What we eat matters

What we already know

The majority of food available to us is heavily processed and shipped long distances. Conventional produce has often been sprayed with chemicals that may cause cancer. We know that diets high in fresh produce are healthier, and many consumers demand organic options. Locally-produced food is generally fresher, and prevents large transportation costs, including the pollution that transportation generates. CSAs are growing, farmers’ markets are booming, and community gardens are popping up all over the city. We’re moving (slowly) in the right direction.

We know climate change is real. We know monoculture crops are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. And we know that the political climate directly affects environmental regulations and therefore the quality of our air, water, soil, and food. Now is the time to take action. Now is the time for every single one of us to improve the way we eat.

But why should I grow my own food?

Growing your own food is a patriotic and revolutionary act. When you grow your own food, you have greater control over what ends up on your dinner plate. You can pick the varieties you like best, you can use organic methods, you can eat the veggies at their peak ripeness. Nothing tastes better than a freshly picked vine-ripened (in my opinion Brandywine) tomato.

If you are a CSA member or buy produce at a farm stand, growing a few of your own edibles is a great complement. The CSA and farm are indeed local—which is great!—but nothing’s more local than your back door. And maybe they don’t grow your favorite hot pepper. At the height of the harvest, vegetables like snap peas and string beans should be picked every few days. You can claim your bounty at its absolute peak.

When’s the last time you bought a head of lettuce with a few brown leaves? How about a strawberry with a mushy spot? An oddly shaped tomato? We demand visual perfection from the produce we buy, and as a result, we waste a lot of perfectly good food. You are probably more forgiving with edibles you grow yourself. You’re likely to pull off (and compost) the brown lettuce leaves, cut out the mushy strawberry spot, and use the tomato anyway. Let’s embrace imperfection and reduce waste!

You can make our ecosystem healthier

By growing more of your own food, you add more green to our city, which not only looks nice, but also helps improve air quality. Adding new garden beds and containers chips away at the ubiquitous concrete surfaces that perpetuate our ongoing runoff problem. Your garden can enhance biodiversity, feed pollinators, and improve your own connection to the natural world that surrounds us. And fresh produce is just plain yummy.

Why “eating for the ecosystem”?

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.

Gardener’s to do list for late spring

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.

Monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed leaf

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.

munched tomato
Somebody got to my tomato before I did.

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.

Cucumber seedlings starting to climb

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.

Starting garden seeds indoors

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.

Growing Chart thumbnail