Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: The Earth Moved

Earthworms are an especially fascinating topic for every child. Picking them up out of the yard to hold them, watch them (and hopefully place them back on the ground with their life still in tact), is a popular activity around here!
This book will teach you a lot more about earthworms so that you can share the tidbits with your kids the next time you hold squiggling worm with them. It may even motivate you to build a worm composter. I know that project is now definitely on our growing list of gardening activities!

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A few surprises were in store for me as I read this lovely little book. Most of us know that earthworms play a crucial role in the fertility of our soil, but how many of us know that they can actually be quite destructive, too? Or that there are projects in which earthworms are helping to process our waste? Or that the world of earthworms actually holds more mystery than knowledge, for the simple fact that they can be so hard to study?

Amy Stewart drew me into her book with her obvious love of gardening. She describes her worm bin throughout the book with such endearment that I am convinced I must have one. Luckily, she provides plenty of resources for readers, who can choose either to make their own, or to buy a commercially made bin. The worm castings (aka poop) are wonderful for the garden, and as she says, worms can make the perfect pet.

A little history on how our specific earthworms entered our country's soil is included in the book, along with the disconcerting description of North American redwood forests that are dying due to the worms. Earthworms may have helped to create the fertile fields that our nation boasts, but they are also the cause of ancient forest land losing its important life cycles. This is the first time I'd heard about this crisis--and it's good to know that groups of ecologists are working hard to find ways to minimize the effects of the earthworms in these endangered areas. But it brings up an important lesson for us, in that we are always humbled by nature's forces; so much of what we put into action unwittingly changes those forces tremendously, with no turning back. One of the most important lessons for the average 'worm consumer'? Never dump leftover worms on those wilderness fishing trips: the less help worms have in getting to wild areas that they are not native to, the better.

Even with the somber reminder that we need to minimize our effects on worm migration, there is so much good that comes from earthworms that it's impossible not to get excited about the benefits in areas that thrive with their help.

One modern project that I find intriguing--yet gross: the use of earthworms (in a large scale vermiculture outfit) to help process raw sewage. Stewart visits a sewage plant in Florida that is working on getting worms to digest waste and turn it into something more pure and 'palatable' for farmers and gardeners to use as fertilizer. I won't lie...the idea makes me squirm, as it does almost everyone. But the fact is, there is no good place for human sewage to go, and many would claim that with the help of the earthworms' digestion, we could be making good use of it. Hmmmm...I may need a lot more convincing on this one. What about, on the other, more pleasant hand, installing large worm bins behind delis, restaurants--anywhere serving food, really--to turn the scraps into fertile worm castings? There would be a lot of work involved to keep it going properly (just sorting the garbage alone would take a full-time employee), but these kinds of innovations might help keep waste that could be turned into something very valuable from filling up the dwindling space in our landfills.

Without even considering the large-scale projects, it is fascinating to look at your own backyard for ideas. The author herself has given thought to having a 'chicken tractor'--a concept I've read about before--to create superior growing soil for her garden. The idea is to move the chickens around each year. During any given year, whatever patch of land is beneath the chickens will become worm heaven. They will burrow up and down and devour the chicken manure, loosening the soil, filling it with nutritious castings. Each spring when the chicken tractor is moved, there is a perfect new garden bed, filled with worms who've tilled the soil from within and filled it with all the microbes plants want and need. Not to mention, the chickens will have their fill of worms!

One of the most endearing parts of Amy Stewart's book is her repeated reference to Darwin, who studied worms in his last days. Darwin really helped shaped a lot of what we now know about earthworms, and Stewart's tales of the old man with his worms--along with his persistent dedication to learning-- are a nice touch.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the soil and gardening, but also for anyone who loves to ponder: 'where exactly do we fit, as humans, into this whole picture?' Oddly enough, the quiet power of the earthworm humbles us, especially when we realize the effect they've had on the planet for millions of years before we even existed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Reading Corner-- How Groundhog's Garden Grew

One of the best things about this story are the phenomenal illustrations! Each page is just bursting with very true-to-life, colorful drawings of the kinds of plants and veggies you'd find in a backyard garden.

The kids noticed the front and back pages, that showed plants going from seed to fully grown, with vegetables peeking out. The very cool thing about that is, it helped us connect the story to our own growing experience. We remembered when our tomatoes and zucchinis looked like those itty-bitty seedlings in the book.

The story itself is cute. Groundhog used to steal veggies from other people's gardens, blissfully unaware that they were not his to take without permission. After his friends point out the folly of his veggie-stealing ways, they teach him how to grow his own garden, and eventually he and all the other garden-growers share their harvests together.

Another favorite page for the kids showed the many different insects that can be beneficial to gardens. What kid doesn't like bugs?

There is a nice intro from the author, Lynne Cherry, who is a life-long gardener. Apparently she has written several children's books about nature and the environment, and she speaks at schools and conferences concerning environmental issues. Now THAT is cool! She gives an address to which the reader can send a self-addressed-stamped-envelope and receive some great information about kids and gardening fun. Which of course, we are going to do!

Run to your local library and check it out!
Or click below to find your own copy.

Review: Wild Fermentation

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture FoodsWild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods

by Sandor Ellix Katz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here's a book that I wasn't expecting to affect me in any way except to inspire me to make yogurt--and WOW was I surprised to find so much more! Nostalgia ran strong as I read about making sauerkraut and yogurt--two of the fermented foods I grew up watching my grandma make. Along with many other foods I'm familiar with (beer, wine, cheese), Sandor Ellix Katz also shares a wealth of knowledge about fermented foods that are unfamiliar to me--such as tempeh and kefir. I have at least heard of those particular examples, and they have become big in the Western vegetarian diet...but what about kvass (made from stale bread, refermented), or kombucha (a dark tea cultured with a 'mother' or 'tea beast')? Reading about a 'tea beast', which is a gelatinous glob of bacteria and yeasts, had my curiosity piqued! I found myself wanting to experience some of these timeless fermented foods. He describes the health benefits of eating live cultured foods, and as a longtime AIDS survivor, he makes a good case for the benefits of his recipes. These recipes, in many cases, have existed for thousands of years. Fermented food plays a huge role in the history of humankind, predating agriculture.

Beyond the fascinating histories and the techniques of using 'free-range' microbes and bacteria to preserve and enhance food, Katz also takes some time to contemplate life itself. It seems appropriate, given that fermentation relies on living creatures, though tiny, who are a part of the life cycle we also experience. I'm always a sucker for how-to books that get into some deep contemplation of existence. He delves into some thoughts on death, a concept that he's had to face head-on since his HIV diagnosis. His zest for life and its cyclical nature, despite his illness, is truly inspiring. Katz finishes his fermented-foods manifesto with some thoughts on social change. He compares revolution to fire--the 'moment of upheaval; romantic and longed for, or dreaded and guarded against'-- and slow social change to fermentation. "As microorganisms work their transformative magic and you witness the miracles of fermentation, envision yourself as an agent for change, creating agitation, releasing bubbles of transformation into the social order. Use your fermented goodies to nourish your family and friends and allies. The life-affirming power of these basic foods contrasts sharply with the lifeless, industrially processed foods that fill supermarket shelves. Draw inspiration from the action of bacteria and yeast, and make your life a transformative process."

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Putting the first harvest to use, Right Away!

Don't mind the bite marks...I will explain those shortly!

Simon, Rylee, Maggie and I headed out to the garden and were very happy to look into our zucchini plants to see that three nice zucchinis were ready for harvest!

So, they look nice and intact at the moment, but why did they end up having all those bite marks? Well, much to my surprise and delight, and just a tiny bit to my chagrin, Ry and Simon decided they looked so delicious they couldn't wait to taste it! They decided that raw zucchini straight from the garden is quite delicious.

Okay, I admit, I had a taste, too. Raw zucchini totally ROCKS! Fresh, crunchy, still slightly warmed from the sun. These kids are onto something. Cutting them up and eating them raw is a great option. I did, however, have an inspiration for at least one of these wonderful zucchinis. I carefully cut off the bite marks and put Rylee to work using the cheese grater. Well, she agreed to the task, as long as I let her have the top of the zucchini to herself.

After finishing her raw zucchini snack, she set to work.

This pile of grated zucchini has so much potential! Zucchini pancakes, zucchini bread, zucchini pizza dough...but the thought I had in mind appealed to everyone: zucchini chocolate chip cookies. You can't go wrong with a classic childhood favorite, enhanced with some freshly grated zucchini, right?

We waited for the little ones to get up from their naps before we started mixing up our cookies. Ry, Maggie and Simon made the first batch, and then Bennet made his own batch with gluten free flour (he has a gluten allergy). He was so excited to be cooking! And even more excited that something he planted months ago in our kitchen, while snow was still on the ground, had grown something that he could eat!

Once all the cookies were baked and cooling, the kids could barely wait to taste them.

Huge success! But then, I don't suppose you can really go wrong with butter and chocolate filled cookies. This was the fate of one zucchini, but what about the others? Rylee took one home with her, and she claims that she ate the whole thing herself, raw. Sounds good to me! One is in the crisper of the fridge, waiting for its fate. And we keep checking our small zucchini patch for signs of more of this beautiful green vegetable..we have big plans for whatever zucchini comes our way!

To make our scrumptious zucchini chocolate chip cookies, follow this LINK to our recipes!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Permanent Local Farmer's Market? I hope so!

Along with my weekly CSA bundles, which I look forward to every Thursday, I have started checking out Fort Wayne's various farmer's markets. Just a few years ago, we only had one of them, and I never went--I simply was not interested. Things have changed A LOT in a few years, for the city and for me. The city has gained at least 10 markets (click here)., and I have gained a new found interest in local food and farmers! I love that the city is growing in this area just as I'm becoming passionate about it.

It's been so fun to meet local growers and crafters, and to fill my bags with fresh produce each time I visit a market. I've found that the prices are comparable to the produce at the grocery store (actually, sometimes cheaper). The more locations Fort Wayne has, the more accessible the food is to everyone--and once people realize how affordable it is, the potential for our local food movement to grow is huge. I have thought about how nice it would be to have a year-round market, like those in the cities of warmer states, but I realize that our local climate has a limited growing season. It seemed like just a wistful daydream.

Well, apparently I'm not the only dreamer. I am beyond thrilled to know that a permanent farmer's market is definitely being talked about by the city. Here is the article, fresh from this morning's paper. I have to say, I was discouraged to read that our city consumes 1.78 times the national average of fast food, and even more discouraged to admit to my readers that I still occasionally contribute to that statistic. Yes, we still eat fast food. And plenty of processed junk still lines our shelves. However, we have seriously cut back on fast food, and we've felt our desire for it lessen even more. We have worked hard to find ways to avoid the processed junk, as well. It's happened in increments as we've learned more about what we eat. I fully believe that many other people are starting to feel the same way. I believe a permanent market will draw in a lot of business, and start generating interest in more people who are not yet aware how affordable and delicious it is to support local growers. I see the potential for a lot of other changes in our city's eating habits once we establish such a market.

The Salomon Farm farmers market on Wednesdays during the summer is a draw for residents looking for locally grown produce.

Published: July 22, 2011 3:00 a.m.
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Worthwhile study
Investigating the economic potential and the appeal of a permanent farmers market downtown is a shrewd move by city leaders, given the overwhelming popularity and increasing number of seasonal markets in Fort Wayne.
Interest in eating locally grown fresh produce is only part of the obvious lure of the markets, which can be found on every day of the week at various locations throughout the city.
Just a few years ago, the only farmers market in town was the South Side Farmers Market, open Saturdays on Warsaw Street. Merely strolling through the markets, viewing the local wares, is a pleasant activity, even if you don't buy anything.
The $30,000 feasibility study from Market Ventures Inc. suggested a year-round farmers market would likely become a downtown attraction.
City development experts deserve credit for taking an analytical and reasoned approach to researching the possibility of such an endeavor.
The Public Market Working Group, led by local residents interested in downtown development, helped ensure the study asked the right questions.
Would having a permanent market downtown detract from the many seasonal markets around the city?
Market Ventures' research confirms that downtown can't support two markets and suggests rolling the Barr Street Market, open only 12 days each year, into the permanent market.
The study recommends a permanent structure that provides vendors with utilities, but suggests starting modestly with potential for growth with market demand.
It also suggested Lawton Park as a promising location. The city park houses several important park department functions, including greenhouses and equipment maintenance and storage. Parks leaders will need to play a significant role in assessing the suitability of using Lawton Park for a permanent farmers market.
The venture would not be without risk. Residents' dietary habits remain appallingly slanted toward cheap and not ideally healthy food.
(A recent survey found that Fort Wayne residents spend 1.78 times the national average on fast food.)
And Indiana has a limited growing season. Would a farmers market be able to offer enough variety of offerings to attract customers throughout the winter?
City leaders also need to determine how the market proposal fits with existing downtown plans and take a closer look at details such as who will own and run the market and, most important, how to pay for it.
Proponents of the farmers market think it could be a good use for a portion of the I&M settlement money and submitted a proposal to the Legacy Fort Wayne task force.
A permanent farmers market is an idea with merit and the feasibility study was an important first. Next comes working out the trickier details.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Magical Marigolds

Marigolds have a special place in the garden. Many gardeners swear by planting them with tomatoes to keep away aphids, tomato worms, and other pests. My neighbor claims that they also keep rabbits away, which is wonderful if true, for we have a very large bunny population around here! If you do a google search, you will find mixed opinions on if this pairing actually does anything beneficial. However enough people who've been gardening for years swear by it, and I feel it's worth a shot. In the Little Hands Garden, we planted marigolds along with our transplants back in May. The bugs may find the marigolds stinky, but Brady enoys their scent:

By the way...take a look at those tomato plants, just under two months ago. And then, take a look at them now!

Wow!!! We all forget how much growing has been going on until we look at some older pictures.

So far, we haven't seemed to have issues with pests on the tomatoes, and I'd like to think that the marigolds have something to do with it. There are so many tricks of the trade to be learned when it comes to gardening organically, and of course, marigolds shouldn't be counted on exclusively. But what a simple trick! And they are pretty!

On the other side of the garden, we have peppers growing (green, jalepeno, and habenero...yes, a few of these kids actually LOVE hot stuff, but I will admit, those habeneros may be for the grownups only . When we first tranplanted all the peppers, we noticed within a week that something had started feasting on them. We did not like the sight of munched-up leaves!!!

We thought about trying an all-natural recipe to resist bugs, and soon we will be making a batch of the spray and sharing the recipe with you. However, at the time I suggested maybe we could just try putting some marigolds by the peppers. Why not? And you know what? The newly planted flowers seemed to deter whatever little creature had set up camp. Within another couple weeks, the munching had ceased, and the peppers thrived.

By now, the peppers are even bigger, and seem to be doing well.

There is a wealth of collected knowledge about companion planting, or making neighbors out of different plants that benefit each other. You could spend hours reading different gardening sites (I have) and different books (yep, I've read a few of those too) and gain countless ideas. Wikipedia has a good chart to get you started. Chart of companion plants

It's also important to realize that some plants do NOT do well together at all. For instance, my magical marigolds? I have read they are not good for cabbages or beans at all.

It's also believed that companion planting can enhance the flavors of your fruits and vegetables.This link explains the idea briefly.

We will be experimenting with more companion planting each year as our garden expands, and as our knowledge expands!

Book Review: Feeding People is Easy

This is a quick read (maybe a few hours), but it is pretty packed with ideas. In some ways, Colin Tudge seemed to oversimplify some political and social issues, but in all, this is a valuable book if you want to start thinking about how it's possible to make changes in our current agricultural system.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Colin Tudge, a British scientist, lays out a plan for 'fixing' our current food economy. He explores the question "WHY? Why are we failing so miserably at feeding ourselves properly?" In a world of extremes, where millions of children go blind from, and die of, starvation--and millions more children are obese and developing diseases related to that obesity--how do we go about fixing the problems we face? Not only that, how do we develop an agricultural system that will sustain our species not only for our children, but indefinitely?

He puts to paper some key ideas that make absolute sense. He emphasizes more than once that 'taking on' the power structure simply won't work. A couple of chapters are devoted to the history of the corporation and why our global economy currently runs on the wheels of governments and corporations whose prime goal is to keep the cash flowing. Reform simply will not work, he claims, when there is so much to change and when the 'powers-that-be' perceive there is too much to lose. Flabbergasted by the apparent lack of concern for our obviously faulty agricultural system, and realizing that many of the world's injustices are tied to this failing system, he says that if we can get agriculture right, everything else will start to fall into place.

He eschews the idea of a revolution on the principle that the outcome can be totally unpredictable. Instead of reform or revolution, he describes a renaissance. In this renaissance of "Enlightened Agriculture", many groups with like minded ideas of preserving the planet, avoiding cruelty to humans and animals, and creating a sustainable life for everyone on the planet will come together and just start LIVING that life. They will be part of a "Worldwide Food Club" of growers, bakers, cooks, craftspeople, and consumers, all who 'give a damn' about quality food and life. If enough people catch on and opt out of mass merchandising and junk food, the status quo may be forced to adjust accordingly.

Tudge spends some time describing what constitutes nutrition for human beings, and how we have plenty of farmland to keep everyone in the world fed according to those basic nutritional tenets. He goes further than just making sure we are 'efficiently' and 'adequately' fed. He admits that for humans, nutrition is about much more than just being sustained--we love our food, we care about variety and texture and taste. He claims that part of the beauty of his plan is that we can get back to traditional cooking, and real food, and that we will never feel deprived. Everyone needs to know how to cook, at least in the most basic ways. Every country needs to get back to having a food culture that revolves around what can be grown, what is in season. Self-reliance is the most important thing for each country of the world if we are to fix our food problems(not necessarily self-sufficience, because some trading, within the guidelines of common sense, will go a long way to enhance life).

He discusses the current organic movement and says that many of its practices can be a model for how we need to farm. However, the monocultures that exist today, even in organic farming, need to be replaced with many mini-farms, similar to the family farms thatexisted in our past; farms run by good farmers and that produce a huge variety of foods and a small amount of livestock. He welcomes technology to the extent that it enhances agriculture without overtaking it or without harming the environment.

Tudge imagines an agrarian economy, where 20 to 50 percent of the population are farmers. These farmers will help ensure that our food supply is stable, and the rest of the population will have various livelihoods much like they already do, while supporting the farms. Just this 'simple' idea, to me, brings up a host of challenges and problems, for it would force a lot of our current economy to restructure. Tudge admits this is true and discusses some of those challenges. He suggests the idea of The College for Enlightened Agriculture, filled with sociologists, scientists, moral philosophers, and yes, politicians, who will work through the issues and find ways to make sure we don't make the same mistakes in the future. He claims that his ideas follow capitalism in its purest form, and he believes that capitalism could have worked beautifully if corporations had been kept in check, but I admit I was a little unclear on how everything could fit together when so much of the world still firmly believes in the 'bottom line' and making as much cash as possible. His vision is somewhat utopian in that he believes so many people will appreciate getting by comfortably without needing to get filthy rich. I personally feel this way--I've never been driven by greed or money--but I am skeptical when I'm surrounded by so many who are. Still, the idea that a new agrarian society could work, and that we could just ease right into it with enough people wanting that change, is extremely appealing.

It sounds like a revolutionary new world order to me, but Tudge seems certain that it's attainable with few 'growing pains'. In fact, he says that not only is this new approach to agriculture possible, it's absolutely necessary, or we are all dead. Most people today are becoming very aware that the way we currently approach agriculture is completely unsustainable. He welcomes technology to the extent that it enhances agriculture without overtaking it or without harming the environment.

What things can each person do right now? Find those farmer's markets and support them. Learn the lost art of cooking. Treat food like it's important. Start learning about groups that, in Tudge's words "give a damn", like those who support fair trade, organic farming, non-cruelty to livestock. Live life happily and as an example, and spread the word that we don't have to continue eating junk and perpetuating a world of injustice. If enough people make their own changes, and start networking together, we can make the necessary changes without an uproarious revolution. Possible? Maybe. Reading books like this one is a start.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Foraging Newbies: The Backyard and Beyond

Along with planting and growing food, it is an amazing experience to find edible goodies in nature. Whether you love finding mushrooms, berries, or edible weeds, it really is possible to supplement your meals with foraged food. Or at the very least, you can find a great snack!

Meet our mulberry tree. It lives in the backyard, was probably 'planted' by a bird years ago, and it has been loaded with beautiful plump berries for a few weeks.
The kids have all been searching for the perfect berries when we go outside, and each day we get a nice amount in our bowl.

Here, Maggie and Rylee are finding lots of berries on the lower branches:

And here, Simon is taking matters into his own hands when all the berries from the lower branches are gone:

The mulberries have become a very popular snack around here, especially with 2-year-old Noah. We have found that if he gets ahold of the daily stash of berries, you will NOT be able to get near them without a fight!

He is fiercely protective of his foraged snack!

Finding berries on trees and bushes around your back yard (as long as you are certain about what they are and that they are in fact edible) is just the beginning of becoming a forager. Many books about gardening and living more self-suffiently/sustainably will have whole sections on foraging, and if you begin researching and learning what to look for, nature hikes will take on a whole new meaning.

And, you don't even have to go far into the wild to forage. What about your neighborhood? Are there any fruit trees that you notice on walks around your city streets that bear fruit...fruit that ripens and eventually falls to the ground to rot? My neighbor across the street has a plum tree that produces way more fruit than she can use. In fact, her plums become a nuisance in her driveway when they start to fall. She is more than happy to share the fruit with anyone who wants to come pick it. My boys look forward to her plums every year! You'll find that many neighbors will be glad to share food that would otherwise go to waste. I've read about 'neighborhood fruit tree mapping' in a few books, and this site is an example of how it works:

See if your city has a system like this set up. Google your town along with 'fruit tree mapping'. My city doesn't seem to have an official fruit tree registration set up...which of course gets my mind working...I'd love to start one up myself!

While it may not be quite the same as mushroom hunting or wild berry picking, foraging for food in the 'wild' of your neighborhood streets is an idea that's catching on.

If you just have no luck with the foraging idea, it's also very fulfilling to go to a local pick-your-own farm. Kids ADORE going to PYO (pick your own) farms! Usually for a very fair price, you'll leave with loads of berries or produce. A google search can help with finding farms in your area that allow you to come pick to your heart's content. Here is a site that will get you headed in the right direction, at least:

Maybe you'll be surprised by something in your backyard, like we were. We never knew those mulberries existed until last year, and we have lived here 9 years! Take a look around, and look closer to your left and right the next time you take a walk through your neighborhood--you may just find a sweet surprise. Happy foraging!