What’s The Deal With Heirlooms?

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Over the last couple of decades, a nostalgic nerve has been triggered by the rising popularity of “heirloom” fruits and vegetables and “heritage” meats in the gourmet food world. If you stroll through a local farmer’s market or peruse a fancy restaurant menu in any of the nation’s urban centers these days, you will likely find these foodie buzzwords posted prominently to woo discerning customers.

My fear is that the idea of an “heirloom” tomato or “heritage” pig conjures a fictitious pastoral image of life as it somehow used to be. The obsession with heirloom foods is concerning to me as it shows how easily we can fall prey to nostalgic narratives such as the pernicious one that currently threatens to split our nation apart: that somehow we can “make America great again” if we just magically go back in time.

Current politics aside, it’s time to look forward, not back. The integrity of our global food system depends on our ability to preserve genetic diversity – and heirlooms plant varieties and heritage animal breeds are part of that gene bank. More important than preserving specific plant and animal varieties, however, is allowing our crops and animals to adapt and evolve over time, mutating within each new generation, and this can only occur through a mixing of genes, not isolating them or somehow trying to keep them “pure.”

So why am I so fixated on the words “heirloom” and “heritage” as qualifiers for our foods? First of all, both happen to have fuzzy, unscientific definitions. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an heirloom crop as “a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” Heritage breeds are the animal equivalents of heirloom plants – the Livestock Conservancy defines heritage breeds as “traditional breeds that were raised by our forefathers.”

I believe that if we sincerely intend to be “food-literate” – to know what we are eating and how it impacts our health and the world around us – we must begin to be more scientific and less nostalgic when referring to our food. Specifically, we must clarify that whether something is an heirloom or not matters less than whether or not the seed saving and breeding programs are actually maximizing the number of genetically unique offspring within a population.

The best example of a genetically diverse domesticated plant type is an open-pollinated crop variety. These are crops for which the exchange of pollen between individuals within a particular species is not controlled or limited. Open-pollination leads to a maximum number of genetically unique offspring. According to Seed Savers Exchange, “This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year.” Technically, all heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated crops are heirlooms.

The heirloom/heritage craze has also completely overshadowed the value of hybrid crop varieties in our food system. Hybrids, genetic “crosses” between two distinct species, or two varieties within a species, are extremely valuable for growers and ranchers because they are often more vigorous, productive and pest or disease-resistant than the heirlooms and heritage varieties are. The vigor regularly observed in hybrids is a result of their mixed genetic makeup.

Two notable hybrid tomatoes are the “Sun Gold” cherry and “Early Girl” slicing tomatoes. Both are “F1,” or “first filial generation,” hybrid tomato varieties, which are often marketed as heirlooms, but actually are not! They just happen to be two colorful, delicious (and profitable!) tomato varieties that farmers often sell alongside their heirlooms.

A lesser-known hybrid crop, Kernza is a perennial grain that is currently being developed by the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas through a rapidly-sequenced breeding program (not to be construed with genetic engineering). Kernza and other perennial seed crops are being bred at the Land Institute with the intent of restoring the historic prairie environment while providing food for humans and animals. Land Institute founder, Wes Jackson, calls this “ecologically intensified polyculture.” These seed crops are quite possibly the most revolutionary of hybrid crops being developed, as they hold the potential to completely upend the nutrient extractive, water polluting, soil degrading paradigm of current seed crop production (think corn, soy, wheat, rice, sunflower, canola, etc.).

Yes, we need our hybrids too.

Selective breeding (also referred to as artificial selection) is the method humans have employed since the dawn of agriculture in order to create plants and animals that serve our needs more effectively. Selective breeding involves humans intentionally breeding plants or animals with similar characteristics and selecting the offspring with preferred traits for breeding future generations. One major drawback of selective breeding, is it that it actually can drain the “gene pool” – while providing us with a plant or animal whose characteristics we like, the population as a whole might become more vulnerable to a particular intervening variable, such as a blight or virus because of its lack of genetic diversity. This is how our heirloom crops and heritage breeds were initially bred by our “forefathers,” which helps to explain their tendency to not be as vigorous as hybrid varieties.

In summary, we know that diversity ensures resilience, in living systems. And we’re living in  times of accelerated ecological upheaval of global consequence – quite likely, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert has asserted, the beginning of the sixth “great extinction” in the history of planet Earth. The rapid loss of genetic diversity in the world around us should be concerning to us all. And no, genetic engineering technology is not going to allow us to “hack” our way out of this dilemma. Nor is a fixation on “heirloom” and “heritage” breeds merely because they are genetically more “pure” and originated a long time ago. Instead, as farmers, gardeners and consumers, we must clearly focus our efforts on driving the demand for genetically diverse fruits, seeds, vegetables, and animals products. The resilience of our food system will depend on it.


Adapting “Good Agricultural Practices” to Garden to Cafeteria Programs

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At Grow Your Lunch, we care about food systems change. We envision food systems in which people buy from local food producers, and on-site edible gardens supply supplemental produce to cafes, cafeterias, restaurants and home kitchens.

In order for this to work, however, those of us charged with making sure these gardens are successful have to learn an awful lot, specifically regarding food safety and Good Agricultural Practices (“GAPs”). In order to provide food that is safe, reliable and delicious, our movement needs to professionalize itself. And fortunately this is happening, little by little. In cities around the US, from Ventura to Chicago, Detroit to Denver, Atlanta to Mountain View, educational gardens are taking the necessary steps to becoming approved food sources.

So what are GAPs?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, GAPs are:

“practices that address environmental, economic and social sustainability for on-farm processes, and result in safe and quality food and nonfood agricultural products”

And why do GAPs matter in garden to cafeteria programs?

First and foremost, using GAPs minimizes the risk of food borne illness. Following GAPs can also increase the likelihood of administrative “buy-in” for piloting garden to cafeteria programs.  Following GAPs can help minimize potential for liability issues for third party organizations operating gardens on private and public property. Following GAPs also increases the overall professionalism of your garden program and makes it more educational as an example of industry standards.

GAPs: Six Primary Areas of Consideration

There are six primary categories of consideration for GAPs in school gardens: Water, Soils, Land Use and Animal Access, Tools Equipment and Storage, Employee and Volunteer Training, and Record Keeping.

I. Water

First of all you need to know where your water is coming from. Is it stored or coming directly from the source? If you’re using municipal water, the city government is responsible for testing water but it is always recommended to conduct a water test “in-house” for potential contaminants once a year. Always record and date your water test results. Stored rainwater should generally not be used to irrigate vegetable crops unless special steps are being taken to ensure it is not contaminated. Any water that comes into contact with food post-harvest must be 100% potable.


II. Soils

You must test your soil at least once a year. If you’re growing in the ground, test for chemical and/or heavy metal contamination (always remember to date and record results). Use Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)–certified materials for building and filling raised beds. If you plan to use manure, first check to see if it’s OK to use manure in your county. If it is, observe 90-120 days to harvest rule for application on fruit crops and vegetables, respectively, in accordance with USDA organic standards. If you plan to use compost made on site, first check to see if it’s OK to use compost made on site in your city and county. If it is allowed, make sure your compost meets USDA organic standards for heating and aeration. If using your own compost is not allowed, use an OMRI-certified compost product. Vermicompost is normally OK, but it’s always worth checking local regulations. If you use other amendments and sprays, always use as recommended on the package label and in accordance with soil test data. If using a sprayer, be sure it is cleaned and dried thoroughly before storage. A “Soil Amendment Application” log should be kept for all soils and soil amendment applications, documenting the following: date of application, product name, bed/block applied to, amount applied/area, etc.


III. Land Use and Animal Access

First, learn the history of your site: Is there a history of flooding or other potential for contamination at your site? Familiarize yourself with adjacent land use: What’s happening upstream/upwind? Can buffers, setbacks and/or windbreaks minimize impact of adjacent activities? Domestic and wild animals should be kept out of active growing areas at all times: Physical barriers such as fences, raised beds and hoops with screen or row covers can mitigate animal intrusion. Keep a “Rare Occurrence Log” to document incidents of animal intrusion or potential contamination and what was done about it (food safety is all about due diligence and traceability, so the better your records are the safer you and the food you grow will be).


IV. Tools, Equipment and Storage

If  your tools, surfaces and containers come into contact with food postharvest, they must be cleaned/sanitized at an appropriate frequency based on 1.) How dirty each gets, 2.) How frequently it is used, and 3.) The level of food contamination risk associated with the tool/surface or container in question. This is decided at each site. Use separate containers for temporary storage of clean and dirty tools and equipment (while in active use). Post-cleaning, tools and equipment must be stored off the ground and kept away from animals and other contaminants. A “Tool and Equipment Cleaning Log” must be kept, documenting the name of tool/equipment item cleaned, date cleaned, by whom, types of cleaning products and procedures used.


V. Employee and Volunteer Training

The most important training for employees and volunteers is personal hygiene. Any person leading gardening and/or harvesting activities should undergo personal hygiene training, which must include hand-washing procedures and protocols for identifying sickness, allergies, and dealing with emergencies (injury, bleeding), etc. Anyone leading gardening and/or harvesting activities should also undergo GAPs training and should be able to confidently lead groups through approved harvesting and post-harvest handling protocols and logistics associated with your program.


VI. Record Keeping

The following records should be kept for your garden to cafe, cafeteria or restaurant program:

  1. Soil Testing Data
  2. Water Testing Data
  3. Applications/Inputs: All manure, compost, organic amendment, sprays (include date of application, product name, bed/block applied to, amount applied/area, etc.)
  4. Planting: Date, crop, variety, plant or seed source, bed/block name or number, quantity planted, success rate, etc.
  5. Harvesting: Date/time, crop, variety, bed/block harvested from, name of harvest leader, name/signature of receiver. All produce delivered must also be labeled with the harvest date/time, crop, variety, bed/block harvested from, name of harvest leader, name/signature of receiver, quantity of product and the crop/variety of the product. Adding a harvest # or code can help with traceability in large programs.
  6. Rare Occurrence Log: Animal intrusion, suspected contamination of any kind and “corrective action” taken
  7. Tool and Equipment Cleaning Log
  8. Employee and/or Volunteer Training Records
  9. Annual Self-Audit/Traceability Records

Grow Your Lunch is here to help you make your garden to cafeteria program a success. We can facilitate the development of a successful garden to cafe, restaurant or cafeteria program by providing you with the following resources:

    1. A customized Planting and Harvesting Calendar and Crop Plan
    2. A Garden to Cafeteria Protocols Manual, customized to meet the specific public health and food safety regulations of your city and county
    3. Professional Development Workshops for employees and volunteers managing your program
    4. Tools and Strategies for using garden produce without a prep kitchen facility
    5. Program Marketing Strategy to build buy-in and participation in your program

Plant Part Tacos


Grow Your Lunch, LLC has provided this information as completely and accurately as possible, however, we accept no legal responsibility whatsoever for incorrect, insufficient or inadequate food safety risk management, or for any errors or omissions in the information provided herein.

Read this article on the Edible Schoolyard blog.


USDA Food Safety Tips for School Gardens

CDFA Small Farm Food Safety Guidelines

Community Alliance with Family Farmers (“CAFF”), Food Safety and Good Agricultural Practices Resources

Family Farmed “Eat What You Grow” Manual Created with Chicago Public Schools

Local University Cooperative Ag. Extensions

Harvesting the Bounty

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It is officially summer time in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that harvest season is upon us. Harvesting is one of the most rewarding aspects of edible gardening, but it takes practice to do it well. Each plant in the garden has particular harvesting needs. As British horticulturalist Alan Chadwick told his gardening disciples, “in general, everything is specific.”

If done well, harvesting helps our garden plants continue to produce delicious food for us throughout the growing season. In general the main principle is to encourage new growth while harvesting.

Summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash are easily identified when they are ripe due to their size and color, but ripeness is not always so easy to determine with many other crops.


Summer Harvest Basket

Some plants are “cut and come again” crops and many are not. A “cut and come again” crop is a plant that you can cut back fairly low down (above the point where their first true leaves branch out) and it will still produce new leaves from the root system and the central core of the plant.

Thyme, oregano, cilantro, dill, parsley and arugula are great examples of crops that can be cut hard and will grow back – all of these can be cut with a knife, hand shears or pinched by hand – almost to the ground – and will still grow back with great vigor. Just try it! You won’t kill the plant!

A lettuce plant is not a “cut and come again” crop and should be harvested as a whole head for optimal production. It will never grow new leaves if you cut it back. Some gardeners like to harvest the outermost leaves off of many different lettuce plants for their salad. We find this a bit tedious and prefer to plant new lettuce seedlings frequently so that we always have whole heads ready for harvest, throughout the growing season.

Lettuce 1

 Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Leafy Greens such as kale, collards, and chard should have their lowest leaves picked first so that the middle of the plant can continue to produce new leaves. In general, breaking off the lower leaves at the main stem by hand with your thumb is better for the plant than cutting the leaves, as cutting will leave a wound that does not heal as well and can become a vector for disease.


Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Root vegetables such as beets, carrots and radishes can be harvested when the top of their taproot is visible above soil level and the plant looks large enough to pick.

Tree fruit such as apples, pears, peaches and nectarines can be harvested when they fall into your palm with a ¼ turn of the stem. Subtropical fruit such as citrus and avocados have a wider harvest window and can be picked or cut from the branch when they have attained appropriate size and color, which depends on the specific variety of each crop.

For more edible gardening tips, download free PDF or purchase a hard copy of our Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food handbook and check out out the Grow Your Lunch Vimeo channel!

Happy Summer Northern gardeners!


School Garden Summer Success Secrets

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Summer presents numerous challenges in the school garden. Whenever we meet with school communities, the same question always arises, “What are we supposed to do in the summer time?” Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to common concerns about summer in the school garden.


Common concerns about summer include:

1.) There will be no staff, students or teachers on campus to take care of the garden.
2.) Summer crops use more water than spring, fall and winter crops. Why use lots of water to grow food that students will not be around to harvest?
3.) In higher latitudes and altitudes, summer is the main growing season. If we don’t grow in the summer, we won’t have a garden!
4.) Irrigation systems can falter – batteries die, leaks occur, water can get disconnected for construction projects, etc.

Our recommendations:

1.) Set up a calendar for families to rotate taking care of the garden for a week or two at a time. If a family can visit the garden two times per week to water, weed, and check that the irrigation systems are running properly, they get to take home any food that is ready to harvest. Orient families to their responsibilities before school gets out in the late spring.
2.) Create a summer program that links to other summer camps or summer school programs, local youth clubs, etc. in order to get more children into the garden when it is in full production.
3.) If possible, set up a paid internship program for teens to help take care of the garden.
4.) Fallow, mulch over, or cover-crop areas of the garden that do not need to be in production during the summer months. Mustards, buckwheat and cow peas are good summer cover crops for cooler climates, sun hemp (a legume) works well in warmer climates.
5.) Prioritize maximizing crop diversity in the garden over food production in the summer. A broader diversity of crops will help to ensure a more resilient garden ecosystem.
6.) Don’t be afraid to let annual plants get wild and go to seed during summer. Pulling out overgrown plants, saving seeds, building compost piles, and cultivating the soil are perfect gardening tasks for students to become familiar with at the beginning of the school year (video password: Grow2016).
7.) Plant the summer crops as late as possible in order to get a late summer harvest when students are back in school.

Three Sisters Original

Though the challenge of maintaining a school garden during the summer will remain as long as summer vacation exists, there are numerous ways to rethink the garden during summer that can allow for new opportunities and less frustration and lost production. We hope you find these tips useful!

As always, if you would like to connect with us to discuss your school’s garden program, you can schedule a free school garden strategy session here. If your community could benefit from a Garden Site and Program Assessment, you can find details here.

Happy growing!

The Art of Weeding

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Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

The Art of Weeding

Believe it or not, weeding is an art. Timing is everything when it comes to weeding. Pulling weeds before they make seeds and reproduce is crucial to successfully weeding your garden. Spring is the ideal time for major weeding projects as the ground is still soft and the weeds have not yet reproduced.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants around – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient a living system of soil microorganisms and animals you will encourage.

There are, however, a few primary concerns when it comes to weeds:

1.) Some weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked.
2.) Weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.
3.) The third concern is that some weeds compete for nutrients, water and sunlight with our intended plants in the garden.


1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one to three types of weeds at a time.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

4.) If you are working in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

This is an excerpt from Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food. Download free PDF or purchase hard copy.

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Cultivating Gratitude

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By now, summer crops have all come out of the edible garden. Seeds have been saved from the annual vegetables and herbs, compost piles have been built, and cover crops, winter vegetables and garlic are being planted or are already in the ground. Garden beds are being mulched with straw and leaves to retain moisture, block weeds and insulate the soil and wood chips are being spread on garden paths to prevent erosion.

Fruit trees are losing their leaves, reminding us that they will need to be pruned, weeded, mulched, and fed again this winter.

In between the first few storms of late fall, we cultivate the soil, opening it up to breathe one last time before the shorter days of winter.

During this transitional time in the seasons, we invite you to use Grow Your Lunch’s very first tutorial video, “Cultivating The Ground,” which demonstrates the first of 10 Essential Gardening Practices. Learning how to cultivate the soil just enough and not too much is a valuable gardening skill that will serve you for years. So what exactly is cultivating? And why do we do it? Here’s an excerpt from Chapter I of our founder Benjamin’s Edible Gardening handbook, which we hope you will download and use to follow along with the video:


As we approach Thanksgiving, and cultivate our gardens for the last time this year, let’s remember to give thanks to the soil. And let’s not forget that healthy soils grow healthy plants which grow healthy humans! In fact, not only does soil provide food for us, it also provides us with building materials, fiber for clothes, filtration of our fresh waters, fuel for our transportation, even raw materials for electronic devices like the one you are using to read this article! Carbon can also be taken from the air and stored in soil through natural processes as well as responsible agricultural practices. Learn more about soil and carbon sequestration from the the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Grow your soil, fix some carbon, and combat climate change today!

More Fall Gardening Articles from Grow Your Lunch:

School Garden Ghosts

To Give Thanks is to Nourish The Soil

A Diverse Winter Cover Crop


World Soil Day: 2015 has been named the “International Year of Soils” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. December 4th is World Soil Day. Watch and share the quick videos “Better Save Soil” and “Support World Soil Day” to learn more and join the conversation!

All illustrations Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Why Should I Grow My Lunch?

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School lunch continues to be a hot topic these days. At the end of September, The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was up for re-authorization and voting was postponed until December 2015. For now, the 5-year-old standards for increasing fruit, vegetable and whole grain consumption and reducing salt in public school cafeterias remain in place, though on shaky footing.

The primary question at the heart of the debate around re-authorizing the Act is not about whether the food is good for our children, but rather, “Do kids actually eat the healthier food if it’s provided to them.” And the answer is yes and no – both sides of the debate can provide evidence to support their claims.

Plant Part Tacos

Plant Part Taco Tasting Activity

At Grow Your Lunch, we are heartened by the significant strides being made toward increasing the availability of healthy food in schools (see National Farm to School Network, Chef Ann Foundation and Center for Ecoliteracy, among many organizations doing great work in this area) but we remain troubled by the barriers to consumption due to our local youths’ lack of familiarity with fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

In our experience working with more than 100 school communities over the last 6 years, the simplest way to get students to eat fresh produce and whole grains, is to involve them in the very process of growing, harvesting and preparing food, and composting their food scraps.

Where Does Food Come From?

Where Does Food Come From?

Let’s face it, kids won’t eat healthy foods simply because they are good for them. They will eat foods only if they are familiar with them. Something magical happens when children develop a relationship with new foods and are empowered with the knowledge of where they come from.

For this reason, Grow Your Lunch has launched a new Garden to Cafeteria Initiative this school year for schools and school districts throughout  Central CA. The initiative includes hands-on logistical support for schools and school districts that are ready to take their commitment to healthy food consumption to the next level. Our methods are based on successful precedents set by school districts across the nation. At the heart of our Garden to Cafeteria offerings are:

1.) A Food Safety Protocols Handbook customized to meet the local and regional requirements of the school or school district in question

2.) Professional Development workshops for food service and school garden staff/teachers/volunteers – demonstrating best practices for garden to cafeteria protocols and logistics

3.) A Planting and Harvesting Calendar customized to match the climate and culture of each school district, to be used for menu and curriculum planning

Without this kind of infrastructure in place, we cannot expect a generation of kids raised on Sloppy Joes, Popcorn Chicken and Tater Tots to eat Swiss chard and whole wheat bread, even if it is good for their health and their test scores.

We’re ready to put an end to the debate over whether or not kids will eat healthy food. Will you join us?

What You Can do:

1.) Share this article with friends and colleagues who might be interested in learning more about our Garden to Cafeteria Initiative.

2.) Share the hashtags #RealSchoolFood, #F2SMonth, #FarmtoSchool and #growyourlunch on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

3.) Sign this letter to Congress in support of the Farm to School Act of 2015.

Swiss Chard

School Grown Swiss Chard


Further Reading and Suggested Resources:

5 Things to Know About the Congressional Battle Over School Lunch – Civil Eats

School Nutrition Group Flip-Flops on Protecting Children’s Health – Huffington Post

Rethinking School Lunch Guide” – Center for Ecoliteracy

Project Produce Grants – Chef Ann Foundation

Healthy Kids Innovation Grant – Whole Kids Foundation

Slow Food USA – National School Garden Program

Food Shift – Food Waste Education

Why Does Edible Gardening Matter?

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When we ask the people we work with why they want to build an edible garden, they often say they want their community to think deeply about the following question: “where does food come from?”

School Garden Harvest Table

School Garden Harvest Table

This is a very important question to consider. Especially when:

  • Roughly half of the adult population in the US suffers from preventable diseases – many of them diet related (CDC)
  • Less than one percent of US population is farming (EPA)
  • Abut 15% of the US population suffers from food insecurity at some point throughout the year (USDA)
  • More than 10% of the global population is undernourished (WFP)
  • One quarter of the food calories produced globally are wasted (WRI)


But does growing an edible garden really teach us where our food comes from when only a fraction of the food we consume – at home, at school, at work, on the go – actually comes from our home, school or community gardens?

Learning where our food comes from is just not as simple as growing your own breakfast, lunch and dinner – which is clearly impractical for most of us these days anyway. However, an edible garden is an incredibly effective learning tool that can be leveraged to create significant impact on the health of people and planet. In our view, this is how it works:

Community Garden

Community Garden

1.) In the garden we become aware of the seasons – shifts in the weather and climate, the migration of birds, ladybugs and butterflies, and the ripeness of certain fruits and vegetables. Being aware of the seasons teaches us to be more thoughtful consumers – buying foods produced closer to home, supporting local economies, and reducing “food miles.”

Summer Farm Stand

Summer Farm Stand

2.) By discovering the sheer joy, pleasure and satisfaction of eating fresh, seasonal food – and sharing the bounty with neighbors, family and friends – we develop lasting relationships with food, each other, and the natural world, for generations to come.

3.) Perhaps most importantly, gardens inspire our curiosity. The very inquiry into food and where it comes from helps us to make informed decisions about how to most thoughtfully nourish ourselves and our communities.

Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

The very point of an edible garden is to connect us – to natural cycles, to one another, and to big questions about the world around us and how we fit into it. Growing food is really just a delicious bonus!

Food for thought

Here are a few of the questions that have surfaced through our work in creating and sustaining edible gardens in diverse communities over the last decade. May they inspire and challenge you, your family, and community to create your own garden and your own process of inquiry into the “where food comes from” question.


  • Where and how is the food I eat produced?
  • How is the food I eat transported, processed, packaged?
  • How are the workers who grow, harvest, pack, and ship the food I eat treated along the way?
  • What percentage of the population in my city/county/state/country are full-time farmers?
  • How are the animals and animal products I eat treated, cared for, or slaughtered?
  • How can we ensure the preservation of genetic diversity in our food system?
  • What crops are “in season” in my local region? Where can I find these foods?
  • How does what’s growing in my garden compare with what is available in local farmers markets, supermarkets and corner stores?
  • Which foods am I willing to forego when they are not in season in my area?
  • Which foods do I HAVE to have, even if they are not in season in my area?
  • Do I know any local farmers and food producers? What are they producing this time of year? Which varieties of crops are they growing?
  • What does “gleaning” mean? Do farms in my area offer gleaning during certain times of year?
  • What are some foods that I could easily preserve for use throughout the year by canning, dehydrating, sun-drying, salt-curing, etc.?



  • How and what did my ancestors eat? What were their most cherished food traditions? Does my family still eat these foods and practice these traditions?
  • What are my favorite meals to make and share with family and friends?
  • How can I create community through food?
  • What was life like before agriculture?
  • How has the human diet changed over the last 10,000 years?
  • How many people do not have enough food to eat in the city/region where I live?
  • How many people suffer from hunger in the world?
  • Why is 25% of the food produced in the world wasted?
  • What does it mean to “vote with your fork”?



  • What are the native plant and animal species in my local area?
  • How do changes in weather and climate patterns affect my garden and the ecology of my region?
  • What is the name of the watershed do I live in?
  • How much water do different crops need to grow? What about animals?
  • Where does water go when it goes down the drain, down the driveway or out of the garden?
  • What are the beneficial insects/animals in my garden? What do they do that is good for the garden? What can we do to encourage their presence here?
  • What are the primary pests in my garden? Why are they a problem? How can their populations be kept in check using non-chemical methods?
  • What happens to my food waste when I am finished with it?
  • What is soil? What makes good soil? How do we go about creating or rehabilitating damaged soils?



  • How can we design a food system where plants, animals and humans thrive?
  • How can we design a  food system in which water, soil and natural resources are preserved for generations to come?
  • How can we capitalize on renewable energy in gardening and farming?
  • How can we use technology (both high and low-tech) to improve energy efficiency, water efficiency and production in agriculture, while decreasing carbon emissions?
  • What kinds of models can we build to inspire innovation towards sustainable food production, distribution, waste reduction, etc.?
  • How can we develop sustainable local foods systems in places where people do not have enough food to eat?


Health and Wellness

  • Which foods have the highest levels of chemical residues on them, which have the least (see: Dirty Dozen)?
  • What does it mean to “eat the rainbow”?
  • What are my favorite whole grains, fruits and vegetables to eat?
  • What would happen if I ate meat  3 or less times a week instead of every day?
  • What are my favorite recipes to make for friends and family?
  • What are the least expensive healthy foods I can buy to feed my family?
  • How do I read a food label?
  • Does gardening count as exercise?





Planting Spring Vegetables in the Edible Garden

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Spring is thought of as “planting time” in most non-tropical parts of the world. The timing of the arrival of Spring varies widely across climate, and varies within climatic zones as well from year to year.

For small-scale gardens, transplanting is the best option for successful vegetable production. You can buy “seedlings” or “starts” at a local nursery and plant them right into your cultivated garden soil, following the instructions below. The primary issue with buying seedlings is that you don’t get to have the same amount of say in which varieties of plants you grow as you do when you grow your own vegetables from seed, either in a greenhouse or by planting them directly into the soil. The other challenge is that buying seedlings is significantly more expensive than buying seeds or saving seeds from your own garden and germinating them on your own.

For more information on starting your own seeds, stay tuned for the release of our “Top 10 Techniques for Budding Gardeners” handbook, which will be released later this month!

Transplanting Lettuce - don't be afraid to carefully divide your seedlings!

Transplanting Lettuce – don’t be afraid to carefully divide your seedlings – avoid trying this on peas, beans and cucumbers/melons/squash!


Materials/Tools You Will Need:

– Gardening Trowel
– Watering Can
– Baby plants, often called “seedlings” or “starts”
– Measuring sticks (a handful of sticks of the same length intended for use as spacers between the plants.)
– Garden Signs or bed labels
– Edible Garden Planting Records (provided in the handbook)

Before You Begin:

1.) Make sure the plant you are transplanting is planted at the appropriate time of year.

2.) Water your seedlings before you remove them from their containers.

3.) Draw lines in the soil with the handle of a garden tool to guide yourself in planting even rows.

4.) Gather a few measuring sticks (branches of a tree or shrub, cut to the length of the distance you want to have between each plant).


1.) Make sure the bed is completely cultivated and has had compost and/or appropriate mineral amendments added to it (more to come on Fertility Management soon!).

2.) Count the plants and see how many rows will fit in the bed. In general, lettuces should be planted 6-8 inches apart, broccoli and other large-leafed plants should be about 12-16 inches apart. If the plants will be larger (like broccoli), planting 2 rows is appropriate if the bed is about 3 feet wide (optimal bed width). If plants are small (like lettuces, etc.), you can plant as many as 4 or 5 rows wide.

Note: Placing plants close together is beneficial because you will produce more food per square foot. But if plants are too close, they can crowd each other, stunt each others’ growth and deplete nutrients in the soil, so there is a balance to be found here.

3.) Use the spacer sticks to mark where each plant will go. Stagger parallel rows so that a quick triangle test with your spacer sticks shows you that your plants are evenly spaced apart from one another.

4.) Dig holes with the planting trowels in each spot that has been marked, or dig the holes as you plant.

5.) Remove the plants from their containers and place them in the holes.

Tip#1: When handling baby plants, hold them by the ends of their leaves whenever possible, not by the stem or root “plug” – also, try to prevent direct sun contact with the roots of the plant. If possible, position yourself between the sun and the baby plants to cast a shadow on the roots while you work.

6.) Cover the roots with soil and fill in the remaining space in the hole. You do NOT need to pack down the soil, which just makes it harder for roots to grow. It’s better to fill in the hole and push down lightly around the root plug in order to make sure there are no large air pockets around the roots.

Tip#2: Consider transplanting in the evening or in cooler/wetter weather whenever possible to lessen shock to the baby plants.

7.) Always water deeply after transplanting, taking care to deliver water to the roots of the transplanted seedlings, rather than to the leaves. If you’re concerned about using too much water during a drought, mulch your garden with straw or leaves and water deeply two times per week after transplanting. Also, consider simple water-saving techniques such as taking shorter showers and catching water from your sink or shower while you wait for water to heat up.

Watering in Transplanted Seedlings

Watering in Transplanted Seedlings

Wrap Up:

1.) Make sure to check that each plant is well situated.

2.) Soak the bed again. Remember: frequent, shallow watering is best for young plants (see Chapter #4 “Watering the Garden” for more details)

3.) Make sure to record the planting in the your Edible Garden Planting Records.

4.) Place the appropriate sign in the bed. If a sign does not exist for the crop in question, make one up out of a wooden garden stake. Use exterior paint or pencil as pen and felt-tip markets tend to wash off with rain and irrigation.

5.) Remember to include the crop, variety, seed source and date in all of you records and signage.

6.) Clean your tools and return them to storage out of the elements.

Happy Spring planting, gardeners!

Managing Weeds in the Edible Garden

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It’s that time of year again in the edible garden – the time when the soil begins to dry down and plants that thrive in cooler, wetter weather send up their seeds. This year, due to the severe drought we’ve had in California, weed seeds have formed at least 3-4 weeks earlier than “normal.” This is important because weeding is an art; one that is all about timing.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants in your garden system – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient the living system of microorganisms and animals you will encourage above and below ground.

There are, however, a few primary considerations when it comes to weeding.

1.) Many weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked – particularly those that spread in multiple ways – by seed, by rhizome, and by “runners” or “stolons.” Examples of these plants include Bermuda Grass, Oxalis, Ivies, etc.

2.) Some weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.

3.) Organic matter out; organic matter in: When you weed your garden, be sure to replenish the organic matter you have taken out by adding finished compost and mineral amendments before your next crops are planted.

Eradicating your most pernicious annual garden weeds before their seeds mature allows you to compost them or chop them up to use as mulch. If you pull out the plant when the seeds are mature, they will often shatter, drop, pop open and literally take wing all over your garden.

Annual Grasses "Gone to Seed"

Annual Grasses “Gone to Seed”

While it still feels good to pull out the weeds once they have gone to seed, you are probably aiding the species more than you are actually combating it. Even a highly aerobic, hot compost pile’s 140°F temperature and armies of billions of bacteria and fungi will not break down some of our most persistent garden weeds’ seeds.

Be mindful of the fact that returning organic matter to the soil is fundamental to managing an effective garden ecosystem. If you are continually pulling out weeds and sending them out in a dumpster or municipal compost bin, you are exporting the very organic matter that is most needed in your garden. It’s great to import compost and woodchips, straw and other organic materials, just remember that the very nutrients that your weeds contain are the ones that your garden fruits and vegetables most often need the most, so composting is preferable as a disposal method.

For more strategies on dealing with the most difficult weeds in a non-chemical manner, look out for our garden handbook coming out later this Spring!

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015


Tools/ Materials You’ll Need to Successfully Weed Your Garden:

– Hand-held weeding tools (Japanese and English made are the best)

– Long-handled weeding tools: traditional hoe, “Hula” hoe, shovel, etc.

– Digging fork

– Gloves

– A kneeling cushion or knee-pads


1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one type of weed at a time if you are overwhelmed, prioritizing pulling out the ones that have not yet produced seeds.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

4.) If you are weeding in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

5.) Take all the weeds to your compost pile and layer them in with manure and straw. All plant material is useful as long as there are no seeds in the weeds and the roots will not re-grow. Weeds with seeds or extra-vigorous roots should be disposed of in the garbage or in a municipal green waste container.