From food sovereignty to crowned berries: Lessons from Rooting DC

Rooting DC program with seed packets

Rooting DC is an annual urban gardening conference held in a big, light-filled high school in Northwest Washington. The day-long event always leaves me awash with information and floating on good urban ag vibes. The 2018 conference, held on March 3, was no different. Here are a few lessons I learned in and out of workshops.


From “Garden Maintenance A-Z”

Presenter: Josh Singer

Epsom salts aren’t just for soaking feet. You can use the salts (aka magnesium sulfate) to reduce transplant shock. When you plant your seedlings in your garden, dissolve a few tablespoons of epsom salts in water and use that to water them in.

Burlap sacks are a great growing container for potatoes. Washingtonians can pick up free sacks at Compass Coffee’s  Roastery on 7th Street. Start with potatoes (ideally seed potatoes) with sprouted eyes, planting them in a few inches of soil. Add soil to cover part of the plants as they grow. This will encourage the potato plant to send down more roots, which will grow more taters. Just remember to water the bags well, Singer reminded us. The soil can dry out quickly. You can also use a bin with drainage.  NOTE: Sweet potatoes are a different story.
I’m not a weirdo for pruning my tomato plants. Yes, you should prune indeterminate varieties. A good rule of thumb, Singer said, is to snip any offshoots growing below the flowering part of the plant.

Same goes for anything growing in the armpit between the plant and an offshoot/branch. My way of thinking about it: Like trees, tomato plants develop sucker branches that take energy but don’t produce flowers or fruit. So prune away!


From “Discovering DC Food History”
Presenter: Dominique Hazzard

Hazzard is finding and documenting a crucial part of DC food history with her project Food Sovereignty in Black Washington, D.C.: 1950-2017. It is a collection of oral histories full of jewels. Here are a few points that stuck with me from the hour-long presentation by Hazzard and a panel of her interviewees.

A few decades ago, co-op grocery stores flourished in DC, especially in Wards 7 and 8. These were markets owned and operated by community members.

Dennis Chestnut, one of my personal heroes in community-building and urban agriculture, is among Hazzard’s informants. A clip of Chestnut’s oral history painted a mid-century Washington landscape where almost every yard had a fruit tree and a home garden.

One of the co-ops (I believe it was the one at Shepherd Street) had a grain mill on site. This definitely warrants its own item on this list. From writing about small-scale grain supplies here and there, I’ve learned that mills are the elusive final piece of the puzzle for local sourcing and processing.

Interviewee Boe Luther Umar, co-owner of Hustlaz 2 Harvesters, had words of advice on engaging kids in growing food. First off, know words that will resonate with them. “If you say ‘agriculture,’ they don’t know what you’re talking about,” Luther explained during the panel. “If you say ‘farming,’ they know it.” And then, of course, give the young helpers something to bite into. A mouthful of tomato or carrot, fresh from the garden, can make it all click.

Rooting DC fair

From the fair

 

One of the booths at the bustling fair in the sunny atrium was about Bloom soil conditioner.  Bloom is a compost-like product made by DC Water (yes, the utility that treats our waste water, including the stuff formally called “biosolids”). A handful of Bloom feels like a light, crumbly soil and smells like practically nothing. You can buy enough to fill a flatbed for cheaper than a bag of retail mulch.

DC youth rock, part I: With Mighty Greens, students use products of their school gardens to make tea, salve, flavored salts, and other good stuff.

DC youth rock, part II: High school students took on college-level research on food issues and will present it at the Food Justice Youth Summit

From “Urban Foraging: There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch!”
Presenter: April Thompson

 

In this workshop, I learned two general lessons: 1) The weeds and wild berries I eat from my garden and along the side of the road are, indeed, legitimate food sources, and 2) The names I’ve assigned those foraged goodies are totally wrong. For example, what I call  “lemon clover” is actually known as wood sorrel or sour grass. It’s in the oxalis (shamrock) family. The “onion grass” I’ve sautéed into soups and scrambled eggs since I was a teen is really wild garlic. Both are delicious, though, and I encourage you to try them.

 

I was right about the name for Juneberries (which I also know as mission berries. The Internet has yet to catch up with me on that one). I identify them by their bush-like trees planted in public landscapes and their red-purple berries. The berries have a crown, like a blueberry. What was new to me: According to Thompson, a crown indicates that a berry is safe to eat. You should still double check with an experienced forager before you go eating any random berries, though.

 

On another note, if you want to grow an edible and prolific berry, leave the finicky blueberries to the experts (like Mother Nature, who grows them beautifully in the mountains… or the people who run Frog Eye Farm). It takes much less fuss to grow gooseberries or forage for the aforementioned Juneberries.

 

This note leads me to my final piece of advice, which I found woven throughout the conference.

The piece of advice is: Instead of trying to beat ’em, join ’em! In other words, spend your energy finding crops that grow well in your climate and in your soil. You may love the idea of fresh ginger from your back yard or a coffee plant on your porch, but are they worth it? With half the work, you can grow bushels of basil, tomatoes, okra, and squash. And yes—gooseberries, too.
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