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Cooking Healthy Meals Starts with Healthful Food

August 6th, 2013 06:00:00 pm


We know that cooking healthy meals starts with wholesome food and ingredients. But in these uncertain times of chemicals, GMOs, franken-food and processed everything... We may be uncertain  what we are really buying at the market. Is it really organic? Were pesticides used? Are the seeds GMO? It can be disturbing and confusing when you select food for your family. "Things" can be disguised as food (chicken mcnugget comes to mind). Similar to how this grasshopper blends into my lime tree branch, ingredients and methods are disguised in the marketplace until you really don't know for sure what you are getting.


But remember, we have choices! With a little effort, we can supplement a large portion of our food supply by growing our own. This allows us to know exactly what we are eating, because we controlled the process and content.  We know that our home-grown crops, if we are careful and diligent, do not contain glyphosates that linger in our gut and cause illness.


Celebrate your independence and start your own garden!  It can be small scale on a patio in containers, or larger scale, taking over your entire yard, or something in between.  Following is our journey in starting our own garden which will hopefully lead to independence--freedom from relying on outside sources for a large portion of our intake! You may recall my recent blog on Sprouting. It was my first "mini" garden, in my kitchen. I mastered that one pretty quickly and we currently always have a fresh supply of sprouts in the refrigerator. It is an excellent place to start and gave me wholesome, clean, nutrition, simply.  We loved this so much, we were ready to expand. And expand we did....


I started by going to a local gardening class one morning. I returned with a fist full of notes and big dreams of a big fabulous garden. My husband was probably terrified by the determination in my eyes. This was going to happen, finally, after years of talking about it. (Thank you to The Simple Farm in Scottsdale for hosting the class and inspiring me with their wonderful farm! ) The rest of the story below is how we went from thinking about gardening and growing our own food, to creating one! We certainly have not grown our own food yet, but we are off to a start at trying!


1) CHOOSE YOUR LOCATION. Will you container garden, do a raised bed, lasagna garden directly on the soil, or just sprout in your kitchen? My decision was to create a raised bed garden. This would allow me to control the soil, and potentially the gophers. It seemed like the best choice for my surroundings... dry, hard soil. We also chose a location that had some shade from the Western sun.


2) BUILD YOUR PLANTER. For us, this was building the raised bed box. Lumber, wood screws and 1/2x1/2 hardware cloth are the basic supplies needed. The hardware store is happy to cut the pieces to size for you, free of charge. They also have 70% off piles that might be slightly warped etc. These are great for raised beds. The hardware cloth is put on the base of the bed, to prevent our gopher friends from coming up from the ground and having lunch on the roots of the plants. This shows the bottom of the box.


Guy planting in backyard



You should build your box up to 18 inches deep so it will accomodate carrots and potatoes that grow underground. This is also very much about sun and shade. We chose a location with a lot of protection from the Western sun in the late afternoon. We felt this was a critical time of day for shade. We also have indirect shade mid-morning in our location.


3) CHOOSING SOIL. This turned out to be a really big decision for us. After much research and fretting, we decided to go against the grain on this one, and invest in soil/compost that did not come from Kelloggs or any other big chain/big box store/manufacturer.  We were not comfortable with the quality, even though it states organic. I have a lack of trust and confidence in these companies. We were going to a farm nearby for compost (Singhs) but they were not open. Further research had led me to Zakea Farmacy (www.zakeafarmacy.com). I loved Zak's passion for his home-brewed compost. No animal by-products (manure/poop). No chemicals. And his "recipe" using Humate, Arizona Volcanic Sand, as well as private well-water seemed like exactly what we were hoping for. We could actually see this stuff teaming with microbes!  And the smell of this soil is fantastic. Takes you mentally to a farm somewhere..... Here you can see us acquiring our soil for the raised bed! We bought three different products. The 8 month filtered composite is the gold.... The compost that is yet unfiltered, and still has some chunks to it... Then the mulch that is spread across the top of the garden to lock moisture into the soil.





Once we got this back to the house, we had to wheelbarrow it all from the trailor,  into the backyard. Needless to say, that was a arduous task. Next we needed some of our "natural" soil. Oh boy. We are talking hard ground, rocks and a reddish clay that when wet is a very heavy, dense substance. But it is our soil. So we dug some up and mixed it in with the lovely compost for the perfect planting soil. Our natural dirt will soon acquire those microbes and become just as rich and fertile as the compost.

Here, the bed is in place, the soil is mixed with native soil, compost and some other goodies we threw in to maintain moisture balance.











4) WATER. We learned that if you water with city water, it has chlorine in it, which kills all of the special microbes you just invested in with the farm compost. Those microbes are critical for healthy plants. So at the advice of Tony from GrowKale.com, we purchased a filter that hooks onto the hose and removes the chlorine. Next Scott put together quarter inch soaker tubes coming out of a 1/2 inch bubbler drip line, as well as a pressure reducer (keeping it below 25 psi). This will gently soak the bed as needed on a timer. End result, this goes from the water source to the chlorine filter, to the pressure reducer, into the bubbler/drip line, into the soaker tubes, which are connecting into the bubbler line at both ends of the bed.


5) PLAN FOR PESTS.  Any good soil has pests. Any yard has pests. Come up with a game plan on what to leave alone (bugs are good, especially bees and spiders) and what to control. We used Beneficial Nematodes to offer "good bugs" into our soil to deal with potential "bad bugs". We got them from www.gardeningzone.com via air service. Scott used a sprayer without a screen to spray the bugs onto the soil. They drill down and do there thing from there. We understand that if they find a grub worm, they go into it and eat it from the inside out. Yuck. We will see how this turns out. We are hopeful. For anything visible eating leaves, we spray with a 1/10 ratio of water and soap nuts soap. They do not like this at all and they leave the plant!


6) CRITTER CONTROL. This is where things got crazy. Mama squirrel has a taste for our Hales Best Cantaloupe as well as our Malaba Spinach. She successfully leveled three of our plants a day after we planted the starts. I started dreaming of this big structure that would prevent the bunnies, squirrels and birds from entering our garden. Almost an outdoor gardening room. Arizona room but for keeping out critters, not insects.  I drew it and Scott said it was crazy. Then the scrap parts and pieces we needed presented themselves. And Scott and I built it. It is amazing. We are exhausted. It took forever. We thought we would never finish. But it was a race against the appetite of mama squirrel. And we did it. Check it out, crazy, right? Best part is that we were able to use re-claimed materials, old stuff that was otherwise garbage. We did have to buy chicken wire but discovered that if you buy it in the stucco section it is the same gauge and size, but half the price.... After laboring for days, (and the structure was not yet finished or enclosed) Scott got the pleasure of seeing Mama squirrel approach the bed and jump up onto the planting bed. He opened the house slider door to chase her off and she ran smack into the new "chicken wire wall." She was a bit surprised and quickly ran back to her nest.


7) CHOOSE YOUR STARTS AND PLANT!  We bought ours from Sonoran Seasons... some at the Roadrunner Farmers Market, and some at The Simple Farm. This was the best part. Picking your favorite things to grow and dreaming about what these tiny little plants will morph into! Since we planted in late July/Aug, we selected the following starts: Cantaloupe; Honeydew Melon; Basil; Tomatillo; White Armenian Cucumber; Scallop Squash; Jalepeno; Habenero; Shishito Pepper; Malaba Spinach; Purslane; Stupice, Taxi and Punta Banda Tomatoes; Butternut Squash. I also planted a Cape Plumbago next to the bed in a pot, so the flowers would draw the bees! At the advice of Michael at The Simple Farm, we dunked each start in MYCOGROW which touches the roots and should make the plant very happy. It is soluble mycorrizae...



8) WHAT WILL BE? So now we watch and wait. We resist the impulse to water when they droop in the hot afternoon sun. I inspect for bugs constantly. If I find anything on the leaves, I spray them with the soap nuts soap. So far so good. I am seeing little new leaves and it is so exciting. Everyone has warned us that it will be difficult and we might fail. And we might. But, there is always next planting season if we do!


Will you get started cooking healthy meals by growing your own fruits and vegetables?



The post above was Aug 6, and today is Sept 15... how our garden has grown! We are just too excited that we can actually grow our own food in Arizona. Who knew? Today we will be going to get wood and supplies to build another raised bed, for the Winter garden. In the meantime, we are anxiously awaiting the fruits of our labor. We have been eating the Malaba Spinach on sandwiches, and we've been using some Purslane here and there, as well as Basil. The rest of it... we have to wait for. So here is an update using photos... enjoy!


This is the structure we built to house our gardens. Crazy right?! It creates a barrier against squirrels and bunnies and quail and the giant owl. But allows our bees and sun full access. This photo is multiple weeks ago...

We felt the need to name our garden, because we are so proud of it. You may have chatted with us and heard that we were anxious about attracting bees. They seemed to be interested in every other area of our yard, except our garden where we need them to pollinate the fruit. So Scott built a fountain using a bird bath tray that previously always sat dry, adding a small pump that was in the shed. He is such a McGuiver.




Isn't it cute?!


Then we potted some more flowers, and I painted a lady bug rock (above)....(this was an idea I got from Donelle from Donelle's Salon in Scottsdale).  What more could a bee want. One morning while sitting in our garden having our coffee and picking bugs off our plants, we saw a bee!! One lone bee. He worked the garden all morning. The next day, he was back and he worked the garden all my himself. We were thrilled. He was a very busy bee. Hence the name of our garden. I made a little sign to hang over the door...


Since then, that busy bee has been joined by his friends. We sat this morning and watched them do their thing. Maybe you are not familiar with how it works? I am no expert so following is my very basic understanding of the "birds and the bees" of the garden. There are blooms on each plant. Some are female (they have the bulb or fruit attached at their base). The others are male, (they are a straight stalk, no bulb beneath). When the bee lands on the male flower to get his nectar, he is also performing an amazingly important function. He is getting the pollen all over his little feet and antenna. Next, he may land on the female flower and drink nectar there. While he is drinking, he is getting the male pollen all over the female flower. Shazam! She is now "fertilized" and the fruit she is attached to will flourish. Birds and other flying bugs perform this same function. But the bees are critical. We are always careful to move a hive, rather than kill it. We need precious bees for our world's food supply. So please be careful not to use pesticides!


Here is a photo of the Armenian Cucumber in it's tiny tiny stages.

Here is a photo of a Honeydew Melon as it starts out.








Here is a Butternut Squash. These are crazy plants. They are taking over the entire garden. It appears we might have Butternut Squash in abundance soon. You can see the female flower on the end. 


And so on...















We have been SOOOO enjoying our garden. We have been eating the Malabar Spinach, Purslane and Basil regularly, as well as the GIANT Armenian Cucumbers.... I thought the first two were big, pictured here.


But look at the one I picked this morning. It dwarfs my hand in this photo...





Scott has been busy building our winter garden raised bed. Same process... build the box, drive down to see Zak and get the soil. Wheelbarrow the soil from the trailor to the raised bed and so on. We are waiting for a bit of a temperature drop before planting it, but the starts are going strong in the windowsill....



These are the starts for the winter garden... Zucchini, Carrots, Radish, Beets, Kale, Lettuce, Cabbage, Spinach and so on.... They seem rather spindley... we will see! They will go out as soon as it drops below 90 consistently. They will go into that new bed Scott was building.








Meanwhile, the summer garden is going strong. Following are some photos of our current harvest that is in production.

That's a butternut squash to the right, and a cantalope below. And a giant honeydew melon.

This is a jalepeno... and a white scallop squash...

Here is a new Tomatillo.. and an new Yellow Bell Pepper.








Every garden has it's pests. Although I don't like some of them, like this tobacco horn worm that loves my tomatillos... it is kindof cool looking and worthy of a photo that was taken right before it's demise. The praying mantas is kindof unique too. He went on his merry way... and that flyish thing, he's still buzzing around with the bees. The owl.. he's still around too. He stares you down in the most creepy way but he is totally beautiful.


Overall, look at how overgrown and gorgeous it has become...












Consider yourself updated on the garden until next week when I plant the winter bed. And I'll also give you an update on the new baby chicks. I am in love. The girls are so full of spunk and personality. They will (hopefully) be giving us eggs in 6 or 7 months, but look at them now!!! Peep Peep.



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