Five Less Obvious Benefits of Shopping at Farmers’ Markets

Farmers' markets have lots of benefits beyond getting fresh, local food.

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There are lots of great reasons for buying food at a farmers’ market, first and foremost of which is that you’re going to get local, seasonal food picked at the peak of freshness. That adds up to great taste and great nutrition.

But did you know there are some less tangible reasons why it’s great to go to your local farmers’ market? Here are a few to think about.

You can eat humane. Even if you eat meat, dairy, fish or eggs, local is best. Generally speaking, meat and other animal products you find at farmers’ markets are raised on small farms and get to enjoy a life of grazing outdoors instead of the typical cages and feedlots of factory farms.

You can learn to cook the food you buy. Many farmers will happily give you tips on how to prepare the food they grow. They’ll also have some great ideas about drinks and other foods to pair with their products. Some farmers’ markets even have cooking classes or demonstrations.

You can connect with your community. Most urban dwellers don’t even know the people in the apartment next door, let alone people who live down the street or across the way. Farmers’ markets bring together people who share an instant potential bond based on a common interest in local, sustainable food.

You can learn where your food comes from. Ever wanted to know what goes into making cheese? Ask a cheese vendor at the farmers’ market. This goes for any other food you’re curious about. Not only are farmers happy to tell you how to cook the food they sell, they’ll be delighted to tell you how the food they sell is produced.

You can be eco-friendly. Most food in U.S. grocery stores travels huge distances before it finds its way onto shelves. The cost of this transportation in fossil fuels and carbon emissions is immense. Farmers’ markets support a local food economy and decrease the environmental impact of our eating choices.

What other less obvious benefits do you get from going to farmers’ markets? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Easy Tips for Slow-Cooker Meals

A slow-cooker filled with vegetables. A slow cooker is a great way to make a nutritious meal with minimal attention.

There’s nothing like coming home from your garden patch with lots of potatoes, carrots, broccoli and other veggies. But what do you do with them? Sure, there’s the standard baking or boiling, but in the summer heat, maybe you don’t want to turn on the oven. So how are you going to cook your delightful harvest without turning your apartment into a sauna?

How about using a slow-cooker?

A slow-cooker is an amazing thing. You throw some ingredients in, turn it on, and you have a meal several hours later. It’s an easy way for busy people to make nutritious and delicious meals. Follow these tips and your recipes will turn out better than ever.
There are a variety of slow-cooker sizes. Make sure you are making a recipe that is appropriate for your crock pot’s size. An overfilled slow-cooker requires more time to cook. Slow-cookers should not be filled more than two-thirds full.

The best way to save flavor is to brown meat and or veggies in a skillet directly before adding them to the slow cooker. Make sure you also include all the brown caramelized bits that are stuck to the pan.

Temperatures between 40° and 140°F are the “Danger Zone,” where harmful bacteria grow quickly. It’s important that foods never sit in the danger zone for very long. Don’t add refrigerated or frozen ingredients directly to the slow cooker. It won’t be able to heat up to cooking temperature quickly enough.

Fattier cuts of meat like short ribs, lamb shanks or dark meat chicken handle the low heat better than leaner cuts. The leaner cuts will dry out and become tough, while the fattier cuts become moist and tender.

Each time you open the lid, you let out heat and add 15 to 20 minutes to the cooking process.

Remember, slow-cookers are not hot enough to cook the alcohol out of a sauce. Go easy on the wine or leave it out entirely. If you want the taste of wine in your recipe, add it to the pan while while browning the meat. This will cook the alcohol out and give you a liquid to collect the caramelized left-behinds in.

Dairy will tend to break down so don’t add dairy products until the last 20 minutes of cooking.

There are tons of delicious slow-cooker recipes available on the internet. If you have dietary restrictions, check out these lists of delightful vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free crock-pot meals.

Do you have a favorite slow-cooker recipe? Please share it in the comments.

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Want Low-Maintenance Plants for Your Balcony Garden? Try Herbs!

A balcony herb garden.

A balcony herb garden. Photo: Shutterstock

Being an urban gardener can be a challenge. It’s hard to find space to plant unless you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with public gardens in which you can rent a lot. Not only that, but the idea of a balcony garden can be intimidating for gardening beginners. But herbs can be a good place to start.

Most herbs are simple to grow and do well in containers. Some can also tolerate mistakes, such as forgetting to water frequently. As a bonus, you usually don’t have to grow them from seed, since you can buy seedlings at your local greenhouse or garden center.

Herbs generally prefer full sun, but there are some that will tolerate partial shade as well.

Here are three herbs you can use to get your balcony garden started.

Basil. This herb prefers full sun and needs to wait for warmer temperatures to be outside. It transplants very well from seedlings, but unlike some herbs, it does need to be watered regularly. Fresh basil is delightful with in-season tomatoes from your local farmers’ market and fresh mozzarella cheese. Dress this super summer salad with a little olive oil, salt, and lemon juice or red wine vinegar.

Dill. This herb should be started from seed, but it will grow easily if you place it in full sun and plant it in moist, well-drained soil. Dill will get pretty “leggy” if you don’t harvest it when it’s young. Add fresh dill from your balcony garden to thinly sliced cucumbers and marinate the mixture for a little while in olive oil and vinegar. This can be a great topping for sandwiches or eaten on its own as “cucumber salad.”

Mint. There are many varieties of mint with an array of different flavors from classic mint to lemon mint and “chocolate mint,” which really does have a subtle chocolate taste. Mint tolerates partial shade, likes moist soil, and is best started as a seedling in your container garden. Fresh mint can be a refreshing addition to summer iced tea or mint juleps for Sunday brunch. Dry your mint for hot or iced mint tea.

All three of these herbs smell lovely, too.

For more great ideas about herbs to grow in your balcony garden, visit My Balcony Jungle.

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Tips for Gardening on the Prairie

Wildflowers grow on a sunset prairie.

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The prairie: wide open, grassy spaces that aren’t just for Laura Ingalls Wilder! Over the past 150 years, prairie land was converted into homesteads, agricultural fields, highways, cities, and other usable land. It’s beautiful territory that’s now getting a much-needed renewed focus: now more than ever, people appreciate the sparse beauty of the prairie. Naturally, the need to garden follows! Prairie land no longer covers the vast amount of territory it used to, so if you plan to be gardening there, make sure to use native plants that will help nurture and conserve prairies.

“Prairie” refers to grasslands that stretch from Ontario all the way to Texas, and from Colorado to Indiana. These areas typically receive a limited amount of rainfall, with cold winters and hot summers. The grasses often see summer fires, so be on the lookout for those. Get a good understanding of the kind of land you’ll be working with before you ever take shovel to soil.

To start, it’s essential that you not use pesticides. While pesticides do kill pests and keep your garden relatively safe, they also deter the development of natural diversity like butterflies and native plants. Part of prairie gardening needs to be a focus on getting native plants to grow, so don’t keep them away!

On that note, make sure you’re planting native plants! Prairies are characterized by tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass. Wildflowers grow prevalently, as well as coneflowers, prairie phlox, false indigo, and orchids. These plants will fill out your garden the best, and they’re the most likely to stay happy. Grasses are a must. Seeds or plants or fine, but know that seeds will take two to five years to reach their full size.

Plants are best sown or planted just after the frost but before the summer. In Minnesota, for example, seeds are most happy to be planted between May 20th June 20th.  Seeds should be spread thinly to make sure they get enough space to grow. Seeds should be watered after they’re planted, and a good rule of (green) thumb is to use half a pound of grass seed per thousand square feet.

Once everything is planted, your biggest concern will be weather and weed control. Watch for fires and hope for rain! If it all falls into place, you’ll be able to enjoy your own prairie wildflowers in the summer.

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Cool Gardening Tools for 2016

Four plant seedlings in squares of dirt on a wood table.

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It’s not so much the “new year” anymore, but with spring just around the corner in North America, it’s almost time to break out those cool new gardening tools you got for the holidays! There are tons of new products on the market available every day, so this is a great time to take advantage of some of them and see how they’ll enhance your garden. Check out a few of these tools and see how they can shape your creations.

Gardener’s Handbook App

This neat app is like having a little gardener to whisper gardening secrets in your ear whenever you need! The free service offers 10 chapters of gardening tips, ideas, and information you could really need. And, of course, because it’s on your phone, you can access it wherever you are without having to consult a book.

Plant Monitor

The Parrot Flower Power Plant Monitor kind of works like a baby monitor, except it’s not for babies or noise! This monitor provides a wireless sensor to keep track of a plant’s moisture, temperature, light, and fertilizer levels. The product then sends this information to a smartphone or other device with Bluetooth so you’ll always know exactly how your green babies are doing.

Garden Cam

For you artistic folk who like to work with technology like photos and video, put the Brinno GardenWatchCam in your garden so you don’t miss a single thing. This camera allows you to watch your plants grow, petal by petal and lead by leaf, with a 1.3-megapixel time-lapse digital camera which can be set to take pictures from every minute to every 24 hours!

The VegiBee

This innovative creation, called a “sonic garden pollinator,” is a small, battery-powered device that mimics the high-frequency vibrations of a bee’s wings during the pollination process. The vibrations then release pollen onto a spoon for the gardener to use to hand-pollinate their own plants. The result is up to a 30 percent increase in crop yield!

Did you try any of these products? Tell us about it below!

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Gardening Helps Fight Alzheimer’s

A happy elderly woman gardening.

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This month, we have some good news for you about the power of gardening. A new study indicates that physical activities like gardening, dancing, or horseback riding could reduce Alzheimer’s risk by about 50 percent. This is great news for avid gardeners or people at risk for developing the disease.

The study, conducted by the UCLA Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh, studied 876 patients with an average age of 78 in four different research sites in the U.S. The participants were asked about their physical activity habits and MRI scans were taken of their brains. Those scans were then analyzed to see how the volumes of brain structures were doing, including the parts that deal with memory and Alzheimer’s.

The researchers discovered that any activity that keeps people moving daily helps the brain increase its gray matter, which could keep dementia from setting in.

“Any type of physical activity that burns calories—from jogging to gardening to walking to dancing—is associated with more gray matter in the brain,” said Dr. Cyrus Raji, the study’s lead researcher. “The most important thing [about that physical activity] is that it’s regular.”

The study’s results indicate that all people, but especially older people, would be smart to increase the amount of physical activity they get every day. Not only will people feel better, but they’ll also have more memory retention and less cognitive impairment.

Dr. George Perry, editor of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, which published the study, called it “a landmark study that links exercise to increases in gray matter and opens the field of lifestyle intervention to objective biological measurement.” We know that exercise is good for you and a necessary part of living a healthy life, of course, and now we have one more incentive to get out of our desk chairs.

Currently, Alzheimer’s affects 5.1 million Americans, with significant increases projected for the coming years. The disease is debilitating and disheartening and ultimately fatal. Anything that can be done to prevent its onset should be highly encouraged.

“I think that these data should compel all physicians to provide some specific advice to everyone they see, either well or unwell,” said Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the Center for Cognitive Health at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital. “I have thought for some time that the most important single thing I can tell patients in order to prevent or slow down the progression of dementia is to provide them with some structured, minimal, routine exercise regimen.”

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Move It to the Roof!

A couple plants a rooftop garden together.

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If you live in a small space or an apartment, chances are you just don’t have that much space to work with for gardening. You can put pots around the house or in the windows, hang herbs from the ceiling, keep an orchid in the kitchen. But have you considered going even farther up—onto the roof? Roof gardens can be a great way to maintain an outdoor living space that’s pretty and functional. If you’re interested in starting a roof garden, here are some ideas to keep in mind as you get started!

Of course, you’ll need safe access to a roof for this to work. If you don’t have one and you’re short on space to garden, check out these tips on gardening for small spaces.

Firstly, it’s essential that safety come first. If you don’t think you can make a roof garden that is safe for guests to walk in, do not build one! Certainly you do not want people falling off of your roof. Furthermore, you also want to make sure you aren’t putting anything on your roof that could fly off and hurt someone when it gets windy—don’t take any chances.

To ensure privacy, you may want to plan to put up some screening. This will keep your neighbors from spying on you (probably) and it will help keep your guests safe, kids and pets especially.

Secondly, think about weight and structure. Soil is heavy, especially when it’s wet—you want to be sure your roof can handle the added weight, so you will certainly need to work with a structural engineer or contractor to make sure adding a garden roof to your home is a good idea. Go for lightweight containers that allow drainage, and use nutrient-rich soil.

Other things to consider include where your electrical wiring will go; as always, be certain it will not come into contact with water. You don’t have to use any kind of electricity, but if you’re looking to create a nice place to hang out, you’ll probably want some kind of light!

Okay, so if you’ve got everything squared away with the engineering and financial details, what should you plant? As mentioned before, it’s important to consider the weight of your new garden and what you put in it, so avoid things like, say, oak trees. But herbs, lettuces, spinach, kale, zucchini, or tomatoes are a great bed! Other vegetables like carrots, peppers, melons, or broccoli don’t seem to be particularly happy in roof gardens, but fresh herbs are—and you can use them just downstairs in your own kitchen!

Do you have a rooftop garden? Share some stories about it with us below!

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Why You Should Plant Native

A display of different kinds of green leaves.

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Because our greenhouse and growing technologies have become so advanced, it’s not unreasonable to plant growies biologically out of season or in an entirely different climate and have them do well. But even though you can plant just about anything you like, plants that are native to your area still have an advantage over plants that aren’t, and they’re likelier to stay healthy and happy. There are plenty of good reasons to plant native!

For one thing, native plants can help you conserve water because they don’t need much more than what is already in the land. If you live in an area like California or the American southwest, conserving water is of especial importance. This means that most native plants are more low-maintenance than imported species. Native plants will be happy with the land you give them because it’s what they expect.

Additionally, native plants already know how to defend themselves against pests and problems common to the area, so you don’t need to spend extra money to keep the plants healthy or buy replacements.

Native plants can even contribute to the quality of public health. Because gardens of non-native plants are often sprayed with copious amounts of pesticides, those gardens do represent some health hazards. But by planting native plants, you can greatly reduce the risk of getting chemicals into the ground and water supply.

And if you plant native, you’re more likely to get local birds coming to check out your garden. Your garden will promote a healthy relationship between native flora and fauna, and that’s a good thing for the sustainability of the environment.

If you don’t know what kinds of plants are native to your area, that’s okay. It’s very easy to find out with a quick Google search! PlantNative has a state-by-state database of which plants are native to which part of the country. Here in New York, pretty plants like red maples, black cherries, wild columbine, wild ginger, and yellow trout lilies are found, but check your state to see what kinds of plants you should be getting. The site also has a directory of nurseries that will help you find native plants in your area.

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From Winter Garden to Festive Feast

A closeup of one plate on a nicely decorated holiday table.

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With the holidays coming up and family coming in, now is a great time to maximize your garden’s abilities. Making dishes from winter produce to put on the table this time year will help save you money at the grocery store and provide a delicious, healthy meal that you really did make from scratch—or from seed! Here are some tips for veggies that grow well in the winter months, and some suggestions for holiday meals to make out of them!

Roasted winter vegetables.

These robust vegetables are happy all winter long, and they pack a nutritious punch. Cut parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash into cubes, toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper, and whatever other spices you’d like, and then roast them for about half an hour. This makes a hearty side dish or vegetarian main for any party.

Sautéed Swiss chard.

Leafy greens like kale and chard do really well in the winter, and they make a healthy and lovely dish. Heat some garlic (also a great addition to a winter garden!) in a pan until fragrant and add about 4 pounds of shredded chard leaves. Stir together with salt and pepper and add some freshly-grated lemon zest. Yum!

Baked radishes.

Radishes are—alas—so greatly overlooked. They are just as wonderful cooked as they are raw: lightly sweet, mildly spicy, and oh-so-flavorful. In a big bowl, combine radishes, olive oil, and salt and pepper, then roast away for 30 minutes or until crisp-tender. For a nice snack for guests, layer some thin radish slices over some toasted crostini that’s slathered with sea salt and pesto.

Cauliflower gratin.

Broccoli and cauliflower both do well in winter gardens, and you could probably use either one of them in this recipe to make a hearty, cheesy casserole, though this recipe calls for cauliflower. Blanch and drain cauliflower florets; then make a roux with butter, flour, and hot milk. Spread the sauce over the bottom of a baking dishes and place the cauliflower on top, then sprinkle on some cheese, breadcrumbs, and parsley. Bake for about a half hour! So delicious.

What recipes do you like to make with the growies in your garden? Share them in the comments section below!

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November in the Garden: What to Plant and Grow

A neon green watering can sits in a pile of white snow.

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Most people think that spring and summer are the only times to plant new seeds and grow fresh vegetables, but there are plenty of species who thrive in the winter, too! Lots of plants and vegetables are hardy enough to weather the cold months, both flowers and vegetables. So what should you be planting this month?

If you want to plant flowers, now is a good time to plant the flowering bulbs if you want them to bloom in next year’s spring. Daffodils should be placed in bold drifts naturalized in grass. These happy plants are great: easy maintenance, hardy, and beautiful once they bloom. Tulips, heathers, grasses, dahlias, holly, and other herbaceous perennials are a good bet this time of year, too.

There are a lot of options for the vegetable garden as well! Root vegetables are especially happy in the cold months, so things like turnips, parsnips, and carrots will do well in the November ground. Garlic and mushrooms will grow well, too. And if you’re lucky enough to have some fragrant fresh manure on hand, this is the time to spread it across your vegetable beds! Other winter veggie options include lettuces, radishes, spinach, and broccoli.

But don’t go thinking your winter gardens will be just root vegetables and waiting on new bulbs to bloom several months from now. You can plant fruit now for a little extra vitamin C. Currant bushes should be planted soon; you can also grow raspberry canes, strawberry plants, and pear and apple trees.

But if you live in a very cold climate or you don’t feel like going outdoors in winter to plant, you’re not out of luck. Grow some happy herbs on your windowsill like basil, chives, parsley, or thyme. And you still have the option of working in a cozy greenhouse!

If you are working with a greenhouse, now is a good time to prepare it well for the busy spring and summer. Replace any damaged glass now so the cold air can’t get in and damage your garden; clean it well; get going with solar lights; and make sure you ventilate well. You’ll be able to sow winter salads and herbs happily in here.

If you take good care of your plants and get them going at the right times of year, you’ll have a healthy and robust garden all year round!

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