Category Archives: Conferences

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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What I’m Doing this Summer (or: How Not to Pitch an Agent)

angel/cherub statue reading a book on the grass -

Image by Diego Torres via Pixabay

Wondering what I’m doing this summer? Here’s the story behind one project.

It all started in April, when I took a crash course in pitching an agent. I had registered for Books Alive! 2016, presented by the Washington Independent Review of Books. It’s a local conference with workshops, speakers, a book fair, and book signings.  It also features the coveted Agent Speed Pitches.

I figured I would brush off a journalism fellowship proposal, make it into a book proposal, and convince an agent to love it in five minutes or less. Soon, I’d be on my way to a book deal.

It turns out I went about it all wrong.

It’s not hard to do what I did. To practice how not to pitch an agent, follow the simple steps below.

How Not to Pitch an Agent for Your Nonfiction Book

    1. With about six days to go before your nonfiction book proposal must be ready, discover that six days is a preposterously inadequate amount of time to write a book proposal.*
    2. Write a good query letter instead. While working, sing a little song about how the kindly agent will adore your query, swoop in, and help you write that pesky proposal.
    3. Do not use a single sentence from your query letter. Instead, turn what was once a book proposal and then became a query letter into a three-minute pitch.
    4. Practice the pitch on nonfiction writers, novelists, and your cat. At least one out of three will give constructive feedback. Treat the other two to a rendition of that song about your guardian agent.
    5. At 6:45 am on the day of the pitch sessions, as the Uber waits downstairs, decide to print your query letter after all. Clutch the letter close throughout the morning.
    6. Use the pitch on agents — the ones assigned to you for speed-pitch sessions as well as the one who magically asks you about your book while you sit around the lunch table. That last one will listen intently until you must both stop for the keynote by Bob Woodward.
    7. Note the questions the agents ask and suggestions they make about structure. Note also how said questions and suggestions are not at all consistent.
    8. Note also how, though the agents are all wonderful people, not one extended a cloud-soft wing to envelope you.
    9. Rejoice that several agents asked to see either a sample chapter or full book proposal.
    10. Realize this is better than a guardian agent. Also understand that you must produce a book proposal.
    11. Attempt to write a book proposal. Take more than six days to do it.
    12. Start now.

So there you have it. The Book Proposal (incorrect capitalization for Emphasis) is one of my projects. I look forward to posting updates.


*Why inadequate? Thanks to author friends Michael Chorost and Fran Hawthorne (plus online searching), I learned that a nonfiction book proposal comprises some 50 to 60 pages of details. It covers the content, author, and market. Sample chapters also go in there. As you can imagine, a normal human can’t do this overnight. If you’re interested in more information, here’s a great guide from Zimmerman Literary.

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Loaves and enchiladas

Challah cooling after baking

Challah made by experienced and novice conference participants, December 2015. Photo by Rhea.

Last Friday, I joined a crowd of around 500 for MLK Shabbat at Sixth and I Synagogue. The service brought together members of Jewish community and the Turner Memorial AME Church. On Sunday and Monday, many celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the fight for civil rights at church and interfaith services.

These events remind me how a yearning for social justice can bind communities of faith, as well as the centrality of the sabbath.

Leading up to that weekend, I was honored to publish a piece about challah, the bread central to Jewish Shabbat tables:

A Thoughtful Loaf From ‘Yeast of Eden’

Earlier in the week, the Forward also posted a story featuring a recipe by local cookbook author and healthy eating guru Natasha Rosenstock Nadel:

Vegan Enchilada Casserole

I’ll end with a plug for another event. If you live in DC, check out Why Ethics?: Blacks, Jews and the Crisis of Political Solidarity in an Age of Terror tomorrow.

Happy eating, and may 2016 bring us closer together.


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One writer’s experience at Binder Con

Check out my experience at Out of the Binders, aka #BinderCon, on Storify:

I was inspired by the Storify version of the Google For Media Summit, I decided to make one myself for this conference for women and gender non-conforming writers. Thanks for reading!

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