equinox flower


Higanbana (彼岸花)~said to bloom most fully at the autumn equinox. Taken @ Shirayuri campus.

Each day I have been trying to make one foray out into a new natural space or thing–a way to explore my neighborhood, the things and people in it. The geography around here has changed vastly, I am told by an 85-year-old man I met yesterday. I went over to Zenpukujigawa Ryokuchi kōen (park), about 5 minutes away. I had heard it was a great place for cherry blossoms, and in general, a greenspace not to be missed, as it snakes along the Zenpukuji River. One of the neighborhoods around here is called Horiuchi–“within the moat.” This moat no longer exists, due to the massive public works projects of post-1860s modernity that buried various water functions underground. But the geography is still dotted with names that recall that waterworks system.

Anyway, I was standing looking at a big map of the park–I had actually mixed it up with another park, and was getting squared away. The guy already looking at the map, on a bike, started talking to me, and telling me about the neighborhood. He said when he was growing up, and even after the war, it was really spooky–really dark, no real road, a path not big enough even to drive a vehicle through. He said he had just been thinking of an event that took place caddy-cornered from where we were standing. I could only imagine how dark and forlorn a dusty place it would have been, before baseball fields, a real road, and street light. In the year the war ended (1945),  a JAL stewardess–one of the real glamour jobs of the time–had been stabbed to death, and buried, by a Belgian priest. The priest then took advantage of diplomatic immunity (I am fuzzy on these details) and skipped the country without a trace, and “justice was never done.” At that point, a policeman rode by on a bicycle, clocking the conversation. You may understand why I forgot to take a picture of urban nature at that point!

I walked back to the train, and off to work, where I took the above photo–some of the higanbana splashed all over. They are said to signal the beginning of cold weather, and also mark the equinox, which is a big day for encountering the dead. Yes, there is the obon festival, with all its dances, in August, but as a colleague reminded me, the equinox is the day WE go to THEM, they don’t come to us–to do the maintenance of gravesites, memories, and ongoingness. (There is a whole literary lore of the higanbana, which I hope to get to at another time.)

The effort at place-foraging goes hand in hand with also setting up my own roof garden, and figuring out how to extend into a more bona fide “community gardening” mode, both at home and in work. I was initially elated at seeing how many pins for “nursery” there were nearby–it turns out that they are actually day care centers (保育園). Yay for day care access, but places to get plants and supplies in hand are a bit scarcer, alas. So I had the latter-day urban natural experience of mail-ordering soil, along with a mini-composter the likes of which we could sure use in the US. The delivery guy saved me from carrying heavy-kilo bags a mile from the nearest Home Depot-like place in the ‘hood, where the available soil was all hopped up with chemicals anyway. There is a whole world of things to conceptually translate, making an edible garden on a roof in Tokyo, and calculating food-miles in a very different way…that is one of them.

Yeah, I know...but to start "somewhere" you gotta start! It is marked "breakable," and is 25 liters. (Foot included for scale.)

Yeah, I know…but to start “somewhere” you gotta start! The bag is marked “breakable,” and is 25 liters. (Foot included for scale.)

spring 2014 @ UCLA: urban ag, again



Because I grew up in the middle of big big-scale corn and soybean farms, I have to admit that sometimes, I have qualms about the term “urban agriculture” or “urban farming.” The scale here just seems different–less vast, but responsive to different things. I think we need a new term, like we need a new term to displace the awful eradicating phrase “food desert,” which we should know better than to use in LA! Maybe this Quarter we will find a way! The link to the course blog is here.

korean TV shoot in s la

This weekend I helped coordinate a photo shoot for a Korean crew visiting some of the gardens in S LA built by the organization I work with, Green Grounds. The “PBS of Korea,” EBS, is making a two-part series about various food justice movements in the US.

The two-guy crew was able to follow our hosts, Roberto, Sandra and young Lee Aguilar as they worked in the very lush space that has replaced their front lawn. The crew was were pretty eager to see some vegetables which are apparently very pricey in Korea growing like weeds in this lawn, and also quite curious about how the movement for parkway gardening was able to succeed in LA.For my part, I was interested in hearing about the very active scene of urban gardening in Seoul.

Two of the gardens that GG worked on in S LA have been catalysts for changing the LA City Code after plantings on the lawns ran afoul of technical language that only allows a very small group of plants and a few edibles to reside on  a parkway (the strip of land between the street and sidewalk which is even “double-wide” some places in LA).

Turning over the soil, picking out grubs, and planting new fall seedlings.

Turning over the soil, picking out grubs, and planting new fall seedlings.

Fukushima vegetable curry

Array of spices in homemade curry powder.

Array of spices in homemade curry powder.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been visiting a wonderful organic farming program, located outside of Tokyo. Keisen Women’s University is one of the “YWCA” colleges, women’s colleges that boast a humanitarian agenda, and a curriculum that emphasizes peace studies and internationalism, a humanist vision of Christianity, and, most importantly, a four-year gardening curriculum. Here are a couple of photos I took in March of at harvest time, as both “eastern” spinach, which came by way of China, and “western” spinach, which came by way of the Jesuits and Nagasaki, were plucked out by student gardeners. The garden at Keisen was the first school garden to be certified organic in Japan, and routinely grows crops like sato-imo/taro, carrots, beans, and many many other things, all organically without pesticides.

Surrounded by spiky "eastern" spinach and the more familiar round "western" spinach.

Surrounded by spiky “eastern” spinach and the more familiar round “western” spinach.

"Eastern" spinach--look, it's spiky!

“Eastern” spinach–look, it’s spiky!

Daikon, lettuce, spinaches from the Keisen garden.

Daikon, lettuce, spinaches from the Keisen garden.

Keisen also has a number of spinoff projects, including a CSA, a café, and most recently, a cookbook made up of recipes created by students, including exchange students from a long-running program in Thailand. I translated one of the most interesting recipes, one for Fukushima “solidarity” curry, cooked up by the students in garden director Sawanobori-sensei’s class. Sawanobori-sensei is an agronomist, and a real pioneer in this field in Japan. As I visited in March, she was about to run off to Korea with the college president on an exchange visit, and was busily teaching the first of three seasons in a sequences of urban ag courses like our Master Gardener course. You can buy the original cookbook here.

Japanese curry came in to the country thanks to the British colonial diaspora. My friends and I used to call it “jelly curry,” because the consistency is a bit more viscous than a coconut milk-based or broth-based curry, it’s actually made with the flour thickener, roux. You can buy it in chunky blocks in grocery stores, but many people customize their curry, by mixing and matching blocks, adding pepper or fruit, jam or raisins, all over rice. The Keisen organic café recipe is on the far artisanal end of the spectrum, since it involves making curry powder, a spice blend, before making the curry base; and in turn, making the curry base before the dish itself.

Recipe background, from the Keisen Organic Café Cookbook:

This recipe was inspired by the desire to support organic farmers of Fukushima whose lives were uprooted by the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
In the phase after the reaction but before testing had begun on the effects of radiation contamination, all you heard about Fukushima was rumors, and the fear had an effect even on produce that had been harvested before the reactor spill. In May 2011, volunteers at Keisen decided to host an event, “Thinking of Fukushima @ Keisen,” featuring a special curry recipe that used rice and potatoes like yama-imo that had been harvested at Fukushima the previous year. When the festival was over, the student-run organic campus café kept the curry dish on its menu, and both used and sold vegetables from Fukushima that showed no radioactivity. The curry is now a staple on the café menu.
The really vital thing about this curry is its variety of spices. It’s easy to use store-bought pre-mixed curry, but we decided to make our own spice mix. For the spices, we reached out to student in Chiang Mai, where we have a long-standing relationship with Chiang Mai University as part of our Field Station program. Every year from August to December 10 students participate in this experiential education program, where they work alongside NGO staff, organic farmers, and farmers from hill villages. The students wanted to source their spices directly from the farmers, and this “Keisen original fair-trade spice” blend became part of that long-held dream.
The campus organic café is a student-run space that is planned to develop into a local community center. The curry offering will join a menu and a line of products that the face sells that supports its fair-trade mission—joining a product line that includes coffee, olive oil, muscavado sugar, salt, Japanese-grown green and black teas, and jam.
Graduates of these programs have gone on to work as farmers and work in organic agriculture. Our work with organic farming continues, forging ways for anyone to have a rewarding and healthy life and thrive in a society that supports it.

Fukushima Solidarity Curry

½ medium onion (100g)
1 turnip (100g)
kabocha or other squash (30g)
½ carrot (100g)
½ bunch broccoli (50g)
*any combination of veggies, including sato-imo/taro, potato, eggplant, etc. will do—it should amount to about 150 g per person.
2 cups+ curry base
½ knob ginger minced (5 g)
½ knob ginger grated (5 g)
minced garlic (10 g)
1 T olive oil
1 T salt (+ salt for blanching greens and broccoli in step 2)
pepper, to taste
1-2 t garam masala

300 g brown rice

How to:
1. Take leaves off turnips. Keeping turnip greens separate, cut onions, peeled turnips and carrots into chunks 3cm at their longest point by turning the veggies as you cut (this is called rangiri in Japanese).
2. Cut the broccoli into easy-to-eat sized pieces, including the stems, and add the stems to the turnip greens. Blanche in salt water.
3. Fry the garlic and minced ginger with the olive oil and onion.
4. Add the kabocha, carrots and turnips in that order, salt and pepper, and cook until still firm but cooked (and maybe a bit browned, for flavor).
5. Add the curry paste to the cooked veggies from 4, with a cup of water. Add a bit more water, if necessary, as you bring it to a boil for about 5 minutes.
6. When the sauce has thickened, add the garam masala and minced ginger, to taste.
7. Add the broccoli and turnip greens, and serve.

Curry base recipe—serves about 8 portions, at 1 c each:

4 medium onions (800 g)
4 t whole cumin (8 g)
knob of ginger (60 g) minced
6 cloves of garlic (60 g) minced
3 T homemade curry (35 g; recipe below)
10 T rhubarb jam (* or other tart jam)
400 g canned tomatoes
4 bay leaves
1 grated apple (300 g)
1 grated carrot (200 g)
1 T salt
2 t miso
5 c (1000 ml) water
pepper, to taste
6 T olive oil

How to:
1. Mince the onions.
2. In a frying pan, add cumin, ginger and garlic to the olive oil, on high heat until a scent arises, being careful not to burn the spices.
3. Add with the salt to the minced onions and cook until caramelized (* you may want to add water and deglaze at some point).
4. Add the homemade curry powder, and mix in with 3 or 4 additions of the water.
5. Add the rhubarb jam, tomatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook.
6. At the end, add the grated apple and carrot, miso, and salt and pepper to taste.

Homemade curry powder—makes about 20 portions of 88 g each
3 T turmeric (24 g)
3 T coriander (15 g)
1 T fennel seed (5 g)
2 t cinnamon (4 g)
2 t allspice (3 g)
1 t (3 g ) each of fenugreek, cloves, nutmeg
1 ½ (2 g) each of dill, cardamom, sage, oregano
1 t (2 g) each of chile pepper, star anise, thyme, black pepper
1 T olive oil

How to:
1. Mix all the spices together.
2. Heat the oil in a frying pan, and taking care not to burn the spices, cook for 5-6 minutes.
3. When cool, store in an airtight container. Best if used within a week; refrigerate.

cabbage bouquets

Here is a shot of two of my lovely students from the Urban Ag class @ UCLA this quarter. They are holding bouquets of cabbages, gai lan, and lettuce, veggies with an interesting backstory.

In front of the student garden @ Sunset Canyon Rec Center

In front of the student garden @ Sunset Canyon Rec Center

The” bouquets” are partly sourced from our very own garden. But the explicitly “Asian” ones come from a farmers’ market. Two other students in the class went to do their “fieldwork” assignment for the class at a gleaning operation located at a farmers’ market. The project has the mandate to recover food at markets which might not be sold, then re-distribute it to shelters and food banks: a win-win situation in which the farmers can recoup some costs for their goods, and the recipient organizations can get fresh produce they might not otherwise get.

One thing that the students, who were all Asian American, remarked, is the high quotient of Asian vegetables in the array of leftovers. They surmised, after seeing the selecting and talking to other volunteers, that the selecting organizations “didn’t know what to do” with the Asian vegetables–which are, like most greens, composed of leaves, stalks, and, on occasion, flowers (in the case of tine bouquet on the left, yellow flowers). We were all intrigued that these veggies would be so illegible to people who have a love of good, fresh, healthy good–though it was a “win” for the students, who brought bagsful of them to distribute to the class, and no doubt fed some happy stomachs.

I think we all agreed that given the boom in Urban Ag and homesteading in LA, the spread of “technical” information about growing things seems to be spreading apace. But that cultural information lags behind, about how to treat and eat “foreign” veggies without being intimidated and just throwing them away (insert yellow peril joke here, based on historical legacy of displacing Asian farmers in Southern California). They made a nice stir-fry at my house, and I enjoyed them, while feeling slightly rueful that more people who needed them did not have the know-how of how to do the same.

Course blog for “Urban ag in LA”

My class has officially started, with the building/installation of eight raised beds in the UCLA garden, and 25 students enrolled. We will be starting our first seeds on Thursday–and sheltering them like crazy until this unseasonal cold spell fades away. Students will be posting their grocery store reviews, tracking the garden’s progress, and folding in current events posts and links here.

visual apostrophes

Posters are one of the most vivid and important kinds of public “face” that the urban ag movement presents to the public. I’m giving a workshop @ UCLA this weekend, to members of student food collectives from all over California, discussing this very issue–the public face of urban ag, as seen through its posters. I see posters as the visual equivalent of an apostrophe–the poetic device that in love poems, pop songs and here–in propaganda posters–addresses itself to you, and beseeches you to do something, write yourself into a story. Ideally, a story that involves a dialogue with the person who wrote it.

Much of this research is informed by my work excavating kinds of “rhetorical activism” deployed by writers, designers and politicos in modern Japan to make connections between text and world. It also draws on much recent work by Japanese feminists on the role of woman on the home front during wartime.

Here is one of the posters, dating from 1918, that has long been on my mind. Note the imperative, with exclamation, in the address.

The visual style of Liberty combines tropes of Columbia with the look of Lillian Gish.

Other posters of the day use human figures in their compositions, like this familiar fellow.

Sam is not so closely tied to the act of doing as Liberty is. The headline emphasizes his role in exhorting–he “says,” but does not plant.

The first poster is especially interesting to me because of the complex of icons it uses and cites–tons of neo-classical referents (Athena, Ceres), as well as other national symbols (Marianne). The statuesque nature and draped cloth, though, suggest something more along the lines of Columbia. Her image–the personification of America, just as Marianne personifies France–is likely familiar from movie credits.

And here is where things get interesting in terms of historiography, and in the way that the poster conjures as well as eclipses a community of roused, participating, planting citizens.

It turns out that the person who brought the classical rhetoric of poetics into dialogue with the contemporary American scene was none other than Phillis Wheatley–the (eventually) freed slave who was the first published African American poet, and a key neo-classical poet in the genre at large. She invented the trope of the Columbiad in a poem she wrote that was an apostrophe to George Washington, in 1775, when the United States were not yet a bona fide nation.

You can read the full text of the poem, “To His Excellency, General Washington,” here. But for now, here are the first two stanzas, with flourishes of militant Athena fortified by heavenly authority:

Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,

Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.

While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,

She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.

See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,

And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!

See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light

Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,

Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:

Wherever shines this native of the skies,

Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

I would like to think about what this kind of claim on the president–an issue very much on time, given Michelle Obama’s symbolic stand on gardening and nutrition–might imply for the kind of public face we see and respond to in urban ag movements today.

interim spaces / pasadena

The Woodworking Bus, part of the Alternate Routes project. Source: http://sidestreet.org/mobile-education/woodbus/

Talking to urban planners, lawyers and urban ag/community health and garden advocates lately, I have found that opinions differ wildly on the value of vacant lots as interim spaces. One POV feels that any way in is a way in, and that finite contracts on a year-to-year basis that may be revocable are well worth the effort developing. Namely, this is because they allow something to be done NOW, and the benefits of urban gardening can be evident to all in the very near future. Another opposing POV feels that too many times urban gardening has reclaimed vacant and neglected spaces, remediated the terrible soil quality, introduced foot traffic, made the land productive both emotionally and in terms of mental/physical health payoffs, and made the formerly ratty and abject place a place where people want to go, as opposed to want to avoid~~only to be booted out when property values make developers lick their chops. I think opinions hinge also to some extent on the availability of said land (it being felt to be even lousier to be kicked out if there are few or no other options).

Enter…the mobile workshop and garden, a way of allowing some flexibility into this fairly strict-seeming set of options. Thanks to the kind invitation of my friend M, I toured an example of such movable thinking last night, night of the blue moon: an art opening at Side Street Projects in northwest Pasadena. Here is what the space looked like at about 5pm, before people started coming in.

Picnic tables, soon to be garnished with flowers, BBQ and homemade pickles. Airstream studios in the background (my finger in the foreground…oops!).

It must have been 100, 120 people at one point. I found that the project managers had done some very smart long-term thinking about how they occupied the land. It’s rented from the City, and sits between a Church’s Chicken and an old abandoned Victorian house that the City is going to move somewhere else, as it is historically significant. “Rent” is paid in sweat equity, through the workshops and open events that SSP sponsors. And as is typical with such arrangements, there some rules–no performances, for example, and most strikingly, no gardening. I think the fear is that people would get too attached to the space, and occupying the land would morph into Occupying the land. The design solution is to make many things mobile. Here is a picture of picnic-goer S doing his thing at a station in the Woodworking Bus, one of several types of movable teaching studio on the lot.

Desk-like stations, each outfitted with tools, line each side of the Woodworking Bus, which also includes a teacher’s station for use during workshops.

Other such conveyances include: a FEMA trailer that has been re-purposed into a hanging garden, and several Airstream trailers that serve as studios, workshop spaces, and gathering spaces for artists/community folks who may need to have meetings outside of their living spaces. Future plans include mobile raised-bed gardens that could be “transplanted” into a new space, in the event that their interim use expires.

The mobile spaces of the SSP presented some really inspiring solutions in a two-birds-one-stone way (sustainability, land use). Also, the pickles were sublime, and the crowd very amiable. So much so that I forgot to take any further pictures…

gardenspotting, SFO

A couple of weeks back, I went to SFO to get a sense of the city all over again. I had lived there through most of the ‘nineties, when urban ag was to be found in the lush confines of the Berkeley Bowl or Rainbow Grocery. Since then, farms like City Slicker, in West Oakland, and the Quesada Gardens Initiative , in Bayview/Hunters Point, have celebrated ten years on the map.

Funnily enough, though they are in California, you don’t hear nearly as much about these localish efforts as you do about things going on in Milwaukee (Growing Power) and Detroit (Urban Roots). Maybe you can chalk up this disconnect to typical So-cal desire to go it alone. Or, given the socially conscious edge of much of LA urban ag culture, maybe you can chalk it up to a perception that No-cal food culture is driven by white suburbanite bohemians and denizens of gourmet ghettos, since that drift is largely what registers in media here, and in synoptic accounts of whatever American food is. One example is the narrative of California cuisine you find in the chronicles of The United States of Arugula, which tracks the “big three” of Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and James Beard, along with assorted garnish such as nods to Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.

Maybe the street-food tilt of LA, so evident in taco truck and food truck culture, has also impacted the way we tend to think of urban ag as something tied to infrastructures–intimately connected to eco systems (soil quality and water use), and the human landscape (food deserts, the foodscapes of indigenous plants and peoples). The term “food deserts,” of course, was thrown out by the resident of a Scottish housing estate in 1995, who likely had been no closer to a desert than a Road Runner cartoon. It is silly to use that term when you live next to actual deserts and are quite aware they are complex and vibrant eco-systems, but that is another post.

I hope to keep up a summer run of community garden road trips. Last year I visited Proyecto Jardin, Milagro Allegro, Francis Avenue Gardens and several others, all here in LA. This year I hope to go a bit farther afield, and see what else is up in near-ish cities, like Long Beach, San Diego, and Oakland/SFO. Long Beach has a whole network of growing/gleaning outfits, San Diego does interesting trans-border stuff, and I am curious about the self-determination legacies of the Black Power movement in No-cal.

Looking off over the row crops to the orchard hillside of Alemany Farm

Long story short, this summer I started with SFO, and went to check out Alemany Farm, the biggest parcel of land devoted to urban ag in the city; it clocks in at about 3.5 acres, 1 of which is directly under cultivation. It’s in Bernal Heights, and smack up against the freeway. You cut through a kids’ park and a dog park to get there, after a 15-minute walk from the BART station. Its organizers have been working not only on the 4 parts of their space–herbs, natives, orchards and row crops–but also on dialoguing about food security issues more broadly. For one, they have supported city legislation to make urban ag more possible on more land, without a wildly expensive permitting system. And for another, they have been working with their “owner,” the city’s Rec and Parks department, to develop a plan for more programming–it’s quite interesting to see what a far-reaching planifesto for a community ag space might look like (see their draft here).

Alemany Farm is a communal garden, meaning that people work according to what needs to be done, regardless of where it falls on the property. This is different than many community gardens, which use an allotment model in which people stick to their specific plots, while maybe sharing some basic maintenance tasks. It’s interesting that they report a higher crop yield, and don’t just cite community-building or ideology as the motivation for running things this way.  At the end of the work day when I was there, vegetables were weighed or counted, as part of a running assessment of how much food is produced. This communal model is also leagues better for a school garden than than individual allotments, given the ebb and flow of student schedules as well as the calendar year, with its changes of personnel every quarter or semester. And finally, communal work means that instead of tacking yourself onto the end of a 3-year waiting list, you can jump in and start getting your hands dirty immediately.

Other things I liked about this scheme were its incorporation of neighborhood stakeholders, and the eye turned to youth green jobs and entrepreneurship. School gardens have their own ebb and flow, with the school year, but that too leaves room for interesting minglings with community programming–I look forward to re-visiting, and to checking out more goings-on in the Bay Area.


e3 garden, sunset canyon rec center

I’ve been slow in posting, but wanted to relay some images of a garden I’ve been working with, as things race into bloom. The garden is planned and managed by a crew of students in the E3 student group–Ecology, Economy, Equity–at UCLA. There’s something new and surprising every week when I go in. The main organizer, Alyssa, has been working with Facilities and Food Services as well, and since last week, had made a series of trellises, and a frame for a vertical herb garden, out of found wood. Some of my students have stopped by, and we have planted some Japanese things–shiso and mizuna–along with the peas and onions. Tomatoes too are going in, and so far, some green onions and wheatgrass have grown enough to start digging in to.

The solo tomato, holding down the fort for the main event next week.

The Sunset Canyon people have been really cordial in letting the garden sit among the pools and weekend events; they even OK’d expansion of the space, so next week if all goes well, it will be tilled, composted and planted beyond the current fence.

Some winter plants going to seed in the corner, along the fence that will be moved to create more growing space.

It’s really been a blast to work with such motivated, resourceful students, and I can’t wait till the harvest begins for real.