Browngirl Going Green

The Antidote to Browngirl’s Eco-Blues: Garden Bounty
July 7, 2010, 2:22 am
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The BP oil spill is still depressing, the City of Oakland is nearing hysteria over the upcoming verdict in the murder of Oscar Grant, and Obama still hasn’t lived up to our expectations. But some things in life are still beautiful: here are some photos of some veggies I’ve been growing in the backyard of my friend T. She grew the zukes, I grew the tomatoes (which are just starting to come in), beets and onions. Yummy and gorgeous!


First Broccoli Harvest
May 21, 2010, 10:41 pm
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I’m about to enjoy tasting the first batch of broccoli from the vegetable beds I’ve been tending in my friend T.’s backyard. They were a short-season variety that I bought at the Temescal Farmer’s Market a couple months ago, and they sprouted up quickly! Here’s a picture from a couple weeks ago of the broccoli bed:

And here’s a picture of the first few huge heads of broccoli that I harvested today from the garden. I think I probably should’ve harvested the largest ones a few days ago, but I didn’t have time to get out there until today. Lesson learned for next time.

As I was working in the garden today—as I’ve mentioned before, the beds are actually in my friend’s garden, and I visit there about once a week or so to weed, water, harvest, plant, etc.—I realized how luxurious it seemed to have the time to do this. When I was working a regular 9 to 5 job, there was no way that I would have had the time or energy to drive even 10 minutes to a friend’s house and work in the garden for an hour after work. It just wouldn’t happen. But now that I’m working more humane hours (about 4 days a week on average, thanks to my burgeoning fundraising consulting business), I usually have at least a couple hours a week to garden.

As I watered in the ‘urban quiet’ (the sound of birds chirping, wind rustling through trees, and cars rushing by a few blocks away on busy thoroughfare) I thought to myself how much I enjoy gardening. And how much my mother, and my cousin in LA, and my aunts and uncles who are all immigrants from the Philippines, love gardening. Regardless of class background or how long they’ve been in this country. Along with love of pork, fried foods, gambling and the Roman Catholic church, love of gardening is one thing immigrant Pinoys seem to share in common.

I remember though, that when I was growing up in the South Bay, and my mother and step-father both worked full-time in San Francisco, we didn’t have a garden. We had a yard yes—a pretty good size one too, that was mostly made up of lawn, some hedges and an olive tree or two that never seemed to make the kind of olives I saw in the store. But my mom, I’m guessing, didn’t have time to garden. And I bet that that was a bummer for her. Now that she’s semi-retired (she only works a couple days a week), she gardens a lot more, and grows lots of flowers as well as some vegetables (eggplant, tomatoes).

I knew I didn’t want to wait until I was semi-retired to grow a garden. Not just because that seemed like a long way away, but because I NEEDED to have a garden. It’s one of the few things that us city-dwellers can access on a regular basis to put us back in touch with nature’s cycles of birth (seeing the tender young leaves of a seedling), growth (watching the seedling turn into a plant and then a vegetable or fruit that you can eat), reproduction (bolting and flowering) and death (watching the leaves of my crops turn yellow or brown and wither away). Watching this cycle and being part of it by taking care of these plants, these living things, has been immensely healing to me. I crave the solitude and quiet productivity of my weekly garden-time. I have grown to need it the way I need time with friends or good food or even sleep.

So I’m thankful—even though it’s taken me a long time to realize it!—that I always had some form of nature around me, in the form of a garden, when I was a child. From helping my Mom and Aunt weed in the front yard to picking Meyer lemons from our small bush to watching my grandpa grow lush and overflowing cherry tomato plants against a fence in his backyard, next to the carport. I must’ve learned something about the soothing, healing power of nature from these suburban oases of green living things, and I’m grateful and glad.

Too Much Goin’ On
May 5, 2010, 2:42 am
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Where do I start? My life has been super-hectic with work lately, which is good for my pocketbook but not very good for my blogging and other writing (at least not in the short-term). And the world’s been kind of a schizo place lately, it seems—from the celebration of all things Earth Day and enviro this last month of April, to the devastating and tragically ironic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the last day of the same month, to the craziness around the new Arizona anti-immigrant law.

On a more personal level, I’ve been trying to keep up with my garden while working tons more hours than I have in a long, long time, and mostly succeeded—me and my husband put a couple hours into taking care of the vegetable beds the other day, and were rewarded with the sight of broccoli heads poking out from between the huge leaves on my broccoli plants. I’ll post some pics later.

In other news, I went to check out some local ‘Bay-friendly’ aka environmentally sustainable gardens as part of the annual East Bay Bay Friendly Garden Tour, which was super-cool. Saw three Oakland gardens not more than a few miles from my home: a lovely terraced mini-forest garden shaded by huge redwoods; a C-shaped garden full of plants and flowers suited for its sunny location; and finally my friend Wally’s garden in deep East Oakland, which he pretty much ‘built’ himself, and includes keyhole veggie beds overflowing with fava beans, lots of drought-tolerant and native plants, and a hammock (aaahhh). Wally’s was the only stop on the garden tour, I’d venture a guess, where we were offered wine AND rum and coke.

Also, ate some of the pork chops from the sustainably and humanely raised pig that we share-bought a few months ago. Every bit of meat we’ve had from this pig has been frickin’ scrumptious—dense, meaty, savory.

I hope to put some more time into the garden and use some of my home-grown vermicompost in the beds soon. Which reminds me of something else I gotta do: feed my worms!

Turning Garbage Into (Black) Gold
April 12, 2010, 12:05 am
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For the past several months I’ve really been enjoying spending time with my so-called ‘garbage’. It all started when my worms got killed. My red wriggler composting worms, that is—and yes, I said ‘killed’. Well, I don’t know if they died right away, but I’m sure they didn’t live for very long.

Okay, let me back up a bit. So I’d been keeping a a small worm composting bin on the tiny covered back porch of my second-story apartment for almost two years. And then, I got it into my head to try to start gardening in the backyard, which was kind of a mess. There were tons of weeds growing in a semi-jungle environment back there, but there was also an abandoned black plastic worm bin tucked amongst the foliage. I think it’d been left by an old neighbor who’d moved away, and since my one worm bin wasn’t really big enough to ‘keep up’ with all my kitchen scraps, I decided to start a second worm composting ‘farm’ in this recovered bin.

I was very excited—I bought more worms from a local East Bay woman who sells them online and set up this second bin in the yard, since I didn’t have much more space on my back porch. After getting the worms settled in their new home, I stepped back, brushed my hands off, and grinned at the idea of fistfuls of lovely, fertilizing vermicompost, or ‘worm compost’ (basically, their poop/waste) to use in my garden someday.

I would check on the worms every few days, feed them and make sure they weren’t getting dried out—it was summer and pretty warm, and even though I had the bin in tree-shade, the worms need a moist environment or else they can shrivel up into little grayish worm carcasses. Not cute, nor very conducive to producing vermicompost!

Then one day my apartment manager (who lives off-site) called to tell me that some people would be pruning the trees in our backyard in preparation for some construction work for the building next door. ‘No problem,’ I thought. The next day, the landscapers that my landlord pays to cut down our jungle of weeds came by for their yearly clearing, which made me happy because that meant I wouldn’t have to figure out how to clear the ground for my garden, and since I was going to have all this worm compost eventually I got really excited by the possibilities.

From my apartment window, which looks out onto our terraced yard, I could see and hear the landscapers—two White guys in their late 20’s or early 30’s—buzzing away all the weeds and pruning back the trees. When it sounded like they were done, I went back there to feed and check on my worms, hoping that all the noise hadn’t sent them into shock.

But, to my surprise, my salvaged round black worm bin was nowhere to be found. I asked the landscapers, who were pretty laid-back and friendly, if they’d seen it, and they shook their heads no, but said that the maintenance guy had been around the day before, clearing stuff away and that I should call him. So I called the maintenance guy, who doesn’t speak English very well but managed to communicate to me that I should call the manager.

I was getting a little frantic by now about what might’ve happened to my worms, so I called the manager, who calmly and matter-of-factly told me, “Oh, we thought they were garbage, so we threw them away.”

I wanted to cuss her out right then and there. But instead, I patiently explained to her how worms can create compost, and how one of the reasons I was cultivating them is because she wouldn’t allow us to have the county-operated compost bins at our building. She sounded like she couldn’t believe what I was saying, but I guess I was indignant enough about it that she gave in when I asked her to reimburse me $20 for the worms that were ‘thrown away’—“killed”, I couldn’t help thinking.

Mortified and sad, I went back to the yard to report to the landscapers—whom I could tell would understand—what awful fate had befallen my worms. One of the guys’ mouths fell open in horror and he said, “They [meaning the worms] create their own eco-system in there—that’s like killing a little family!” I nodded gravely, and wondered where my worms were now. Stuck in some landfill miles away? Drying up under the hot summer sun? The thought made me shudder, but it felt better that someone else understood my pain.

A few weeks later, I also got a lot of sympathy for my murdered worms from my friend Wally, a 30-something African-American man living in East Oakland who’s an avid gardener as well as a certified master composter. Wally clutched at his chest when i told him what happened, as if he’d just heard about an incident of highly negligent parenting.

Needless to say, the landscapers’ and my friend’s reactions made me feel better, although they didn’t bring my worms back to life. I like to think that maybe they are happily living near the surface of my backyard, in some out-of-the-way spot under a tree, where they were unceremoniously dumped by the maintenance guy. But more than likely, they were thrown into the garbage, and died a not-very-pleasant death.

I did buy more worms eventually, and now have two worm bins going strong. The other silver lining to this story is that my apartment manager finally reneged and allowed our building to have the green county-provided compost bins, which means that ALL of our organic matter can be composted now (worms tend to not like or are unable to break down a lot of starchy things, citrus and meat/bones).

And lastly, I will be harvesting some crumbly, rich black vermicompost very soon, and using it on my vegetable beds. And that’s my story of how I helped turn some garbage into ‘black gold’.

Gardening Update: Beets, Broccoli and More Onions
March 10, 2010, 1:31 am
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Just a quick post to give you the update on the garden I’m planting in my friend T.’s backyard raised beds. First, the cats that are digging up the beds are irritating me, although they haven’t done as much damage as I thought they might, which I attribute to the rain keeping them at bay.But I got a good tip from my friend Cathy about using old coffee bags (or any burlap bags, I’m guessing) to help keep kitties from digging up our beds and using them as litter boxes. Ick!

My husband and I spent a couple hours in the garden last weekend, planting more of the onions plants that I had (there were like 36 of them and I didn’t realize how much space they’d need, but I planted some of them closer together and plan to harvest them as green onions/scallions), as well as sowing some beet seeds and putting in some broccoli plants that I got at the Temescal Farmers Market. The nursery says that these broccoli are easy to grow, so I’m hoping that’s true as I’ve never grown broccoli before.

Next I’ll be sowing some lettuce seeds in pots, which I will eventually bring back to my yard behind my building, which is too shady to grow things like tomatoes but seems to do well for herbs and lettuce. Hope to post some pictures of the garden soon too, so stay tuned.

Onions and Arugula
February 18, 2010, 2:46 am
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I wasn’t planning to plant today, but when I got ti T.’s house to water my onion seedlings (it’s been unseasonably warm these past few days), I was so excited about getting started with my new garden project that I started digging in the dirt. I put in about 20 yellow onion seedlings today, as well as some arugula seeds in between. I’m trying out the biointensive or Biodynamic/French-intensive gardening method, which entails planting seeds/seedlings in a fairly concentrated way in order to save space and more effectively use resources like water and fertilizers, and to help plants naturally fend off pests by companion planting. For example, onions and garlic because of their smell can be very effective at repelling certain unwanted pests.

I don’t actually know if arugula and onions will grow well together, and had planned to grow beets with the onions instead, but I forgot the beet seeds at home and couldn’t wait to plant the arugula. But since I’m growing the arugula from seeds I can always transplant them to another bed later, and plant the beets with the onions like I planned originally.

Some other veggies I’m planning to start growing this season are radishes, a few of different kinds of lettuce and broccoli rabe. I LOVE broccoli rabe, so I hope it grows well for me. I’ve been referring to the bookGolden Gate Gardening, the seminal gardening text if you’re growing veggies in the Bay Area. While it’s not exclusively about organic gardening, it does have a lot of valuable information about how to garden more naturally and minimize using chemical pesticides. I don’t plan on using any chemicals in the garden, but may have to put in some fencing to keep the neighborhood cats away.

Are you gardening at home or in a community garden? What are you planning to grow this year? Would love to hear about your garden and share tips.

Digging in the Dirt
February 8, 2010, 6:52 pm
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Am about to start gardening in earnest, in a very shareable way: my friend T. is letting me garden in the raised beds behind the house she rents, after I posted this article on my Facebook status recently and said something about how cool it would be to share a veggie garden, and did anyone in Oakland have space to share? I had recently given up gardening in my own backyard—which although spacious, doesn’t get much sunlight, especially in the winter months. In the summer, I can grow some herbs and lettuce there, but not much more. So T. responded via Facebook that yes indeed she had raised beds in her backyard that I was welcome to. We brunched oh-so-sustainably at Brown Sugar Kitchen and talked details, and the deal was sealed.

I bought some yellow onion seedlings the other day which I’m going to plant this week, and have several packets of seeds—broccolini, radishes, lettuce, even okra (although I’m not sure how it’s going to fare in this not-very-hot climate)—that I’m going to sow soon. I’m really excited about the possibilities, and just happy to have the chance to dig in the dirt. Gardening has always been a very meditative, relaxing thing for me, even when it involves harder labor like digging holes in tough clay soil. There’s a way that your body and mind become completely focused on the gardening tasks at hand that is beautifully natural and pleasurable. And plus, it’s always nice to have something healthy to eat at the end of all your efforts!

Will post pictures when things start growing. Wish me luck!