Thursday, July 30, 2009

Community Garden Ethics and Interactions

I know I just posted on here, but I have a question for you all. I'd love to start a discussion about community garden ethics.. I'll post the discussion over on, but if you want to send me a comment through Twitter or post something here, that's fine too.

My question has to do with neighbor-community gardener relations. I spent yesterday at the Remington garden, where I go about once every two weeks to lend a hand weeding, watering, and picking vegetables in exchange for whatever produce is ready that day.

While digging up red potatoes and snapping off green beans with one of the main gardeners, one of the neighborhood women came over to see what we were doing. In the interest of connecting with the community, I began explaining to the woman which plants were what, how to harvest the potatoes, etc. I noticed that my friend was being very strange and curt with the woman, which made me curious, since we are all obviously for community interaction and all.

As the neighbor wandered away to look at some plants, my friend told me that she was notorious for taking things from the garden without ever coming by to help.

After the woman took a few yellow peppers right in front of us, I mentioned to her that we usually appreciate it if people help out with weeding and watering tasks before taking things from the garden. My friend has supposedly been telling her this since last year, so I don't know if it made any difference.

So, what do you urban gardeners do about these types of situations?

Do you find that only a certain type of person is interested in working in the garden, or do you have a mix of neighbors helping out?

Have you had an event that opens up the garden to the neighborhood and lets them know how to get involved?

Contests are fun + Squash time

As if weren't awesome enough, they had to go an hook me up with some free swag. A free issue of MAKE magazine #18, to be exact.

All I've got to say is, keep an eye out for promotional contests on your favorite websites. You never know if you're going to win, and it's a lot of fun to get a package of free stuff waiting for you. Especially if that free stuff is a magazine with directions on how to make an off-the-grid laundry machine, recommends great urban homesteading books and blogs, and has all sorts of crazy inventions for hacker type projects that are way beyond my head.

All I had to do was respond to the discussion post, "Mid-Summer Making: What's Your Project?"

My response was picked at random from the other posted comments:

"Late July is way too hot and humid in Baltimore to cook, so I sliced my patty-pan squash very thin and marinated them in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper. The sourness of the vinegar is very refreshing, the fresh squash still maintain a bit of crunch, and the veggies are perfect as a side salad or on top of pretty much anything for a wonderful summer meal!"

I brought a jar of the marinated squash to the Foodmaker's Potluck last weekend, and I'm bringing another jar to a potluck tonight. It's a great potluck food because I don't have to worry so much about the food being hot or cold, and it's really easy to just toss into a canning jar instead of wrestling with a big tupperware container. For an on-the-go lady such as myself, a food that I can toss into my bag and easily carry around is a big plus.

Speaking of squash... zucchini bread!

The end of the week means time to pick up my CSA share of the week. Which usually means I'm scrambling to either can my excess food, make dinner for people, or am eating a lot of kale for breakfast. This time, I baked, which is usually not one of my strong suits. But the bread actually turned out quite fluffy and yummy!

I scanned over a lot of different zucchini bread recipes online, then kind of winged it using what I had in the house. A list of tips:

1. 3 cups of whole wheat flour. Most recipes I saw used a white/wheat blend, maybe added some oats, but I found that the wheat texture was fine.

2. Fat? Most recipes I saw called for oil, and I actually often bake with oil. But a friend of mine came into a ridiculous amount of extra margarine (let's just say that filming commercials produces a lot of waste sometimes), so even though I know that stuff is grosser than butter, I used it anyway. I'm curious if that's what made the bread more fluffy than usual. I think oil can make the texture dense? I creamed the butter together with brown sugar as if I were baking cookies.

3. Brown sugar and cardamom. Yum.

4. Share with friends. Preferably while playing Settlers of Catan and drinking a few brews.

Here's to squash, MAKE magazine, and internet contests! Also, thanks to Farm Aid for creating Your "Eat Your Zip Code" pin is now on my bag.

Monday, July 27, 2009

July Foodmakers Potluck

Phew, I was a little worried about the July potluck there for a minute. First the date was changed around a lot due to Artscape and other events at Cromwell Valley. Then the date was set for a SUNDAY instead of our usual Saturday. Responses to the email list were kind of weak, since everyone is on vacation at this time of year or busy with other summertime fun. And to top it all off, the weather was calling for rain!

But, as always, the Baltimore Foodmakers came through. And so did the weather- it was actually quite sunny, and we ended up sitting at a picnic table under the shade of a huge tree. With a deer bounding across the farm, birds flying all around, and little foodmakers climbing the trees, it was a very beautiful day. I even saw a snake, which was very exciting for me! (A black garden snake about three feet long, and you could even see a little lump where I guess it was digesting a bird or mouse or something. cooool.)

Plus conversations are always great, with lots of recipe swapping and discussions of various other making and building activities. Want to know what's the best clothesline to buy? What to do with beets? What a fresh walnut looks like and how to harvest them? (o.k. I guess I brought up that last topic! But they had walnut trees on the property and I just had to show everyone what walnuts look like. And they actually smell quite floral, which is interesting.)

So what do Baltimore Foodmakers bring to potlucks? Well...

- Vegan spanakopita (spinach pie)
- homemade mini baguettes
- tomato and peach salad w/ cilantro, red onion, and lime juice
- pickled cherries flavored with saffron and bay leaf (wow!)
- chicken pate (from the same woman with the cherries)
- hummus and fresh veggies
- patty pan squash marinated in balsamic vinaigrette
- potato and kale salad


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Be nice to your neighbors = grapes

My neighbor is growing grapes right in Baltimore City! She lives about a block away from me, and these lovely things have been growing right up her fence in her tiny rowhouse backyard. I always admire them since I actually don't think I've ever seen fruiting grapevines before. And also they are directly across from my friend Stephanie's backyard where they are growing yellow cherry tomatoes. Mmmm!

Anyway, I parked my car right next to the grapes today and the lady was actually outside. So I stopped by to tell her how beautiful they are and how cool it is that she is growing grapes, and she plucked a whole bunch off to give them to me! She even said I could take leaves off whenever I want if I want to make dolmades or something. She said I could take grapes too but I'm not going to take all of her fruit. I'll probably bring her some Baltimore lavender, so maybe if there is a special occasion I'll grab another bunch.

These things were amazing. Seriously, the more I eat fruit/vegetables directly from the plant, the more I realize how different they taste from something that has been sitting in a refrigerated truck for days. I guess it's kind of like how when you pluck a flower, it's always so much prettier when it's on the plant than when it's been in a vase for a while.

The grapes were a lot smaller than "regular" green grapes- I actually thought they were going to be underripe. But the skin was tart and sweet, the flesh was seedless and exploded with sweetness. Very firm and fruity. I immediately ran around trying to find anyone I knew to share them with, since it's so much more fun sharing the experience with someone. I gave some to my neighbor and even ran into the liquor store on the corner to share them with some of the other neighborhood people I see on a weekly basis (yay Baltimore!). As always it was a pleasure to see them bite into the fruit somewhat suspiciously, and then to see the look of surprise as they realize how delicious the food is!

I also finally decided to harvest the black walnuts that are growing from this gigantic tree right next to my building. It's so weird because the nuts always fall into the parking lot and turn all black and mushy and seem like just some weird pest. No one ever thinks to open up those green fruits to get the nuts inside! Admittedly, it's a ridiculous amount of work to get to the walnuts and finally cure them, but you know me, I love a good project.

My fingers are definitely dyed yellowish-brown now (if anyone is looking for all natural dyes, please contact me!). I also got a ton of weird looks from people walking by. What, they've never seen someone banging open a hard green fruit with a wrench before?!

After about an hour of work I did the "float test" to see which nuts were good or not. The bad ones float, the good ones sink. I've heard mixed things about why this is; I'm not sure if it has to do with the fact that the nut goes bad if it stays inside the fruit for too long after it falls off the tree, or if there are bugs in it. Or if there isn't enough nutmeat?

In any case, 11 nuts floated, 5 nuts sank. Geez, like the essential oil, I am finding out how much work it takes to make certain products! Although I guess opening walnuts with actual machines is much easier than banging on them repeatedly with your brother's wrench..

In any case I plan on continually collecting these suckers whenever I feel like it. I believe they tree will be fruiting for the next month or even into early fall, so maybe in three months I'll have enough for a bag of trail mix!

Wow, never thought I would be collecting so much Hampden-grown produce!

Essential Oil Distillation & Other Tuesday Night Projects

So apparently my kitchen is turning into a bit of a chemistry lab. What are all of those beakers and hoses you ask? Why, it's a steam distiller, of course!

A few weeks back when I started foraging for herbs, I started reading up on the qualities of these plants and their valuable uses as medicinal tinctures, healthful teas, antibacterial cleaners, and delicious scents. The plant's essential oil is at the heart of these uses, but it's very difficult to extract. Plus the machinery is very expensive.

I found a few DIY methods and was considering trying them, but then a friend of mine told me that he had a distiller that had been sitting in a box in his house for a year! We made a deal that if I set up the machine, I could use it too. Yay for friends with similar crazy interests!

After filling the "bio-flask" with about one liter of rosemary leaves, I came up with this scant 1/4 inch of oil:

Definitely makes you realize how valuable essential oil is. Of course, a by-product of the steam distillation process is "hydro-sol" which is the scented water that gets separated from the oil. From the liter of rosemary, I got about 12 ounces of hydrosol. I'm thinking about making it into a rosemary syrup for drinks. Or I could make a nice refreshing spray for my bed linens, or use it for the water in the laundry soap recipe.

Any other creative ideas?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Worms n' Weeds

Another interesting question from Artscape:

Are red wiggler worms invasive?

Just like kudzu, garlic mustard, or mile-a-minute can invade and prevent the growth of native plant species, non-native insects and other animals can take over local ecosystems. The questions of whether or not red wiggler worms could take over local ground hadn't really occurred to me until someone asked about it at Artscape.

I do keep the worms in a bin, but worms can get out (and I did dump my smelly compost in the woods that one time). I got worried for a minute, but considering that red wigglers prefer to live in decaying matter instead of soil, I didn't think that they would be able to live for very long in Maryland soil.

This site pretty much confirmed for me that an invasion of red wigglers isn't a concern:

Speaking of invasives, I think it would be so cool to become a "Weed Warrior." Basically you get trained to recognize invasive species, and then whenever you are taking a walk through the park you can help maintain the land. It would be even cooler to bring seed balls loaded with native plant seeds to leave in place after the invasive species have been dug up.

I will leave you with something fun I found when searching the term "Red Wiggler." There is a great farm in Montgomery County that employs folks with developmental disabilities. They have a CSA, a solar powered barn, and are having a tour THIS SATURDAY the 25th. Here's their blog for more details:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Homemade Laundry Soap

A ton of folks at Artscape were really interested in the homemade laundry soap. I really enjoy using it because:

1. Making the soap in bulk is cheaper than buying it from the store (and it's less money to companies making tons of chemical products)

2. Less chemicals, dyes, and perfumes

3. You can reuse the same plastic container over and over, instead of buying a new one each month.

Here is a link to a site with great tips, troubleshooting questions, and price breakdown (although she did manage to find cheaper supplies, but it is an older website so perhaps prices have gone up...)

And here is the site where I purchased my laundry soap kit:

I was a cheap-ass and bought the less expensive kit with full bars of soap instead of the pre-grated kind. I'd say go ahead and splurge on the pre-grated, because Fels Naptha is a really hard soap, and grating it is really not that fun. Even if you do it while watching t.v.

There is another option too: I have seen Borax and Washing Soda in the laundry aisle at the Giant in Hampden (in the Rotunda). Your grocery store might have it too, or you might be able to get them to order it for you. Then you won't have to pay any shipping and handling fees.

One last tip: I am probably going to switch from Fels Naptha to a more natural castile soap (like Dr. Bronners). I found out after I bought all the soap that Fels Naptha does have a petroleum based solvent in it, according to Wikipedia: Castile soap is more expensive, but it will be worth it.

Although Fels Naptha does have another interesting use as poison ivy relief, and doesn't seem to bother this woman with sensitive skin.

Let me know how your experiments turn out!

If all goes well, I may have a table at a farmer's market in the future since lots of people are interested in this product, but not everyone has the time to make it.


Friday, July 17, 2009

First Day of Artscape 2009

I've just logged 9.5 hours at Artscape, so apologies if this is a little incoherent or rushed. But I really want to power through so I can give some first impressions of the day, and to say THANK YOU to all of the amazing people who stopped by the table. When I had one of my compost worms in my hand and looked up to see a sudden interested crowd, it made my day. I loved having you all smell my home-made soap, ask technical questions about the solar oven that I had no idea how to answer, exclaim that you also have Borax at the house, and think that my idea to use a filing cabinet drawer as a planter is really cool. It was fun meeting you all!

And thanks to Marian for putting this show together. Isn't her "Do Something" sign great? Plus it's always exciting seeing your name in print :p

I'm starting to crash from the excitement high, my throat is a bit sore from talking so much, and I've been touching compost, grain alcohol tinctures, and soap all day. But it was totally worth it- there was definitely no other table at Artscape with these kinds of home sustainability projects. (There is apparently a girl baking with a solar oven, so I'm going to have to track her down tomorrow! Too rainy for much baking today anyway...)

I will now interrupt this broadcast with a photo of a garden in a shopping cart from the show's decorations (which will be donated to a community garden on Sunday:

As I expected from the wonderful public extravaganza that Artscape is, a great variety of folks stopped by the table. From expectant moms who wanted to know more about the all-natural cleaning powers of vinegar and baking soda, to apartment dwellers curious to learn more about small-space worm composting, to pros who help send solar ovens to Africa and work in community gardens.

My biggest surprise was that getting people to smell my homemade laundry soap was a real draw! I noticed a lot of folks really wanted to interact with the objects in some way. So I had them smelling the soap, the ginger plant shoots, the dried herbs. Everyone made pleasant "hmmm" sounds after smelling the soap, because it smells exactly like what you want laundry to smell like (hard to describe, but just imagine people making pleasantly surprised sounds :)

Sometimes I felt a little silly, like some kind of anti-chemical paranoid, because of all the natural cleaning stuff, but once I explained that my homemade stuff is also cheaper and uses less plastic containers, I felt more common-sensical, and I think I came across a little more like a smart consumer and less like a green freak. Although everyone was going crazy for

Of course, the container gardening was awesome as a display because it's so easy and also it's not really scary, at least not like composting or making your own cleaning supplies. It was nice to have a variety of projects for people, and fun to see which projects attracted people and why.

I got to answer a range of questions, from "Where's the best farmer's market in Baltimore?" to "Why did my compost get so smelly?" to "What's the best way to clean a greasy frying pan naturally?"


1. I like the main one under the Rt. 83 underpass because it's such a festival atmosphere and it smells good from the barbeque. Although it gets crowded, so go early.

2. Make sure you have enough air holes in your compost container, and make sure to rotate it to let air in. Also, mix in a lot of woody materials like paper or leaves.

3. Get a cast iron skillet. That way, no soap is needed- you can pour in boiling water, or scrub the pan with salt. The oil coating is actually good for the pan.

Anyway, I'm rambling and feel like I've only said about half of what I wanted to say. I'd post more photos but since the "green" section of Artscape is located in the parking garage, the photos turned out kind of poorly. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, so maybe they will turn out better. And maybe I'll get some solar-baked cakes to go with a smoothie made from a bike-powered machine!

And, even though it's a crappy photo, I post this to give you a general idea of my set-up (I swear, it looks much better in person!)

See you all tomorrow and Sunday!


Monday, July 13, 2009

Come visit my table at Artscape 2009!

(photo of Artscape 2008)

Ah yes, mid-July in Baltimore. The main road outside my employment is blocked off for the week, electric cables are being hung for yards, and hundreds of white tents are being set up all around the city. And best of all, a year's worth of new public art sculptures are blooming!

I don't know if anything can beat last year's front porch/back porch interactive sculpture or the skateboard Pants Ramp, but I sure hope something will come close. (Disclaimer note: one of my brothers worked really hard on the Pants Ramp; he's the one *shredding hard* in the top photo).

If "you ain't from aroun' here" or are living in some kind of hole, check out the Artscape website for more details:

And best of all, I'm going to have a table this year! I'll be across from the Charles Theater, along with a bunch of other green-focused groups. The general idea of the table will be: "Urban Sustainability." Mainly I am interested in showing the people of Baltimore how they can make some everyday, tangible steps towards living a more sustainable, healthy life. Even living in the city, we are still connected to the Earth!

Here are a list of the projects I'll be displaying:

Solar Oven My DIY version is made out of one of those reflectors you put in a car window to block the sunlight. Photos shall be posted soon- I have yet to try it out!

Compost Bin More description of my composting adventures can be found here: Brief update: I drilled a ton of air holes in my bin, which should help the compost be less smelly and break down better. Almost all of the worms are dead, but I found about 5 little guys in some of my potting soil (they're definitely red wigglers from the compost I added to the pot) so I put them into my bin. We'll see if they regenerate..

Canning Not that I expect everyone to become an instant home-maker or foodie, but I do want people to know that canning is not as hard as it seems! Plus it's a great way to store delicious food from your CSA or Farmer's Market year- round. See:

Tinctures Gathered from herbs foraged right here in Baltimore City!

Plus some basic facts about carrying reusable bags/bottles instead of using plastic, homemade natural cleaning products, and more!

Come stop by my table- I'd love to see you there! (Plus since I'll be single-handedly doing this Friday thru Sunday, please come by and lend a hand if you'd like. I'd love the support. Thanks!)


Friday, July 10, 2009

Food, Inc.

If you are reading this website, you've probably already heard about Food,Inc., the documentary that exposes the dirty industrial secrets of the food industry. I saw it last night at the Charles Theater, and although I am obviously already one of the converted, I am glad I did.

The film was mainly a broad overview of how power has become concentrated and corrupted in the food industry, set to a montage of animals being mutilated, brightly synthetic packages in the grocery store, and endless fields of genetically modified corn and soy. While it was pretty depressing, it also made me believe more than ever in our power as consumers.

Case in point about how the film could/should have been ended with more positive footage: After the film was over, the woman sitting behind me with her husband and son started crying because "she felt so powerless." These kind of exposé films often make us feel so overwhelmed, we become paralyzed instead of motivated.

So I turned around and started talking to her about the CSA I joined and how happy it makes me. It's so easy to subvert the usual food system. Although it costs a little more than supermarket food, I believe that if there's one thing you should spend money on, it's the food you put inside you.

Why I love my CSA:

1. It costs less than one month of my rent and I get fresh, healthy, organic, vegetables for six months.

2. I notice the seasons a lot more!

3. I remember what "real" food tastes like (a tomato in July is totally different than some fake, watery, pinkish thing-- the "idea of a tomato" it's called in the film-- in November)

3. I appreciate farm workers and the Earth a lot more

4. My food travels less mileage, hence less gas use (War in Iraq, anyone?)

Just by CHANGING HOW WE SPEND OUR MONEY, we can heal any number of issue from the inside-out. From how business is structured (supporting small local economies), to the healthcare system (obesity epidemic, anyone?!), to the environment (like tons of chicken manure flooding the Chesapeake Bay).

Let me tell you, eating delicious local food is soo much better than marching in the streets, signing petitions, or holding teach-ins. And more effective, since $$$$ is the only argument that the powers-that-be listen to anyway.

I could go into a long synopsis here about ammonia in hamburgers made out of hundreds of different cows, genetically modified soy, farmers being sued by Monsanto for saving heirloom crop seeds. But if you're interested in any kind of environmental, social, or political justice at all you've probably already come across the food industry and the way it totally destroys the health of the planet.

So, instead of getting frustrated, become a responsible consumer. The companies are only selling what we're buying.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July Foodmakers Potluck Announced!

This month's potluck will be Sunday the 26th at Cromwell Valley. (If you want to support this awesome local farm, information about becoming a member & buying their organic produce is located here:

As always, all ages are welcome! Please bring a dish to share, along with your own eating and serving utensils.

ReadyMade has a really great article about food projects for picnics. I really want to try this coffee-can ice cream! It looks easy, super fun, and very yummy:

With the Hamilton Street Festival on July 25th and the potluck on the 26th, it's sure to be a fun and busy weekend!
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