Hooray for March! My favorite bipolar season. In the past week we’ve had powder days at the ski resorts, hot days of rock climbing in shorts and a t-shirt, rain, sleet, and a foot of snow in my front yard. We have been lucky and mother nature has been giving us some moisture in the past couple of months, so the garden is starting to awaken. After the snow melted away this weekend, we discovered the garlic I planted in November is starting to poke out some green shoots. This means it’s time to start thinking about planting.
I almost don’t need to even mention the health benefits of gardening. Aside from getting the freshest, most nutrient packed foods that are grown exactly to your standards, gardening deepens our awareness of what’s in season (and consequently what foods are best for our bodies). Having the kids help also encourages them to eat more fresh fruits and veggies and teaches them about where our food comes from.
If you haven’t done a lot of gardening, you live in a place with limited space, or you don’t have a lot of free time to spend in the dirt, here’s a quick list of things to try to optimize your production this year, plus a reminder of what you should be doing right now:
Plants with the best effort/output ratio:
Cherry tomatoes--these can be successful from indoor sprouting, buying a plant from the store, or direct seeding to a pot or garden. Sun Golds are our family favorite for flavor and abundance.
radishes--Very satisfying for the impatient gardener. Generally you can go from seed to salad in about 3 weeks
zucchini--if you have some room in the garden and a good water supply, zucchini wins for easy to grow and maximum poundage.
peas--if you have a place to trellis, peas are my kids’ favorite for direct snacking from the garden.
kale--One or two kale plants usually keeps my family eating greens (and kale chips!) from late may to late November.
Plants that are best for limited space:
One of my favorite ways to help people connect with nature and health is to take them out on medicinal herb walks. Often, as we walk around in a wild space, someone will point to something and say “is that an herb or a weed?” Well, the difference is really just semantics: when we decide that a plant is valuable to us personally, we call it an herb. When we decide we don’t like it, it’s in the way of something else we’d prefer to have in that spot, or we just don’t know what to do with it, it’s a weed.
The dividing line between medicinal and culinary herbs can also often be thin. On a broad level, the differences are obvious: medicinal herbs serve a health promoting purpose and culinary herbs taste good. Also, many medicinal herbs have potential toxicity so they must be taken in specific dosages to avoid causing problems. However, on the other hand many culinary herbs have potent medicinal properties of which we are often unaware. Often these herbs are dried, concentrated, or distilled to create medicines, but they also have value fresh from your backyard or the fridge.
For many culinary herbs, they are medicinal for the same reason that they are delicious. Their flavoring properties come from volatile oils contained in the seeds or foliage of the plant. Those oils can also be medicinal. Oregano and thyme oils are quite good at killing yeasts, and lavender and garlic are useful for killing bacteria. Rosemary oil has been found to be an excellent antioxidant and is actually used as a preservative in many natural foods.
I admit I have found it a bit of a challenge to sit down and write this week--it’s May 15th! Here in Colorado, this mystical date is what we call “last average frost”. In our house, this means turn over the soil in the garden, plant the squash and corn seed, transplant all the tomato, cucumber, eggplant, fennel and jalapeno sprouts we started back in March out to the garden, and put flowers in all the pots out front. To us, this is the real beginning of summer.
This year is particularly exciting because we are starting to see some of the fruits of previous years’ labors arrive. Fruit trees we planted 4 years ago are starting to put on their first apples, plums and pears. Strawberries, raspberries, grapes, rhubarb and asparagus are returning in quantities ample for harvest this year. And the drip system we laid last year is watering away without much hassle. It’s still a fair bit of work and time, but we are starting to get into a rhythm.
Gardening has been wonderful for the health of my family. There are the obvious reasons: the produce is fresh and seasonal. We know exactly what went into growing these plants, including the compost from our backyard tumbler. There are no yucky chemicals to worry about washing off the food. Also, the kids are so much more enthusiastic to eat something they planted themselves; tonight my kids wolfed down a bowlful of radishes they picked, which is not your usual 2 and 3-year old fare!
There are more subtle reasons the garden is good for our family health as well. It is an ongoing project we all get to do together. We all have our own gardening bag with gloves and tools, so going out there is shared quality time. We all get to learn together about how our backyard ecosystem works: butterflies and bees are pollinators, spiders and ladybugs eat aphids, and worms aerate and feed our soil. It gives us a better understanding of where our food comes from and what is available in each season of the year.
I also have this posted on my and Chef Lilly Allison Steirer's blog Health from the Hearth, but I thought it might be useful to have this here as well!
In my 12 years of seeing patients, it seems that the frequency of food intolerances has increased exponentially in all age categories. I think this is perhaps due to a combination of increased sensitivity to foods as well as greater awareness of our bodies and the potential role food sensitivities can play in various ailments. During the springtime, we focus on helping the body eliminate wastes more effectively by optimizing the function of our liver and large intestine. One of the most powerful ways we can do this is to avoid any foods to which we are sensitive. This will decrease inflammation in the digestive tract and throughout the body and improve our ability to properly utilize the nutrients in our food.
What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?
I like to make this distinction because there are clear differences between different types of food reactions. This is because our immune system makes different types of antibodies. Antibodies are “flags” made by our immune cells; when these cells recognize a foreign protein in the body (from a bacteria, a virus, or an allergen like pollen or a food), antibodies are released which tells the body to make inflammation.