Sunday, August 22, 2010

22 Square Feet Farm

There is something truly amazing about growing your own food. Watching an unremarkable leafy plant suddenly sprout a big, beautiful vegetable that you can simply pluck off and eat... It’s as fresh and local as possible and infinitely more satisfying than a trip to the grocery store. The first time a tomato appeared on our vine, I felt like a little kid, full of wonder and excitement. I had never thought much of tomatoes. My main experience with them was the dinky, flavorless slice on my fast food chicken sandwich or as the main ingredient (usually) in a jar of pasta sauce. But we grew these tomatoes – we GREW them – from nothing but dirt and water and a little green plant. My husband had assured me that a fresh, homegrown tomato would be something completely different from my previous tomato experiences, but when we plucked and sliced the very first tomato from our vine - and he handed it to me like a slice of apple, as though tomato could be enjoyed all on its own - well, I was skeptical to say the least. He was completely and totally right. That first tomato was sweet and juicy and delicious! AND WE MADE IT!


My husband and I both grew up in Arizona. For those of you who have never visited, the desert is quite a beautiful place with lots of amazing, water-thrifty plants and unique wildlife. However, as a child, I was never very successful at growing things under the hot, Arizona sun. No... For me, food was something that came from the grocery store. And, as the daughter of a single teacher, it often came from the drive-through. Although my mother was an avid label-reader and enjoyed cooking, her busy life and later battle with cancer tended to get in the way of wholesome food.

When we relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, my husband and I realized that perhaps a real garden was at last possible - until we saw the amount of patio space available to us. Both the front patio and back porch of our townhouse were cemented over, with only a small raised planter in the back measuring a measly 22 square feet. One spring, though, my husband decided to try planting tomatoes and zucchini. The tomatoes were a success, but the zucchini was an abysmal failure. Apparently, zucchini is among the easiest vegetables to grow, which suggests something about the quality of the soil in our aged planter. The next year, we managed to grow precisely one bell pepper and a couple of onions in addition to the tomatoes. But, after a couple of seasons and a drip system and automatic watering timer that my husband was able to install in only one weekend of work, we finally started producing a garden full of food. This year, we have successfully grown spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, chard, parsley, cilantro, mint, and even blackberries! We also just planted a cucumber plant and are making another attempt at the dreaded zucchini. We get most of our gardening advice from the internet. Different plants require different treatment, but once you know the tricks, food just pops up all over the place. It’s really a lot easier than I ever imagined. One of the most interesting things about growing food has been learning how different fruits and vegetables actually grow. Broccoli, for example, had me completely baffled. Here is a picture of a broccoli plant from our garden:

The little baby broccoli spears eventually grow into larger florets. The baby broccoli, full-grown florets, and broccoli flowers are all edible and delicious!


When I eat fruits and vegetables from my garden, I think of all the food problems I am avoiding. I have full control over this food. I can determine the fertilizer, pest control method, and brand of seed/plant that eventually makes its way into my body. I also have a supply of cheap, healthy food, and I don’t even have to put shoes on to go get it! Gardening has other advantages as well. It is a hobby that, once set up, takes little time but provides a good reason to go outside and work with the Earth and watch things grow rather than laying on the couch. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to garden with kids.

The merits of small-scale gardening have lead to increased programs throughout the US to promote community gardens, urban farming, and school farming projects in which students grow food in campus gardens that is then incorporated into school lunches. These programs give people the opportunity to learn about food, gain more control over their access to nutritious food, and engage with other members of the community in a positive, healthful setting. Getting involved is really easy. A quick web search can show you community gardens and other gardening programs in your area. If there isn’t a community garden near you, maybe you could start one! Volunteering to establish or assist an urban, community, or school gardening project is a great way to give back to your community. Check out The American Community Gardening Association for more info on community gardens, volunteering or starting a program, or simply locating a garden near you. For tips on gardening in a small space, you might want to check out Urban Gardens.

In closing, here are a few pics of 22 Square Feet Farm. I hope our tiny backyard farm will inspire you to take control of your food supply as well and create a little garden of your own.

The left side of the garden.

The right side of the garden.

Our cucumber plant just starting out!

One teeny zucchini hiding in our giant zucchini plant.

Tomatoes. Yum.

We added a couple of small planters on the front patio for chard and a big one for the blackberry bush. We got about 100 blackberries this year but the bush has been trimmed back for the fall. Maybe I can get a good picture of it next year!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pasta Perry.

The produce stand run by J. E. Perry Farms (Fremont, CA – 880 & Decoto Rd.) is my new favorite place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables! They grow most of the organic produce on-site so it’s about as “fresh & local” as you can get! Plus, they have a wide variety of organic and conventional produce so customers can still get all the produce they need in one place. One thing I especially appreciate is the labeling. They clearly mark all organic produce and those items grown on the farm. The boxes holding the fruit are from the farms that grew them so it’s easy to know how far the food traveled. Another perk is that the produce stand is open normal store hours: 9am – 7pm everyday from June 1st – Nov. 29th (those dates may vary year-to-year, I’m not sure). This means I can pop in on my way home from work or whenever I can fit in my weekend grocery shopping. The prices are reasonable and the variety is outstanding! On my most recent trip to the produce stand, I purchased all of the following:

Organic -
White peaches
Lemon cucumber – Tastes like a regular cucumber but juicier.
Zucchini, yellow, and grey squash - The grey was a first for me!
Cheddar cauliflower – It’s orange and, when added to a sauce or casserole, makes everything taste sort of cheesy. Yum!
Red bell pepper


With all these awesome veggies, I decided to whip-up an impromptu pasta dinner. Here’s what I made using all organic vegetables from the produce stand:

Pasta Perry

This easy pasta dish uses long-lasting vegetables so it can be made up to a week after a trip to the grocery store. Makes 4-6 servings.

Timing: 30 min. or less
Type: (Mostly) pantry meal

3 small squash
1 small onion
1 head cheddar cauliflower
1-2 T olive oil
1 pkg. Whole Wheat Fettuccine (from Trader Joe’s)
1 jar Roasted Garlic Spaghetti Sauce (also TJs)

I also added a ½ lb of baked organic chicken from Marin Sun Farms that I had leftover from the night before. This dish is hearty enough without meat, but the chicken was fine and sausage would probably go well too. If you use fully cooked meat, add it at the end of step 2. Otherwise, cook it first (step 0), then go through the following steps and either add it to the sauce while the pasta is cooking or just top the off the bowl with meat. Additional veggies that would blend well are bell peppers or mushrooms added at step 1.

1. Wash all vegetables. Remove the leafy bits on the bottom of the cauliflower and discard. Chop the squash, onion, and cauliflower. Begin heating oil over medium heat in a skillet.

2. Add veggies to skillet. Let cook ~5 minutes or until the onions become translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the pasta sauce, mix well, and reduce heat to low.

3. Boil the water. Add the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package. Continue to occasionally stir the veggies.

4. When the pasta is done, drain and rinse. Put some in a bowl, top with veggie sauce, and enjoy!