Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

King Corn

King Corn, a documentary about the supremacy of corn grown for production of sweeteners and animals in American agriculture, was released ten years ago. At the time, some reviewers considered it too low-key compared to supposedly harder-hitting documentaries like Super-Size Me! But I think that King Corn has held up a lot better than some of its more shrill and polemical contemporaries, and I am going to try to get you to watch it.

First, let’s consider whether the problem addressed is still a problem. Have rates of obesity or diabetes gone down since the movie was made in 2007? Quite the opposite. In adults age 40 to 59, obesity has risen to a stunning 41%. In 2015, 9.4% of American adults were diabetic, and another 84.1 million were considered pre-diabetic. Our scientific knowledge of the hazards of sugar in all its forms has grown by leaps and bounds, and so has our national sweetener consumption. So, uh, let’s keep talking about this.

With that in mind, I watched King Corn unfold. It is a sweet low-key film and doesn’t hammer you with a message. It just shows you things. Things like Earl Butz laying out the paradigm change to “more food, cheaper food!” Things like anhydrous ammonia being injected into the soil, and herbicides being rained onto the soil in 90 foot swaths, all to grow more corn. Things like genuine and literal mountains of corn being shoveled into confinement animal feeding operations and sweetener factories. Things like current farmers admitting that they won’t eat their own product, and the owner of a confinement cattle feeding operation saying “if the American consumer wanted grass-fed beef, then we could and would produce it.” Things like Dr. Walter Willet of Harvard, one of the greatest nutritional researchers in the world, explaining what all this means in terms of American health. Things like small American farmers going under as their neighbors consolidate to produce more and more and yet more corn. And, tragically, things like a delivery driver talking to one of the protagonists about the ultrasweet grape soda that he drank constantly when he was growing up, and about his father‘s eventual death of diabetes. “They amputated his toes first,” the driver says, “then his foot, then his leg below the knee, then above the knee. When they started cutting on his other leg, he gave up. He died.” The driver went on to say that he himself had lost a huge amount of weight just by giving up soda. I’m a doctor and this scene made me want to cry. Currently the national cost of diabetes in the US is calculated to be a stunning 105 billion per year, a figure that becomes even more remarkable when you learn that it does not include the cost of workdays lost. The cost in human suffering and loss of lifespan and healthspan is beyond calculation.

If you wonder what any of this has to do with an urban gardening and home food production blog, I would say that it’s the backbone of what I’m talking about here all the time. It simply is not possible to grow or make at home anything that is as unhealthy as most of what is sold to you in stores and restaurants. I seldom venture into large grocery stores these days, but when I do, what I see is aisle after aisle of things that are not really food. Don’t eat this stuff.  Bushels of money are being made out of messing up your health. Grow something, cook it, and eat it, or buy it directly from the person who grew it.  Take an interest in the health of the soil right around your own house. Take to heart the interview clips in King Corn that show Michael Pollan sitting and talking to the interviewer with his home garden in the background, Tuscan kale prominent.  Plant one little plot of kale, cook it six or seven different ways, and see what you like.  Use the fall and winter to start planning a small garden for spring. Find three recipes for leafy greens that you really enjoy, and make them often. Serve them to your family and friends.  This is not just a fun and loving but a subversive act.   Almost everything in our corporate food culture is designed to get you to eat things that are not good for you. There are corporations that exist to make a mint at the cost of your health,  and then other corporations that make further fortunes by making pharmaceuticals to treat your food induced health conditions and allow you to continue eating swill, but you are smart and wily and you are going to begin fighting back.

Veggies and Fruits and Toads, Oh My!

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At some point in the gardening process, you realize that things are going in the right direction. For me, this happened this spring with the discovery that toads were living in my garden. Lord knows how they got into my high-desert terrain, but there they are, burying themselves in shady spots by day and patrolling and singing at night. I feel absurdly proud of my toads, and see them as a sign that my little urban mini-ecosystem of vegetables, fruits, weeds, and animals really works. Bufo vulgaris, thanks for moving in!

Books Worth Reading: The Resilient Gardener


There are a lot of gardening books out there, and a lot of books on urban/suburban homesteading and on self-sufficiency. Many of them draw heavily from one another or from older books rather than from actual experience, but every now and then I come across a gardening book that I’m eager to share with others. Carol Deppe’s new book, The Resilient Gardener, is clearly based on years (decades?) of personal hands-on experience and is a must-read for anyone interested in the issue of personal food security. It is not a general gardening how-to book. Ms. Deppe discusses the best ways to improve your own food security by producing your own staple crops, and what makes a staple suitable for home food production with no unusual harvesting, threshing, or milling equipment. This isn’t one of the obnoxious-survivalist manifestos about how to be a country and a law unto yourself. It’s a sensible discussion of how ordinary people can direct their efforts to make themselves better equipped to endure the hiccups that life throws at us, whether environmental or health-related. As I read it, I found myself thinking about the spreading problems in my native Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Nearby cities like Baton Rouge weren’t hard hit by the storm. But Baton Rouge would nearly double in size in a week as evacuees poured in, grocery stores there would be nearly emptied of staple foods and anything fresh, streets would be filled with excess traffic and often impassable, and water and sewer systems would be strained. People with prudent habits were better equipped to help themselves and others through a difficult time.
No book about someone else’s needs and choices will ever be completely applicable to your own situation. Ms. Deppe includes a section on her own nutritional needs and decisions that can best be considered idiosyncratic. But then, as a doctor I believe that everyone’s needs are to a degree idiosyncratic, i.e. unique to themselves. Some basics apply to nearly everyone, but there’s a lot of individual variation. Her choices may have no applicability to you or me. They are, however, an encouragement to think carefully about our own needs and start doing more of what works for us.
I have no desire to be completely food-independent, even if such a thing were possible. But I do get great pleasure from contemplating the winter squash, potatoes, and sweet potatoes that came out of my own soil and will help feed me through the winter, and on winter evenings by the stove I’ll be studying Ms. Deppe’s ideas and planning how to be a more prudent member of my community next year.

Planning Your Garden: the Weed Patch, and more on the Peruvian Purple Potato

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know about my interest in useful weeds, ie plants which thrive on neglect, spread rapidly, and are often overlooked, but offer good eating. Now that I’m planning a brand-new garden from scratch, I’m planning a “weed patch” as part of it. This will be out of the path of garden traffic so that I can have milk thistles and nettles, and screened from the rest of the property with a row of sunflowers so that nobody but me has to look at it much, and there all my favorite edible thugs can slug it out together. If you have room for a weed corner, you might consider some of these:

1. Stinging nettle. The nettle offers some of the best early-spring greens to be found. You can start them from seed (try Johnny’s Selected Seeds) or from plants (Richter’s is the only source that I know of.) They spread like wildfire, so underground barriers or a spot that you can mow all the way around are essential. See my post for harvesting and cooking details, and treat this plant with great respect, because the sting is pretty painful.
2. Curly Mallow. I like the leaves as part of a mix of greens, and it thrives on heat and doesn’t need too much water. I got the seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery years ago, and it’s been happily self-seeding ever since.
3. Milk thistle. THis will be a new one for me, but I’m told that the young shoots make good cooked greens when the prickles are trimmed off, so I’ll give it a try.
4. Sorrel. This might not seem like a weed, but it’s a healthy, vigorous, weedy-looking plant, so it can stay in the weed patch, out of the way. You can get seed almost anywhere, even from seed racks. It’s best to let it grow the first year, just removing flower stalks as they appear, and then start harvesting in early spring the second year.
5. Curled dock. This comon roadside weed is sour and bitter at most stages of development, but in the late fall and very early spring it’s one of the best greens around. Like its relative sorrel, it turns brownish-green when cooked, so I use it in mixtures of cooked greens rather than by itself. I don’t know of any source for the seeds. I picked mine by the roadside years ago, and this robust perennial has been with me ever since.
6. Dandelions. Like dock, they are actively distasteful most of the year, but in very early spring they offer delicious lightly bitter leaves which give a wild tang to a mixed salad or a little zip to a cooked greens mixture.

An alert reader let me know recently that the source I gave for the Peruvian Purple Potato no longer offers them. I save my own starter potatoes from year to year, but you can get the Peruvian from Ronnigers. They also have a splendid assortment of garlics, and some other plants of interest.

winter salads

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As part of our Christmas dinner, we had salads made entirely from our own yard produce. I had not used any season-extending devices at all, and we’d had cold weather and a few light snows, so these are the greens that thrive on cold and neglect. The “trim” is a ring of pansies, which I wrote about in an earlier post. The greens included arugula (see the post before this one,) pansy leaves (cool, tender, and delicious,) chervil, a few nasturtium leaves still surviving in a sheltered corner, my new favorite lettuce, and sunflower sprouts.
The lettuce that I’ve enjoyed most this year is a gorgeous deep red romaine called “Marshall.” I think I got my seeds from Territorial. the color is a dramatic foil for almost anything else, and it doesn’r get bitter in our sudden hot springs. It’s beautiful in the garden, too. You can see it poking up through a light mulch in the photo below.
The other photo shows my sunflower sprouts, and I wish I had known earlier how delicious they are. The first taste is pleasant and mild, but a delicious nuttiness rapidly reveals itself. These are the only sprouts that I’ve enjoyed eating out of hand, but they’re even better in a good mixed salad.
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Sunflower sprouts seem to be best when soil-grown, and they need a little light. I have a grow-light for my spring seedlings, and it usually goes unused in the winter, so I used it to grow the sprouts, but a sunny window would be fine.
Start with a large flat container. I used a terra cotta saucer intended to hold a large potted plant, just because I had one sitting around. Put in an inch of good organic soil. Scatter raw organic sunflower seeds (in shell) very thickly on top, touching each other. Pat them into the surface, cover with another 1/4 inch or so of soil, water well but don’t make the soil soggy, and wait a few days. The books say to presoak the seeds, but I didn’t and they did fine. When they start to emerge, begin giving them light, and harvest when they are green and are trying to shed their shells. I snap them off at soil level with my thumbnail, flick off the clinging shell, rinse well and dry, and start snacking. They go well with spicy mesclun mixes but can also give depth to a simple lettuce salad. Grow lots, so that you can use them lavishly.