Mindfully Growing Greens: From Sprout To Leaf To Smoothie!

(Photo by author of Red Russian Kale micro greens growing in her greenhouse.)

So, the White House is growing their own organic, first family garden and Jamie’s Food Revolution is inspiring a national run on home gardening supplies.  Just before following this welcome trend and jumping with abandon onto the family gardening bandwagon, what if we paused long enough to shift the impetus for polishing our hoes from fear of fast food to appreciation for life?   Would a mindful approach to growing food ensure our investments weren’t based on fads, but our commitment to sustainable living?    Could an intentional, simpler approach to growing our own food – a paradigm shift – reveal insights that would allow us to see the world in our backyards?

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During the years that I ran a Community Supported Agriculture program, CSA, on my small farm in Virginia, I taught a number of inspired souls how to plan a family garden to grow a portion of their own food.  Many of these college and high school students, as well as parents, were recovering from a first glance at the industrial agriculture origins of the Standard American Diet (SAD) through documentaries like The Future of Food, and were wondering where to begin to grow their own food, as their grandparents did.  Again and again, I witnessed the same obstacles to success. The cultural conditioning and industrial paradigm values we all share – production, performance and constant evaluation – consciously or unconsciously imposed the idea of perfection on garden plans and crop yields, ultimately diminishing the joy and wisdom readily found in connecting with the earth.

Watching myself and others approach a whole, complex garden plan in a frantic frenzy, with multiple crops and planning times, preparation and storing needs, it became apparent that something was missing, a crucial piece that might be the main point of all of this well-intentioned busy-ness.  Curious, and probably a little burned-out, I decided to cull this sacrosanct and grand process down to the simplest form I could find.  I shifted my focus to one type of crop, the ubiquitous one offered on menus around the country as a panacea to our shared epidemic of chronic health ailments: greens. Specifically, Red Russian Kale.

The idea became to cultivate a “relationship” with this nutrient-dense, raw food favorite that was edible at all nine stages of its life cycle, from sprouts and micro-greens, to baby greens and mature plants.  Working with just one crop to discover all its possibilities, and to witness those transformations up close, was a fascinating process. It inspired me, my family and my gardening students to slow down and consider the revelations springing forth from a Mason jar, seed tray, homemade salad box and outdoor salad patch.  In retrospect, I had decided to mindfully grow food.

The versatile Red Russian kale is the perfect food to teach us mindful growing.  Spoonfuls of its seeds can be scooped into a Mason jar, converted into a mini-greenhouse on a kitchen counter with cheesecloth and a rubber band, where they grow the most enzymatically perfect food ever: sprouts (see sidebar for steps).  Children will enjoy spying on tiny leaves and shoots bursting from their shells and can help with daily rinsing.  Spouts can be grown from an amazing variety of leafy greens, as well as other vegetables.  Most sprout seed today is screened for E. coli, but check your source to be sure.  Always purchase organic seed.

A handful of seeds sprinkled into compost-rich soil in reclaimed buckets, pots, seed trays, or “salad boxes” (made from untreated timber), will grow quickly into the sought after and expensive “micro-greens” seen in upscale restaurants and farmers markets.  A large tray of micro-greens can be selectively thinned to allow the remaining greens to develop into another expensive delicacy, baby greens!

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Allowed to grow to their full glory, Red Russian kale in a large salad box or outdoor patch can offer “cut and come again” abundance.  Because of its hardiness, kale is an excellent year-round crop that has been known to over-winter well in many parts of the country.

Raw food activists know the satisfaction of stuffing handfuls of raw kale into blenders for nutrient-dense smoothies, but as this daily health routine requires a steady supply of kale, don’t hold back when planting your kale crop!  If unused plants “go to seed”, you have your next planting on the way.  As experienced farmers know, you only need to allow three percent of your entire crop to form seeds to have enough for the next planting of the same size.  And finally, spent plants can retire to the compost pile where they help to form new soil for new plants – completing the cycle of life.

Well, not really finally.  Most of the sprouts, micro-greens and mature leaves we reverently harvested from their various growing mediums were proudly presented at our family dinner table where the prayerful hands that grew them and people who knew them, encircled and blessed them.  It turns out, mindful growing also leads to mindful eating!

The process of mindfully growing Red Russian kale, in a very practical way, helped to reaffirm our reasons for growing a family garden in the first place: not fear of something outside ourselves, but because we are grateful for our connection to the earth and awed by the natural life cycles that nourish us.  Integrating these mindful growing exercises also helped to till up some of the old industrial beliefs like “bigger and complicated is better” with “simpler and slower yields wisdom and insight not otherwise obtainable”.  We still grow our family garden, but with mindful growing exercises as a part of our process now, we embody a deeper appreciation and awareness of life processes taking place all around us, below and above ground, and more importantly, within ourselves.

How to Grow Spouts

These days, you can order seeds for sprouting that have been tested for E. Coli.  Check to make sure your source is organic and the seeds are approved for sprouting.  To sprout seeds, use Mason jars that have been sterilized in hot boiling water, but are cool.  No fancy sprouting equipment is required.   Your seeds will come with instructions that you will need to follow, as each variety of seed will have a different amount to put into the Mason jar and a time for completion of sprouting, just a few days.  Put seed in jar with warm water and allow them to soak overnight.  The next day, pour seeds and water into a strainer.  Put rinsed seed back into jar and cover with cheese cloth, secured with a rubber band.  Place jar on side and cover with cloth.  Rinse at least three times daily until the sprouts fill the jar!

For a counterpoint to Mindfully Growing Greens, read Lisa’s experience with Mindlessly Growing Greens in a forgotten salad patch over the winter holiday season.

This article first appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness Magazine in Summer 2010, and in Rethinking Everything Magazine in Fall 2010.

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