Lessons from the Garden

While I was pulling weeds yesterday, I began reflecting on lessons from the garden. Beyond healthy food, fresh air, sunshine, and closeness to the Earth, gardening brings other positives. And time in the garden when your hands are busy, but your mind is free is time that can be spent exploring them.

I’m not a landscape-pretty raised-bed gardener. Even though I live in the city, I garden like we did on the farm. I have a wire fence enclosure and plant seeds directly in the ground. I’m not as haphazard as my stepfather who just throws a few seeds in a patch of weeds and lets them all grow together. I have rows and I weed in between them as well as in between the plants.

My watering schedule is observational and instinctive. I try to mimic nature. Sometimes I spray with the hand sprayer to impersonate a hard rain that removes larvae from leaves. Other times I use a sprinkler to mimic a slow, soaking rain. If an afternoon is hot, sunny, and bright, I don’t water. Nature would rarely combine heat, bright sun, and rain. So far, I’ve been rewarded with good harvests.

That brings me right back to lessons from the garden:

Finding Balance

Balance is key to my health as well as the health of my garden. Finding balance is part instinct and part effort. My senses tell me when I haven’t had enough water to drink or enough sleep. If I’m a careful observer, I know when I need to say no to that one small obligation that will rob me of needed down time. I know when I need to seek something that stimulates my mind or comforts me physically.

While it sounds like a simple planning issue, a schedule doesn’t work perfectly for keeping balance. Unexpected weather rolls in and everything changes.

Yield to the Weather

And so the garden teaches me that I must yield to the weather. Think how much time we spend attempting to anticipate the weather. Newscasts feature forecasts multiple times an hour. A phone app or website tells us what’s happening 10 days out. We discuss it with friends and look out the window and still sometimes we’re left in a house with no food and no power because a tropical storm turns out to be a Category 2 hurricane or a tornado roars through.

Obviously, not all sudden shifts are from the weather, but the principle applies. With any sudden change that I can’t control, my options are to be flexible and adapt to my new situation or be stuck with a plan that no longer fits.

Patience

While my spring garden had a few weeds, my fall garden was overrun with them by the time I finished forming rows to plant. I weeded and within a day or two the weeds were back. Swift weed removal became my focus. Then I walked down the row of mâche and realized I couldn’t tell the seedlings from the weeds. In order to protect the mâche, I had to let both grow for awhile.

I’m not much for waiting when I know a task is at hand, but the garden teaches patience. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later the wait paid off and there was no question which plants should be removed.

Estimations Can be Wrong

It’s hard to gauge the size of a harvest the first year. You can estimate. You can follow the guidance of experienced gardeners, but your particular garden plot will be unique. Greens may do well and carrots may not. Two of your rows may get more shade than you realized. Having a contingency plan when estimates don’t pan out is always a good idea.

Small Wounds Can Yield Big Pain

My garden has ants. If you’ve ever had an ant bite, you already know the kind of pain they can inflict. It seems wrong. They’re so small. And their bites are so tiny. In fact, they’re so small you may ignore a bite at first. But soon it itches. Then it hurts. A blister forms. By the next day, your whole finger or hand may be swollen. You can’t think about anything besides the bite (especially if there are multiples). All the while, your brain is telling you this is silly. It’s only a tiny ant bite. Get a grip.

Like the physical response to an ant bite, an emotional response may seem disproportionate to a situation. When that response is yours, you may immediately understand that you’re responding to much more than anyone else sees. This is just the straw or it triggered an emotional flashback of sorts. Other times, you may witness someone else experience a large pain that appears to come from a small wound. This can be disconcerting.

Maintaining a connection and holding space for each other to work things out is a soothing compress. The swelling must subside before the pain is gone and that takes a minute. Thank goodness the garden already taught us patience!

For lunch I enjoyed a spinach salad fresh with lessons from the garden. Yum!

Ant Bites

How Does Your Garden Grow?

How does your garden grow? My dad loved to alter the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary, quite contrary…. “ I’m sure you remember it:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

Dad’s version began “Cheri, Cheri, quite contrary.” Hearing him say that phrase is ingrained in my mind. That doesn’t mean I’ve spent a lot of time gardening, but it may or may not mean I’ve spent a lot of time being contrary. This year that is shifting. Herbs on the back porch are not enough. I just dug up brand new sod to plant a vegetable garden.

arugula
Arugula from my garden.

In early March, I sat on my neighbor’s porch drinking rosé and describing new landscaping plans for my back yard. Two weeks later, we’d been ordered to stay home and I quickly realized many links in the food chain are weak. What if they break? I grew up on a farm helping my grandmother dig potatoes and my great aunts shell peas. My next thought was, I need to plant a garden and get some chickens.

I immediately ordered an electric hand tiller, hoe, shovel, some rabbit wire, fence poles, and a variety of seeds. Panic buying had just begun and already seeds were scarce. If I had done my normal amount of planning, everything would have been gone. I stuck to basics defined by availability and kept the garden to dimensions that would fit within one roll of rabbit wire.

garden_prep

By the time everything arrived and I had the soil prepped, it was early May. Farmers’ markets were opening with vegetables ready to sell. I hadn’t started the seeds in pots. I hadn’t yet planted anything. It felt like I was months behind. I just kept telling myself it would be okay. We have a long growing season in the South. The timing will be fine.

A month later, I have beautiful arugula ready to eat! In a couple of days I’ll begin harvesting lettuce. And soon I’ll have cherry tomatoes, summer squash, and zucchini to add to my salad. Eventually, there will be carrots and green beans to harvest. Some days, I wish I’d planted more. Some days my back is tired from weeding and I’m glad I kept it small.

When I lived in an apartment, I could not have done this. When I had a yard filled with sweet gum trees, it would have taken too long and been too expensive to get started. But even with those obstacles, I managed to get my hands dirty growing herbs and peppers. There’s something healing about the smell and feel of fresh soil. I only wear gloves if fences or stickers are involved. Otherwise, I prefer my bare hands in the soil.

fenced garden

Thirty years ago, I grew my first herbs in small clay pots placed in a little red wagon my kids had outgrown. I would move the wagon around as needed to get optimum sun. I loved watching them grow. I loved the smells. I loved having them available for cooking. And they gave me an opportunity to play in the dirt. I’ve had herbs on my back porch most summers ever since.

How does YOUR garden grow?

It’s not too late to plant some herbs in pots if you’d like to give it a try. If you’re staying home during the pandemic, you can order seed starting kits online and have clay pots and potting soil delivered along with a Walmart grocery order…maybe. Shortages and delays in shipping still exist so a starter kit will let you get seedlings started while you locate and obtain the supplies you need to transplant them into pots.

I like to start seeds outdoors so that I don’t have to transition them to outdoor temperatures and light later. My plants start out accustomed to heat and humidity. If you want to grow your herbs indoors, it will be more appropriate to start indoors. Or if you plant when it’s cold outside, you can slowly transition the starter pots with increasing amounts of heat and light before you begin to transplant.

Most years, I plant basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, and mint. Sometimes I add oregano, dill, parsley, cilantro, or chives to the mix. This year, the selection is a bit different due to availability. A starter kit may not allow you flexibility to substitute, but a variety of kits are available to mix and match. All of the herbs listed above will thrive in a pot as will tarragon, lavender, and lemon balm.

herbs

What you’ll need for seeds or plants

While I’m selecting plants, I purchase some potting soil. Miracle-Gro® offers a whole line of soils for containers. If you’re not confident you’ll water consistently, choose a mix that helps control moisture.

Specialty soils are pricey. If budget is a concern, there are other options. Last year, I chose a sandy inexpensive soil in 40 lb bags from the hardware store. The bags ran about $4 each. I used it for all of my plants including a large rubber tree, ivy, and a couple of pineapples. It’s hard to judge whether the cheaper soil affected growth rate, but everything was alive and well through the fall and early winter.

Of course you need something to put that soil in. I get the best results from clay pots with a drain hole in the bottom, but I use whatever I have handy. Herbs grow quickly so it’s okay to transplant seedlings directly into a fairly large planter.

To plant, I place a few small rocks in the bottom of each container to keep soil from blocking the drain. I partially fill a pot with potting soil, set the herbs in the pot then finish filling the container with soil pressing lightly around the seedlings to secure them.

For the next few days, I water diligently. Then I go to a somewhat haphazard watering schedule keeping an eye out for drooping or yellow leaves to let me know if I’m on track. When the leaves droop, I water. If the leaves turn yellow, I stop watering for a few days. You can also test the soil with your finger to determine whether it’s dry or moist.

Where to grow

My back porch leads directly into my kitchen so it’s a great place for pots of herbs. Much of it gets direct afternoon sun, but there are partially shaded spots where I put plants that can’t tolerate direct sun.

When you purchase seeds, the package will tell you the ideal conditions for your plant. If you purchase plants, they typically have an insert in the pot telling you how much sun and water are best for that particular species. If either of these is missing such information, it is readily available online.

A sunny spot doesn’t have to be outside. It could be in front of a window or patio door. You’ll just want to avoid placing pots too near heat and air vents. To protect your floor, counter, or furniture use a saucer underneath to catch draining water. Inside herbs add a wonderful aroma to any room.

If you don’t have space near a window, look for a nook or cranny in which you can place a grow light. Non-functioning fireplaces make a fantastic growing space. The built-in china cabinets sometimes found in old houses can be adapted as well. Your eyes and imagination will most likely lead to the perfect spot.

There’s no denying this is a stressful time. Connecting to the earth and watching the wonder of natural growth lifts my spirits. Smelling appetizing aromas pleases my senses. Whether a garden grows in the ground in the back yard or pots on the porch, cultivating and maintaining it is a healthy and welcome pastime.

I am happy with how my garden grows. I still haven’t bought any chickens.

https://www.gardeners.com/how-to/herb-garden/5068.html

https://www.gardeners.com/how-to/gardening-under-lights/5080.html

https://www.hgtv.com/outdoors/gardens/garden-styles-and-types/types-of-grow-lights-for-indoor-plants

https://geturbanleaf.com/shop/

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Spring is a Great Time to Locate Sources of Fresh, Local Food

farmers marketEarly in the growing season is a great time to locate the best sources of affordable fresh, local food. Imagine a salad of buttery lettuce, scallions, shaved carrots, spicy micro-greens, and vine ripened tomatoes topped with a grate or two of artisan cheese or one made of crispy cucumber slices and fresh dill. It’s hard to beat the full flavor of fresh produce.

It can also be healing to get your hands dirty. There’s something about working with peaty smelling soil that makes you feel more connected to the earth and its natural ebb and flow of life. The green of a garden makes the space calm and inviting — even if that garden is inside.

If you’re lucky enough to live in the country, your own garden gives you the best of both worlds — fresh produce and a place to work the ground, get some sun, and breath in the smell of earth, grass, and possibly not-as-pleasant compost. When you have the land available, a full-fledged garden may be the best source of fresh food during the growing season. 

I grew up helping my grandmother in the garden. Hers was located on our farm about 10 miles from her home. In the spring, my dad would till up the soil and from that point, it was my grandmother’s domain. Long before anyone talked about the dangers of skin damage from the sun, she wore long sleeved shirts and a broad-brimmed hat while she dug, planted, weeded, and harvested lettuce, onions, cabbage, zucchini, summer squash, okra, peas, green beans, potatoes, corn, and tomatoes. 

Down the road, my great aunts shared a garden. They spent many afternoons sitting in chairs in the lawn shelling peas, snapping beans, or shucking corn together while they swapped stories. When the grandkids were around, we ran free in the yard or the fields. There was a sense of community created by these shared tasks that lessened the drudgery and made them as much enjoyable social activity as everyday task accomplishment. To those of us who grew up in this environment, it’s no surprise that designed communities that encourage similar shared gardens are springing up in cities like Asheville, NC.
herbs
If you live where outdoor space is more limited, raised beds or containers provide a suitable environment for tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, kale, cucumbers and other favorites. Even a window sill can host pots of herbs throughout the year. 

Growing your own herbs and vegetables provides an opportunity for mindful interaction with nature and reduces the cost of fresh food, but it also adds to your task list. A garden must be tended to get the best results. Regular watering, weeding, and harvesting all take time. If you’re long on fertile land, but short on time, you may want to explore additional sources of fresh food.

Luckily, the farm-to-table movement has increased the number of options for procuring fresh produce, grass fed beef, and free range chicken. Shares of organic farms can be purchased through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. Each share entitles you to a weekly pickup of food from the farm. The contents and amount of food vary depending on your location and the specific farming organization. Another version of this arrangement offers memberships that entitle you to pick up a weekly food basket.
peppers
Community garden plots are collectively farmed by a group of people. They may sell food or allow you to trade labor for a certain amount of food. Trading labor for food can make them a budget friendly option. Don’t assume these are only located in affluent neighborhoods. There may be one near you no matter what your economic or social status. My city has a community garden located in a low income, gang saturated neighborhood next to a middle school. It is used as a learning tool for students.

Down the street, a neighbor turned an empty lot into a neighborhood garden. He rented small plots to his neighbors for a nominal fee on a first come, first served basis. On a Saturday morning, it’s not unusual to see neighbors visiting while they work in the garden. Sometimes cities or counties have similar gardens located on the outskirts of town.

Other options for fresh, local food include the traditional Farmers Markets that abound in cities. There may be one within walking distance in your neighborhood. Many vendors can swipe your debit card, so take reusable bags, but don’t worry too much about getting cash on the way.
market 2

In more rural areas, farmers sell fresh fruits and vegetables from the back of pickup trucks. If peaches grow in your state be sure to stop the next time you see a farmer with tubs full for sale. There’s nothing like the perfect fresh peach!

While all these options are worth exploring, you may not need to change your routine at all. Some urban farmers sell their food in grocery stores. Ask a store manager whether this is true in your local store. Natural Grocers has a stock of locally grown produce in my city. Even Walmart has made an effort to increase its selection of locally grown items.

I’m looking forward to digging in the dirt this weekend, but most of all, I’m looking forward to the harvest and all that yummy food!

http://sovereignoaks.com/community/

http://villagesatcrestmountain.com/

http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/sustainable-farming/neighborhood-gardens-zm0z14amzsor

https://www.heifer.org/campaign/heifer-usa-buy-csa-shares.html

http://corporate.walmart.com/_news_/media-library/photos/live-better/local-produce-at-walmart

The Benefits of Cooking – Part 1: The Food

One of my kids recently asked why we’re called Cooking2Thrive rather than Eating2Thrive? Given how much all of us like to eat, it’s a valid question. Not only that, but say the word cook and lots of folks want to run for the hills ’cause it sounds time consuming and difficult so why would we want that in our name?

Since the question has been posed, I’m going to answer it with a series I’ll call The Benefits of Cooking.

So here goes – The Benefits of Cooking – Part 1

The Food

I like to focus on rewards, and one of the rewards of cooking is having great tasting food to eat. When I say cooking, I am referring to the act of preparing food using basic ingredients like meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, rice, polenta, honey, herbs, spices, milk, cheese, and yogurt. If you grew up eating home-cooked meals, your mouth may start watering just thinking about Sunday dinner. It’s hard to argue that food made from fresh ingredients does not taste better than food that has been processed to stay consistent in appearance through weeks or months of transportation and shelf-life.

I grew up helping my grandmother in the garden. Every time I see a pale, hard, overly trucked tomato in the grocery store, I cringe as my memory plays the contrasting picture of a soft, dark red, full flavored tomato just plucked from the vine. You know, the kind that sends juice running down your chin when you take a bite! It’s the sort of memory that has many of us attempting to grow tomatoes on the porch when we don’t have a yard. I still miss my grandmother’s tomato juice canned in glass and sitting on a shelf in the basement. That tomato juice started with those vine-ripened tomatoes and ended up as a critical ingredient in my grandmother’s chili or sometimes disappeared as I gulped it thick and sweet from a glass when it was chilled.

tomatoes

The juiciness of a strawberry, the brightness of a sugar snap pea, the crispness of a golden delicious apple with tender skin – all are better when ripened before picking and prepared fresh. As a child, some of my favorite dishes were corn-on-the-cob, fried okra, baked sweet potatoes, green rice, and beef & noodles. Oh, and don’t forget the lemon meringue pie. I requested it for every birthday. My sister preferred cherry pie made with bing cherries from a tree in the yard. One year my mother discovered a fresh peach pie recipe. We bought local peaches in season, peeled them, sliced them, and placed them in a sweetened gelatin atop her flaky piecrust. Topped with whipped cream, this cold pie showcased the uncooked peaches perfectly.

These days I’m quite fond of boneless skinless chicken thighs seasoned with jerk spices, seared in coconut oil, and baked in a cast iron skillet with a little chicken broth, curried pork chops and polenta, mashed butternut squash, roasted cauliflower with a hint of crushed red pepper, steamed sugar snap peas, and my own version of my grandmother’s chili. Since cooking is the easiest way to consume my favorites often, I’m happy to spend some time in the kitchen.

Not only does freshly prepared food taste better, it makes it easier to avoid flavor enhancing chemicals, high sodium content, preservatives, and excess sugars. Even if you’re a great label reader, when you purchase processed food products, you may be consuming chemicals that are not required to be listed or specified on the label. Obviously, most of these won’t kill you on the spot or people would be dropping like flies, so there’s no need to be alarmist and say never ever buy prepared convenience foods from the store or eat what a friend is serving at a party, but it is naive to believe that these chemicals do not alter your body chemistry or affect your brain’s response to food.

And it may not take a large amount of an additive to change how you feel. A study cited in the April 2010 “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise” reported that runners who rinsed their mouths with a carbohydrate solution right before and every 15 minutes during an hour-long treadmill session ran faster and further than those who rinsed with a placebo. The brain senses incoming energy “which may lower the perceived effort,” says Ian Rollo, PH.D. one of the study’s authors.1 Since it appears that a little dab will do it, here in a nation with increasing amounts of chronic disease, more studies of the potential negative effects of chemicals in our diet on long-term health are direly needed. In the meantime, it is up to you to decide how much risk you’re willing to take.

Cooking from fresh ingredients is also the easiest way to avoid allergens, gluten, and lactose or limit sodium, sugar, and starchy carbs. Of course, just because you cook the food doesn’t mean these items will magically be absent, but it does mean you have control over what’s included and it can eliminate the effort of reading and rereading labels.

If the word cooking scares you, remember that many fresh ingredients require little or no enhancement. Zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, lettuce, arugula, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, bell peppers, avocados, radishes, and snow peas for instance can be eaten with just a tiny sprinkle of salt or nothing at all. Fruit may only require peeling.

Even if you purchase water-packed tuna or smoked brisket from a BBQ restaurant and only “cook” a salad to go with it, you can add a tremendous amount of fresh flavor and nutrients to your diet. If that leads you to explore new combinations of flavors and preparations, then you’ll have captured the essence of being a cook. A little curiosity, a bit of practice, and a willingness to sometimes throw the whole thing in the trash are where most great cooks start.

And we all have near disasters or major failures along the way. Most of us burn ourselves, catch a dishtowel on fire, cover the floor in flour, burn cookies, leave out the baking powder, or put too much salt in something from time to time. Often it is from those failures that we learn the most.

I’m going to let this conclude Part 1. As you can see, the benefits of cooking include: Great tasting food and easy elimination of chemicals, allergens, inflammatory foods and lots of label reading. But wait, there’s more! Next up: The Benefits of Cooking – Part 2: The Fun. If you think I’ve forgotten about baking, think again. This is a series, remember, we’ll get to that in a bit.

You’ll find the rest of the series right here at Cooking2Thrive. Look forward to having you back!

Sincerely,
Cheri

1 Rollo, Ian, Matthew Cole, Richard Miller, and Clyde Williams. “Influence of Mouth Rinsing a Carbohydrate Solution on 1-h Running Performance.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: April 2010 – Volume 42 – Issue 4 – Pp 798-804. American College of Sports Medicine, Apr. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012..