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Mindfully Growing Greens From Sprout To Leaf To Smoothie!

By Lisa Reagan

So, the White House is growing their own organic First Family garden, and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is inspiring a national run on home gardening supplies. Just before following this welcome trend and jumping with abandon onto the family gardening bandwagon, what if we paused long enough to shift the impetus for polishing our hoes from fear of fast food to appreciation for life? Would a mindful approach to growing food ensure our investments weren’t based on fads, but our commitment to sustainable living? Could an intentional, simpler approach to growing our own food reveal insights that would allow us to see the world in our backyards?

During the years that I ran a Community Supported Agriculture program, CSA, on my small farm in Virginia, I taught numerous newbies how to plan a family garden to grow a portion of their own food. Many of these “highly motivated” souls were recovering from a first glance at the industrial agriculture origins of the Standard American Diet (SAD) through documentaries like The Future of Food, and were wondering where to begin to grow their own food, as their grandparents did. Again and again, I witnessed the same obstacles to success. The cultural conditioning and industrial paradigm values we all share— production, performance and constant evaluation—consciously or unconsciously imposed the idea of perfection on garden plans and crop yields, ultimately diminishing the joy and wisdom readily found in connecting with the earth.Watching myself and others approach a whole, complex garden plan in a frantic frenzy, with multiple crops and planning times, preparation and storing needs, it became apparent that something was missing, a crucial piece that might be the main point of all of this well-intentioned busyness. Curious, and probably a little burned-out, I decided to cull this sacrosanct and grand process down to the simplest form I could find. I shifted my focus to one type of crop, the ubiquitous one offered on menus around the country as a panacea to our shared epidemic of chronic health ailments: greens. Specifically, Red Russian kale.

The idea became to cultivate a “relationship” with this nutrient-dense, raw food favorite that was edible at all nine stages of its life cycle, from sprouts and micro-greens to baby greens and mature plants. Working with just one crop to discover all its possibilities, and to witness those transformations up close, was a fascinating process. It inspired me, my family and my gardening students to slow down and consider the revelations springing forth from a mason jar, seed tray, homemade salad box and outdoor salad patch. In retrospect, I had decided to mindfully grow food.

The versatile Red Russian kale is the perfect food to teach us mindful growing. Spoonfuls of its seeds can be scooped into a mason jar, converted into a mini-greenhouse on a kitchen counter with cheesecloth and a rubber band, where they grow the most enzymatically perfect food ever: sprouts. Children will enjoy spying on tiny leaves and shoots bursting from their shells, and can help with daily rinsing. Spouts can be grown from an amazing variety of leafy greens, as well as other vegetables. Most sprout seed today is screened for E. coli, but check your source to be sure. Always purchase organic seed.

A handful of seeds sprinkled into compost-rich soil in reclaimed buckets, pots, seed trays or “salad boxes” (made from untreated timber) will grow quickly into the sought-after and expensive “micro-greens” seen in upscale restaurants and farmers markets. A large tray of micro-greens can be selectively thinned to allow the remaining greens to develop into another expensive delicacy—baby greens!

Allowed to grow to its full glory, Red Russian kale in a large salad box or outdoor patch can offer “cut and come again” abundance. Because of its hardiness, kale is an excellent year-round crop that has been known to over-winter well in many parts of the country. We’ve had kale patches last for two and three seasons. Their stalks get woody, but their leaves are still delish (a tip for the lazy farmer or permaculture enthusiast!).

Raw food activists know the satisfaction of stuffing handfuls of raw kale into blenders for nutrient-dense smoothies, but as this daily health routine requires a steady supply of kale, don’t hold back when planting your kale crop! If unused plants “go to seed,” you have your next planting on the way. As experienced farmers know, you only need to allow three percent of your entire crop to form seeds to have enough for the next planting of the same size. And finally, spent plants can retire to the compost pile where they form new soil for new plants and help to complete the cycle of life.

Well, not really finally. Most of the sprouts, micro-greens and mature leaves we reverently harvested from their various growing mediums were proudly presented at our family dinner table, where the prayerful hands that grew them, and the people who knew them, encircled and blessed them. It turns out, mindful growing also leads to mindful eating!

The process of mindfully growing Red Russian kale, in a very practical way, helped to reaffirm our reasons for growing a family garden in the first place: not fear of something outside ourselves, but because we are grateful for our connection to the earth and awed by the natural life cycles that nourish us. Integrating these mindful growing exercises also helped to till up some of the old industrial beliefs like “bigger and complicated is better,” replacing it with “simpler and slower yields wisdom and insight not otherwise obtainable.” We still grow our family garden, but our mindful growing exercises enable us to embody a deeper appreciation and awareness of the life processes taking place all around us, below and above ground, and more importantly, within ourselves.