Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Toads: Garden Helpers

Yesterday I was out enjoying our 88-degree weather, double-digging one of this year's new garden beds. There were a number of surprises as I dug, including part of an old foundation, chunks of coal, an old rusty pipe, and broken glass. At one point I unearthed a huge lawn grub, all pasty white, curled in a ball, and squirming. A few minutes later I dug up this gigantic pasty white thing, round and feebly squirming, about two-thirds the size of my palm. I thought it was some over-sized mutant form of lawn grub. It really freaked me out! I looked closer and realized I had dug up a hibernating toad. I never knew they lost all their pigment and warts when they hibernated. This little lady was smooth, off-white, and glistening. I quickly re-buried her in the loosened earth. Hopefully the rude awakening I gave her won't lead to any harm.

Toads are great for the garden. They'll eat many pests. Last year we were overrun with them, which was a really good thing since we were also overrun with grasshoppers. The toads didn't seem to make much of a dent with the grasshoppers, but I hate to think what it would have been like without their help. They definitely kept the squash bug population under control however.

One day last summer I overhead the neighbors sending their grandkids out to hunt and kill toads. They garden too, so I guess they just didn't realize how beneficial toads are for the garden. Or maybe they just are creeped out by them. I can't imagine ever intentionally harming a toad.

The other day I read an article which predicted a particularly bad year for grasshoppers again. It didn't specifically mention Colorado, but did mention enough of the neighboring states to have me concerned. I'll need all the toads I can get this year (and a bunch of floating row covers wouldn't hurt either).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hands in the Dirt

Ah, Spring is really here. After a long winter of dreaming about gardening, the busy season is finally here. No more time for dreaming, there's way too much to do.

Yesterday I finished sifting the compost. I got about two-thirds of a cubic yard of finished stuff which I need to spread on all the beds that will be getting the earliest plantings. Then there's a huge pile of unfinished compost which I hope will cook down to another two-thirds of a cubic yard and I'll be able to use that for the later plantings.

In the next couple of days I need to prepare these first beds. I've got to get my nude oats sown (well, other things too, but I had to say nude oats--it sounds so sexy). We'll be planting kale and some potatoes and other things, plus starting the peppers indoors. And since I'm expanding the garden (again) this year I have to de-sod and double-dig the new beds.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Human Health Our God-Given Right?

I've been a subscriber of Dr. Mercola's alternative health newsletter for several years. While I don't always agree with everything there, it's very informative and I've learned a lot. Plus the community is great too.

One thing that has irked me a little is Dr. Mercola's push to sell krill oil as a source of omega-3's. Today there was an article, Lawsuit Raises Fish Oil Supplement Concerns, railing yet again against fish oil supplements and praising the virtues of krill oil. I personally don't think we should be going to the ends of the earth (Antarctica) to harvest a sea critter best left for the whales.

Here's the comment I left. I wonder what kind of response it'll bring?

I'm assuming my opinion won't be a popular one, but I will share it anyway. To me, there's a kind of hubris involved in going to the ends of the earth to find critters (say krill, for instance) to harvest for the sake of human health. We've caused so much contamination to the world's fisheries we now have to go to extremes to harvest something safe for human consumption. The hubris is in thinking that we have a right to pursue human health at all costs, when no other animal on this planet has that luxury. I believe we should be eating from our local foodsheds and rehabilitating our local foodsheds so they can provide us (and all of the local critters) with the optimal health that's possible in that location. This won't be perfect health. I don't believe perfect health is an option for any living thing on this planet any longer due to the damage we've already inflicted. For us to push into ecosystems where we have no business being will just cause more degradation.

Putting ourselves and our health above other living things is the same kind of mentality that created this mess in the first place. I'm willing to sacrifice a degree of my own health to live more sustainably. That means I forgo health-giving substances shipped in from somewhere else for what I can find locally. In these times we have to strike a balance, being healthy-enough while ensuring the health of all others.

Thanks in advance for allowing me my contrary opinion!:)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Forget Moldy Spaghetti Sauce, Grow Your Own Tomatoes This Year

An article last month in the New York Times revealed a case of bribery and corruption that allowed tainted tomato products to be sold for years.  SK Foods, one of the largest tomato processors, sold millions of pounds of moldy or otherwise defective tomato products to more than 55 companies, including Kraft.  Some companies sent the defective tomatoes back, but many more did not and the tomato products ended up on store shelves and in the hands of consumers.
...prosecutors say that for years, SK Foods shipped its customers millions of pounds of bulk tomato paste and puree that fell short of basic quality standards — with falsified documentation to mask the problems. Often that meant mold counts so high the sale should have been prohibited under federal law; at other times it involved breaching specifications in the sales contracts, such as acidity levels or the age of the product.

For the past several years, tomato products were pretty much the only processed foods I was still buying.  Then last year I finally got around to growing my own tomatoes--thirty some odd plants that provided all the tomatoes we needed for a full year.  We made all of our ketchup, sauces, paste, juice, etc plus enjoyed fresh tomatoes at the peak of ripeness and made a batch of sun-dried tomatoes as well.  There's no looking back now.  I can't imagine ever buying a jar of spaghetti sauce at the store again.  Or ketchup--I was never all that partial to ketchup until I made my own.  What a world of difference!  Even though I made more ketchup than we normally would consume in a year, I'm in danger of running out just because it's so amazingly flavorful.

If you're just getting started with gardening, tomatoes are a great place to start.  There's just so much you can do with them and even if you only get a few, they'll be so much better than anything you could buy--you'll be in heaven.  It's about that time to get your seedlings started in most parts of the US--the rule of thumb is 6 weeks before the last frost.  I'll be starting mine on April 1st.  Get yours started and you won't have to worry when you hear reports like the one I linked to up above.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How Many Twinkies Are Too Many?

Michelle Obama spoke about obesity Wednesday at a forum sponsored by Newsweek.  (The full transcript can be found here.)  If you read the whole thing it sounds pretty sensible, but the part about Twinkies seemed a little silly.  It started when the interviewer asked her if she thought Twinkies and Fruit Loops should come with warning labels. 
You know, that strikes me as extreme, because a Twinkie is not a cigarette, you know. And what -- what parents need is just information about what's in the Twinkie and how much of this can we eat. It's not that we can't have a Twinkie. And our kids would be pretty upset. And I am not supporting that.


I'm all in favor of good snacks. We grew up with snacks and chips. We did. But we have to exercise more, parents have to understand what's in the Twinkie; again, how does it fit into the overall diet. So we don't need a warning, we need information. And we need information that's easy to understand. That's something that I said yesterday in the speech. You read labels now and it's like the small print and it's all "oleosutomay" -- or I don't -- the chemicals, you can't even pronounce them, and the portion sizes compared to one, and you've got a small one and a big one. And then, before you know it, you don't know what to buy and how much to give to your kids and in what amounts. That's the kind of information that families need.

I'd like to know how she proposes we make the ingredient list on a Twinkie wrapper easier to understand?  In order to do that you'd have to take out all of the unpronounceable chemicals and then it wouldn't be a Twinkie anymore, would it?  If she wants labels to be understandable, what she really wants is for foods to be all-natural.  A Twinkie will never be that.  So she's really sending a mixed message.

My opinion:  from a health perspective a Twinkie is probably more like a cigarette than Michelle Obama is willing to admit.  I'd recommend she check out Steve Ettlinger's book, Twinkie Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats.  How do Twinkies fit into the overall diet?  They just don't, not at all.  The proper portion size?  Zero servings.

She makes a good point that we need to understand portion sizes better, but I wish she would have argued that sometimes the portion size should be zero.

We've really lost our ability to understand sensible portions and I think that came about because we quit growing our own food and started eating processed junk.  With processed junk you really don't know what you're eating, so how can you ever gauge what is a sensible amount?  When you grow your own food you understand what's sensible to grow, to store, and to eat and you understand how to create balance among a wide variety of foods.  It's all right under your nose.  You see it all, you know how much work is required and how many resources are involved in creating the food.  You will naturally create a diet that is sensible and has sensible portions.  And you won't have to mine anything to create it.

I think it will be a long, hard journey to get people to return to that kind of knowledge.