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Flash in the Pan

Gardening in a season of change

After a long winter, a little global warming sounds like just the ticket. The smell of warming earth, sunshine on your pasty skin, mud in your toes. And soon enough: tank tops, flip-flops and the garden!

But gardening in times of unpredictable climate change is tricky business. The seed packet might say, “Sow as soon as the soil can be worked,” but with increasing climate instability, that may or may not be true.

The rules are changing. Maybe the ground could be worked in March, and two out of five years, you might get away with it. The other three, however, you might get slammed by a spring freeze.

But we have no choice, so garden hard, like our lives, and the fate of the world, depends on it. Every morsel you grow means one less item shipped from a faraway place. Every inch of lawn you replace with garden means less carbon-belching lawn mowing, and more carbon-sequestering greenery. The trick is in making the most of our extending growing season and not getting faked out by unstable weather. There are no easy answers—we’re figuring this one out as we go. But it’s worth experimenting, to see what we can get away with, because local food is a big piece of how we can save the world.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider the advice of acclaimed author Bill McKibben, who’s speaking in Hamilton on Sunday, March 25.

McKibben’s more of a journalist than a gardener, but he knows a thing or two about the relationship between climate change and agriculture. He authored The End of Nature in 1989, considered the first book for a general audience about climate change. He’s also the leader behind, which is working to organize rallies in hundreds of American cities and towns on April 14, 2007 to demand that Congress enact curbs on carbon emissions that would cut global warming pollution 80 percent by 2050. We spoke with McKibben about his ongoing projects as they directly relate to local foods (see “Home, sweet home” for more on McKibben’s local appearance.)

Chef Boy Ari: Your new book, Deep Economy, discusses eating local food as a remedy for many of the ills of the global economy. How can eating locally help stave off global warming?

McKibben: By reducing transportation-related emissions, eating locally can reduce the energy embedded in your dinner by five to 14 times. Meanwhile, a farmers’ market is an essential part of rebuilding community. The shopper at a farmers’ market has 10 times more conversations than the supermarket shopper. So it’s the place where the momentum for public transit, or renewable energy, or the other things we need will slowly build.

Chef Boy Ari: Where do you draw the line, personally, in terms of what you will eat?

McKibben: I’m not a doctrinaire, nor does anybody need to be. When our family did a 10-month winter of eating entirely locally, we made the “Marco Polo Exception”—anything that could have come from the orient in a saddlebag, like spices, was OK. I don’t drink coffee, but if I did I’d make sure it was locally roasted, sustainably and fairly raised. And we’ve given up orange juice forever in favor of locally pressed cider.

Chef Boy Ari: What do you eat in the dead of winter?

McKibben: Meat, cheese, bread, beer. Lots of root vegetables. Lots of stuff we froze or canned the summer before.

Chef Boy Ari: What’s your favorite local meal?

McKibben: Smoked butternut squash soup.

Chef Boy Ari: How are things shaping up for stepitup07?

McKibben: Unbelievably. We thought when we began we might get a hundred rallies, maybe 200, organized around the country for April 14. By now we’re over 950. It’s clearly going to be the biggest grassroots environmental protest since Earth Day 1970.

Chef Boy Ari: If we do nothing to curb carbon emissions, what will happen to our food?

McKibben: Agriculture is very vulnerable to changes in climate. We may, in certain places, for a little while, see longer growing seasons, but the data indicates it won’t be too long before we’re noticing horrible effects: long heat waves can reduce grain yield enormously, and exacerbate water shortages. Warmer weather also facilitates the spread of pests. Our food supply worldwide is pretty finely balanced as it is, and this will make it much, much harder.

Chef Boy Ari: Suppose California’s central valley, which grows nearly half of the nation’s food, faced a massive agricultural crisis brought on by global warming. Should we worry about this, or do you think the world would be better off if Americans didn’t rely so much on food shipped thousands of miles from California?

McKibben: We all order takeout from 2,000 miles away every night of the year: California’s central valley, Chile, Mexico. This system is vulnerable to disruption not only from climate change, but also from the fact that the food arrives marinated in oil—crude oil. It takes 36 calories of fossil energy to grow and transport one calorie of California lettuce back East, which means that not just global warming but also the rising price and dwindling availability of oil poses a mammoth challenge to our current model.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Going green

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,

I had the privilege of seeing your garden last year, and I was really impressed with the lettuce you were growing. Our lettuce sucked. What kind of seeds did you use? Also, with temps in the 50s all week it seems like those seeds should be in the ground.

—Lettuce Lover

A: Dear Lettuce Lover,

Every time I dish out any gardening advice, Wrathful Steve from the farmers’ market makes a little note about it in a special notebook. And come first day of the market I’ll be walking by his stand and he’ll roar at me to “Get over here!” and I’ll listen to his rant about how full of it I am. And I have to take it like a soldier for two reasons: 1) He’s usually right. 2) I don’t want to jeopardize my supply of apple cider, which he sells me (not at the farmers’ market, damn market police!) and I keep in my freezer all winter.

That said, my advice is it’s too early to plant your greens. Even if they manage to somehow elude the many frosts still to come—global warming notwithstanding—they’ll still grow slower than George W. Bush’s vocabulary.

What I will do in a few weeks is this: take seeds from all of my greens, some of which were leftover from what I started in trays— broccoli, bok choy, cilantro, basil, parsley, spinach, mustard greens, cabbage, mizuna, arugula, raddiccio, etc.—and mix those seeds with lettuce seeds like romaine, green leaf, endive, deer tongue, whatever. I’ll mix all of those seeds together in a jar and shake it up and scatter the contents wholesale over an area of prepped soil, and let the carpet of greens grow up in perfect chaos. Then I’ll harvest it with scissors when I want salad.

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