Reaping the Tasty Benefits of Organic Gardening

Howland's Landing, home of the CELP program, overlooks the beautiful Pacific ocean from Catalina Island.

Howlands Landing, home of the CELP program, overlooks the beautiful Pacific ocean from Catalina Island.

This week I’ve been writing about my time on Catalina learning what some of the brilliant minds of today are doing to solve problems of food security for a better future.

You can read my recent posts on reducing food waste using black soldier flies and revolutionizing food production with aquaponics to learn more. Both of these processes involve a little (or a big) investment to get started, and while both will hopefully become a huge part of our future food system, there are even simpler things each of us can be doing right now to increase our food security, reduce our reliance on synthetic chemicals and the corporate food system, while also reconnecting with the environment.

Spring onions are planted around crops like chard and kale to help deter pests without the use of harmful pesticides.

Touring the CELP garden at Howlands Landing, Catalina Island. Spring onions and garlic are planted around crops like chard and kale to help deter pests without the use of harmful pesticides.

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I was able to reconnect with nature a bit myself while on Catalina—not just through peaceful morning walks on the high bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or enjoying the stars in a night sky free of the Los Angeles street light pollution—but also with a special trip to Howlands Landing. Howlands is a campground on the West End of Catalina Island, and plays host to the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program (CELP).

Students learned the basics of composting first hand.

Students learned the basics of composting first hand.

Leftovers from breakfast went straight into the compost heap. The 'wet' ingredients (nitrogen rich food waste) are balanced with 'dry' ingredients (carbon rich paper and dried vegetation) to achieve the right balance for composting to function.

Leftovers from breakfast went straight into the compost heap. The ‘wet’ ingredients (nitrogen rich food waste) are balanced with ‘dry’ ingredients (carbon rich paper and dried vegetation) to achieve the right mix for composting to function optimally.

The program teaches students of all ages, elementary school through college, about sustainability using their own organic edible garden and composting facility. Howlands is nestled in a gorgeous little hidden valley nestled between the steep hills of Catalina’s northwest corner and a rocky cove that looks out onto the sparkling ocean, teaming with coastal kelp forests and marine wildlife.

A student takes the time to stop and sniff the flowers at Howland's Landing organic garden.

A student takes the time to stop and smell the flowers at the CELP organic garden.

Last Thursday, as part of the USC alternative spring break program, I was able to tour the garden and even partake in some of the amazing fresh vegetables being grown there. The garden is maintained largely by groups of volunteers. The day we visited, there was a group from the University of Colorado, and another group from a midwestern university, helping staff build new garden beds, remove cactus, and plant the spring crop.

CELP also exposes younger children to gardening and teaches them about compost and permaculture. In fact, every group that visits Howlands participates in hands-on activities in the garden. Our group helped pour the morning’s breakfast leftovers into the compost bin and stir it together with carbon-rich cardboard. Liz, our amazing tour guide for the day, explained how Howlands Camp composts all of its own vegetarian food waste (meat and dairy are transported to another facility on the island to be processed since these products can be more difficult to compost in a sanitary, non-smelly way). She showed us the worm composting bins as well, where worms break down food waste and create a nutrient dense compost tea that can be used as concentrated fertilizer.

Worms help break down food waste and create a potent natural fertilizer that is great for organic gardens.

Worms help break down food waste and create a potent natural fertilizer that is great for organic gardens.

Liz gets her hands dirty to show off worm composting.

Liz gets her hands dirty to show off worm composting.

The camp actively promotes conscientious eating, offering at least one meatless meal each day. Camp visitors learn about and participate in composting, recycling, planting, and harvesting of the organic produce grown in the teaching garden. Most of the plants are watered using water-efficient drip irrigation, and plants are chosen based on their appropriateness for the dry Mediterranean climate of the island.

The solar oven that our fresh bread was baked in while we toured the garden.

The solar oven that our fresh bread was baked in while we toured the garden.

The day we visited, Liz guided our students through the garden while they snipped fresh herbs, kale, chard, lemon, and more. Bees buzzed lazily passed us as we strolled along the pleasant garden paths attracted by purple sage and other bright flowers. Dozens of tiny succulents and seedlings dangled from little hanging glazed pots. Fruit trees and native Malva Rosa provided sprinklings of shade. It was entirely pleasant and relaxing, yet full of energy from bursting new growth and volunteers bustling around the garden beds.

Malva Rosa, a native tree to Catalina Island, was in full bloom.

Malva Rosa, a native tree to Catalina Island, was in full bloom.

Liz explains to students how waste management works on Catalina, and how Howland's is working towards sustainable practices.

Liz explains to students how waste management works on Catalina, and how Howlands is working towards sustainable practices.

After our garden tour and ‘harvesting’ session was complete, Liz helped the students chop the greens and massage the kale (yep, that’s a thing), dressing the mix with olive oil and vinegar. The best part of our homemade snack was the loaf of rosemary bread that had been freshly baked in a solar oven right in the garden! Nothing hits the spot more than fresh warm bread and crisp salad after a morning working in the garden. The leafy greens were bursting with flavor, and the lemon wedges we finished the meal off with were sweet and juicy enough to eat on their own.

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Liz finished off our tour with a discussion about organic versus ‘conventional’ agriculture. The CELP program teaches children about the dirty dozen (the fruits and vegetables with the highest recorded pesticide contents) and how to reduce their exposure to these toxins. CELP also teaches about the benefits of organic gardening and permaculture. I was truly impressed with CELP’s hands-on style, their beautiful grounds, and the extent of their sustainable practices. I hope that they can continue to serve as a successful model for many other teaching facilities looking to reduce their ecological footprint. And that they keep baking that amazing bread!

Liz and USC students prepare are super-fresh morning snack.

Liz and USC students prepare are super-fresh morning snack.

Finishing touches.

Finishing touches.

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And voila! Combined with solar oven baked rosemary bread. De-Lish.

And voila! Combined with solar oven baked rosemary bread. De-Lish.

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Posted on March 25, 2014, in Food news, Food politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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