Thursday, November 11, 2010

Walking the Walk: The Large and the Small

On December 21st, at 13 minutes past midnight, the full moon will slowly move into the shadow of the earth and be totally eclipsed. This silent event, one of two lunar eclipses in 2010, happens to coincide with the winter solstice, the end of the old, and the beginning of the true new year.
Events like this were so highly important to ancient cultures, such as those in Great Briton, that enormous stone monuments were constructed to mark their passing. Whatever explanation they may have had for the movements of the sun and moon, the ancients had good reason to consider the solstice a day worth noting. Winter might still have it's grip on the landscape, but with longer days coming, movement toward spring had begun. Nature was turning in her sleep.
In school, we were taught how the earth's tipped axis creates the seasons, but the deeper importance of the solar cycle seems to have lost it's impact on our culture. With 24-7-365 access to everything, does it matter? In a word, yes. Because all life on the surface of the planet is inextricably bound to this annual pattern, the reality is that without the cold and darkness of winter, the light and heat of summer, the movements of wind and water, the growth, fruiting, and decay of plants and animals --without this cycle of birth, death and rebirth, none of us would be here. Thankfully, we are here, and with modern knowledge, we have an opportunity to find our proper place in the system that sustains us.
As humans, at the top of the food chain, we sometimes get the idea that because of our self-declared position, we are therefore important. Clever? Yes. Important? That depends on a point of view. In simple terms, life on land, as we know it, could not exist without the countless trillions of soil building microbes that make it possible for larger, green plants to flourish. From their estimated beginnings some three billion years ago, these organisms, with a unique ability to draw usable nitrogen directly from the air, are the very foundation of the plant and animal kingdoms that we currently inhabit.
Since they first appeared, these talented microbes, and those that work with them, or depend directly on their abilities, have grown into a soil building community of inconceivable complexity and numbers. Studies have shown that in the first few inches of a healthy soil, one square yard may contain as many as ten trillion (10,000,000,000) individuals. And that's before we get to the rungs of the evolutionary ladder that have beings you can actually see with the unaided eye. In North America, on an acre of rich, forest floor, the numbers could approach 50 quadrillion (50,000,000,000,000,000). As a comparison, the human population of the entire world stands at just under seven billion. Are we important? It depends. We have a place for sure, but it might not be as lofty as we once thought.
As gardeners, being aware of the large and the small, the solar cycle and soil builders, is a way to tap into a relatively simple and effective system. It tells us what to do, and when. Late fall and winter, at the end of the growth cycle, is a time of decomposition; breaking down in preparation for re-growth. In keeping with the season, my young friends and I have been focused on creating compost. We build the structures, and let the microbes and fungi turn garden waste, straw, seaweed, manure, and grass clippings into next season's plant food. Yes, it's effort to move the straw bales, gather the materials and set everything up, but by far, the most important job is done by the millions, and billions, and trillions of our invisible friends that take care of the dirty work. We give them what they want, and they return the favor.
The large and the small, with us somewhere in between; it's a well-balanced system that has been perfecting itself for a long, long time.
Our goal as organic, or natural gardeners, is to work with this system, to learn what we can, and to use that knowledge helping to maintain the natural balance, and so to enhance our own cultural well being.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Walking the Walk: Food Security

In the Pacific island kingdom of Tonga, all coins carry the inscription, Fakalahi me-akai, Grow More Food. This simple message encouraging self-reliance has deep importance, especially for this isolated group of tiny islands. Providence, self-reliance, security, all very important.
This summer, while working together in the community garden, a young friend asked me if I thought it was possible for Point Roberts to "achieve food security". It was a sincere and very interesting question. The short answer is yes and no. The long one, what my wife calls the Sagittarius answer, is filled with more questions than real answers, and enough tangents to qualify as a geometry problem.
To begin, any talk of food security has first to address food reality. As I write, I'm enjoying a morning cup of Costa Rican coffee, Tres Rios, to be exact. I like good coffee, and cream, and butter, whole wheat bread, gorgonzola, miso, virgin olive oil, and a glass of Aussie shiraz. The list goes on. These choices define a food reality that Pt. Bob, USA, does not currently provide. This all becomes part of the "no". The "yes" is fairly easy to describe. Tonight's dinner will be homegrown potatoes, hot beet salad, and braised sockeye fillet from Point Roberts waters. That's as local as it gets. The problem is how to stretch it out, to make all of my meals local.
At this point, unless I'm willing to make some major dietary changes, it won't happen. What's left is a compromise. On the one hand, work hard to provide everything I can. On the other, make considered choices as to source, quality, and the true cost of things I buy. Where does the beef come from? A small, family ranch in Sedro Woolley. And the coffee? Ideally, it would be shade grown, fairly traded, and unsprayed. Honestly, I don't know, but whatever it's provenance, it tastes wonderful, and I'm thankful to have it.
To say that our current food system needs improving is a huge understatement, but I'm not ready to completely abandon it until we've worked out some good alternatives. Thankfully, all across the country, more and more people have begun doing just that; taking back their birthright. Our grandparents and great-grandparents did it. First nations peoples did it. We can provide for ourselves, we just have do it.
The most inspiring example of this I've seen happen, was this summer's Kid's Camp involvement in building the Community Garden. From an empty lot with nothing but stubby weeds and grass, to a full tilt garden with tomatoes, chard, carrots, lettuce, onions, and sunflowers higher than your head! And they did it, from soil to seeds to fresh food. With help from the Point Roberts Parks Board and numerous helpers and sponsors, we have started something, that, like the simple inscription on Tongan coins, is deeply important.

WtW Note: Hot Beet Salad- (This dish will even change the mind of people who say, "I don't like beets!")

Scrub and grate 2 large beets and 1 or 2 carrots. In a fairly deep frying pan (or wok) with cover, slowly saute, in ample olive oil, 1/2 a finely diced onion, 1 sprig of fresh tarragon and 3 or 4 leaves of fresh basil. Dried herbs will work, but don't be skimpy. Cover and let the onions brown. Uncover and stir in grated beets and carrot. Add a liberal splash or two of balsamic vinegar, and a smaller one of tamari (soy sauce), 2-3 shots (to taste) of hot sauce, and 1/4 cup of red wine. Cover and let simmer until the beets are tender. Serve hot, topped with a dollop of plain yogurt, sour cream, or your favorite creamy ranch dressing.

Braised Salmon Fillet-

Use the other half onion, but slice it into long thin strips. Saute onion in olive oil with fresh thyme until the onions are browned. In a small dish, mix the juice of 1/2 lemon and two tablespoons of mayonnaise. Place the fillet flesh side down on the onions for 2 or 3 minutes, then lift and place it skin side down on the remaining bedded onions. Top the fillet with lemon/mayo sauce and add 1/8 cup white wine. Cover the pan and let simmer for 6-8 minutes. Chill a good white wine for this one.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Walking the Walk: Improving our Connection with the Earth

The Italians have a word, arrangiarsi, which means the art of making do. It seems fitting that a culture with such a long and often disrupted history could turn a survival skill into an art form. Along with re-purposing, recycling, and repairing, one basic skill that fits the category is the saving and replanting of seeds. Until the large scale development of hybridized and genetically modified plants, nearly everyone who planted saved their own seeds. These handed-down or "heirloom" seeds, tested in the laboratory of real world necessity, are in fact the backbone of agriculture. Unfortunately, large agribusiness interests, and corporations such as Monsanto are making it very difficult for farmers to do what they have always done.
As gardeners, our best response to this pressure is to plant only open-pollinated, unhybridized seeds that will be true to type for the next year. Thankfully, there are many good companies, such as Territorial Seeds selling heirloom varieties. Our favorite source is The Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit group based in Decorah, Iowa. These dedicated folks manage one of the most extensive international seed networks in the world. Membership is easy, and includes discounts on seeds from their catalogue, access to thousands of fellow member listings, plus information packed, seasonal publications. Check them out at
Here at home, the lettuces are bolting and a few over-looked zucchini have gone way past the eating stage. Great! Let them go as long as possible and save the seeds. For lettuce, once the flowers have completed their cycle and started to dry, I pull up the entire plant, cut off the root, and hang it upside down in a paper bag. Once completely dry, sift out the small black (or white) seeds. Winnowing, or gently tossing in a windy spot can help to separate seeds from chaff. Use a flat plastic bin or large bowl for this operation and be careful how you toss. Full grown zukes can be huge, often more than two feet long. Allow them to ripen until until the vines have wilted back, keeping an eye out for vole or rat bites that can cause rot. Mature seeds will be plump and easy to separate from the pulp. Dry them in a paper lined plate or basket and store in paper, not plastic. Be sure to mark type and date on each package. I've had way too many "mystery squash" seed end up in my collection. The best book I've found on the subject is "Seed to Seed", by Suzanne Ashworth, available from The Seed Savers Exchange online bookstore.
Winter squash, such as butternut, acorn, hubbard, and pie pumpkins, can be stored for months if carefully rinsed with a diluted beach solution and stored in a cool dry space. A large blue Hubbard squash once sat unaffected on my piano for nine months. We planted in May, harvested in November, and ate it the following August.
Happy September and good harvest!

George Wright