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Here I am at the garden in July, 2014. Notice the white blossoms on the vining lauki plant in the foreground. Lauki is sometimes called “white blossom squash.” Photo by Thomas Egenes

It’s been a bumper gardening year, with rains coming throughout June and July and the cucumber and zucchini and other squashes growing to Findhorn sizes. After last year, when torrential rains washed out our seeds and roly-poly’s (pill bugs) mowed down our zucchini seedlings overnight, we had to replant so many times that many gardeners in our campus community garden, which is all organic, gave up for the season.

So this is like winning a big prize. “Free food,” my husband chirps when I haul in bags overflowing with kale, chard, herbs, tomatoes, strawberries and broccoli.

“I call it our loot,” says my friend Dianne happily. She and her husband Rod joined the garden this year, added heaps of soil to already fertile beds, planted a few seeds and seedlings, and it’s taken off big-time.

Dean Goodale, who established a one-acre greenhouse north of campus and now gardens on his own, tells me that the reason our tomato, zucchini and cucumber plants are Findhorn-size this year is because the abundant rains have kept us from having to use the tap water. He says he tested the soil of eight gardens in our area last year, and they all had a high sodium content, from the water treatment system here in Fairfield. The sodium especially affects the squashes, cucumbers and somewhat the tomatoes.

If anything, I and my gardening partner, Charlotte Judge, didn’t plant enough this year. We planned on planting an extra garden along the fence, but ran out of time.

Thinking it would be another year like last year, we skipped the zucchini and went straight to the bottle gourd, a long, thin, light-green vegetable that our Indian friends call Lauki squash. Lauki is a highly revered vegetable in Ayurveda, known to balance liver functioning and help with weight loss, urinary disorders, and even is said to prevent premature graying of hair.

Last summer's lauki squash, sweet potatoes and greens. Photo by Linda Egenes

Last summer’s lauki squash, sweet potatoes and greens. Photo by Linda Egenes

It’s commonly found in Indian vegetable curry dishes and also can be juiced. It has other names: opo squash, long white gourd, white pumpkin, Benares pumpkin, or dudhi in India, calabash in Asia, kakunsa or cucuzza in Italy, fuzzy squash in Canada, and slaouia in Morocco.

The best part is that it has slightly stinky leaves that fended off the sow bugs last year. In fact, it was our star performer, with the two plants vining around the edge of our garden producing at least 30 huge gourds as big as baseball bats, which, unlike zuchhini, tasted better as they grew bigger.

Our Indian friends, in fact, asked us not to pick them young and green but to wait until they were two feet long with seeds inside. We ate them, juiced them and still had plenty to give away to friends. Charlotte dubbed them the solution to world hunger.

But alas, this year, when everyone’s zucchini is three feet tall, our two lauki plants have yet to produce a single vegetable. We’ll see. Lauki grows slower and shines in the later part of summer, when zucchini falls prey to the dread root borer.

One thing I’ve found consistent—that every year is different. One year it was the bush beans that stunned us with their output, the next the beans barely blossomed and the chard was a star. This year the timely rains have created a bumper crop of cucumber, kale, tomatoes (and other people’s zuchini). Oh well.

Lauki also tastes great as an Italian vegetable, and can be substituted for zucchini in any dish. It melts in your mouth. Here’s how I prepare it when I’m planning an Italian meal:

 

Mint-Anise Lauki Squash, Italian Style

Ingredients:

½ lauki gourd, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 T chopped fresh mint

2 T chopped fresh anise hyssop leaves

2 T butter or olive oil

Steam the lauki squash. Melt the butter or olive oil on low heat, add the herbs and lauki and toss lightly. Salt and pepper to taste.

 

Justin and Kimberly McSweeny - Sustainable Lawns and LandscapesWe’re spending the winter in Vero Beach, Florida, and while kayaking on the Indian River Lagoon, the intracoastal waterway that is home to one of the most diverse plant and animal populations in the world, I found out that many of the dolphins here have tummy aches because they are ingesting so many toxins from lawn run-off and industry waste.

So it was a wonderful coincidence when Justin and Kimberly McSweeny pulled up to the home we’re renting from our very green-conscious friends with an equipment trailer in tow. I knew I was going to like them the minute I saw their company name and tagline painted on the side of their trailer: Oasis Organics—Not Only Should Your Lawn be Green.

I can’t say I completely understood the slogan, but I got the drift. Justin and Kimberly are a man-and-wife team who tend lawn and landscape in the most environmentally safe way possible, so the Indian River Lagoon and the area’s drinking water can stay free of harmful chemicals. They look fresh and young and have the kind of organic fervor that I had in the 60s when I grew my own garden with college friends.

Justin started in the lawncare business 20 years ago when he was a chef by night and mowed lawns by day. (You could say eating organic has definitely given him lots of energy). He says he grew up in Maryland in the 70s and loved the local hippie yurts with gardens growing on them. He says the seeds of his interest in organic were sown then.

“About five years ago I started poking around the internet looking around for a more holistic perspective on lawn care and home landscaping,” he says. “I  knew people up north were using healthier, organic pesticides and fertilizers, and that is always the first step, to wean yards and landscapes away from harmful petroleum products, which I call ‘Satan’s Pantry.’ But I wanted to take it a step further. I wanted to create closed-circuit environments where you feed the organisms in the soil and the soil feeds healthy plants, eliminating the need for dumping gallons of fertilizer and pesticides on the lawns and landscape, even the organic kind. I wanted to use sustainability and permaculture techniques that are used on organic farms and transfer them to lawn and yard care.”

Justin didn’t find many people doing that, so he taught himself. Here he talks about his vision.

Listening to Justin, I’m learning new terms like xeriscaping, which is from the Greek, meaning “dry landscape.” In xeriscaping and xerogardening, you use plants that thrive in the local area without irrigation. It’s popular in Arizona and other desert areas  areas, and could become more necessary as climate change renders other areas dry.  Justin uses principles from xeriscaping, and encourages his clients to save on the environment and their water bills by switching to landscape plants and lawn grasses that thrive on rain water alone, but he’s not a purist about this. Nor is he a purist about using native habitat plants. He encourages his clients to use them, but is also open to using plants from Australia and other countries with similar climates, as long as they aren’t invasive.

“I don’t like to ram anything down anyone’s throat,” he says. “I like to show up, make people happy, and make sure their yard looks good. I give my clients options and explain how using plants that naturally thrive in this area can save so much money in water and helps the environment too.”

For those of you from Florida, check out this video, where Justin points out a number of native plants that require  little water and need little pest control or fertilizers.

He also recommends getting away from water-and-fertilizer-thirsty lawn grasses. In our yard he’s working with the owners to switch to a more sustainable ground cover such as mimosa strigillosa. It’s a native wild flower with powder-pink blooms, much prettier than plain old grass. I’m looking forward to seeing it when we return next winter.

To contact Justin or Kimberly McSweeny, email them at oasisorganics@bellsouth.net.

Cooking with a Solar Oven
February 22, 2010

Probably I’m way behind the eight-ball here, but I’d never really thought much about solar ovens before I visited my sister Cathy and her family in northern California last Labor Day weekend. Cathy took me to a dinner party at the home of Alice Friedemann and her husband, Jeffery Kahn, the webmaster at UC Berkeley. Alice is a freelance journalist specializing in energy and peak oil issues. She is also developing a cookbook on whole-grain cooking, and has experimented with using a manual grain grinder and solar ovens to make truly sustainable and awesome breads.

In this video she talks about using a solar oven. Alice bought hers but recommends building your own.

Alice says she’s still trying to figure out solar cooking. She thinks the plastic on her oven needs replacing and that may be creating less than stellar (solar?) results. But she feels it’s worth the effort because solar cooking is going to become more and more important in the future.

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Besides learning about solar ovens that evening, we were treated to a sumptuous dinner featuring Alice’s homemade whole-grain flatbread along with beets, basil and Early Girl tomatoes from Jeffery’s amazing garden.

I was totally in awe of Alice and Jeffery’s gardening skills. First of all, the way things grow in sunny California, something like rosemary, found in Iowa as a small plant, grows as big as a tree. But it was more than the climate, it was super smart brains at work.

Check out this rather perfect apple tree that grows in Alice and Jeffery’s back yard. A neighbor grafted it with four different strains, so you stroll around the tree and find four types of apples, including Pink Lady and Misui.

According to Alice, most nurseries these days sell apple trees with more than one strain of apples grafted into them, but still, you seldom see such perfect looking trees in someone’s yard.

Says Alice, the trick to getting a lot of apples is to rigorously cut back the tree before spring (in California sometime in January or February) but not snipping off the buds that will produce apples. Later, you’ll get clusters of more than two, and you need to get rid of all but one or you’ll have very small apples and many will fall off in addition if you don’t, wasting the tree’s energy.

After dinner we peer through the telescope from Alice and Jeffery’s second-story balcony, and catch a rare glimpse of the Bay Bridge without any cars (closed for major repairs over Labor Day).

Now I feel inspired to make my own solar oven, but will have to wait until spring as the sun is at too much of an angle now. Will let you know how that goes.

For free directions to make your own solar cooker go to

http://www.solarcooking.org/plans/

Additional links on Alice Friedemann

http://www.energybulletin.net/node/2401

http://www.energyskeptic.com/