Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Looking at Weeds in a New Way

I have dandelions in my yard.  Not just one here and there that can be easily removed by digging.  No - I have lots of them.  There are some places where they grow better than grass.  That's how it is.

I also have this:

My neighbors have no dandelions or any other broad-leafed plant mixed with their turfgrass, but that's because they coat their lawns with toxic chemicals.  It's their choice, and I have to hope that none of it filters into my yard.   It's a pretty polarized debate, weeds vs chemicals.  I stand firm against poisons and neurotoxins.

My dad has taken his side, too.  "Aren't you doing to do something about those dandelions?" he asked me on his spring visit.  Just to be sure that I got his point, he snarled, "They're the eyesore of the neighborhood!"  (I think that the unmaintained house with peeling paint and the trash can by the front door probably qualifies for that.)

I actually like the look of my meadow-like yard, full of flowers (yes, some of them yellow dandelion flowers) and bees and other life.   The dandelion flowers buzz with bees and the seeds provide food for finches and sparrows.  The creeping charlie yields to footsteps with a minty aroma and hosts bees all summer long.  It's also drought-tolerant, stays lower than grass between mowings, and doesn't seem to be a source of allergies, as most grasses are.  White clover is the ultimate ground cover, and I am seeding more of it in my yard.  Yes, that's right: I bought clover seeds.  Violets, among my favorite spring flowers, are spreading in the shady areas.

Dandelions have long tap roots and this is the root of why we have them here in the U.S.  They were brought by early European settlers as a food plant.  Gardeners will easily understand the value of a perennial, impossibly hardy, food-producing plant!  The tap root makes them highly nutritious, as the plant is able to pull nutrients from deep in the soil.  I regard them as good fertilizers for the lawn, when the leaves are chopped by the lawnmower and left to compost on the yard.  Clover interspersed with turf grass will also fertilize the ground: as a legume, it has the capability to fix nitrogen from the air.  To read more about clover lawns (clover + turf grass), look here.

Why are these useful plants demonized and poisoned?  It can't be because they are invasive.  No, that applies foremost to turf grass, which I can't seem to get rid of in my vegetable or flower gardens.  Its roots snake along inches below the surface and it can grow through an amazing amount of stuff: my vegetable garden paths are lined with newspaper, then cotton rags, then landscape fabric, then 2-3 inches of mulch.  Unbelievably, the grass is growing through all of that.

Turf grass requires endless mowing.  People fertilize and herbicide it regularly.  It's not drought-tolerant and results in millions of gallons of potable water dumping every year for the sake of a green lawn (if you're watering your lawn, reconsider!  It just means that it requires mowing more often!).

So the next time you see a weed in your lawn, consider whether it might actually be a more useful plant than the grass it is displacing.   What are its good characteristics?  Anything can be a weed in the wrong place, and  some plants - such as hayfever-inducing ragweed - always are.

Eventually, I hope that we will have minimal turf grass in our yard, but it'll be a long and difficult journey.  I hope to replace it with little bluestem and other prairie grasses in the dry areas, and mostly clover in the more lush areas.  Vegetable and fruit plants have taken up some space, and we plan to build a chicken coop this summer.  Meanwhile, I'm left with the dandelion seed heads that are a reminder of all that work to come.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stress and your Heart

The BBC reported today that "Women under 50 'face work stress risk.'

In particular,
"After accounting for risk factors such as smoking and diabetes, the researchers found that those who described pressure at work as "much too high" were 35% more likely to have developed heart disease than those who were comfortable with the pressure.
But when they broke the results down by age, they found it was only the women aged 50 and under who were affected significantly."

The full text of the medical journal article is available (free) here

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Gardening Links

Have you planted your garden yet?  The season is about a month ahead of a typical year here in Minnesota - I'm already cutting asparagus!  Here are some of the gardening references I've found to be useful for both food-producing plants and landscaping. 

Gardening calendar: gardening activities by season

Vegetable planting dates from the University of Minnesota Extension
Planting the vegetable garden - soil preparation and spring planting dates
Planting Vegetables in Midsummer for Fall Harvest

Growing fruits
More gardening articles about particular vegetables, fruits, and herbs

Gardening information sheets with information on specific plants, pollinators, and more.

Small Plot and Intensive Gardening from Perdue University, with tips about how to maximize food production from a small space.   The University of Arizona also has reference information about intensive gardening.  Although your climate might vary greatly, Arizona has a short growing season due to the extreme midsummer heat, so there are some similarities.

Extending the growing season - learn about cold frames and row covers.

Companion planting references here and here.

Preparing vegetables for freezing
Preparing fruits for freezing

Canning (more)
National Center for Food Preservation with more information including drying, pickling, etc. 

Soil testing and amending soils

Dividing perennials

Best plants for tough sites (including deer-resistant plants)

Monday, May 3, 2010

School Lunch, Real Food, and Politics

School lunch has been discussed more this year than any other in my memory, given the activity in Congress for increasing funding and updating standards as well as Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. The NY Times reported that "the new standards will require more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and, for the first time, limit the amount of calories in each meal." I'm glad there is energy toward improving school lunches, but my personal opinion is that the changes that are described here are not the ones that are most urgent.

When I look at the menus & published nutritional analysis for the local elementary school, I see some meals that are ok and some that are really loaded with sodium and sugar (the fat content is largely under control, and there minimal to no trans-fats), and far too many things that are filled with flour. Many of the meals are a total carb rush that would leave most adults in a stupor, not prepared for an afternoon of work (example: one day I witnessed a meal of French toast sticks with artificially-flavored (HFCS) syrup, a white-flour dinner roll, and fruit... sugar overload). In my opinion, the first step should be reducing sugars and sodium, if our district's meals are typical. Yes to water with lunch. But no to just skim milk! It has more sugars (lactose) than 2%. Better to cut milk entirely and recognize it as the food that it is, not a beverage.

Most of our school's meals include "whole grains" - in the breading that is on the (frozen and reheated, but baked, not fried) meat-based products. Whole grains as flour aren't the same as whole grains. When our school serves rice, it's white rice, and when they serve rolls, they are extremely bleached - so when they say that meals include whole grains, it's a very minor inclusion. I think that massive reform is needed, not just changes to the existing program. Start from the ground and build a new program - based on real nutrition knowledge, and not run by the USDA or based on its guidelines. The Mediterranean diet is widely touted for promoting health - but it is absent from our cafeteria.

I've been in a couple of meetings with the nutritionists for our school district. They have to walk a pretty fine line. They have a budget they have to meet (and schools everywhere are in the red these days, so there's not an extra penny to be had), they have to meet USDA guidelines (which may or may not actually promote health, depending on your point of view), none of our schools have actual cooking kitchens, so they have to buy prepped stuff for warming, and they claim the kids won't eat anything that isn't familiar to them.

[I see the greatest flexibility on the last point. Most hungry kids will eat. I don't think the schools are going to even try foods that are likely to be totally unfamiliar, such as artichokes or risotto (yes, the kids are missing out, aren't they!). I am not suggesting they serve the kids steamed beet greens over quinoa. I am suggesting that they get creative. Surely these kids have seen foods other than hamburgers and pizza in their lifetimes.]

Anyway, in our district at least, the nutritionists are in a bit of a corner, and rather than admitting this, they tend to get defensive. It's a difficult topic for discussion. They feel they've made vast improvements in the past decade; while this may be true, there are many people (myself included, obviously) who feel that there is still a broad chasm between what we have and what would be a healthy lunch.

School lunches cost almost $2.50/day. I can pack my daughter's lunch for about $0.60/day, which includes organic fruit.

Why shouldn't school lunch just be lunch? For schools that can't cook, sandwiches on *real* whole grain bread with low sugar and some sliced fruits and vegetables would be familiar foods to everyone, and would cost a lot less than the processed things they are currently serving - various forms of chicken nuggets, ground beef, pizza, pancakes, and hot dogs. I know that part of the motivation for school lunch is that some kids don't get a complete meal, but seriously now - chicken nuggets are no more a meal than a sandwich is.

OK, ranting about school lunches aside - I am glad that ABC is airing "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," and I hope that it wakes up parents across the country.

I hope that it helps people realize that what they eat has a huge impact on their health, and their kids' health. I hope it spurs some dietary change - but I don't know that it will. I think that anything on TV is still somewhat abstract for most viewers. Will they connect that boy's pre-diabetic condition with the food they eat next time they go to a fast food place? Or with the sweetened yogurt in their fridge? Or the white bread toast or bagel they had for breakfast? I don't know.

What's the best way to teach people to cook, and eat, vegetables? For people who grew up eating fast food or canned foods combined in casseroles, a head of cauliflower or an eggplant might be a daunting object.

Learning to cook takes time. I grew up watching my mom cook, so by the time I hit college I was probably better off than many kids in that regard - but during the many years that I worked full time, my cooking abilities were really limited compared to now, when I can concoct a meal from whatever's in the fridge with little notice and no recipes. And now that I really can cook, it takes me a lot less time than it used to when I needed to follow recipes.

I eat lunch with my daughter at school from time to time. I always pack my lunch. One day one of her classmates asked me if I liked chicken nuggets. I said no. Cheeseburger? No. Hamburger? No. At this point she was clearly having problems thinking of what we must eat, if we didn't eat any of those things. Unfortunately, I think that may be the situation of many families and children.

I think that encouraging people to eat raw, prepped veggies or salad might be a way to start, because of the time factor - but they do cost more in that form. Frozen vegetables are healthy and a time-saver - and often cost less than fresh, too, especially if you consider they are already trimmed and 100% usable (e.g. frozen cauliflower is just the florets, and no huge stem to dispose of). Could restaurants or community education programs offer free cooking classes? If so, when is the best time for working parents or low-income families? What ideas do you have for helping our next generation to be healthy?