Friday, May 28, 2010

NPR: Taking Tomatoes Back to Their Tasty Roots

Hmmm... when I read this, all I could think was "Why not just grow/buy local tomatoes that naturally have 'real' tomato flavor, instead of trying to genetically tinkering with store tomatoes?" It's interesting that this is what folks are looking at as a solution, rather than admitting there might be a flaw in the system that mass-produces tomatoes in any season.

"Scientists in Florida have a noble aspiration: They want to restore the supermarket tomato to something that tastes more like a tomato than a piece of cardboard. The researchers say it will take a combination of psychology and genetics to accomplish their goal..."

Click here to read (or listen) to the full story.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Serious Eats: 10 Secrets for Making the Most of Your CSA

In honor of our first CSA/NSA pickup day... some lovely tips from Serious Eats on how to make the most of your CSA share. My favorite is tip #2: Wash and prep all greens before putting them away (although the tip about cooking lettuce is also kind of interesting).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Diggin' It Up

This year Heirloom Gardens is tending to 11 yards in the NW Denver area, with a total space of over 26,000 square feet. 

Our yard-to-garden transformation activities have been dubbed "Big Digs," and they're truly memorable. With a crew ranging from 9-18 people, we take yards and remove any sod, dig up weedy patches, till in soil amendments, mark beds, and cover crop paths. We're usually able to do this in about 3-4 hours. Let's hear it for teamwork!

Below are a couple of our Big Dig sessions. At some point soon we'll post a complete set of "before and after" pictures of all the gardens.

This is the yard that will become Eli's garden. It's a 2500 square foot front yard.

The team getting to work. Look at that action shot!

The side view. The neighbors came by while we were digging to ask what we were up to, and they ended up becoming members of our NSA!

Tilling and marking beds.

A particularly nasty spot of grass. We were lucky to have a tree expert volunteering with us this day, and he taught us exactly how much space to leave when digging around trees.

Jessica is cover cropping the garden paths with Dutch White Clover. It's a nitrogen-fixing crop (meaning it improves the soil), and it forms a living mulch to keep out weeds and retain moisture. Plus, it's pretty!

Brenda helping to lead the team. She is one of our HG apprentices for this year, and Eli's garden is one of the ones that she oversees on an ongoing basis.

Finishing up...

Some of the crew that made it happen. Jessica, Chad, Brenda, Michelle, Denise, Stacie, Betsy, and Sundari.

This will become Sharon's garden... or what I like to call "The Lake Garden." Isn't it beautiful?

Deacon ran the sod cutter so we could roll up and remove the sod (we found it a good home on Craigslist), and then he ran the big tiller for us.

Working and chatting.

All done and ready to be planted!

It's a Jungle Out Here!

We started our first seedlings in the greenhouse in mid-February, and over the past few months they've been growing steadily from little whippersnappers into blossoming (literally) plants. 

Late March in the greenhouse.

Starting to get big...

Mid-May, and most of the tomatoes have graduated to our big milk crates. It never ceases to amaze me that these plants each grew from just a little seed...

...yeah, we've got a lot of plants.

Slightly smaller ones under the tents (the greenhouse is full).

Of course, we always leave room for Artie! The greenhouse is the perfect place for a catnap.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Photos from Open House & Seedling Sale

Our event on Saturday was a wonderful success! I didn't count heads, but there were at least 200 people that came by to visit the chickens and goats, learn about how they can support a new Food-Producing Animals ordinance, and/or purchase seedlings. Thanks to our wonderful helpers -- Eric, Betsy, Jessica, Katherine, Alyssa, Brian, and my mom -- everything went smoothly.

Thank you to Patty, Donna, Sunny, and Mom for the pictures.

Tomato seedlings getting ready for sale.

The babies getting in some playtime before the open house.

Community coming together!

Conner and Cinnamon.

Conner and some friends saying hello to Cardamom.

Dasha is getting a little love.

Peaberry surveying the scene.

Cash was really into the chickens.

Gently petting the chickens!

Cash and a friend with Cinnamon.

Starlight positioning herself for some petting.

Rolo resting on a lap.

Erin and Starlight. (She's allowed to pick up the babies -- she's a Vet!)

Dasha and Peaberry waiting for treats.

Hmm... what will happen if I try to touch this chicken?

She's going to flap her wings!!

Feeding the goats a treat...

...and now time for a snuggle.

Rolo and Starlight saying hello to each other.

Peaberry is loving all of the attention.

Zoning Language to Help with Chicken/Goat Permit

If you live in Denver and want to grow lettuce and a few tomatoes for a salad, you're in luck. Vegetable gardens are generally considered to be ok. If you want to take the step of "growing" your own eggs to hardboil and add to the salad, things become considerably more difficult.

Potential chicken and dwarf dairy goat owners often get discouraged. Some give up trying to get a permit before they've even begun. Why does this happen? The common wisdom -- and frequent experience of potential owners -- is that if anyone objects to your permit request, it won't be granted. It doesn't matter if your neighbor's objection isn't "fact-based" (which is a nice way of saying their complaint could be completely wacky and not supported by any facts about the animals in question), they'll still successfully stop your permit.

This unbalanced approach to property rights could be changing. Part of the administrative review for a permit involves the zoning case manager sending out a notice to the City Councilperson and the neighborhood governing organizations in your area. I have a friend who received a copy of the notice that was sent out as a result of her permit request, and it contained the following language (emphasis added):

"Any objections must be in writing... Zoning Administrator will review all written comments, evaluate the proposal on the basis of the ordinance criteria, and either approve or deny the application. Please also review the attached Criteria for the Keeping of Animals, and be advised that if the applicant demonstrates compliance with these criteria, Zoning Administrator is compelled to approve the exception... Therefore, all comments must be pertinent to these criteria."

Now, I don't know if this language is new or not. I've never seen one of these notices before, since they typically just go out to the Councilperson and the neighborhood organizations (not to the applicant). But, new or not, this is encouraging!

Some of the most common neighbor complaints are related to sanitation or noise... they worry that the animals will smell or attract rodents, or be excessively loud. Applicants have already addressed those concerns in step #4 of the Criteria for the Keeping of Animals, so unless the neighbor can disprove what the applicant has put in his/her application, it seems that the applicant should prevail.

And then there are the complaints that aren't "fact-based." Things like: the hens will lay 300 eggs a week (actual complaint that was made in one case), animals don't belong in the city, the presence of (well-kept) animals will decrease property values, etc. According to the zoning language above, those kinds of complaints should not affect a permit.

My suggestion is that anyone applying for a Zoning Variance for animals bring the above language with them when they meet with their zoning case manager after the 30-day comment period. If there have been any objections to the permit, ask the case manager whether the complaints meet the necessary criteria for stopping your permit. My guess is that they don't.

Although this is good news, it doesn't mean that we're going to stop in our campaign to create a new Food-Producing Animals ordinance for Denver. The current process is expensive, time-consuming, and problematic in many ways. But, it's possible that the language that is coming out of Zoning could be helpful to those that are currently in the process of getting their permits.

A couple of additional thoughts... Don't let #7 in the Criteria for the Keeping of Animals throw you for a loop. It may seem like you're required to get letters of support from your neighbors in order to get a permit, but you're not. According to the wonderful Michael O'Flaherty, Zoning Administrator:

"The key point in #7 is that the applicant is required to notify abutting neighbors and request letters of support or consent, however the code clearly does not require letters of support are obtained. Part of what I will discuss with staff is the fine line between what the code requires, and the practical impact on a review upon consideration of letters of support and opposition." (April 6, 2010)

Also, I want to throw in something else about that old "property values" argument. I talked a little about that here as it relates to front yard gardens. Although chickens and dwarf goats aren't kept in front yards, I would say that they can have some of the same benefits in bringing communities together (just ask all of my neighbors who regularly stop by to visit the animals). In addition, the issue of "property values" is not carte blanche to trample your neighbor's rights. Bringing home three 150-pound dogs could affect a neighbor's property values. So could painting your house hot pink. However, both actions are allowed by the city without any permitting required.

Urban Farm Hub: Recognizing the [Property] Value of Urban Farming

I couldn't possibly agree more with this article by Emily Knudsen. Please read it -- all about front yard gardens, property values, and community:

I can speak firsthand to the ability of front yard gardens to create a sense of community. While working in our front yard plots, we encounter neighbors wandering over from next door to comment on the progress of the veggies, people walking by checking things out, and even cars that are driving by stop in front of the garden to talk to us through a rolled-down window.

When one of our front yard gardens was decimated by a hailstorm, my husband and I walked over the next day to survey the damage. We stopped to chat with a neighbor who lived about a block away (someone I hadn't previously interacted with). She didn't realize that we were attached to the garden, and in the process of speaking about the hailstorm she expressed regret at the damage to all the veggies. "Those people have been working so hard on the garden," she said.

I interact with more neighbors in a week of working in my front yard garden than I did in the whole 2 years I lived in my house without the garden.

Gardens go through their phases, to be sure. In the late fall, winter, and early spring there is more dirt to see than plants (of course, dead lawn isn't exactly a treat to look at, either). But, during the months that the gardens are producing, there are endless shades of green, and pretty much every other color in the rainbow too.

Front yard gardens are beautiful, build community, and can help feed the neighborhood. Sounds pretty good to me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

HG featured in Urban Baby Gourmet newsletter

Urban Baby Gourmet is one of those companies that makes me (as a someday-future mom and lover of babies) tremendously happy. Owned by Shira and Aramenda, a couple of Highland moms, Urban Baby Gourmet sells delicious, nutritionally complete, whole-food meals for babies. They offer everything from beginner, first-solid-foods up through meals for toddlers. They use only organic foods, and make sincere efforts to support local producers whenever possible. I've tasted their creations, and they are awesome.

UBG publishes a bi-monthly newsletter. Their May/June issue contains information about Grow Local Colorado, tips for shopping at farmers' markets, and an article about Neighborhood Supported Agriculture (NSA).

Thanks to Shira and Aramenda for everything they do to support healthy eating and local food in our community!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

Denver Post: Abandoned grocery stores leave grocery graveyards in Denver area

"Food deserts" is a term I'm coming across more and more in the newspapers. As our country struggles with the health -- and financial -- implications of our obesity epidemic, it's important to understand that there are many, many places in our country where people shop for their weekly groceries at 7-11.

There can not, and should not, be just one answer to this problem. More small grocery stores, large grocery stores, and farmers' markets are needed. However, community and back (or front) yard gardens can also be part of the solution. So can the keeping of small Food-Producing Animals, like hens and dwarf dairy goats.

Click here to read the Post article about food deserts. Article by Karen Auge, photography by my wonderful friend Judy DeHaas.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Help Keep Our Markets Local (and honest)

Farmers' Market season is beginning. What an exciting time! I am thrilled that the Boulder market has already opened, the Cherry Creek market is opening today, and the Highlands' market (where Heirloom Gardens will be selling) will be opening June 5th.

As a consumer and supporter of local foods, I have a particular reason to be excited about the 2010 market season. Colorado Fresh Markets ( is the largest organizer of markets in the Denver area. CFM runs the Cherry Creek, City Park, and Stapleton Farmers' Markets. While there are many wonderful things to say about their markets (for example, my mom LOVES the dumplings at the Cherry Creek market, and they have the nicest peach guy there) they also have a reputation for allowing their vendors to bring in lots of out-of-state, out-of-season produce. I'll never forget the day that I visited one of their farmstands and picked up a tomato, then noticed that it had a produce sticker on it. From Mexico.

This issue has never been about "business" for me. It's not about competition, or little farms vs. big farms. I see this as a consumer rights issue. There are thousands of people who visit farmers' markets each week in Denver with a sincere wish to support local food. They reasonably assume that the produce sold under a farm banner was grown on that farm. It seems dishonest to sell food that came off a truck that is headed to Safeway next; food that was grown in far-flung places; and food that likely is priced higher at the market than it is at Safeway.

I believe that Farmers' Market vendors have a responsibility to label any food that is grown out-of-state, and that the market organizer -- like Colorado Fresh Markets -- has a responsibility to enforce the labeling practice. Last summer I wrote to the owner of CFM to share my thoughts with him. The owner, Christopher Burke, responded by stating that all of their markets would require labeling of out-of-state produce in 2010. What wonderful news for Farmers' Market shoppers! Now they will have the information they need to truly buy locally, if they wish to do so.

However, I think that we can all help the markets support this new labeling practice. Please ask about the origins of the food when you shop at the Farmers' Market. Take a moment to click on the crop calendar below, and learn a little about when things come into season in Colorado. As a general rule (unless the grower has a super-extensive greenhouse setup) the following veggies are not in season until at least mid-July: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, summer & winter squash, cucumbers, and melons. If a farmer is selling something out of season, be sure to ask about it. If it's from out-of-state (and isn't labeled as such) please request that they do so.

Wishing everyone a lovely season of truly local eating!