I started Eating for the Ecosystem because I am determined to change what we grow and how we grow it. I know we can choose plants and designs that strengthen our ecosystem, while looking beautiful and providing us with food. And we can do it affordably.
The company name arose from discussions with my husband about his second book, A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism. One of his points matches one of my long-held beliefs: that “[h]ow plants are treated in the process of cultivating and gathering them for food matters morally” (p. 31). To me, plants are people too.
We both consider what we consume to be a moral decision, and we constantly re-examine our choices. We believe that the best metric for weighing these choices is the effect we have on our ecosystem. “[T]he world is full of people, only some of whom are human. Plants and other-than-human animals may be people, too. Moreover, we maintain a special bond with, and specifiable obligations to see to the needs and interests of, our landbase and all the people who live on it and in it” (p. 8). We have a bond with, and obligations to, our ecosystem.
Myriad factors can drive a person’s food choices, whether health effects, genetic modification, price, availability, treatment of animals, synthetic chemical use, sentience, or environmental impact. I frankly don’t care whether other people have the same diet I have. I do care whether people think about what they eat and how their food choices impact their ecosystem. And I want to make it easier for anyone to make consumption choices that match their values.
I want to encourage eating for the ecosystem: growing more food in urban settings, selecting diverse plants that support local animals and insects, turning lawns into woodlands or gardens, and using integrated pest management rather than reaching for a chemical solution. We need to do more to enhance food safety and food security for ourselves and future generations.
This post originally appeared in the Penn State Extension Master Gardener’s blog.
All vegetable gardeners want a successful harvest, and I’ve found that no time is more pivotal than the first month or so after planting. This is when our seedlings take root, and establish a strong foundation for future growth. I spend more time in my garden in spring than any other time of year, and it always pays off. Here’s a list of late spring tasks that will benefit your organic vegetable crops.
1. Attract Pollinators
Many of our vegetable plants already attract bees and butterflies, but we can supplement these with flowers like Echinacea, bee balm (Monarda), zinnias, yarrow, and sunflowers, among others. I like to grow common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) to attract Monarch butterflies, and bronze fennel to attract Swallowtails. It’s also a good idea to include a shallow water source for the pollinators. You’ll find some more tips in my printable PDF. And if you’re committed to attracting pollinators, you could get your garden certified.
2. Protect your vegetables from critters
I live in central city Philadelphia, but my vegetable garden lives in rural Berks county (zone 6b). I see no deer or groundhogs in my Philly neighborhood, but they certainly frequent the neighborhood around my garden. The local rabbits are quite voracious as well. So I’ve installed simple 8-foot long 2×4 posts (not pressure-treated) and plastic deer fencing. I added some short galvanized wire fencing to keep the rabbits and groundhogs from gnawing through the deer fence. I’ll have to keep an eye on my fence throughout the growing season, because those critters are crafty, and just might find/dig/gnaw a way through or around my fence. Vigilance is key.
3. Weed and mulch
As they establish themselves, our vegetable plants compete with weeds for sun and water and soil nutrients. My garden is host to a seemingly endless army of thistles and wild onions. Until my vegetables are large enough to shade competitors, I need to weed frequently. I also use mulch to keep the soil moist and discourage weeds. Some gardeners use inorganic materials, but I prefer organic mulch. It doesn’t keep every weed out, but it will slowly decompose and further nourish my soil.
You might consider red plastic mulch for your tomatoes. Penn State scientists found that red mulch increased tomato harvest by 10 percent on average. To keep the weeds at bay and encourage a better tomato harvest, staple red mulch to black mulch and lay it on the ground red side up. The easiest time to do this is before you plant your seedlings, but you could also lay it after planting, and create cut-outs for your tomatoes to poke through.
4. Erect plant supports
If you haven’t yet done so, now is a great time to install plant supports. Putting off this task will leave you wrestling with large plants, and you’ll risk breaking the stems and damaging the roots. Supports are particularly important for peas, pole beans, and tomatoes. I also like to provide supports for my cucumbers, and occasionally for my pepper plants. Garden supply stores offer a wide variety of stakes, teepees, and cages, but you can also make your own. In order to keep your garden chemical-free with natural materials, choose bamboo, cedar, cypress, and jute twine. I use jute twine throughout my garden, because I can toss it in my compost pile in the fall.
5. Make frequent inspections
Organic vegetable gardening is actually really easy. The biggest time commitment comes in the spring, but the summer and fall payoff is truly worth it. Take a little extra time now to nurture the plants and help them set a strong foundation. The absolute best thing you can do for your garden now and throughout the growing season is to walk around and look at the plants. How are they doing? Are they getting enough sun and water? Do you see any evidence of disease or insect damage? Catch it early, and your plants are likely to recover.
In order to see more butterflies in your garden and to ensure good (bee) pollination for your vegetables, plant natives and use integrated pest management. This printable PDF provides tips for attracting beneficial insects.
I love composting. I mean I really love composting. Every part of the composting process makes me so deeply happy, it’s probably strange to most people. I find composting satisfying on so many levels. I don’t put out all sorts of yard waste, I don’t toss my food scraps in the trash, and I don’t dump all kinds of crap in the garbage disposal. And then, I get this amazing, sweet smelling happy soil amendment for my plants.
But I understand that it isn’t easy or obvious for everybody, so…I’ll dive into some tips.
One of my facebook friends told me she has trouble with her tumbler. Tumblers work best when there’s a good moist (like a wrung-out sponge) mix of “greens” and “browns” that is left alone (nothing new added) for a while, and tumbled from time to time. If you keep adding ingredients to your tumbler, you won’t get good compost, because you’d have to sift out the newer ingredients. A tumbler with only one compartment isn’t enough for an effective year-round compost operation. Some tumblers have two compartments, so one is for adding and the other is for compost-cooking.
The mix of greens and browns isn’t an exact science, though a number of books and web pages suggest a certain mix of each. In my personal garden I ignore that, because composting as waste disposal is only useful to me if I can add whatever I have when I have it. “Greens” are mostly green, but this also includes your food waste. If you only put food waste (and no yard waste) into your tumbler, it’s too green. It won’t decompose well, and will probably smell funny. Add browns, like dried leaves, dried grass clippings, or shredded soy-ink newspaper scraps to the mix. And make sure it isn’t too dry, it should be just damp (not soggy) for best cooking.
As with most horticulture, the best way to maintain compost bins is by looking at them from time to time. Does the compost stink? Add browns. Is it too dry? Add water. It is moist, not stinky, but still not decomposing? Well, it’s either winter or you need more greens.
I heartily welcome any and all questions about composting. How’s your compost bin cooking?
It can be a challenge to find good information about what plants need and when it’s safe to plant them outside. This printable table provides sunlight and soil depth requirements, along with the earliest dates to start or transplant these vegetables and berries outside. This information applies to gardens in the Philadelphia metro area, which is USDA hardiness zone 7. The soil depth requirements also assume you are growing varieties that are suitable to container growing.
You can start plants anytime after the dates shown. If you choose to start early, make sure you watch the weather, and gently cover your plants if it gets “cold” again. For annual vegetable plants, “cold” generally means mid-thirties or lower. You could also watch weather forecasts for frost or freeze warnings. It’s also important to remember that the conditions that damage tender plants are determined not only by air temperature, but also by soil temperature, moisture, wind, and precipitation.
Determining the “last frost date” is not an exact science. Current estimates of the last frost date for Philadelphia range from April 6 through April 30. At EFTE, we have scheduled seed starting according to a last frost between April 15 and April 22.
If you are a relatively new gardener, it’s safer to err on the side of caution, and plant your garden later rather than sooner. If your plants are in the ground too soon, they might survive the conditions, but they won’t be as productive as they would otherwise.
I’m guessing you’ve heard the phrase “vote with your dollars.” Every time you spend money on a product or service, you support the employees and the owners of the company. Every time you buy a box of crackers at the local supermarket, you support the jobs of the cashier, the managers, the stockers, the truck drivers, the cracker plant workers, the grain farmers, and the company that produced the seed. And some of your dollars pay for herbicides, fertilizers, gasoline, coal-powered electricity, and product packaging. All for two dollars and fifty-six cents. Seems like quite a bargain, doesn’t it?
Do you believe that $2.56 is distributed fairly among everyone responsible for bringing that cracker box to you? Do you think the truck driver earns overtime pay? How much does the packaging cost? Do you think the factory workers have good health insurance? Do the grain farmers use synthetic chemicals on their fields? Who receives the bulk of that $2.56?
Our industrialized food system is complex, and it’s nearly impossible to trace the complete production path of the food we buy in bodegas and grocery stores. How do you feel about that fact? Are you curious about labor conditions and environmental impact? Do you care about where your food comes from?
Conscious consumers seek information about the companies they patronize. Conscious consumers know what their own values are, and they try to support causes and companies that match their values.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be (your own idea of) perfect in order to be a conscious consumer. But it does mean that you care about all of the costs associated with your purchases. That sort of information isn’t easy to gather, but you do not turn a blind eye. Instead, you take off your blinders and notice what’s in the periphery.
Here’s an example from my own life. I really like monarch butterflies and I am saddened by their decline. So I did some research and discovered that their host plant (i.e., where they lay their eggs) is milkweed. I bought some red milkweed seeds, and have been growing milkweed ever since. Every time I see a monarch caterpillar or butterfly on my plants, I smile (and pat myself on the back once or twice). It feels good to do good.
But if I really care about monarchs, I won’t stop there. I’ll do more research and learn about why they are declining. I’ll learn about habitat loss and the effect of synthetic chemicals used in the production of some of my favorite processed foods. And I’ll ask myself the tough question: is my eating pleasure worth supporting the institutions that are killing the monarchs?
I want to remember that I vote with my dollars and I always want my voting to match my values.
It’s a journey and I’m no paragon of perfect purchasing. But I care and I want to keep moving toward better alignment.
Want to join me? I really enjoy research (and dare I say I am quite good at it). If there’s a plant, animal, habitat, or food you’d like me to look into, please let me know. Who’s in?