Question: Does it make sense for an apartment-dweller to grow her own food at a community garden, or just buy produce from the experts at farmers markets?
My Mom always told me, “You can’t escape gardening; it’s in your blood.” As a kid, I absolutely hated everything about it and swore I’d never want a garden of my own, but she was obviously right. Since then, I’ve worked on three organic farms and even nursed basil plants in pots through dark Midwest winters. Besides the clay pots that inhabit my windowsills, though, I’ve never had a patch of soil to call my own. Until now.
Last week, I just found out I got a spot in a local community garden which offers renters a 4 by 8 foot raised bed for only $25. I did a little happy dance, got pumped about everything I’m going to harvest, and then panicked. Aside from some little kale seedlings craning their necks out the top of a recycled yogurt container, I haven’t started any vegetables yet. I’m already behind the 8-ball when it comes to starting warmth-loving crops like peppers and tomatoes. My windowsills are already pretty full with pots of herbs and flowers, and living in a small apartment (with two destructive kittens) doesn’t afford a whole lot of space for trays of tender little seedlings, so that leaves me with the option of hunting down organic starts from local nurseries. As someone who has worked at a nursery, I am fully aware of how quickly an armload of promising seedlings can turn into a major investment.
So you can see, fair readers, why I’m starting to panic before I’ve even had a chance to see my little corner of the community garden. There are other obstacles to success, too. I don’t own any gardening tools. The garden is about 2 miles from my house—close by, but not exactly a location I’ll be passing by every day. This means I’m going to have to be quite disciplined about visiting my garden every day or so, especially during the peak of the season when watering, weeding, and harvesting really can’t wait. Lots of folks have enough trouble keeping up with a garden in their backyard—do I really have the time (read: motivation) to keep up with this? And what if all my hard work is wiped out by marauding raccoons—or worse—teenagers?
Despite these worries, I’m still hopeful. While I won’t be able to grow everything I need in my 32 square feet of soil, I couldn’t be more thrilled with the chance to design my own garden and grow only what I want to eat. Forget Swiss Chard, melons, and all the other annoying things I’ve helped grow on farms here and there. I’ll grow some of the pricier items I love like tomatoes, arugula, and Brussels sprouts, but skip cheap or bothersome crops like potatoes and garlic. Then there are the intangible benefits of growing my own food. For starters, it gives me a reason to be outside digging in the dirt for several hours a week. This might not be your idea of fun, but for me it’s one of the most therapeutic activities I can think of. (Yes Mom, this is where you can say “I told you so.”) Not only that, but it can be great exercise, and thehealth benefits of eating produce as quickly as possible after harvest have been proven time and again.
For now, I’m not totally sure if community gardening will be worth the time and money. Still, as the time for planting approaches, I can feel myself anticipating dirty fingernails, a sore back, and the satisfaction of bringing home the best veggies—those money can’t buy; the ones you grow yourself.
American Horticultural Therapy Association: http://www.ahta.org/content.
A good summary of current scientific thought on gardening as therapy: http://www.npr.org/blogs/
Gardening and exercise: http://www.cleanairgardening.
Super fun garden planning tool: http://www.motherearthnews.
Sources for this blog post:
Nutrients in produce: http://www.healthy-food-site.
Question: How can I eliminate the last bit of garbage left in my trash barrel after I reduce, reuse and recycle?
Answer: With a few phone calls, minimal effort, and a fair amount of surprise.
It seems the more I reduce my ‘garbage’ output, the more frustrated I become with what’s left in the bin. For the most part, I use cloth bags at stores. I buy in bulk and fill my own reusable container. I eschew the produce bag, knowing I’m going to wash my lettuce again before I eat it.
And then I reuse what I can. For food, this means cooking scraps go into a bag in my freezer to make cooking stock. What’s left goes into a compost bin in my dining room that can handle almost anything, because it ferments the waste (and it doesn’t smell until you open the bucket). We have comingled curbside recycling for free from the city I live in.
And what’s left? A small bag of garbage that can’t be composted, won’t get picked up, and is mostly comprised of things like that plastic that comes wrapped around a big pack of toilet paper, the cling wrap from my XXX sharp cheddar, or that little seal under the cap on top of a bottle of olive oil.
As you can imagine, we spend very little on trash pickup and put out our can pretty infrequently. When we have to, I’m always irritated. I thought about figuring out how to make clothing from weaving these pieces together, but the seal thingy isn’t very functional, and I already have a load of projects partway in-process. Adding more to that list doesn’t seem really practical. So I thought I’d look into just why I can’t recycle these things - the cling wrap, the seal thingy, and the errant plastic bag that works its way into rotation.
As it turns out, it didn’t take me long to discover that many stores (drug store and grocery chains) will take back their own bags, including things like bread bags and produce bags. A quick call to Consumer Affairs of my local chain (the one I don’t like to go into because they blow hot, food-scented air on your head when you go in the door) confirmed this. But what to do with my toilet paper wrap and the little plastic seal? I looked some more. According to the Plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, many of these things can’t be processed same as the rest of the curbside recycling because they won’t stay in the trucks, and they jam the machines. So I called my recycling center to see if they had any ideas. Low and behold, they have not only ideas, but actually a bin that I can go by and drop off my cling wrap, olive oil bottle seal, and other plastics of this nature. I’m a little embarrassed, actually, not to have realized this sooner.
The hold out? Styrofoam. Not much to do there that I could find in my area (supposedly some places will recycle it, but not here). You can’t break it down and recreate in the same way. More and more retailers seem to be using peanuts made of corn starch, but the rest is trash. The solution to this has the emphasis on reduce and reuse. Your local craft store might be interested in the block pieces - mine wasn’t, but check it out.
Everything you wanted to know about plastic: The American Chemistry Council
Your local recycling center. Mine had this lovely chart available.
Question: Can I grow vegetables right on my kitchen counter in as little as 3 days?
When I’m not writing for Digging Deep, I spend my days farming vegetables in southeast Pennsylvania. This allows me to eat incredible, farm-fresh veggies most the year round. However, March is a lean month in the produce department if you want to eat locally in my neck of the woods. Spring crops like leafy greens, peas, and broccoli are still weeks off from being ready to harvest. My supplies of storage crops, like potatoes, cabbage, onions, and winter squash are dwindling to near-empty levels. The last of my home-canned green beans and tomatoes are flying off the pantry shelves.
In this tight season, I turn to sprouts. Growing sprouts is fast and cheap—they require no special supplies and no hassle. Plus, they are as local as local can get. Farm-to-fork? Try countertop-to-fork!
This week, I tried mung bean sprouts, which are the crunchy white ones associated with Asian cooking. Mung bean sprouts are alsolow in calories and high in nutrients like manganese and folate. They are also one of the few varieties that hold up to cooking. Though some websites claim you need special equipment or techniques, I went with my standard no-fuss method of sprouting, and they came out great.
1. Soak ½ cup – 1 cup of dried mung beans* in warm water overnight.
2. Rinse beans thoroughly before placing them in a clean quart-sized jar
3. Cover mouth of jar with a piece of mesh-y fabric (like cheesecloth, secured by a rubber band). Alternatively, poke lots of holes in the lid with a hammer and nail.
4. Rinse and drain well twice daily for about 3-5 days
5. When the little sprout tails get to be about ½ inch long**, store them in a dry container in the fridge for up to a week.
6. Eat in salads, soups, sandwiches, stir-fries, and spring rolls
There are many online retailers that would love to sell you special seeds for your sprouting needs, but there are also many “seeds” you can find right your the super market or pantry. Lentil sprouts are particularly high in protein. Mustard seed (found in the spice aisle) sprouts quickly and has a distinct spicy flavor. Raw sunflower seeds make big juicy sprouts. You can even sprout some grains. Check out Sprout People to find out just how endless your sprouting possibilities are.
*Mung beans (sometimes referred to as green grams) are small, oval shaped, green beans that can be found in most health food stores or in the dried bean or bulk aisle of well-stocked super markets.
**Home-sprouted mung beans won’t reach the size you find in restaurants and grocery stores, but they’ll get to be crunchy and delicious after just a couple days.
Sprout People-the foremost authority on home sprouting and retailer of all things sprout-related.Photo Credit: L.Marie
In a Nutshell: Good for Beginners, Informational, 4 out of 5 Shovels
Tech Crunch isn't usually known for providing breaking news on foodstuff, but when tech VCs take notice to the tune of investing $6M in a site called "Yummly", then everyone takes notice.
Yummly.com's tagline is Every Recipe in the World, which overreaches (see my note below) but communicates that this site is curating online recipes in a way that no one else has done to date. They boast "semantic search technology" which we laypeople just need to understand as "the hottest search technology catching notice from funders right now" and translates to smarter search technology. From what I know, it's kind of a big deal and Yummly's got it.
Semantic search is designed to act like your wise grandmother would if you called her and asked for the best Thanksgiving stuffing recipe she knows: she'd give you more relevant results than a regular search engine would if you typed in "best Thanksgiving stuffing recipe" and ended up in an unsorted avalanche of about 843,000 results.
The benefits of Yummly for recipe seekers are immediately clear when you log in. Type "brownies" in the search field and you still get more than 4,000 results. Overwhelming at first, but you're given the option of refining your search to a fine set of custom specifications: ingredients to include/exclude, allergies, type of diet (vegetarian, etc), nutrition, holidays, taste preferences (salty, sweet, etc), the time it will take, the cost, courses, cuisines, and website sources. Like choosing toppings on a deli sandwich, you can quickly customize the recipe you're looking for and whittle down the search results to find the best matches.
1) Using "taste preferences" you can choose constants in your search criteria. This means: if you tell Yummly you're vegetarian, then your personal searches will only pull vegetarian recipes. If you're allergic to shellfish, then no recipes with crustaceans will ever appear. It even offers the option of excluding your dislikes from results - hate mayonnaise? No problem.
2) It's fast and it's easy. At the end of a long day, the tool that helps me find the perfect recipe in 5 minutes to make something healthy, exciting, and practical from ingredients that are 1) already in my house 2) require the exact amount of time I have to prepare, and 3) fit within the diet of the week - vegan, Weight Watchers, South Beach, whatever - is THE BIG WINNER. Yummly has the power to deliver exactly what we all need to resist the budget and weight busting practice of going out for 42% of our meals.
3) It's got community. My friends and I have been looking for a way to easily share recipes for years. Now, we can be Tastebuds on Yummly. Plus, you can create personalized Menus from favorite recipes that work something like the increasingly popular Pinterest boards - click the Save button next to any recipe and it gives you the option of saving to a new Menu. Just be aware that also like Twitter and Pinterest, anyone can be your Tastebud, so you have to be really comfortable with strangers seeing that you added peanut butter beef jerky tidbits or deep-fried sugar nibs as a favorite recipe.
1) "Every recipe in the world" reeks of overpromise. There are 15 source websites listed on the bottom left, which represent the biggies in the food world. I'm thrilled Yummly's acting as content manager so I don't have to search 15 different sites.
But as every savvy online recipe hunter knows, there's a certain thrill and deep satisfaction in the discovery of a fellow food lover who's shared their prized family recipe on their low-traffic personal blog. Yummly's formula serves our culture of convenience, but unless they widen their search nets, we users will always be missing the rich, individual-based content of a truly diverse and democratic food web.
2) Looking forward to not getting kicked out of my profile and having to log back in. There are a few tech bugs to be worked out, this is the most noticeable.
3) No Yummly mobile...yet. No app yet, but I can only assume this is what the $6M investors are looking forward to, too.
Question: I love Trader Joe’s and already go there for prepared foods, cheese, and 2-buck chuck – should I buy my produce from Trader Joe’s, too?
Answer: For a prepared salad or few pieces of fruit, sure. Anything else, probably not.
Trader Joe’s has made quite a name for itself as an upscale, low-cost grocery store. It’s the food version of Target. Middle- and upper-middle class Americans have come to love the value, the free coffee, the cheap plonk… the list goes on and on.
What makes Trader Joe’s prices so low? Well, a few things. For one, the stores are smaller than most traditional grocery stores. Smaller footprint = lower rent = less overhead. Same with the stocking on the store shelves. There is far less variety of merchandise sold – think two types of peanut butter, instead of fifty competing brands and formulations – so they have less stock and less overhead, less warehouse space to lease, less heavy machinery, less employees... the list goes on. Plus, since most of Trader’s prepared goods – from jars and cans to the freezer aisle – are store-branded, Trader Joe’s is essentially vertically integrated, taking big, profit-y bites out of every item they sell.
And that’s not a bad thing! At least, not necessarily. The brand is loved, the company is profitable, and success comes for a reason: Trader Joe’s shelves are generally replete with low-cost, high quality goods. But is this the right store for the *produce* buyer, specifically? Read my results to gauge for yourself.
Variety: Pretty all right. There are some new arrivals in my take-home cart: peas, potatoes and pears. With an array including fungi, tubers, fruits, legumes, leafy vegetables, I have to say, this works. 9/10.
Selection: Mediocre. Yes, the selection was far better than at a corner deli, but it was far worse than at a traditional grocery store. Fruits available are your standard apples, pears, oranges, bananas, grapefruits, and a few others for good measure. Veggies are the same. There’s no denying that TJ’s offers a plethora of excellent-looking pre-made salads, which are great options for a healthful lunch on the go at price points generally under $4. But that’s not really produce shopping. And if you look past the glitz and the glitter, despite the pretty impressive prepared foods, Joe’s doesn’t offer a lot of choice in the raw materials department. That’s a shame. 5/10
Healthfulness: The one nice thing about Trader Joe’s produce department is that they offer organic versions of a fair amount of their produce. Apples, bananas, avocados, lettuces – they’re all available in conventional or organic. And that’s good. But I have an issue: what’s up with Joe’s love of cellophane? An awful lot of fruits and veggies at Trader Joe’s comes pre-packaged, pre bagged. There’s bagged lettuce, bagged mushrooms, bagged avocados, bagged peas – and that’s just what’s in the bag I took home! The store also sold bagged peppers, bagged apples – what’s next? Bagged cantaloupe? I don’t know what the deal is here, but something about all this plastic wrap gives me that not-so-fresh feeling. 7/10
Tastiness: Great. For all my huff and bluster, I was pleased across the board. Nothing wowed me – I certainly didn’t say, “Wow, that’s the best banana I ever tasted!” – but I was happy overall. 8/10
Value for the Money: Quite high. This is an area I don’t want to understate. Bananas at Trader Joe’s are 19 cents each; 29 cents for organics. At my Ralph’s, 79 cents a pound, which usually means two, is the going sale rate. That’s double the price! So TJ’s is top banana. Organic apples here are also a mere 69 cents each, or about a third of what I mentioned that Whole Foods was charging a week ago. My shelled English peas were $3.29 for a 10-ounce bag. In-shell, that’s maybe 18-20 ounces with the pods, which means the peas would have been $2 a pound (and I’d still have to shell them myself). That’s ridiculously inexpensive.
Look, you just can’t beat Trader Joe’s on price. That’s they’re thing. They’re like the Crazy Eddies of the food world. And you gotta love that. 10/10.
Way to stage a late-round comeback, Trader Joe’s. But is it enough?
The verdict: Look, I like this store. I do. I go to Trader Joe’s a lot. But this trip made me realize something: Trader Joe’s, while great for a lot of things, cannot wear the mantle as the go-to spot for fresh fruit and vegetable shopping. It just can’t carry the load. Sorry, Gunga Din. I’ll still go to grab an apple or orange on the way to or home from work, but for my real shopping? I’ll have to go elsewhere. 8/10
Next Week: Barring something exciting going down, we’ll wrap up this investigation with a look at farmer’s markets.
Author: Gayla Trail
Publishing info: Clarkson Potter/Random House
In a nutshell: Informational - 5 out of 5 shovels
I thought about following up on pink slime this week, but frankly, I’m tired of looking at pictures of raw meat.
Thankfully, I have the perfect antidote for this problem. Gayla Trail’s new book, Easy Growing, is easy on the eyes. But it’s more than just food porn – much more, especially for those of us who don’t have 40 acres, tractors, or oodles of time to spare. Gayla has substantial street cred as an urban farmer – she launched You Grow Girl in 2000 because she was a young, urban gardener, exactly who the traditional ‘Carrots love Tomatoes’ books don’t want as an audience. Since then, she’s authored three books, and stayed at the forefront of the urban gardening explosion that’s happened in North America in the last decade. Her gardening haunts over the last decade have included her Toronto rooftop garden, a guerrilla garden on city-owned land, and various examples of community gardening (both traditional and yardshare).
I have to admit that I wondered a little if I would find Easy Growing relevant – while her first book (You Grow Girl) spoke to the closeted hipster in me during my twenties, and Grow Great Grub is a ready resource as I take on too many veggies in my yard this year – the tagline of “Organic Herbs and Edible Flowers from Small Spaces” made me wonder. Am I really interested in herbs and edible flowers enough to actually use a book about it?
But the garlic scapes on the cover sucked me in and I haven’t looked back. Gorgeous pictures of things I might actually grow in situations where I could see myself growing them? Check. Crisp graphic design layout that’s easy on the eyes (and doesn’t annoy me)? Check. Real, substantive advice on how to grow herbs inexpensively, what to consider growing where (including considering the shadows and sun reflection from high-rises, or my next-door neighbor’s house)? Check. A thorough list of herbs and their uses that I can see myself using as a handy reference tool? Check. Seedling starts in takeaway containers? Check. Growing your own ginger? Check. And that only takes me halfway through the book.
What I love most about Gayla’s writing is that it feels like she’s right there next to you, talking calmly (at least, how I envision that would be, since I’ve never met her). It’s conversational and practical, with info that every fledgling gardener needs to know, without the condescension standard in so many old-style gardening books. It’s also things that intermediate gardeners (like me) haven’t necessarily thought of before, from growing ginger and lemongrass to explaining step-by-step how to harvest coriander seeds. I think that everyone, with the possible exception of professional horticulturalists, will learn something from this book – for example, I now know what an umbellifer is (who knew that carrots had so many relatives?).
Now that I’ve read this book, I find myself eyeing every available inch of space in my yard to see what I could stick where, and how I can use it in my cooking this summer and beyond. I guess I did need a book on herbs – I just didn’t know it.
- Sunset: Living in the West - A Review of the West-centric Mag
- Saturday Morning Cartoons!
- Road Eats: Farm to Table Across America’s Heartland
- THE GREAT GROCERY HUNT PT. 5: WHOLE FOODS
- You’ve been slimed
- The Soda Tax, Part 2
- Pleased to Eat You, Mr. Chicken.
- This Little Piggy Went to Market, Part 3
- Guest Expert: Matt Young, Santa Fe Youth Food Cadre
- Nonsanto Seeds