Saturday, February 24, 2007

Anticipating spring in the kitchen garden

Another winter blizzard has just blown right over our valley, leaving ten inches of snow at Monarch, our local ski area, but none here in town. We only got the wind, huge blustery gusts lofting dirt and trash into the air as the storm blew down-canyon and out onto the Plains.

No matter the weather, I'm thinking spring. I've ordered seeds for our kitchen garden from my favorite seed purveyor, Rene's Garden Seeds. You can buy cheaper seeds, but if you love the flavors and colors and textures of food, you can't go wrong with Rene's seeds. She's a cook as well as a horticulturist, and she picks her varieties for the table and the garden.

Last year we grew three varieties of tomatoes from Rene's offerings: small, sweet red and yellow pear tomatoes, Romas for cooking, and crimson carmello, a heritage ribbed type with gorgeous crimson flesh that is low in acid and bursts with flavor. At the end of the season (late September here in the Rockies at 7,000 feet elevation), we brought in 72 pounds of tomatoes off of eight plants to ripen in the house. We were eating fresh tomatoes until December. This year I'm going to grow those three varieties again, plus Rene's new "Summer Feast" trio of heirloom tomatoes: 'Black Krim,' 'Sweet Persimmon,' and 'Italian Costoluto.' I'll start the seeds indoors in early March in flats on a heat mat in our bedroom, my defacto greenhouse because it gets the best sun. By late April, those sprouts be ready to go into the garden, each protected inside the insulating cone of its own wall-o-water.

Last year's kitchen garden got a little out of control (that's our Great Dane in last summer's garden above). Besides the tomatoes, we also grew three kinds of basil, tri-color beets, 'City Lights' chard with its neon-bright yellow, orange, pink, and crimson stems, peas, cilantro, four kinds of summer squash, including a buttery pale green hybrid between yellow crookneck and zucchini that was delicious even when the squashes hid from us and grew huge, broccoli, crisp and mild Mediterranean cucumbers, dill, mesculn lettuce blend, spicy stir-fry greens, spinach, pak choy, rhubarb, and strawberries. (We had asparagus and raspberries as well, but neither yielded much last year. It could have been the hot and dry spring followed by an unusually wet late summer.) We ate from the garden every day, savoring the treat of simply walking out the back door and picking our dinner, fresh and fed by the sun. (We don't use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.)

When people ask me why we go to all the work to grow a kitchen garden, I want to take them outside and pick a sun-warmed yellow pear tomato and hand it to them. "Close your eyes and just taste it," I would say. Then 'd the smile grow on their face as the flavor explodes on their tongue. "That's why." It's not work, anyway. I do it for love: love of the smells and sounds and tastes of the food the garden produces, and of the community of plants and their partners - the swallows, hummingbirds, butterflies, native bees, and even the garter snake that burrows into the cool shade under the raised beds and eats the slugs and earwigs - that bring our garden alive.

I can hardly wait until those seed packets arrive. I can almost smell the tomatoes ripening.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

We really are what we eat - and that's often not pretty

Maybe you've never thought where your food comes from, or it doesn't matter to you. Turns out it's worth paying attention to, because the health of our food not only impacts our health, it also has a huge impact on the health of the planet we depend on. I had just started reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, when Denver's 5280 Magazine asked me to research the environmental cost of a typical fast-food burger and fries meal for their March "Green Guide" issue. Pollan's book turned out to be not only witty and voluminously-researched, but a real eye-opener on the impact of industrial agriculture and the prodigious amount of oil and other fossil fuel energy that goes into producing our food, especially processed food, much of which is made from commodity or industrial corn.
When you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it - or around fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn. (Some estimates are much higher.) Put another way, it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food. . . .
Pollan calculates that growing and processing the McDonald's meal he and his wife and son ate one day for lunch (one burger and fries, two large sodas, one salad, one order of chicken McNuggets, and a large shake) consumed the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of oil.

It's not easy to calculate the energy cost of a burger and fries meal because the food-growing and processing system that brings it to your plate (or your car) is complicated. Futurist Jamais Cascio has made a reasonable attempt at figuring the carbon footprint of that meal, that is, its contribution to the rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Producing a typical cheeseburger, he figures, adds ten pounds of carbon dioxide or its equivalent to the atmosphere. That doesn't sound like much, until you figure that Americans have a serious fast-food habit, averaging one to three burgers per week. For 300,000,000 of us, he says, even if you take the lower end of the range, our burger consumption makes the same contribution to global warming as 6.5 million Hummer H3 SUVs driven for a year!

My husband, Richard, and I like to cook, so we don't eat fast food. But after reading Pollan and Cascio, we're working on reducing the environmental cost of our meals by eating organic food, and eating as locally as possible. For dinner tonight, we had baked Yukon Gold potatoes straight from the farm in the San Luis Valley sixty miles away topped with basil pesto from our last summer's garden, a salad of mixed greens grown in geothermally-heated greenhouses just up the valley from us, and - okay, I admit it - Alaskan wild salmon. Not exactly local, but it was a special occasion. I have to admit though, the potatoes tasted at least as good as the salmon, perhaps because we bought them at the farm, and we know the soil and sunlight they grow from.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Love is what we do best

"Love is how we are together." That's the point of "Knowing What Love Is," my podcast for today. It's not something tangible or concrete, it's a relationship and how we behave.

Thinking about humans and our often troubled and guilt-ridden relationship with the natural world, the living communities that make this improbably green planet habitable, it seems to me that love may be our best talent as a species. And love may be just what we need to draw on to deal with the problems that we are inflicting on our only planet, from global warming to habitat destruction and our own species' overpopulation. If we can learn to live with open hearts, we might well find our everyday decisions have a lighter footprint on the planet. If we can learn to live with open hearts, we might well learn to share more equitably and give other species an equal chance at habitat, food, and the other resources we need for this life. If we can learn to live with open hearts, we might well even like each other better and be able to get along.

I started thinking about the gifts humans bring to the world in my book The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes:
What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life. Perhaps what allows a newcomer like me to belong . . . is the same gift that allows humanity to belong to this rare blue planet: an ability to love its miraculous as well as its mundane.
Love is about relationship, and how we behave -- with each other, and the community of the land.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Community of the Land

Conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity that belongs to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." I've struggled for years with how to describe the kinship I feel with other species, not so much as individuals, but as a community -- the totality of relationships and interrelationships, the bonds of who eats whom, who chases whom, who cooperates and who competes and who cannot survive without whom -- that make nature what it is, and make Earth habitable for humans. Leopold's phrase captures why it's important to me to know and respect nature and the more-than-human communities that animate the landscape. Land is the community to which we belong, not a commodity that belongs to us.

Salida Almanac: Here in the Upper Arkansas Valley, we are waiting for snow. The sun set into a cloud bank that muffled the high peaks to the west, and Venus shone clear about two fists above the western horizon as Sirius, the dog star in Canis Major, sparkled into view over the hills to the east. Today was another in a week of spring-like days that have the juncos trilling and the dippers on the river warbling courting songs, and the spinach I planted last fall in raised beds poking tiny leaves up from the rosettes that have survived the frigid weeks of winter by hugging the sun-warmed soil surface. But the Weather Service says we're due for a return of winter tomorrow. It's been a long one already, but I wouldn't mind more snow. In arid country like this, we're always poised on the edge of another drought and greedy for precipitation, just in case. So I'll keep hoping for snow!