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Mike Boss is a Plant Ecologist, Permaculturist, and a certified Plant Geek. He is the founder of the Award-Winning: Rock & Rose Landscapes, based in San Francisco.
The second part of the interview with Mike Boss can be viewed in the video below.
The next part of the program is going to be coming up in a minute and I just wanted to talk about it briefly. So, I was in California earlier this summer and I have an old friend: my friend Mike Boss. I’ve known him since I was 10 years old and he’s always been this nature boy. In fact, he’s a plant ecologist, a permaculturist, and he calls himself a certified plant geek. And he’s the founder of the award winning Rock and Rose Landscapes, which is based in San Francisco, and he recently founded the edible nursery project. And we went into his garden at his home in San Francisco and he showed me around to all the wonderful plants that he’s growing and talked about how he’s grown them and why he’s growing them. I tasted some amazing things and there was a bit of wind while we were in his garden. It is the windy city, San Francisco, so you might hear a little bit of the wind in the recording of this show and then, after the recording that you’ll hear today, I invite you to visit my website ResponsibleEatingAndLiving.com where you can see the remainder of this interview. We walked around his garden and he’ll show you the different plants and trees that he’s growing. I really enjoyed it. It’s so important not only to eat healthy whole plant foods, but if you can and you have space, you can be growing some in your yard. Even on a windowsill, we can be growing herbs and things and the flavors and tastes of foods that are so fresh are better than anything. Okay, so I invite you to join me for the second part of this show right now with Mike Boss.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass with It’s All About Food and thanks for joining me today. We’ve got a very special interview for you. You may be able to hear it. I am sitting in Bernal Heights in San Francisco in the garden of my friend Michael Boss and I’ve known Mike for almost 50 years. It’s kind of hard to believe.
Mike Boss: Close to that.
Caryn Hartglass: Close to 50 years!
Mike Boss: I think we met in fifth grade.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, in Hebrew school if you remember. Yeah, we were both 10 years old. Okay, so Mike went to Vassar College and studied biology. And then he got a master’s at Syracuse in plant ecology.
Mike Boss: Yes. Correct.
Caryn Hartglass: And I’ve always known you as someone who loved the outdoors. I remember when I visited you and you were getting your master’s, you were doing a special project in Lake Placid.
Mike Boss: Well, in the Adirondacks. Yeah, I was studying post-fire vegetation in subalpine forest of the Adirondacks.
Caryn Hartglass: And I took a bus to Lake Placid and you picked me up there. And then you took me to your lean-to where you were staying during the summer and then gave me a tour of the woods around there. It was amazing. Unforgettable.
Mike Boss: The Adirondacks are a pretty special space that’s for sure.
Caryn Hartglass: So, this show’s All About Food and we’re going to be talking about food. Now one of things, as I mentioned we’re here in San Francisco, but you really have no idea that you’re sitting in this urban environment.
Mike Boss: Yeah, I mean, there’s views in my garden here that you would think we were in Sonoma County. Not San Francisco.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. It’s very calm, very peaceful, very lush and very… Oh my god, the blue sky is clear. We’re sitting under the shade of a – what kind of tree is that?
Mike Boss: This is a Monterey Cypress.
Caryn Hartglass: Of course, it’s a Monterey Cypress. No food from there, no?
Mike Boss: No. Well, you could make flour with the pollen. You could cook the pollen. Of course it’s a little bit high right now. You’d have to jump real high.
Caryn Hartglass: This guy is a wealth of information and it’s always such a pleasure to get little tours, so we got a little tour of the garden here and okay. So, let’s just go back for a minute. Why did you study biology?
Mike Boss: It was really about plants and gardens that got me into it. My mother was an extraordinary gardener and I didn’t even realize it at the time, but that really seeped into me. And our family vacations were always… My father was a school teacher so a) we didn’t have very much money and b) we had summers off. So, we would go camping and that’s where I just developed my love of the woods even though I grew up in suburban Long Island.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, many of us grew up in suburban Long Island and went in very different paths. Now, you founded a landscaping company here in San Francisco called Rock and Rose and I’m smiling when I say that name. I love that name.
Mike Boss: Well, you helped me come up with that name as a matter of fact.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah and that’s how long have you had that business?
Mike Boss: Since 1989. So, that’s almost three decades.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes and now you’re pursuing or thinking about pursuing some other things in addition to Rock and Rose and we’ll talk a little about that too. So, let’s get into the food here and let’s just start first with your garden.
Mike Boss: Alright. So this garden is described… would be described as a food forest garden. A food forest is a permaculture concept and basically the classic food forest means that you have food produced at multiple strata in the forest in the garden. Not just vegetables in a bag (annual vegetables), but an over-story. A classic would be be maybe having an overstory as a walnut tree, an understory as a persimmon tree, shrubs as blueberries, perennials as artichokes or rhubarbs, ground-covering plants like strawberries, and maybe you have a passion flower vine growing up through it. I’m not crazy about the term food forest, especially here in a Mediterranean food climate where forests are not the same as a forest back East and everyone has a different concept of a forest, but that’s one of the permaculture principles: is that it all depends. So, where you are and basically… So permaculture – permanent agriculture morphed into permanent culture – is a concept that came out of Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the early seventies. Hit North America in the late seventies and basically a definition that I’ve heard. There’s a lot of definitions and it’s very arguable what the real definition (and there is no such thing), but it’s a design approach to building systems that support human settlement according to the principles of nature.
Caryn Hartglass: Human settlement according to the principles of nature. I don’t think most of us are doing that today.
Mike Boss: No. As a matter fact, we’re not and that’s why a lot of the problems in our society are facing us.
Caryn Hartglass: We are so separated from nature, many people don’t even want to be in nature. They’re almost afraid of nature.
Mike Boss: Yeah, the nature deficit syndrome is…
Caryn Hartglass: The nature deficit syndrome – is that a coin phrase?
Mike Boss: Yeah, that’s the thing.
Caryn Hartglass: NDS.
Mike Boss: So yes, especially, we’re so addicted to our electronics and few of us actually get out anymore except to go get lattes.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. I remember asking one of my nephews when he was very young where the apple came from that he was eating and he said Public’s, which was the local grocery store and you know we…
Mike Boss: Sure. Food comes from… Everyone knows what aisle in Safeway the food comes from.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, but a lot has to happen before it gets there.
Mike Boss: Oh my god. And so, that’s one of the things that I am trying to work on right now; is to have awareness about that. So, for every apple that you eat… Here in San Francisco, most of our apples are grown out in the Central Valley in these big agro farms (giant corporate farm food factories in sterile environments) because of all the herbicides and pesticides that they spray to keep us the fruit from being absolutely beautiful; and then that fruit gets picked by people not often making a whole lot of money. And then it gets shipped to a processing plant – think of burning the fossil fuel. And then it goes from the processing plant to a distribution center – think more burning.
Caryn Hartglass: … fossil fuel [laughs].
Mike Boss: Yes. And then to the Safeway distributing plant to then to the Safeway and then we drive to the Safeway to go and pick up the food. So, that’s the environmental footprint. That’s only part of the environmental footprint… Not to mention the fertilizers and the pesticides and the production of those. Versus picking an apple from your backyard.
Caryn Hartglass: And eating it.
Mike Boss: And eating it. And it’s going to be fresh.
Caryn Hartglass: I love it and we’re going to be eating some of the other foods that you have in this garden.
Mike Boss: I have a little pile right here beside me and why don’t we start with a more traditional well-known plant: the Santa Rosa plum.
Caryn Hartglass: The Santa Rosa plum.
Mike Boss: Developed by Luther Burbank not that far from here up in Sonoma County and this came off of the tree that’s right over and you see it’s loaded with fruit.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m just looking at it. It is so beautiful and it’s overloaded. All those pinkish purple dots…
Mike Boss: Would you like to have a bite?
Caryn Hartglass: I would! I would!
Mike Boss: You would?
Caryn Hartglass: Yep.
Mike Boss: It’s juicy.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s good. Oh, that’s so good. Look at that… It’s full of color and another thing that people don’t really realize: when you pick some fruit off of a tree or pick it off the ground because it’s fallen and it’s warm out and you taste the warm fruit. Not like cold out of the refrigerator. There’s nothing like it.
Mike Boss: Oh my god, there’s nothing like it. So, I grew up eating dried figs that you got in a round and packaged and I would love those. Those are really good and it was a long time before I ever had a fresh fig. And now, at least in progressive markets, you can often find fresh figs, but there is nothing like eating a sun-ripened warm fig right off of the tree in the garden. So, this is a fig tree that’s right over here just a few feet from us and it’s a fig called Desert King. Green fig… This is the breba crop which is the first season crop. It’ll have a second crop later in the year. Figs are very fascinating plants. They’re Mediterranean plants and they’re very different; their varieties are very different in their cultural requirements. So, here in cool San Francisco, a lot of the figs like the Mission fig doesn’t really grow very well, but Brown Turkey; Desert King; and the Violette du Bordeaux.
Caryn Hartglass: Très bien.
Mike Boss: Merci. Beautiful fig. I mean, how could you not eat a Violette du Bordeaux? I mean, that sounds so sexy, you’d just want to lick it.
Caryn Hartglass: The Violette du Bordeaux. Yeah.
Mike Boss: But it’s a black fig. Dark fig with a really deep red interior inside and it tastes as sexy as it sounds.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, well I was going to say this one looked pretty sexy too. There’s something about these figs. Do you have different kinds grafted on this tree?
Mike Boss: No, only one. I have not gotten into grafting. Grafting is a wonderful way to increase your variety of fruit without taking up additional space. I’ve been at a friend’s house who has an apple tree that’s got like 25 different varieties of apples grafted onto one tree. And that would extend your eating season because you would graft early ripening apples or fruit at mid-season and then late-season.
Caryn Hartglass: So, the fascinating thing about the plant kingdom and eating plants and focusing on eating plants is there seems to be an infinite variety. And when you go to the supermarket, there’s only so many kinds that we’re all familiar with. But if you travel around the world, very often you get to discover some fruits and vegetables that are more popular in that area and that’s a fun way to discover more of them. And then there are some that we’ve just lost, but you’re growing some things here, right here in San Francisco, that I’ve never seen or heard of before.
Mike Boss: Yes, I’ve got… There’s a lot of things and what’s amazing is how many varieties of fruit and food. Not only fruit but roots, fruits, and chutes are available and can be grown in here and also wherever you are. There are plants that will be growing that you’d never even heard of that will do really well. So, here’s a fruit that you would only know about this if you’ve been to South America most likely and eaten it there because it’s not commercially viable because it doesn’t store. When it gets ripe, it gets squishy really really quick.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s not a well behaved shipping fruit.
Mike Boss: No no, it’s not a Delicious apple which was bred because of its shipping qualities and its looks as opposed to its taste. If you’ve ever had a Delicious apple, they look great and they’re not…
Caryn Hartglass: They don’t taste good. They’re…
Mike Boss: Well, they’re not my favorite apple by any means.
Caryn Hartglass: … pithy. That’s the word I have in mind.
Mike Boss: So here, why don’t you try this Sapote?
Caryn Hartglass: So, that is creamy on the inside.
Mike Boss: How would you describe the creaminess?
Caryn Hartglass: Well this one… It’s very light. I’m trying to figure it out. Sometimes when you try something new, it takes awhile for your tongue or to your tastebuds to even know what you’re eating.
Mike Boss: For me, it kind of tastes like a creamy, sweet, juicy banana.
Caryn Hartglass: It has… it’s banana-like. I definitely get the banana notes.
Mike Boss: The only fruit that I know that’s anything like this is called a Cherimoya, which you see more often. Big fruit.
Caryn Hartglass: Those are good.
Mike Boss: They’re like eight dollars per fruit in the store.
Caryn Hartglass: Right.
Mike Boss: And it’s on the order of a custardy apple.
Caryn Hartglass: Would you like to try some? [laughs]. Very good.
Mike Boss: So, while we’re on fruits… I have another wonderful fruit here.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, I love these.
Mike Boss: This is called a Cape gooseberry and it’s not a gooseberry if you’ve had gooseberries. It’s just called that. They’re starting to be appearing in the markets without the husk on it and it’s a relative of the tomatillo.
Caryn Hartglass: So, I love it. It’s like delicately packaged with a light paper.
Mike Boss: Yes and you open it up and reveal the…
Caryn Hartglass: … the prize.
Mike Boss: The wonderful fruit inside. So, here, this is for you, Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: And you’re going to take my sapote?
Mike Boss: Yes, I’m going to finish it off.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, now I’ve had a few of these and I’m going to try this one now. What I love about this: it looks like a little cherry tomato. It has a tomato flavor but there’s this vanilla cinnamony I don’t know what it is. What do you think? I think it would make a great… Well, it’s great on its own, but a pie.
Mike Boss: Yeah. Well, you would need a lot to make a pie and you could grow a lot because they’re really prolific and they produce fruit really easily. The one that I planted and I just picked this off of, I planted a month and a half ago and I get a dozen of them a day or every time I come out.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s vanilla. I think vanilla.
Mike Boss: Well, I think it’s a must have in a San Francisco food garden.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Mike Boss: Pretty plant. Sprawls. So, it’s a relative of the tomatillo as I said, which is often used for making salsas, but this has some sweetness in it, so it’s a delicious fruit.
Caryn Hartglass: Fantastic. Isn’t this exciting?
Mike Boss: So, there’s the fruits. We’ve dealt with some fruits. Let’s go with some chutes.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, now chutes.
Mike Boss: Chutes.
Caryn Hartglass: Don’t chute me. Let’s do the chutes.
Mike Boss: I’m going to chute you good. But what we mean by chutes are leaves. Of course, the classic leaf that you get is a head of iceberg lettuce. A little less on nutrition than a lot of other things and…
Caryn Hartglass: It’s good on crunch.
Mike Boss: Yeah, it’s got some crunch. Definitely got some crunch, but…
Caryn Hartglass: And it’s a good hydrating vegetable because it’s full of water.
Mike Boss: How about… this is a little chute of a plant called Malabar spinach. It grows in subtropical regions of Africa and it’s a vine. Here let me get you one.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Malabar spinach. It’s a thick leaf. It’s got a little more muscle to it than our spinach that we get.
Mike Boss: Yeah. Well, it’s called spinach. It’s not related to spinach at all. It’s only spinach because it’s a leaf.
Caryn Hartglass: It looks like a… What does it look like? It’s a light avocado color, obviously, but it… Okay, it doesn’t necessarily look like spinach but it…
Mike Boss: It’s a little bit succulent.
Caryn Hartglass: Yep.
Mike Boss: It’s very palatable just without cooking. Added to a salad for…
Caryn Hartglass: It does taste like spinach. I mean, maybe because you called it a Malabar spinach, so I’m thinking of spinach, but it does have a spinach flavor.
Mike Boss: So, another edible green (another chute) is tree collards and this is the purple variety, which adds visual interest in the garden. It’s a nice purple…
Caryn Hartglass: … and nutrition because purple comes with some good antioxidants.
Mike Boss: So, this is something that you could eat raw or what I like to do is: I like to take the leaf and there’s a technical term for this and I forget what it is.
Caryn Hartglass: Chiffonade! You roll up the leaf and then slice it in thin ribbons.
Mike Boss: Chiffonade. I’m chiffon on it… And then I’ll put it into anything that’s a saute, a stir-fry, and only cook for a couple minutes.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, this is a tree collard but it’s not related to the collards?
Mike Boss: No. It’s more related to a mustard. It’s in the Brassicaceae family. I’m not sure if swiss chard is a brassica or not… There you go.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, here we go. It’s green and purple and kind of muscley. I’m wondering what it would be like if I massaged it in my salad [laughs]. Like kale. Chewy. Tastes like kale.
Mike Boss: If you like kale, this is a kale substitute.
Caryn Hartglass: Fantastic.
Mike Boss: And this gives right here… this greens all year long. You can’t not get greens.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. That’s great. Now, it grows all year long here in San Francisco, which gets cold, but not too cold.
Mike Boss: Correct.
Caryn Hartglass: Right.
Mike Boss: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Like if I tried to grow this in New York…
Mike Boss: In New York? No, I think you’d have to bring it in for the winter.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Because some kales do well up into like January and February actually on the East coast, but then the frost gets them.
Mike Boss: So, this is a edible chrysanthemum: chrysanthemum coronarium. And it’s common in Asian cuisine cooking. Put it in stews and soups.
Caryn Hartglass: Has a very fresh scent. Have you ever had it in… Do any of the restaurants? Have you seen it?
Mike Boss: I have a Japanese friend and he’s had it.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s tasty. It’s… I want to say lemony but it’s got a little brightness to it in the flavor. Very nice. Now, is this a perennial?
Mike Boss: No. This is an annual here. This is a… I have nothing against annuals. I’m focusing on perennials in my work. So, it’s called a shungiku.
Caryn Hartglass: In Japanese?
Mike Boss: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: Shungiku.
Mike Boss: Shungiku. So, it starts to get into the what I’m trying to do right now with gardens is to use these perennial edible plants as structural elements in gardens. So, instead of planting pansies, why not get your color from something like this that you could actually eat?
Caryn Hartglass: Eat.
Mike Boss: So, we start stacking functions and other permaculture principles. So, single elements have multiple functions in the garden whether it’s structural, whether it’s screening, or color. And as long as we’re talking about flowers, it’s important to note that: you don’t want every plant in your garden only to be edible because really what we’re trying to do is creating a natural ecology doing things according to the principles of nature – the ecology of it all. So, we need pollinators and here there are a lot of pollinators plants. Salvias are native to this area and are a big source of pollinators. There’s many many many plants and they’re going to vary by region, so…
Caryn Hartglass: What is a pollinator plant?
Mike Boss: It’s a plant that will attract insects that would cause pollination. So, things that attract honey bees for example. Now, honey bees are not native to most regions around here, but if you use the native plants in your location, you’ll attract native pollinator species of insects and birds that will pollinate your fruit trees, so you need to have sources of nectar all year long. So, to plan a real true food forest garden that’s functioning, you would get pollinator plants – pollinator attracting plants that are blooming throughout the season. And again, natives are a big source of those because of the native insects are mostly the insects that are there.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, so I want to talk a little about big agriculture – the industrial agriculture that grows our fruits and vegetables. And there are lots of people that study in universities on what the best methods are to grow our fruits and vegetables in this manner and we’re finding that we’re losing colonies of bees; we’re losing colonies of pollinators. And yet, you’re telling me and I’m seeing here. I mean, I see the bees. They look very happy; thriving. I know other people that are growing in their bio-dynamic organic farms and gardens. They have no problems with the bees. And yet, our big ag experts can’t seem to connect the dots between the toxins that they’re putting in their fields that are either killing or at least making the bees want to go somewhere else.
Mike Boss: They’re actually killing them. They’re spraying I think it’s called…
Caryn Hartglass: Neonicotinoids or I don’t know if I pronounced it correctly, but they’re deadly.
Mike Boss: Yes and they’re killing bees by the millions.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah but when you set up a scenario like this (working with nature not against nature), you have so much abundance and everybody’s working together. You want your soil to be alive… Hi, who’s this?
Mike Boss: This is Peach.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi Peach. We’ve got a little cat here. Meow [laughs].
Mike Boss: Meow.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so what were you going to show me next? One of our chutes.
Mike Boss: So, stacking functions. One of those functions is about beauty. I mean, we’ve talked about food, we’ve talked about pollinator, and what about beauty? Because we are people and we are attracted by beauty and it stimulates us and we are drawn to it on many different forms. So, the flowers and also the leaves of the plants. And so, what I’m trying to do is to really make beautiful gardens with edible plants. So, these are chives and everyone thinks “Oh, vegetable gardens: boring,” but using the chive in a garden as you would a flowering perennial? Why not?
Caryn Hartglass: Sure. Can I eat this?
Mike Boss: Yeah. It’s a little… As they go to flower, they get a little bit woody, but take a little bite of the flower.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, the flower? I can eat the flower?
Mike Boss: Yeah, you can put the flower in salads. Talk about a beautiful salad. Who wants to eat salads? Make it beautiful.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh my god, that’s so good. I remember we grew chives on our terrace briefly and I was so surprised when this flower came up.
Mike Boss: There you go.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s just stunning.
Mike Boss: So, probably this bud is going to be really delicious.
Caryn Hartglass: You going to let me have it? No, okay, you can have it! This is great.
Mike Boss: Really mild onion flavor. It’s just like chives in your… Oh, it is chives in your salad!
Caryn Hartglass: Right. It’s fantastic. You chop a few of these up in a little silken tofu and you have a great spread.
Mike Boss: Back to plants that may repel insects, I think more powerful is developing an ecosystem that will support itself. So, when you have an ecosystem and you’re not spraying insecticides, even organic insecticides kill.
Caryn Hartglass: Yep.
Mike Boss: When you avoid that, you start allowing the ecology to work and predator insects start coming, and keep things in check. Aphids are…
Caryn Hartglass: Beneficial insects. Yep.
Mike Boss: There you go. Aphids are a big problem particularly on the tree collards. You have to watch it, but there are a lot of bugs (lacewing beetles, soldier beetles) that will. Lacewing larvae, soldier beetles, and ladybugs will just plow through the aphids. So, here, what we have to do to keep out… to allow those to get here to keep out the ants because ants are actually herders like we herd sheep and we cultivate sheep. Ants do that to the aphids and they will attack any predator insect, so now we have to do some ant control. And if you can’t get to that, you don’t need to spray diazinon or even safer soap or neem oil. All of that will kill aphids but how about just a forceful jet of water? Knocks the aphids off and there you go. A low-impact insecticide if you will called water.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, water. A forceful jet of water. Wow. Who invented that, Mike?
Mike Boss: I don’t know, but not me [laughs]. Hey, would you like to take a walk in the garden?
Caryn Hartglass: I would. I would. Let’s go!
Mike Boss: Okay, let’s go!
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. That’s the end of our show for today everybody. If you would like to hear the remainder of this interview, please join me on the tour of my friend Mike’s San Francisco garden. You can view the video and see all the roots, fruits, and chutes we’ve talked about at my website ResponsibleLivingAndEating.com. Thanks for joining me today. I’m Caryn Hartglass. This has been It’s All About Food. Have a delicious week.
Transcribed by Carol Mock
Since 2009, It’s All About Food, has been bringing you the best in up-to-date news regarding food and our food system. Hosted by Caryn Hartglass, a vegan since 1988, the program includes in-depth interviews with medical doctors; nutritionists; dietitians; cook book authors; athletes; environmental, animals and health activists; farmers; food manufacturers; lawyers; food scientists and more. Learn about how we can solve many of the world’s problems today and do it deliciously, here on It’s All About Food.