An Ecological Mexican American Chica:
Doing all she can to live sustainably in body, soul, and on this planet earth.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lessons from the Dirt

After buying most of our food at the Sustainable Food Center’s Farmers’ Market in Sunset Valley every Saturday morning since October 2010, we were inspired to take “eating local” one step further. Why not eat right from our own backyard? Last spring, we started our first full-blown vegetable garden. In the past, I had grown herbs and native perennials, most of which had the inherent capacity to grow wild with very little water and tending. We had big plans for this next one.

Start of overly ambitious vegetable garden, Spring 2011
We built a 2 x 7 raised garden bed with square foot plots, and we dusted off the six terra cotta pots we’d been storing in the garage. We hauled in sacks of pure organic dirt and compost from The Natural Gardener. By reading their info sheet on effective planting combinations and asking a ton of questions, we decided to get the following seeds: two kinds of carrot, potato, two kinds of chard, corn, melon, two kinds of radish, and bush bean. We also bought various seedlings: two kinds of lettuce, two kinds of pepper, four kinds of tomato, two kinds of lettuce, and two kinds of strawberry.

After reading the directions on the back of the seed packets, we determined that the instructions were meant for much larger plots of land and that we had been too ambitious, both in the quantity and variety of seed. We did the math in our head, liberally scattered the seeds, and wished for good things to grow. Even though one of the experienced vegetable farmers at The Natural Gardener warned us that we “weren’t doing a good job unless we killed a few things,” we were resolved to grow bountiful crops of everything that would not only feed us, but maybe even feed our neighbors and friends, should the end of the world (or the demise of the American dollar) happen upon us.

One of five strawberries harvested, Spring 2011
We built a frame over the garden bed and the pots, and we covered them all with bird netting to keep the cardinals and blue jays away. We carefully sheltered them under a sheet during the recent freezes that snuck back when we were absolutely sure spring was in full season. We watered them once, sometimes twice a day, and hand-picked the bugs off the leaves to avoid using any harmful chemicals. We propped up the lazy plants and spoke kindly to them to give them encouragement.

But we forgot one thing. That life is not perfect, even if you do all the right things and follow all the rules. Learning to garden successfully, just like playing a concerto or running a marathon, takes a lot of time and patience. And as we’d been cautioned, we needed to be willing to fail and make notes from our mistakes.

Measly, stringy carrots, Spring 2011
Because we had planted so many carrot and radish seeds too close together, they resulted in a bunch of scrawny roots when we harvested them. We were too eager to try our potatoes because the instructions said they’d be ready after 60 days, so we dug out one of the plants only to get pecan-sized tubers. The tomatoes and peppers did well because each plant had its own giant pot with plenty of space to take root. The chards didn’t do so badly either – we’d been more frugal with scattering their seed so the plants did not crowd each other out. And close to 90 days after planting them, we dug up another crop of potatoes with much better results since we’d given them more time to grow.

Last fall, we decided to be less ambitious. We narrowed down our crops to chard, kale, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, and carrots. And we waited, and waited, and waited. Maybe the dirt was thirsty and couldn't do much for us, after the historical 10-month drought. But then the rains came early this year, and it rained, and rained, and rained more than we'd seen in a long time.

Carrots, chard, and the "accidental" lettuce, Spring 2012
A bit late in the season, all our fall vegetables have finally come to fruition. Although we lost the kale to the aphids, the cabbage to the caterpillars, and the spinach just never grew, we have more chards than we can eat ourselves, and they're fleshy and savory. Our carrots and broccoli didn't yield much, but they were the most delicious I've ever had, crispy, juicy and sweet. And then, as a complete surprise, we got a massive crop of what we call the "accidental lettuce" - butter head and red sail lettuce from last spring that had re-seeded itself.

From our second attempt at a vegetable garden, we've had enough lettuce to share entire bags of pickings with friends and neighbors. We still can't feed the world, but we're one step closer. And imagine if we all had backyard gardens - just imagine how many people we could feed. All it takes is dirt, water, sun, and a lot of patience, dedication, and love.

Plenty of lettuce to share with friends and neighbors, Spring 2012

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Returning the Farmers Market – El Mercado – to the Hispanic Community

Fresh vegetables at Mercado Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Mexico
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, my memory of grocery shopping with my mother was going to the Vons in South El Monte. It was sort of like Texas’ version of H-E-B, except with a more distinct Hispanic flair (in 1984, William Davila became the first Mexican American CEO of an American supermarket chain). Since then, that supermarket has been replaced by Superior Grocers, or “La Superior” as we call it in my old ‘hood.

But my first experience going to a farmers market wasn’t until the late 1980s, when I went on an 8th grade school field trip to Exposition Park to visit the great museums of Southern California. For lunch, they took us to the “original” Farmers Market in downtown Los Angeles, on 3rd and Fairfax, in operation since the mid-1930s.

Read the rest of the article in Latinometro.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Natural Allergy and Cold Remedies

Anyone who has ever lived in Central Texas for a few years has experienced the misery - or known someone who has - of the dreadful cedar fever. This hideous allergy creeps up in December, and by January, it's going full force, making people believe they have the flu. Some even claim it's literally attacking them in horror film fashion, like The Fog or the Swamp Thing.

Some people hide out at home, or wear face masks, and others leave the area for a month - some move away altogether. Others take cortizone shots, if they have good health insurance, and other overdose on over-the-counter allergy medicine. I've never taken shots (no health insurance since 2006), and I've never had the luxurious option of temporarily living elsewhere. (Although one day, I am hoping to be sustainably self-employed and have my off-grid home built in Terlingua, Texas.) And to be honest, most years, I'm only very lightly affected, with occasional sneezing and sniffles throughout January.

But there have been some years, I've simply had to take something, otherwise, I couldn't sleep at night or properly function at work. I tried all varieties of Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec - the plain one and the one with decongestant. The 12-hour kind and the 24-hour kind. The generic variety and the brand name variety. The gel capsules, tablets, liquids, and powder packets. After rotating through all of them, I never quite figured out which worked best. Sometimes, the non-decongestant varieties didn't work at all.

Pharmaceutical cocktail and Sleepytime tea owned by the corporate Hain Celestial Group

I did figure out, however, that the "D" version of any of these allergy medications made me horribly jittery. That's why they make you show your driver's license and sign off when you purchase it - thanks to speed addicts who figured out how to use pseudoephedrine as an ingredient. And then I started thinking, what other unnoticeable side effects are these drugs possibly causing? According to the FDA's own website, "Most drugs that undergo preclinical (animal) testing never even make it to human testing and review by the FDA." No thank you, FDA, I don't really want to be your human guinea pig.

So what then?

I started using homeopathic antihistamine drops and Activated Quercetin, which you must start taking several months before allergy season hits for maximum effectiveness. I developed tasty recipes for Ginger Tea and Chicken Soup (see below) after researching natural immune system boosters. These are also good when you feel a cold coming on. I also started drinking lots of raw kombucha tea and taking vitamin C.

The verdict - I think it worked! This past cedar season, I was starting to have pretty serious allergy reactions. One Saturday night, I felt as if my head were going to explode, and I was ready to don a hatchet and chop down all the cedar trees in Texas. Even though I didn't remember to start taking the drops until halfway through December, after religiously using them and a regular intake of my famous Ginger Tea and Chicken Soup, my symptoms subsided. For several weeks after I was over the cedar, others were still suffering.

Fighting off cedar allergies is definitely not a science. Who knows, maybe next year, my preventives and remedies won't work like they did this year. At any rate, it's a delicious way to get through the cedar season, and I'm at least confident that I'm not poisoning my body. What's your favorite cedar remedy?

Old timey and natural cold and allergy remedies

Ginger Tea
  • 10-20 slices of raw ginger
  • 2 cups of water
Bring to a boil - simmer for 15 minutes at low-medium heat
Strain into a cup
Add desired amount of raw honey
Add desired amount of fresh lemon juice

Chicken Broth Soup
  • Homemade chicken stock (it's really easy - buy a whole broiler chicken for dinner one night, and when all the meat is gone, throw the bones in a pot with onions, thyme, carrots, and anything else you feel like throwing in there; strain the broth into a mason jar and keep in the fridge or freezer for later)
  • Organic wild or brown rice
  • Garlic (preferably raw)
Throw desired amount of rice, and as much garlic as you can handle, into the broth. Eat. Enjoy. Keep the vampires away.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Organic. Sustainable. Local.

Even dogs like organic lettuce.
Organic. Sustainable. Local. These are the latest buzzwords when it comes to our food and agriculture system. But what does it all mean? The definitions have a wide range, depending on who you talk to. Organic can refer to food grown in your backyard with absolutely no pesticides, food that is grown fairly and locally and free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and even commercially produced food by corporate brands as long as they follow the USDA’s National Organic Program’s complex requirements.

Then there’s sustainable – that’s even more subjective. Does it improve and replenish the quality of the environment? Does it make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources? Does it enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole? What counts as local? Local food can be grown 15 feet or 150 miles away from your home.

Read the rest of the article in Latinometro.