Top Ten Reasons to Start a Garden

I know your idea of paradise: It's a world where you feed yourself from food that grows about 50 feet away from where you sleep.

Oh, wait. That’s not your idea of paradise? It's only mine? ...And you're calling me a nerd? 

OK, well, it’s my paradise, then. And you and your 72 virgins or whatever are welcome to join. 

french garden
Dinner for two? Four? Twenty?
Our final farm in France got me thinking...Why don’t more people grow their own food? Time is the usual excuse, but Therese and Wladek typically work 10-hour days, six days a week, and I can vouch for themthey seriously don’t have time for a garden. And yet, here it is.

Their story is that after planting things at the beginning of the season, they just kinda let it do its thing. They get a little help from neighbors who can share in the bounty, or they find vagabonds like John and me to tend to it for a while. But the moral is that they make it happen with much less effort than you would expect looking at a garden this big. 

So let’s talk about you, darling. Do you need a little push? Have you been eyeing that plot of land in the community garden? Is there an overgrown patch in your backyard that’s beggin’?

Here we go.

Top Ten Reasons to Start a Garden

1.  You’ll save money
A packet of seeds costs less than a dollar. So it follows that a nice yield of growables can easily feed you and your family for less than what you would pay at the store. And probably your family’s family (which is still your family, really). And their pets, unless they have pigs (but maybe?). This woman feeds her family of four on 100 dollars a month!
green bean seed
Dried beans from haricots verts=seeds! It's like math!
2.  You’ll save your conscience
There are hidden costs of that ubiquitous low-cost, processed food that's so easy to buy: pollution from transportation and production (anybody up for some asthma?), indirect exposure to hormones and antibiotics, higher heath care costs resulting from epidemics like diabetes (United Health insurance projects that heath care costs related to obesity will be $35 BILLION per year by 2018!), and the basic risks in having food come from uneducated, exploited workers. And that’s just to name a few.

3.  You can donate, sell, or trade surplus items (if you’re not the canning and jamming type).
· Get involved with community farmers markets or CSAs to sell
· See if other growers are interested in trading thing that you don't grow. My friend trades her produce for electrician services—don’t be afraid to barter!

sweet pepper colors
I didn't even know peppers could have these colors
Try The Farmer's Garden or LemonforLimes to trade your garden bounty
Visit Ample Harvest or FeedingAmerica to find a place to donate

4.  You can get started on that compost pile you’ve been thinking about

Why waste all that space in your trash bag when you could be creating food for your garden? This year alone, we will generate a quantity of trash equivalent to the weight of about 7,000 Empire State Buildings. Is anybody else uncomfortable by the idea that we are literally burying our garbage underfoot and assuming that this is ok for the earth? Ever think about aquifers? Erosion? Um, the future?

Don’t have a garden yet? I’m sure somebody from the farmer's market wouldn't mind some extra compost…

ugly landfill
ah, screw it, let's just keep making landfills!
5.  It gets you outside
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, watching TV is America’s favorite “leisure activity.” 

(I just threw up in my mouth a little. Graphic. Sorry.)
garden artichokes
Eat my heart out
When is the last time you ate something that you yourself grew? Have you ever eaten something you yourself grew? Americans spend less and less time outdoors, so why not use a garden as an excuse to learn about the land? I’ve missed you, circle of life.

6.  It helps the bees!
A statement prepared for congress by the Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America (sounds fun!) reported that if honeybee populations continue to decline at their current rate, we will have no honeybees by 2035. Listen, if we want food, we need the bees. Cross-pollination is crucial to 1/3rd of the world’s crops and 90% of our wild plants, so let's give 'em a little more to work with.
wild flower
Pollinate meeee!
While nobody is quite sure what exactly is causing this decline, it’s abeet interesting that pesticide use and crop homogenization has been increasing in the past years. So, as we steadfastly destroy crop variation (according to Fair Food, over 50% of America’s cropland is used for corn or soy beans!), our poor buzzing friends simply don’t know where to turn to get a little variation in that diet. How would you feel if you had the same two foods to choose from every day?

If you really want to bee crazy, become a beekeeper.

garden harvest france
oil-free beans n' berries
7.  It eases dependency on foreign oil
How far did that green bean travel to make it to your plate? A University of Michigan study estimates that the average food item in America travels around 1,500 miles before being consumed. Apart from oil needed directly for transportation, there's oil used for packaging and processing, mechanical harvesting, and to produce fertilizers and pesticides (which accounts for 40% of energy use in agricultural production!). Want to read more?

8.  It’s safer
It’s a sad fact that often we really don’t know what has been sprayed on our food to prevent pests or encourage speedy ripening. While
companies supported by big businesses often claim that these things aren’t harmful to humans, why take the risk on consuming anything inundated with pesticides? The more you grow and eat local food, the stronger the message that we don’t want mass-produced, pesticide-laden, and genetically identical foods.
"Sixty-five different pesticides, fungicides and herbicides  are registered for use on strawberries in the US." Yum!
9. It’s healthier
A 2012 CDC study cited that over a third of adults in America are obese!


shelling peas
Like nine peas in a pod...
You can bet that the nutritional content of local and fresh food is higher, but add all that watering, digging, and lifting, and you have a calorie burner, too…oohlala!

10. It tastes better

When it comes to making a sale, the appearance of a fruit or vegetable is often more important than the actual taste. That’s why, for example, supermarket tomatoes are often picked when green and artificially ripened by spraying them with ethylene gas. It’s just too difficult to ship an already-ripe tomato from California to New York. So yes, this is one of the reasons behind that mealy texture and bland flavor. 
(Want to know why else they don’t taste as good as they look?)  
garden tomatoes
oh you. oh you guys.
On the other hand, the taste of food that has traveled less than 2 minutes to get to your kitchen simply sublime. Even lettuce. It’s luscious, for God’s sake. It’s hard to believe, I know, but Chowgypsy won’t lie to you. There is just something about food harvested and eaten at its prime

So what's your perspective on gardening? Can you give me some reasons I forgot to mention?

If you want to look into more information on starting your own garden, here are some links I recommend:

  • Get Rich Slowly: Tips for Starting a Garden 
  • Get Rich Slowly: Intro to Square Foot Gardening (this is my preferred method for a kitchen garden) 
  • Frugal Dad: Square Foot Gardening 
  • Weekend Gardener: Detailed guide to starting a large garden plot
  • Find a Community Garden!
  • Guide to Indoor Gardening and Indoor Gardening Supplies

  • (please leave links in the post section if you have some more that I should add!)
    Now go out there and show 'em who's boss!

    Happy growing!

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    Our Final France Hitchhike

    It was with heavy hearts that we bid farewell to Therese and Wladek.
    france autostop
    At least the sunrise was exciting...
    No, not because we had to wake up at six in the morning, but because we really loved being with them. Whenever the effusive Therese stops talking, you blink a couple of times and realize the absence of her words creates a small void. She is one of those few people that talks to you and it’s like she’s speaking fairy dust. What she says matters, and what you say matters to her, and let’s all just hold hands and feel good for a while, ok? She’s the perfect balance for Wladek, a quiet man who wisely chooses his moments to speak to either express his dry wit or some nice morsel to think upon.

    I can only hope that my travels will bring me back to their quaint farm someday.

    So as we set out to hitchhike from their house to Neuchatel, Switzerland, we didn’t realize that we were chasing a pipe dream. 7am start? Didn’t matter. Fate was finally working against us. We did find a bit of luck when big van pulled over and started saying something to us in French. I noted that the man’s accent was strangely reminiscent of my own attempts at French, so on a hunch, I let loose with the ol’ mother tongue and we found that our new friend was from Utah! Marty Jemison has possibly the best job in Europe, as he spends summers leading small groups on cross-country bike tours. Why does Marty get to do this while you and I don’t? Because Marty has biked the Tour de France…twice. But back to his bike tours…biking all day until you reach a five-star dinner and hotel at night…maybe a massage? Perhaps a pedicure? I want this. If you want this, check out his website.
    marty jemison
    Marty and Vanna White
    He took us to a little town called Bourg-en-Bresse, where John and I threw in a stained and sweaty proverbial towel. I hate to admit it. But we’d covered a paltry 44 miles during six and a half hours of standing under the sun and peeing in bushes, so yes, we gave up. We just really really preferred a comfy bed with a Swiss lake lapping in our ears over camping in a ditch somewhere, so we bought train tickets all the way out of France and into Switzerland.

    You can be sure, however, that my accounts of France aren’t quite over…stay tuned :)
    The first two trains must have thought John was coming on board.
    Now, that's not a very PC thing to say, is it?

    Making and Eating Raw Cheese... Excessively

    Excessively in a good way, of course. I must add that we did manage to get some learning done at le Ferme de l'Anneau d'Or (the Golden Ring Farm), our cheese farm here in the Beaujolais region, where I may or may not have eaten way too much cheese and curds.
    ferme de l'anneau d'or
    Therese filling the cheese molds...a long and solitary process
    Suffice it to say that the methods at Therese and Wladek’s cooperative are are a bit more “sophisticated” than those implemented at Wwoofing farm #3. Not to say that this is better or worse, because with large-scale production comes more work hours and many more rules and regulations—even in France. I was sad to hear that Therese’s farm is no longer allowed to age their cheeses in underground caves due to recent health code regulations. I fear that the next health worry will put raw milk cheeses more stringently under the microscope, which is something that we do not want.

    Let me go on the record saying that raw milk cheeses, when done safely and properly, are nearly always better than their non-raw counterparts.* Pasteurizing milk (which gently heats and prevents it from being raw) may kill the bad bacteria, but it also kills the good bacteria that contribute so much to flavor. Cheese is bacteria, in a sense — a wheel of cheese is a living microcosm.

    Too bad it tastes so good.
    goat farm france
    Therese covers the molds with something like a fitted cheese colander and feeds them with
    coagulated milk (at right), then uses a scraper tool to push it all down into the molds
    But this leads me to an additional point, which is that you should always buy cheeses that have been cut off of a whole wheel. As soon as you start to hack up a cheese, you expose its flavor-giving bacteria and enzymes to air, and the flavor starts to die off. If you don’t have a cheesemonger, try to buy whole pieces at the grocer—just please, don’t buy pre-sliced cheese unless you really don’t have that extra minute it takes to slice the cheese yourself. You might as well be using edible plastic on your sandwiches.

    And shoot, I hate to go off topic, but there is another reason you should buy your pieces of cheese from a whole wheel: More often than not, that wheel was made and cared for by somebody. That is, a real live human put their energy and affections and expertise into making that cheese. Most likey, it was somebody who cared about food. Those pale yellow store-brand rectangles of cheddar cheese? Not exactly man made. Not exactly made for man, either, if you ask me...
    Artisan Cheese: made from the heart (pictured: Therese's cow and goat blend. The lighter, white stripes are goat's milk and the yellow is cow.)
    So when you're standing in the checkout line, it's up to you to decide which idea you support—food created by machines, or food created by hands. If we Americans want to start seeing quality behind our food system, we have to start thinking about and seeking quality in all of our purchases. In this internet age, learning about the origins of what goes into your belly is only a click away. 

    Just sayin’.

    But back to the raw thing, the same idea applies to milk. John and I have been drinking raw goat and cow milk throughout this trip and have realized that the ultra-pasteurized milk you get in the states tastes like creamy water compared to the raw stuff. So, if you can find local raw milk from somebody you trust, please don’t hesitate to support them and treat yourself. If you can’t find raw, then at least go local. It will taste better. It will probably feel better, too. Unless you're lactose intolerant.
    cheese making
    I don't know who this guy is
    Isn't he too young to be making cheese?
    Oh, wait.
    That's not a little boy. That's me.
    Of course, if you need help deciding which cheese to buy, you can always visit my cheese reviews page...

    *So why pasteurize in the first place? The short story is that pasteurization heats milk to a certain temperature and kills bad bacteria (and any of the good bacteria sensitive to said climate). As businesses grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage the cleanliness of every step of production, so to make things easier, many simply do away with all of the bacteria by cooking the milk. A small, clean facility won't have this contamination risk because they have the time and resources to be there every step of the way, safeguarding against the bad guys. 

    So wait, I was talking about the cheese farm, wasn’t I?

    Here are a couple pictures of the animals and the cheese room. We can only assume that the reason there aren’t more pictures of the abundant cheeses is because I went into a psychological fit of cheese-overdose and was too overcome to remember to take photos.
    calf france
    Baby cow, come on. You're embarrassing yourself.

    small goat cheese
    These tiny goat and cow cheese "thimbles"
    are maaaybe the closest I've gotten to
    having a legitimate addiction
    goat kid
    hi kids.
    farm geese
    I'd say these captive geese have a pretty 
    good deal...until they get eaten.
    goat in pen
    Hey you
    goat tongue
    betcha didn't see THAT comin!
    We did manage to work in another farm-related activity during our stay: Arising at a dreadful 4am one morning, we accompanied the neighborly Jean-Michel on his cheese delivery route. We covered about 12 different delivery points throughout the region, and I managed to sleep through three of them and thus not be a zombie for the entire day, so everybody wins.
    cheese room
    Cheeses waiting to be shipped off at a 
    distribution center to where we dropped off some 
    of the farm's cheese. Later that night, they found 
     me huddled in the corner, arms laden with 
    cheese, in a state of hypothermic shock
    I don't expect you to buy a wheel of cheese quite this big,
    but do buy a whole wheel sometime. And check
     that it's hand-made, if you're feeling especially 
    hungry for the good stuff.

    P.S. Stay up to date on my adventures by subscribing!

    Day Trips in Wine Country: La Roche Solturé

    Let's get this over with quickly to help you avoid the jealousy. We're in France, and our new friends are allowing us to borrow their tiny, ancient, and beautiful convertible. We've already visited a castle-view pool in La Clayette, and after a of couple days had still not satisfied the need for fresh free air flowing through our barely-existent hair. 
    Driving up on the Roche Solutré
    And so our other convi trip was to a town just outside of Macon called Solutré-Pouilly, which sits just above the Beaujolais hills in the region of Burgundy. This quaint town is home to La Roche Solturé and La Roche Vergisson (roche means rock), two prehistoric limestone cliff-escarpment-things smack in the middle of wine country (FYI-we used this great website that lists hikes in the Macon area). Drink some wine, see some rocks, lay down in a field,call it a day.

    The area is full of tools and fossil finds dating back to the paleolithic period, mostnotably beaucoups of horse fossils just under the cliffs (indicating some mass accidental suicidesthey were probably running from some sort of Cro-Magnon hunter...or aliens). 
    rock Vergisson
    Being cheesy atop Solutré
    (that's Vergisson in the background)

    polish horse
    These konik polski ("little Polish horses") graze atop the
    rocks and help preserve the landscape. Their
    physical traits (rusty silver colorwith a dark stripe down
    the back) are said to recall their prehistoric ancestors.
    It's an easy drive up to the base of Solutré (the most visited rock), and if you can get past the groupings of families with babies and hysteric dogs, you're on your uphill way via a short 1.5 mile option to reach the amazing view atop Solutré. 

    On the way down, we took a side trail that everybody else seemed to be avoiding, so we managed tack on some slight extra mileage, avoid the crowds, and have a private picnic overlooking Vergisson Rock.
    rock Vergisson
    The quaint village nestled under la Roche Vergisson
    rock of solutre
    Views of La Roche Solutré
    Returning to the car, we realized that some people had tried to show our little convi up. How silly of them not to realize how terrible their “convertibles” looked next to ours.
    white convertible
    Yellow license plate wins!
    walnut cheese
    The only meal you'll veer need: Timanoix cheese,
    hearty bread, and honey
    Returning home famished, we devoted an entire hour to eating a newly-discovered cheese called Timanoix. 

    Where to begin? Am I allowed to speak of something so foreign and inconceivably beautiful to American palates? I’ll give me permission. [Go ahead, Chowgypsy.] This little semi-soft cheese round is made by Trappist monks of the Abbaye Notre Dame de Timadeuc in Northern France. It’s rubbed with walnut liqueur and brine, creating a taste explosion that is nutty, smoky, ever-so-slightly bitter, and rich...way rich. It is probably the only thing one should eat after a day of hiking.

    I then fell asleep, wrapped in the profound silence that can only be achieved after a perfectly French meal of cheese, honey, a whole grain baguette, and beer (accompaniments for which Timanoix unquestionably exists).

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    Exploring France in a Convertible...What Else?

    Apart from our private chef positions (ok, ok...imaginary private chef positions) and some light garden work, it would appear that John and I are on a sort of vacation here in Lamure-sur-Azurges. We could be helping at the cheese farm (where Therese and Wladek work, about 2 miles up the road), but since they seem to have that pretty dialed-in, we are forced to spend our free time driving a “convertible” around, picnicking poolside, visiting the neighboring Beaujolais wine region, or going for hikes. They’re torturing us, for godssake!
    white convertible
    This car was only made cooler by my banana pepper shirt

    Wait, did I just mention a convertible?

    Why, yes, yes I did. Our lovely hosts have somehow decided they trust us enough to drive this relic around ohhh, whenever we want. For our first outing, we took the convi (that’s my nickname for the little guy) to a nearby pool in La Clayette. The pool was just the icing. The cake, of course, was the driving —the views? The clean air? The sun? I need to go lie down.
    wine region france
    Yup, this is one of those views I was talking about
    solutre france
    Driving through the Beaujolais wine region. Vineyards. Everywhere.
    OK, I’m back. 

    We arrived at the pool and found out another little gem about French culture: board shorts are a no-no. I thought maybe that because John’s swim trunks were aesthetically revolting (there might be a skull on them) we were being denied entrance, but it turns out that French public pools find board shorts to be unclean, because “what if you have been wearing them around all day?" I suppose that the pool administrators had not considered that a guy could secretly wear his speedo-style swimsuit/panties around for a week—maybe even a month—before jumping in the pool. The kind desk attendant pulled out a previously used speedo from a mystery bag and enthusiastically offered it to John. We quickly denied this philanthropy, and finally they let us in despite his hideous shorts.

    Once past that obstacle, we enjoyed a picnic on a lawn that borders the pool and overlooks a lake and old castle. We also enjoyed the huge waterslide, obviously (which is sadly not pictured).
    la clayette piscine
    Honing my lady-of-leisure skills poolside on the grass
    picnic salad recipe
    A hodgepodge and delicious salad of quinoa, beet, avocado, cucumber, lime, red wine vin, and EVOO.
    lakeside castle france
    The castle of La Clayette is privately in, this is someone's house. Oy.
    A quick walk around La Clayette afterwards afforded us a visit to a local chocolatier, where we consumed many samples, but skipped the high-priced delicacies. With a mouthful of chocolate, we were then able to consider our day complete, and headed back home—ugly shorts and allto spend a lovely evening with Therese and Wladek.

    Follow the trail as we head next to explore huge rocks in Burgundy!

    Playing in French Gardens

    Leaving Paris, John and I reflected on how none of the Wwoofing farms we had experienced really gave us the food experience we were looking for. I suppose I wanted something where all food was grown on site and every meal was just a bonanza of fresh garden ingredients. Well, we came at the wrong time of year for that, and now that it was the time for harvest, we were heading to a goat farm. Alas, we would have to plan our timing better for the next country.

    So arriving to Therese and Wladek’s in Lamure-sur-Azurges, would you believe that we finally stumbled upon the garden experience we’d been seeking? They aren't affiliated with Wwoofing, yet here was this huge backyard garden, just begging to be picked through and loved.
    Hello, darling. View from the kitchen window...
    Our lodgings for the week
    And so we got our wish.

    And we also were granted the wish that is ever-present upon our hearts: an abundant supply of cheese.

    It’s like living with angels when you’re staying with someone who deals in cheese production.

    Before we even unpacked Therese had gifted us with this amazing heart of a raw cow & goat cheese blend, which we quickly consumed to try to make it part of our own hearts. Therese pointed out something interesting, as John and I had noted the same thing many times in our travels: sometimes the French are quite resistant to culinary change. Like when she planned to mix cow and goat milk in a cheese, the idea was met with much with incredulity by many.
    raw french cheese
    Look closely and you can see the layers. And fear not, the mold is encouraged  to grow on the cheese for flavor. (FYI, as a general rule, only worry about black mold on cheese)
    In the same way that cheese is always eaten after dinner or peanut butter is immediately regarded as an evil American scheme (that is, until the Chowgypsy forces you to taste it for the first damn time), you simply don’t mix milks in a cheese. But victory! This cheese is a masterpiece, and reaches success among all the cheese’s vendors.  The creamy, rich cow milk is a perfect balance to the tangy barnyard flavor of raw goat milk.

    So, how did we find these amazing people if not through Wwoofing? John's parents, of course. And I suspect that Sukie was the active force behind this connection--that woman knows how to make friends. Therese and Wladek are friends of freinds, and although they've yet to meet David & Sukie, the affection is strong enough to get us yet another beautiful French farm to explore. Therese, I’ll mention, is not fully French, she has the musical accent of a native South African, but has lived in France for most of her life and includes French and Polish in her accomplished language repertoire. Her husband, Wladek, is a French-born Polish man.
    farm france
    Can you smell the cheese?
    They began making cheese from scratch about 22 years ago and have been up to their ears in the stuff ever since at La Ferme de l'Anneau d'Or (The Golden Ring Farm), albeit with much-increased success and several other partners to help run the farm of 120 goats and 25 cows. It’s a tough schedule, starting at 6am and ending often not until 12 hours later, but with a two hour break for lunch and a siesta. With all this work stuff going on, our lovely hosts don’t have much time to enjoy their garden or make meals from it, so John and I were happily appointed as temporary chefs. I love you, symbiosis.

    Our best meal so far has been meatloaf (provided by a very unlucky sterile bull from their farm), a side of green bean casserole using their goat cheese in a bechamel, and my chocolate bark for dessert.
    Oh gross, is that ketchup on there?
    Hey, it's American meatloaf. Back off.
    Take a good look at these babies (and note how the
    purple ones turn green as you cook them--magic!)
    Made with a roux from 2 jars of fresh, raw cow milk from the farm, a few wheels of fresh goat cheese, and
    baguette bread crumbs
    Excuse me, but you're kind of a fool if you don't make this. Just melt a chocolate bar using the double-boiler method, pour it into a mold lined with wax paper (I didn't have a mold so I used a plate), and throw on whatever you want. I used mixed nuts, chopped dates, and French sea salt, because salt belongs on chocolate bark.
    We took our expertly crafted dinner over to a friend's house and John nearly had to be tranquilized to abate his hunger
    We’ve also experimented with preserving green beans and cucumber relish with the garden surplus. If they're a success, I'll post the recipe...but we must wait for the pickling to finish...
    A bounty worth working for
    More to come soon on ways to entertain yourself in the middle of nowhere, France!
    Beans at the ready

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