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The marshland down the sreet from my house is home to a wild edible feast!

Need water? Look for cattails. A sure sign of H2O, these bushy-topped marsh lovers do a lot more than just look cool – they’re actually a versatile and nutritious wild edible!

See if you can recognize them in the picture. Luckily, they’re pretty easy to identify by their tall, sword shaped green leaves and center stalk topped by a cigar shaped, furry looking seed head. In the wintertime, the seed head turns white and dies, but will frequently remain on the plant until spring along with the stalks, making them identifiable in even the darkest days of winter.

Nearly every part of the plant is useful. In the spring, pick the young shoots (which will eventually grow to form the center stalk), peel off the outer layers and eat raw, in salads, or cooked in stir-frys. The sticky jelly that comes off while peeling can be used to thicken soups, and was also used by Native Americans to soothe burns and wounds.

In early summer, the green flower head can be cooked and eaten similar to corn on the cob. Later on, the pollen from the male flowers can be used as flour or eaten raw, used as a spice would be. The Wild Man Steve Brill, my favorite scavenger, lists three great cattail recipes on his website – cattail fried rice, pasta with cattail, and raw cattail soup. (Be sure to also check out his tours featuring local wild edibles if you happen to be in the New York area) In the winter, the rhizomes, or roots, can be dug up and eaten by either boiling, or drying and grinding into flour. They can also be mashed in water. Let the mix sit for a few hours, drain off the water and the remaining starch can be used as a thickener for soups.

The dried outer leaves can be used for weaving projects, and the cattail was hugely popular with Native Americans for this purpose. The “fur” from the top of the plant is frequently used to help start campfires, as it is highly flammable. in addition, Native Americans burned cattails for their insect repelling properties.

Not only do cattails have nearly infinite uses, but they’re good for you, too! Low in saturated fat, sugar and sodium, they provide Iron, Phosphorous, Fiber, Vitamins K and B6, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Manganese, and also contain anti-inflammatory properties.

If you see any around, try them in your next meal! Not only do they taste good and are good for you, but if found in the wild, they’re free! (And what’s better than free???) Just a couple disclaimers, though, before you go traipsing through wild marshland:

Stay away from cattails in marshes close to highways and farms, as the marshland they grow in may be polluted with runoff.

Stay away from the wild iris, which looks similar, but has a blue-purple flower, and no furry cattail top to the plant – its poisonous!

Be aware of your surroundings. Cattails usually grow in shallow water, but be careful not to venture too far into any marshlands, as the depth may unexpectedly increase.

Inheritance

When my grandfather bought his first house, a grand old Victorian in the heart of Yonkers, New York, he couldn’t wait to make everything “just right.” The previous owner, though, begged him at the closing not to do anything to the gardens for exactly one year. Not really understanding why, he obeyed the seller’s wishes. Over the next year, he witnessed a dazzling display of perennials ebb and flow with the seasons, from the first bright spring tulips to the final shade lovers of the fall, and finally the ornamental grasses swaying just above the snow in the winter wind.

I also have received such an inheritance, and although it may not be as useful or tangible as money, each season around the hill has left me filled with wonder and curiosity, and most importantly, gratitude towards the previous owners, Mr. and Mrs. H. (Of course, Mr. H., I could’ve done without your “home repairs”, but that’s another story entirely!) Check out below the gifts I’ve received over the past year…


Thank you Mr. & Mrs. H., wherever you are!

Sustainable Steps

Step outside of the garden with me for a moment, and take a look around. Do you see what I see? In the last ten years there’s been a change. Its become cool to be green and carry reusable shopping bags, while the Prius has become the ultimate post-modern hipster statement of cool.

Environmental impact aside, the recent recession has brought even more of a “make do or do without” mentality to the people.

For me, its been a give and take. I try to follow sustainable practices and develop thrifty habits for both my wallet and my world, (and NOT because of the coolness factor) but there’s certainly a learning curve attached to any changes that I make. I plain English, well, I basically screw up everything I attempt the first time around. Whether it be composting,

What could be more thrifty than turning someone else's hideous fashion trash into my treasure?

gardening, bulk cooking or the Great Upcycled Clothing Debacle of 2010 (check out the disastrous photos along the left throughout this post), conservation on any level takes effort and patience.

Why would I even dredge up the horrible memory of these and other terrible failures and share them with you? Trust me, its certainly not because I like to humiliate myself, but to prove the point that living a simple, frugal, sustainable life takes time. The need to consume and waste is so ingrained in us (read: its not your fault, its a cultural norm) that we’ve never been trained in the skills that our grandparents would think to be second nature. Of course I don’t really know how to sew, I’ve shopped at the mall my whole life. That doesn’t stop me from

trying to learn, though. (Now, back to our regularly scheduled garden programming) Along those same lines, I have no reason to become a master gardener with the A&P down the street, but there are reasons why we should try.

So, you wanna live sustainably?

Paperclips as pins? Not a good idea.

Luckily, you, my dear readers, can not only laugh at, but learn from my disasters. First, pick something and stick with it until you master it. (That’s why I’m a gardener and not a gardener/seamstress, apparently!)

Because this is a garden blog, and because our food system is much more fragile than most people realize, (just how close to the edge are we living?) the first step, in my opinion, to sustainability is to become food independent. Like my upcycle project, there are bound to be failures along the way, but food independence is possible no matter where you live or what your budget is.

Apartment dweller with no natural sun? Check out the Sprout People for what they refer to as the “coolest sprouting seeds on the planet.” You’re probably familiar

Said paperslips do not result in accurate measurements...

with alfalfa sprouts, but what you may not know is that you can make then at home in a jar with little to no sunlight. (You don’t even need one of those fancy schmancy sprouting kits, anything you can rinse and drain will work just fine) They’re also ready to eat in less than a week, and pack a serious punch of nutritional value. One serving of those little alfalfas contain 35% of your daily recommendation of protein, vitamins A, B, C, E and K, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron zinc, chlorophyll and as much carotene as carrots. (If that’s not food sustainability, I don’t know what is!) In addition, one pound of alfalfa seeds will run you about eight bucks, as opposed to about three or four for a tiny, store bought plastic container. Even though I have tons of garden space, I still always keep sprouting seeds around – I think they’re one of the most reliable, easy and simple ways to grow your own fresh food around the house.

The moral of this story? Don’t be afraid to try, but don’t over diversify either – traditional societies had a farmer and a tailor, not a farmer-tailor. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn a little bit of everything, but don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out immediately. Stick to simplicity in the beginning (grow sprouts, knit a scarf) before you move on to the complicated stuff. Most importantly, if you don’t try, you’ll never know. If you mess up, have a laugh! These are skills cultivated by people over thousands of years, yet lost on us. They certainly won’t come immediately – that’s why this post of called sustainable steps and not sustainable NOW!  Have you had any successes or failures at picking up new skills or trades lately? How did you overcome the failures?

With my first “real” garden fully underway (I don’t count last year since we got such a late start in the house), I’m finally able to sit back, with calloused hands and tanned shoulders, to actually harvest some of what I’ve been growing!

June 23rd's Harvest

We’re kind of in a bit of a lull right now, as the very early radishes and lettuces are now gone, but we’re still waiting on the true warm weather vegetables. In the meantime, I got a small bunch of carrots, what is almost the last of the sugar snap peas, some green onion and spinach. The spinach has been remarkably heat resistant – much more so than my arugula and other greens. I noticed some seed stalks, though, yesterday, so it’ll be gone by this weekend.

I loved having my own sugar snap peas, but I feel a little disappointed in them. They didn’t really produce for as long as I would’ve hoped, and now I find myself lusting after the crisp taste of fresh snaps, right off the vine. And that, friends, is a taste you can never get from the supermarket.

I was worried about the onions – we had a warm spell, followed by a frost before it warmed up for good. I was concerned that they were going to send up seed stalks (a few did) and not form bulbs, but I just dug up a test one (which is where the green onion came from) and it looks like its starting to form nice, solid, juicy bulbs. Thank goodness — the boy desperately wanted onions, and I don’t know how I would’ve told him they weren’t going to work out.

Yea, I know...they're hybrids...I'm a hypocrite.

The carrots turned out fairly well, and there’s still more coming. I chose a “Short n Sweet” hybrid (I know I always go one about heirlooms but these has exactly the qualities I was looking for) because my soil is very rocky and a little heavy. The traditional, longer carrots were out, so I’m glad I found these. I called them “my accidental carrots,” because they took so painfully long to germinate that I all but gave up on them. I mostly stopped watering them, until one day, about a week later, I noticed the tiny seedlings sprouting. I obviously began watering them then! And, nevertheless, they seemed no worse for the wear. I think some plants are much more hardy than we give them credit for! Sometimes, its the ones I abuse and forget about that give me the best harvest. Go figure…

On a personal note, I wanted to devote much more time to keeping up the blog once the garden was settled in, so it only stands to reason that I got picked for an eight week grand jury duty term this summer! (Meaning I may have to stay late at my job some days, or worse…come in on Saturdays!) I’ve been trying (more or less) to stick to an every other day posting routine, but this monkey wrench may make it hard to do. So, if I miss a day, I didn’t forget about my readers in blogland, I’ll have new things for you as soon as I catch a moment! Till then, happy gardening!

There is no doubt, that at least for me, gardening is not only a stress reliever, but also a positive use of my time. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than planting seeds, watching them grow and then reaping the rewards, in terms of beauty, nutrition, exercise and frugality. That is why the focus of today’s post is a little bit more technical, in part to make up for the rather “fluffy” poem I posted yesterday, but also as a basis for what I hope to be an interesting concept and discussion.

Is it possible, that hidden among all these benefits, is the more covert result of a decrease in criminal activity among areas that have more green space and gardens, both vegetable and otherwise? According to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics‘ total crime index (covering nine crimes, all defined as “violent”), the incident rate per 100,000 people in rural areas 1,908.7. For areas defined as urban, this figure skyrockets to 4,409.1.

In the interest of providing a well-rounded analysis, there are other obvious reasons why the rate may be much higher for urban areas, including higher poverty rate, greater population density, ability to be more anonymous in a heavily populated area and natural conflicts that would arise as a result of a more diverse society.

For my purposes, however, I’d like to propose the idea that outdoor activity, specifically gardening, reduces crime. A common motive for many crimes (especially larceny, theft, burglary, prostitution and drug sales) lies in economic gain. Whether for the criminal artist themselves, or for the benefit of family, when resources are scarce, it would stand to reason that the potential for gain may outweigh the risk of getting caught.

Being that food is one of the most basic necessities, isn’t it possible that the ability to provide fresh and nutritious food for oneself and family would reduce the drive to commit such a crime?

Programs teaching urban residents basic farming and tools for self-sufficiency are cropping up all over the nation, but Michigan, which has rather unfortunately become the fishbowl of downtrodden contemporary society, is pioneering a new program just outside of Flint, to do just that with urban youth. Another program, Infuse Detroit, is engaged in a mission to take unused urban land and turn it into something beautiful and productive. Check out the video: (Just a note: This isn’t my video, I can’t take credit for it…it was made by Infuse Detroit)

If you’re still not convinced that gardening reduces crime, there are so many more reasons why its a notion to consider. The psychological effects alone of being in nature versus an urban environment provide enough material for an entire post in and of itself. I intend to do a post soon discussing this, but if you reeeally can’t wait, check out “To Dwell Among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City.” Its a pretty in depth read, but has a lot of great information. Of course, I’ll be paraphrasing it in my post, so if you can wait until then, that’s cool too.

In the meantime, just a note: I’m not discounting urban life in any way. I went to school in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan and it was one of the best experiences of my life. What I am discounting, though, are empty lots, vacant alleys and barren rooftops. There are so many untapped resources not only in urban areas, but suburban and rural ones too.What if, instead of being relics of run down, post-industrial society, they could be vibrant, colorful beacons of hope and prosperity? (Besides, compared to many other campaigns and pieces of legislation that have come out in recent years, the cost would be minute, and the reward would be a potential better quality of life for everyone)

Are there any programs in your towns or cities geared towards getting the word out there about the positive effects of gardening? I live in a fairly rural area, so the cat’s pretty much out of the bag by me, but I love to hear stories about community gardens, school gardens and just about any urban greening project!

Twas the day of the solstice, and all through the yard,

The plants were all growing, including swiss chard.

The sunflowers watched over the garden with care,

In hopes that the watering can soon would be there.

The onions were nestled all snug in their bed,

While tomatoes got ready to turn all bright red.

The boy played some songs on his old guitar,

While I had a rest, and a drink from the bar.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my seat to see what was the matter.

Away to the garden I ran like a flash,

All through the forest of maple and ash.

When, what to my wondering eyes near the gate,

Appeared the old groundhog – the one that I hate!

With his dirty brown coat, and fuzzy small nose

That crinkled up as on his hind legs he rose.

And then just as quickly, that little pig,

Put down his paws and began to dig!

He snorted and dug underneath my whole fence

It was all I could do to stand and look dense!

“Now groundhogs, now beavers, now birds and you deer,

Get out of my garden, and away from here!”

To the edge of the yard ran that old pest,

“Now leave this place, you unwelcome guest!”

But into the garden my lil’ raider went,

And ate so much food I should’ve charged him rent!

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

He jumped that old fence, ran away with a bound.

And dressed in all fur, from his head to his tail,

He wiggled his butt and the wall he did scale.

After he left, I ran to my garden,

And cursed up a storm, if you’ll beg my pardon.

I ran to my plants and set up a blockade,

And said, “That little bugger thinks he’s got it made!”

I’ll trap him, I’ll slap him, I’ll send him away,

And strengthen my fence to keep his friends at bay!

I sprang to my fence, with rocks to fortify,

And lined them all up to reach up to the sky,

I said with a laugh, as he ran out of sight,

“Stay away all you animals, don’t even take a bite!”

Pop quiz: What is yellow, shiny, and often referred to by the always illustrious name “love apple”? Believe it or not, this early aphrodisiac (or so it was believed) is actually the ancestor of the modern gardener’s backyard staple, the tomato. Quite conversely, common lore told that the yellow, and eventually red orbs were actually poisonous (when they weren’t busy poisoning people, that is).

Nevertheless, whether amorous edible or potentially poison, once the idea of these garden gems caught on, their popularity has increased steadily over the years. According to The Tomato In America: Early History, Culture and Cookery, as of 1994 (the most recent statistic I have to share with all of you tomato fanatics), approximately twelve million tons of tomatoes were devoured annually in the United States. Just in case you were wondering, that works out to about eighteen pounds of fresh tomatoes and seventy pounds of processed tomatoes, per person, per year. That’s a boatload of marinara for a fruit (yes, its a fruit) once thought to be a deadly member of the nightshade family!

Now I know you’re thinking, “But my tomatoes look so innocent there out in my garden – who knew they had such a debaucherous past! I better keep a close eye on them…” And let me tell you, friend, you’re right! Allow me to take a few more moments of your time to fill you in on the secret life of tomatoes…

As one of the most popular backyard plants, there are also a ton of different shapes, varieties and cultivars, which Tantalizing Tomatoes:Smart Tips & Tasty Picks for Gardeners Everywhere does a great job of breaking down. In the meantime, though, we’ll take a look into some of the shenanigans that these garden regulars have been up to when no one’s looking…

Early Girl Hybrid

At some point during my lifetime, which is now nearly twenty-seven years, there was a shift in the types of tomato

seeds and seedlings available on the market. As a child, I remember going to the store and buying tomatoes. And they were just that – tomatoes. Today, the question of whether to buy and grow organics or hybrids is a hot topic.

Contrary to some popular beliefs, hybrids are not necessarily “Frankenfoods”, but rather a cross breeding of different varieties. Typically, they’re bred for commercial use, and often feature qualities like disease resistance, thicker skin for transportation, and a uniform look. Unfortunately, companies including the likes of Monsanto, a well-known hybrid seed producin

g agricultural company, often turn out hybrids that develop with the unfortunate side effect of being sterile, as opposed to their open-pollinated cousins, heirlooms. I can’t say whether this is due to financial reasons (therefore basically in

debting farmers to corporations at the beginning of

the planting season for new seed) or simply an inadvertent consequence, but it makes them difficult to grow if you really like gardening (like me), are really thrifty (like me), or ever think about the possibility of eventual societal collapse (uhh…like me). Also, if you can grow hybrid plants from the previous year’s seed, it may not grow true to the parent plant. Its never happened to me, but I’d imagine then you may would have a Frankenfood!

Black Sea Man Heirloom Tomato

Heirloom seeds, by contrast, have come into favor lately with the green movement. These are the seeds that your parents parents parents grew, way back in the day. The great thing about them is that they make tons of seeds, and do reproduce true to form. The only bummer is that they’re not bred with the same enhanced characteristics as hybrids, so they may be more susceptible to disease and other problems.

Whether you decide to choose hybrid or heirloom is a personal choice; there is no real right or wrong. Personally, we grow both. The hybrids definitely look to be a little stronger right now, but they were also started a little earlier They’re more mundane in their varieties, though, with only better boy and cherry right now at our house, while we have all different shapes and colors of heirlooms. We’re growing a purple one that I’m seriously looking forward to!

So, now that the hybrid/heirloom mess is settled, (You see! These tomatoes have a ton of secrets!) what about determinate v. indeterminate? In our garden, we love indeterminate tomatoes, who provide us with fruit all summer long. I don’t really have much of a case for determinates and their single harvest, but I suppose, since they only grow to a certain size, they’d be good for smaller gardens or containers.

Even beyond the types and times of tomatoes, there are still some tomato secrets that baffle even the most experienced gardener. For me, at least, one of those secrets is pruning. I know I should do it, its better for the fruit, but it still makes me sad to do. Nevertheless, I still prune, because my plants always grow like mad! What is it with tomato plants and sending up ridiculous amounts of new shoots? These things grow like the Blob on steroids! Being that they’re so prolific, something else I don’t understand is why these puppies, after originating on the coastal highlands of South America, weren’t cultivated until many centuries later! I mean, could you image a world without marinara sauce? I can’t.

Despite all its secrets, though, I could never be mad at my backyard tomatoes. They make fruit like almost none of my other plants can and they can sprout new roots along their stems! What’s not to love? So, tomatoes, I forgive you for your secrets. Besides, don’t we all have a few? According to The Tomato In America: Early History, Culture and Cookery, as of 1994 (the most recent statistic I have to share with all of you tomato fanatics), approximately twelve million tons of tomatoes were devoured annually in the United States. Just in case you were wondering, that works out to about eighteen pounds of fresh tomatoes and seventy pounds of processed tomatoes, per person, per year. That’s a boatload of marinara for a fruit (yes, its a fruit) once thought to be a deadly member of the nightshade family!

Now I know you’re thinking, “But my tomatoes look so innocent there out in my garden – who knew they had such a debaucherous past! I better keep a close eye on them…” And let me tell you, friend, you’re right! Allow me to take a few more moments of your time to fill you in on the secret life of tomatoes…

As one of the most popular backyard plants, there are also a ton of different shapes, varieties and cultivars, which Tantalizing Tomatoes:Smart Tips & Tasty Picks for Gardeners Everywhere does a great job of breaking down. In the meantime, though, we’ll take a look into some of the shenanigans that these garden regular’s have been up to when no one’s looking…

At some point during my lifetime, which is now nearly twenty-seven years, there was a shift in the types of tomato seeds and seedlings available on the market. As a child, I remember going to the store and buying tomatoes. And they were just that – tomatoes. Today, the question of whether to buy and grow organics or hybrids is a hot topic.

Contrary to some popular beliefs, hybrids are not necessarily “Frankenfoods”, but rather a cross breeding of different varieties. Typically, they’re are bred for commercial use, and often feature qualities like disease resistance, thicker skin for transportation, and a uniform look. Unfortunately, companies including the likes of Monsanto, a well-known hybrid seed producing agricultural company, often turn out hybrids that develop with the unfortunate side effect of being sterile, as opposed to their open-pollinated cousins, heirlooms. I can’t say whether this is due to financial reasons (therefore basically indebting farmers to corporations at the beginning of the planting season for new seed) or simply an inadvertent consequence, but it makes them difficult to grow if you really like gardening (like me), are really thrifty (like me), or ever think about the possibility of eventual societal collapse (uhh…like me). Also, if you can grow plants from the previous year’s seed, it may not grow true to the parent plant. Its never happened to me, but I’d imagine then you may would have a Frankenfood!

Heirloom seeds, by contrast, have come into favor lately with the green movement. These are the seeds that your parents parents parents grew, way back in the day. The great thing about them is that they make tons of seeds, and do reproduce true to form. The only bummer is that they’re not bred with the same enhanced characteristics as hybrids, so they may be more susceptible to disease and other problems.

Whether you decide to choose hybrid or heirloom is a personal choice; there is no real right or wrong. Personally, we grow both. The hybrids definitely look to be a little stronger right now, but they were also started a little earlier They’re more mundane in their varieties, though, with only better boy and cherry right now at our house, while we have all different shapes and colors of heirlooms. We’re growing a purple one that I’m seriously looking forward to!

So, now that the hybrid/heirloom mess is settled, (You see! These tomatoes have a ton of secrets!) what about determinate v. indeterminate? In our garden, we love indeterminate tomatoes, who provide us with fruit all summer long. I don’t really have much of a case for determinates and their single harvest, but I suppose, since they only grow to a certain size, they’d be good for smaller gardens or containers.

Even beyond the types and times of tomatoes, there are still some tomato secrets that baffle even the most experienced gardener. For me at least, one of those secrets is pruning. I know I should do it, its better for the fruit, but it still makes me sad to do it. Nevertheless, I still prune, because my plants always grow like mad! What is it with tomato plants and sending up ridiculous amounts of new shoots? These things grow like the Blob on steroids! Being that they’re so prolific, something else I don’t understand is why these puppies, after originating on the coastal highlands of South America, weren’t cultivated until many centuries later! I mean, could you image a world without marinara sauce? I can’t. I won’t!

Despite all its secrets, though, I could never be mad at my backyard tomatoes. They make fruit like almost none of my other plants can and they can sprout new roots along their stems! What’s not to love? So, tomatoes, I forgive you for your secrets. Besides, don’t we all have a few?

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