Friday, September 25, 2009

Alice Waters Comes to Town

This is my Alice Waters day. I showed her the Montessori garden this morning and sat across from her at a three hour dinner. In between she dedicated the Edible Schoolyard.

At 11:05 the taxi from Proximity roll up with Alice, Melanie (the originator of the Children’s Museum Edible Schoolyard Project, and Betsy Grant, the Museum’s director. Coming later, Marsha Guerrero, director of Edible Schoolyard. A group gathers out front: Frank and Nancy, heads of our school, and a few teachers and parents. Several students, Codi, Dennis, Huxley, and Aubrey, join us. We talk school talk, since Alice had been a Montessori teacher, loves kids, and is all about doing something extraordinary, which, I must admit, is what our Montessori gardens are.

We flash through the Primary gardens. Alice takes note of details such as the herb spiral and the oriental persimmons. She likes the fruit trees, the shade they provide. She refers to the Museum’s plan: “You should have these.” “We do.” Melanie is pleased.

Opening the gate to the Lower Elementary garden, a flood of color, green leaves and little person’s activity greets us. Walter and fifth graders are picking Scuppernong grapes, Cathy’s class is enjoying their shaded outdoor classroom, we harvest some basil for tonight’s dinner, and over by the tables Gabriela dips into the bowl to serve more pesto. Walter comes over and I put my arm around him. “This is my main man. From undergraduate days till now as a teacher, he has designed, built and now teaches in this garden. I brought some grape juice with me. I pour several glasses and Alice, I and the young students toast the garden. She meets Jenny and Gabriela although I should have made more of a fuss about them. (In fact, I sit here now thinking that it is the young adults—Walter, Jenny, Gabriela, Amber, Justin, Daniel, Aubrey—that Alice should be talking to, inspiring. Why didn’t I think of this? Can I get them together today?)

Frank is wonderful. His easy manner is so…Californian, like Alice. She says this is the first Montessori school to invite her and then muses, what if every Montessori school had a garden; what would happen then?

Yes, what if every Montessori school and then every public school had a garden? What would happen then? Wouldn’t kids be healthier, eating better, smarter? Wouldn’t they be leaner? Outdoors, they would be outdoors, moving around, in the dirt. They’d learn how to grow, harvest, and make simple dishes. They could start a home garden, teach their parents, bring fresh food to the table. Alice says, they can do it all by 6th grade: grow it, prepare it, serve it.

The tour finishes under the kiwi pergola. The day is hot and humid; I can’t keep from sweating. We are comfortable. Alice speaks with little Huxley. Dennis brings over some tomatillo, peppers, and sour clover for Alice to try. How easy it is to talk about this and how pleasant the garden.

But the day has just begun. At midday several hundred gather to inaugurate the Edible Schoolyard at the Children’s Museum. A nice reception in the kitchen area, the garden is neat, kids and parents circulate outside. I am meeting so many. Yvonne Johnson, the mayor prepares her remarks. I ask her if she gardens and she says yes, a little. It calms me down. Lee Newlin, Val Vickers, Joel, Margaret Arbuckle. Where are the farmers and gardeners? I want to see Massoud and Saliba, Steve Tate, Pat and Brian Bush, Daniel Woodham. We go outside, dignitaries to their places. We crowd around and hear praise for gardens, health, hard work and Alice’s vision. Steve is there and so is John Sopper. I have a sense that Slow Food is on the map now. Most of the rationale is kid’s health and so be it. But this is the right approach to nutrition. It is the right thing for a sophisticated society to do, to return to a simple activity and rediscover what nourishment and taste are, having been starved for so long.

We are starved for tasty food, nutritious food. We want to gather around a table and eat together. We enjoy our own gardens and the farmer’s market. We like the fresh flavor of seasonal fruit and vegetables, we enjoy walking the aisles of the market, bumping into friends, chatting, and discovering that shopping is a social event. We are proud of our newly found intelligence about our food and making smart choices. We are tired of being fooled and manipulated by corporations. Processed food saps our health and costs too much. Fast food stuffs us with too many calories, and too much salt, sugar and fat. We are tired of being a Fast Food Nation. We want to be part of the Delicious Revolution.

The day is not over! At the last moment, an hour before, Dennis Quaintance calls us and asks us to come the special dinner at the Proximity. This hotel with its fabulous restaurant, Printworks, is a platinum LEEDS hotel, the first and only of its kind in America. Dennis is out in front of the nation!

Well, tonight is a dinner for people with money to meet Alice. Debby and I were not planning on it, but here we go. And where do we sit? Right across from Alice and next to Marsha! For the entire evening. Something in me says, this is a good thing and I want to remember this. Debby leans over and says, you deserve it. Maybe I do.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Insects Are Eating My Seeds!

A winter harvest depends on timely planting of August and September seeds and seedlings. If we want food throughout the winter, the last plantings are now.

So what is in? Seedlings of broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage. Arugula is up, another bed coming. Sunday I sprinkled two mesclun mixes of cold tolerant lettuces that I’ll cover with plastic in December. An expensive one, $7 an ounce, from Johnny’s Selected Seed and a $3 an ounce from Wyatt Quarles, a regional brand. A contest. Then some chicory and spinach. Black-seeded Simpson will come, but space is left for a succession of lettuce. The next two plantings will be under plastic. That is, I’ll make a simple hoop structure of curved PC pipe overlaid with clear plastic and pinned to the ground. Inside the temperatures will be warm enough to carry the green leaves safely through the winter. Last year I planted in mid November when we returned from Italy and the seeds germinated and lettuce flourished. So I will plant again in October and then in November too.

I don’t want it to be hot inside the plastic. Then the lettuce will grow too quickly and bolt. Cool is the goal and green is the color of my true hoop bed.

But now it’s warm enough that seed and first-appearance-of-green eating insects come: slugs, crickets, rolly-pollies, centipedes, even ants. What I had planted two weeks ago is all gone, eaten. I watched ants carry lettuce seeds away. I saw crickets sit and munch.

What to do. First, replant with a little more soil on top. Second, cover with burlap and secure the edges. Third, last thing of the evening and first of the early morning, lift the burlap, check it out and squash any bugs. The last turned out to be most effective. Each “lifting” exposed them; I’d squash 20 bugs and disturb their revelry. Last night and this morning there were fewer. And most seeds germinated. Today I’ll take off the burlap and lay top, Remay, a thin cloth that protects the new greens from rabbits or chickens, if I had them. In a week the lettuce will be an inch high and on its way.

The best plan is a new 4-6’ bed of mesclun August, September, October and November. Smaller beds of arugula, mizuna, Simpson and spinach. Of course, kale, collards, turnips, chard, beets, onions and the brassicas are growing elsewhere. Garlic and fava in October. Most of the garden will be green and growing throughout the southern winter.

My Wonderful Co-Gardeners

Tonight my co-gardeners came over at 6pm for dinner. Walter, Aubrey and Gabriela. I found a Catalonian recipe in my mammoth The Mediterranean Feast that called for beets. I have some Chioggio beets, an Italian variety with red and white concentric bands and a sweet taste and I‘d like to use them. I cooker the greens last week for a pizza topping, along with carmelized onions, nuts and raisins. Now it is the beets turn.

I’m cooking onions and celery in olive oil. I add two, chopped large tomatoes along with chickpeas and finally the beets. I let it simmer and turn it off.

Polenta with milk and water, some cheese and jalapeƱos. Debby’s bean dish: long-cooked pole beans with onions and tomatoes will go over congealed slices of polenta. Walter is cooking mustard greens, just a tad, retaining their bright green color. We taste some of the muscadine and scuppernong grape juice--wonderfully sweet with a pink hue. Gabriela likes the hot pepper jam on pita bread. For dessert I thaw and reheat a fruit pizza of spiced pears and figs, feta cheese and arugula. Not bad at all!

Our conversation drives the evening though. Walter is seductively self-deprecating, Aubrey’s happiness pokes out from behind his shyness, and Gabriela ladles out one heaping serving of good news and good will to us all. She asks, why do you love gardening? Why do you need to garden? We all look up: that’s a serious question. I return, why do you?
I think it’s because food is good for you and I like being healthy and I want others to know about this.
But why garden?
Well, I love to garden.
Walter: I like being outside, out in the air, the sunshine. And I like weeding!
We all kid Walter a little. He speaks from his body, how it moves, what it does.
I tell them about my being born into a garden in Costa Rica and returning to it. But mainly for me, gardening saved me, saved me from the stupefactions of university teaching and isolation.
Aubrey isn’t sure. He says I don’t know, but he told me this weekend that gardening opened his heart to a passion to be close to the earth.

This all warms my heart.

From there we settle into practicalities of the gardening program. Alice Waters is visiting on Thursday. Are we ready? Everyone at their places? Gabriela will be teaching Primary. Walter will come over with UE and pick grapes. Aubrey will rush over from art history class and pick up with his weeding and trimming. I will lead the entourage with several GMS students. Possible projects loom: better composting, a clay pizza oven, more fruit trees. The pizza oven is tantalizing. Who wouldn’t want a wood-fired oven and hot pizza? But who wants to fire it up and tend it but twice a year. Walter is convinced we need to protect it with a shelter since the clay is unglazed. Aubrey suggests brick. How much? $400 in materials? We drop it, I think for the final time. Of course when Alice Waters sees our garden she’ll say, what you guys need is a brick oven.

We fall into a little gossip. We eat the fruit and feta pizza and clean up. By 8 everything is cleaned up.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

School Gardens Change the World and Change Us

The gardens at Greensboro Montessori School are extensive but their origins were humble. A small 5th grade garden was all we had the first year. We made it in a day. Soon the principal asked for a school plan. Now 250 students have weekly sessions. I could not do it without my 6 college interns. They do most of the teaching. I’ve worked with one of them, Walter, for over 8 years, first as a freshman at UNCG and then as the Spanish teacher at Montessori. He is also a Permaculture designer and is in charge of the 4th-8th grade gardening. In the summer he prefers to travel to Central America and work on farms. He himself wants to work with the earth, to be a farmer.

He is not alone. Aubrey, an art major, Jenny a graduate in anthropology, and Gabriela whose senior paper at Guilford College was on school gardening curriculum are my reliable helpers and constant inspiration. Their depth of interest in the land has taken me by surprise. Farming and school gardening was not in the picture for college students 10 years ago, but obviously they are ready and willing and need our support. Perhaps they are attracted as I am by the pleasure of good work, the responsiveness of the earth and the dream of a sustainable society. The garden is their teacher. And they are with us tonight.

Gardens are popping up all over the place: school gardens, community gardens, front and backyard edible landscaping. What is this desire? Is it for good food, for a connection to the earth, for a fresher human community, for beauty? Yes, all these things.

One very unique public school, the Newcomer’s School, gathers young people new to America and without the English language. For one year 3rd through 12th graders, speaking 31 different languages, immerse themselves in English only. After that year, they enter the regular public system.

We began the Peace Garden. It went easily because a young man, Natan, took the reins and led the program. The students planted their cultures into the American soil: peppers from the Americas, okra from Africa, or watercress from SE Asia. That first year they won a city-wide prize and sold their food at the farmer’s market. Now Gabriela heads it up. Her first group this fall came from six different countries and the collards they planted brought them all together. She did a masterful job of simplifying the task of planting and getting everyone to participate.

What does all this mean? Why do we garden in schools? Gathering, gardening and eating are the basis of human culture. Our participation in the food web or the Web of Life is our most basic activity. As cultural beings, we do not eat simply to refuel themselves. No, gathering, gardening and eating are rituals, planned activities, community forming activities, tool using activities. They describe who we are and what we value. At times we abstain from eating, at other times, we feast. Plants heal us; animals help us.

In conjunction with the earth we formed a human culture. Our interaction with the land and our cuisine says who we are. Or at least that is how it has been until the recent past. In a wink of an eye, basically the 20th century, we forgot all this. We became “industrial eaters” and substituted a ready-made set of abstract food products and farming methods that bypassed and obscured both nature’s way and our own. Processed food and fast food teaches us nothing, it separates us, it basically distracts us like an endless commercial.

I think we garden in school and community gardens, we go to farmer’s markets, and we eat together in order to rediscover who we are and to enjoy our home, the earth. We ground ourselves. We heal ourselves. We slow down and share ourselves with others. These activities make us human.

Inspecting My Bees for the Small Hive Beetle

Sep 20 Sunday: Inspecting Bees for Small Hive Beetles

I’m inspecting hives #2 and #3 for Small Hive Beetles. These quarter inch long beetles coexist alongside the bees, exploit empty cells and eat their honey. They defecate in the open honey cells, the honey ferments and the smell drives the bees away from adding to those cells or cleaning them out. The smell can be so bad that it drives the bees out of the hive! When this happens the moth population goes unchecked, eggs hatch and within two weeks the frames of honey are in ruins. I think this all happened to me 12 years ago when I was given an old, weak hive by an old guy that had visited my garden, and the life of the hive fell apart--I also was ignorant of good hive maintenance at the time--in August.

I open the lid on the far right hive, not bad. Then the top board and see 20 scurrying around. I stab at them with my finger or my tool, just the kind of activity that disturbs the bees. I look at one frame. Two beetles. Not bad at all, in fact much better than before. Activity is good.

In the center hive, none are under the lid or on the top board, but a group of 20 are in one corner. I stab at them. The bees don’t like it and raise their humming decibels. I’m ungloved and unmasked so I need to be gentle even though I want these beetles OUT. I notice a lot more bees than there were Sep 6. Let’s see, that’s 14 days. The worker bees brood cycle requires 21 days; have so many hatched? I hadn’t seen a lot of eggs before. This is confusing, but I’m happy about the full and busy population.

I write all this down. Notekeeping is as important as the inspection itself because I can establish the patterns of the hive. It’s easy to forget.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What is Slow Food?

The Staff Senate at UNCG has an informal meeting, Brown Bag Lunch, once a month. They asked me to talk about something and I choose Slow Food. Steve Tate of the Goat Lady Dairy and I began Slow Food Piedmont five years ago and got it off to a good start. I've been involved in it both here and in Italy. The farm, Spannocchia, at which Debby and I volunteer and conduct a graduate course, is linked to Slow Food Siena and sponsors a number of dinners and workshops.

The contact person of the Staff Senate asked for a definition of Slow Food and here's what I offered.

SLOW FOOD: An Idea, A Movement, A Way of Life?

Slow food is the food our ancestors enjoyed: seasonal and local food, thoughtfully prepared to express local traditions and flavors, and leisurely enjoyed in the company of family and friends.

Likewise it is eating as if your health and happiness depended on it, keeping the cost low and nutrition high by avoiding processed and “empty” food.

Slow food tastes good, is free of toxic chemicals, and supports family farms.

It connects us to the earth, our region and one another, rather than to a TV or a fast food joint.

It is a simple pleasure, a celebration of life, a stress reliever, a mindful choice, a freedom we forget we have.

We are what we eat and how we eat; that is why we eat.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Bees and Powdered Sugar

I'm checking the varroa mite population in each of my three hives and I'm doing it with powdered sugar. Varroa mites latch on to the bees and suck the life out of them. They weaken the hive and open the door for disease and moths and other detriments.

The test is simple: I brush 50 bees into a jar with 1 tablespoon of sugar in it, roll them around and shake out the sugar with the disgruntled mites in it. When the bees tumble out they are coated in sugar and lick each other off and fly away. I count the mites; anything more than 10 requires treatment. Beekeepers used to use insecticides at this point but that is frowned upon. I bought some formic acid pads to insert into the hive, but I am not sure they are safe. I'm reading Ross Conrad's Natural Beekeeping and following his practices. He observes his bees methodically. He looks for signs and used low-stress, low-impact ways, as in organic gardening.

Almost no mites! The hives are free of varroa mites. I'm a bit skeptical though. Maybe I didn't let the sugar stay on them long enough so that the mites would disengage. Maybe I don't know what to look for: I know what mites look like, and they are small, but a sugar-coated one?

The middle hive had other problems: empty brood cells, a sign of an absent queen or the recurrence of the hive's springtime disease that were remedied. Could the swarm that I gathered just 10 feet away just one month ago have come from this hive? If so, it lost its queen and it takes one month to produce a new one. The hive has two months to store more honey for the winter. It will be a race. If it is a disease, then the hive is really in trouble because it will have to both recover and store honey.

Hives #1 and #3 are strong.

Each time I inspect the hives a learn something, but I also face situations that are beyond my grasp. I want to take it slow and observe very carefully. The more details I can retain, the better my diagnosis. I write them down. I form hypothesis as I work, but I end with more questions. This morning I called Don Hopkins, the state bee inspector who has been at my place three times (What a guy!). He is very calm and is not alarmed by my report. Yes, he says, perhaps there is a new queen. Yes, they still have time to store winter honey. And yes I'll come over a check your hives when I return from vacation in ten days. I breath a sigh of relief.

Beekeeping requires diligence, calmness, and knowledge. And I'm just learning.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I'm an Epicurean

I am a teacher by trade. My subject matter varies from the ironies of religion to the mighty power of worm-tillage and my audience on any given day can be a 7 or a 70 year old. I earn money from this: the university pays me per course (I’m a part-timer.) and a local Montessori school by the hour. I also run workshops on Permaculture gardening and consult in edible landscaping.

I was raised a Christian fundamentalist and so truth came easily. Now I am less secure, but I like to think that my interactions with plants, bees, and Italian farmers offer glimpses of reality. I am happy, whether I am preparing a meal from food I have just harvested or reading a history of Mediterranean cuisines. These two worlds fit together for me. I’m Aristotelian in that I think we become human through conversation and then I’m Epicurean in that cooking is just as important. Just to play with this a little, I used to be high-minded, a Platonist, and you don’t have to be a Creationist to know that life began in a garden.

I’ve racked my brain and walked a few miles to figure out what to do in life. I never made it out of the academic basement, i.e. apart-time lecturer at a mid-grade university and at 61 I’m not going to make any startling moves. But I have tried to keep alive certain passions and a sense of discovery.

The books by my bed tells a lot. Here they are for August-September, 2009:

Infidel Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Banker to the Poor Muhammad Yunus

Formation of Vegetable Mould Charles Darwin

Passage (environmental art) Andy Goldsworthy

Garlic and Oil: Food and Politics in Italy Carol Helstosky

Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim David Sedaris

Italian Short Stories, parallel text Ed, Raleigh Trevelyn

Animal Architecture Karl von Frisch

The Portable Atheist Christopher Hitchens

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's a Permaculture garden.

My garden surrounds my 90 year old home that sits in an old suburb, within biking distance of center city and most of what I need. I follow an ingenious method called Permaculture that says “imitate natural ecosystems and get out of the way.” So I let the worms do the tilling, ponds store the water, bees pollinate my fruit trees, insects manage insects, soil feed the plant roots and death take away an errant experiment. I grow 3-dimensionally on fences, trellises and house walls. I miniaturize as in an apple espalier to pack plants into an urban setting. I connect a helpful plant to a needy one and use others to cool my home. I have fruit for all seasons except winter although then I enjoy what I’ve canned: spiced pears, honey soaked figs, blackberry jam and persimmon pudding. I freeze the surplus. My garden has been part of the local, small farm tour. You get the idea.