How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food – Chapter 9

The [Grow] Network is pleased to publish Colin Austin’s 10 part series, How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food. This article is Chapter 9 of 10. You can read the other chapters here:

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
colin-and-xiulanWe have reached the point where we are growing plants – maybe in wicking or sponge beds.

What’s to Come in Chapter 9
Now we have to have a little chat about soils and how they actually work. Then a little discussion on the tricks I use to overcome my disorganization and lack of cooking skills.

Surface Chemistry

Soils look so simple – just a pile of dirt but as it is the year of the soil we must acknowledge the complexity of soils. We may start with the minerals in the soil, then follow up introducing the soil biology to release the nutrients but the next role of soil is to hold onto the nutrients.

This is done by surface chemistry; we need to have a soil surface which can hold onto the nutrients. It’s even better if the soil has a large surface area. Clay fills both roles very well, but is only needed in small quantities in the mix.

Vermiculite is another material I use which has a large surface area with the right surface chemistry to hold onto nutrients until needed by the plants.

Hydrophilic and Hydrophobic
But with wicking bed soil we need two fundamental features – the soil must wick, which is a question of surface chemistry, particle size, and porosity.

Soils can be either hydrophilic e.g. water loving which is exactly what we want in a wicking soil or it can be hydrophobic which means it repels water.

This combination of the chemistry of the soil particles themselves and how they are coated by the bugs is what holds the nutrients.

For example, sand is naturally hydrophilic which makes it a good material for wicking, however if it develops a waxy coating – as often happens in sandy soils under gum trees – it can become hydrophobic and useless as a wicking bed soil.

Many types of compost are hydrophilic and make good wicking soils but one of the best materials is roots, which have naturally evolved as nature’s water transport system.

I take advantage of this property by seeding my baskets so while they are being inoculated with the soil biology they are also developing a root mass with a very high wicking capacity.

Another major difference between a conventional and wicking soil is porosity. Conventional soils need some porosity to provide drainage but if they are too porous any water just flows straight through and is lost (often with the nutrients).

In a wicking bed, the bulk of the water is stored in the soil itself. In recent work carried out by Peter Van Beek (www.easygrowvegetables.net) he measured the water holding capacity of various soils, sand and stone mixes. He found that good soils can hold more water than the stone or sand mixes which are often used in the base of wicking beds. He found that the void content of soils could be over 50%. I have used his method to measure the water holding capacity of my mix at over 60%. Basically it is full of holes.

I call the soil which has been prepared this way and inoculated with biology Wickimix®.

What Plants to Grow

You may be expecting me to go into detail on all the types of plants which you could grow.

Well I do grow a lot of Chinese style vegetables, cabbage, Bok choi, mustard greens, etc.

I know that there are various classifications for the nutrient content of plants – usually topped by kale – but I think that if you have genuinely healthy soil then any plant will be both nutritious and grow easily.

My aim is variety.

Helping Out Messy Man
I have to admit that I am more than a bit disorganised. I could claim that I travel a lot and can’t always be available to put in the seeds when I should to ensure a continuous supply of vegetables – but the fact is I am an experimenter – that is my focus so more often than not I either have a total surplus of some plant because I tried four different methods of growing and they all worked and provided an excess that I have no hope of eating – or conversely they all fail and I have nothing.

So I have developed some good friends in the vegetable world to overcome my disorganization.

The first three are staples – Kang Kong, purple amaranth and Egyptian spinach. They grow so well in my area that they could almost be considered weeds but they have helped me over a bad patch more than once.

The other cover for my disorganisation is baby greens. These are a little more mature than shoots or micro-greens but have more body. So if see I am going to run out of vegetables I simply seed a fresh wicking basket to quickly grow some baby veggies.

I just cover the entire basket with seeds and within a couple of weeks or so the baby greens will start to be big enough to eat – later I can transplant them from the baskets to full scale wicking beds.

Cooking and My Lack of Culinary Arts

I would rank amongst the world’s worst cooks, so I should not be giving culinary advice – but I will make a few comments. I once went onto a strict vegan diet. This was essentially a no fat diet. At first I felt good but as the weeks went by I turned into Mr. Notsohappy. You can get awfully fed up with steamed cabbage. I felt hungry and started to get cravings. I began to think about the old joke that giving up wine, women, and song does not make you live longer – it just makes it seem longer.

I wanted to stay on a largely vegetarian diet but as I read about how fat slowed down the speed of digestion I decided that I should experiment with a certain amount of fat in my diet.

I tried to get maximum variety in my diet but for now I will focus on what has become almost a staple, not every day but frequently. Previously, I had been almost exclusively steaming with no fat. Now I started to fry my vegetables in olive oil. But in addition I would put a few pieces of Chinese sausage in with the vegetables.

I have no idea what they put in those sausages but they really are tasty. The fat and flavoring would transfer to the vegetables and made an immense improvement to their flavor. I would then add apple vinegar, maybe some soya sauce and a good old dose of spices. This was a big improvement but the stock was watery and really not so nice.

I then added thickening to make a richer gravy. I used a variety of thickening agents some commercial but many times flour, maybe semolina, sometimes good old fashioned oats or one of the many grains that are widely available.

This was an immense improvement in terms of pleasure in eating and how I felt – but there was still something missing. I though it may be a vitamin B12 deficiency and started to eat a lot more vegemite (actually Dick Smiths Ozimite). Again a bit better, but then I discovered malt extract.

I started to add this to milk drinks (soya milk) and tea (I drink Chinese green tea). I actually felt full for the first time in a long while and the craving disappeared.

fad-diets-dont-workI came to the conclusion that it is really important to monitor yourself and find out just what foods make you feel satisfied. I think the calorie restrained diets which leaves you feeling hungry are ridiculous, the trick is to find out a food mix that stops your body craving. This means checking how you feel just after you have eaten and particularly a couple of hours after that.

Food is also a pleasurable social activity; I have no intention of aborting going out for a nice meal with friends.

I make sure I cook enough vegetables that I feel full after eating and I do have a nut snack between meals with a cup of tea. I feel this is a good ‘base’ diet but I have a weakness, I just love chocolate. The cocoa bean is extremely healthy – the problem is the vast amount of sugar that is added to commercial chocolate. I have partially overcome that by buying cooking chocolate and – when you get used to the lack of sugar – it actually tastes better.

But this does lead me into the next section which is about buying healthy plants.

Coming Up in the Next Chapter
The reality is that it is verging on the impossible to grow all the variety of plants that we may like on schedule – so we need to talk about sharing or trading plants.

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

© 28 July 2015 Colin Austin – Creative Commons – This document may be reproduced but the source should be acknowledged. Information may be used for private use but commercial use requires a license.

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  • p says:

    “Vegan Diet” is a misnomer, since beer and pretzels are technically vegan by that vague definition. It’s no wonder a restricted-foods diet made you long for…something.
    On a more realistic level, current science leans unalterably toward a Whole Foods, Plant-Based Diet, with most likely a B-12 supplement, possibly D too if you fear our sun’s effects. (The B-12 takes the place of microbiota we may not have in our guts, clean freaks that we’ve become). Or you can eat enough animal sources, preferably insects (free and in your very own yard), to make up the B-12, and free yourself of livestock and their many problems (apart from your family).
    This runs against a set of cultural norms and accounts built on those norms of ‘proper’ gardening-farming, but the science (apart from newspaper scare headlines and feel-good TV dietary advice) backs it up.
    Oddly enough, it works out closer to a ‘Paleo’ diet that the faux-paleo nonsense being peddled online. Bon appetit!

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