Garden Geeks

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Green thumbs yield crops for the table and the hungry.

Judy Front pulls up a beet from her bountiful garden.
Judy Front pulls up a beet from her bountiful garden.

Many of us in Michigan have a hobby that pays for itself. We cultivate little kitchen gardens, growing our own vegetables and herbs in the backyard, a sweet hobby with edible benefits.

Joe Lewis, for example, gives an understated description of his Oak Park crop: “My wife, Bobbie, and I grow a few things, but I doubt that ours are particularly interesting. We have a lot of dill, chives, some basil, garlic and horseradish. We also have some lettuce and spinach, and the beans and Swiss chard are coming up. Oh, and I planted some turnips and beets, and we have greens from both, but I’m not sure which is which.”

“We may also get some cucumbers and squash; the seeds seem to be coming up, but one never knows if they’ll survive,” said Joe Lewis. “We also have some fruit, though it’s hard to know if we’ll get anything edible because the bugs like fruit possibly more than we do.”

Gretchen and Neil Weiner keep a vegetable garden at their home in Livonia. Asked about her kitchen garden, Gretchen says that she only has lettuce and a few herbs and, as an afterthought, then lists many other kinds of vegetables that they grow from seed.

“I think of the lettuce and a few herbs as my only kitchen garden because they are right there and I can go out and snip a few leaves while I prepare our dinner. The vegetable garden is across the yard.”

Mark Rothenberg says that he and his wife, Andi, started a tiny vegetable patch in their backyard in West Bloomfield more than 20 years ago, when their children were infants, “to show them how things grow.”

After a few years, the urge to fill the garden with plants became a passion for the Rothenbergs. Now their patch has grown to a garden, 20 feet by 10 feet, with tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and an assortment of herbs. For Mark, the greatest pleasure associated with gardening comes with giving away bags of tomatoes to friends. One friend eagerly accepts gifts of fresh herbs to use in his restaurant.

Inspired by a neighbor who let Sharon Krasner’s toddler son pick his garden cucumbers for instant snacks, Krasner started her own vegetable garden. “It provided food for my children without having to spend money at the grocery store,” she said.

She started with plants in pots, including the herbs she uses in cooking nearly every day: rosemary, basil, parsley and some mint. She finds gardening therapeutic, “which is perverse, because it is also so frustrating.” Sometimes a crop fails; sometimes a crop yields more than she can possibly use.

Gretchen Weiner of Livonia harvests some rhubarb from her backyard garden.
Gretchen Weiner of Livonia harvests some rhubarb from her backyard garden.

“Last couple of years, my zucchini, of all things, did not produce,” she said. “I had to go to some friends to get some of their oversupply. But my cucumbers took over the place, so I could give cukes in exchange.”

Krasner considers sharing the harvest one of the chief joys of gardening. Sharing also works in the spring, to get plants to set in the garden. This season, Krasner picked up a few bunches of a neighbor’s prolific green onions in time for planting. “Free is good,” she said.

Gardens At Home, Work
Judy Front describes her home garden in Oak Park enthusiastically, listing 15 different vegetables before concluding “and also other varieties of leafy plants for salads.” Vegetables from Judy’s garden go into nearly every meal throughout the summer.

Judy also gardens at work. As director of sports, aquatics and camps at the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park, Judy makes sure children in the JCC day camp experience planting, weeding and harvesting so they know where food comes from.

She also works with the Jewish Senior Life Community Garden at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, a cooperative venture with the temple and with JSL that generates fresh produce for Teitel Apartments residents. Patti Tauber, JSL social worker and community garden coordinator for Teitel, makes sure that residents, volunteers from the community and Master Gardeners all work together to produce a beautiful garden for visitors and residents to admire.

Tauber particularly enjoys the smile of one of the residents who comes to work in the garden every week and comments happily on the garden’s progress in Russian. Later in the summer, the garden will enrich the diet of elderly residents with delicious fresh produce.

This year, one of the outside volunteers replaced all the metal tomato cages with gorgeous bamboo structures. The wide paths of the community garden allow people to navigate wheelchairs between the raised beds. With a few more donations, the garden’s paths could be paved and the beds raised waist high so that even residents with limited mobility could work the gardens.

A sign says it all in front of Judy Front’s garden.
A sign says it all in front of Judy Front’s garden.

Judy Front and some of the other leaders of the community garden have taken Master Gardener volunteer classes offered by the Michigan State University Extension Service in cooperation with Oakland County. Students who take the 12-week training experience and commit to using their expertise in community service projects can qualify as Master Gardeners. Carol Lenchuck, coordinator of the Natural Science Program for Oakland County, stresses that students learn the science of horticulture so they can understand what works and why it works.

By taking a similar course in composting, Judy Front qualifies as a Master Composter. “None of the waste from my kitchen goes out with the garbage,” she says. “It is too valuable for the compost.”

You can be sure that vegetables come from your home garden fresh and free of pesticides. What about soil contaminants? Carol Lenchuck explains that most suburban Detroit backyards never were factories or gas stations, but only residential or farmland, so people do not have to worry about contaminants like lead or cadmium.

Feeding The Hungry
In 2010, Congregation Shaarey Zedek started a vegetable garden on its land and donated the harvest to Yad Ezra. The next spring, the congregation invited Young Israel of Southfield and the JVS as partners in the work and the mitzvah of the Southfield Community Garden.

Earlier in the season, Mark Rothenberg of West Bloomfield takes care of young plants.
Earlier in the season, Mark Rothenberg of West Bloomfield takes care of young plants.

Most years, the religious school students at Shaarey Zedek plant many of the vegetables as a school-year-end project. This year, with late-spring frosts and rainstorms, religious school was long over when a team of adults led by Mel and Carol Chinitz and Mikki Grossman could finally begin planting cucumbers, zucchini and green beans. The next day, a team from Young Israel of Southfield led by Ariel Wolgel put in the tomato plants.

Shaarey Zedek program director Tobye Bello explains the Community Garden has only four crops — tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and green beans — to maximize the number of families that enjoy a share.

“I never anticipated that things would grow so well,” she said.

Yad Ezra happily accepts fresh produce from the Shaarey Zedek Community Garden and also from private backyard gardens. Yad Ezra itself houses Giving Gardens at its offices in Berkley, with high-yield vegetable planting beds at the rear of the building, vertical vegetable gardens at the front of the building and a window garden in south-facing windows.

In household gardens, typically some crops disappoint, others produce more than enough.

When you have too much, Lea Luger, executive director of Yad Ezra, said, “We certainly appreciate the fresh produce that our neighbors bring in. You grow it and bring it, and it gets distributed and eaten. We appreciate produce grown with care, determination and love by community members. We get contributions from individuals, schools, synagogues, churches and community gardens.

“The summer months with warm weather bring a bounty of fruits and vegetables. When you reap that bounty, what a better way to use it than to share with those who do not have enough to eat?” 

By Louis Finkelman, Special to the Jewish News 

Delicious summer recipes from gardener Sharon Krasner:

CAPONATA
2 medium eggplants
½ cup of olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup chopped plum tomatoes
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. basil
½ tsp. salt

Peel eggplant and cut into ½-inch cubes. Heat oil in a large skillet. Saute garlic and eggplant until eggplant is lightly browned. Remove eggplant from skillet. Add celery and onions to skillet, saute until tender. Add tomatoes and simmer 5 minutes. Add eggplant, vinegar, sugar, basil and salt. Simmer 5 minutes more. Remove from heat. Chill in refrigerator. Serve with Italian bread. 8 servings.

LOW-FAT LEMON ZUCCHINI BREAD
cup whole wheat flour
cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup grated zucchini (tightly packed)
1/4 cup canola oil
1 egg, lightly beaten
egg white
1 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup plain nonfat yogurt, drained

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9- x 5-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray. Gently spoon flour into measuring cups (do not pack). Add flour to a large bowl, followed by the sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. Stir well with a wire whisk.

In another bowl, combine the zucchini, oil, egg and egg white, vanilla, lemon zest and yogurt.

Add zucchini mixture to flour mix, combining until just moist. Pour into loaf pan and bake for 55 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Yield: 1 loaf (12 servings)

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