Tag Archives: mark bittman

‘Tilth’ helps hold soil moisture

July 1, 2011
Check ’tilth’ in organic garden for soil moisture
I guess weird weather is the “new normal” now, with weeks of no rain, crops fried in 100-degree days, then rain falling finally, blessedly, but perhaps too little too late for many this season.
Given the heat, now’s a good time to check the moisture holding capacity of your soil. If you have adequate tilth (loamy material) and regular watering, you should have only a light crust on the top but can push in your finger without a great deal of effort.
But if it’s too hard for a gentle push of the finger, don’t despair. It can take years to build up the soil. We’ve dumped tons, literally, on our plots and they break down rapidly with acidic, sandy soil.
Remember, with organic gardening, the soil is everything, but it’s a moving target. It’s a constant balancing act between biomass and soil digestion activity.
Take this as an opportunity for future growth: Just keep adding more compost and, in fall, more leaves or other vegetative matter to build up your tilth.
By the way, old folks used to put sawdust in their gardens. That’s fallen out of fashion, as it tends to eat up nitrogen breaking down. But if you are using foliar feeding – spraying kelp or fish emulsion to feed nitrogen for it to be absorbed through leaves – I believe sawdust could help hold soil moisture. That is, as long as it’s not chemically treated wood.
It was good enough for our Mississippi forebears and Helen and Scott Nearing – homesteaders in 1930s Maine (see their book: Living The Good Life). So, if you’ve got it, I’d use it.
Growing tip: You can grow your own natural sweetener using leaves from the Stevia plant. It’s not too late to plant to get some leaves by fall.
According to WebMD, it is useful for those who suffer from obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and other weight-related medical problems.
The leaves contain the sweet glycosides stevioside and rebaudioside, which are 300 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). Seeds are commonly available and can be purchased from Burpee, if not locally. It grows prolifically, like mint.
We grow it and use it. Tastes great. I like it in my tea instead of sugar.
Summer reading: I recommend: Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All by Oran B. Hesterman (PublicAffairs, $24.99).
Founder and head of the nonprofit Fair Food Network and a former agronomy professor at Michigan State University, Hesterman is quick to point out that he is not writing about our broken food system from the standpoint of a chef or journalist, but as someone who has experienced it from plow to plate.
The observations he makes are similar to the popular notions of journalist Michael Pollan and chef Mark Bittman, but his methods are more direct, from developing locally profitable food distribution systems in urban and rural “food deserts” to joining corporations such as Costco in developing transnational fair trade supply trains that ensure living wages for producers and reinvestment in local communities.
Fair Food is a serious book about a serious subject. It offers ideas for local communities, as well as suggestions for local, state and national policy makers (I hope members of the Legislature read this book!) It should add immeasurably to the national conversation about fixing our food – and world! – for the better.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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Weeds not ‘natural’

March 18, 2011

Organic gardeners befriend weeds, but they’re not ‘natural’

In previous columns, I’ve written about how weeds can tell a lot about the fertility of soil.

They can peacefully coexist in the organic garden, providing needed shade and helping to hold coveted moisture near valued crops in our steamy Southern and sometimes drought-plagued environment. (Just keep the roots clear so nutrients go to the veggies, not the weed.)

But, as Michael Pollan noted in his garden book, Second Nature, most “weeds” aren’t natural to the garden, either. Most are “invasives” from Europe, including St. John’s Wort, daisies, dandelions, buttercups, mullein, Queen Anne’s Lace, couch grass, sow thistle, shepherd’s purse, groundsell, dock, chickweed – even the Old West’s signature “Tumbleweed” (properly, Russian Thistle) that came from Eurasia, as did henbit.

In fact, Native Americans called plantain “Englishman’s Foot,” because it seemed to spring up wherever a European walked. (Which may have some truth to it, with seeds lodged in baggage and cracked leather boots.) Even the venerable all-American apple tree is an import.

But this seemingly unnatural plethora of garden invasives has a silver lining for organic gardeners. Many of these ostensibly tough and thorny “weeds” are considered delicacies by bugs that will in many cases choose them over the gardener’s greens, fruits and vegetables. That’s the key to attracting “beneficial” insects – those bugs that prefer your weeds and not your cultivated plants or that prey on those bugs that covet your plantings.

Reader response: I had just gotten off the phone with a local woman who was wanting info on how to build a “Jim’s Plot” 4X8-foot organic food and edible flower garden for her daughter at her new digs in Madison emphasizing herbs, when the mail came and, by gosh, a book arrived that she might find useful: Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying More than 100 Herbs by Tammi Hatung (Storey Publishing, 2011; $19.95). It’s a good book for a beginner, with common herbs and their uses (medicinal and otherwise), harvesting guidelines, unique challenges, how to prepare them, recipes and, of course, important here: all-natural care using beneficial insects and nontoxic treatment.

My beautiful wife Annette is the house herbalist and she makes herb teas, infusions, tinctures, and food for us daily. She gave it her thumbs’ up, too.

Herb Association, Anyone?: Speaking of herbs, it came up in conversation recently that Mississippi has no statewide herb society or association, which seems rather astounding, given the number of herb gardeners in the Magnolia State.

I’m wondering if there would be enough interest to form a Mississippi Herb Association for people who grow herbs, herbalists, commercial growers, foodies, stores, horticulturalists, state ag and extension officials, medicinal growers and gardeners to network, share knowledge, tips and information and, perhaps, seeds and cuttings.

If so, drop me a line (P.O. Box 40, Jackson, MS 39205).

I’ll keep you informed as to how it’s coming along, if there’s any interest in it. It will take some volunteers and committed individuals to get something like this off the ground, but I’m game to do what I can to help out.

Reader response: I’m not knocking subsidies, per se, only pointing out inequities in the system and the fact that organic food is so “expensive” because it’s not subsidized by the taxpayer; you pay the full cost.

Subsidies are actually price supports to keep farmers from going out of business. The farmer is offered a price that is beyond his control, and the subsidies only apply when the price goes below a set point.

If there were no subsidies, even more farmers would go out of business and the big ones would probably buy them up.

So, doing away with subsidies doesn’t help the small or family farm, or help diversify crops (or benefit organics).

The bottom line in this is that the actual producers of crops (organic or “conventional”) are on the short end of the stick and kept on a treadmill of risk by the commodities players on Wall Street, the processed “food” giants, the chemical-seed-fertilizer oligarchy and the government programs these big players manipulate Congress to approve.

So if we want to change the system, we change our behavior by buying organic, locally grown foods first (and milk, fruit and vegetables, not processed foods) and support programs, politicians and retail outlets that promote this way of life.

Not coy about koi : A couple of weeks ago, the paper had a wonderful article about a family that raises the beautiful Japanese fish koi for sale ($15 to $150) for garden ponds. Dawn Barnidge, who operates Falling Waters Koi Farm in Raymond, can be reached at (601) 214-8887.

•Online: A great column in The New York Times by Mark Bittman explains how, contrary to the big ag chemical biz standard line, sustainable agriculture (organic or eco-farming) can feed the world: http://nyti.ms/fnWAn7

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Natural, organic, edible yards

March 11, 2011

Maybe chef will say ‘bee-YOU-tee-ful’ over edible yards

I guess I’ve been watching Emeril Green too much on TV, as I found myself hearing the popular chef’s voice in my head while out picking greens in the field: “Ah, bee-YOU-tee-ful!”

After the frosts, we got a beautiful new crop of collards which, when picked fresh, are so sweet and tender they can be eaten raw – which I was doing: pick one, eat one, pick two, eat one, pick three, eat one …. and so on. (Kind’a reduces your yield that way!)

Collards, when fresh, can be lightly steamed, as well.

I love watching chef Emeril Lagasse’s show when he actually goes to a farm or farmer’s market and talks with the farmers, and then cooks what they provide, often right there adjacent to their farm fields. It certainly shows folks who think food comes from the grocery store where their food actually originates, and that there are real people involved.

Organic lawns

Lately, I’ve been rather overwhelmed by “pre-emerge” poisons being sprayed all over the countryside.

There’s not much that can be done about poisons in farm country (until people start buying organic en masse!), but you can control your own property. The safe lawn movement promotes chemically free, organic lawns.

One method is what’s called an “edible lawn,” that is, not composed of turf grasses, but instead, plants that can be prepared or eaten raw. It also includes traditional lawns but without the use of herbicides or pesticides and only natural fertilizers, so that children, pets and the environment are not harmed. For more information, visit http://www.safelawns.org.

Natural alternatives

If you are one who abhors traditional lawns, you might consider natural alternatives to the monoculture turf grasses. For example, Peaceful Valley (www.groworganic.com) offers a variety of lawn and meadow mixes, such as its herbal lawn seed mix: Roman Chamomile, English Daisy, Snow-in-Summer, Sweet Alyssum, Creeping Daisy, Blue Pimpernel, Creeping Thyme, and others.

Or, how about the Kaleidoscope Meadow Mix, composed of various colored fescues, Forget-Me-Nots, Strawberry Clover and other wildflowers?

Local garden stores offer wildflower mixes, as well. Then, again, you could just plant your yard in vegetables as an edible foodscape!

Now is the time to plan how you want your garden.

Edible flowers

Try Nasturtiums. They are beautiful flowers, offered in various colors, that not only work to deter pests, such as cucumber beetles, squash bugs and caterpillars, but they can be eaten, used as garnish to brighten up salads or as a side for standard fare (and conversation starter!).

The flowers are spicy flavored with a peppery taste. Since you are growing organic, without poisons, you can nibble them right in the garden (I do!).

Pollinators

Another idea is to plant flowers that attract pollinators. Here’s a list:

Wild lupine, smooth penstemon, Ohio spiderwort, wild bergamot, purple prairie clover, pale purple coneflower, Culver’s root, butterfly milkweed, prairie blazing star, purple giant hyssop, New England aster and giant sunflower.

These suggestions are from a new book that’s chock full of interesting info titled Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting America’s Bees and Butterflies by The Xerces Society (Storey Publishing; $29.95).

Another good book on bees for beginners (and foodies!) is just out in paperback: Honeybee: Lessons From an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese (Black Dog & Leventhall Publishers; $14.95).

It details a woman’s education from knowing nothing about bees to becoming a master “beek,” with lots of eye-opening culinary and medicinal lore learned along the way.

I should have mentioned last week that the henbit (little purple flowers growing everywhere right now) is also an edible wild plant. Here’s a photo and salad recipe: http://bit.ly/ePSri4

Websites

A great column in The New York Times by Mark Bittman, exposing the inequities of the agricultural subsidy system: http://nyti.ms/gos66i.

A primer on subsidies, explaining types and purposes by the Environmental Working Group. (Also, you can enter your zip code and see who in your neighborhood is receiving a USDA farm subsidy and how much): http://bit.ly/fqor64.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.