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Veteran garden healing

I’ve recently come across two organizations who are helping veterans from the US military experience the healing that comes from growing food.

The first is the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a California based non-profit that aims to help veterans get employment on farms in rural California. Farmers find it hard to get high quality workers for many jobs, including growing and harvesting. Organic farming is by definition more labor-intensive than chemical farming, so organic farms need more workers. Organic farms are also more healing places to work, as they don’t spray poisons, so it’s an ideal match. Veterans are super disciplined workers because of their rigorous training, and benefit immensely from working on the farm. It’s truly rewarding work, and it helps them make ends meet on their post-military pensions.

Another project that links veterans with the healing power of gardening is Strawberry Flag. Founded by artist Lauren Bon, Strawberry Flag is an art project run by veterans at the Veteran’s Association of West Los Angeles. The concept is a stars and stripes American flag made up of strawberries and vets. The strawberries are grown hydroponically in long white tubes that make up the stripes, and the stars are, of course, the vets themselves. All the strawberry plants have been donated by local commercial strawberry farms, who always discard the plants after the first year of use, as they become less productive. However, there are plenty of strawberries left in them, especially if they’re grown hydroponically. The veterans them pick and preserve the strawberries, and sell small batches of strawberry jam to raise money for their own care. It’s a beautiful project.

Celebrate Memorial Day by buying veteran-made strawberry jam from Veteran’s Preserves.

And if you’re in the position to employ veterans in agricultural work, come meet them at the first Southern California Food and Farming Veteran Career Fair in Santa Monica. It’s June 30th at 10 a.m.


If you have grapevines in your garden, it’s time to learn how to make dolmades. When you tie grapevines to train them, a few invariably break off, however careful you are. This classic Greek dish is made by blanching grape leaves, then rolling them around a stuffing mixture such as rice, minced vegetables and ground meat.

Grape leaves are high in resveratrol, the same phytochemical that makes red wine good for your heart. Resveratol is a powerful antioxidant, and the most concentrated form of it in nature is grape leaves, which have a much higher content than the grapes themselves.

Dolmades are best made on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, because although they’re easy, they’re not quick. Dolmades are fiddly, but they’re fun, and the texture and taste is wonderful. Very homey and satisfying. Try rolling loving thoughts and kind wishes into every parcel for extra flavor.

Picked grape leaves need to be prepared within a couple of hours or they will wilt. Choose big leaves to stuff, as the little ones are too tender as well as being too small to make a meaningful dolmade.

To prepare each grape leaf, cut the stem right at the base of the leaf, then blanch a pile of flat leaves in a pot of boiling salted water for about 4 minutes. Lift them out with a pancake flipper, and lay them flat to cool down. If you’re not ready to make dolmades on the day you have fresh leaves, lie them flat in a plastic bag, remove any air, and freeze for up to 6 months.

If you are ready to roll, you need to cook some stuffing ingredients. My dolmades tonight were stuffed with organic ground beef, organic short grain brown rice, minced onions and bell pepper, chopped oregano, flat leaf parsley and oregano, and crushed garlic. However, there are a zillion stuffing mixtures that would taste wonderful, including vegetarian and vegan ingredients, like tofu, beans, cheese and tomatoes.

Line a full layer of colmades into a heavy pot, add a little liquid and bake at 420 F for 20 minutes. Serve with a fresh Greek salad salad drizzled with delicious olive oil.

Not all insects are pests!

Organic gardeners are happy to see bugs! Non-organic gardeners reach for the chemicals, but organic gardeners know that where there’s bugs, there’s life. It’s called an eco-system for a reason… it’s a community of living things, plants and bugs and birds and mammals, all living as a vibrant community in the great outdoors.

One man’s pest is another man’s dinner, and that man might well be a ladybug. This caterpillar is generally a reason to pull out the Roundup, but for me, it’s proof that my soil is fertile, the plants are delicious, and that either this spooky guy is going to become a beautiful pollinating butterfly, or another beneficial bug is going to have a big fluffy caterpillar dinner real soon.


A third of bees wiped

The world may be on the brink of biological disaster after news that a third of US bee colonies did not survive the winter. Honey bees are vital insect pollinators, responsible for the healthy development of many of the world’s major food crops. P

Disturbing evidence that honeybees are in terminal decline has emerged from the United States where, for the fourth year in a row, more than a third of colonies have failed to survive the winter.

The decline of the country’s estimated 2.4 million beehives began in 2006, when a phenomenon dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD) led to the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of colonies. Since then more than three million colonies in the US and billions of honeybees worldwide have died and scientists are no nearer to knowing what is causing the catastrophic fall in numbers.

The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US fell by 33.8% last winter, according to the annual survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the US government’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

The collapse in the global honeybee population is a major threat to crops. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon honeybee pollination, which means that bees contribute some US$39bn to the global economy.

Potential causes range from parasites, such as the bloodsucking varroa mite, to viral and bacterial infections, pesticides and poor nutrition stemming from intensive farming methods. The disappearance of so many colonies has also been dubbed “Mary Celeste syndrome” due to the absence of dead bees in many of the empty hives.

US scientists have found 121 different pesticides in samples of bees, wax and pollen, lending credence to the notion that pesticides are a key problem.

“We believe that some subtle interactions between nutrition, pesticide exposure and other stressors are converging to kill colonies,” said Jeffery Pettis, of the ARS’s bee research laboratory.

A global review of honeybee deaths by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) reported last week that there was no one single cause, but pointed the finger at the “irresponsible use” of pesticides that may damage bee health and make them more susceptible to diseases. Bernard Vallat, the OIE’s director-general, warned:

“Bees contribute to global food security, and their extinction would represent a terrible biological disaster.”

Dave Hackenberg of Hackenberg Apiaries, the Pennsylvania-based commercial beekeeper who first raised the alarm about CCD, said that last year had been the worst yet for bee losses, with 62% of his 2,600 hives dying between May 2009 and April 2010.

“It’s getting worse,” he said. “The AIA survey doesn’t give you the full picture because it is only measuring losses through the winter. In the summer the bees are exposed to lots of pesticides. Farmers mix them together and no one has any idea what the effects might be.”

Pettis agreed that losses in some commercial operations are running at 50% or greater. “Continued losses of this magnitude are not economically sustainable for commercial beekeepers,” he said, adding that a solution may be years away. “Look at Aids, they have billions in research dollars and a causative agent and still no cure. Research takes time and beehives are complex organisms.”

In the UK it is still too early to judge how Britain’s estimated 250,000 honeybee colonies have fared during the long winter. Tim Lovett, president of the British Beekeepers’ Association, said: “Anecdotally, it is hugely variable. There are reports of some beekeepers losing almost a third of their hives and others losing none.” Results from a survey of the association’s 15,000 members are expected this month.

John Chapple, chairman of the London Beekeepers’ Association, put losses among his 150 members at between a fifth and a quarter. Eight of his 36 hives across the capital did not survive. “There are still a lot of mysterious disappearances,” he said. “We are no nearer to knowing what is causing them.”

Bee farmers in Scotland have reported losses on the American scale for the past three years. Andrew Scarlett, a Perthshire-based bee farmer and honey packer, lost 80% of his 1,200 hives this winter. But he attributed the massive decline to a virulent bacterial infection that quickly spread because of a lack of bee inspectors, coupled with sustained poor weather that prevented honeybees from building up sufficient pollen and nectar stores.

The government’s National Bee Unit has always denied the existence of CCD in Britain, despite honeybee losses of 20% during the winter of 2008-09 and close to a third the previous year. It attributes the demise to the varroa mite – which is found in almost every UK hive – and rainy summers that stop bees foraging for food.

In a hard-hitting report last year, the UK National Audit Office suggested that amateur beekeepers who failed to spot diseases in bees were a threat to honeybees’ survival and called for the National Bee Unit to carry out more inspections and train more beekeepers. Last summer MPs on the influential cross-party public accounts committee called on the government to fund more research into what it called the “alarming” decline of honeybees.

The UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has contributed £2.5m towards a £10m fund for research on pollinators. The public accounts committee has called for a significant proportion of this funding to be “ring-fenced” for honeybees. Decisions on which research projects to back are expected this month.


Flowering plants require insects for pollination. The most effective is the honeybee, which pollinates 90 commercial crops worldwide. As well as most fruits and vegetables – including apples, oranges, strawberries, onions and carrots – they pollinate nuts, sunflowers and oil-seed rape. Coffee, soya beans, clovers – like alfafa, which is used for cattle feed – and even cotton are all dependent on honeybee pollination to increase yields.

In the UK alone, honeybee pollination is valued at £200m (about $300m). Mankind has been managing and transporting bees for centuries to pollinate food and produce honey, nature’s natural sweetener and antiseptic. Their extinction would mean not only a colourless, meatless diet of cereals and rice, and cottonless clothes, but a landscape without orchards, allotments and meadows of wildflowers – and the collapse of the food chain that sustains wild birds and animals.

By Alison Benjamin for The Guardian UK, May 4, 2010


The blueberry bush is a native American plant, and although it has a reputation for being difficult to grow, I’ve found it to be easy peasy to grow here in Los Angeles. They like sun, and we have plenty of that. They like warmth, and they like an acid soil. You can make your soil acid by mixing an organic acid planting mix into your existing soil, such as a bagged soil that’s made for azaleas. You can also use pine needles and oak leaves as a mulch, as they both raise soil acidity simply by living on top and decomposing into the soil.

I’ve planted many different varieties of blueberries, and while there’s some variation in when they start producing berries, and in the shape and size of the bushes, they’ve all ended up with tons and tons of delicious berries at a height that’s perfect for the children to pick. As the blueberry bushes I grow are never ever sprayed with nasty chemicals, they’re safe to eat without washing. The berries on each buch ripen at different times, so you have a generous supply of berries over a long season, from March until October here in Southern California.

Just reach out, pick and pop in your mouth, or add them to salads, muesli and pies. Blue-tastic!

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