New Articles & Old, Community Gardens

Last night I used finely chopped wild onions (Allium triquetrum) in a pasta sauce that included sundried tomatoes, garlic, and basil. The wild onion was from my backyard, and the basil was from the African Blue Basil plant that is still bearing leaves (and flowers!) in my community garden plot. Gave me great pleasure to be able combine the wild onion, a winter grower, with the homegrown basil, which would ordinarily be unavailable this early in the spring.

The wild onion, which I described in detail in Golden Gate Gardening (see sidebar of this blog) is a native of the Mediterranean basin that is quite weedy in our area, so if you have it, be careful to pick off most of the flowers before they can produce seeds. It has a triangular flower stem bearing several white flared bell-shaped flowers, a strong keel on the leaves, and a strong scent of onion. The whole plant is edible, including the flowers, which are nice on a salad. (Don't eat your weeds unless you are sure you have positive identification, and if you have something that you think might be a wild onion but it doesn't have a strong onion smell, don't eat it!).

African Blue Basil is the only perennial basil, though plants won't survive winter if they are too cold. The one I have at home seems to be dead, but the one in my community garden, where the winter has been milder, is still bearing leaves and flowers. I wrote about this plant last year for the Chronicle, and you can find that article in their archives at www.sfgate.com . In addition to being perennial, this basil is a large plant and the basil that has the best chance of producing a crop in fneighborhoods with foggy, cool summes. You will be able to find it in local nurseries this spring, though maybe not quite yet.

At risk of circular information sharing, since I think some of you who read this blog in the past few days found it through the SF Chronicle, I should report, that I had 2 more articles in the Chronicle Home Section this week. You can find them at www.sfgate.com . Click on "Home and Garden." On Wednesday, April 19th they published an article called "It Poured Indeed." I interviewed several professional gardeners and an arborist about the effect of all of the rain we just had on their business and the gardens they attend to. It's been hard on them too!

Today, on April 22, they published an article I wrote about growing vegetables and herbs in containers, in which I share information I learned the hard way years ago when I lived in an apartment building and before I had a community garden plot. I went and gathered (sandy) soil from a vacant lot, put the boxes where I would have to carry water to them in a watering can, and put them in a notch in the building that maybe got a couple of hours of sunlight a day. Even worse were the ones I put on the roof, where wind helped to dry out my too-porous soil and I had to climb stairs to water! I hope this article will help readers do the best they can with what space they have, or, if there isn't an adequate place to grow in containers, to find a community garden.

Incidentally, to search for an available community garden spot in San Francisco, you can log on to www.sfgro.org, the new organization that has just been formed to help community and backyard gardeners. The acronym stands for SF Gardeners Resource Organization.

There are community gardens all around our area, in many cities and towns, so a little searching should turn up something near you. In exchange for a small fee and participation in keeping the garden running smoothly (both the physical area and the group interactions) you can get a plot of land, smaller or larger depending on location and plenty of help from other gardeners in learning what to do.

I am headed off to Marin County in the morning to repeat the lecture, with slides, that I gave in at the San Francisco Sloat Nursery on Sloat Avenue last week. The topic is Mediterranean Climate Food Gardening. This one will be at 10 AM at the Sloat Nursery at 401 Miller Avenue in Mill Valley. Their website is www.sloatgardens.com


Eating Something New

I went to the San Francisco Farmers Market on Alamany Blvd. today, taking advantage of a rare Saturday not teaching and a rare hour free of rain. As I shopped, I was contemplating how we develop food preferences and how we learn to like new foods. I was also thinking about why we might choose to eat something new.

For my part, I have been trying to eat new foods that are better for me than others I might choose. Another important reason for me to try a new food is that I can grow it, in the space I have and in the San Francisco microclimate. Of course I have to also like it, but I am willing to give a new food a few chances if it meets first two criteria.

So, in the spirit of exploration, I have been trying out gai lon, or Chinese broccoli, a white-flowered relative of collards and Western broccoli. Several Chinese American students have brought it to class potlucks at City College of San Francisco over the past few years, prepared with oyster sauce. But I am a little slow to catch on sometimes, and it took a few times for me to get the point that it is a favorite in their culture and that I really liked it, and also to think: "Oh, we should be able to grow this here."

Last year I grew just a little gai lon, starting in midsummer, and the harvested leafy stems with flower buds were tender and delicious. Following my student's directions, I boiled them a minute, then stir-fried them, adding some oyter sauce to season them.

I have since bought them in the grocery (Sunset Super, which carries many Asian foods), and found the ones they carry less tender and flavorful than the ones I grew. So I have puchased seeds from Kitazawa Seed Company (http://www.kitazawaseed.com) and am growing two varieties, an open pollinated one and 'Green Lance'. They seem to be less susceptible to snails and slugs than bok choy, though they are susceptible to root maggots and cabbage worms. Like sprouting varieties of broccoli, you cut the tender stems and wait for more to grow, repeating your harvest until the plant is spent. I plan to try starting seed from February through August and see how it does in each month.

Today I bought a bunch of gai lon at the farmer's market, since mine is not ready yet. The stems of the farmers market product are thinner than the ones I bought in the grocery, closer to the size of the ones I grew last year, so maybe they will be more tender. Now to see how they compare. I have a feeling that gai lon is about to become a new favorite in my garden cuisine!


Michael Pollan's new book

Went to hear a lecture by Michael Pollan today, the last lecture in a series of free lectures at the Goldman School of Public Policy, at UC, Berkeley. Pollan, the author of Second Nature and The Botany of Desire, has written a new book that tracks the sources of foods in several meals. It will be out next week, and is titled The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Ntural History of 4 Meals. Today, he spoke about corn in the American food system. It is subsidized in a way that encourages ever increasing production with falling prices. Sixty percent of the corn we grow is used to feed animals. Mr. Pollan has written in the past few years about the fact that corn disagrees with cows, so they are also fed antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. Overuse of the antibiotics threatens to make them less effective in treating our own diseases.

But in addition to being used in animal feed, corn products are now used in an ever-increasing number of our prepared foods.High fructose corn syrup in particular is suspected to contribute significantly to the rise in obesity and diabetes.

I learned a new term today "the fixed stomach problem." This is the food industry's term for the fact that we can only eat so much, so how can they continue to sell us more and more food, and so grow, as capitalist enterprises must. Years ago, when I was reading about food technology, I learned the terms "acceptibility" and "mouthfeel." These were terms used to evaluate new processed foods they were creating. These terms made me feel that the food industry was thinking of us as livestock to be offered a new kibble. Would we accept it? Did it feel right to our mouths? Not was it delicious, nutritious, delightful to eat, a product of a sustainable food system, but was it "acceptible." Now the term "fixed stomach" makes me feel not even like livestock, but like a commodity. How can the industry gain greater access to my stomach?

I feel that I live in a world full of endless stuff I don't need, and among the things I don't need are most of the products of the food technology industry. Every time I make a salad from my garden, or saute some homegrown greens, or eat fresh produce from a farmers market, I am denying the big food industry access to my stomach, and taking charge of what goes into it myself. I hadn't thought of it so bluntly, but today I felt an indignant need to take my stomach out of their perview, thank you.

Meanwhile, I am growing potato from seed. Really, from seed, rather than from whole small or cut pieces of tubers. I tried it once before, years ago, and reported my lack of success in Golden Gate Gardening, but this time it is going better. I will post a photo of the seedlings and a report on their progress next week.