By Carl Blumenthal
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This past Saturday at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), witch hazel blossomed in tufts of yellow, orange, and red; blankets of crocuses beckoned imaginary picnickers; and daffodills, just beginning to rear their trumpet-like heads, vied with snow drops and other flowers to pinpoint the arrival of spring.
As usual, this panoply of colors and shapes was the perfect setting for BBG's "Making Brooklyn Bloom" conference. Now in its 32nd year, the gathering of a thousand gardening stalwarts was organized by GreenBridge, BBG's community horticulture program.
In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, this year's theme, "Gardening for a Resilient City," seemed particularly timely. According to GreenBridge director Robin Simmen, of the 140 community gardens the program assists, half are in the flood zone. Fortunately, few were seriously damaged.
Rather than instructing participants to construct moats around their gardens, or move them lock, stock, and rain barrel to higher ground, the purpose of the conference was to build the human relationships needed for ecological and cultural resilience.
BBG is also a century-old protector of plant diversity – and that also means human. It's not surprising Simmen emphasized "freedom of the seed" against the threat of "bio-piracy," better known as genetically-modified organisms (GMO's). Dr. Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, gave a rousing keynote address, "Cultivating Resilience: Diversity, Democracy, Community."
"Navdanya means 'nine seeds' (symbolizing protection of biological and cultural diversity) and also the 'new gift' (for seed as commons). It is a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 17 states in India. Navdanya has helped set up 111 community seed banks across the country, trained over 5,00,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty, and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades, and helped [establish] the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in the country," says the Botanic Garden’s website.
Given the obesity and diabetes epidemics in Brooklyn and elsewhere, we were particularly interested in how the cultivation and promotion of indigenous cuisines could contribute to the growing, preparing, and cooking of nutritious foods. As Simmen noted, GreenBridge provides technical assistance not only on edible gardening but also about how to distribute such produce to local food pantries and other sources of help for the hungry.
I sought out the advice of such groups as East New York Farms, El Puente and the Brooklyn Food Coalition, which have organized different nationalities to do just that. East New York Farms provided profiles of their vendors with special recipes for garlic scapes, okra fritters, turkey wing soup, and other delicacies. El Puente has established a Green Light District in the Southside neighborhood of Williamsburg, combining "arts and culture, affordable living, health, education, and greening of open spaces," according to a flyer. And the Brooklyn Food Coalition is networking with individuals and organizations, for example in the Chinese community of Sunset Park, to influence food policy in the borough.
I also attended the "Growing Powerful Foods" workshop run by Onika Abraham and Vere Gibbs. Abraham, a co-founder of Black Urban Gardeners, is growing deep roots in the local soil after years as a "MBA-toting" corporate honcho. Gibbs, who has been sowing and reaping in East New York since 2007, earned a certificate in Urban Gardening from BBG last year. She also holds an MS in bioengineering.
Rodney Dangerfield would have loved this "greens and beans" session, because vegetables from the mustards and legumes families get no respect on many American dinner tables. I mean kale, chard, collards, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, etc. in the first group, and green beans, limas, kidneys, soybeans, favas, pigeon peas, lentils, peanuts, etc. in the latter one.
One cup of kale provides 1,000 percent of the daily requirement for vitamin K; and one cup of green beans contains 10 percent of folate (folic acid), which doctors usually prescribe as a supplement for pregnant women because few diets contain sufficient amounts to help promote proper development of the fetus.
In addition to a myriad of other health benefits, Brassicaceae and Fabaceae, (their Latin names) respectively, attract beneficial insects and replenish the dirt. (Remember grammar school science class about legumes fixing nitrogen in soil!). Of course, a host of pests also prey on them. But Abraham and Gibbs were armed with an array of organic solutions to such problems. I liked the simple one of "sticky traps" for the enemies of kale and the seemingly more exotic method of encircling your legumes with diatomaceous soil, a kind of invocation of Mother Earth.
For all their consummate saleswomanship in Powerpoint fashion, Abraham and Gibbs proved the value of greens and beans is in the cooking. Gibbs handed out tasty morsels of veggie cake, made with kale, for which collard and chard are fine substitutes. Abraham demonstrated how to prepare "dilly beans," or pickles made from fresh green beans, in a brine of white vinegar, sea salt, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, dill heads, and garlic cloves. They were pleasantly piquant but contained a "snap" cooked beans don't give you.
After a winter of eating vegetables from faraway places, I look forward to using some locally grown ingredients this summer for Onika Abraham's recipe, while anticipating what might be cooking in BBG's kitchen at next year's "Making Brooklyn Bloom."