Articles in Gardening

Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.

Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.

Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.

The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.

I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.

It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.

“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.

“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.

Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.

“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.

Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.

Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.

Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”

This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.

In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.

The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.

And they taste better too.

Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

It’s the end of a long, wet and unusually cool summer in the Virginia mountains. And, to my joy, the water-logged soil yields more than the mildew spreading like talcum powder across my prolific yellow summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), also called crookneck squash.

About an hour before dinner, I pick half a dozen of the young, fresh squash — all no longer than 6 inches. Tiny hairlike spines on the broad leaves of the plant prick my fingers as I grab the first squash I see.

Mother Nature is ingenious in ensuring that species propagate by developing defense mechanisms such as strong odors or prickly thorns. With summer squash, the leaves’ spines are a good indication of freshness, which is useful when choosing produce at the supermarket. Also, this variety’s thin, fragile neck makes it somewhat difficult to ship commercially, so summer squash available at groceries have been bred to have shorter, wider “crooks” than the variety I grow in my garden.

Botanists believe squash, like the ones growing in my garden, originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Food historians credit Christopher Columbus, who voyaged to the New World in 1492, with helping to spread squash to the Old World by returning with squash seeds. Images of various New World squashes started to appear in Italian paintings around 1515.

Today, almost every cuisine in the world features squash — members of the gourd (Cucurbitaceae) family — in one form or another, be it the thicker-skinned varieties like pumpkin or the thinner-skinned varieties of zucchini or opo squash.

Summer squash a Southern staple

Yellow summer squash holds a special place in the repertoire of many Southern cooks in America. There’s the popular Stewed Squash and the old standby, Pickled Squash.

But another beloved Southern dish captured my fancy years ago: Squash Casserole, a gratin-like dish. Some cooks call it Baked Squash or Squash Pudding. Most recipes include a topping made from a sleeve of crushed buttery Ritz crackers, a quick answer to the problem of not having buttery bread crumbs on hand.

A favorite side dish at Southern family reunions and other celebrations, Squash Casserole comes in about as many shapes as there are cooks who make it.

Mary Randolph, linked to the Virginia gentry as a relative of Thomas Jefferson, wrote “The Virginia Housewife” (1824), considered the first cookbook of the American South by many culinary historians. Her cookbook influenced others, such as “The Kentucky Housewife” and “The Carolina Housewife.” And, just like Randolph, I usually like to keep things simple when it comes to summer squash. Translation: I never have Ritz Crackers, or bread crumbs for that matter, on hand.

Squash dish, made simple

In one of her two recipes for squash, Winter Squash, Randolph advocates boiling it and topping it with butter, simple enough treatments. I grew up eating yellow squash boiled with big chunks of bacon thrown in, a somewhat similar recipe.

For my dinner, I cut the squashes into small cubes, salt them, leave them in a colander for about 30 minutes to drain, and then rinse off the salt and dry the cubes. After heating a small amount of olive oil at high heat in my cast-iron skillet, I cook the pieces of squash until the cut edges brown. A twist of black pepper and a dash of smoked paprika and this side dish stands up well to most main courses, meat-based or vegetarian.

In the chill of late summer nights, I long for the filling heft of a casserole. Randolph’s other squash recipe, Squash or Cimlin — cimlin or “cymling” is an old-fashioned word for pattypan squash. Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” gives the following recipe, a somewhat close relative to modern Squash Casserole:

Gather young squashes, peel, and cut them in two; take out the seeds, and boil them till tender; out them into a colander, drain off the water, and rub them with a wooden spoon through the colander; then put them into a stew-pan, with a cupful of cream, a small piece of butter, some pepper, and salt, stew them, stirring very frequently until dry. This is the most delicate way of preparing squashes.

One interesting note: Randolph makes no mention of bacon fat in this recipe.

Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Bacon and squash, a tasty combination

One thing to remember about traditional Southern cooking is that pork, and pork fat, plays a starring role. History and circumstances dictate much of tradition when it comes to food habits. The American South is no different from France that way. Pigs fared better than cattle in the warm and humid Southern climate, fending for themselves in the forests. Pork could also be preserved better when salted and smoked as ham and bacon.

The following recipe incorporates a number of cooking techniques mentioned in “The Virginia Housewife” yet honors modern tastes and preparation methods. What remains constant is the delicate taste of the squash.

And the tang of bacon.

Yellow Squash au Gratin, Southern Style

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 side-dish servings

Ingredients

  • Butter or shortening for greasing
  • 5 to 6 cups yellow summer squash, cut into ½-inch slices
  • 4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or light olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely minced
  • 3 tablespoons green bell pepper, finely minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 1 cup grated Jack cheese
  • ¾ cup sour cream
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 1-quart, oven-proof baking dish with butter or shortening.
  2. Place the sliced squash in a medium saucepan; add water to cover. Add about ½ tablespoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Bring squash to a boil; cook for 10 minutes until just barely tender to the poke of a sharp knife. Drain squash until almost all the water is out.
  3. Put the bacon into a cast-iron skillet with the 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry until bacon is crisp. Remove bacon from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil from the skillet; sauté the onion and green pepper until lightly caramelized; add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from the skillet and mix with the bacon. Set aside.
  4. Add the onion mixture, cheese and sour cream to the hot squash; sprinkle in more salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a flexible spatula. Scrape squash mixture into prepared baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn off heat. Serve immediately.

Notes

You may substitute zucchini for the yellow squash. Or you can combine the two if you wish.

Main photo: Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

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Fresh ingredients from the garden. Credit: pilipphoto

Let the ingredients speak. It is something my Nana always urged. What better time than late summer and early fall to allow your garden to dictate your menu.

If you are growing vegetables, much of the wait is over. Cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, onions and much more are streaming in. Herbs, too, are abundant and running wild — tarragon, basil, lavender, mint, lemon balm, oregano, sage, rosemary, parsley, cilantro. The list is almost endless.

I want to hoard. I am afraid to eat it all for fear there will be no more. But I resist that instinct and step into the garden and let it speak to me. What is ripe right now? What can I preserve for the January meals? What do I want to eat and make right now with my garden bounty? And herein lies the secret — nothing is better than garden-to-table menu making and recipe creation.

Each day I peruse the garden and decide what’s for lunch or what’s for dinner. With the abundant zucchini and onions, and freshly laid chicken eggs, I whip up a simple frittata finished off with assorted herbs. It does the trick for lunch. A dinner could be a lamb burger, prepared with mint and rosemary, and served with an arugula and watermelon salad, and corn on the cob. Perhaps, I will turn tomatoes into a luscious sauce with basil and a touch of cream and serve over fettuccine. Or prepare stuffed peppers with black beans, rice and fresh herbs.

The trick is not to get bogged down with the recipe. Sometimes, if I need a little inspiration, I will page through a few cookbooks and even Google an ingredient. We are lucky to live during a time of readily available recipes. By reading several, it helps trigger creativity. I have included recipes with the hope that they serve as guides, not rules, to inspire you to discover the flavor profiles that work well together. I urge you to have at it in the kitchen. With the freshest of ingredients, you need not fear the results.

Carole Murko's Stuffed Peppers With Black Beans and Rice is inspired by garden-fresh vegetables. Credit: Carole Murko

Carole Murko’s Stuffed Peppers With Black Beans and Rice is inspired by garden-fresh vegetables. Credit: Carole Murko

How a recipe develops

The garden is producing food faster than we can eat it. Other than tomatoes, two of the most abundant crops are kale and corn. One day I had people over for dinner and didn’t have fixings for a green salad so I decided to use my kale. But kale is tough. I remembered reading that salt and lemon tenderized the kale … and the rest is history. My Corn and Kale Salad recipe was born. Simple, delicious and healthy.

Corn and Kale Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a side

Ingredients

  • 8 to 10 stalks of kale, stems removed and leaves cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 to 4 ears of leftover corn, kernels removed
  • 1 tablespoon minced tarragon
  • Pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Place kale in your serving bowl. Sprinkle sea salt all over kale and massage into the kale for 1 to 2 minutes. The massaging helps to tenderize the kale.
  2. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and set aside.
  3. When ready to serve, heat up butter in a skillet, add corn and sauté until warm and beginning to brown slightly. Add tarragon and then toss in with the kale.

An heirloom meal’s moment

My friend David Moore asked me to cook up a casual dinner, saying, “In the interest of this being an heirloom meal, I thought you should make corn pudding. It’s our family’s favorite heirloom food.” I said, no problem. I adapted his “non-recipe” into a workable one.

You can only imagine how surprised I was when Moore put the corn pudding on the table. I proclaimed, “Shouldn’t we wait until after the main course?” To which Moore responded, “It is part of the main course.” And I burst out laughing, admitting I thought it was dessert and I even made whipped cream to go on top.
 And boy was it delicious. This is a keeper and I was told it was better than his dad’s!

Corn Pudding

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a side

Ingredients
4 ears fresh corn shucked and cut off cob (or 3 to 4 cups frozen kernels, thawed)
4 farm fresh eggs
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoon organic sugar
½ stick butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons salt

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Butter a square 8-by-8-inch baking dish.
3. Blend all the ingredients in a food processor for about 3 to 5 minutes until corn is nicely blended while still retaining some texture. Pour into baking pan and bake until golden brown, about 35 to 45 minutes.
4. Cool and serve warm as a side or as dessert.

Tarragon Chive Pasta Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 8 servings as a side

Ingredients
1 pound tri-color rotini
¾ cup olive oil, divided; ¼ cup to toss with pasta, ½ cup for the dressing
1 cup scallions, sliced
¾ cup chives, minced
¼ cup tarragon, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ cup champagne vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste

Directions
1. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and toss in a large bowl with ¼ cup of olive oil. Cool. Add scallions, chives and tarragon.
2. Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, garlic, sugar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Slowly add in the ½ cup of olive oil in a stream until incorporated. Pour over pasta and mix.
3. Best if pasta sits at room temperature for at least 4 hours or chills overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Late Summer Roasted Heirloom Tomato Risotto

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 generous dinner servings or 6 side servings

Ingredients
1 quart cherry tomatoes, halved or 4 cups tomatoes, quartered
3 tablespoon olive oil
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 to 2½ tablespoons of butter or olive oil (I use both, 1-plus tablespoon butter, 1-plus tablespoon of olive oil)
¾ cup of a mix of shallots and onions, chopped 
(I used 2 shallots and 1 small onion)
2 cups of Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
8 cups chicken stock
1 cup Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
 Clean and halve the cherry tomatoes. 
Toss with olive oil, garlic, basil, salt and pepper. Spread over a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
 Roast for 25 minutes.
2. While tomatoes are roasting, heat butter and oil in a large saucepan or risotto pot over medium flame. When butter is melted, add chopped shallots and onions. Sauté for 2 to 4 minutes until translucent.
3. Add Arborio rice and stir to coat thoroughly with butter and oil; continue to sauté for another minute or so. Add white wine and stir until it is completely absorbed.
4. Next, begin the process that makes risotto creamy. Add a ladle of hot chicken broth and stir constantly until it is absorbed. Repeat until most, if not all, of the broth has been used and the rice is tender but not mushy.
5. Remove from heat, add the Parmesan cheese, fold in your tomatoes (which probably came out of the oven 5 minutes or so ago) and serve immediately.

Main photo: Fresh ingredients from the garden. Credit: iStockphoto / pilipphoto

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A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn

Across the lane from Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant lies a 3-acre farm that produces many of the fresh vegetables that have helped give the three-star restaurant its reputation as one of the best in the world.

Presiding over the rows of tomatoes, beets, melons, cucumbers and microgreens is culinary gardener Aaron Keefer. “We’re right across the street from the restaurant,” Keefer says, “and there’s this beautiful space that people are allowed to walk around. You can come up to the garden and see the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s funny how detached people are from what food actually is. People say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a potato grow before.’ ”

Keefer will preside over a different garden for a day when he gives the keynote address at the eighth annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Keefer has become a fan of the president who has been called “The Founding Foodie,” and whose revitalized Revolutionary Garden at Monticello continues Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables. Keefer says his garden at The French Laundry mirrors Jefferson’s 2-acre garden at Monticello in many ways.

Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello


Part 1: Aaron Keefer and Thomas Jefferson

Part 2:  Gardeners and chefs converge at Monticello (coming later in September)

Keefer is always experimenting with new vegetable varieties in the garden and believes that vegetables — and the farmers who raise them — have become an exciting new resource for chefs. He explains, “I think that it’s coming around now and vegetables are really becoming the star of the flavor profiles on a plate. Every single starred restaurant out there — and really even other people — are using their relationships with farmers to get new inspiration and to create these new dishes for themselves.”

At home in the kitchen and the garden

Keefer is not only a resource for chefs, but also a liaison between the garden and the kitchen at The French Laundry. As a former chef, Keefer is uniquely qualified for his job as culinary gardener. As Keefer puts it, “I think it definitely helped me to be in the kitchen, even though it’s a completely different animal, but I think the thing to take home from having both careers is the communication. I know what’s going on on both sides of the equation, and I’m able to meld them together a little better.”

Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener at The French Laundry. Credit: Courtesy of TKRG

Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener at The French Laundry. Credit: Courtesy of TKRG

Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, believes that The French Laundry “captures Jefferson’s spirit of innovation and experimentation.” The focus for both gardens is curiosity and passion.

Jefferson felt strongly about gardening. He grew 330 herb and vegetable varieties in his 1,000-foot-long garden terrace at Monticello and raised 170 varieties of fruit on his property. He encouraged others to garden with similar passion by hosting an annual contest with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first peas each spring. To further fuel his neighbors’ passion for gardening, he made sure one of them won the contest — even if his peas were the early champions of the season.

Keefer also shares Jefferson’s passion for the soil itself. In 1792 while serving as secretary of state in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Martha who was caring for Monticello’s garden in his absence. Jefferson told Martha that the only way to rid his garden of insect-infested plants was to cover it with a heavy coating of manure. When I mentioned Jefferson’s obsession with soil to Keefer, he echoed Jefferson’s sentiments, saying, “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the soil. You can give your plants chemical-based fertilizers and they will grow. Just like if you give your muscles steroids, they will grow. But it’s not the same.”

Peas sprouting in Jefferson's garden in springtime. Credit: Susan Lutz

Peas sprouting in Jefferson’s garden in springtime. Credit: Susan Lutz

Keefer believes that the flavor in vegetables comes from the cycle of life in the soil. “When you take a handful or two of really truly rich organic soil, there will be millions of microorganisms and fungi in there. And those are the things that create the nutrition for the plant. They need the life in the soil to break it down for them so they can uptake it and somehow that creates a completely different flavor profile.”

The lesson of Jefferson

Jefferson didn’t have access to chemical-based nutrients — and chances are he wouldn’t have wanted them. Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contends that what made Jefferson a truly revolutionary gardener was his belief that everyone should eat a diversified diet — a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. Now, America has begun to catch up with the founding farmer. Rausse says, “Today I look at the market and I think of what Jefferson had. I compare it to when I came to America 40 years ago, and I think finally they are listening to Jefferson. There are artichokes and chicory at the market now. People are starting to figure it out, but it took 200 years.”

Keefer’s revolutionary approach to gardening mixes the great traditions of heirloom farming techniques with the innovations of West Coast cuisine. Jefferson would have approved.

Main photo: A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn

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The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber's garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

As a gardener who looks forward each year to eating my homegrown tomatoes, I have been bitterly disappointed when squirrels and other small animals either pick all of the tomatoes while still green and toss them around the yard, or snatch and eat ripening ones just before I get to them.

This has been going on year after year, but each spring, ever hopeful, I plant yet another tomato garden. My usual line of defense has been to use Havahart traps that sometimes catch the thieving culprits, but this method has become tiresome and creepy. It involves picking up a heavy trap loaded with an angry animal, getting it into the trunk of my car, and then driving for at least 10 miles to a wooded area where I release the animal, hoping it will not find its way back to my house.

But this year, I have found a different solution for protecting my tomato patch. I bought a Bell & Howell Solar Animal Off, a device that comes with a built-in stake that I have positioned in the garden in front of the tomato plants. When approached, the device emits both an eerie high-pitched sound that only animals can hear along with a strobe light that shoots off a blinding glare when anything comes near. Each morning I run out of my house to check on ripening fruit and have been amazed and relieved to find every plant intact.

Tomatoes are just the start

This got me thinking that humans too could be well served by a protective device that could repel danger or be helpful in other ways that would make life easier. I could see wearing such a gadget into a supermarket where it would blink and beep if a food I was thinking of buying contained trans fats or, in my case, cilantro. The machine I envision could be customized so that people with allergies would be warned about peanuts and such, and the gluten sensitive protected from that substance. Most important, the device would be programmed to alert us to the existence of dangerous microbes in food that could lead to illness.

In a more positive way, my machine could function somewhere between a personal assistant and a doting grandmother by picking out just the right produce in the market. I never can tell which cantaloupe in a pile will be exactly as I like it — barely ripe and sweet but not over-the-hill and mushy. Picking out pineapples is also a challenge. They too can be overripe and unappetizing, and I never can tell which one to buy. When my favorite store offers four kinds of peaches, I am at a loss as to which will be sweet and juicy and not hard and bland, but my gadget would know. I would also use it to select cheese that is at its height of flavor.

When medium rare means medium rare

The machine’s help in restaurants would be another huge service. It would do a calorie count of the dishes I contemplate and report on the existence of ingredients it knew I disliked. Again, cilantro detection would be especially appreciated, for then I might venture forth into Thai or Mexican restaurants without fear of being assaulted by that herb I cannot tolerate. The device would know whether the steak or chop I ordered was cooked as I requested before I cut into it, thus taking the edge off any disappointment. And I hope that it would be helpful in checking bills and figuring out tips, freeing me from dealing with arithmetic, my worst subject in grade school.

The cone’s the thing

I would like to think that my machine could protect people from all sorts of danger. I am reminded of the time when a good friend’s dog — a huge Malamute named Buddha — used to position himself outside the door of a Brigham’s ice cream shop in my town, waiting for people with ice cream cones to come out. Small children and little old ladies were particularly vulnerable. Buddha’s nudges would knock the cones out of their hands, allowing him to scarf down the scoops of ice cream lying on the ground. If only these victims could have been warned, these messy scenes could have been avoided.

A dairy dose of wisdom

I can think of other helpful tasks for my machine. I would ask it to keep track of all of the foods stored in my freezers to remind me which ones to use first. And I would like it to warn me when the milk in my refrigerator has gone bad, which usually happens before the date stamped on the box. I find out only when I pour it into my morning coffee, watch it curdle, and then have to toss the whole thing down the drain.

These days, when we are surrounded by a glut of information about food, often with conflicting advice, we could use a defender that could cut through the yammering and lead us on the path that’s right for us. I am grateful to have found a device that protects my tomato plants from marauders and only wish I too could have a guardian that protects me from all of the food-related issues I face each day. And, for that, no computer programmer’s algorithm will do.

Main photo: The gadget that stands guard in Barbara Haber’s garden. Credit: Barbara Haber

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The pop-up Gin & Tonics Garden at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

With the world’s largest collection of living plants, and its scientists working around the globe to preserve biodiversity, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London is internationally renowned for its conservation work. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that its 300-acre grounds harbor the ingredients for some darn good cocktails.

“Sweet cicely, or garden myrrh, is very fragrant, but it also has a natural sweetness so it’s good to pair with rhubarb,” says Jo Farish, founder of the Gin Garden, as she hands over a Strawberry Cup. The beguiling early summer concoction of strawberry-infused gin, homemade rhubarb-and-sweet-cicely cordial, and lemon juice is garnished with fresh strawberries, cucumber and edible flowers.

Summertime gin garden

The Gin Garden’s summer residence at Kew Gardens, where Farish and her team have turned a small greenhouse into a jungle-like bar serving up gin cocktails and tonics on weekends (Friday through Sunday) and British bank holidays, offers plenty of inspiration for mixologists.

“We’re taste-testing new ingredients as they come into season —  we’ve been infusing cherry gin, with more fruits and berries coming up, and the lavender and Roman chamomile growing over there will be used in drinks when they’re ready,” Farish says.

The cocktail menu, which changes weekly, “uses bits and pieces from the Kew Gardens, but we can’t use too much,” she says. “The ingredients are all things that are grown here, but these plants have to be preserved.”

Serving drinks based on what’s growing nearby is the focus of the Gin Garden, which Farish started in fall 2012 after a successful trial run making apple martinis for an event at a historic house and garden run by the U.K.’s National Trust from the apples, lavender and honey on the property’s grounds.

Her company, which has taken its traveling botanical bar to museums, flower shows, design fairs and other locations in and around London, melds Farish’s background in event planning and garden design — and, she says, some very British sensibilities.

Do-it-yourself gin

“British people are real gardeners and lots of people make their own gin. The two go hand in hand,” Farish says. “People are used to preserving (food) and having something to get through the winter.” She assures urban dwellers with more limited space that plenty of cocktail ingredients are easy to cultivate in a window box.

In addition to its pop-up bars, the Gin Garden also offers workshops on growing botanical ingredients at home and making infusions and syrups.

To make the infused gin that forms the base of  its refreshing Kew-cumber cocktail, for example, Farish recommends slicing up cucumbers like you would for a sandwich, filling up a Mason jar halfway with the vegetables and topping it off with gin.

“Sip it the next morning and see how it tastes,” Farish says. “If the flavor isn’t strong enough, just close the jar up and try it again the next morning.”

bottlesofwater

bottlesofwater
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Cocktail ingredients at the ready in the Gin & Tonics Garden, including fresh strawberries and gooseberries and The Herball's aromatic waters. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

A Gooseberry & Fennel cocktail is made from gin infused with the fennel that grows wild along the coast of Norfolk, in the east of England. The drink has a subtly acidic bite — and plenty of health benefits. “Gooseberries have vitamins A, B, C and antioxidants; they were actually used to ward off scurvy before citrus fruit was available in the U.K.,” Farish says.

The temporary Gin & Tonics Garden at Kew is part of the botanic garden’s summertime “Plantasia” festival, which includes a variety of activities, from a healing plants tour to a barefoot walk. The activities are aimed at introducing visitors to plants’ benefits “for body, mind, and soul.”

Benefit of plants

The passiflora tincture in the Rose Garden cocktail, for example, is said to be good for anxiety, while the namesake ingredient in the Elderflower Fizz is said to improve resistance to allergens. Angelica root, one of the six botanicals in the No. 3 London Dry Gin used to make the Kew cocktails, has long been employed in traditional medicine as a treatment for digestive issues.

“Nearly all plants have some kind of health benefit,” says Farish, who prefers to use a masticating or cold-press juicer for serious cocktail-making because it preserves more of the nutrients in fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Some of the Gin Garden’s drinks get an extra boost from a spritz of aromatic water before serving. The water is applied over the top of the glass with an old-fashioned perfume atomizer. Made by the London-based company The Herball, these aromatic waters are distilled using the same method as gin itself, retaining the complete essence of herbs and flowers like the chamomile spritzed over the Strawberry Cup or the geranium, rose and lavender that add a floral twist to the otherwise classic G&T.

“There are so many botanicals you can use with gin. It’s pretty limitless,” Farish says, mentioning her recent discovery of a small distillery in Cornwall that makes a violet leaf gin. “You really have free reign with ingredients compared to other drinks.”

Though gin is often thought of as a summertime tipple, Farish is already thinking ahead to the chillier seasons to come after the Kew pop-up bar closes its doors Sept. 7. “I’d like to do a winter gin garden,” she says. “Gin makes a great hot toddy with warming winter herbs and spices like ginger, sage and thyme.”

The Kew-cumber

Ingredients

  • 7 parts (35 milliliters) cucumber-infused No. 3 London Dry Gin (infuse your gin with sliced cucumbers for 48 hours)
  • 1 part (5 milliliters) lime juice
  • 1 part (5 milliliters) basil and mint syrup (simmer water and sugar to form a simple syrup then add herbs, keep on heat for 5 minutes, strain and bottle)
  • Top with freshly pressed (juiced) cumber juice that has been diluted with sparkling water -- 1 part cucumber juice to 10 parts sparkling water

Directions

  1. Fill a highball glass with ice and add the ingredients above, stir, garnish with a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint.

* Recipe courtesy Jo Farish. Find more recipes at The Gin Garden.

Main photo: The pop-up Gin & Tonics Garden at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Lavender is ready for harvest when most of its brilliant purple flowers have emerged. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

A little lavender goes a long way in the kitchen. But use too much and that floral essence you love from one of the world’s most versatile culinary herbs might turn a dish to something as welcome as a perfume-soaked Chatty Cathy on a long-haul flight.

Below are seven ways to use lavender in a manner that will enhance, not overpower.

Preparing the flowers

A member of the mint family, lavender grows in upright, evergreen shrubs that might reach as tall as 3 feet and as wide as 4 feet. The bushes are fragrant on their own, but summer is when lavender stems shoot up, blossoming in tight, brilliantly purple flowers. These flowers will produce the most pungent and aromatic additions to your experiments in the kitchen, lending a perfume that mingles well with the flavors of the season.

Now is the time to let your dreams of cottage life in Provence come to life, no matter where you live. If you have access to one of the many wonderful lavender farms popping up in the United States, such as Hill Country Lavender in Blanco, Texas, Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm near Albuquerque, N.M., or the English Lavender Farm in Applegate, Ore., you can pick your own. Better yet, you might be growing it in your backyard. Note: If you buy lavender from a farm for culinary use, be sure to ask whether it was grown with pesticides. You don’t want to eat it if it was grown using pesticides.

If you grow lavender, here’s the steps to preparing the flowers:

  • Harvest the lavender. The blossoms are ready when the brilliant purple flowers have emerged and have not yet begun to wilt. If you are cutting lavender yourself, cut the stalks a few inches above the plant’s woody growth and gather the lavender into a bunch. Tie it together.
  •  Dry the lavender. At this point, you can use it fresh, or you can hang it up or lay it flat to dry it. Note: If you are cooking with fresh lavender, use three times the number of flowers as in a dried lavender recipe.
  •  De-stem the lavender. You can use the whole stalk in cooking, but many people prefer to remove the flowers from the stalk and store them separately.
  •  Store it well. Store lavender in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. A Mason jar is a good choice.

Lavender farm

Lavender farm
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At Los Poblanos, a historic inn and lavender farm near Albuquerque, N.M., several acres of lavender are processed into lavender oil and culinary lavender. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

7 ideas for eating and drinking your lavender

Lavender works a lot like rosemary — a little can create a great perfume. But just as with all scents, too much can overpower. Use it sparingly, and adjust the amount of lavender according to your specific palate.

Lavender butter

Take a stick (½ pound) of room-temperature butter and top it with a tablespoon of dried, ground (if desired) lavender. Mix the lavender and butter together in a bowl. Chill it for a few days to let the lavender flavor develop. Use it with honey atop your favorite biscuit, scone or other baked good.

Lavender sugar

Use about 1 tablespoon dried lavender for every 2 cups of sugar. Grind the lavender in a food processor for about 15 seconds to develop the lavender flavor. Add a cup of granulated sugar to the process and blend well, about three or four quick presses on a Cuisinart. Store the lavender sugar in an airtight container such as a Mason jar and use it in all of your favorite sweet baking recipes that call for sugar.

Lavender vodka

Using a funnel, drop about a ¼ cup lavender flowers into a bottle of your favorite vodka. Take out the funnel and close the bottle. Shake, so the flowers mix throughout. Store in the freezer for three days. Strain the vodka into a separate container, using a fine-mesh sieve, a cheesecloth or a paper towel. Squeeze the bundle with the flowers in it to extract as much lavender flavor as possible. Pour the vodka back in the bottle and store in your freezer for use in a lavender vodka tonic with a splash of lime.

Lavender balsamic vinaigrette

Lavender can add a quick, floral kick to any basic vinaigrette recipe. In vinaigrette recipes calling for a combination of balsamic vinegar, oil, honey and ground pepper, add 1 tablespoon of fresh lavender (or a third of that of dried) for every 1½ cups of vinaigrette.

Lavender-roasted chicken

Create a rub for roasted chicken using about a tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1½ tablespoons dried lavender, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and 1 tablespoon honey.

Lavender and blueberry anything

Lavender and blueberry are fast friends, and in many parts of the country appear at the same time. Try putting lavender sugar into your favorite blueberry cobbler at the height of the season, bake some lavender directly into blueberry lavender scones, or infuse some milk with lavender and pour it atop fresh blueberries. About half a teaspoon of lavender is usually a good fit with a pint of fruit.

Salmon and lavender

Create a rub of lime zest and lime juice from two limes, ½ teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon dried lavender, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Rub the seasoning mix on salmon fillets and bake as you would in your favorite salmon recipe.

 Main photo: Lavender is ready for harvest when most of its brilliant purple flowers have emerged. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.

The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.

As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.

Five reasons to love fennel

  1. It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves  — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
  2. Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
  3. Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
  4. Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
  5. Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer.  Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.

Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off  the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”

Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings as a side dish

Ingredients

6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered

2 tablespoons butter

freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.

2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.

3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.

4. Sprinkle on the cheese.

5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.

Fennel Salad

You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 0 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline

Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional

Juice of one lemon

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.

2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.

3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.

4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.

Main photo:  Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

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