Aquaponics is a sustainable method of gardening that combines hydroponics (growing without soil) and aquaculture (fish farming). I interviewed Eric Maundu of Kijiji Grows, an aquaponics business that is doing amazing work with youth in Oakland for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture‘s newsletter. An extended version of the piece was picked up by Civil Eats.

Eric Maundu is, self-admittedly, an unlikely gardener. Growing up in Kenya, he became disillusioned with agriculture, seeing farmers struggle with lack of arable land, water, and resources. “The last thing I wanted to do was farm,” he says.

Everything changed when Maundu learned about hydroponics, a system for growing plants that uses nutrient-rich water in place of soil and fertilizers. By that point, he had studied industrial robotics and had moved to the US to work as an engineer.

“All my life people had told me you need soil to grow plants. People kill one another for soil,” says Maundu.  Farming with water offered new possibility. Read the full article here.

Zen Vegetables

Green Gulch Farm (photo by Steph Wenderski)

After a long and rainy winter, Green Gulch Farm just returned to the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. To herald the farm’s return, I wrote a piece on my apprenticeship experience last summer for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture‘s newsletter.

All summer long, folks line up at the Green Gulch Farm stand to have their pick of big, bountiful, “enlightened” greens. The stand has a loyal fan base, but not everyone knows exactly what to make of the little Zen farm. What does Buddhism have to do with organic produce?

Before living at Green Gulch, I imagined bald monks mindfully hoeing baby lettuces, whispering sutras over Brassica seedlings, and strolling meditatively through apple orchards. As a farm apprentice last summer, I awakened to the realities of farming at the meditation center. Read the full article here.

Read about Hayes Valley Farm’s new Kitchen Garden Workshop series in this piece I wrote for the farm’s blog.

On May 11, about twenty of us gathered for the first workshop. Folks came with a spectrum of home-gardening experience; many were new to gardening or simply garden-curious. But as we each said a few words about our interests, there were plenty of common threads. Most of us expressed a desire to eat better food, to learn how to grow herbs and veggies for home cooking, and to connect with our community and the earth.

Farm educator Jay Rosenberg provided a brief overview of Hayes Valley Farm and answered some burning questions about home gardening in the city, such as:

What if I only have a windowsill? What herbs and plants are best to start with? A sunny windowsill is a great place to start gardening. Grow herbs that you (or Simon and Garfunkel) like to cook with: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme. Baby lettuces are also work well. They beautify the kitchen and provide easy access for a quick microgreen salad. Read the full article here.

Getting Dirty on Earth Day

What better way to honor Earth Day than getting dirty? At Hayes Valley Farm, we celebrated the world’s largest secular holiday by working the urban landscape through farm projects such as building soil through sheet-mulching, constructing potato towers, and planting sunflowers, while listening to good tunes and savoring good eats. Where pavement and ivy have dominated, we created fresh earth for new plants. Actually, Earth Day wasn’t really that different than most days on the farm, where even the hard work of soil-building feels like a celebration.

That evening I continued the Earth Day festivities by going to 18 Reasons for a screening of DIRT! The Movie, by Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow. The film traces the relationship between humans and this primordial substance, from ancient views of soil as the source of all life to our current alienation from Mother Earth. The film prominently features interviews with environmentalists such as Founder of TreePeople Andy Lipkis, global activist Vandana Shiva, Nobel Laureate and Founder of the Green Belt Movement Wangari Maathai, and fungi guru Paul Stamets, among others. These individuals communicate a deep reverence and passion for dirt, one that has been all but lost in our industrial age. Continue Reading »

Check out this piece I wrote for the Hayes Valley Farm website about potato tower construction for home gardeners:

As part of our Hayes Valley Farm Earth Day festivities, site designer and educator David Cody lead a hands-on tutorial in DIY potato towers. Once we learned the basics, a crew of us built more than a dozen towers for our rapidly growing Freeway Food Forest.

Potato towers are vertical structures that provide a practical, no-dig, high-yield way for folks to grow and harvest potatoes in limited space. What do potatoes towers have to do with Earth Day? Potatoes are a high-calorie crop, which means they can feed a lot of people while using little of the earth’s resources. They’re also a great way to build soil. Potato towers = earth care, people care, and fair share! Read the full article here.

Mystery Stew

Turk and Leavenworth, San Francisco (GoogleMaps)

On Thursdays I’ve been volunteering at the San Francisco Zen Center’s weekly food distribution outreach. This work involves prepping and cooking a stew, then delivering it to hungry people in the Tenderloin. The stew is made from Zen Center leftovers, bulked up with lentils and freshly chopped carrots, celery, and onions. Program coordinator Rob Bullen calls it a “mystery stew.”

Resembling an Indian curry, our mystery stew makes use of perfectly good food that would otherwise go to waste. And it’s tasty and filling, too. Recently, Rob added some fruit compote, which enhanced it with a tangy sweetness. In his kitchen guidelines for Zen monasteries, Dōgen writes: “Even when confronted with poor ingredients, there is no negligence whatsoever; even when faced with scanty ingredients, one exerts oneself.” There is an art to working with the ingredients on hand, and Rob is quite skilled at it. Continue Reading »

Vintage footage of life in a Soto Zen monastery (oryoki footage starts at 1:40).

For the final week of my stay at the San Francisco Zen Center, I participated in a seven-day meditation retreat called a sesshin. During sesshin, we took most of our meals in the zendo (meditation hall) in a style known as oryoki. Oryoki originated in Buddhist temples as a form of bringing mindfulness to the act of eating. It has its roots in the monastic practice of begging for food with one bowl. The Japanese word oryoki translates as “just enough.”

Oryoki food in the modern American Zen monastery is usually less austere than the traditional fare of rice and miso soup, but it remains simple, fresh, and vegetarian. During an oryoki meal, we sit on our cushions in a cross-legged position and present our set of nested bowls and utensils, which are wrapped in a lap cloth. These items are laid out in a specific order and fashion, leading up to the meal. The “script” of oryoki can feel unnatural, fussy, and frustrating at first. It is designed to take you out of your habits and make you aware of your eating process, after all. But I’ve found that as the anxieties of “getting it right” start to drop away (“Wait, where do I put my chopsticks?” “What am I supposed to do with this cloth?” “When is this chanting going to end so we can eat?”), I’ve opened to some of the subtle gifts of this practice. Continue Reading »