November 07, 2013

How Many Pounds of Carrots Can You Harvest Per Square Foot?

Friends, I am about to share with you some shocking carrot statistics.

The other day, I harvested a 2-foot-by-2-foot patch of carrots from my garden. I stashed my harvest in the fridge until I could deal with it, and tonight I washed, sliced and blanched the carrots, to get them ready for the freezer.

Knife on cutting board with heirloom carrots

From that 4 square feet of growing space, I ended up with three bags of carrots, totaling 8 pounds. EIGHT pounds! Two pounds per square foot seems good to me.

A bowl of fresh sliced organic carrots

Even better, though, is how much those 8 pounds cost me. I had planted the carrots by seed earlier in the year, and they were purple-skinned carrots from a seed company called Botanical Interests. The seeds (which were on sale) cost me $1. Admittedly, that’s a great deal for seed.

So, in the end, I paid 12.5 cents per pound for these organic, homegrown, delicious carrots. Amazing! Yes, I would need to factor in the money I spent to water the garden to get a true cost. I could also factor in a few pennies for my Ziploc bags, but because I reuse each of these bags approximately 3,000 times, I call that a wash. Any way you slice it, this is badass.

Freezer bags full of carrots

Long story short: I love gardening; I love carrots; organic food isn’t always expensive; I want you to feel so shocked and awed that you plant 4 square feet of carrots in spring.

If you happen to see frozen organic carrots at the supermarket, leave a comment here to share how much they cost per pound. Now anything more than about 25 cents per pound is going to seem extravagant.

August 30, 2013

Scenes from an Oregon Garden: August 2013

I’ve never been good at remembering my camera. I almost always forget it when I head out for momentous occasions. Later, I tell myself I’m just the cool, laid-back type of person who can enjoy things in the moment; I don’t need pictures to create or appreciate memories. Really, though, I’m just absent-minded and in a panic that I’ll be late (I never am).

But when it comes to my garden? I often get so overwhelmed by the beauty and magic of it that I run in to grab my camera, snapping pictures of my plants like mad. I have the sense of not being able to believe how lovely everything is, and I need to record it. (I just saw a vision of myself as an 80-year-old woman flipping through photo albums of tomatoes, organized by decade. Sounds about right.) Some of these photos deserve to be shared, not just left in a remote digital folder of my laptop. So, here are some scenes from my Oregon backyard garden taken this month. By the way, almost all of this food is growing in two relatively small garden beds. See how much you can grow in a small space?! 

A nice head of broccoli, which has since been harvested:

A head of broccoli growing in a backyard garden

A bee on my flowering mint (this plant is loaded with buzzing bees all day long):

A honey bee on a flowering mint plant

‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes, still ripening (a recent article I edited for work praised the health benefits of deep-purple tomatoes, so I’m especially excited to be growing these beauties):

Indigo Rose tomatoes on the vine in garden

Wild blackberries growing in the backyard (most people consider these a weed here in the Northwest, but I am happy to have and harvest these):

Blackberries in an Oregon backyard

A just-dug, just-washed harvest of ‘Blue Gold’ potatoes:

A harvest of Blue Gold potatoes

A cantaloupe maturing on the vine:

Cantaloupe on the vine in a garden

A patch of carrots:

A patch of carrots in a backyard garden

Two varieties of cucumbers, growing up tomato cages (letting your cucumber plants climb up something saves space):

Cucumbers climbing on tomato cages

Curly-leafed kale, which will be perfect for those kale chips I keep meaning to make:

Curly leafed kale in a garden

A patch of herbs, peppers and zinnias:

Herbs and zinnias in a garden

Green bell pepper on the vine, next to some rosemary:

Green bell pepper on plant in garden

Almost-ripe ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes:

Close-up of Green Zebra tomatoes on vine

A patch of soon-to-be-pickled beets:

A patch of beets growing in a garden

Jalapeños on our lone hot-pepper plant:

Jalapeno peppers on plant in a garden

A just-washed harvest of purple carrots (some of these are quite small because deer ate the tops off of them):

Washing a harvest of purple carrots

Red leaf lettuce (leaf lettuce is my favorite type of lettuce, because you can just keep picking leaves off while letting the plants continue to grow):

A patch of red leaf lettuce in garden

‘Red Russian’ kale, which I’ve been loving chopped in scrambled eggs, quiches, and other dishes this year:

A Red Russian kale plant in garden

Sage growing in the one container I have planted:

A sage plant in a garden

Grape vines that have been growing on this property for years. These are white table grapes. I totally know how much we scored by getting a rental property with mature grape vines. I made raisins with these grapes last year, ate many fresh, and froze some for smoothies:

Grape vines from white table grapes in backyard

White table grapes, almost ready to be picked:

White table grapes on vine

Thanks for taking a look! Isn’t homegrown food gorgeous? And that’s not my doing—I give all the credit to the plants. If your first thought to browsing these images is, “Wow—I should really try to grow some stuff,” go for it! I double-dog dare you. 

Photos by Shelley Stonebrook

June 25, 2013

Why Homegrown Food Is More Nutritious

When you walk through a typical grocery store produce section, the foods you see might appear impressive: shiny apples, bright red tomatoes, large, uniform-looking bell peppers without the slightest blemish. But a deeper look into these foods reveals one of the industrial food system’s biggest secrets: Most fruits and vegetables today are far less nutritious than they ever were before.

A basket of homegrown apples

More people are joining the exciting movement of growing backyard gardens and choosing local, seasonal foods grown on a small scale without chemicals — and the reasons for doing so are diverse. Local, organically grown foods are better for the environment; they are free of the pesticide residues on typical grocery-store produce; homegrown food almost always tastes better; growing backyard vegetables is fun and can save a family money; and buying produce from farmers nearby helps build a vibrant local economy. These arguments make sense, and they’re gaining traction. Now, thanks to research done on the nutritional content of vegetables and fruits over time, there’s another important reason to ditch industrially grown produce: Homegrown food is just plain better for you, providing more of the nutrients you need.

What the Research Shows

The way most food is grown today — using limited cultivars on large monocultures with heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides — is so different than it was 50 or 100 years ago that researchers began asking questions, investigating how seed breeding and growing methods might be affecting the foods themselves.

Baby spinach growing in a gardenSome of the most comprehensive research on the nutrient decline of industrial fruits and vegetables was conducted by Donald Davis and colleagues at the University of Texas Biochemical Institute. The team analyzed nutrient data over a 50-year period for 43 common crops, from broccoli, spinach and tomatoes to strawberries, sweet corn and melons. The results were jaw-dropping. Among the findings were a 16 percent overall decline in calcium, a 9 percent decline in phosphorus, a 15 percent drop in iron, a 20 percent decline in vitamin C and a 38 percent drop in riboflavin. Almost all of the nutrients they tested for had fallen.

A different research study published in the British Food Journal showed a dramatic fall in the nutrient content of spinach over time. Its potassium content dropped by 53 percent, its phosphorus by 70 percent, its iron by 60 percent and its copper by 96 percent. The same study explained that a person would have to eat three apples in 1991 to receive the same iron content as they would have gotten by eating one apple in 1940.

Other studies show a similar trend: We are a growing the bulk of our food — including staple crops such as wheat and corn — in a way that makes it less nutritious.

Why Are Industrial Foods Declining in Nutrients?

The reasons for nutrient decline in mainstream foods are many. One main reason is continual breeding for high yields. The key breeding goals of Big Ag are growing more food per acre and producing larger fruits. Any consideration for nutritional content is typically not a part of the equation. Breeders have developed plants that devote much energy to producing large fruits and less energy to absorbing micronutrients. Davis’ research team explains that “cultivars selected for yield, rapid growth or other non-nutrient characteristics may suffer resource limitations in their abilities to extract soil minerals or transport them within the plant, or in their abilities to synthesize proteins, vitamins and other nutrients.”

When plants put a lot of energy into making big fruits, the fruits — even though they are bigger — are more watery and less nutrient-dense. A study of broccoli done at the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory found a strong negative correlation between the weight of a head of broccoli and its calcium and magnesium content. The bigger the broccoli, the lower the concentration of nutrients.

A field of golden wheatThe root systems of crops grown with typical industrial techniques also have a lot to do with the resulting nutrients in the foods. In a large-scale agricultural setting using modern industrial methods, plant roots don’t have to work very hard, or grow very deep. This is because they receive a steady input of water and commercial fertilizer at the soil surface, which in turn leads to small, weak root systems on each plant. Because the plant has no need to grow deep roots to access water deeper down in the soil, it doesn’t (plants only work as hard as they need to). A plant’s root system is where nutrient uptake happens, and a small, weak root system generally equals nutritionally weak fruits. Plus, many plants grown in such a system have root disease, which further inhibits nutrient uptake. Using slow-release fertilizers such as manure and compost leads to much stronger root systems, but such soil amendments are not common in a large-scale setting.

Another reason for an overall decline in nutrients is that fruits and vegetables don’t reach their full nutrient potential until they’re ripe. In our mainstream system of picking produce unripe so that it can be shipped great distances to end up in a grocery store, the food simply doesn’t have the chance to acquire the nutrients that it would have developed during natural ripening. A study published in the journal Horticulture and Human Health showed that apricots and apples picked before ripening had no vitamin C, but they had high concentrations of vitamin C when picked ripe. Furthermore, the development of some nutrients, such as anthocyanins (an antioxidant), is sunshine-related. A study in the Journal of Food Chemistry showed that blackberries picked when still green contained less than a fourth of the anthocyanins as the same berries picked ripe.

Writer, gardener and food researcher Jo Robinson recently wrote a hard-hitting New York Times article about how we are unwittingly breeding the nutrition out of our food. The associated infographic showing nutritional weaklings in the supermarket will make you forever look at the produce section differently.

Why Should We Care?  

The average person in an industrialized nation such as the United States eats plenty of food but is undernourished. (Learn more in Overfed and Undernourished: Nutrient Deficiency in Our Modern Diet.) About 30 percent of the U.S. population ingests inadequate levels of magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin A — all nutrients we get from plants. About 97 percent of adult women in the United States consume an inadequate amount of vitamin E. Being deficient in certain vitamins and minerals has a huge host of effects, from higher risk of heart disease and cancer to anxiety and tiredness. It can also affect child development and how well kids can learn.

Of course, a large reason for nutrient deficiency is the high level of processed foods in the typical diet, but this issue of declining nutrient values in many foods is certainly not helping. When reaching for a healthy food such as an apple or a spinach salad, it would be great if those foods actually provided the nutrition of which they are well capable. Comparing apples to apples doesn’t even work anymore, as one apple could be quite different from another depending on the variety, how it was grown, and when it was harvested.

Taking nutritional supplements is a common answer to try to overcome deficiencies, but research shows that the body may not be able to utilize nutrients presented through supplements in the same way that it benefits from nutrients in whole foods.

A Better Way

One of the best ways to get back to more nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables is to seek local produce from plants that grew in rich soil and had the opportunity to develop strong, healthy roots. You can ask three main questions of any fruit or vegetable to help determine whether it likely contains more nutrients than its counterpart at the grocery store: 1) Was it picked ripe? 2) Was it grown organically in healthy soil? 3) Is it a variety other than a common commercial variety that’s been bred for exceptionally high yields?

Relying more (or wholly) on homegrown foods will make it far easier to answer “yes” to these questions with confidence. When I say “homegrown foods,” I don’t necessarily mean those grown in only your yard, but a combination of foods grown in your own plot, in a community garden or by local farmers whose growing methods you trust. And when I say “organically grown,” I don’t necessarily mean Certified Organic food from a large retailer. As I touch on in my post Fresh Food Reflections, some Certified Organic operations these days are getting bigger and bigger, and adopting many of the practices of non-organic industrial farming, including using high-yielding modern varieties and picking foods when not ripe and shipping them a long way. Think small-scale and local.

Growing and seeking out heirloom varieties can also help you in your quest to eat the most nutritious foods available. Researchers studying nutrient decline recommend considering older, lower-yielding varieties of fruits and vegetables, as they may be more nutrient-dense. There are no guarantees, as exact growing conditions and the variety used will play a part in the nutritional value of the harvest. But your best bet is growing a diverse selection of older varieties.

Many of you know that it’s easier to rely on homegrown, nutritious foods in the peak of the growing season. But instead of resorting to nutrient-deficient supermarket produce in the off-season, preserve extra fruits and vegetables by canning and freezing them when they’re readily available.

Several jars of home canned tomatoes on a table

And don’t stop there. Share your gardening love with friends and family. Help someone who wants to learn about growing food to plan his or her first garden. And when given a chance, tell people — in a spirit of caring and inspiration — what you know about the value of homegrown foods.

Spinach photo from Flickr/dogteaknit; all other photos from stock.xchng

April 22, 2013

A Dinner Gone Wrong and Curry Cornbread Muffins Made by an Anal-Retentive Individual

I hate wasting food. I’m borderline obsessive about it (probably minus the “borderline” part). And because I hate wasting food, I’ll pretty much eat anything in the spirit of Not Wasting It—which is why I’m sometimes referred to as a human garbage disposal around my household.

One time Doug and I made pumpkin ravioli with a gorgonzola cheese sauce. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I hated it. It wasn’t that bad the night we made it, but we had a lot of leftovers. Even though I found the dish disgusting, I packed a big serving of the gorgonzola monstrosity for my lunch every single day of that workweek. By Friday, I was gagging on it—and to this day, I won’t touch gorgonzola cheese (the mere thought of it repulses me). But none of it went to waste, so I don’t regret my choices.

The other day, I made a big pot of curry vegetable noodle soup. I’d made this dish before, and it was delicious. The reason I’ve made this dish twice now is because when I make a slow-cooker beef roast with vegetables (as I did recently), I like to use the drippings as a base for a soup stock. So the whole point of the curry noodle soup stems from not wanting good drippings from a previous meal to go to waste.

But during this most recent soup adventure, disaster struck. The soup was on the stovetop and almost done—but Doug was going to be later getting home from work than I thought. So I turned the pot to low and just left it on the stove. I let time get away from me a bit, and by the time we were both home and ready to eat, the wide rice noodles in the soup had become terribly mushy. It was pretty awful. We choked it down, but the thought of suffering through the leftovers was too much for even me (this is saying something).

I couldn’t bear to actually throw the whole thing away—after all, we’re talking about all kinds of organic vegetables, a lot of noodles, and curry spices. It wasn’t the ingredients’ fault; it was just the damned mushy texture that made the stuff inedible. I was in a pickle.

Doug suggested that, rather than toss the food in the trash or compost, I use the “mush” as a filling in a pastry-like concoction. I didn’t like the sound of that (blegh), but it did give me an idea. The next day, I spooned a few globs of the curry noodle mush into the food processor (don’t judge me, if that’s what you’re starting to do).

A food processor with curry soup puree

Then I mixed the puréed soup-gone-bad into my standard cornbread recipe in hopes of making cornbread muffins.

A bowl of curry cornbread muffin batter

The idea seemed to be working so far ...

A muffin pan full of curry cornbread muffin batter

Here’s the recipe I used for these cornbread muffins:


2 cups organic cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg (from a pastured hen)
1 cup organic milk
About 1 cup dinner-gone-wrong purée


Mix the cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt in one large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg and milk. Mix the dry ingredients, wet ingredients and dinner-gone-wrong purée until combined. Add to greased muffin pan. Bake muffins in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Baked curry cornbread muffins in pan

These muffins weren’t bad at all. They weren’t going to win a blue ribbon at the Cornbread Muffin Awards, but they were totally and completely edible. Because they were edible, I made more of the purée and put it in 1-cup servings in the freezer so I could continue on with this worthy and perhaps crazy project of not wasting the mushy curry noodle soup.

Cornbread muffin on plate with butter

What do you think? Might you consider breaking out the food processor the next time a meal goes awry, and folding the puréed result into another recipe? Or, rather, do you suspect I am in need of psychological help?

Photos by Shelley Stonebrook

April 21, 2013

Garden Watering Tips

If you’re an advanced gardener or a small-scale farmer, chances are that you have an efficient irrigation system set up for growing food crops. If you’re new to gardening, though, an irrigation system is probably the last thing on your mind (you’re more worried about the basic matters of life vs. death when it comes to your plants). And that’s OK.

Even still, you will need to water your crops—and there are a few simple garden watering tips to keep in mind when you do.

A sprinkler watering a vegetable garden

1. Water Deeply

Watering your garden very thoroughly and deeply less often is better than watering it moderately to lightly more often. In other words, watering it heavily every three days is much better than watering it lightly every day.

There are practical reasons for this. If you water heavily, the water gets deep down into the soil—down to the plants’ roots. As a few days pass between waterings, your plants’ roots will actually stretch and grow down deeper to access the water that’s further down. On the other hand, if you water lightly every day, you encourage your plants to only grow shallow roots that hover around the soil surface. Watering deeply less often means you’ll have healthier, more deeply rooted crops. Plus, you’ll save water in the long run.

Note: The above advice is for an established garden. If you just planted seeds, you may very well need/want to water those lightly every day as they germinate and grow strong. 

2. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Mulch

Mulching is like magic. Applying an organic mulch material—such as grass clippings (make sure they’re from a chemical-free lawn), leaves, hay or straw (or a combo of these materials)—deeply around your established garden crops has many benefits. One of those benefits is holding in moisture, meaning every time you water, more of the moisture will stay in the ground under the layer of mulch rather than evaporating.

A thick layer of organic mulch also yields the benefits of suppressing weeds and adding organic matter (and thus increased fertility) to your soil as the mulch decomposes. Mulch is a win-win-win. I can’t emphasize enough how great mulch is for your garden. And don’t be shy applying it: Some experts recommend that your mulch layer be 9 to 12 inches deep. You’ll notice the benefits even with just a few inches of mulch material though. (Stealing the bags of leaves neighbors set out on the curb = smart and awesome, by the way.)

3. Don’t Water in the Heat

This is a more obvious tip, but don’t water your garden in the heat of the day. Hot weather will lead to more water evaporating and less soaking down into the soil. Water in the evening or early morning instead.

4. Try a Timer

Setting up a hose and sprinkler to a timer (such as this Orbit Garden Hose Digital Timer) can be super helpful, especially if you’re going to be out of town and won’t be around to water your garden. You can set the timer to turn on for a couple of hours every three days.

Follow these basic garden watering tips, and not only will your garden grow better, you’ll save a lot of money on your water bill. After you get the hang of food gardening, you might start looking at other watering options, such as soaker hoses or rain water collection. Happy growing!

Photo by Flickr/mrsdkrebs