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Molly Phemister is the founder of eatcology.com, a blog focused on the nexus of ecology, design, and community food systems. She holds a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Virginia, as well as a Master of Education and a BA in Art. She is a published author, most notably “Designing a Landscape for Sustainability” in ActionBioscience, the online journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and “The Biggest Picture: Global Food and Hunger Issues” for Planning magazine, the flagship publication of the American Planning Association. Other articles include “The Beets Out Back: Bringing the Local Food Movement Home” for Joyful Dissent, and smaller pieces for Ecoagriculture Partners and The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass and welcome. It’s time for It’s All About Food. Repeat after me. It’s all about food. For the next hour we are going to talk about food and connect the dots a bit because it is all about food. There are just so many thing that go in our lives everyday, and when we think about our food and where it comes from, and what it does to us when we eat, and what happens to it while we’re growing it and shipping it all around the world, it touches just about everything. We’re going to be talking to someone who writes quite a bit about it. I’m going to bring on Molly Phemister, the founder of eatcology.com, a blog focused on the nexus of ecology, design, and community food systems. She holds a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Virginia, as well as a Master of Education and a BA in Art. She is a published author, most notably “Designing a Landscape for Sustainability” in ActionBioscience, the online journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and “The Biggest Picture: Global Food and Hunger Issues” for Planning magazine, the flagship publication of the American Planning Association. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Molly.
Molly Phemister: Hi, I’m so glad to be here.
Caryn Hartglass: Me too. I recently discovered your blog, and I love it, and I just wanted to talk to you because I love the concepts you are bringing up and the important issues you’re bringing up that we need to be talking about.
Molly Phemister: I need to hear that. I’ve talked about that cross-connectivity. We’ve gone through this age of intense specialization. People whose medical focus or law practice or whatever it is, they’ve focused down, narrowed in on some tiny piece, which is a wonderful way to really hone in on something and explore that topic and learn more about the connectivity of how it all puts together. I believe we are entering an age of generalists, of people being needed to connect the dots to put the various things together.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s such an important theme for me. I’m glad we are going to be talking more about it. I don’t know very much about you, but one of the things that I like is that you bring art to whatever it is you’re doing or you have an appreciation for it, and I think that’s also part of connecting the dots.
Molly Phemister: I think it is. I went to college as a pretty promising young person, who writes pretty well, can do these various things, and I was a major in art. Luckily my mother is a musician and taught piano for years while I was growing up. She believed in her own musical capacity enough to major in music going through college. So she let me major in art, but I continuously got from various people, “What are you going to do with that? What is that gonna teach you?” They can’t tell you how valuable an art education is, especially when it comes to something like painting an intense scale or sculpture. There’s so much problem solving that goes on. There’s so much thinking about issues from a variety of angles. The initial art classes that most people take just scratch the surface.
Caryn Hartglass: Art is really important. Unfortunately, we have so much artistic void these days because we are so focused on making profit and money and don’t realize how important it is. We’ll get to ecology and all that, but I just wanted to create a few basic brushstrokes here.
I was just listening to the show just before us, and they were talking about farms briefly and how people are upset sometimes because they think that wind farms are ugly. There’s a way we can create beauty in everything we do. Nothing has to be ugly, and if it has a benefit, we can put beauty into everything we do. That should be an important part of it. I talk about food all the time and when food is presented on a plate, it can be the simplest food or even the most extravagant, but why not make it lovely, it just makes the entire experience much more gratifying.
Molly Phemister: Yes, it appeals to all the senses.
Caryn Hartglass: The last think I wanted to say, and then I’m going to let you talk for a bit, is that I studied art. I studied color, and what always fascinated me was when you took one color and put it in a background of another color and changed the background, that same color would look completely different. We cannot ignore the whole picture because it is all connected. Not just from an artistic point of view, but from a health and sustainability perspective. It’s all connected. Specialization is great, but we have to keep in mind everything else around it because we can do something specific and not realize the repercussions and there could be a horrible domino effect.
Molly Phemister: Yeah, and you often do it completely accidentally. I like the color theory metaphor that you brought up. It’s orange surrounded by blue versus orange surrounded by red and how they look like two totally different oranges even though they are the exact same shade. And I take that back to the wind farm idea. In addition to the form of the wind turbines, which at the moment we are use to these airplane propeller tops, and that’s not necessary. There are other forms that will catch the wind and generate power. What’s also not a given is the scale. Everybody who’s working on wind farms, well I shouldn’t say everybody because somebody out there is bound to be doing what I’m about to suggest. Right now, most of what I’m seeing is being done on a very large scale, but we can shift that scale. We can take that same idea, surround it with a different context, and come up with a very different answer.
When power grids began to be interconnected, they took them out of the cities, they put the power generation in a separate spot, they called it centralization. Well, it was centralized for the power generators, not for the cities, it was out of the city centers. As we are re-localizing food, why not also re-localize power generation.
I remember I was living in Washington D.C. for a while and if you come up out of the metro stations, anytime you come up the escalators it’s a constant wind tunnel. Why not have a micro row of wind turbines right there. The pressure differential between being at the surface and being underground by the trains naturally automatically creates electricity. So why not catch it? Why not light that station with that?
I’m seeing that happen with food too. People are trying to solve issues. It’s the scale jumping that’s causing a little bit of problems because people want to work on urban stuff, and they want to get bigger. They’re like, “Oh, we gotta feed more people.” So I would see architecture students working on skyscrapers that were intended to be large, multi-floor hydroponics gardens. They would ask me what I thought, and I would take a look at their picture and inevitably, I could find somebody and say, “You know, farmers don’t wear lab coats.” They would inevitably somebody standing there in a little white coat and I would say, “No, no, no. Farmers don’t wear lab coats. This is not how these people dress.” But it’s not what that job requires. But the students were looking for it in their attempt for solutions to those issues. Going back to some of these 1960’s ideas of building new structures to grow food. Meanwhile, look out of that structure, look across the city. We had a plethora of rooftops. There’s no shortage of rooftops. Why not figure out how to combine the local food movement and the green roof movement to extend food production in urban areas?
Caryn Hartglass: We have this bigger is better concept that touches everything, and we are learning slowly, now, that bigger is not always better. We definitely need to bring things to a small scale, and what I love about it is that it brings the importance of change is somebody individual. How we are all part of the solution. How we can all participate and make a difference, and that’s all beautiful.
You have a post on your site, eatcology.com, about things going on in other countries like in Cuba and Venezuela. I thought we could talk a little bit about that because it is somewhat related, going back to the small scale and how that benefits in so many ways.
Molly Phemister: What happened with Cuba was amazing, and really I hope doesn’t quite happen this way to anybody else. They can get to the same place without taking the same path. But when the Soviet Union dissolved, Cuba didn’t have any oil coming in. Literally, there was no gas to drive a tractor with. There was no ability to move fertilizers and chemicals out to the fields. There was no ability to take what grew in the fields 150 miles from the city to the city. Everything ground to a total halt. It was horrible. The average calorie consumption (between 2500 and 3000 calories a day) was down to between 1400 and 2000 calories. This was way inside the zone where the U.N. starts to pay attention to figure out if they need to start shipping food in. This is really tripping on famine territory. And they went through it, and somehow we were all just ignorant to the fact because we are so blind to what’s happening down there. But they very quickly figured out how to do organopónicos, is what they call them. They are these in-city farms. They can be very small farms. It used to be that a farmer didn’t feed 600 people; a farmer fed a dozen. There were many more farmers because there were many more farms. But each farm was smaller, and in an urban area something like that makes more sense. And into it they developed various systems of the farm and the market being right there, and you would go up and ask for whatever it was you wanted, and somebody would trod out into the field and pick your order for the day and bring it back to you. Just incredibly fresh. If somebody didn’t want that squash today it could sit on the vine for another week and be okay. But if I pick it, suddenly the clock’s ticking. How long is this gonna last?
Well they took the knowledge from Cuba and the folks from Tanzania too, whom the U.N. had worked with, and the U.N. had developed this system that is incredibly dignified and respectful when they talk about [south-south relations] where various countries, who are not the first world countries, who are not the totally industrialized developed nations, talk to each other about how to solve the problem. They figure out how to transfer their knowledge from one person to another, from one community to another. So they brought books from Cuba and books from Tanzania into Venezuela and used [ ], Venezuela as a test site to see if the idea was transferable and if it was scalable to cover a whole city. Could it be done a little more intentionally? And it did work. It definitely worked, and they took, I’m going to forget off the top of my head how many hectares but a lot in the city and made organic farms right there in the city. They were run, a lot of them, by cooperatives so that the income was shared amongst the greatest people doing the farming, which brought jobs to neighborhoods that didn’t previously have jobs. It brought healthy foods to neighborhoods that didn’t necessarily have access to healthy food. In addition to those larger plots dug into the ground there, they developed a system of tables, kind of these micro-farms. No more than a one meter square. They were happening on rooftops, in backyards, on balconies, by a south-facing window. So the people could grow food in a much more proximal way. Something that they had control over, something that they had attachment too. Now that in particular, the micro-gardens, need nutrient additives to keep it going, it’s a little closer to a hydroponics situation. And right now, to the best of my knowledge they are still working on a large “we will send you the nutrients you need” situation. These are compost based gardens taking the food waste that would have gone to the landfills and sending it to places to be composted and turning it into stuff. We need to localize that a little bit more. Give the local farmers a little bit more capacity to develop their own. But I think it’s along the lines of the worm compost heap so it should be very doable.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I’m just hoping that when we get through this current economic crisis that we come out better human beings, and we change the focus a little bit. Right now, businesses and things pop up with a profit motive, and I don’t think that is ever going to change, but I think we can change where we add more parameters to what we consider success in a business. There needs to be this social parameter in addition to profit, and then we won’t concentrate entirely on squeezing whatever we can out of a business. So by making it larger, the profits are bigger, but it may devastate the environment, it may not be as practical. If we can get back and put more incentive on making these smaller farms profitable, not just financially but socially, that’s what we really need to have. And we are seeing it here and there, and I hope that it’s not something urgent that makes us really go to it. I hope that it’s just a natural, comfortable transition, but it’s very inspiring to see it working in different pockets.
Molly Phemister: It is inspiring, absolutely. There’s a couple of factors that need to happen with that. It’s not that a one acre farm or a ten acre farm or something very small like that is the ideal, it’s that various products, various methodologies, have appropriate scales to them. So it makes sense that in and around cities, in and around urbanized areas there would be more farms that would be smaller farms that would be focused on producing things that don’t ship well, and that things like grains would continue to be grown a little further out. What I’m trying to say is that there are different scales that are appropriate. A 500acre lettuce farm is not appropriate, but seven cows on five acres is also not appropriate. There’s a jump there that needs to be thought about for folks.
I have a map from an upcoming post talking about places that are local to nowhere. If we define local food as a 100 mile radius from an area, that works pretty well. There’s an awful lot that can be done within 100 miles. But if you make 100 mile circles around all of the large cities, all of the cities with any size in the countries, there are places that do not have a major city, or even a minor city, within 100 miles. There are places in this country that are local to nowhere, and it’s important that we think in terms of both a local food movement and a regional food movement. That we understand that there are some things that make sense to come from a little further away, and I propose a 500 mile radius for a regional food movement. That scale gets pretty far. A local food movement for Washington D.C. would duck into southern Pennsylvania just a little bit and swing around the eastern shore a lot. But when you get into a regional food movement you are able to pull from New York. I think it ducks down into the Carolinas, maybe even clip a little piece of Georgia. This greatly extends stuff. To give you a west coast example, everybody’s thinking that we are still getting it from the same place because it’s still California, but D.C. to Atlanta is about the same as San Francisco to L.A. So on the east coast you change four states and on the west coast it’s still California so it doesn’t count. Sorry guys, we’ve busted you. To make it a little bit larger allows you to pull from further away so that a 100 mile radius around the Bay Area, you’ve barely gotten down to anything resembling affordable housing, let alone places to grow much in the way of the foods that work best at larger scales. But by running a 500 miles radius, then you begin to broaden that and there become places that are more appropriate, and crops that are more appropriate, and scales that are more appropriate from across that larger zone.
Caryn Hartglass: Well the idea is just not to be rigid, and to be open to all kinds of possibilities, and that there’s not one solution. We are always fixed on one pill for one disease and one solution for one problem. There’s a range of solutions for food.
Molly Phemister: Absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: I love technology, and I think we’ve really come along in the last few years. When you think about it, it’s just awe inspiring. But, it comes with good things, and it comes with not so good things. What I don’t like is when we are trying to cram technology down the throats of developing countries when it’s not appropriate. And you talked about that the farmers don’t wear lab coats, and we do things here, in terms of producing food, and we have genetically modified food, and our favorite companies Monsanto and Dow.
Molly Phemister: Yeah, those are mine.
Caryn Hartglass: She says sarcastically, of course. We are coming up with a notion that we are going to feed the world with these high tech foods. The first thing that needs to happen is that the lab coats need to come off because (I don’t believe in these high tech foods to begin with) even if they were superior in one environment, they don’t work in other environments.
Molly Phemister: They don’t. A lot of what their actual goal is at the scale of companies and profits is dependency. Their goal is to create dependency. This is why they have the suicide seeds that won’t regenerate. They even grow the crop but that the crop itself will be infertile.
Caryn Hartglass: That is the scariest thing to me. That whole concept is so scary.
Molly Phemister: Oh yeah. It’s so contradictory to natural logic. A lot of the problems that technology is attempting to solve either aren’t problems or they are trying to get one thing to solve somebody else’s problem without looking at the larger picture. A couple of examples come to mind. One was the push to develop rice that had vitamin A in it because there were areas that didn’t have vitamin A easily accessible. And I always wondered, “What did they used to eat?” Because before you turned all of this to rice monocultures, wasn’t there something they were eating before? Wasn’t there vitamin A available in that food system that you simply have squelched?
Caryn Hartglass: Exactly. What have humans been doing for hundreds of thousands of years in that region?
Molly Phemister: Yeah, there is a solution already there. The other one that comes to mind is the example from the [Mekong Delta] over in Asia, and several countries got together and began to figure out how to work on damming various portions of the delta and controlling the flood and water cycles a little bit more. The goal was to clear more land to create more rice paddies because rice has this wonderful ability to feed a population for about nine months of the year. There is a stretch there when you run out of rice. So the goal was, “Oh, we gotta make more rice because then we can bridge that three month gap.” Well, the IUCM, which is a major international ecology player went into the [Mekong Delta], did some studies of what was happening in these areas that were being slated to be dammed and turned into rice paddies, and they realized that, actually, there was more food present before they were putting rice paddies into these areas then after because the people were collecting wild plants. They were getting not just the wild plants but the wild protein. The wild protein source was the ducks and the frogs and whatever else was around. They weren’t asking for their rice to be their protein, they were asking for there to still be wild lands where this can happen. And the country took that into account. They really changed and backpedalled on what they were trying to do and began to realize the value. It is one of the things that is marvelous about Asia, is that there is so much wild food collecting. It is a totally common concept there, whereas in America it is absolutely foreign. It is part of why you see these warnings in San Francisco, in Golden Gate Park that say, “No, no these mushrooms are poisonous.” It’s because these Asian immigrants come over, and they are expecting to do wild foraging because that is what they have always done. Then they go combing through the park, and there’s a mushroom in San Francisco that looks very much like an Asian one. The one is Asia is very tasty, and the one is San Francisco will kill you. So that transferring of environment, that subtlety is very important. It comes from this cultural history, the cultural heritage of gathering, foraging for food. It’s one of the totally viable options for becoming a well-fed person in these areas.
Caryn Hartglass: Whereas today, in America, if the food hasn’t been covered in toxic chemicals and then shipped all around here and there and back again through twenty different steps where all of the nutrition is taken out, and then a few are sprinkled back in, and then cook it up into some shape, and package it in plastic, and put it in a box, and then ship it around a little more. That’s food.
Molly Phemister: Yeah, I don’t think a lot of folks know how much gets pulled out just at the stage where you say, “I need all the tomatoes put into packaging crates and not bruise easily, and ripen on the way to market but not be ripe too fast.” That the breeding that goes down, and the narrowing in selection to get those fully ripe tomatoes, we’ve already lost huge chunks. Even if we took those same tomatoes and grew them organically, we’d still have lost a huge swath of what makes tomatoes tomatoes if we’re working with the ones that were made to be round, to ripen on the way to market, not bruise, not rot.
Caryn Hartglass: The whole tomato story, I don’t know if you are familiar with Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland, it’s just a whole nightmare what’s going on with non-organic tomatoes coming out of Florida. It’s just crazy, and makes me think that every vegetable has another story of what we do to it that’s crazy all in the name of profit. Then the result food, which isn’t the way nature intended it to be, isn’t quite as good for us, unfortunately.
Molly Phemister: Part of it is that we want to eat the same things all the time and everywhere. I think it is going to be an important element of the local food movement that people begin to diversify their diets. You have got to give our farmers more options than just cabbages, tomatoes, and peppers. They need more things to be able to grow. They need a variety of harvest times. We can’t just keep eating the same things. It is incumbent on people to learn a new food, try something new, pick something else up, begin to experiment so that you are adding burdock, you’re adding rutabaga, you’re adding tatsoi. So various new things are coming into your diet, which gives farmers in your area new flexibility and more capacity to find what works for them in their microclimate on their farm.
Caryn Hartglass: Well isn’t variety the spice of life?
Molly Phemister: Oh, so much of this stuff is so good.
Caryn Hartglass: And eating with the seasons is really important and can really be fun. Where we are kind of spoiled at this point, and it ruins the joy in some things. If we can have everything all the time, what’s special?
Molly Phemister: Yeah, and you lose the ability to taste the difference. I didn’t like tomatoes growing up. I think it was because I could taste the store-bought quality, but once I got into local tomatoes and growing my own, it was a whole different ball game. They had the same name and that is about all that they had in common.
Caryn Hartglass: So many people are not interested in fruits and vegetables because they don’t think they taste good and their tongues are so used to sugar, salt, and fat. Part of that is that we have gotten to this convenient, commercialized business of food, where tomatoes need to be perfectly round and look exactly the same so they fit on a burger perfectly at the expense of flavor. And people don’t know what fruits and vegetables are supposed to taste like. So it is important to go organic, local, seasonal, fresh, variety, fabulous.
Molly Phemister: I think one of the things that is behind what you are touching on right there is the concept of the local food infrastructure. We have gotten to the point where we have a pretty good farmer to consumer connection developing. That wheel is turning, that train is moving. It’s picking up its momentum, it’s doing what it needs to do. The next step is going to be to develop the infrastructure. The grain mills come to mind, a little bit of food processing, local canneries. Part of that is going to be local kitchens because not everybody has the capacity to figure this stuff out. A lot of people are working two jobs. For a lot of people it’s totally new. The learning curve is very steep, and if you’ve grown up on canned green beans and frozen corn then how do you learn the next step? How do you move it forward? We are going to need community kitchens where people are bringing stuff from the farmers market to the kitchen, there are cooking classes happening, there are canning workshops. You take your jelly home. You go there and the farmers have dropped off a pound of strawberries per person, and everybody learns how to make strawberry jelly and then you take it home. It’s a whole re-education. Bill McKibben had a book a long while ago, at this point, about the age of [“you see information”]. About how so many of us know so much, but collectively what we know is often the same thing. We have to branch that out a little bit.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that’s really good. I want to talk about that. I want to talk about a bunch of different things like site analysis, preparing an area to grow food. And I want to take a quick break.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. My favorite subject, food, and I’m talking with Molly Phemister, the founder of eatcology.com, the blog focused on the nexus of ecology, design, and community food systems. Molly we were talking just a few minutes ago about how all of us seem to know the same things in this world of all of this information. And yet, there are so many things that have gotten lost like how to make food, how to grow food. Can we talk a bit about, you have a blog post about site analysis, which I thought was rather interesting, and I guess that’s part of your skill in landscape design. I remember a couple of years ago, when Michelle Obama was talking about the White House garden. We’re not hearing about that very much anymore because they discovered that in the Clinton administration time period that garden had been fertilized with sludge, and there seems to be a significant amount of lead in the soil, unfortunately. What should people be doing when they start to create a garden or an area for farming?
Molly Phemister: Knowing the history of the site is pretty important. Something as basic as the White House grounds ought to have really good records. Lead doesn’t preclude growing anything. Lead precludes growing and eating certain things. Lettuce, for example, bad choice. There are tests for everything, but nobody that I know can afford tests for everything. So if you know your sites history a little bit then you can begin to narrow it down a little bit. It’s a good bet in an urban setting that until you have a test that says there’s no lead in the soil that you probably have lead in your soil. We had enough years with leaded gasoline driving around in the cities, the exhaust fumes put it into the ground, plus all of the paint chips and things like that coming off of the old buildings. If you are in a newer subdivision, you’ll have other issues, but you won’t have those ones. If you’re downstream from an old shoe factory, if you’re, believe it or not, at an old rose cutting place, one of the most polluted sites. If you’re near a gas station, if you’re living next to a place where they used to grow roses to cut, you better test your soil for some of the intensive chemicals that were used in floriculture. So knowing the history helps a lot. There are a variety of options. There are ways to build beds up. You can either trust that the soil below is going to be able to amend itself or you can just put a fresh bottom on and start anew with some of that so you are not getting crossover between the pollutants and what’s on top. There are crops that are better at it. Things with shallow roots will pick up the pollutants in the top layer of the soil much better than something like corn that ends up having very deep roots. Things that grow close to the ground, that pollutant doesn’t have to travel very far to get into the leaves. So not only does your lettuce have shallow the roots but it has got its leaves right there that the lead only had to go two inches and it’s in the leaf. Then you are going to eat the leaf. A lot of plants will collect stuff in their leaves, but won’t necessarily collect stuff in their fruits. So although the leaves of a tomato plant may be gathering the toxin from the soil, the tomato itself is very likely to not have had that stuff cross the barrier, to cross into the fruit itself. There are some nuances to that, but that’s the gist of it. There are things you can do. There are always options. You are never completely out of luck.
Caryn Hartglass: Then there’s not just the soil that’s a concern but water and sun and wind.
Molly Phemister: Yes, microclimates. Knowing not just generally I live in Arizona or generally I live in Minnesota, but then knowing the microclimates of the whole thing. A south-facing wall, a south-facing brick wall is very different than an exposed north-facing section. Your getting very different climates, very different light. It’s holding heat differently. The south-facing brick wall, meanwhile, may even have a dead zone right in front of it because it is holding heat too well. It is burning off whatever’s in front. It doesn’t have the capacity to grow there. So those kinds of things can be really fun. Knowing who will put up with what, beginning to understand what kind of site you’ve got. A lot of the most common mistakes that I see folks will forget entirely to look at where their downspouts are. Their gutters coming off their roof will be dumping water down onto a part of their yard, and they will forget entirely that it is dumping water into their yard. They’ll plant something there that doesn’t want that much water. Rosemary next to a downspout is not a good idea. On the other hand, if they plant mint by their downspout, but then they’ve attached one of those black hoses and actually have sent the water further under the ground into the culvert. Then their yard is getting none of the benefit of the rain that fell on the roof. So the mint by the downspout, even though it is right next to the water going past, the water is in metal and plastic and will never get to the mint, which will be thrilled to have it there. So you’ve got to look at where your water is. Take advantage of what’s naturally given to you. If you’ve got a depression in the yard, find some water friendly plants, find some things that can handle having their roots soaked, having their oxygen depleted for a few minutes, for a couple days while the water soaks into the ground. The other really common mistake is that it is so much more pleasant to work on your garden in the summer when the sun is high. Even if you are going out in the morning before the heat of the day sets in, you’re still setting stuff up in the summer, you’re looking at the sun patterns of the summer. So they put in their fall garden and then come October they are totally disappointed because nothing’s growing. The garden is completely in the shade now because the sun has tipped back down and then the angle totally makes a difference. So that’s the second common mistake. A fall garden is going to have to be open to the south. It is going to need the sun to come in at a much steeper angle, and the same with a spring garden. It won’t fit where the summer gardens grow.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. So where do you live?
Molly Phemister: I am currently living in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Caryn Hartglass: And do you have a garden there?
Molly Phemister: I have a porch with a really great balcony. That’s what I can afford at the moment.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve got a terrace and I grow whatever I can on it.
Molly Phemister: Exactly, exactly. I have friends in town, who are very much into permaculture. They let me dabble in their yards as well. But a lot of what I’ve been doing the past several years has been helping people out, coaching. I don’t know if folks are even familiar with this, but there is a movement, a new profession evolving as garden coaches, who are people who can come to your yard, spend an hour with you, tell you what you’ve got, what you inherited from the last homeowner, and then help you make some plans. They give you some suggestions for what could be and what should be done first, help you prioritize what the next project will be, but with a larger picture in mind so that each of your little projects builds into a coherent whole.
Caryn Hartglass: I haven’t heard of that, but I like the concept. There’s certainly a lot of coaching going on with life coaching, and I think people need a lot of nutrition coaching for food changes. Why not garden coaches? That seems like something that a little bit of time upfront could really make a difference for the whole season.
Molly Phemister: Yeah, it really can. Some folks want continual lessons through the season to figure stuff out, and other folks just want to check in to figure out why their fall garden didn’t grow, just little details. Everybody’s got their own place.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to talk about the word “weed” for a minute because we choose to, by the words we use, to downgrade things that actually are quite beneficial. Some of the things that we call weeds are actually nutritious foods.
Molly Phemister: Oh, quite a few.
Caryn Hartglass: And some of them now are kind of getting a comeback and we are seeing them pop up in farmers markets at big prices. What are some of those unfriendly pests that are actually good and tasty foods?
Molly Phemister: There’s quite a few out there. I would say purslane is a really common one that I see around. It’s a really small, ground cover. It has a tendency for fat little leaves like you would see on a succulent plant. It will bloom in the summer. It’s the best in the spring. That’s before it’s gotten bitter. The spring’s a lovely time to trick with purslane because it is a ground cover it is frequently planted or appears (plants itself) along sidewalks. And you need to find a spot where it’s coming over the ledge of a wall. What you’re looking for is higher than the height of a dog because you don’t want to eat what’s been the neighborhood restroom. So you’re looking for something coming over somebody’s retaining wall or something like that that wouldn’t have been affected by those natural forces. Another one that’s really common that’s really good in the spring is lamb’s-quarters. Lamb’s-quarters are part of the goosefoot family. Their leaves look kind of like geese feet. It’s actually a relative of quinoa, and if you let it go to seed you can really see that in the [seed heads]. In the urban areas, lamb’s-quarters unchecked can sometimes go, if they’re really happy, six to ten feet. Most folks don’t ever meet lamb’s-quarters that size. Most folks are only meeting about two or three feet tall. They’ll have sort of a bluish green quality, but then there will be sort of a white dust on the leaves. This is a very common weed. I’ve seen it all over the country. It is very tasty.
Caryn Hartglass: I get it all the time in my terrace beds. It just blows me away how it grows and how well it grows. But you can eat the seeds as well?
Molly Phemister: I don’t think you can eat the seeds.
Caryn Hartglass: You said it was a relative of quinoa.
Molly Phemister: I eat the leaves. I chop it up and pop it into salads and things. There’s a number of other ones. I’m not a fan of Russian olive, autumn olive. It’s Elaeagnus angustifolia, or something like that. It is a very common shrub that you’ll see around. It will have an orange-red berry in the fall. It grows in a lot of places that are difficult to get things to grow, a lot of roadside areas and highway medians because it is one of the nitrogen fixer that is not in the legume family. Mostly the legumes handle nitrogen fixing in the soil. The Eleagnus is a weed plant, it is a relative of one that I like much better, the goumi berry, and I’ve heard a couple of pronunciations on that. Those are kind of all over the place. You can definitely eat the berries of the ones that are all over. If you were going to plant it intentionally in your yard, I would go ahead and get the one that’s actually the goumi berry instead of digging up something from the side of the road because it is more likely to stay contained within your yard.
Caryn Hartglass: Are there sites where we can see what these things look like that you would recommend?
Molly Phemister: I tried to put pictures up of them when I talk about them. I did a little bit of weed discussion.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so somewhere at eatcology.com.
Molly Phemister: Yes, the article title itself is Glinda the Good Weed.
Caryn Hartglass: Are you a good weed or a bad weed? I’m not a weed at all.
Molly Phemister: Exactly, Glinda the Good Weed. I grew up a fan of Dorothy Gale. It’s actually eatcology.com/Glinda-the-good-weed. I’ve got images there of purslane and lamb’s-quarters. I also have some other ones on there. I have dandelion and onion grass. Onion grass again is tasty, and it has the dog issue. I use onion grass as a pH indicator. If I see onion grass growing near a lilac shrub I need to adjust that pH higher because onion grass will only grow in acidic soils, and lilacs will only bloom in non-acidic soil. So if I want my pretty lilac blossoms, and there’s onion grass near by…
Caryn Hartglass: And you do. That’s my favorite fragrance, lilac. That just drives me nutty they’re so good.
Molly Phemister: Oh yeah, and the butterflies too. They’re wonderful. Because I use them more as an indicator than as an edible. There is a variance on clover, the sour clover. It will bloom in with the other clovers, but where the other ones have white and purple heads, this will have much, much smaller, little yellow flowers. It tends to be a bit stemmier, and the stems themselves are what’s so tasty. It’s a sour lemony taste like you would get from sorrel. That’s very good in salads. Little violets themselves are tasty. The flowers are perfectly edible. I remember walking down the street once, there was a band of day lilies growing beside us. I was walking with a woman, who, I kind of was aware, had a crush on me. It wasn’t reciprocated in this particular case, but I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was doing so when I picked a day lily flower, and was aware of some motion on her side. I think she was thinking, “Oh my gosh, she’s picking me a flower.” And I picked it, and I pulled the pollen out of the center, and I ate the flower because it’s like a very juicy lettuce. She was absolutely flabbergasted. She was like, “Woah, woah, woah, what just happened?” But day lilies are marvelous. They are very tasty. I tend to like the tall orange ones. I like the yellow ones also, but they tend to be shorter and again get into the dog issue. The red ones are a little powderier to me, but I’ll pull out the center stems where the pollen is, and the rest of it is just like a juicy lettuce, wonderful.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I think there is something in our DNA, and that’s what’s enabled us to survive, but the idea of being able to roam and nosh and eat is important as scavengers. I love it when there are berries growing, and I can just stay there for an hour and pick berries. It is just such a lovely thing. We are so far away from that, and I would love to see that come back.
Molly Phemister: I think it I making a comeback. Phoenix, Arizona has some scavenger maps available. I’m not really sure how much of those ones are findable. Portland, Oregon has scavenger maps.
Caryn Hartglass: Molly, the music means we are at the end of the hour. Thanks for talking with me. I really enjoyed it. This was Molly Phemister and eatcology.com. Please visit it. There’s lots of great information. Thanks so much for joining me on It’s All About Food
Molly Phemister: Caryn, bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. Thanks for joining me. Have a delicious week.
Transcribed by Steve Lee-Kramer, 3/9/2013