Monday, July 5, 2010

Trust No One

"Trust no one." You hear that a lot in action, suspense, and espionage films. But that adage could just as easily apply to any individual or corporation hawking food products. When will I learn?

The husband and I stopped at Farm & Fleet this weekend to get the flat wheelbarrow tire repaired. As we entered the store, a woman was offering samples of a Sprecher-brand soft drink. Normally I would have passed the samples by, but she indicated they were "all natural" sodas, made with ingredients like honey, cherry, and vanilla. Wow, I thought, that sounds great! I tasted the cherry cola, and it was really good: smooth, foamy, just the right amount of sweet, lots of cherry flavor. We bought a four-pack of the cherry cola and a four-pack of the orange.

On the way home, the husband asked me what the ingredients were, so I took a look at the label, expecting to see "all natural" ingredients. Here are the ingredients for the Cherry Cola that I found so delicious, in order of presentation on the label:

Carbonated Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, WI Door County Cherry Juice, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Citric Acid, WI Raw Honey and Sodium Benzoate (Preservative).

I have used italics in the ingredients list to indicate what does not appear to be "all natural." First, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is bad, bad, BAD! And not natural. Artificial flavors are, by their very definition, not natural (hence, why they are called artificial), and arguably natural flavors aren't natural if you have to add them! Citric acid by itself has been through an extraction process--not natural. and who knows what sodium benzoate is--but I know it doesn't usually grow in the garden.

The Orange Dream soda ingredients are even more disconcerting in their unnaturalness:

Carbonated Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Maltodextrin, Natural and Artificial Flavors, WI Raw Honey, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate (Preservative), Vanillin, Quillaia/Yucca Extract, FD&C Yellow #6 and FD&C Red #40.

Most of the offending ingredients here are the same as those in the cherry cola, but this drink actually adds two dyes.

It's my own fault; I should have read the labels before purchasing the items. I trusted an individual who used a term I wanted to hear: "all natural." Unfortunately, her idea of "all natural" and my idea of "all natural" are clearly at odds with one another.

When it comes to food ingredients, it is probably best to adhere to the motto "Trust no one." Read the label for yourself. And, in fact, if it has a label, it's probably not good for you.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ranting and Planting

My husband and I made a compromise at the beginning of the year: He gets to have the lawn company fertilize and apply weed-killer in the front yard so it looks nice; the backyard stays chemical-free. Not only do I NOT want to expose myself to pesticides and herbicides, which act like uber-strong estrogen in the body, feeding my cancer, but we eat things that grow in the backyard--mulberries from the trees, wild strawberries and dandelion leaves in the grass, and of course, produce from my garden. I also feed these items to my 11 hermit crabs, who are particularly sensitive to chemicals. chemicals in the backyard. And that's the agreement we made with our lawn company.

[Note: We would really like to use all-natural items on the front lawn, but to do so for our size yard would be incredibly expensive.]

Yesterday, apparently our lawn company came out and applied the chemicals--to the back yard as well as the front! My husband and I are hopping mad. The guy claims he stayed at least 10 feet away from the garden, but that's not friggin' far enough away as far as I am concerned, particularly since the herbicide is sprayed into the air and can be carried by the wind. At least the fertilizer was in granule form, and he claims it is organic, but without knowing what brand it was or where it came from, I have no idea what organic means in his language.

So no more dandelion leaves for salads from the back yard this year (which probably were direct sprayed), and no more gardening barefoot for a while unless I wear my shoes out to the garden and then step out of them.

We'll be sending a check for front-yard application only to the chemical company and canceling our contract. Despite the expense, I think I'd rather not eat out for a month and save up for SAFE chemicals than risk being exposed to killer chemicals again.

* * *
On the upside, I FINALLY got some direct seeding done today: double-yield cucumbers, bushy cucumbers, provider green beans, black beauty zucchini, and clemson spineless okra. I have more to plant, but that's all the energy I had today.

Learning from last year, I planted only THREE zucchini plants rather than 12, so hopefully I won't be overrun with them again. I still have lots of frozen zucchini to use up from last season! I planted a lot of cucumbers, and am planning on making a LOT of bread and butter pickles this year--everybody seemed to like those.

I added grass clippings over the top since the grass clippings in the burn pile had NOT been yucked up by the dufus lawn guy's chemicals, and now I just need to find the energy to go back outside, once I've cooled down, and water.

Thank you, Mother Nature, for some nice weather for gardening! Feel free to supply some more in the very near future!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Only Good Japanese Beetle Is a Dead One

So there I was, resting in my living room chair, drinking a Hansen's Mandarin and Lime soda (made with cane sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup), minding my own business.

And then I see it: something black flits by the window.

"Shit!" My sudden exclamation startles my husband. Not because I'm cursing--I do that a lot--but because it comes out of nowhere. "I bet it's a Japanese Beetle," I explain.

I get out of my chair and walk to the window, where I spy several black things buzzing about. For a moment, a very brief moment, I try to convince myself they're flies. But I know they aren't. They are Japanese Beetles, the scourge of the trees. And bushes. And garden plants.

In fact, I can't think of a single thing they are good for besides breeding and drowning. And for another fact, as you can tell from the picture, the damn things are already having kinky bug sex in my trees. (You are witnessing a menage a trois in this picture.)

Last year, we tried spraying the trees and shrubs with a cola concoction. It may have slowed them down a bit, but they came back stronger than ever. According to all the literature I've read, traps don't really work and, in fact, attract more Japanese Beetles to the neighborhood. The only thing that works is to go out in the early morning or late evening and knock the creepy crawlers into a bucket of soapy water and drown them. Apparently, the more Japanese Beetles you have, the more they attract. Their bug pheremones are powerful aphrodisiacs, so the only way to keep the population "under control" (I use quotation marks here because truly there is no controlling these beetles) is to kill off as many as possible.

So, for the next couple of months, guess what I'll be doing?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Let Us Talk Lettuce and Radishes

Thanks to all the rain we've had, the lettuce is really starting to fill in. The spinach (left) is still a bit sparse, but that's okay.

I really need to get into the garden and weed, lay down newspaper and grass clippings, and decide which volunteer tomato plants I'm going to keep--and stake those--and which I'll cull. As you can see, the volunteer tomato plants are growing right out of the middle of the lettuce patch.

The rain has also been good for the radishes. I plucked most of them out yesterday, and ended up with a very nice batch of radishes for salads! Some have some scarring on the outside, and a few had splits. The ones that were badly split I tossed into the compost bin. According to the University of Illinois Extension's article on radishes, the cracking and splitting may be caused by pulling radishes when they are too old (although they don't seem spongy), or because we had a dry spell followed by a moist spell (more likely, in my opinion).

Our weather has turned very hot and humid the last couple of days. It was 89 degrees earlier, and so humid that the heat index was over 100! I felt like I was suffocating this morning when I went to the downtown farmer's market. I didn't find much there other than what we've already gotten from our CSA and garden (greens, greens, and more greens, and radishes), so I ended up purchasing a rhubarb pie (not the best I've had) and a Tuscan Parmesan loaf of bread from Great Harvest.

Now, let's have some dry days in the 70s with low humidity so I can get some work done in the garden!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Off to a Slow Start

I'm having a really difficult time getting the garden started this year. On the days when it is not raining, I have no energy or am out of town or have appointments or errands to run.

When I'm ready to rains. Or the ground is still too wet from the previous rain to do anything with.

The 1/3 of the garden that I planted seems sort of, well, sparse. As of June 2, the lettuce was coming up pretty well, so I think I'll have plenty of that to eat. The spinach wasn't doing as well, but the radishes (not pictured) are flourishing. I'll have radishes very soon. Beets (also not pictured), I'm not too sure about yet.

I have a lot of volunteer tomato plants in this section of the garden (which is where the 40+ plants I had last year lived), and I suspect they'll bear pretty well this year, too. I've decided to let them live in this part of the garden--a little "chaos gardening," if you will. A garden shouldn't be too neat; let Mother Nature have a bit of her way! (Maybe she'll be kind to the neater parts if she feels appeased by the chaos.)

Another 1/3 of the garden is ready for planting...if the rain will stop. The final 1/3 of the garden still needs to be tilled, but I think our tiller died. We have some checking to do before we know for sure.

Today, June 8, I picked up our weekly CSA share, which included three heads of lettuce, one bunch of beets, one bunch of garlic scapes, one head of broccoli, one healthy bunch of cilantro, and a few sugar snap peas. We still have all the greens left over from last week's pickup, so we are up to our ears in greens!

As a result, we ate our very first fresh salads of the season tonight for dinner--a mixture of lettuce, beet greens, and arugula from last week's CSA pickup, along with some radish slices, broccoli pieces, and some crumbled feta cheese, topped off with an asiago-peppercorn dressing.
One or more of the beets will end up combined with carrots and apples as juice, and the rest will get cooked and diced for salads or snacking. The broccoli is likely for snacking (not quite enough yet to cook f or two people for dinner), as are the sugar snap peas. The cilantro is currently in the dehydrator; the dill it replaces is now in jars, ready to be used on seafood or perhaps in some garlic-cheese biscuits.

I am really enjoying the CSA. We're eating foods we wouldn't have otherwise tried (or even thought to try), and I'm learning a lot about them. Each week, Henry's sister, Terra, sends out an e-mail that tells us what foods we are likely to be getting, provides us with some background on the more unusual foods, and serves up recipes as suggestions for how to use the produce. I wouldn't have even thought to eat beet leaves--I've always dumped them into the compost pile. Now the compost worms only get the stems; we eat the roots and the leaves! I'm looking forward to experimenting with foods a lot more this summer.

Now, if I can only get my own garden moving...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Who Knew Our CSA Was Famous?

Well, maybe Henry's Farm isn't exactly famous, but Terra, Henry's sister, has written a book titled The Seasons on Henry's Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm. I purchased a copy of the book today when we picked up our CSA produce, and both Terra and Henry were gracious enough to autograph it for me!

Last week's timing for CSA pickup wasn't good--hubby and I went out of town for a couple of days and then spent a couple of days recovering while the produce wilted in the refrigerator. The two bags of spinach were all that survived, so I washed it this evening and boiled it in salted water for a few minutes. I'll add it to some pasta and maybe even to an omelette or two this week; the rest will go in the freezer for another day.

This week, we ended up with a lot of greens: two heads of lettuce, a head of broccoli, a bunch of radishes, some huge green onions, some beet greens (some with a bit of beet on the bottom--an added bonus), a choi of some sort, and some cilantro.

I also learned that apparently the farm has two other CSAs: a meat CSA and a fruit CSA! Henry's farm must be enormous. I'm just delighted we were accepted for the veggie CSA. Watching it unfold and seeing what new items we get each week is fun, and it's wonderful to be eating healthy, pesticide- and herbicide-free foods while my garden is just getting started!

An added bonus at today's pickup: strawberries for sale, fresh from the field! I bought 3 pints and cleaned them. Until you have tasted a field-ripe strawberry, picked that day at its peak of freshness, you haven't eaten a strawberry! The strawberries trucked in from California can't begin to compare. Plus, knowing that they are chemical-free is important to me, since berries purchased at the store are usually laden with chemicals farmers have sprayed on the fields.

I spent the evening processing the foods; I can't wait to begin eating them! It looks like we have a lot of wonderful salads in our future. Now, if I can just get some goat cheese at farmer's market this weekend...

Friday, May 28, 2010

I Bet My Thistle Can Beat Up Your Thistle

I mentioned in a previous post that I had tilled up 2/3 of the garden, but had not yet gotten to the final third. Thistle (and dill--more on that later) has taken over that untilled 1/3 and the largest thistle plant is five feet tall!

Yes, I know, I should have pulled it up before now, but it's been rainy. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it! Hubby tried to weed wack it, but to no avail--the trunk of the thistle is nearly as strong as a tree trunk! We had to switch to a hoe and shovel, and we chopped them down this evening. The roots are still in the ground, but I'll be tilling soon, which will chop the roots into worm food.

Behind the thistle was a nice area of dill. Last year, I had planted dill too close to the cucumbers, and the cucumber leaves ended up overgrowing the dill. I got a little bit of dill last year, but not much; I had to purchase most of my dill from the local farmer's market. But apparently the dill went to seed, overshadowed though it was, because I have a ton of volunteer dill! I harvested a bunch a week or so ago and let it dry out in the refrigerator (it's finishing the drying process in the dehydrator as I write this post) and tonight, harvested the lovely bunch of dill you see in the picture!

The rest of the volunteer dill will be tilled under, food for the worms. I want to plant my herbs in a more permanent place where they can seed themselves each year. I haven't figured out where that will be, exactly. But I'll let you know when I figure it out!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Where Are My Damn Peas?

I went out to check on the garden yesterday. After all the recent rain Mother Nature has dumped on us, I figured my crops would be doing pretty well.

But the first thing I checked didn't seem to be doing so peas. When I checked on them about a week ago, I had shoots coming up within the circle. I was delighted, and I could almost taste those yummy sugar snaps in anticipation!

And now, I can only see ONE chewed up shoot. Rabbits or some other pea-eating critters have gotten through a layer of fencing and a layer of trellising and eaten my pea shoots down to the dirt, except for this one, which they must be saving for dessert.

On the other hand, my lettuce, spinach, beets, and radishes seem to be doing really well. I had to thin out the beets a bit (I had already thinned the radishes a few days ago). The picture here is of Grandpa Admire's lettuce--and it is definitely a thing of admiration!

What I can't figure out is why the critters went straight for the peas, which were harder to get to, and passed by the other tender goodies?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Our First CSA Pickup!

I haven't been able to do any gardening since I planted my early season crops--Mother Nature has been raining regularly enough that the soil hasn't had much of a chance to dry out.

However, I'm really looking forward to tomorrow--our first CSA pickup!

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. People pay a fee to a local farm at the beginning of the year (which gives the farmer "seed money" to begin the season with), and in return, the farm provides the subscribers with a certain amount of produce throughout the growing season. Depending on the farm, sometimes subscribers can, in lieu of money, work off part or all of their CSA subscription fee by volunteering time at the farm.

I don't have enough time and energy to share with a farm, so we paid the annual subscription fee to our CSA farm: Henry's Farm. I selected this local farm because they plant heirloom varieties, don't plant GMOs, and avoid using herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers. The food we get from this CSA will be healthy and wholesome! Even better, it's local--which means it's fresh and it has an exceptionally low carbon footprint.

The e-mail I received says that we'll get spinach, green garlic, chives, rhubarb, and several varieties of radishes tomorrow. I can't wait to start eating healthy farm foods has been a very long winter!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Name That Weed

I still have 1/3 of the garden remaining to till, and in the untilled portion, I have a couple of monster weeds growing! The plant leaves are spiky and remind me of thistle; the flowers are yellow and look like dandelions, but not as round--more like a slightly closed up dandelion.

Is this weed a type of thistle? I couldn't find any pics that looked like this in the thistle category, particularly with yellow flowers. What do you think?

Everything's Coming up Lettuce!

Well, not everything is lettuce. The picture to the left is of radishes. But the lettuce, peas, beets, and spinach are also coming up!

It's funny how anxious I feel after I've planted seeds, checking each day until I finally see the seedlings poking their tiny heads through the soil. In many cases, it's difficult to tell whether the slight bit of green I see is the actual plant or weeds growing in the recently tilled soil. Now that the early crops are planted, it's time to turn my attention to some of the other planting that needs to be done.

For instance, it's time to plant the seedling tomatoes--the Sun Sweet and Super Sweet cherry-size tomatoes, the Big Beef, and the Best Boy tomatoes from the local community college's horticulture program.

I also have a lot of other seeds to plant and seedlings to grow; hopefully we'll get some dry weather soon so I can do that!

Meanwhile, I will just have to be content with harvesting the runaway mint that lives in our yard and the volunteer dill that is coming up in the part of the garden I have not yet tilled.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Let the Planting Begin!

We've had a couple of nice days in a row, and I decided today was the day I needed to get out and begin planting. I probably should have gotten some of my seeds in earlier, but I've had a lot going on.

I managed to re-till 2/3 of the garden, which I had tilled a couple of weeks ago during another nice day. I pounded in the fence stakes and got some fencing up around the section I planted (about 1/2 of what I've tilled).

I managed to plant a lot of the early summer crop--lettuces, spinach, beets, radishes, and peas, as well as some marigolds along the fence line. I wanted to till the last 1/3, but I think the tiller ran out of gas...and I know I did!

I really need to get my seedlings started, but I'm wiped out from today's work. Those will have to wait until sometime this weekend, I'm afraid. But I feel good that the garden is started! Now, if Mother Nature will bring us a nice, gentle rain to get those seeds germinating...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Planning This Year's Garden

According to The Old Farmer's Almanac Frost Chart for United States, April 22 was the last frost date for our area...which means it's time to get planting! I probably should already have started seedlings for some plants--I'm not very good at knowing when to plant things--but I should be able to plant early crops now, like beets and carrots and lettuce and such.

I've tilled through the garden once during one of the warmer dry spells we had recently, tilling in some organic mushroom compost and tilling under the newspaper shred and grass clippings from last year. The dirt looks better than last year; I hope it is. Enough rabbits pooped in it during growing season that it should be fertilized pretty well.

I have all my seed packets, and then some. I bought the majority of my seeds from four sources this year: Seed Savers Exchange, Seeds of Change, Park Seed, and Ferry-Morse. I tried to select as many organic and heirloom types as possible for variety. So here's the rundown of what I plan to plant this year:

  • FM Organic Spinach, Bloomsdale, Long Standing
  • SOC Organic Red Oak Lettuce
  • SSE Grandpa Admire's Lettuce
  • SSE Flame Lettuce
  • SSE Red Romaine Lettuce
  • SSE Yugoslavian Red Lettuce
  • SSE Bloomsdale Spinach
  • SOC Organic Dukat Dill
  • SOC Organic Genovese Sweet Basil
  • SSE Cinnamon Basil
  • SSE Grandma Einck's Dill
  • SSE Giant Italian Parsley
  • PS Organic English Thyme
  • PS Organic Italian Oregano
  • PS Organic Parsley, Italian Flat Leaf
  • PS Organic Dill Bouquet
  • SOC Organic Peacevine Cherry Tomato
  • PS Organic Kellogg's Breakfast Tomato
  • PS Organic Cherokee Purple Tomato
  • PS Organic Cherry Sweetie
  • SSE Red Brandywine Tomato
  • SSE Martino's Roma Tomato
  • I'll also be planting tomatoes purchased from Richland Community College's horticulture program sale: Beefsteak, Best Boy, and Sun Sugar.
  • PS Organic Peppers, California Wonder
  • SSE Sweet Chocolate Peppers
  • SSE Napolean Sweet Pepper
  • SSE Bushy Cucumbers
  • SSE Double Yield Cucumbers
  • SSE Purple Podded Pole Bean
  • SSE Provider Bean
  • SSE British Wonder Pea
  • PS Organic Zucchini, Black Beauty (and no, I won't be planting 12 plants this year--only 2 or 3)
  • SOC Organic Turkish Orange Eggplant
  • PS Organic Eggplant, Black Beauty
  • PS Organic Radish Sparkler
  • SOC Organic Cherry Belle Radish
  • SSE Edmunds Blood Turnip Beet
  • FM Beet, Tall Top Early Wonder
  • SOC Organic Red Wethersfield Onion
  • PS Organic Carrot Nantes
  • PS Organic Okra Clemson
  • PS Organic Broccoli Raab
  • SSE Petite Yellow Watermelon
  • SSE Sunberry
Edible Flowers
  • SSE German Chamomile
  • SSE Arikara Sunflower
  • FM Organic Sunflower, Mammoth
As you can see, I have way too many seeds as usual. But I will plant a little bit of everything and see what happens! Every year is an experiment, and I learn a little more about what to do and what not to do. For instance, last year I learned that 12 zucchini plants were WAY MORE than a healthy-sized army could consume in a year, so I'll only be planting a few of those.

This year, I'll also plant marigolds and white alyssum to try to keep bugs away from some of the plants, and I'll probably plant some nasturtiums to add to salads. They're quite good, having a kind of peppery flavor.

So, there you have it. OCD kicks in again this gardening season. If you'd like to trade some seed varieties with me, let me know asap before I plant them all!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Egg-cited about Spring!

Yesterday, some friends of mine brought me some farm-fresh eggs. Over the winter, I've been buying organic, cage-free eggs at the store, but eggs never taste as good from the store. I've missed our farmer's market, so yesterday's gift of eggs was most welcome! The eggs were so beautiful, I had to take a picture of them.

They almost look as if they were colored for Easter: rich ivories, deep tans, and delicate mint greens. It is amazing to see the color variations in these fresh eggs when we consumers are so used to seeing sterile white eggs for years, or only whites and browns if we are buying organic. What a loss.

That variety is such a big part of what our food system has lost. According to the UK Biodiversity Coalition, "More than 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers' fields" worldwide. When was the last time you ate orange cauliflower or a purple carrot? Did you know that corn used to have a very high protein content until the geneticists started messing with corn traits in order to improve yield and resistance to herbicides? Now, corn has very little protein and is primarily starch. (For more information, I recommend the enlightening and amusing documentary King Corn.)

When we lose varieties, we lose nutritional value. For example, orange cauliflower gets its color from a high level of carotenoids, from which our Vitamin A precursor, beta carotene, is derived. Purple carrots are purple due to the high levels of anthocyanins, also nutritionally valuable. When we lose these varieties, we lose the high nutritional values, the different flavors, the unique beauty of these varieties.

Some people fear that our loss of crop variety could lead to a food crisis. For instance, very few varieties of corn are grown commercially, and if a disease came along that those varieties were vulnerable to, our entire commercial corn crop could be decimated. It could happen easily; remember the Irish potato famine?

Back to eggs...most of today's commercially sold eggs are gathered from Leghorns, but so many more varieties of chickens for egg laying are available! (See Henderson's Handy Dandy Chicken Chart.) Additionally, store-bought eggs are typically less nutritious overall than farm-fresh eggs from farmers who pasture their chickens (in other words, allow them to either roam free or have a chicken tractor that moves the chickens from fresh pasture spot to fresh pasture spot). Why do we allow a few large corporations to determine the nutritional value and selection of what we eat instead of seeking out the largest variety and most nutritional options?

Buying eggs from a farmer might cost a little more...up front. But you'll increase diversity in the market and be healthier for it...meaning you might just pay a lot less on the back end to doctors for nutritional deficiency-caused illness and disease. I'd rather fork out a few extra dollars on the front end and enjoy the beauty of my fresh eggs!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Not Your Average Spring Chicken

Each spring, one moment seems to stand out from the rest and shout, "It's here! Spring is here!"

Sometimes that moment occurs when I'm walking to my car in the infant warmth, the sun kissing my head and arms. I stand in that moment, arms outstretched, eyes closed, and head tilted back to catch the sun's glorious rays on my face.

Sometimes that moment is the first butterfly that flits past, stretching a quick moment into an eternity on an updraft. My eyes follow the flutterby as it circles me, and I slowly stretch out my hand, hoping it will casually land on my palm, tentacles lightly tickling, just as a butterfly did once at the Butterfly House in St. Louis.

Today, that moment was holding three chicks, one at a time, feeling their tiny claws curl into my palm, touching their warm, soft, downy feathers, hearing their delighted chirping: "It's here! Spring is here!"

In that moment, my heart soared. It is now past the spring date on the calendar, but I never have judged spring by date. But today, in that moment, spring made its appearance.