Friday, September 17, 2010

Confessions of an almost gardener...

Fall is almost upon us and if you live in the desert, it signals the beginning of our second planting season. I have yet to have a garden that I would call successful. My early attempts failed due to watering issues, planting things in the wrong season, pest attacks and blatant neglect. The last three gardens were consumed by my chickens. Number one had no fence and I naively thought the chickens wouldn't notice it or care about it. Two had a fence that was too low and the crafty chickens flew over it and consumed my horticultural endeavor down to the roots. This spring's edition of my garden was the one I have waited for all my life. I harvested actual peas and broccoli, my tomatoes had little green fruits developing and real green beans were growing from delicate white blossoms on leafy green vines. Finally I could call myself a real gardener...that is until I went on vacation in June. While we were away, it was very windy and the gate to the garden blew down. I returned to my drip irrigation in disarray and no signs of life in the soil--the chickens had won again.

Not one to give up, I began planting my cool season garden today. I invited the chickens to join me inside the fence so they could turn the soil and devour any little weeds that were residing there. They did a great job on the weeds, but their work ethic on turning the soil left much to be desired. I even crumbled up cereal and mixed it in the dirt to encourage them to scratch around but they still didn't do a very good job. Eventually I kicked them out and turned the soil myself with a garden fork. After undoing the damage my feathered friends had done to the irrigation, I was ready to head to the nursery for seeds and plants.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my gardening failures was due to planting things in the wrong season. Apparently some things grow better in cool weather and some prefer it warmer. My early gardening days consisted of me going to the nursery and grabbing whatever sounded and looked good. I do not make that mistake anymore. A good rule of thumb is: things that have seeds like tomatoes, peppers or melons are warm weather crops and cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages, as well as most root vegetables are cool weather crops. On a visit to the Springs Preserve, I got a handy pamphlet that had a nice grid in the back to tell you what to plant and when. This publication is also available online by clicking here. A master gardener named Clarita Huffman created this calendar and I plan my garden around it. Now I do not actually know Clarita or what her credentials or experience are, but I will not plant something unless she says it is okay.

With the garden ready to receive new plants and seeds, I went to the nursery to see what transplants were available and what seeds I would need to purchase. My husband was drawn to tomatoes and peppers but I knew that Clarita would not approve so I told him it was the wrong time of year for those. With that remark, a nursery employee came over to tell me why it was okay to plant them now: they have a fast growing season, they are cold hardy enough to grow in Montana, etc.; but since her name tag did not say Clarita, I wasn't falling for it. My husband thought I should listen to her since she worked at the nursery but I decided that it was part of a larger conspiracy to get rid of their leftover summer vegetables on uneducated gardeners.
For transplants I selected broccoli, napa cabbage and brussel sprouts. I also grabbed seed packets of spinach, carrots and two varieties of lettuce, as well as some garlic bulbs. Mr. Garden State, aka my husband, cast a disapproving eye on my transplants. He thought they didn't look very healthy. I argued that they were the best ones they had and once they were in the ground they would be okay. He still didn't believe me and even taunted me all the way home about how in New Jersey you just stick stuff in the ground and it grows. You don't even need to water it, it's big, beautiful, blah, blah, blah. He is a firm believer that nothing good can grow here but I am determined to prove him wrong. I reminded him that we ate actual peas and broccoli from the last garden and he reminded me that it wasn't enough to feed the whole family. New Jersey may be the Garden State, but we have better winters and can correctly pronounce the word "water."

Most everything is in the ground except for the seeds. I have reinforced the chicken fence and secured the gate better, although I must confess there is some relief when the chickens eat the garden because then the pressure is off me. The garden can't fail when it's not there anymore. Still, I believe that this time I can grow enough broccoli to feed all four of us in one meal--if those chickens don't get it first!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How sweet it isn't...

"A sugar is a sugar whether it comes from cane, corn or beets."--Corn Refiner's Association

Is a sugar really a sugar? If that is the case, why are we trying so hard to avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2008 Americans consumed 37.8 pounds of HFCS per capita. It is found in obvious things like sodas and fruit drinks, and not so obvious items like ketchup and the majority of breads at the supermarket. To see how it enhances the stability and shelf-life of different products, click here. After reading this list, I wanted to avoid this ingredient even more and this is the website that is supposed to convince me how safe it is!

Although produced from corn, a healthy vegetable, HFCS bears no resemblance to it's original form. It is highly-refined into a cheap sweetener that is created from a crop highly subsidized by the U.S. government. As a sweetener, it is chemically different than sugar and not metabolized the same way. Table sugar is composed of sucrose which is not broken down and used by the body the same way as fructose. In animal studies, fructose produced insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, high insulin levels, high triglycerides and high blood pressure. HFCS is also the prime suspect in the obesity epidemic that is plaguing America. Mice fed fructose experienced higher weight gain than mice that were fed the same amount of sucrose.

So why I am I bringing this up? With all the attention on the dangers of HFCS, it's consumption has seen a 21% decrease compared to 10 years ago. Prominent brands such as Hunt's Ketchup and some Sara Lee breads have removed it entirely and advertise this fact on their labels. This revolution has hit the Corn Refiner's Association in their pocket book and they are scrambling to recoup their losses. If you visit the Sweet Surprise website, you will almost be convinced that there is no difference between HFCS and other sweeteners. They are even lobbying for permission to rename HFCS to "corn sugar" on the labels of foods. Corn sugar? Really? For those that aren't avid label readers, this is not a big deal, but for the rest of us it is an insult. It is on the news, do you think we aren't going to figure it out? A highly-processed sweetener by any other name will be just as sweet--and unhealthy!

There was a time when I read labels to avoid sugar but now I am excited to find labels boasting my snowy-white, granulated friend. Today, while buying a barbecue sauce, only one brand (not in the organic aisle) did not have HFCS as an ingredient. For all the others it was listed first or second. Buying organic products is another way to eliminate or reduce your HFCS consumption. This may sound corny, but the only sweet surprise I see is that food manufacturers are listening and removing this ingredient from their products. Keep up the good work American shoppers!

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