Archive for category gardening

Putting the Earth Together

As we conclude a week of attention on all matters of our environment, we need to figure out how to put all the pieces together.

Let’s start with the compost pile. It sounds like an ending for many of our thoughts, but today we focus on its multi-tiered value. For instance, every time you avoid running your garbage disposal, you are saving electricity. Create a compost pile or collect your compostable items and take them to a business that accepts them. A number of farm markets or green grocers are happy to let you join their efforts. Look at what New York City is doing. All that waste has a great second life. If you have the space, purchase a composter, but buy one that makes it easy to turn the contents so that you are diligently mixing up the items and making terrific compost. Numerous examples.

For many people, this week needs a heads-up on being a locavore, being a consumer of goods that we can purchase locally from nearby growers and producers. Those who live close enough to a farm market have a distinct advantage; a parallel to those who live in the country and can easily visit the nearby producer. For others, great distances are involved and then the inverse question needs to be asked: How much money does one save by supporting local if we are adding significant carbon miles to our outings? Likewise, if the farmer travels great distances, what impact does his farm market participation have? OK, the obvious answer is, he has an outlet for his products and we as consumers have the advantage of purchasing truly fresh foods. We are helping maintain a farm.csabox_120x120

The emphasis on buying local has convinced numerous grocers to sign agreements with producers as consumer awareness, especially at the beginning of the farm-fresh, produce season, is focused on buying local. Many grocers now have huge entryway signs telling us how many local products they have for purchase each day. More grocers are making deals with the nearby producers giving us an additional outlet to support the smaller grower. Freshness remains unmatched; we just need to calculate the distance and put it into the equation.

Maybe this is the week you focus on your own growing efforts. We are just weeks away from being out of the frost zone in most parts of the country. The markets have plenty of starter plants. Plenty of opportunities to have your own garden. Nothing more local than that!

One day; one week: It will take an on-going dialogue and action to help put our house in order.

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Gardening Hopes

It’s that time of the year when the sun shines so brightly and calls us outside to entice us into dreaming about fresh flowers and vegetables. The flowers are easier. They seem to be ready to put up with the daily temperature shifts and the uncertainty of the wind and its cool breezes. Vegetables in mid-April in many parts of the country are still too finicky for our inexperienced meteorological decision-making. We are better off skimming the catalogs and visiting the markets.

This weekend marks the opening of many farm market sites that have been sitting dormant since early November. The crowds today attest to the potential, the excitement of someone bringing to market just-picked vegetables from our area. Even with the early morning chill still cast over the customers eagerly clutching their own reusable bags, there was more excitement about welcoming back the vendors than guffawing over their products. Because of the irregular, (translate as rough, cold, and wet) winter, many of the regulars had little to show for their maiden trip to town. They were full of promise, and most visitors were eager to greet and plan for future weeks when more than local asparagus would grace the tabletops.117503There were plenty of starter plants, both vegetables and herbs, for the home gardener to purchase and plant but minimal in the just-picked category.

Patience for all. Asparagus for now.

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No Joke: It’s April 1

gardentrellisSeriously, the East Coast skips spring and moves directly to summer–at least that’s what high 70 degree temperatures feel like on the first day of April. Could this be an omen of what’s to come: The real summer heat? Hmm.

With the sudden burst of hot weather, you start thinking about digging in the soil and getting the garden ready for summer. A simple caveat: Do not plant tomatoes until you’re certain that no more surprise cool mornings with frost warnings will visit and kill the spiny, early plants. Think mid-May, Mother’s Day at least, for your own garden.

Take the time now to work the soil and add nutrients and research the type of garden you want. Are you doing a raised structure or thinking about trellises and hoops? These are the questions that are now timely. It’s hard to forget the great tomato blight of last year. What a costly disappointment that one hopes will not revisit us. Do some research; buy seeds and crops grown from other areas outside of the hard-hit path of tomato destruction. There are no real guarantees to protect you from a repeat of last year, but the best advice is to find a grower or seed company that at least addresses the issue!

This is also a great time to reacquaint yourself with the farmers who are coming to market. Many more farm markets are arriving in little pockets of neighborhoods. This is the type of commerce we need. Supporting the grower should be an early spring maxim. It’s not that difficult to do.

With all the talk about obesity and the foods that kill us, buying fresh and local helps alleviate many of the disastrous food cravings we are all guilty of enjoying. Yes, costs sometimes seem prohibitive but the health benefit analysis paints a very different picture.

Maybe we should eat less in order to eat better.

No joke.


Green Bagels Tomorrow

It’s funny about certain holidays; everyone wants to participate. St. Patrick’s Day is one of those holidays. Today you rest; tomorrow you party. It’s that kind of day and very few food establishments want to be left out of the festivities. Bagel stores have their signs up announcing the green bagel selection for tomorrow. Just heard from one of the local chili places saying they didn’t want to miss out on the fun. See what I mean. Don’t worry your favorite cupcake shop is adding an extra shift to make plenty of green ones (maybe a good day for a Key Lime cupcake). There’s always Irish Soda Bread: Check out the recipes at All Recipes and find one to make everyone smile. sodabread

Naturally the bars and pubs are ready and some will be pouring green beer to make the day an especially memorable one. Plenty of corned beef and cabbage to round it out.

Here’s a big garden tip: If you live in the mid-Atlantic, tomorrow is a perfect day to plant peas. Nothing greener or sweeter when they’re ready. Just watch the ground and try not to step on the wet soil, use a plank or a board to avoid squishing down the ground further. The weather’s ready for that first crop of spring.

Go green: A good day to add an environmental thought to the food mix.

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Food Words/Concepts of the Year, the Decade

Now that we are in the wind-down stage of the month, the year, the decade, it’s time to look back before we focus our energies on the brighter future. It’s coming, right?

In the food world, it’s been a vocabulary buster. New words were created to define the state of the industry and the intensity of the passionate chef and consumer. All who were interested in food and sourcing (there’s a word) became trend followers as everyone seemed to consider himself a foodie (bad word, overused).

The word locavore was born. This is a word that says it all and says too much, all at the same time. Everyone wanted a ride on this gravy train as a way to support the farmer and all the local producers. People wanted to be called locavores for all their efforts! Food miles became an added descriptor helping people explain that proximity plays an important role in all our purchases. Some even chastised those who exceeded purchases beyond a 100-mile radius.

This was certainly the decade for the farmer, a previously forgotten soul who was hidden under big agriculture’s compost. Although statistics remain gloomy in terms of the small farmer’s livelihood, people wanted to connect with farmers and became loyal devotees of farm markets which managed to end the decade with much higher visibility. CSAs grew in popularity and became more mainstream than alternative as they were a decade or so ago. Green became our favorite color as we recycled and composted: We finally understood Kermit’s mantra.

Vegetable gardening became a headline grabber. Everyone dug the garden culture this year including The White House one, spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama who stressed healthy eating.

One of my favorite new food phrases being thrown about is ranch of origin. If you can’t find it locally, then at least you want to know where it is coming from and who is bringing the product to market. I just saw that phrase for the first time not too long ago and believe it will be a keeper. Knowing our food source has become an important shopping goal in light of some of the more fearful food words of the year: food recalls and food safety.

Of course, there’s been heightened interest in organics, but price has been a problem this year with the bleak economic situation, but organic dairy has proven a growth industry.  More people are discovering food allergies and the gluten-free market has literally exploded.

Sustainability has become an important consideration, especially in terms of  the dwindling fish population and the importance of finding foods that are not being overfished. Is it wild has become a common query as farm-raised fish, once a darling concept, lost its luster as questions occur about the water itself–are the fish swimming in chemically-laden runoff?

As for new foods and those we retired: Tilapia has certainly grown in popularity basically because of its less expensive price point and its versatility. Kobe Beef quietly succumbed to the new reality of less spending money and was replaced by its less expensive-sounding name, Wagyu. Semantics. Then there were the hamburger denizens, many overseen by popular chefs who once captured audiences with their expense-account locations.

Of course, the ever-present cupcake helped us maintain our obesity status as food trucks even got in on the never-ending dessert action.

This has been the decade for more products available in cryovac to communicate safer food handling. Sous vide preparation moved from the top tier chef to the home aficionado. The home chef became a reality during this past year as so many people saved their dining out dollars for more clever in-home preparations.

Foam magically appeared on many restaurant dishes as molecular gastronomy has become an important technique for many chefs. With that notion, we grew from 3-course prix-fixe menus to extravagant small plates, with big-name chefs striving for 10 or more courses.coolpot We became cooking scientists.

Then there are the words I hope never to see again: E.coli and Salmonella, both too present in our discussions. Too fearful. We purchased way too many containers of hand sanitizers.

The list goes on.

I look for a year, a decade of great food and new traditions.

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Who To Trust?

With all our emphasis on buying local, finding a farmer to supply a restaurant, getting sustainable seafood, and going to restaurants that help support the local economy, it’s difficult to learn that one such restaurant was operating on a pretense of supporting local, sustainable,and the small grower universe. When questions were asked, the answers were less clear. More mumble than definites.

Welcome to the world of almost local and almost sustainable. That’s the story behind one of DC’s more popular restaurants, Founding Farmers. The Washington Post reported that the restaurant’s popularity as a go-to destination for its commitment to the local creed somehow lessened in the past several months. (Check out both links and you’ll get the who said what to whom story). The restaurant bills itself as one that serves fresh farm-to-table food, owned by a collective of family farmers. Menu changes were  not made, and the public was not informed that many of the suppliers were no longer an arms-length away.

Did diners care? That’s, of course, a question. Judging by the crowd scene and the noise level, the restaurant will survive nicely from its buzz as a go-to spot popular for its many communal seatings and generally recognized as a player in the dining scene.

More importantly from my perspective is the question, why, if the restaurant made these supplier changes, were diners, the city, the restaurant community etc not told? There are many wonderful chefs out there throughout the country that decided the big agri-business would not fit their models. They treasure the partnerships and value the fact that they can keep small growers alive. They adjust their menus to seasonality needs and keep everyone informed if their philosophy changes or they make supplier changes.

The Inn at Little Washington, the popular (won every major honor in the food world) 5-star experience in Washington, VA, has, almost since its inception over 30 years ago, supported many nearby small growers. Many of the little guys now have contracts to grow specifically for the Dining Room. That is a model alive in Chicago, Napa, Sonoma, and in multiple major cities throughout the country. Buying local and supporting the little guy has been a positive for the home and restaurant chef whether from a small garden patch or a grass-fed beef supplier.

innatlittlewI love to support the grower, the small producer, the cattle rancher, and sustainable fishmonger, but know larger restaurants need to dip into a bigger pool. I just like to know that what I see printed is fact. I just want the facts.

Just the facts, ma’am.

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Sad Day: Summer No More

We knew it was coming, so there should be no surprises. Today is officially the 1st day of Fall; the end of Summer. In the East, it was a quick, fairly weird summer that began with 4 weeks of rain. mushroom_variety.jpg_1322887158Impenetrable, event-spoiling rain. Activities were shelved, but more importantly summer gardens were sent into turmoil. It’s nice to water new seedlings, but drowning is seldom a positive option. That’s what we had.

Some of the 1st tomatoes were bug-born or less than the big beauties of years past. After the rain; of course, the drought followed. Mother Nature’s watering is far preferable to hand-watering or in-ground sprinklers. Crops were confused, and the bounty of last year’s July was nowhere to be seen this year. August played a fair game, especially at the farm markets where the peaches, nectarines, and plums dominated. So many wonderful cobblers.

Now we are deep into apple season with more varieties than you can spell. Each with a little different taste and crunch; each a veritable treat in itself. Apples and cold-weather crops are fine, but there is something sad about saying goodbye to summer. It feels so final as if we have to hunker in already for winter.

Grab a shovel; there’s still time to do some planting. The Thanksgiving table will appreciate the Fall bounty.

In the meantime, light up the grill and plop down eggplant, peppers, late season squash, and big cloves of garlic: Ratatouille.

Always end with bright news: Mushroom season!


If You Like It, Plant It Yourself

spinachsaladThere are lots of products that could easily fit under the “grow it yourself” headline, but I think spinach and alfalfa sprouts should qualify for a tie at first place. It seems everytime we turn around there is another recall for one or both of the veggie products. Growing them does not require rocket science, just a little tender loving care and little patience. Then you can take the spinach and alfalfa sprout Salmonella worries off the table. That’s a far better proposition than waiting for the latest recall news: Spinach.

Oh, there’ll be plenty of other contenders who’ll vie for a position, but these two products seem the worst offenders. In prior recalls, spinach has been targeted for possible E.coli concerns, too. If you follow the planting guidelines, you can enjoy homegrown spinach and frequently dine on a healthy, worry-free spinach salad. As for alfalfa sprouts, we’re talking about almost instant gratification: About 6 days and you’ve got a winner.

Be Safe: Trust the Grower.

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The White House and the Farm Market

farmfreshBy all indications, it looks as if The White House is championing efforts for a farm stand, a farmer’s market, near the White House. This has been a wonderful spring and summer with First Lady Michelle Obama openly visible in the city promoting healthy eating and trying to get her message across about fresh, local foods. The White House Garden, by all indications, has been hugely successful and productive. Her outreach to youngsters whether to help dig the Garden, or to taste the fruits of their labor has been met with positive smiles (check out the videos on the Garden website).

The message quite simply says we need to teach the young and their families about the importance of eating healthy, about supporting the farmers, the growers. Now in what looks like a major coup for DC-based FreshFarm Markets, the operators at this new location near The White House. That is if the street permits, closing a small stretch of road near the White House for Thursday afternoons until the end of October, pass the approval process. Since the expected hours for the Market include the dreaded DC Rush Hour, this is not a plan without controversy.

At this point in time (one week before the anticipated opening), it is unclear how much produce, if any, will come from the White House Garden and if that will be made available in a less expensive format to those in need.

One possibility is to add this location to the DOUBLEDOLLARS program that FreshFarm Markets offers at two locations. The Wholesome Wave Foundation has made it possible to provide matching market food dollars to customers who use Food Stamps, WIC, or Senior “Get Fresh” coupons. Such a program provides the necessary outreach to individuals who otherwise would find the local, farm fresh products exorbitantly expensive.

Opening a farm market near the White House, whether produce came from the Garden, or not, would be another important step in the Administration’s food outreach.

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Garden Talk

It’s true sometimes you have to bend down and give the plants a little love. Especially this year on the East Coast when every garden article mentions the late harvest tomato blight which is actually occuring fairly early in the season. In some areas the blight affects potatoes, too–they’re calling it reminiscent of the great potato famine! Not good: Two of my favorites, one wipeout!

Tomatoes have not been themselves lately. Many of the expensive heritages have just not made it–they’ve languished and been tasteless. On restaurant menus you see more tomato soup recipes than salad caprese, a favorite mozzarella pairing. Greenhouse tomatoes, or the old faithful in the garden like the Big Boy, are having a better year. Organic farmers who may lose their whole crop are faced with an even larger dilemma: Spray and save and lose their organic certification or chalk this up to a bad year.

With an increase in home gardening, listening to the land has taught some harsh lessons, but getting a jump on seasonal rituals has helped many preserve their crop, however limited. Canning has already become a popular option and some stores which were caught off guard without enough supply last year are noticing an increase in sales. You need the right equipment. canning-pantry_2062_11864846Canning can be tricky, but there are several steps that ensure food safety. Follow them and you can share your bounty well into next year.

Nothing beats taking out the fruits of your labor in the off season.

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