Tag Archives: Gardening

12 Things Kids Should Learn on their Own about Food

Guest Blogger: Orren Fox is 12 years old and lives in NoBo (North of Boston). He goes to school where there is a greenhouse and a bee hive! Orren has 24 chickens and four ducks (three Call Ducks and one beautiful Mandarin). He is really interested in farming and the ethical treatment of animals. Orren would love to change the way egg layers and meat birds are raised. He says he has a lot to learn. He blogs and tweets about these issues.

There are all sorts of really interesting things to learn about food, actually I imagine you might not have really THOUGHT about food. Maybe someone hasn’t taught you about food. Most kids would rather think about other stuff.

But just for a minute, right now, stop and ask yourself – What did I have for breakfast? Ok now, think – Where did all those ingredients come from? Who made that bagel? What time did they have to get up? Where did that egg come from? Where did the chicken live and how did it live? If you knew the animal was poorly treated would that make a difference? Or not? Where did the orange juice travel from? Florida? California? Have you ever traveled to those states? Is it a long way from California or Florida to your house? How much gas did it use to ship the OJ that far?

All really interesting questions I think.

1.  Vegetables taste great with butter and cheese

Honestly, what doesn’t. Even asparagus, really even asparagus. I know there are some people who will say butter and cheese aren’t healthy, but hey I’m a kid and actually I think these are true foods or “real foods.” They aren’t chemically made in a laboratory. They come from recipes not chemical compounds or lab experiments. Maybe that is too harsh. But I understand eggs and cheese, I know where they come from. I don’t know what SODIUM TRIPOLYPHOSPHATE is, so I Googled it (here is what Wikipedia says – Polyphosphates are moderately irritating to skin and mucous membrane because of their alkalinity). Hmm. Not really interested in eating that.

Actually most veggies that you grow yourself or that come from your neighborhood farm taste completely different than those from the buckets in the supermarket. I actually think the veggies in the supermarket don’t really taste  like much. A carrot that was harvested yesterday tastes very different from one that was harvested a few weeks ago, then spent the next few days on a truck, then the  next few days sitting in the supermarket. I think the flavor must just drain out of everything as time passes. Also in the supermarket there are very few types of veggies or fruits. Very rarely would you see a Green Zebra or a Brandywine, and those are just tomato variations! Each of these variations tastes completely different, we are only really offered one or two types of tomatoes at the supermarket. These two types of tomatoes are the kinds that travel well and that are easiest to ripen or harvest. I actually don’t like the kind in the supermarket, I like Brandywines. They are sweeter.

I think kids might like veggies if they could choose the varieties they like, but they can’t because the choice is so small. I wouldn’t eat tomatoes if I could only eat the kind in the supermarket.

2. Food taste better when you grow it yourself

Food tastes better because your work is in it. I am an impatient gardener, so for me the food tastes great because I have had to wait for it to go from seeds to seedlings to flowers to fruit to ripe fruit. Somehow that makes it taste like you did it. So i guess there is a little bit of pride in those vegetables.

3. Growing food is hard work, a real accomplishment, and really satisfying

I drowned the first tomatoes I tried to grow. I just kept watering them. They didn’t stand a chance. I just couldn’t believe that dry soil was very good for the plants, so I kept watering them. Of course they never grew. It actually made me really sad and I felt as if I would never be a farmer.  I learned and the next year I didn’t drown them, I was a little more patient. Just a little, actually. I also talked to anyone who would talk to me about growing tomatoes.

I started them in little peat pots at home in a sunny window, then slowly put them outside each day to “harden them off”, at this point I almost froze the seedlings to death. I forgot to bring them in one night because I was so distracted by playing basketball, I completely forgot them. I was lucky, it didn’t get too cold that night. Once they were sturdy enough to plant into the ground I dug little nests into the ground and put them in. I practically expected to come back the next day and have ripe tomatoes. At this point the garden looked so tidy and organized. All the plants in their nests all in a row. Wow. Gradually the weeds invaded. I have to say, I like weeds. I would pull them up and give them to my hens. The hens loved them. Sometimes I would take a few of my hens into the garden with me. They were great helpers, until one day they discovered the green tomatoes. One tomato gone..after all of that work and tending! As it turned out we had a very very wet June and a tomato blight so only a few of my 8 tomato plants produced fruit. The ones that did were fantastic. I think they tasted especially good because I know how much work went into caring for them. They really did taste different!

4. Being adventurous with food is a great way to get good attention from adults.

Oddly some adults are surprised when kids eat vegetables. Eat a bowl of spinach or asparagus and see the reaction you get! Adults are stunned. I have this bad habit of grabbing a handful of spinach and jamming it into my mouth, people are astonished. Selfishly it feels good to have people pay attention to you.

5. Farmers are really inventors and are happy to tell you what they know.

I am friends with my local farmer, Matt. I went to visit him at his greenhouses. He had a problem. It cost a lot to heat the greenhouse during the winter to grow greens. So what did he do? he figured out a way to lower the ceiling so that he was only heating about 9 inches off the ground. This way he was able to keep the amount of fuel he used way way down and therefore the greens were affordable. Very inventive!

6. Keeping a compost bucket near the sink is a great way to use food you don’t eat – my hens love my leftovers.

Food is hard to grow, it seems ridiculous to throw it out. Uneaten food has so many uses. I actually feed most of it to my hens, they love it. In fact the other day I took my leftover burrito out to them and they went crazy! I am about to learn about worms and am probably going to get a worm farm so that we can take all of our newspapers and food waste and “feed” it to the worms to make delicious soil. Obviously healthy food comes from healthy soil, so I am going to employ some worms to do some work. They are going to be my farm workers. I actually think I might make a t-shirt that says “I (heart) worms”!

7. Good food comes from healthy soil, so don’t throw your trash out the window.

I am amazed when I see trash on the side of the road, or the other day someone threw their cigarette on the ground. Woah. I guess this just doesn’t make sense to me. Right now I don’t know that much about soil, it seems like there is TONS to learn. I’m going to start with my farm workers the worms and begin to learn more. What I do know is that garbage doesn’t help our soil, our earth. Basically the soil = the earth. So farmers are really the most important people when it comes to taking care of the planet. I read somewhere that someone said “Farmers are stewards of the earth”, I think that is really true.

8. Cooking is really fun. Think about it fire, knives, and lots of people telling you that your are amazing.

The thing about cooking is that most people don’t think kids can do it, because of the knives and fire. Actually we can. We know it is dangerous and that we need to be careful, but if a kid doesn’t learn how to cook how can they possibly feed themselves when they become an adult? Imagine not knowing how to cook for yourself. What would you do? You become completely dependent on someone else feeding you. I think that probably means eating fast food or food that is already prepared. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think that is the most healthy food. I think the goal of that food is sit on a shelf for a long time and not go bad. Also it is amazing the kind of praise and attention you get when adults know you can cook.

9. Eating a strawberry, an apple, a pear, a peach, blueberries straight from the plant is surprisingly awesome.

Hard to believe a dusty warm strawberry tastes so great but it does. It really does taste dramatically different from the ones you buy in the store. The one in the field tastes juicy and sweet. The texture seems right for a strawberry, kind of prickly with the seeds and gentle with the fruit. A ripe strawberry sort of melts, in fact I don’t think you even need to chew. I think because it is so ripe and because you found it, is part of the reason it tastes so great.  This may sound funny but picking fruit or veggies yourself is kind of like treasure hunting. It is really satisfying to find a ripe strawberry, or a homegrown green bean. It feels like finding buried treasure. Even if you are picking an entire garden of green beans it is hard work but really rewarding.

10. Food should be a school subject – Food is biology, history, art, chemistry, PE, drama, Spanish and Latin all in one.

The thing about food is it teaches a lot of different subjects all in one. Obviously it is covers material in biology – photosynthesis, species classification,  ecosystems, and causality. It is also history because the place where your garden is being planted probably has a growing history and it would makes sense to understand it before jumping in. For example, what was growing here before my garden, is the soil clean as a result of what was here before me, what have other gardeners/farmers planted here before and had success with? It is definitely PE because it is so physical! Growing food also requires Latin because many of the seed names are in Latin. And I think it is art because in a lot of ways growing a garden meets the definition of art “the products of human creativity, the creation of beautiful significant things”.

Actually what is more significant than growing food? Maybe most importantly it is math. Think about it, schedules, costs of seeds, how much space is needed. It all involves math, many, many calculations. Like  my farmer friend Matt realizing he could grow greens during the winter if a head of lettuce was going to cost 7$, but no one would by it. Most of that 7$ was the cost of heating the greenhouse, so he figured out how to lower the ceiling in his greenhouse and heat a very little bit of the greenhouse, making his greens affordable.

11. You can have a big impact on the environment, depending on what you choose to eat.

I have been reading a lot lately that eating meat isn’t great for the environment. Obviously people have different opinions about this, but from what I have read factory farms are not good for the environment.  Also if we choose to eat more of our food from things that are raised and grown nearby, that food doesn’t have to be shipped all over the place and therefore doesn’t use up a lot of gas to move it around. Maybe we could eliminate some traffic jams by eating local. I’m not sure we can eat everything from nearby, but just making the effort to buy more of our food from local farmers we automatically reduce the amount of food that has to be trucked around. This just logically makes sense to me.

12. That chicken your eating is a really cool animal.

I am reading JSFoer’s new book Eating Animals and he talks about the time his babysitter said “You know that chicken is chicken, right?” I’m afraid most people know that but don’t really want to think about it. It is hard to imagine. Many people have never “met” a chicken before and this is what makes it possible to eat chicken. When you do meet this interesting animal, it is hard not to realize they are very much like other animals. Maybe even like animals you love. They have personalities, likes and dislikes. Do you know any other animals like that? Do any live with you? Maybe I’ve said enough. If you are going to eat chicken, I would encourage you to consider how that animals was raised and slaughtered for you to be eat. If it were tortured would you still want to eat it?

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Planting the Seeds of Change

Guest Blogger: Joya Parsons is an organic market gardener working toward making a sustainable, local food system a reality. She runs Quite Contrary Garden and Homestead in Laurel, Delaware. She blogs at Quite Contrary Gardens and Twitters under @Kubileya

Seeds. They seem like such a small thing when compared to the big, complex problems the world is facing—climate change, poverty, war, famine, peak oil and an exploding population. They’re so small, in fact, that most will fit easily under your thumb.

But stop and think again. Without those tiny grains, what would be left on Earth?

Seeds are the bedrock of our food chain, the basic element of our sustenance. If they were to disappear tomorrow, we would follow them into oblivion with lightning speed. And, the most pressing issue people are often unaware of is that they are currently under grave and direct threats.

Sounds ominous, huh? Wondering why? Well, the answer is two-fold. First, we have witnessed a staggering loss of genetic diversity. In the past century, world agriculture has lost 75% of its genetic diversity to globalization, standardization and monoculture farming; 95% of the tomato varieties that existed in 1909 have become extinct; 91% of corn – gone. In addition, 95% of the cabbage varieties your great-great grandma grew have been consigned to oblivion. And though this may not seem on the surface to be a big deal, in reality it could mean the difference between full bellies and famine.

Genetic diversity in the food plants we grow is more than just the number of tomatoes listed in your favorite seed catalog. Diversity ensures that there are sufficient, genetically diverse and well-adapted varieties of any given plant to respond to any given situation. When a crisis arises, such as a new fungal disease or a severe drought, diverse genetics ensure that some varieties will naturally have genes that enable them to resist the threat and grow on, passing their genetic strengths on to the next generation. Without that diversity, with a significantly narrower gene pool to draw upon, crops and plants become susceptible to complete annihilation when these new threats arise. Such a disaster is not unprecedented.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s had such a devastating effect on Ireland’s population not only because they depended so heavily upon that one crop, but because they relied on only one variety. When the fungus hit, the one variety in wide cultivation was extremely susceptible and the mainstay of the Irish diet was destroyed within two seasons. Even as recently as the United States corn blight of the 1970’s, when 80% of American corn was of a similar genetic heritage and some 10 million acres of the crop were lost in a single season, we have seen the perils of lack of diversity.

The second threat to our seeds comes from industrial agriculture’s relative recent access to patents, as well as genetically modified organisms and seed company acquisitions, resulting in significant industry consolidation. Understanding this requires just a little micro-course in plant patent history (For a more complete history, check out the three-part series at Cooking Up A Story). In 1930, the Plant Patent Act was passed, which allowed plant breeders, a relatively new profession, to patent a single, specific plant that they had bred themselves. Patents were limited to only that specific plant and any asexual propagations of said plant. Seeds, as the result of sexual reproduction, were specifically barred from patent. Fast-forward to 1970 and the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act. This legislation gave plant breeders the right to patent an entire variety of genetically similar plants, as well as their seeds and all subsequent generations. Fast-forward again, this time to 1980. The United States Supreme Court decision of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, a 5-4 split decision, gave individuals, and corporations acting as individuals, the right to a utility patent for laboratory engineered organisms, including seeds, under the 1952 Patent Act. Yes, that’s a bunch of gobblety-gook.

What it means is this: corporations have been given the power to own life. When you combine this with the consolidation of the global seed market by these same corporations, entities such as Monsanto and DuPont can not only own life, they can also control access and set the going price of those living things. In buying up every major seed supplier, they are systematically eliminating competing varieties and crowning their own patented seeds as the only choice in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. The right and ability to patent life extends to the genetic level, thanks to Diamond v. Chakrabarty. A corporation, like Monsanto for instance, can own a single gene and by extension, own any form of life containing said gene. This is a problem in the plant world because, let’s face it, plants are promiscuous. They pollinate far and wide with any willing partner. So, genetically modified corn containing Monsanto’s patented genetic sequence can cross-contaminate a nearby field of non-GM, non-corporate owned corn, and simply by the act of drifting pollen, transform every seed produced by that corn into Monsanto’s property.

So, this is a screwed up situation. But what can we do about it? We’re just the little people, with no real say in what happens on the giant, global corporate stage, right? Well, not really. We can take our seeds back. We can keep them out of the hands of Monsanto and DuPont. We can breed back our lost diversity in our own backyards, with our own hands, to serve our own communities and interests. Here’s how…

First, we must learn how to avoid plants and seeds that are already under patent, which can be difficult! If you are lucky, there will be a number next to the plant listing in the seed catalog, or a quick Google of the variety name will turn up a number. If the letters PVP are in front, you can search the Plant Variety Protection database. Now, this doesn’t always work, since many PVP registrations refer to a variety number, rather than a name and you may have to scroll through the entire “tomato” section (or whatever section is relevant) to double check that your variety is not listed or, if it is, that the patent has not yet expired. Another tactic is to check through the USDA Plant Inventory files, which list all varieties to come on the market in a given year going back to 1998. As a very general rule, all seeds listed as F1 hybrids are probably patented (or at least they were at one time) and any seeds introduced more than twenty-five years age can no longer be under patent.

These information sources are great, but they are not 100% reliable or complete. In order to really make sure that your money isn’t going into Monsanto’s pockets, heirlooms and open-pollinated plants that came into existence before 1970 are almost a sure bet. These seeds have been perfected over decades, centuries in some cases. They’ve survived through the years because farmers and gardeners have recognized their merits, superior taste and performance. They were, by and large, created on the front lines, in backyards and farmlands far, far from the clutches of any corporate entity.

But planting patent- and corporate-free seeds is only the first step. The next step is where we really begin to take back our seeds. We have to save them from season to season. We have to relearn what our grandparents knew and cut the corporate stranglehold by providing seeds to ourselves and our communities– tomatoes, peppers, kale, radishes, lettuce and more. When we begin to do this, magic will happen.

Seeds and plants are not static copies of their ancestors. Even the oldest heirlooms are dynamic, living beings constantly adapting and evolving. If we understand, even on just a very basic level, how to choose the best plants to save seed from—the ones with the best tasting fruit, the ones that get through the season with the least pest damage, the ones that grow the fastest or yield the most, then the seeds we save will grow into better and better plants every year. They will adapt to whatever region of the world we live in. After a couple generations and a few genetic mutations and cross-pollinations, our seeds will begin to transform. Even if I start with a Green Zebra tomato (developed by private citizen and plant breeder Tom Wagner) and another gardener across the country starts with the same tomato, within a matter of a few years saving seeds, we will have created two different, genetically divergent lines. Within a decade or so, the two lines may not even bear much resemblance to one another anymore, both having changed and adapted to local conditions. I’ve seen this phenomenon first-hand among my local gardening group. The seeds we select and save from season to season become the superstars of our gardens, performing better and better every year. This is how the great diversity in heirloom vegetables came into being in the first place and we can repeat it to create new ‘heirlooms’ that we can pass on to others. If we the people can do this, we will begin to rebuild the lost diversity in our agricultural heritage.

It will be a slow process. It will take decades, possibly more than one lifetime, to regain even a fraction of what we have lost. However, with the looming threats of climate change, new diseases, and corporate gate-keepers intent on restricting access to the most basic elements of human life, this project, this truly grassroots mission could not be more important. It’s time to take back what belongs to all of us. It’s time to take responsibility for preserving and rebuilding the agricultural wealth that genetic diversity assures, corporations be damned.

Who knows? When the next devastating plant disease comes rolling through the countryside, the variety that saves the entire crop for the future of humanity may be the very one we grew and saved in our own backyards.

Some seed sources dedicated to diversity and non-patented seeds to get you started:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Seed Savers Exchange

J.L. Hudson, Seedsman

Freedom Seeds

Organic Heirlooms

Native Seeds of the Southwest

Amish Land Seeds

Heirloom Seeds

Victory Seeds

Bringing ProFood to the Backyard

Guest Blogger: Joya Parsons is an organic market gardener working toward making a sustainable, local food system a reality. She runs Quite Contrary Garden and Homestead in Laurel, Delaware. She blogs at Quite Contrary Gardens and Twitters under @Kubileya

Suppose you are an avid supporter of local food. You get your vegetables from the local farmer’s market or CSA, your eggs from your neighbor’s free range chickens, and your bacon from a pastured hog farm where you know the pigs by name. Maybe you’re thinking about taking the next step toward really, really local food–growing it in your own backyard. Or maybe you’ve been gardening for a while and you’re ready to try your hand at saving seeds from your favorite vegetables from season to season, in the process creating locally adapted lines that thrive in your region without the need for heavy applications of pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers.

Well, I am here to help and encourage. Saving seeds from our best vegetables and growing them ourselves is a serious exercise in ProFood principles. ProFood is a growing movement invigorating local and sustainable food systems. ProFood is pro-farmer, or pro-gardener in the case of backyard growers, and saving and growing your own seeds keeps you in control of what is planted and keeps corporations like Monsanto out. It is pro-consumer, pro-cooking and pro-eating, all of which are supported by learning to grow and prepare food ourselves, bringing the freshest, tastiest local produce to the table in the process. ProFood is also an entrepreneurial movement spurring innovation and change within the food system by focusing on developing an alternative, local system and the home grower can become the first link in that new chain. And don’t forget, when those bushels of tomatoes come rolling in around August, you can foster a wonderful ProFood sense of community involvement by sharing the bounty with friends and neighbors.

Tomatoes are generally the first vegetable that people think of when they consider a backyard garden. They’re tasty, popular, and generally easy to grow. The only issue is that some people may be turned off by growing them from seed or saving tomato seeds because it seems complicated and time-consuming, so they resort to buying transplants instead. Problem is, many transplants that you find in stores come from big, commercial nurseries hundreds or thousands of miles away, which may go against the grain of the local, sustainable food movement. Your food dollars are still flowing out of your community, even if the food in question is not quite ready for the plate.

The solution is growing and saving your own tomato seeds. It’s not an arcane science or incredibly difficult, I promise. It’s something anyone can do. You can save seeds this summer from the plants in your garden or even from tomatoes you’ve purchased at the farmer’s market– any ripe tomato will do (see note below about tomato varieties). If you’re saving from your own garden, be sure to select the biggest, healthiest, tastiest plants you have to ensure you’re passing along a robust genetic line. Decide how many tomatoes you want to save from (I usually figure 50-75 good seeds from a Brandywine type, less for smaller tomatoes). From there, it’s just three easy steps involving only about twenty minutes of actual hands-on time to save hundreds of seeds.

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Step One: Collecting the seeds

The easiest way to collect seeds from a tomato is simply to slice the fruit in half across the equator and squeeze the ‘goopy guts’ into a bowl. Use your fingers or a spoon to scrape out any stragglers.

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Step Two: Fermenting

This is the step where many would-be seed savers get confused or intimidated, thinking it sounds way too complicated, but I’m here to tell you it’s not! You simply have to provide the right environment (a jar and a bit of sunlight) and Mother Nature takes care of the rest. Fermenting is an essential step to remove the jelly-like goo surrounding each seed in order that the seed may germinate and to destroy any disease-causing bacterial or fungal spores that might be hitching a ride.

Transfer your tomato goop into a clear jar, preferably glass, and add a bit of water– you want the consistency runny. Cover the top of the jar with a breathable material like cotton cloth. You can use plastic wrap if that’s what you have on hand, just make sure to poke a few holes in it first.

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Now just leave it on a sunny windowsill for about three days. Try to remember to give it a little shake and swirl each day. The top of the mixture will start to look a little scummy and it will smell pretty gross– this is alright! It’s exactly what is supposed to happen. When the process is finished, you should see the good seeds on the bottom with a layer of thick pulp and mold sitting on top.

Carefully pour out the top layer of pulp (it’s great for the compost pile!) and floating seeds (these are not viable and will not germinate). Add a little more water to the jar, swish for a minute, and carefully pour out again. Repeat this until the water in the jar comes out clear. Then, pour the contents of the jar through a strainer to drain the seeds.

Step Three: Drying

The last step is as easy as it sounds. Arrange the seeds in a single layer on a breathable material like paper towels, coffee filters, or a paper plate. Leave in a warm place out of direct sunlight. It helps to have air circulating underneath as well. You can lay paper towels on a cookie cooling rack so that there is adequate air circulation all around or make sure to remember to give the seeds a stir every day so that all sides get some air flow. Depending on humidity, it could take a few days to two weeks for your seeds to be completely dry. You’ll know they’re ready for storage when they not only feel dry, but they are light and easily scoot across the plate or towel when you give it a little shimmy.

That’s it! Now your seeds are ready to be stored until planting time next spring. You can use the small paper or plastic envelopes found in craft stores, or make your own. Store them in a cool, dry place, preferably in an airtight bin to keep the humidity out. Make sure you label them well to prevent any later confusion!

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A note about tomato varieties: For the very best results of your seed-saving efforts, try to find heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. These have been bred and inbred over generations to produce consistent and genetically similar seedlings. You can be sure seeds from your Cherokee Purple will produce Cherokee Purple babies.

Hybrid tomatoes are produced through cross-pollination of two different varieties and seeds from hybrids do not generally produce seedlings consistent with the parent type, or, in gardening terms, they don’t “come true” from seed. They tend to revert to the genetic traits of the hybrid’s parent plants, which may not be awful, but it will be unpredictable and probably not as desirable. Also, in a final note, many hybrids are patented or corporate owned. For instance, the popular Early Girl hybrid tomato is owned by Monsanto, whose life-patents and petrochemical dependence make them the very opposite of ProFood.

Check the Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirlooms, J.L. Hudson, Organic Heirlooms or Freedom Seeds for non-patented, non-corporate, heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.