Thursday, September 30, 2010


I'm a big believer in eating foods that are as fresh and natural as possible.  I am convinced that many health problems in our country today can be traced to the rise of increasingly processed foods.  The further we get from food in its natural, fresh state, the more difficulty the body has processing the foods.  And incomplete, inadequate or improvident digestion of food, or that which is ingested in the name of food, is a root cause of many diseases that afflict our population.

It is for that reason that I often say, if you're reading the list of ingredients in the name of protecting your health, you're already in trouble.  It doesn't matter what specific ingredients are in your food.  The more ingredients it has, the higher the probability that your body will be unable to properly and usefully digest all or part of it.  So far as energy and health are concerned, it's best to stick to simple, natural and fresh foods.  A fresh peach in season.  A simple salad of greens, tomatoes and sliced carrots.  Eating those sorts of things is a solid base for sound health.

Another challenge is to ask your third grader to describe or to ask yourself to explain to your third grader in detail exactly how it is that the food you are eating managed to find its way from wherever it is that living things arise to your plate.  Buddhists, before eating, pause to contemplate the 72 labors that went into their meal.  We definitely could learn something from this practice.

The meditation on the 72 labors could lead me in many directions here, but what I want to emphasize is that the meditation becomes impossible with respect to any modern, packaged, processed food.  Where does mono-sodium-glutamate come from anyway?  And, perhaps more importantly, what happens to it after it enters our bodies?  Where do sugar, or red food dye, or any of the unpronounceable preservatives come from?  How are they made?  Of what are they made?  How does the body process these?

Rather than eating ingredients in combinations, I try to stick to simple foods.  I eat fresh fruit.  I enjoy vegetables that were picked today.  On the rare occasions that I eat meat, I look for simple, unseasoned cuts that are harvested from a state of natural abundance.

In the end, this is what motivates me to grow my own food.  I want to know how my food arises from seed, to seedling, to young plant, to maturity with fruit.  Even if I can't grow any significant proportion of my food, growing at least some of it keeps allows me to watch the detailed and time-consuming process by which food arrives on my plate. It also teaches me the difference between good food and food that isn't so good.  Growing my food makes me a better food consumer and a consumer of simpler, more basic foods.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Getting Started

So many of my friends feel that growing their own food is an overwhelming task.  There is even a comment on my last entry about needing lessons.  Growing edible plants is not overwhelming and you don't need to be taught how to do it.  It involves four extremely simple steps.

First, acquire some seeds of edible plants.  If you live in Santa Monica ask me, I have some extras.  Or go to the local garden center and buy some of whatever they have left from the 2010 season.  This time of year the plants that I think would do best are peas, lettuces, radishes and turnips.  But don't take lessons from me.  Just get some seeds, any seeds.  That's step one.

Next, put the seeds in soil somewhere.  If you have a yard, maybe dig a little in the soil to loosen it up some.  If you don't have a yard, head down to the garden center and buy a pot and a bag of potting soil.  Just get the seeds in or even just on the soil somewhere.  You probably want to add a little water, but if you are a rebellious type, don't.  The main idea here is that you are the new farmer, you are bringing your own style to the process, you are going to do it your way, you are going to figure things out for yourself.  That's step two.

Now comes the hardest part, for me at least.  Watch.  Watch and see what happens.  Take note of your results.  Some people like to write everything down in a little notebook -- planted October 1; sprouted October 4; harvested Thanksgiving Day, for example -- but you don't have to.  It's your project, your experiment and you are free to shape it in your style.  But growing food takes time.  There are no drive thru gardens.  You have to put your order in months in advance.  That's step three.

Finally, repeat what works, discard what doesn't.  If your tomatoes didn't produce, try squash next year.  If your lettuce got fried by all-time record heat in late September, try eggplant next year.  There are innumerable things that can go wrong in a garden and more than one way for things to go right.  You are the one who is growing food at your precise location, with your precise soil so you will have to be the experiment of one that figures out what works and what doesn't under those conditions.  You can get feedback from other gardeners on sites such as or, but at the end of the day you will be the expert on what works in your particular conditions.

That's all there is to it.  Follow these four steps and you are a grower.  I am going to offer two hints, however, just to get you off to a happy start.  One:  plant way more seed than you think you need and thin out the excess to give the plants room to grow.  A single tomato plant produces over 10,000 seeds so you can see that nature's way is "Nothing exceeds like excess."  Two:  Set your sights low.  Sure I hope that someday your goal becomes to grow all your own food.  But start out by growing a single head of lettuce, or a week's worth of pea pods.  In no time at all you will progress to feeding your whole block!  If you want to.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Attack on the Front Lawn

Why do Americans generally, and for purposes of this blog, Santa Monicans specifically so value the neatly manicured grass patches in front of their house? According to Fritz Haeg, author of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, "The front lawn is an antiquated tradition that evolved with a way of living that doesn't exist anymore. Public lawns were trimmed by grazing animals, and hidden food gardens were maintained by slaves or underpaid staff living downstairs."

Not every lawn on my little cul de sac is well groomed grass, but none is devoted to producing edibles, either. We have a native plant landscape home a couple of doors to the south and neighbors who plant a Halloween pumpkin patch every year a couple of doors to the north. everyone else, us included, is caught in the web of peer pressure that keeps our front yards green and ungreen all at the same time.

It's approximately 1,000 square feet of space in front of my house and allowing for pathways I could have another 750 square feet of garden out there. What could I grow in a ten month Santa Monica growing season and 750 square feet of soil? A lot. Maybe 3,000 heads of lettuce (market value over $3,000). Maybe tens of thousands of radishes (market value near $1,000). Maybe 50 dozen heirloom tomatoes (market value approximately $1,500). Who knows how many green beans, pea pods, squash or eggplants?

"Well suppose someone comes along and steals the produce?" you ask. So what? I'm not getting any produce from the grass out there now. I'm just paying Flavio $80 a month to have his crew come in and keep it trimmed up.

"What will the neighbors say?" What I hope they would say is, "Can you show me how to do it too?" or "Do you have any bean seeds that you want to trade for tomato starts?" or "That was a really great Crane's melon that you gave me last week. So fresh and so good. What can I do for you?" Or pretty much anything at all.

Our lawns have become symbolic fortresses. "Keep off the grass" means don't approach me, give me my space, let me be, don't even make eye contact. I wonder if we can break down some of this defensiveness by daring to grow food in our front yards.

Fritz Haeg thinks so. Check out Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn today.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Working together to feed ourselves

My current community, Santa Monica, California is a seaside city with approximately 82,000 official residents and more than a few more unofficial residents. The climate is Mediterranean with cool summers and warm winters, relatively speaking. Temperatures rarely exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit or fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

And the residents of this Eden in America import well over 95% of all the food they eat. Meanwhile we spend exorbitant amounts of money on ornamental landscaping and upkeep. All of which seems an enormous waste of time, money, energy and other resources.

I mean, if we are going to plant a tree, why not plant an orange, fig or avocado tree and enjoy the fruits as well as the appearance? If we are going to plants a bushy shrub, why not plant tomatoes, beans or grapes? If we want vining ground cover, what about squash, pumpkins or melons? And if we want green on our lawns, how about lettuce, radishes and carrots?

There are lots of reasons, I suppose but I doubt if any of them or all of them added together suffice to make the case against growing our own. I think three primary factors prevent us from trying to grow our own food. First, we are afraid of failure. Or more specifically of getting our plants to grow out to almost harvest time only to have a garden pest come along and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Welcome to gardening. And second, on the complete other side, we are afraid of producing way too much and not knowing what to do with it. Ask my friend with her overwhelming fig tree and its over-production this season. Finally, we grow grass and other ornamentals out of habit, or peer pressure or both. We want to show off our opulence like the French monarchy of old, so we grow grass like they grew grass.

Here's my dream. Santa Monicans join together to grow and exchange their own foods using whatever resources are available to them. The City uses its land holdings to grow food instead of lawns. The schools use their land holdings to teach students how to grow and distribute food instead of providing employment for lawn care professionals. Homeowners pay their gardeners to produce food instead of grass clippings. And apartment dwellers get some containers and use their patios to grow a little food, instead of storing their rusting barbecue.

In the days, weeks and months ahead, I will be posting hints, tips and directions on producing and sharing our own food, grown fresh, right here in Santa Monica.