Pasadena Learning Gardens

Resourcing communities to create a healthier more sustainable future

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Processed Food Health Claims – BEWARE

As Michael Pollan mentions in Food Rules: Avoid food products that make health claims.  This is great advice because health claims made by processed food manufacturers are rarely what they seem.  In reality, what we find is: (1) The claims often have minimal scientific basis or are grossly exaggerated; (2) The claims are often justified not because the actual primary product has the healthy nutrients but instead because nutrients are added during processing, which can mean the nutrients are not absorbed by your body as effectively as if those same nutrients are delivered from fresh fruits/vegetables in their natural state; and (3) The claims fail to mention that while the product may have some sort of healthy vitamins or antioxidants, any benefit is usually outweighed by the fact that the same product is also loaded with unhealthy amounts of sugar, fat and/or salt.  The best course for your health is to simply eat an apple or some broccoli rather than relying on some sugary cereal or fat-laden salty snack that claims to deliver the same nutrients.  The LA Times recently ran an interesting editorial regarding this situation and two very common products, Frosted Mini Wheats and Pom Wonderful.  Check it out here and get the real story.

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Parkway Edibles in LA? Will it ever happen?

It seems like this keeps going on forever.  While some City Council members say they support parkway vegetable gardens, an actual ordinance change continues to elude us for two years now.  And all the while city workers are going after those who plant edibles in their parkways with cease and desist orders and fines.  Check out the July 30 LA Times story by Steve Lopez.

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Exercise is not enough! It’s what we eat!

A new study published yesterday cites the fact that even with increased physical activity across the US, the obesity rate continues to rise.  The key factor driving the obesity rise is poor diet and nutrition.  (Like we didn’t already know that.)  Not to say that we shouldn’t exercise more because there are many health benefits to physical activity.  But if we want to lose weight in this country, we need to focus much more on diet.  Read an overview of Population Health Metrics’ findings in this article from the Los Angeles Times: “We’re Exercising More But Still Fighting Obesity.”

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Dangerous Chemicals In Our Food – Banned In Other Countries

If the lack of nutritional value and the overabundance of salt, sugar and fat found in most of our processed foods aren’t enough to convince you to buy fresh unprocessed foods, then maybe this will be.  Several chemicals found in many processed foods in the U.S. are actually banned in other countries because of significant health risks involved.  BuzzFeed, in an article titled “8 Foods We Eat In The U.S. That Are Banned In Other Countries,” highlights the rampant use of toxic chemicals in food processing, including various food colorings, brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, azodicarbonamide and arsenic, among others.  Scary names, scarier health impacts, including birth defects, cancer, organ damage, asthma, inhibition of nerve cell development and much more.  Not only are many of these chemicals banned in other countries but in some cases you can actually go to prison for using them in food processing.  For example, if you use azodicarbonamide as a food ingredient in Singapore, you could face up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.  Given that this chemical, found in most frozen foods, is used to make bleach and rubber yoga mats, I don’t think it really belongs in our food anyway.  Nor does bromine, a chemical used to prevent carpets from catching on fire, or any of these other dangerous ingredients.  BuzzFeed points to the recently published book “Rich Food Poor Food: The Ultimate Grocery Purchasing System” by Dr. Jayson Calton and nutritionist Mira Calton, for the original list.

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Why We Eat What We Eat – And How We Got Here

Curiously almost no one in the US or the western world just eats what he or she needs. Most of us eat to address needs far beyond the requirements of our body; we even search out and consume stuff we know to be unhealthy.

It seems that back in the days when generations of people stayed close to home, that microorganisms in the soil that facilitate nutrient uptake in plants, the plants themselves, and the microorganisms in animals and us, co-evolved in a way that created a system that worked amazingly well – turning solar power and carbon dioxide into the energy that feeds life, and that we’ve found hundreds of ways to break this system and still continue in this way.

For thousands of generations humans grazed and ate off the land. Things began to change long ago with the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry. More food was easily and regularly available. Ultimately, the delicacies of sweet and fat, which previously had been consumed very lightly by humans simply because of their rarity, were now being consumed at greater rates.

More recently, things got much worse for several reasons. First, advances in agriculture dramatically increased the food supply, driven mostly by chemical fertilizers. After World War II, the chemical industry put to work its vast nitrogen production capacity making fertilizer, yielding much more food than we really needed.

Michael Pollan notes that around the same time our main source of food and nutritional direction, our culture (a.k.a. mom), started to lose control of the kitchen. The basic diet from most cultures, which seemed to work pretty well, consisted primarily of locally produced, fresh and non- or lightly processed foods. But processed food manufacturers, promising more and tastier food at lower prices, took over, bringing us the Western Diet, with its heavy consumption of processed and chemically laced food. Along with it came an unacceptable increase in many of the biggest health issues we face today. As Pollan contends, we don’t know enough about how our body uses the complex combinations of food each of us chooses to consume, and traditional diets, regardless of being protein, fat, or carbohydrate dominated, do not lead to many of these health issues.

Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat, points out that post WWII, more women in the workforce meant less time to prepare traditional healthy and nutritious meals at home. The processed food industry and fast food restaurants were there to help by providing greater convenience.

In the 1960s and 1970s, counter-productive federal government farm policies created a boon in many commodity crops including corn, wheat and soybeans. Subsidies on several key ingredients resulted in ridiculously low commodity prices. Food manufacturers found that by tinkering with formulations by adding ever-increasing amounts of inexpensive sweeteners, fats and salt, they could pump sales and profits. Most importantly, they could achieve the “bliss point” in their products, the point at which optimal levels of these low cost, nutritionally devoid ingredients could create addiction.

It’s also important to note that there are many sociological and psychological reasons we eat unwisely. – Why We Eat What We Eat describes six major influencers of our food choices: social situations; economic situation; ethnic background; emotional state; eating from habit; and physical health. By becoming more aware of these influences, you can begin to control them.

All in all, this is not a pretty picture. We’re now faced with a massive public health crisis unlike anything the world has ever seen with the potential to bankrupt our economy. There’s much more to this story. Check out Michael Pollan and Michael Moss for fascinating reading on this subject.

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Mediterranean Diet Wins Again

Yet another study is out confirming what most of us already know: The Mediterranean Diet is great for heart health.  The study  participants were given olive oil and tree nut mixtures as a primary focus.  They were also given training on how to eat with generous amounts of olive, fruits, nuts, vegetables and cereals, a moderate amount of fish and poultry, and very little dairy, red meats, processed meats and sweets.  The results: A 30% reduction in cardiac events versus the control group, who was only given advice on eating a low-fat diet.

Important to note is that the Mediterranean Diet is not low-fat.  It’s actually moderate to high fat but it promotes consumption healthy fats and discourages consumption of unhealthy saturated fats like those found in meat.  Additionally, the Mediterranean Diet is about more than just what we eat; it’s about “how we eat.”  Instead of “forcing” our meals down in front of the TV, we should be sitting at the table for a relaxed meal with family or friends and no electronic devices.  This allows you to eat mindfully, actually experiencing how great the food tastes and to know when you are full.  And keep in mind that this diet is not about losing weight.  It’s about better heart health.  Check out more on the study here.  Mediterranean Diet for Hearth Health Gains Momentum.

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Adventures in Eating Well Affordably

I made a very important life decision a couple of years ago.  I wanted to eat better.  Although my diet was okay, there were still too many industrially produced and ultra-processed food-like substances, too many added engineered sweeteners (HFCS and other sugars seem to be in almost everything even when they shouldn’t be – just check out your pasta sauce or bread), too much non-organic produce, too much tainted animal product, and most certainly too much nutritionally degraded long-distance produce from South America, Australia and points unknown.  So I decided to gradually transition as much as I could toward healthier, more sustainably produced and locally grown foods.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, that was all fine and good until I really started digging in.  It was at that point I realized this was going to be expensive.  How was I going to be able to afford all this?  I first took a look at my overall monthly spending across everything.  Wow!  Shocking!  When I finally recovered from that seizure, I found a lot of easy ways to save a bunch – e.g. dropping the land-line, renegotiating cable TV, Internet and newspaper subscription rates, etc.

But we’re more concerned here about how to get good food more affordably.  So my mission over the next year will be to figure this all out.  I’m a little nervous about this.  It will be a lot of experimenting, trial and error, maybe even a mild case food poisoning.  I’ll be documenting my adventures here on the Pasadena Learning Gardens website so you guys can benefit from what I’m doing, learn from my mistakes, and hopefully improve your health and your pocketbook at the same time.

My plan will involve three main strategies:

  1. Finding the right source – Good quality food at a good price.
  2. Buying in a collective.
  3. Producing food myself.

So for starters, I want to talk about store-bought foods that may seem healthy and cheap but really aren’t.  I first looked at some of the stuff I was buying regularly at the store and calculated how much it was costing me per serving.  That’s when I realized how expensive a lot of it actually is.  Case in point: Iced Green Tea.  I love iced tea, especially green iced tea.  I used to buy about four 33.8 oz. bottles of Trader Joe’s Unsweetened Green Iced Tea per week, preservatives and all, for $1.49 each.  (Don’t get me wrong – this TJ’s tea is pretty good from a health and cost perspective versus most of the competition, but I can do better.)  I typically get about three servings per bottle and I drink at least two servings per day.  So at $0.50 per serving, I was spending $1 per day or $30 per month on green iced tea.

Iced Green Tea

Iced Green Tea

On a trip to 99 Ranch Market, I took a look at the basic green tea in bags like the kind you get at Chinese restaurants.  They had regular green and Jasmine green for $3.29 for 100 bags (I think there was one that was even cheaper).  After tasting a few kinds, I settled on the Jasmine green, which tastes great and I don’t need to use any sweetener.  I brew about one gallon each week (slightly less than the amount in the four bottles per week I used of the TJ’s stuff, which was my weekly addiction) using eight tea bags per gallon.  And I do it directly in the refrigerator so no need for hot water.  (I let it brew overnight and it tastes great.)  The tea bags alone cost about $0.28 per gallon while LA DWP charges me about half a cent for the water.  The water filter on my faucet maybe runs another penny or so per gallon in terms of cartridge costs.  Total Cost: somewhere around $0.30 per gallon for my green tea, or less than $0.03 per serving – versus $0.50 with the premade stuff.  So I turned a $30 per month habit into one that runs less than $2 per month.  And I avoid the preservatives.

Some additional thoughts if you’re going to do this on a regular basis:

  •  Avoid sun-brewed tea.  It can easily harbor bacteria and you really only can store it a day or two.
  • For regular brewed tea, I’ve read it can last in the refrigerator in an airtight container as long as two weeks but more often I read that it lasts 4 – 5 days before turning and starting to taste stale.  Note that this is if the tea is unsweetened.  If it’s sweetened, much shorter, maybe a day or two at the most.  If you put a sprig of fresh mint into the water while it’s brewing, it can last a day or two longer.  And it will also keep longer if you put it in the fridge immediately after making it.  The less time any food spends at room temperature, the better.
  • I actually brew it in the refrigerator thus no hot water.  I brew it overnight.  I’ve read that it can last about 3 – 4 days so I brew about 2/3 of a gallon at a time.
  • Make sure to clean your tea jug or bottle regularly with soap and hot water – or run it through the dishwasher.
  • There are many great ways to flavor or sweeten your tea.  Check out for some great ideas.  But remember, when you sweeten it the shelf life will be shorter.

So try out green iced tea for starters.  It’s really easy.  And check back next week.  It will be even more ambitious.  We’re going to try fermenting.

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The Trouble with Roundup

If you didn’t already have serious doubts about the safety of Roundup, check out this article – Roundup linked to diabetes, autism, obesity, heart disease, cancer and more – from the Mother Nature Network.  And to go directly to the source, check out the study abstract from the journal Entropy.

At some point, this toxic substance needs to be banned.  It’s the most popular herbicide in the world and its residue is found on the most common foods of the Western world, including sugar, corn, soy, sugar and wheat.   The industry asserts it is minimally toxic to humans, but this study finds otherwise. (Surprise surprise.)  Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, inhibits cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes, which play a crucial detoxifying role in human biology, thus enhancing the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins.  The negative impacts work slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.  The consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

This also brings GMOs into the picture.  The most common GMOs in industrial agriculture, corn, soy, sugar and wheat, are all modified primarily to develop resistance to Roundup, thus allowing for mass spraying of Roundup to control weeds without killing the primary crop.

So, not only should we never use Roundup at home in our gardens but we should work even harder to avoid foods produced from GMO crops, which is a heck of a lot of stuff.  Best to buy locally-produced organic produce and non-GMO processed food.  And/or to grow it and make it yourself.

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Tomatoes – The King of the Garden

Tomatoes are the king of the garden – proof that you can produce food that is among the best in the world.  Here is a quick guide to growing great tomatoes in Southern California.

I have been growing my own tomatoes for more than 15 years and have figured out what works best for me.  I live in the San Fernando Valley but what I do is applicable to most of Southern California, which includes Sunset Zones 18 – 23.



More content coming soon.


Finding the right location is critical to growing great tomato plants and maximizing yield.  Tomatoes like the heat and as much sun as possible.  Ideally, tomatoes should be grown in full sun for 8 hours per day.  You can do it with less sun (as little as 5 or 6 hours per day, as I do) and still get good results, but 8+ hours is ideal.

I plant my tomatoes in both raised beds and large containers as I like to have lot of plants each year.  When planning out your garden, keep in mind crop rotation.  Particularly for tomatoes, annual rotation is important to improve yield and minimize the risk of soil-borne diseases.  Ideally you should have a 4-year rotation but in a small backyard garden that can be tough.  Even just having 2 locations and alternating each year can help, which is what I do.


Once you’ve determined that you have a good location, you need to figure out the optimal time to plant.  If you’re sowing from seed, you should start them indoors from January through March (starting approximately 8 weeks before last frost).  You can then transplant your seedlings into your garden from March through June.  If you have a coldframe or greenhouse, start even earlier, in December.

I typically buy plants at the local nursery (4″ containers) and put my first ones in the ground in March and then add more plants approximately every 3 weeks so that my harvest times are well staggered and my severe heat risk is lessened.  For the first plants in March, I typically put clear plastic on the ground for a couple of weeks prior to planting to warm the soil.  I then use Wallo’Water Plant Protectors to create a temporary greenhouse.

Plant Selection

Given our ideal climate in Southern California, there are virtually hundreds of tomato varieties to choose from.  Having experimented with dozens of different tomatoes over the years, I have concluded that I want to use varieties that are very easy to grow and that provide great yields.  Thus, I often pick hybrids like Early Girl, Better Boy, Big Beef, Yellow Pear and Momotaro.  This year I’m trying out Jetsetter, which got a lot of great press in 2012.


Tomatoes should be planted roughly 24″ to 36″ apart depending on the variety.  It’s important to give them space to allow better sun exposure and provide adequate air circulation, which lessens the chance of disease outbreaks.

When you’re ready to put the plants into the ground, dig a hole much deeper than the root ball so you can bury a few inches of the stem.  Roots will develop from that buried part of the stem creating a healthier and higher yielding plant.  After your plants are in the ground you should stake them or use tomato cages.


Tomato fruit is 95 percent water and they need a lot of water to develop.  Tomatoes should be watered every 5 – 7 days.  Watering should be deep, soaking the root ball.  As you start seeing fruit on your plants, you should water less frequently so that you don’t dilute the flavor.  If you’re growing in containers, you will need to water more often, even daily when it’s extremely hot.

With regard to fertilizer, make sure you’ve properly amended the soil before planting.  Once the plants are developing flowers you can fertilize once again.  And don’t forget to pinch off the suckers.  They steal away nutrients from the plant and don’t produce any fruit.


There are various pests, diseases and environmental disorders that can hurt your tomatoes.  I have been fairly lucky over the years, having few problems with the exception of the occasional cutworm or mold.  One of the best resources I’ve found for identifying and treating tomato problems is the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program.  Check it out at UCIPM Online.


For the best flavor let the fruit ripen fully on the vine.  They should be full size and have deep color and be slightly soft.  Hopefully you’ve planted multiple plants over several weeks so that you can get continuous fruit throughout the summer.

Eating and Processing

Tomatoes fresh off the vine are a real treat.  When eating tomatoes uncooked, pick them as close as possible to the time you’ll be eating them.  It’s best not to refrigerate as a cold tomato has less flavor.  Another flavor tip: the seeds and jelly have more flavor than the meat or skin.  So I never remove those when eating or making things like gazpacho.

More info on processing and preserving coming soon.

Additional Resources

Here are some of our favorite web resources for growing tomatoes.

Steve Goto, the Tomato King, is an expert nurseryman and lecturer based in southern California. He uses organic gardening practices to grow over a 900 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables.  Check out his site:

Tomatomania! is a must-have guide to hundreds of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes as well as a huge community of enthusiastic fellow tomato lovers and the world’s largest (and most fun) tomato seedling sale!

Organic Gardening has always been a great reference.  Here are their 10 Tips.

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What Should I Eat?

So what should I eat?

Recommending a specific diet is very challenging given how different we all are.  Instead of making a lot of specific recommendations, we think it’s best to follow some basic guidelines that are easy to remember and practice in real life.  Here are two basic models that should be considered.  We’re convinced the best options lie somewhere in the space between them.  Also note that we believe the best course for you is unique to you, your history and your environment.

1. Michael Pollan through three books has identified three top-level rules which we champion:

  1. Eat Food – real food, not processed, what grandma would recognize
  2. Mostly Plants – meat is a side dish, and nothing is better than lots of leafy dark greens
  3. Not too much – more was better for most of our history, but not any longer

Here is a more detailed version of Michael Pollan’s, narrowed down to 10 Rules You Should Follow.  For the most complete guide to Michael Pollan’s theory, check out his books Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual and  In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

2. Another excellent model was developed by Joel Fuhrman and is described in his book Eat to Live.  Fuhrman is a doctor who gets the hard cases, and when everyone starts using the term morbid to describe one’s obesity, it really is a matter of life or death.  He addresses the psychological/motivational issues around eating by opening each chapter with a compelling case study.   He looks at food based on nutrients and fiber per calorie, not per serving or by weight.  He believes that we should choose foods based on their nutrient density.  In a nutshell, he encourages us to eliminate grains, starchy vegetables, meat and dairy and to choose lots of veggies and some fruits.

We would also note: Although we would generally recommend eating organic, when price is an issue and conventionally grown food needs to be incorporated, there are certain foods that are more important to get organic than others from a health perspective.   Here is Dr. Weil’s  list of foods that you want organically grown. and there is a link to the healthy 15.  Also, we would encourage you to purchase organic eggs, meat, peanut butter, baby food, cereal, and milk (and we prefer raw).