Category Archives: Every Post on this Awesome Blog

Money (Saving) Laundering

This is not an article about how to make your own laundry soap. There are lots of blogs and posts out there that cover this.  I looked at one or  two, or a dozen, and have since made my own laundry detergent for over a year.  Not surprisingly, I have saved a lot of money–even if I spring for the more expensive Castile bar soap. In this time, the basics for me have remained: grated bar soap, super washing soda and a lot of water (my laundry soap version is liquid-ish–or, really, goopy-ish.)  I have made a few tweaks along the way depending on what I had on hand or what I have learned.  For example, I am having a love hate relationship with Borax.  Yes, it is natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay.  I mean, asbestos and cocaine are natural.  Apparently Borax is really bad for your respiratory system, though I am not sure in what form it is damaging.  In any case, I am currently hating Borax and not using it. Also, sometimes I will sell my soul a bit and use left over deodorant bars from hotels or vacations instead of buying the Castile soap from the store.  But, hey, they’re free and would otherwise just be thrown away.

But, again, this article is not really about how I make the laundry soap.  Though, really, it’s so easy I can tell you in a few words.  Fill big pot with hot water; grate and stir one bar soap into water until it melts; add one cup of super washing soda and bring to boil for a couple of minutes; let sit until cool enough to not melt the container you will pour it into.  Seriously, that’s it.

But let’s move on.  What this article is actually about is how to adjust to those more challenging aspects of making your own detergent. First of all, it just doesn’t smell clean.  Store bought detergent is not only full of harsh chemicals, but also full of fragrance.  It’s that fragrance that is not only missed, but iconic and associated with times and places in our lives–and sometimes socio-economic status! Lisa Bronner in this article entitled Changing the Smell of Clean discusses the challenge of overcoming how we associate smell with things being clean. It is so ingrained that we do not identify that something is clean unless it smells like those trademarked brands.  At first, it really bothered me that the clothes just didn’t have a smell.  And I have to admit that when I go to yoga and grab the little white towels to wipe my sweat on, they smell like really awesome laundry soap.  And I was just at my mom’s this weekend and her sheets and towels smelled amazing.  Since I have started making my own laundry soap, I have wasted lots of essential oil–and consequently money–on trying to make the laundry smell my own kind of awesome– like lavender or rosemary or something.  In fact, this was truly the most expensive part of each batch of laundry detergent–the essential oils.  The rest was really pennies worth or washing soda and about a dollar’s worth of a soap bar.  At some point, adding more essential oils just became cost prohibitive–and in any case, it never worked. Whatever amount of essential oil I applied was washed away by the actual soap in the detergent. Which makes total sense.  (So just think about what must actually be in laundry detergent to get that smell to “stick” to clothes in the wash.  If you don’t believe me, just just out your favorite product’s grade on the Environmental Working Group’s website.)

I soon hit upon a solution to the problem.  Rather than focus so much on adding the essential oils to the detergent or the wash, I would focus instead on adding it to the drying part.  At this point, I was no longer using dryer sheets, either, so again, that fresh laundry smell reminiscent of a snugly little bear was missing. But when you consider that the dryer sheets were just applying scent to the drying clothes, you realize that you can do the same thing.  So, I mixed up a solution of water and essential oils in a small spray bottle and spritzed the clothes a couple of times before they were fully dry. It works! The smell lingers well after they are put away on the shelves and drawers.  And it has the added benefit that it cuts down a bit on the static.  You don’t need a lot of essential oils, either. In fact, you need to use them sparingly as the oils are often quite dark… and, well, they are oils–you wouldn’t want them to spot something.  So shake up your little bottle before spraying the clothes! As a bonus, you can change up your scents quite often and make it unique to you! My laundry room is right off the garage entrance and I love coming in the house and smelling this month’s or week’s herbal blend.  And, as a holy-crap-people-are-coming-over-and-I-haven’t-washed-couch-pillows-in-I-don’t-know-how-long option, you can use that same spray on your couch, pillows and rugs to freshen things up.

The second challenge to using your own laundry soap is that once you strip all that cloying scent from your heavily soiled items like bathing towels and sheets, you start to wonder about whether they are truly clean.  The home made detergent does a good job on normal clothes, but not these. That moldy wet smell just does not disappear from towels, and that sweat smell (from my husband–not me) never goes away from the sheets.  Of course, these are thing you can’t just bleach. And, yes, I know that bleach is really bad for, well, everything, but I just can’t find a good substitute yet! Anyhow, moving on.  In researching options to clean sheets and towels, I came across this solution: soaking the items in hot water for a couple of hours in a vinegar and washing soda solution.  I put in about a cup of vinegar and a half cup of washing soda. Then, rinse, and do a normal laundry cycle with soap–again with hot water. Since I started doing this, I have truly felt that my towels and sheets were fresh and clean.  Plus, drying them in the dryer and using the essential oil spray makes them smell even better! Keeping the sheets and towels apart also helps cut down on the amount of washing soda and vinegar you use.

The third challenge is that you can’t rely on one detergent to do everything–though I don’t know if you ever really could.  Or, you can’t reach for that chemical stick you bought at the store.  My husband usually presents some interesting challenges–ink on work shirts, stained collars, and grease spots. Each of these issues means giving individual attention to the clothes, i.e., you really have to figure out how to attack that stain–but that’s what the internet and elbow grease are for.  For example, on grease or oil stains, a little dab of dish washing detergent is a marvel.  I just let it soak for a couple of hours before throwing it in with the regular wash. For the ink on the clothes, I don’t use a special chemical-laden product.  I have found that rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab works amazingly well.  And finally, having the basic ingredients for making your own laundry detergent means you always have something on hand to deal with tougher stains like ring around the collar–I just make a paste with the washing soda, apply it to the material, fold, and rub the two pieces of material together.

I am sure other adjustments will continue to be made as I try to transition more fully to non-commercial products.  For example, right now I still buy soap to grate for the laundry detergent. It’s a fairly basic Castile soap though it does have some fragrance combo that is not identified.  I would like to wean myself away from that and I will be exploring making soap exclusively for the laundry detergent.  I would love to hear about your experiments and experiences, so please share!

Oh–and no women’s rights were harmed in the making of this blog post.  I may wash the laundry–which my husband swears he still can’t do because there are too many options on the machine–but he folds it.  And we all know that folding is the worst part of laundry!

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The Great Food Foraging Feast

Something kind of wonderful happens when you open your mind to finding food outside of the grocery store (or farmer’s market or even local farm stand). You realize that food is all around you. All over the place. And it’s free.  Sometimes it in a neighbor’s or relative’s yard and you just have to bring your good manners and patience to pick and harvest–and likely the courtesy of sharing the bounty. Sometimes it’s in your own backyard and you just have to learn to recognize it and let it grow. Often times, though, it’s in the great “beyond” –that other space that is on some property you don’t know to whom it belongs. Yes, you have to be careful. I don’t advocate trespassing–well, not when you know its trespassing.  I also don’t advocate harvesting in places where it is illegal to do so–such as the forest preserves in my area. However, there are a couple of places you can start. Check out http://www.fallingfruit.org. There might be lots of forageable fruit around you just waiting for your clever little hands. Often times these trees, vines, and bushes are found on public or private lands and the poster will let you know whether the activity is condoned.  Also, join groups of people that advocate local food, slow food, foraging and green topics.  What you will often find is people that are willing to share information and, also, their goodies and secrets, be it garden grown vegetables or tree fruit. Finally, just talk about this with friends and family.  They will know a guy who knows a guy… and before you know it, they’ll put you in contact with peach tree ready for picking.

Things I have recently harvested: Sumac berries, wild grapes, apples, pears, purslane, lemons, linden flowers, crabapples and mint.

The sumac bushes were on a vacant piece of property that I walk by multiple times a week. I dried the berries and ground them to be used as a citrusy spice. I also gave some to my friend to experiment with his beer making.

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Apples! I found a lonely apple tree with giant yellow-green apples in front of my local park district office. The apples were just a little higher than I could reach. I found a fruit-picker close by less than a mile from my house on Craigslist (seriously, it was like I was supposed to pick apples from that tree) and went back and picked lots of large, beautiful sweet green apples. I also foraged pears on a vacant lot and made my husband stand by being just a little embarrassed to be seen with me. I made an apple pear sauce that my husband was not embarrassed to eat. However, the crabapples I grabbed off a neighbor’s tree proved too tart for him.  I thought it was pretty tasty, though I did need to add A LOT of sugar.  I made a pretty crabapple, apple crisp.

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I picked peaches from a tree hanging over a fence in the alley behind my husband’s office and I found grapes growing along fences and trees in a trail nearby.  I put the peaches in our morning smoothies and made grape jelly with the wild grapes.

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And purslane is just purslane…once you recognize it it is everywhere just waiting to be added to your salads.  Linden trees are planted in abundance as parkway (street) trees in our subdivisions.  I picked some of the fragrant flowers this year to experiment with making my own tea blends.   It is pleasantly sweet and I need to pick a lot more next year!

Also, earlier this spring, I picked mulberries, sour cherries, black raspberries. All of it was FREE.  I found a wild foods class through a local organization and found out how to identify wild parsnips and learned that I could eat (and enjoy) violets, stinging nettles, garlic mustard and curly dock.

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I wrote very generally about foraging a couple of years ago in my post Picky Eaters (yes, yes, it is a very clever title, thank you) and have since made it a goal to expand my horizons in my “wild” food knowledge.  Not only have I done so, but I have slowly brought my friends and family along for the ride.  When you start to open your eyes to this, you will see food all around you. And when you start talking about it, you make it normal and you allow the people that make the decisions about whether to-pick-or-not-to-pick see how foraging can be incorporated into public green spaces.  You can start conversations about creating local food forests, increasing community garden space, encouraging back yard gardening and supporting plant and food education.  Yes… all of that does happen.  It may not happen quickly, but it has to start somewhere.

In Picky Eaters, I pointed out that Illinois State Park regulations allow people to collect “fungi, nuts and berries on Department owned, leased or managed lands where such collection would not be incompatible with resource management activities…and where such collection is for personal use only and not for re-sale.”17 IAC 1/10(a) (3).

Illinois appears to be a bit ahead of the curve on this one.  A quick search did not yield a lot of results for being allowed to forage on State Park property of other states, though I am sure they are out there.  However, it does appear that much of the National Forest system allows it.  This appears under Region 2’s (Colorado/Rocky Mountains) Frequently asked questions:

Can I pick berries in the National Forest? Do I need a permit? Yes, you may pick berries for personal use without a permit. Strawberries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, serviceberries and chokecherries are all popular berries to pick. You may need to get to them before the bears do though!

Though some specific national forest sites within region 2 limit that to what you can eat that day/night.  Many areas of the National Forest allow you forage more than your “daily allowance” with a permit.  For example, in the Mt. Hood National Forest, you can pick up to 3 gallons a year of berries with a free permit, and for more than 3 gallons, you just need to pay $20.00.  You can also pick mushrooms! See this link for more information.  It looks like you just have to explore your region and the rules.

When knowledge about the food around us becomes normalized, great things start to happen.  It is kind of surprising that the National park is on the forefront of this.  In a research paper funded in part by the US Forest Service, researchers reported that in cities like Seattle, which has a vibrant local food culture, the movement has encouraged the city’s park district to not only maintain old, neglected apple orchards, but also to establish a food forest open to all and to change overall regulations to allow foraging in small quantities.  And Philadelphia “has followed a similar path and is supporting efforts by the non-profit organisation, Philadelphia Orchard Project, to establish public orchards in sites throughout the city, including revitalisation of the Woodford Orchard in East Fairmont Park. The re-establishment of fruit picking in Fairmont Park brings the city back full circle to the late 1800s, when the park’s commissioners welcomed thousands of school children every Nutting Day, a local holiday at the time, to the park to harvest chestnuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts.”

In my own little world, I decided to just start talking about it and learning more about the food around me. I was compelled by this  TED talk by Pam Warhurst.  In the video, she talks about how they just did it.  They didn’t wait around for the city or a local board to do it.  They just started doing it.  So I ripped out a lot more grass and started planting edible landscaping right near the side walk where people can see it and ask about it if I am outside.  When I told some acquaintances I was converting my landscaping to edible landscaping, I got three free raspberry bushes! And my husband told me about the peach tree behind behind his office (in ten years he has never noticed it).   I inspired friends to pick mulberries and wild raspberries and even got the fruits of their labor when they made some wild berry jam.  I appealed to my local library to include more education on gardening and encouraged them to think about putting in edible landscaping.  They recently replaced a dead Ash tree with a nut tree and are putting in a permaculture food garden (Food Forest). I helped plant this Bartlett Pear tree yesterday along with ten other fruit and nut trees!  Next spring we will plant raspberry bushes, perennial vegetables and annual root crops!

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The library also hosted a Produce Swap and Gardener’s social.   Now, it’s not without its challenges.  My community is not intrinsically about green living and local food. In fact, there is no farmers’ market, no garden club, no restaurants that focus on local foods.  It is an odd mix of large cookie-cutter subdivisions, rental properties and apartments.  We have a high amount of poverty and a large Spanish-speaking population. The first produce swap was a failure.  The second one was also a failure–though an interested person other than me walked through the door and a community partner stopped by and chatted with us. We discussed a local school that had planted a garden and talked about making the event more accessible. So, the third event was expanded to include a social hour and garden discussion as well as a swap of plants and seeds.  We had three swappers and one interested person stop by and even though she didn’t have anything to share, she walked away with fennel seeds to plant for next spring.  I gave away a lot of produce and came home with moss for my flagstone mini-patio and lavender.  We discussed a lot of ideas for next year and started an email list. It is definitely a slow process, but I am exited about the possibilities.

Please, please share your experiences with finding the hidden food around you. Share local projects and your personal knowledge! Also, if you know of a place that allow you to pick from an old apple tree or if you know of a trail with grape vines… add it to http://www.fallingfruit.org!

Oh– and as a precaution, never eat something you don’t recognize and know with 100% certainty is edible.

 

 

OMG GMOs no. 3

Where I live in the Midwest, in the suburbs, it is a challenge to rely on locally grown food for the entire year–even if we are in the way out suburbs with quite a bit of surrounding farm land.  We do a good job of it for about 7 months of the year, and my husband and I play the “let’s-brag-to-each-other-about-how-local-our-food-is” game. We are often rock stars with everything except olive oil and lemons.  And okay, avocados and pineapples and bananas.  However, our suburban homes are not set up with cold storage and our local farmers and farm stands are inaccessible in the winter.  Most of the farmland around here is big-Ag corn, soy and wheat.  These are not crops that are ending up in the local food system except as an ingredient in some end product.  I remember last October when my husband and I were scrambling to find the last of the local farms that we could get produce from and we drove forty miles and ended up with some onions and a butternut squash. Relax– I have a Prius, so driving that far is totally okay. Heck, our favorite farmer’s market is almost 30 miles away and we go to that regularly.  To get good, local produce, you sometimes have to expend some energy–literally. Unless… you grow it yourself!

This brings us to the third installment of the GMO question: What seeds do I need to watch out for if I am trying to avoid GMO?  Even more, what vegetables in the store do I need to watch out for?

To be really safe, buy organic! If the seed package or produce is labeled USDA organic, it is not GMO.  Direct from a really informative USDA blog:  “The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products. This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients.”

Great.  What about non organic seeds?  Well, the truth is that  you are probably okay in the garden without even really trying.  Even die-hard anti-GMOers seem to concede that there are no GM seeds out there for the home gardener to accidentally purchase.  However, to be extra, especially certain, peruse this nice blog post from the Non-GMO Project  outlining some guidelines for making sure as much as possible that you are not planting GM seeds–or supporting GM companies.

Unfortunately, most of us cannot grow all of our own food, even if we have taken the initiative to eat non-GM foods.  We are, then, faced with the challenge of figuring out what is GM in the produce aisle and even at the Farmer’s Market.  Just because it is sold in an outdoor stand doesn’t mean it’s not GM! While Monsanto does not sell seeds for the home gardener, they do sell seeds for commercial growers, i.e., farmers.  However, of all the seeds that Monsanto and its subsidiaries sells ( and they sell seeds for more than 2000 products) only two are GM: squash and corn.

But, if you’ve been hearing even a little bit of the hype about GM produce in the market, you probably recall that there are concerns about more than just squash and corn out there.  How is that? Well, it’s not all Monsanto out there.  And … the high-risk crops out there aren’t necessarily in the produce aisle (they are in the processed foods you buy).  High risk crops, you ask? I got that term from the non-GMO Project, which had this list of crops that were known to be GM:

  • Alfalfa (first planting 2011)
  • Canola (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
  • Corn (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Cotton (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres)
  • Soy (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Sugar Beets (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
  • Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres)

As you can see, the things in the produce aisle we most have to worry about are the corn, squash and papaya.  I ran across a lot of information that warned of GM tomatoes, but, in fact, the Non-GMO project points out that tomatoes are pretty low risk:

  • Tomatoes: In 1994, genetically modified Flavr Savr tomatoes became the first commercially produced GMOs. They were brought out of production just a few years later, in 1997, due to problems with flavor and ability to hold up in shipping. There are no genetically engineered tomatoes in commercial production, and tomatoes are considered “low-risk” by the Non-GMO Project Standard.

Potatoes, on the other hand, might be something to watch out for.  The Non-GMO Project points states that:

  • Potatoes: The Simplot White Russet™ potato recently acquired USDA and FDA approval and went into commercial production. In August 2015, the Non-GMO Project added the potato to our Monitored Crop list. As a genetically modified organism, the Simplot potato is not allowed in any form in a Non-GMO Project Verified product. Genetically modified NewLeaf potatoes were introduced by Monsanto in 1996. Due to consumer rejection by several fast-food chains and chip makers, the product was never successful and was discontinued in the spring of 2001.

In the Midwest, though, we don’t really have to watch out for Papaya–it’s too expensive to buy for kicks. But Corn! I don’t even have to say how connected corn is to the Midwest.  And squash is pretty common, too. How does one know whether the squash and corn they are buying are non-GMOs? Well, the good thing is that vendors are becoming more savvy.  Even at the farmer’s market I see the farmers putting up signs indicating that their corn is non-GM.  This is critical in August as local corn shows up in the grocery stores, farmers markets and road-side stands! Again, you can be safest with organic.  Following that, you can know your vendor and your local farms.

If you are curious about what squash and what corn seeds Monsanto produces for the commercial farmers to grow, they are obliging enough to tell us and show us: Yellow Straightneck, Yellow Crookneck and green Zucchini squash and a variety of corn.  To find out what they look like, go this page.  Monsanto’s sells  vegetable seeds under their brand Seminis® and DeRuiter TM.  However, DeRuiter TM does not develop an GM product.  The webpage above showing us the products, labels which are bio-engineered.  Quite helpful, actually.  DeRuiter TM does not produce any GM product.

But this is the tricky part, isn’t it.  It does not seem to be enough to just avoid GM seeds and produce.  The goal out there for serious, non-GMO, mostly-organic, anti-Monsanto gardeners, then, is to avoid even supporting companies that benefit Monsanto and their ilk– a goal which I am completely on board with.  As I have said before, while I am not entirely sure about the health effects of a GMO plant itself, but I am pretty sure that I do not want to support the environmental, health, cultural and economic effects of large mono-agriculture dependent on chemicals. Like the war waged against that GM potato, I feel strongly that our purchasing power can make a difference. Companies like Monsanto, are, after all, companies that have to report to shareholders.  If something is not profitable, they will not continue to sell it.

Given that, I do feel it is important to know what roads lead back to those companies that promote that kind of farming–or, by extension, GM seeds.  I am not re-inventing the wheel here.  There are plenty of people with a lot more animus than I have towards Monsanto that have done some research. I came across this blog post that has a pretty extensive list of companies to potentially avoid.  You’ll probably recognize a lot of familiar catalog and seeds companies on that list. However, the article does provide a caveat that you should use the information to start your own research.  Believe me, I would love to trace ALL of those companies…but this blog is not my full time job.

Perhaps it is easier, then, to know a few seed companies that do not support or develop GM seeds and go out of your way to support them.  The Non-GMO Project does have a page for verified non GMO planting seeds and animal feeds, though of that list it really only looks like High Mowing Organic Seeds fits the bill of what we would know as a vegetable garden seed company.   The trouble with just looking at whether something is GM or organic is that this doesn’t mean that it is not related to big Ag– or, more specifically, Monsanto.  In fact, nothing precludes Monsanto from getting their hybrid seeds, which are the majority of its seeds products, as verified non-GMO. Neither does buying something organic mean that the seed was not a non-GM seed produced by a Monsanto company. While I cannot find anything that says Monsanto produces organic seeds, I cannot find anything that says it does not.  And organic farmers only need to grow from organic seeds as long as the organic seeds are commercially available.  This is the aggravating part of the non-GMO vs. Organic vs. anti-Monsanto equation.  One does not necessarily exclude the other.

Companies like Seed Savers, have given a safe seed pledge. They are also a non-profit.  That being said, I did not have to dig too far to find conspiracy propaganda regarding the board and Monsanto.  However, I can’t figure out how Seed Savers allegedly throws money back to Monsanto, which is what I would like to prevent, so I think that I am still a fan of Seed Savers.  It’s all so confusing, though.  Even when I think I can feel confident that if I buy heirloom seeds, I am not supporting Monsanto, I find out that Seminis develops heirloom seeds–though most of their seeds are hybrids.

Okay, so now I am really stumped. How can I now guarantee that even heirlooms do not lead back to Monsanto?  I came across this article that implies that all the varieties on the list in the article are heirlooms and that all the heirlooms are trademarked.  However, upon doing more digging, I think it’s pretty clear that this is not true.  To begin with, most of what Monsanto grows through its seed companies appears to be hybrids. They have a huge stock of parent plant material, that is either public hybrid or open pollinated, sometimes heirloom. They also develop their own hybrids.  When they do develop hybrids, they patent them. They do not seem to have any trademarks on any heirloom varieties.  Much of what they grow is not necessarily varieties they develop.  They grow some really well known hybrids and sell the seeds,  like the Celebrity and Better Boy tomatoes.  I can’t even say for certain if they are the only ones that grow those seeds for sale.  That would take a lot more research.  Seminis is, in part,  a wholesale seed company, so it is entirely possible that the Better Boy you buy from your local source gets their material from a  larger supplier like Seminis.  I guess the suggestion of the blogger above to take the list of varieties of seeds Seminis produces so you can avoid those varieties completely and, therefore, not unintentionally support Monsanto even remotely is a solid one.  Is it realistic? Not really.

As I was researching the issue of whether Monsanto “owns” the heirlooms, all that came up was other bloggers–bloggers that mostly regurgitated the same article and, while not necessarily fear mongering, it was definitely lazy and indicative of the reasons that anti-Monsanto-ers keep disappointing me.  Before I get into this, let me state again, I do not want to support Monsanto and I have put a lot of energy into trying to avoid this. However, when those trying to make a case against Monsanto continually put out bad information, then it dilutes the effectiveness of the arguments.  I could not find one investigative piece on the issue of whether Seminis has trademarks on heirloom names.  I also searched the Seminis’ trademarks under the U.S. government, and I could not find any trademarks that Seminis has taken out for what we consider heirloom varieties.

Despite that, it is also clear that Seminis does grow heirloom varieties and sells the seeds to seed retailers and farmers.  That is probably where the confusion and the wild dash to untrue conclusions came about.  The well-intentioned question, though, is still there. How do you avoid supporting Monsanto even tangentially? And by the way, it’s not only Monsanto out there in this GM/chemical debate.  DuPont, Dow, Bayer, BASF, and Syngenta are all big players here.  Monsanto just gets the brunt of the hate-focus.

Regardless, I think the only solution is to get to know a couple of seed suppliers really well and ask them. Start supporting small producers and stop supporting big agriculture.  Companies like Monsanto are driven by profit.  When farmers can’t sell their corn and soy to manufacturers because it is GM, then farmers will stop buying GM seed.  It happened with the GM potato. But this means being more aware of all the things corn and soy show up in  (Read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.)

I am still a fan of Seed Savers.  I have also come across this intriguing seed grower and farmer, Dale.   His company is definitely worth checking out next year when I am ready to plant.  I will also be exploring a local (to me) seed company, Terroir Seeds.  I think the Sustainable Seed Company has promise. And I plan check out these other seed companies listed on the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) web page.   Beyond that, I am already starting my efforts to seed save and exchange.

On that note, I have Calendula seeds if anyone is interested! Please let me know of your trials and tribulations or if you have any good local seed resources.  There are a lot of really small companies out there saving seeds that follow the ideals that I believe in and, maybe with your help, we can help make them even more successful.

 

 

OMG GMOs no. 2

As I  have been devouring books and articles related to this topic, I have to admit that I am still left feeling confused and often overwhelmed.  At the outset, it seems pretty straightforward: either the food we eat is GMO or it isn’t.  I mean, there are only a handfuls of fruit and vegetable crops that are GMOs such as corn, wheat, cotton, papayas and zucchinis.  It would seem super easy to avoid. But it is not… mostly because of one four-letter word: CORN

The truth is that shopping becomes long and tedious and difficult when making a conscious effort to avoid GMOs.  Even when you think you are being super-smart by avoiding the whole GMO thing by buying “organic” you may be smugger than you should be.  Let me give you two examples. First, just because you are buying that can of organic tomato sauce, does not mean that everything in that can of tomato sauce is organic.  Whaaaa?  And really, why are there more than tomatoes in that can!? As my husband always states–really, like, he says this every time we go to the grocery store– “it is so hard to buy real food in this country.” But despite us being devout label readers, labels do not always tell the whole story.

Under the The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 ( codified in Title  7 of the Code of Federal Regulations) the USDS has more than one category that can be identified as organic in some form.  The unfortunate truth is that if that organic food product does not actually state 100% organic, up to 5% of the ingredients do not have to be organic. And to make things even worse, there is a pretty long list of non-organically derived items that can be in there. (See the actual code, specifically 7 CFR 205.605 and 7 CFR 205.606).  That’s a long list of stuff! This can include those little extras such as pectin and citric acid and dextrose–all products often derived from corn, with a really good chance that it is GM corn.  The problem is that you don’t know, and the label doesn’t have to tell you (unless of course it is labelled 100% organic.)

The non-GMO project also leaves a bit of guessing room, though not quite as much.  Their standard is to allow up to .09% of what they term micro-ingredients that do not have to be evaluated.  See Section A (2) (3) of their standards.  A micro-ingredient is any ingredient that represents less than 0.5% of the product and is not a defining ingredient.  This leaves a lot of room for things such as dextrose, citric acid and other such ingredients which are often corn-based.  As as these additive are considered micro-ingredients (and up to 10 micro-ingredients can be included) and they total less than .09% of the total ingredients, it could be GMO derived and still be verified by the non-GMO project.  Okay, so over 99% non-GMO is pretty stinking good.  And if you learn enough to stay away from those micro-ingredients, then the non-GMO project brand label is a great tool.

As if all this was not confusing enough, the USDA has recently come up with another labeling program entitled the “Process Verified Program.” However, it seems that the program is only designed to verify the claims made by each producer.  So I guess you first have to figure out what the claim is before you can even figure out what the process verification stamp is worth. For more information see this link.

The second example of why avoiding GMOs is very difficult does not have to do with the food.  Even when you think you are avoiding the corn problem by buying something that is 100% organic, you might still encounter problems such as packaging. In 2010, for example, Stonyfield Organic made headlines when it switched many of its products to bio-based packaging.  It touted this change as better for the environment both in the lower energy costs of the product but also in the bio-degradeability of the plastic.  But you know what bio-based probably means? Corn. And that corn is likely GM corn.  Stonyfield admitted that while it encouraged growers to grow non-GM Corn, it could not know that the bio-packaging it purchased was made with non-GM corn.  On top of plastic containers, we also have to consider things such as the glues used to hold packaging together and the plastic windows in boxes, … much of it is corn derived. Luckily the non-GMO project also verifies packaging . Just one more label to look for! Packages are soon going to start looking like the back of a hippy’s VW bus.

Nonetheless, as a consumer, you are left floundering.  Even when you know you do not want to put any money in the pockets of any industry that relies on GM plants, it’s really hard.  This, of course, leads to the conclusion every year that I need to know where my food comes from and I need to buy it locally or grow my own… which leads us to OMG GMOs no. 3 where I finally talk about GMOs and vegetable seeds.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments and experiences as you have explored this issue and some of the challenges you have come across in the grocery store.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OMG GMOs no. 1

Many of us have strong reactions to the word GMO and I would wager that many of those people do not understand why they feel so strongly about them or, even more fundamentally, what a GMO even is.

I felt that I understood what a GMO was and because I thought I knew what they were, I believed I had a choice to avoid them. However, my husband and I were recently at the Home Depot and I decided to get some last minute broccoli seeds. My husband was immediately drawn to these bright green packages that clearly stated non-GMO.  I wandered away from those packages because it was not clear whether they were Hybrids and they were not organic.  When I  went to the other side of the seed display and saw the organic offerings of a large seed company, I noticed that there were no non-GMO claims on the label. Nonetheless, I felt confident that home garden seeds had not been breached by genetic modification and that my husband was confusing hybrids, or traditional plant breeding, with genetic modification.  I insisted that I was not at risk of getting GMO seeds even if it did not say so on the label and I was pretty sure that organic meant that it was not GMO.  But a tiny part of me wasn’t exactly sure.  I was making a lot of assumptions and I hate not being right, so I thought I would explore.  And it turns out that this is going to be a 2 or 3-parter… because the background part got really long.  I hope you come back for more!

In order to delve into this question on the non-GMO-ness of garden vegetable seeds, let’s first take a step back and figure out what GMO means. GMO stands for gentically modified organism. You so totally knew that, I know. But just in case you wanted to read this to your seven year old, I am going ultra basic here. The scientific field in which this happens is called recombinant technology or biotechnology. Other terms are Genetic Engineering and BioEngineering.  These are all terms that should make you perk up and pay attention. In general, in relation to plants, the genetically modified (GM) industry explains that biotechnology is the creation of plants with traits that you cannot develop from traditional plant breeding.  The non-GM people tend to agree with that. They tend to believe that traditional or conventional plant breeding ascribes to the laws of nature.

But this is the part that I find confusing and the line that I do not think is entirely clear.  It is also the part that I think weakens the non-GMO argument.   The problem, you see, is that anti-GMOers keep wanting to argue that traditional plant breeding creates plants in a natural way or that plant-breeding is a gentle science, allowing plants to live their lives and just waiting to see what might happen. Certainly, it can work that way.   This article I came across describes organic plant breeding and shows that this type of plant selection can be very gentle.  It can also take years and years.  It soon becomes clear why plant breeders might not have enough patience to just wait and see what happens. More than that, plant breeders want or need to create new plants.  Historically, breeding might have happened the in the field where we might have been after plants that performed well under stressful conditions such as longer periods without rain, periods with too much rain, too hot, to cold, etc.  These were conditions that would have occurred naturally and the plants that survived those conditions would be selected either intentionally or because it was the only thing growing.  But breeders have not stopped at natural conditions to cause stress. They have subjected plants to gamma rays, x-rays, thermal neutrons (whatever those are), and radiation–all to induce mutations.  For an eye-popping list, click here.   There’s a lot of fruit on that list.

Beyond just mutating genes, breeders also develop new plants by crossing between existing plants.  And, again, non-GMOers tend to argue that breeding creates plants that obey the laws of nature and that plant breeding is really just establishing an environment that encourages or speeds up natural crosses between varieties or species. But that is not accurate.  Plant breeding is not necessarily gentle and plant breeders cross plants that would never naturally cross. Plant breeders, in fact, breed hybrids between plant genera as well as plant species.  Because Biology class was probably a long, long time ago, this is how life breaks down:

Now, plant breeding can be gentle, such as the pollen of one variety of tomato getting brushed on the lady parts of another variety.  These tomatoes are in the same species and this cross might happen naturally with bees busily buzzing around.  But that is not what breeding is limited to. Breeders create new plants by crossing between species all the time. Think plums and apricots (pluots)-both species in the genus prunus.  Scientists seem to support that this can happen naturally–or, at least that it is fairly easy to do.  However, breeders don’t stop there. Crosses in the plant world between genera are referred to as wide crosses, and plant breeders do this with some regularity as well. After a relatively short search, I found several examples of wide crosses and even discovered an easy way to identify intergeneric crosses. (See this article.)  The author of that article explains that “[f]or plants from different genera to successfully cross, they must share the same chromosome number and enough similarity in their DNA sequence to match up in enough places to create a viable seed. Intergeneric hybrids … are relatively rare in the plant kingdom as a whole. I know of no examples where they occurred without the helping hand of man.”

This article, which I will admit is so technical it made my eyes cross, demonstrates that crossing genera is not exactly natural. The wide cross made here required that embryos from the two plants were dissected and then plated on HLH medium–I’m not really sure what that is, but it certainly was something that helped recombine the embryos since without help that embryo would not have survived to form a seedling.  This article explained that it can take a lot of effort to make an embryo viable.  This type of crossing–really, any type of crossing–is, in some form, recombinant.  In an enthusiastic defense of conventional plant breeding and its differences from genetic engineering (GE) this author argues that, “while wide crosses, as breeders perform them, do not occur in nature, they represent only a slight stretching of the boundaries of what can occur in nature. In a sense wide crosses represent a stretching of these boundaries by inches compared to miles with GE. After all, with GE, one can mix genes not only from widely different plant families, one can put genes from any organism on earth, or can create genes which have not existed before and put them, into plants.”  This defense highlights the slipper slope of the debate.  They are essentially saying that stretching the bounds of nature somewhat is okay, but not too much.

And this is where I think that the arguments start to weaken against GMOs.  I don’t say this as a proponent of GMOs, but as a proponent of putting arguments out there that can’t be so easily refuted.  Non-GMOers should stop saying that plant-breeding is okay because it is obeys the laws of nature.  Most wide crosses would simply never, ever naturally exist, no matter how close together you put the plants you were trying to cross and no matter how long you waited for them to cross. The Non-Gmo project defines GMOs as “living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”   It is only the second part of this definition that separates GMOs from traditional plant breeding, since we have established that traditional plant breeding created organisms by manipulating their genes in a lab.  It isn’t even the unstable, natural part in the second sentence that separates the two sciences, since traditional plant breeding creates unstable plants all the time that do not occur in nature.  It really just comes down to the combination of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that don’t occur in nature. That last clause leads me to to ask, “Well, what combinations of those genes do occur in nature?” An article published on June 20, 2013 in The Scientist Magazine claimed that a University of Maryland School of Medicine Study found strong evidence that bacteria transfer their genes into human genomes.  Another article in The Scientist Magazine published much more recently states that horizontal gene transer “definitely can happen and has happened during evolution, and has played a role in shaping functional diversity of the gene repertoire in metazoans.” Accordingly, there is already, historically, some combination of bacteria and animal DNA that occurs in nature.

After all this research, I can honestly say that I am not a fan of GMOs, though my reasons are more solidly in the agricultural-ecological-economical camp. I am just not buying the whole science of it.  The strongest argument I have come across is that we need more research because the way the DNA is introduced in GMO plants is unnatural and random and the consequences of re-sequencing of DNA  in this way is unknown.  This is the strongest argument because the results are, well, unknown… but they could be benign, they cold be harmful.    But, one of my first thoughts when hearing this argument is that randomly inserting genetic material just sounds like another mutation, which is just a change in the DNA–often an unpredictable change.  And mutations caused by stress, disease, and even radiation seem to be accepted as okay.   It seems to me that, if an apple tree developed a mutation that led to a desirable fruit, we would likely graft that apple tree and sell it.  But we probably wouldn’t question how the rearranging of DNA in that apple would affect our bodies.  Research into how GMO plants affect our bodies should be done because we need to know how anything we eat affects out bodies.  However, I don’t know that research will show that it is bad for you or changes anything in your body.  Again, it is not necessarily a science argument that sways me from GMOs.  It is the economic and agricultural devastation that they are wreaking and the poisons they require to grow.  I plant to discuss that in the third part of this series.

In the next segment, I will actually get around to discussing whether vegetable seeds are GMO even if they are not labeled GMO.  Your comments are more than welcome.  However, I know that people get very heated about this topic, so please remain civil.

 

Additional Sources:

http://www.ofrf.org/sites/ofrf.org/files/Introduction_to_On-farm_Organic_Plant_Breeding.pdf

http://www.bats.ch/bats/publikationen/1995-1_TA/2-methods.php

http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/05/17/organic-101-can-gmos-be-used-in-organic-products/

https://books.google.com/books?id=cT9uAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA164&lpg=PA164&dq=dissecting+plant+embryos+for+breeding&source=bl&ots=Q8Rw1i73u7&sig=dy-3wTPN5dcfXGQe-jzm0crycVg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6N1DVfXRIcXegwSIsYHYBA&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=dissecting%20plant%20embryos%20for%20breeding&f=false

http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2013/07/30/the-intensifying-debate-over-genetically-modified-foods/

http://monsantoblog.com/2009/04/13/gmo-vegetables-animal-dna/

 

 

When I think of a genetically modified organism in terms of plants, I think of a plant that has had genetic material from non-plants.

Are hybrids genetically modified? In a strict sense, yes.

 

In the Whey

I have been making my own yogurt now for several weeks.  I heat up the milk, cool down the milk, add a cup of yogurt from the prior batch and stick it in the turned-off oven. And, to my continuous shock and awe, the next morning it is yogurt. I am still amazed that this is such an easy process and that it works–even in those instances that I think I have screwed it up. But alas, I make yogurt. Really delicious, healthy yogurt with good ingredients. However, I also make whey. Quite a lot of it.  Especially since I strain and strain the yogurt for about 8 hours after I remove the freshly made yogurt from its little incubator.

The first week, I just threw out the whey because I didn’t know anything about it.  I didn’t know how long it would last in the fridge, how to store it, what to do with it, etc.  I figured, though, that more industrious people out there probably used the whey for stuff, so I hit the search engines and found a lot of really great, useful tips to using whey. Mostly the recommendation is to sneak it in as a liquid to things. So the second week of making yogurt, I kept the whey and added it to my chicken soup stock, spaghetti sauce, to deglaze pans…lots of things that would not be hurt by a bit of liquid. I just figured it was healthy and it did not affect the taste of anything.  Added protein and all that. I mean, my husband spends a lot of money on whey protein, so I thought win-win.

Then I boasted to my husband about all the little ways I had been sneaking the whey into our meals.  I realized, though that while I thought it was good for us, I couldn’t really explain in what way it was good for us.

Once again, I did some research.  I came across some disturbing information. It seems that there are two different types of whey out there–sweet whey (SW) that you get from making hard cheeses, and acid or sour whey (AW) that you get from making yogurt or cottage cheese. An oft mentioned and quoted article I came across entitled “Whey Too Much: Greek Yogurt’s Dark Side “ made it seem that the AW was a useless and dangerous by-product. Apparently, greek yogurt production has sky-rocketed and produced a large amount of AW. However, whereas the dairy industry has long since found buyers for SW, there has not been the same enthusiasm for AW as a source for extracting much of anything.  Article after article claimed that AW doesn’t have that much protein at all and that the AW was typically cast off as fertilizer, feed, or as enzymes for waste product.

The information that AW was really low in protein was pretty readily available in scores of publications and articles. But the information about what AW did have was more complicated to discover.  I found a lot of articles on whey–most of it from homesteading and food blogs with very clever titles with cute whey puns (how could you not, really? The puns practically write themselves).  These are great resources with a lot of great ideas, but, not surprisingly, not a lot of scientific information. I eventually came across the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, which is part of the University of Wisconsin, and this led me to some great information that I felt was trustworthy.

Generally speaking, AW and SW  are similar in that they are about 95% water. However, as the name would imply, AW is much more acidic, with AW in general having a pH of 5.5 or less with Greek Yogurt  AW coming in at a pH of 4.2.  SW has a pH of around 6.0. Some of the articles I came across were quick to point out that AW is as acidic as orange juice… and I almost parroted that information right back to you. But then it occurred to me that I now know how acidic the AW is, but just how acidic was orange juice?  This chart shows that the above claim is a bit of a stretch.  Orange juice has a pH range of 3.3-4.19.  So as a reach, the most acidic greek yogurt whey it is as acidic as the least acidic orange juice.  The acidity of greek yogurt AW is much more in line with garden tomatoes and nectarines, and AW overall is much more in line with the acidity of pumpkins and bananas.  So while the acid is definitely a component of my AW, it is probably only an issue in a practical, functional sense if I have a sensitivity to acid in general.

But, what else is in my AW? Well, according to the below chart, it has protein, lactose, calcium and other assorted minerals. AW, in fact, has anywhere from .3% to .5% of protein in its makeup.  Far less than one percent! This, indeed, does not sound like a lot. But then you look at SW, and it only has .8% protein. Yet, SW is lauded for its protein.  There is not that much of it in there! It appears that the getting protein out of AW is not so much an issue of the amount of protein, but that the whey is not easy to extract from the AW.

Below is a chart to what is a practical break-down of using one cup of whey, since .05% protein did not translate easily to grams in my little brain.  As you can see, the one cup of AW give you an added 1.87 grams of protein.  In comparison, one cup of SW give you right around 2 grams.  (Ahem–not much of a difference, is there?!)

Also evident from the first chart, AW has less lactose than SW.  Is that good or bad, you ask if –like me– you have no idea what lactose is other than that some people are intolerant of it?  This is a good thing since lactose is essentially sugar. Lactose is what feeds the bacteria and that feeding produces lactic acid, which is what makes the AW acid.  As a commodity, lactose seems to be used as a filler and preservative, so there really does not seem to be any advantage to having more of it, though our food scientists are currently hard at work to attempt to extract lactose from AW to use as a food additive.  Shame on you, food system.  Here is probably the biggest draw back to using whey: lactose is sugar.  One cup of AW give you almost half of your 25 gram maximum for daily sugar intake– if you use World Health Organization guidelines (and you should!). (And, of course, if you are lactose intolerant, it is important to note that any type of whey will likely bother you.)

But it is not as easy as looking at something and isolating its sugar content. Whey has a lot going for it in terms of the added benefits it brings to the table.  For example, another by-product of the lactose feeding frenzy described above is calcium.  AW has 2-3 times more calcium than SW and one cup has about 25% of your daily requirements.  That’s pretty great for someone who does not like or drink milk. AW also has phosphorus, zinc, iron, potassium, magnesium, riboflavins, vitamin b-12, and a whole lot of other stuff.

So in summary, is whey a super food? This article seems to think so.  Though I have some reservations.  My original concerns after reading over and over again how little protein AW had was that I was adding nothing more than sugars and empty calories to everything.  But it is not at all empty.  There is a decent amount of protein (and it is particularly good protein) and a great amount of calcium, in addition to many other vitamins and minerals.  To something that already is low in sugar, such as my chicken noodle soup, I wouldn’t hesitate to add it.  It adds a nice amount of substance making a heartier more fortifying meal out of a bowl of soup.  But perhaps I may stop adding it to tomato sauce since that already has a high amount of natural and added sugars.  To a smoothie, I might add it to mine for some interesting tang and a tough of sweetness, but not to my husband’s if the acid content is already high.   And I think I am confident in pronouncing that AW is better for you than SW (less sugar, roughly the same amount of protein, less fat, more vitamins and minerals!). So if you are already a SW devotee, then AW is even better and you can feel confident that articles expressing how good for you SW apply equally (if not more so) to AW.

This article was a bit longer than I intended since every answer led to more questions.   But, more and more, I want to know exactly what I am eating and I hope you enjoyed the ride!

If you use whey, please share how you like to use it.

Sources:

http://www.usdairy.com/~/media/usd/public/technicalreportsensorypropertiesofwheyingredients.pdf.pdf

http://www.news.wisc.edu/23557

http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/digestive-diseases/lactose-intolerance/Pages/facts.aspx

http://modernfarmer.com/2013/05/whey-too-much-greek-yogurts-dark-side/

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/16/health/nutrition/16run.html?_r=0

http://www.dairyforall.com/whey.php

http://www.cheesemaking.com/Whey1.html

http://www.livestrong.com/article/533194-nutritional-value-of-milk-whey-liquid/

Seed me, Seymour!

I just put in a big seed order at seedsavers.org. Big enough to wonder how long it will take to actually get ahead in the whole I-grow-my-own-food-and-save-money thing. But I have so many plans! So many. Not only are we seriously expanding our “production” this year but idea is to invest in plants that I grow and eat now, and also cultivate and save seeds for next year. (Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas!)

That’s one of the reasons I ordered pricier seeds from seedsavers.org–you can’t save hybrid seeds. Well, you can save them, they will just break your heart over and over again. So I’ve heard. To be honest, I didn’t completely understand why this was. I just drank the kool-aid and repeated that little nugget as if I knew what I was talking about. So I did some scholarly-type research on the Google.  I came across a couple of articles, coincidentally on the Seed Saver site, and thought they were a good starting point.  If interested, check out this article that was useful and straightforward and this other article that was a bit more complex but a pretty good and short read.

The gist of it is that hybrids are really controlled inbred plants. In the lab or field, two plants with a very narrow gene pool are crossed to produce a seed with the chosen, desired characteristics of the two parents.  The key word is controlled. Very smart scientist-type people who understand a lot of stuff about genes know which traits are dominant and which traits are recessive.  The parents will be selected for desired traits that will come through, either because one parent has the desired dominant characteristic or because both parents have the desired recessive characteristic.  The child of that coupling gets planted and grows, resulting in a plant that has the desired, controlled traits of mama and papa plant.  BUT… now that little hybrid plant has been let loose like a college girl on spring break.  There are untold numbers of influences out there–some good, some bad, some that are very nice, but just not that exciting.  That innocent little hybrid plant is vulnerable to any local yahoo indiscriminately spreading his dirty pollen wherever it will land.  This is called Open Pollination (OP)–which is actually a good thing in the plant world–and on Melrose Place.  So when that hybrid plant makes it seeds, those seeds carry who-knows-what genetic traits.  The site www.victoryseeds.com explains that if you want to  “save [corn] seeds for future planting, considerations must be made to prevent cross-pollination…. [Corn] uses the wind to distribute its pollen from the tassels of one plant to the developing ears of another.” In order to “maintain the genetic purity of a cultivar, that is, keeping the variety true-to-type, great isolation distances are required.  Depending on climate and geographical features in your area, separating varieties by up to one mile is required.”

Okay, so why does this work with OP seeds and not seeds from hybrid plants. The oversimplified answer is that you allow natural selection for your area to win out.  The seeds that you share likely already have some genetic markers that will make it dominant and vigorous over whatever else is out there.  Whereas Hybrid plant seeds have very narrow genetic traits and there is nothing about them designed to thrive in your environment.  Hybrid seeds are bred for certain characteristics–i.e, fruit size and yield– that are not conducive to environmental factors, meaning that they require a lot of help in the form of pesticides and water to survive. They are not tough because they have not had to survive season after season fighting the course of natural selection. They are delicate little lab creations that often require substantial assistance.  The off-spring of those hybrids, tend to be weaker and less adaptive, since their gene pool has been severely reduced.  There is a lot less diversity and, as a consequence, if you plant the seeds from hybrid plants you might get a few good plants over the course of hundreds of seeds.

Planting the seeds of hybrid plants essentially sets you back to the beginning of time.  Okay, slight exaggeration.  But, this is kind of the first step for farmers who have historically cultivated seeds going back hundreds of years. Dr. John Navazio in the above-referenced article tells a story about tomatoes that explains this process.  The tomatoes that were brought over to Europe several hundred years ago from the Americas were all cherry-tomato sized.  Somewhere between 200 and 300 years ago–after Europeans got over the idea that tomatoes were poisonous–farmers began selecting their desired traits.  The tomatoes “disseminated across the landscape in very diverse climates and were selected for new varieties by the humans who decided to give them the extra effort and domesticate them, the climatic influence that is natural selection, and then good old recombination in genetic terms. … How did they go from cherry tomatoes to these big beefsteaks in just 200-300 years? ….Every farmer, every eater, was a seed grower and they were totally tuned in to watching for variation and picking the best. It was plant breeding at its best by people who were in tune.”

This, of course, is what plant breeders try and speed up and control–with much success.  It would not now take 200 years to develop a beefsteak tomato from cherry tomatoes.  However, what you can’t get from hybrid is the genetic diversity to be resilient to your area.  So getting to the point where you have seeds that produce a general specific plant is just the first step.  The next is to plant it in your yard/garden/farm. Locally sourced, open pollinated seeds are genetically resilient. They are “adapted to the challenges of the specific geographic regions where they came from because there was always … strong natural selection on the material. People were not pampering it, people were not watering it with sophisticated irrigation, and so when you put plants under stress … you really start to see the variation. Then you have an opportunity to work in concert with natural selection if you care to improve your crops just like our ancestors did.”

I know…this topic is a bit mind-boggling.  My husband said it was too technical.  I think he lost interest pretty early on.  Though to be fair to me–and plants–he loses interest pretty quickly in most things early on.  However, I really wanted to understand why hybrids were not good source material for seeds.  And I wanted to try and explain it in a way that made sense.  I hope you stuck with me.

A company like Seed Savers sells seeds of plants that you can in turn collect seeds from or otherwise propagate with a high rate of success. They also sell non-gmo, untreated seeds with a huge collection of organic seeds. They promote and encourage heirloom varieties and encourage communities to exchange their own seeds. I’m in! I hope you are, too, and that we can start trading seeds.  Now… we have all learned that your seeds might not be the perfect seeds for my area, but that if they are open pollinated, they should at least produce enough diversity to result in some plants that are vigorous for my geographic region.   And then I can collect the seeds from those vigorous plants the next year–and so on and so on.  As Dr. Navazio explains, “Genetic resources need to be preserved and carefully managed. But they do constantly co-evolve with the humans who select them and who use them. If you have vital varieties that really work for people, that really feed people, then there is a constant interplay of the farmer, the variety, and selection, both natural and farmer selection, as well as adapting to all of these changes.”

What are you growing this year?

Culture Club

Holy cow … I made yogurt. Like, without a machine. You may not think it a big deal–though, really, when was the last time you made yogurt– but I was pretty daunted. I really enjoy cooking. But yogurt was … like, actual chemistry. It was scary to think that we would be consuming milk after we left it in the oven all night. However, we finally decided that paying $7.00 for the really good large container of Fage Greek yogurt was just too much. Sadly, the $6.00 price the prior several weeks was not too much. I don’t know why that one dollar broke the dam, but we had developed pretty high standards for yogurt. We wanted a really thick, high protein, creamy yogurt made without pectin. By the way, have you ever noticed that yogurt has pectin? Not that it’s bad for you, but it makes you feel like you’re eating milk jello. That’s why we eventually started getting the Fage Greek yogurt. It was thick without pectin. It’s delicious but expensive– and it isn’t even organic. So when it was no longer “on sale” we decided to explore other options. Or, rather, my husband looked at me and said, “I thought you said you can make yogurt at home?” I responded that, “well, sure, some people make yogurt at home.” I then immediately avoided eye contact. The truth is I had googled making yogurt at home several times. I had just never felt confident enough to make it. I finally just looked at him and asked if he was willing to experiment and possibly waste $4.29– the cost of a half-gallon of Kalona milk.

This isn’t an article where I regurgitate someone else’s recipe as if I made it. And, really, it’s not even a recipe because you are just applying heat to milk. It’s more like directions. The ones I followed I found on the site The Kitchn. It didn’t require anything fancy– and it worked! It wasn’t completely smooth sailing. After the four hours the author recommends you check on it, my yogurt had not actually become yogurt. When I stirred it, I encouraged my self that it was thicker that the whole milk I had started with, but if that was true it was just barely thicker. I totally thought I had ruined it and wasted a half-gallon of really good milk. I immediately googled “trouble shooting ruined yogurt” and came across sage advice like “whatever you do, don’t stir it.” Well crap. Stirring it was the first thing I did. However, the instructions on The Kitchn reassured me that I could have left the milk soup in the oven overnight, so I decided to see what happened. It was like Christmas when I ran down first thing the next morning to open up my pot. And by golly, I made yogurt!!!

Alas, that was not the end of it. I wanted really thick yogurt and what I had made was regular yogurt,even a bit runnier than regular yogurt. I then had to improvise a method to let the whey drain from the yogurt. I won’t even post a picture of my ridiculous set-up which consisted of a clean, thin tank top to strain the yogurt and several pony-tail holders chained together to wrap the shirt around a bowl. But it worked. It took another day but my end-product is thick, creamy, organic, and, I believe, high in protein.

In the end, I saved money and made a better product. It was easy, though rather tedious, if I am going to be honest. That being said, I didn’t have to do much to it. It just took a while. Nonetheless, my husband keeps telling me it is the best yogurt he’s ever had and that he can’t believe I made it. So, yeah, I will probably add this to my homestead Sunday repertoire. This will have to go on the list of things that are surprisingly easy to make at home. Please, share your list of things that you found surprisingly easy to make at home.

Simple Sleeves

Last year I resolved that if I was going to occasionally indulge in a latte or two, I should do a better job about bringing my own cup.  I must have expressed that I was on the look out for a good reusable cup because my husband bought me a fancy stainless steel cup that came with this neat little tea basket for loose leaf tea.  It’s purple and pretty cool.  He did a lot of research and spent a chunk of money.  The mug has this intricate press top button to make it spill proof when the button was pressed down.  I drink a lot of tea, and it was fairly useful.  But… then it became harder and harder to clean. It was tall and skinny and I couldn’t fit my sturdy paw down into it to really scrub the bottom.  Yes, I tried salt and vinegar.  You also could not take apart the top to thoroughly clean out the lid.  I also could not microwave it or put it in the dishwasher.  All these cleaning difficulties made it unpalatable to switch up between coffee and tea, or put anything with milk into it.  So yes, it was pretty.  But with limited function and was very high maintenance.  Kinda the total opposite of me.

Even before I knew that I was searching for an alternative, I walked into Starbucks and saw a stack of cups at the checkout with a little tag that said $1. They are plastic and reusable and I can throw them in the dishwasher and the microwave and they have a nice lid that is a single, easy-to-clean piece.  They were even BPA free! However, this article was not supposed to be about the Starbucks cup, or my mug woes.  It is actually for a craft project that resulted from the purchase of this cup. Because in order to sell these cups for $1 and ship them from China, Starbucks made them with really thin plastic. That means they get HOT when you drink any hot beverage out of them.  They are, in fact, painful to hold.  I resolved to make something I could use at home for protection since I did not have a container of cardboard sleeves at my disposal.  Plus, these reusable sleeves would allow me to avoid paper sleeves at the coffee shop.

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I dare you to screw up this project.  I nailed this on my first try.  Not to brag or anything.  This project was even a bit easier than many of my projects because I actually had a pattern (a paper sleeve from the coffee shop) instead of totally winging it.  Below are the items you will need.

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I actually ended up adding some fusible webbing to stiffen things up because I used some pretty flimsy cotton fabrics.  However, on my next try I would probably use upholstery fabric remnants and then I would not have to use the webbing, I think.

To start this project, I took apart the sleeve and laid it on my fabric.  I then cut two, identical pieces of fabric in a generous rectangle, providing at least an inch on every side of the sleeve.

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Place your fabrics ugly sides together and trace out the sleeve adding about 1/4-1/2 inch around the edges of the sleeve.  I totally eye-balled it and it was fine.

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In an unusual turn of precision for my projects, I then pinned the edges just inside my outlines and trimmed the pieces at the lines I had drawn

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Unfortunately I skipped a photo here.  I ran up to sew the seams and left my phone downstairs.  The photo would have been an unpinned, 3/4 sides sewn version of the sleeve above, still wrong-side out. Remember, you left yourself about 1/4 inch around the edge, so remember not to sew farther in than what you allowed.  Leave one of the short ends unsewn since you are going to flip this inside-out later. After it is sewn, you may trim the piece EXCEPT for the side you did not sew.

At this point, I decided my sleeve was going to be pretty limp on its own and I cut out a piece of two-sided fusible webbing.  This is a Bosal Craf-Tex brand and you iron it down after inserting and it sticks to the fabric. I have gotten a lot of use out of this product, which I originally bought to make coasters last Christmas. The package of placemats I bought made A LOT of coasters and I happened to have a leftover strip. In any case, even it you didn’t decide to add things all willy-nilly mid project, this is when you would measure out the webbing as it has to actually fit inside the sleeve.  Cut out your strip of webbing so that it is just a touch smaller than the seams.  Just a touch– like1/16 of an inch.

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At this point, you can turn your sleeve right-side out and insert the webbing.  It should fit snugly.  I like to leave a bit more fabric on the end I did not sew because it makes it easier to tuck the ends inside without losing too much from the ends.  I folded the ends into the sleeve and then finished sewing the sleeve.  I did not get tricky.  I simply sewed a straight seam on the end.

With the use of the fusible webbing, I had to iron the sleeve before I hand-stitched it.  I started out this project making sure I traced out where the ends of the paper sleeve met, but in the end realized that this is a pretty forgiving pattern–though you can go too small.  I just grabbed my thin, plastic cup and visually observed where I needed to start stitching.  Then I stitched.

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This was a really quick project and it turned out pretty well.  While researching the Starbucks cups and its safety before I admitted to using it, I came across this fun blog called The Greening of Westford. The Blogger here had a similar experience with the volcanic temperature that seeps through the cup.  Her solution was cute, clever and super quick: the top portion of a sock! A great alternative and a great reuse for socks, which I think are often difficult to repurpose.   Sweater sleeves would also do the trick.

Please share your ideas for coffee cozies. I would love to share it.  And do not be shy about sharing this project.

Egg-cellent Hack

I am taking this dip into food blogging not so much by giving you a delicious recipe, but by inspiring you with a shortcut that not only produces something delicious but also cuts down on dishes and time! Behold the egg-sandwich– or, rather, the eggy part you can put in a sandwich. Normally, this would take quite a few steps necessitating several dirty dishes. You would break the eggs into a bowl to make them fluffy, stir with fork, pour into a pan and perhaps use a mold to get that perfect round shape, and use a spatula to remove. In this hack, you get dirty one ramekin and a fork.

Step one: grab and oil a microwave-safe ramekin or glass dish that is approximately the size of the bread you plan to use. You can even use plastic if you are not wary of its notoriety and as long as it is microwave safe.

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Step two: break the eggs directly into the dish and lightly beat. Do not add anything yet to the egg mixture or it will all end up in the middle.

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Step three: Place dish in microwave and start with cooking for 1 minute but keep an eye on the eggs. They will expand and it is a fine line between just enough and a mess in your microwave. However, only you know your microwave. One minute may not be enough. Cook until there is very little to no runniness. Start at a minute and continue in 30 second intervals.

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Step four: When you check after a minute or so and the eggs are mostly stiff, this would be the time to add herbs, salt, and cheese.
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Continue to cook until eggs are firm. The entire amount of cooking will let be between 1-2 minutes depending on the amount of eggs you use, the shallowness of your dish and the strength of your microwave.

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It’s pretty easy to know when you have overcooked eggs in the microwave– they explode. As long as you are careful not to have them blow up, you should be able to produce a great product!

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I added sage and salt in the delightful sandwich above. But the egg is essentially a blank palette just waiting for your creativity. And now you can eggs-periment all the time since making egg sandwiches are soooo easy!

Thought for Food

Several months ago I wrote an article extolling what an awesome grocery shopper I was. I boasted that my husband and I were rocking the $100.00 a week budget we set, even including toiletries, pet food, and alcohol. In that article, I wrote that “[t]he choices to substitute good, healthy choices with even better, healthier choices has to be deliberate and strategic.” What I meant was that while we were buying lots of whole grains, produce and meat at the grocery store, we were not at all concerned about organic, free-range, hormone-free, pasture-raised, etc. We were being good citizens, but not great ones. I wrote then that in order to stick to the budget we could not really put any organic, grass-fed, free-range, local items in the shopping cart since eco-friendly and organic usually meant wallet unfriendly. To have done so would have meant either buying, like, five things or blowing the $100.00 budget–or so I thought.

One night–I believe it was in late spring–my husband watched a documentary. These things happen when you cancel cable and get bored and start to flip through Hulu. You watch documentaries. That documentary happened to be Food Inc. and he was horrified. Rather precipitously, he decided we were done with buying food at the grocery store. He also caught a great TED talk by Vicki Robin that summed up many of the ironies and foibles of our current food industry. He then decided we were going to eat local. Local and organic–and all the other adjectives that really only serve to equal expensive?! I looked at him like he was nuts. He is nuts, actually. Not because he wanted to shop differently, but because he though we could do it still for $100 a week. I laughed. I mean, that was what had gotten us into the $800 a month grocery tabs–the increasing number of trips to Whole Foods and Trader Jo’s, dabbling in organics, and starting to care about hormones (Not mine–which are completely in balance, dear husband–but the ones they inject into all the animals we eat). He said, “Let’s just try it.” I rather smugly said fine, you go to the farmer’s market and see how much food you can buy for the week.

I forget what produce he came back with, but I do remember that he brought back a whole chicken. It cost about $16 and was frozen solid. I think this and a pound of ground turkey for $10 was the only meat he managed to get. So… almost $30 for about four pounds of meat. I think in total he spent about $50 between meat and produce. Sounds pretty good, right? Except, we still needed supplies and food for the cats, general toiletries, dairy, bread, pasta, and random “exotics” such as rice, olive oil, and bananas. And he really didn’t get that much food.

Back to this chicken. Previously, I would get a chicken for roasting when they were on sale for around $2-$3 from the grocery store. At that price, you don’t feel bad about roasting the whole thing and having it for one meal. However, at $16 for one smallish chicken, the damn thing has to stretch for 3-4 meals. My husband handed it over like I would automatically know what to do with it.

Well, of course I did. I was just annoyed that it meant a lot of work for me. It was the beginning of what I now call my Sunday “homesteading.” To work with this damn chicken, I had to partially defrost it enough for me to take apart the pieces. Luckily it was a “cut-up” whole chicken which meant that I didn’t have to hack it apart. Once it was defrosted enough to pull apart, I had the breast bone and ribs, two leg quarters, two wings and some on other bony part. I took the breasts off the bone and put them in the refrigerator for one meal, stuck the thighs and wings in the crock pot for another meal and got out my largest pot to make chicken stock/soup. I did manage to get 3-4 meals out of the little sucker, but it took hours to prepare!

After many, many months of undergoing this transition, we have done a pretty good job at staying around $100.00, though we are probably closer to an average of $110.00 per month. Not bad. Especially when you consider that our dairy alone is 20%-25% of the budget. We spend more on meat and eat less of it. And I get really creative with grains, beans and produce. Especially now in the lean Winter months. We have established certain rules that are still changing with the intent of finding local providers or better choices for those items that we still buy at the grocery store. Currently, we do not buy meat from the grocery store, though we continue to shop at the grocery store for some fruit that does not grow here, like bananas and avocados, and also for pet food and supplies, tea, coffee and natural peanut butter and jelly, etc. We even found that our local grocery store carries a few local, healthy products, like bread and honey. There are many things that we would prefer to buy local, but have not been able to find a reliable vendor, such as pasta and pasta sauce. I intended to have so many tomatoes this year that I would have a ton of freezer sauce on hand, but the weather and lack of experience in gardening conspired against me. I even tried making pasta once, and found that it was fairly easy, but time consuming. However, that is really the trick to eating really well on a budget–you spend a lot of time preparing and cooking. Like I mentioned above, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen on Sundays. Though I enjoy it, it takes up a lot of time. Did I mention it was time-consuming?

On the bright side, I am no longer daunted by making chicken soup from bones and I can make one 1 pound chicken breast stretch for three great meals. My husband, who previously refused to eat asparagus and squash, has gotten more adventurous in eating, which I very much appreciate. He even accepts that we will probably eat a completely vegetarian meal at least once, if not twice, a week, and that the remainder of our meals will have less meat in general. Best of all, on most days this past summer and fall, we can look at our dinner plate and know that almost everything we were eating was grown within 50 miles of our home–and more and more was grown by our own hands.

We’ll continue to get better at this as time goes on but we have made an excellent start and we have learned so much about where our food comes from. We have gotten to know local food growers and have started to pay attention to what is going on in the food industry. I am not a non-GMO, anti-Monsanto fanatic, but I do have a deep appreciation for farmers growing food to feed the local population and I feel that we need to support that. If you are not already supporting your local producers, start now!

The easiest first step (ala Vicki Robin–you really should watch that TED talk ,it is short and funny) is to go to your grocery store and figure out which local, small producers have made it to your grocer’s shelves. Even in places like Whole Foods and Food Co-ops, this is surprisingly small. I know that our grocery store carries local honey and bread. Your purchasing power carries a lot of weight and the more those items fly off the shelf, the more the grocery store will carry local items. You can even request that your grocery store carry a certain local product.

Second, visit your farmers market and/or check out your local CSA (community supported agriculture). You may have to do some basic research on which vendors actually grown their own food (just because it shows up at the farmer’s market, doesn’t mean that it was grown locally.) Support those farmers that had their hands in the dirt that morning to cut your fresh head of cabbage. To do this, you will probably have to understand what is in season. A vendor in Illinois that has cucumbers in March probably did not grown it himself/herself. Don’t forget checking out your local agri-tourism industries such as the places you can pick apples or strawberries.

Finally, grow or find your own food! Replace your useless ornamental bushes with bushes of herbs or fruits. Plant fruit trees. Start or expand the garden, or include vegetables interspersed with the flowers.

If you have started a shift from blindly buying items at the grocery store, I would love to hear some of your accumulated knowledge and experiences.

 

Financial Independence or Bust

I was doing pretty well posting fairly regularly–at least once a month or more. Then September happened and I guess I got pretty somber because my husband said that the post I was working on was depressing, first-world problem-ish and a bit self-pitying. So I tabled the post for some reflection and, unfortunately, as a consequence, I dawdled. And, alas, no September post. (Crap. I will never make money off this thing at this pace.)

In any case, I must really, really want to talk about the underlying theme of that defunct post because instead of talking about making granola or foraging purslane–which is what I fully intended so write about now–I am coming back to the prior post.

Okay– I know you are now just dying to know what the post was about, right? In short it involved the ennui I am experiencing as I await financial independence due to self-imposed financial constraints and the lack of a clear exit date. It definitely had a woe-is-me flavor and I will grant that my husband had a point. Perhaps I didn’t have to go on and on about being bored and deprived of the entertainment and goods that money could buy. And he was right. (It’s okay. He won’t read this so he won’t know I admitted this.) At least, he’s right in so far that if I am bored, it is my fault. There are plenty of free or low cost things I can do to make my life outside of work fuller. I took it like a big girl and decided to learn from his critique– which I may or may not have resented at the time.

But I still think that a lighter version of that previous post contains a valid point of view. (So really, I was right, too). I mean, it seems disingenuous to limit discussion of the road to financial independence to the thrill of paying off the debt, the rush of actually paying it all off, and the beauty of saying the heck with working for other people and being able to live a full life off of your prudent investments. After all, there is real life between the moment you pay off your debt and when you can flip off your boss and quit. It’s actually a pretty wide chasm. If we do it right, this real-life, in-between period will last longer than all the others.

And doing it right–at least for our purposes–means living substantially below our means, which is less than 25% of our adjusted gross income.  I live with a snarky, little good angel on my shoulder that tells me that of course I can wait several more months for a haircut and that I already had a latte this week, and that even I can totally make that at home ….  Really, she’s kind of a little bitch, though I totally can make that at home.  And she makes me feel itchy and guilty at the same time.   I have bought into it, though– the paying off debt, setting aside an emergency fund, reducing our spending and putting every last extra dollar in investments.  Because we didn’t pay off our debt so that we could retire when we are finally eligible for social security (that’s 67 for us, by the way). We did it so we could retire–or at least get really fun jobs without having to worry about our income–far, far before that time.

It has taken me a period of adjustment from the excitement and accomplishment of annihilating the last debt standing to the hum-drum routine of day to day life where the final goal may be yet ten years or more in the future. It is kind of like a road-trip and I feel like the kid in the back seat that keeps asking if we are there yet.  And we are definitely not there yet.  But in between the last time I tried to write about this and this time, I have decided there are two solutions. One is to continue to set investment goals and to continue to celebrate them.  A little bit of cake goes a long way.  Second, I need to go find some free, fun things to do. If I am truly good at this whole financial independence or bust thing, I will do it with style and I will even write a post about my free or low-cost solutions.

Regardless of where each of us are in this life, we all struggle with finding a balance between need and want, not enough and too much, and happiness and sadness. I would love to hear of your own financial goals and the various feelings they have evoked in you.

Book Ends

This is a cool project alert! So clever and creative– not to mention really neat looking. I saw this in the lonby of the Marriott in downtown Milwaukee and was immediately lured to it, practically pushing aside hungover wedding party guests and moms yelling at their kids to get to it. From afar it looks like different sized blocks (which also would have been cool).

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But it’s not. It’s dissected books! And what a great way to make art out of something broken or ruined (because we wouldn’t use nice, new, books, right?!). But think of those books warped by water damage, or whose binds have broken or that are simply falling apart, (please avoid using valuable antique-y books…that would be a shame!) or westerns from the eighties that you have no earthy use for.

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I did not get close enough to see how this was attached but I can just envision that there is a strong circular rod in the middle and all you would have to do is drill a hole in your slice of book and stick it on the ring– so some power tools requires between a power saw and a drill. There may also be some glue involved. I wonder if this will work with a hanger!?

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If anyone out there has tried a similar project, please share! I may give it a go myself. I can imagine this might even be cool with magazine and catalogues. Stay tuned.

Extra, Extra, Eat all about it!

Every year I tend to my gardens–some years better than others. I have beds of annual and perennial herbs and flowers, and two raised vegetable garden beds–with plans to add more! There are just two of us and we and we haven’t quite mastered the art of preserving food. Oh sure, I dry some herbs and freeze some fruits and veggies, but mostly we pick as we need to use it. And I find myself wondering “What the heck am I going to do with all of those beets!” And “does anyone need bunches and bunches of sage. Since my compost bin has not actually yielded any compost, I am still at the stage that I feel wasteful sending my edible garden waste to their unproductive demise. So it was with glee that I saw this flyer.
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What a great idea! I am so excited about this and can’t wait to see what I come home with. Why don’t all communities do this? In fact, this isn’t quite my community and I am going to see who I need to talk to about this to get one in my own park district. I’ll make sure to post after I go the first time and let you know if there is any progress with getting one established in my own community.

Please share if your community has creative and economical ways to get not only people to eat better, but like-minded people to get together.

Berry Nice

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After all the “Berry” puns my husband cracked this weekend, one would think I would not give in to the obvious in this title…but an article on Berries simply begs for it. And that is what this is–an article on berries. Mulberries, to be precise. While it was a berry-filled weekend picking all kinds of berries (hence all the berry puns my husband spouted) I wanted to zero in on the misunderstood, overlooked, ignored Mulberry.

Mulberry trees are an oft-hated tree that drop dark, staining fruit on people’s cars, houses, and driveways. That seems to be all most people know about them. As I was picking berries from trees in my favorite spot, I was amazed that several people expressed that they had had a mulberry tree for years and never even knew they could eat the berries–they just knew they hated the mess they made. While I am surprised about people’s lack of curiosity about something growing on their property, I get it about the mess. I would never plant a mulberry tree in my small suburban plot. Their fruit truly makes a mess. The fruit stains everything this deep (really rather beautiful) indigo color. Even if it’s not over the house, cars or driveways, the dropped fruit gets on the bottom of shoes, tracks inside. It invites birds, so you get extra droppings on every thing else. Plus, it propagates like mad because of all that fruit, with help from the birds, and can be considered an invasive. Well, here is the trick to loving mulberry trees: finding them on someone else’s property!

I really didn’t talk up the Mulberry, did I? But they really are a glorious fruit–especially on someone else’s property! They are bountiful fruiting trees and have a long season and are packed with nutrition. They are high in vitamin C which is not surprising for a fruit, but are also high in vitamin K and iron which is quite unique for a fruit. They are also a decent source of calcium and potassium, riboflavins and magnesium. All that and they are considered low in calories due to their high water content. Other benefits to the mulberry: you don’t have to go to war with thorny branches, the trees are compact and usually easy to pick from. And the best part–they are free!! We went to a berry farm to pick beautiful black and red raspberries that cost $3.50 a pint. We then picked two quarts of mulberries for free! How can you pass up free, delicious things just growing in nature and ignored?

Okay, so you may be saying that you don’t know of any person or place with a mulberry tree just begging to be picked. Well, first I say, you should learn to recognize the tree, because you may not know what you are seeing. When you start researching the mulberry, you see a lot about the white versus red mulbery (morus albus and morus rubra). For the most part though, both of the fruit ends up dark purple, they breed with each other quite readily and they look pretty similar overall and if you learn to recognize one, you’ll recognize the other. However, one point to make here: if you are going to plant a tree, find a red mulberry since it is at least native to the United States.

There are many other varieties of mulberries, found all over the world and also the United States and Canada, but if you are foraging in the United States, you are most likely to come across the red or white mulberry. If you are west of the plains and north of Illinois, then you are probably only going to come across the white mulberry. The Purdue University extension wrote a wonderful article to help you differentiate the two, if you are interested. However, like I mentioned above, if you learn to recognize one, you’ll learn to recognize the other–though you won’t always know which one you’re looking at because they cross breed.

Undeniably, one of the best indicators that a mulberry tree is in the area at this time of year is the tell-tale purple fruit or stains under it. Even if you don’t recognize the tree with its unique lobed and unlobed leaves, if you see dark stains on the ground, stop and explore. You are then looking for a tree with a fruit that looks like a blackberry.
 

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The ripe fruit doesn’t need much coaxing to slip from the tree–really just a light touch–and comes off with a tiny green stem. Just leave that stem on the fruit. It is harmless and trying to remove if will probably smoosh your fruit.

In Illinois, you can now pick berries and apples and such in state parks. Check your state and local parks to see if you can forage there as well. You may just have found that perfect spot to pick mulberries on someone else’s property. If you know of someone with several acres, or a farm, ask them if you can explore. Mulberries often grown up along fence lines. You may even already know someone with a mulberry tree who may be glad to let you pick as many berries as you can to keep them from ending up on the driveway. The important thing is to keep your eyes peeled. Once you start looking for something, you often find it!

Just remember that the whole staining mess thing is real. Do not wear your cutest white shirts or shorts! You hands will get stained if you pick them individually. This is my preferred method. But I have been told that this is the novice way to do it and that real mulberry pickers come equipped with a tarp or sheet. They then place the tarp or sheet on the ground and shake the branches. Ripe Mulberries fall very easily from the tree. If you try this method, let me know how it works. I would be concerned about smashing the fruit.

The fruit is really delicate, with a very mild, sweet flavor. We have been picking them and placing them in gallon freezer bags to add to smoothies. I have also added them to muffins and they were delicious. The options are limitless: add to pancakes, pies, and crumbles. You can dry them and add them to granola and oatmeal. If you have grown up with mulberries and have a great idea for them, let me know! I will continue to update this page with ideas, as well.