Open Sesame

Homegrown Sesame SeedsI have one strip of our yard between our house and the neighbor’s driveway that I use for experiments. Over the years I’ve grown corn, wheat and soybeans (yes – I’m from Illinois), and this year’s experiment was sesame seeds.

Nearly all the information I found about growing sesame was intended for commercial growers, and even tracking down the seeds was a little bit of a challenge. I found them at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I got a variety called Afghani which don’t seem to be listed anymore. What little info I did find said that the seeds were tough to sprout, and to be careful not to let the soil crust over because the seedlings are Homegrown sesame seedsnot strong enough to break through.

My little sprouts came up easily enough, but the first problem I had was some kind of cut worm which took care of any thinning I might have needed to do… The remaining plants were quite nice, and they seem well suited to San Diego.  The first picture shows some of the blossoms and the 2nd shows the narrow plot of sesame plants – it was about 2′ by 8′.

Sesame has a fairly long growing season, 80-125 days to maturity, but it’s a fairly low maintenance crop. It grows quickly enough to shade out most weeds, and is happy with once-weekly watering. The second problem I had was lodging. If I ever grow this again, I’d spend more time setting some stakes and lines to keep it all upright. They seem to get a little top heavy with all the seedpods growing up the stalk.

By the end of October, I could really understand the whole  ‘open sesame’ thing. As the seedpods mature and dry out, they crack open and spill their seeds everywhere. Some of the plants were still blossoming, but some were already cracking open. I decided to harvest part of it, just by picking off the seedpods that were already dry. A few of the stalks had enough dry pods that I cut those out too. For the pods that were still green and wet, I used the high-tech dryer (put them in a paper bag in the back of the car.) They cracked open as they dried and spilled the seeds into the bag.






The seedpods have four lobes, each one containing a stacked row of seeds – picture a sleeve of Ritz crackers or a can of Pringles. As the pods dry, the end cracks and splays open, spilling out the whole sleeve of seeds. I sure didn’t count ’em, but I’d estimate that each pod contained about 100 seeds. Shaking the seeds out of the pods and knocking out the ones that are stuck is a little bit tedious, but they do come out pretty clean. The chaff can be blown out of the bowl easily while the seeds stay put.

The seeds that I harvested at the end of October weren’t mature yet, even though the pods were starting to open. The seeds were still all white and looked much like the ones you see on a burger bun. I harvested the rest a few weeks later – just before Thanksgiving, and those were a dark brown like the original seeds I had planted.

So would I do it again? Not sure yet, it depends on how we wind up using them and if we can really appreciate the flavor difference of homegrown.  We got about 100g of seeds from the little plot.

What about you? Have you ever grown sesame? Do you plant experimental test plots? If so, what have you incorporated into your regular gardening rotation?

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Ants are Ranchers

Ants and aphidsOur little lime tree is finally starting to produce. It put on quite a lot of growth this year, with lots of fresh juicy leaves. So the aphids and the whitefly moved in next? Or was it the ants first and then the others? Either way, the ants decided this was a fertile area for ranching.  I found a PBase gallery with some great photos of the relationship between ants, aphids and ladybugs. The text there seems to imply that the ants don’t really deter the ladybugs and other beneficial insects like parasitic wasps, but most of what I’ve read says that the ants will do a pretty good job of protecting the aphids, since the aphids are providing honeydew for the ants. And that certainly seems to be the case on out tree.

TanglefootI want to clean up the tree and that means restricting access to the ants.  After doing a few quick searches, I decided not to go with chemicals. I don’t want to be doing lots of spraying  – some say to apply every week or two until the tree is cleared of infestation. So the mechanical solution is tanglefoot, which seems to be pretty well named. It creates a sticky barrier that the ants are unable to cross.

Tanglefoot barrier wrap

I found a nice demo video called Organic Ant Control For Fruit Trees that showed how to use tanglefoot. He also did a nice job of explaining all the little details like which direction to wind your barrier wrap and why. The guy at the nursery said wax paper is also a good barrier.  The main points are to keep the tanglefoot off the trunk of tree and to use something that will not constrict the tree as it grows. Your barrier might last as much as a year before needing to be replaced.  I think the little tube of tanglefoot I got may last a lifetime. Just a dab ‘ll do ya.

After I got the stuff slathered on, I used a small paintbrush to flick off all the ants I could find before it started to rain. What do you do to control aphids and whitefly?

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5 things you can do now to help you get the most from this winter’s rains

Here in San Diego, nearly all of our 10 inches average annual rainfall comes in the winter. How much water is that? If you use the formula of .623 gallons per square foot per inch of rain, that comes to about 26000 gallons per year that falls on our 1/10th acre lot. In other words – lots of water.

We have rain barrels to collect about 550 gallons, but what about the rest? Here are 5 ways to get started…

1) Watch this water harvesting presentation

Brad Lancaster gave a great speech at IPC10 in Jordan. His theme was Slow, Spread, and Sink the Water. If you’re a dryland dweller, it’s definitely worth 30 minutes of your time. He had some side by side photos of Tucson from long ago (before it was paved over) and today. He calculates that the annual rainfall that falls on Tuscon is greater than the municipal usage, but they have a ‘dehydration infrastructure’ – a paved system designed to move the water away as quickly as possible. He also presented much of what they’ve done to reverse that in his neighborhood.

2) Read Chapter 5 of Gaia’s Garden – Catching, Conserving and Using Water

It promotes the permaculture design principles of combining complementary techniques each of which is actually providing multiple benefits in the yard and garden. The one nugget that inspired me the most from this chapter was the explanation of how ‘sponge-like’ soil rich with humus and other organic matter is. The author, Toby Hemenway, had sterilized some rich potting soil by baking it in the oven. He had to rehydrate it. 3 quarts of soil held 1 quart of water. What does this mean for us? If we have 12 inches of rich top soil, the land can absorb and hold the first 3 inches of rain before any runoff begins. That’s a lot of water.

The basic components of the system described are:

  • high organic matter content – holds moisture, adds fertility, stores nutrients, and boosts soil life
  • deep mulching – slows evaporation, cools soil, adds fertility, boosts, soil life, and smothers weeds
  • use water conserving plants – need less water and survive drought (he provides a nice long list of Mediterranean plants)
  • dense plantings – shade the soil and smother weeds
  • soil contouring – catches water and directs it where it’s needed

The chapter really goes into some great detail on harvesting and using both rainwater and gray water. There are discussions of bigger projects like building swales and backyard wetlands as well as smaller efforts like mulching and rain barrels. It’s definitely worth the read…

3) Aerate the compacted walking areas

I’m not likely to be digging swales (well, maybe back in the canyon), so how to capture as much water as possible in the yards -which, yes, are still grass lawns. I suppose that all the little holes created by aerating the lawn will act like micro-swales to collect the rain and help it sink and soak into the soil. We have a aerator similar to the one in this picture. It works well and is good if your yard is not huge. It is pretty good good exercise and maybe the neighborhood kids can be recruited to help…

4) Amend the soil with organic matter

Here in San Diego, the dump has free compost they make from all the greens they pick up. If your city has curbside greens recycling, they may offer a similar service. They offer various grades of compost based on how long it’s been cooking and what size screen they used to filter it. You can get compost which has been processed for 10 weeks and screened to 1/2 inch for free if you load it yourself, or $12 per cubic yard if you have them load it.

5) Mulch Heavily

The dump also has mulch – similar to the compost program, but the mulch is only processed for 2 weeks. It’s graded at 4 inches and it’s only $5 for a cubic yard. A cubic yard is about a small truck load, and it looks like a lot while it’s in the truck, but a yard of mulch will cover a 10′ by 10′ area to a depth of three inches. The mulch ideally should be 4-6 inches thick, so you can adjust your expected coverage accordingly.

The keys to all this are to create entry paths for the water to get into the soil with swales or by aerating well, build organic matter into the soil to hold the water once it soaks in, and then mulch heavily to prevent evaporation.

What methods do you use to hold water on your property and reduce your consumption of municipal water? Do you have any other tips to suggest? Please add them in the comments below.

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Switch to kegging your homebrew

Jeff – this one’s for you.  The sooner you start kegging, the happier you’ll be.  It saves so much time and effort (even if you don’t include cleaning up bottle bombs) that you’ll find many more opportunities to brew.  As you brew more, you’ll get better, you’ll have some to spare and finally -you’ll bring us some samples.

Kegging homebrewHere’s my setup.  The fridge I used is a Frigidaire Model FRC445GB, and the full conversion instructions can be found at  – jump to page 7 for the full instructions.  I’m not sure this exact model is still available, but if you look through the current postings, I sure you’ll find something similar.

The 3 main things to look for are:
1) a small compressor hump in the back because you need to be able to put your kegs in
2) no freezer, or a freezer compartment that doesn’t have the freon tubes entwined in the shelf. This is not so much of an issue if you go with a taller fridge, or 3 gallon kegs. Again, just be sure you have enough room to fit Kegging Homebrewthe kegs in.
3) no freon lines in the front if you’re using front taps, or top if you’re using a tower.  You just have to nick or kink one line to convert your fridge to trash.






One nice feature about this model is that all the ‘shelves’ on the door are actually bins which you’ll have to remove to get the kegs to fit in.  But then they make great see-through storage containers for all the little odds and ends of brewing like air locks, valve parts and miscellaneous chemicals and test strips.  Some people have hot-glued one of the small bins on the front of the fridge as a drip tray. I would opt for this classier version (as opposed to the towel on the floor) if ours was not in the basement.

To do the conversion, you’ll need a kit like this one from KegConnection  – 2 Faucet Refrigerator Conversion Keg Kit –  I’m pretty sure this is where I got mine from. You can add on the CO2 tank and a keg or two if you don’t find them locally. Don’t forget to check craigslist – there are often kegs and CO2 tanks there.  Also, Hydrobrew usually has kegs, and they always have replacement gaskets which you may want if you get a used keg. You can’t keep the pressure in the keg if the gaskets are shot, and sometimes the gaskets from sodas can impart a peculiar flavor or aroma to your beer – best to start with new gaskets.

And, related only in the sense that it makes brewing easier – here’s the faucet setup for the laundry sink.  It makes washing out the 7.5 gallon kettle much easier.



And the PVC keg and fermenter washer sprays high pressure jets of hot water into all the nooks and crannies.  Since I use BetterBottles instead of glass carboys, I’m reluctant to get in there with a scrub brush because I don’t want any scratches on the inside.


So I do a vigorous wash with PBW and then the high pressure rinse.  It’s pretty quick and easy, and so far it’s kept all the kegs and fermenters nice and clean.



And… maybe this will give you a little more inspiration… here’s the recipe for one of the beers on tap now:

Amarillo Pale Ale – 3 gallon batch

6.00 lb Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM)
0.50 lb Caramel/Crystal Malt – 40L (40.0 SRM)
0.50 lb Vienna Malt (3.5 SRM)
0.25 lb Caramel/Crystal Malt – 60L (60.0 SRM)
0.25 lb Pale Malt, Maris Otter (3.0 SRM)
1.00 oz Cascade [5.50 %] (60 min)
1 whirlfloc (15 min)
Immersion Chiller if you’ve got one (15 min)
1.00 oz Amarillo Gold [8.50 %] (5 min)
1.00 oz Cascade [5.50 %] (0 min)

Heat 5 gallons water to 157F and add crushed grain to hit 152F mash temp.
Walk away for an hour.
Make sure the grain bag is not touching the kettle bottom as you heat to 170F mash out temp
Let sit (or stir if you’re so inclined) for 10 minutes
Remove the grain bag (suspend above kettle to drain).
Bring wort to boil and start 60 minute timer.
Add hops and whirlfloc (and chiller) per schedule.

Chill, aerate, and pitch your favorite ale yeast – I used US-05.

Beer Profile:
OG: 1.060 SG
FG: 1.012 SG
ABV: 6.26 %
IBU: 39.4
SRM: 10.2

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With a hoop house, we can put those chickens to work!

Since the tomatoes are done for the season and have been ripped out, I was inspired by some recent reading (Kate’s Hoop House at Living the Frugal Life ) to build a hoop house. It’s a good deal for everybody – the chickens get a little bit of new territory to scratch around in. It’s a field trip! They can look for bugs, weeds, and seeds. And – they do a little light tilling and ‘fertilizing’ at the same time.

We’re not quite ready for them to be completely free range because we still have basil, peppers, and chard going strong. So some kind of chicken tractor was in order.

The main issue with whatever I built was – where would we store it when it’s not being used, so the key to this design is that it folds flat. It’s still pretty long if we just collapse it, but if one side of the fencing is popped off (it’s only attached with zip ties) and the conduit is slipped out of the clips on the 2×4, then it’s only eight feet long and a few inches thick. It would be easy to tuck in along a wall somewhere.

Hoop house conduit


The basic construction was fairly simple. Of course, every project seems to require the purchase of one new tool. In this case the new tool was a conduit bender.  (If you’re in the neighborhood and want to borrow this, please ask!)


Hoop house framingThe 5 conduit ribs were bent into shape and attached to a 2×4. This was my first experience bending conduit, and I can see that it’s quite an art if you really care about precision.  Fortunately, my beginner skills were good enough to get all the ribs bent into just about the same shape.

After they were attached to the wood, I covered the sides with some fencing I had left over from the raspberry project.  I just used zip ties to secure it – the main thing here is to keep the chickens in – not to keep predators out. The top is an old sheet – primarily for shade and to keep the girls from thinking that they can fly out.

Working in the hoop houseThe girls quite enjoyed their foray into the garden bed. Goldie, the Rhode Island Red, can really fling the dirt aside as she’s scratching around looking for bugs. The others are a little more mellow.

I can also envision covering the hoop house with row cover or some plastic to make one of the beds into a green house for winter salads and earlier starts for the spring plantings.

What about you – do your chickens range free in the garden? Do they eat everything in sight? Can you suggest any design improvements to the hoop house I built?

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