in and enjoyed the fruit, I had the thought that this simple preparation would be perfect with kohlrabi standing in for the jicama. Maybe even better, I thought, because the kohlrabi has the toothsome crunch of the jicama, and the white color which contrasts so pleasantly with the orange, red, and yellows of the fruits, but it has its own sweetness that makes it almost fruit-like.
When we have kohlrabi people always ask me, “How do I cook it?” My new answer is going to be, “Don’t.” And while we wait for fruit to come into season up here, kohlrabi can make a lovely salad all on its own, with maybe some chopped green onion. If you slice the kohlrabi, lightly salt it, and dress it with lemon juice, it tastes great. If you have the patience to put it in the fridge and wait a day, it tastes even better.
The lavender colored beans in your box are “Flor de Mayo,” or “May Flower” beans. In Mexico they would be flowering in May, but we planted our crop last summer and harvested them in late fall. We’ve saved the seed we’re going to plant so everything else is available to eat. They cook pretty quickly. A lot of people feel that it’s necessary to soak the beans overnight before cooking, but I never bother. These are so fresh they cook up fast and easy and soaking doesn’t achieve anything dramatic.
A bit of rain today and then some sunshine should be just right.
See you soon,
Andy and the Crew at Mariquita Farms
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photos by Starr Linden