Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Challenge of Healthy Eating

For about two months now, I've been trying to follow a restricted diet for health reasons. No alcohol, no coffee, no dairy (except yogurt), no sugar, limited fruit, and no grains except for low-glycemic grains like quinoa and steel-cut oats. It was easy the first couple weeks, but after that it became near-impossible. I've learned a few things about myself and society in the process:

* There are no particular foods that I really miss. In fact, I miss bread and pizza a lot less than I expected. Instead, I miss the overall feeling of indulgence. I've realized that our lives are built around little daily indulgences. A morning cup of coffee with honey. A chocolate chip cookie as a pick-me-up during a terrible afternoon at work. A glass of wine with dinner. The evening walk to get ice cream after dinner. I'm used to being able to eat relatively whatever I want whenever I want it. My days now feel like constant deprivation, as I'm confronted with other people consuming foods I can't have.

* Our society is built around unhealthy eating. In the abstract, reading sample menus for a healthy diet don't sound so bad. Really, it's the exposure to all the tasty, unhealthy food that makes sticking to a diet hard. It feels particularly so in New York City, where temptation is on every block, in every bodega, restaurant, pizza place, ice cream parlor, cafe, bagel store, falafel cart, and so on. I must pass more than a hundred places selling food on my bike ride to and from work. I suppose that's part of the fun of living in New York City -- all the easy access to restaurants and bars that push enjoyment as a lifestyle. They call at me to stop and relax and enjoy myself with a drink and whatever food I want. I imagine it would be easier if I lived in a place with fewer options where I drove directly to and from work. For example, I know was able to diet easily in the summers during college because my setting was restricted to campus without a dining hall.

Moreover, when eating out, it's hard to find meals that don't come with bread or noodles or white rice or fries or chips. Because tasty food is what sells, that's what restaurants and companies sell, sending the message that they're okay and normal to eat. Yet, it would be better for us all if refined grains and processed foods weren't so ubiquitous.

* I thought I had my approach to healthy eating down. I pride myself on incorporating a variety of grains and beans and vegetables into my home cooked meals. I consider whole milk and butter and meat healthy when sourced from grass-fed farms. I like to experiment with natural sweeteners like honey and pureed fruits. I have no problem making whole grain versions of foods like breads and crackers and muffins from scratch, but this doesn't even allow for that.

* I also miss making baked goods not for the tastiness of the sugary confections themselves, but for the act of making something fun and creative that will delight people. I used to bake a lot, as documented on this blog. My baking has waned over the past couple years. Part of that is because of Evan, who is always reminds me how unhealthy baked goods are (yet he eats ice cream every day...). Which is true, and which is why it has always fascinated me that some food bloggers bake seem to bake so often, also given that it's expensive to keep buying all that butter and chocolate. I used to take my friends and coworkers' birthdays as occasions to whip up some new creation. In the two years at my current job, I've brought baked goods into work only a few times. I've been wanting to get back into baking, especially now that fall is here. But alas...

* Which is all to say that I haven't kept to the diet strictly. I make small exceptions to help get myself through the days (and big exceptions on a recent two week vacation in Oregon). And it isn't forever. It's temporary. But it's been a good learning experience that will make me more conscious of what I'm eating going forward.

Have you done any crazy diets? What did you learn from them?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Yard: Farewell Flowers

This yard was just grass and dirt and ivy and weeds when we moved in, and we transformed it into something better. As I've mentioned before, I took the opportunity to plant flowers in the ground for the first time in my life. I had visions of flowers everywhere, but I soon earned that it actually takes years (or lots of money) for perennial gardens to look lush, because the plants spread a little each year. Even though these plants don't look like much in these photos, most of them should reappear even better next year. So the future tenants will get to reap the rewards of our work more than we did.

I created a bed for wildflower-type perennials. In late May, the blazing sunset geum and salvia were colorful, but the ground looked sparse. 

By early July, those flowers were washed out, and the ground filled in with weeds. Later in July, echinacea and bee balm bloomed here, though I didn't get a picture. There's also some scraggly lavender, which could have used a pruning last fall.

On the other side of the yard, I created a little shade garden, edged by stones that Evan found in the yard. On the left is astilbe, which sends up white flowers in late May. On the right is bleeding heart, which has little pink blooms in May. I added a fern, because that's what a shade garden calls out for. In the middle is a small mound of ajuga, which is supposed to spread quickly as ground cover, but hadn't spread at all - maybe next year. The grassy area within the stones is where the crocuses bloom in early spring. 

An extension of the shade garden, the hostas and dusty miller planted last year were still going strong, with impatiens added for pop of color.

I planted this pincushion in the back of the yard by the daffodil and tulips, but it was lost back there. Another lesson learned: Bulbs are showy enough that they can be planted at the back of a yard, but most other flowers are best situated closer to the windows or patio of one's home, where they will actually be in view.

My parents brought daylilies dug from their yard, which made me feel like I had brought a little piece of their upstate garden to life in Brooklyn.

This bed doesn't look like much, but that greenery actually includes a hosta, a columbine that started blooming at the end of July, and mums that could be blooming now for all I know.

In addition to planting perennials, I tried growing several types of annual flowers (marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, cornflowers) from seed directly in the ground, but they disappointingly didn't come up. The lessons learned about annuals are: perennials go in the ground, and annuals go in containers. And that it's best to just buy annuals as starts that are already blooming from farms/garden stores. Gardeners are able to get a head start in their greenhouses, so it adds pop of color early in the spring, instead of waiting around for your own seeds that may or may not bloom. that annuals are best reserved for container planting. Here are petunias, lobelia and marigolds in hanging containers.

In putting this retrospective together, I realized that even though I took lots of photos of the yard, there were actually more blooms that I forgot to capture. They will live on in my memory with lessons learned for when I have a garden again someday, and in the eyes of the people who live there after us, and for the bees to pollinate.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Yard: We Went Out Fighting

Unfortunately, we were forced to move out of our beloved apartment this summer. That's the main reason for my absence, as most of my time was filled with moving-related issues. We hoped to call that apartment home for many years, and we invested so much - both emotional and physical energy as well as money - into the yard.

Yet, within a couple weeks, we had to dismantle everything. The chiminea for enjoying warm fires, the rubber patio tiles - purchased to extend the awkward sized patio, the indoor-outdoor hose system, the push lawn mower, the broom, shovel and rake, the dozens of pots, the outdoor lights and candles, the tables and chairs, the mosquito repellent accoutrements. It all had to go to new homes, since our new apartment has just a fire escape. We wanted to move everything, out of spite, but sadly ended up behind leaving the slate stepping stones that we foraged from Evan's farm, as well as the table repurposed from a concrete door.

Ultimately, it's okay that we no longer have that yard, since we felt like we were constantly fighting with it.

From June to October, it was plagued with tropics-level mosquitos that swarmed in the daytime heat and nibbled more discreetly in the dark. We tried many different approaches, none of which worked, but which deserve a post of their own. Because of the bugs, we couldn't lounge outside with a book and a hammock, and we never did host dinner parties around that concrete table.

DIY table and deer antlers

The actual ground was contaminated with high levels of lead, which is a health hazard that also deserves its own post.

the meager vegetable container garden

Since we couldn't use the yard for leisure, we thought we could use it to grow things, but that didn't go so well. Our summer growing season went much like our first failed fall growing season. We accumulated many more pots, I developed an addiction to buying seed packets, started seeds inside to transplant, started some outside and bought some starts. It looks like it's off to a decent start in the photos, but most of the baby plants never grew any bigger. I attribute it to both bad soil and lack of light.

overly ambitious seed collection

windowsill seed growing set up

For convenience sake, I picked up lots of Miracle Grow Organic Soil from Home Depot while getting a bunch of other stuff there in early spring. I think their soil has too many chunks of wood and isn't fine enough for seedlings. We later got some quality organic soil from our local garden store and saw a marked difference wherein tomatoes grown in the new soil grew tall and tomatoes grown in the old soil were stunted and yellow. Meanwhile, many of the plants that did grow were eaten by insects. The kale was riddled with holes from some cabbage beetle, and our lush herbs like the lemon balm below were taken out in the blink of an eye by Japanese beetles.

lemon balm later eaten by japanese beetles

Despite an afternoon where my dad helped Evan take down some branches on high with a rope saw, our yard was probably too shady for most plants. The tomatoes actually grew too tall, as they stretched ever higher looking for light. We later learned you're supposed to pinch them back to keep that from happening. We sold the tomato plants before any of them ripened. What did we harvest from our yard? A handful of green beans. A handful of kale. We planted garlic last fall, from which we harvested a handful of scapes and about $2 worth of garlic. Each clove only doubled, that was all.

garlic scapes

We hoped to amend the purchased soil with our own compost, but our compost bin didn't work either. We DIY'd compost bins out of two round plastic garbage cans with holes drilled into them. Once a week or so, we'd add new scraps and roll the bins around, but that apparently didn't aerate them enough. Scraps collected last summer/fall still hadn't broken down finely enough by the time we left in July. I guess next time, I'd splurge on bins designed specifically for composting with a crank for aerating. We left the compost bins behind too. Maybe someday they'll turn into compost that someone else there can use.

unfinished compost

I did leave behind a nice legacy of perennial flowers, coming up in the next post.