Centering vegetables

In the days after Thanksgiving, I was casting around for something to write about in this blog post, when my husband surprised me at dinner with this masterpiece:

(From a Washington Post recipe; he used pine nuts instead of almonds because that’s what we had.) 

So I began to think about the idea of vegetables as centerpieces for the table. We are not vegetarians and this meal did include meat, but it was off to the side, not the focus of attention. Now, anyone who reads my posts here knows I love growing, cooking, and eating vegetables. When I go out to a restaurant, the kind where vegetables aren’t “sides” but a part of a constructed meal, I generally read the menu descriptions backwards and often choose the entree I’m ordering based on the vegetable accompaniment, deciding that I’m in the mood for parsnip puree or butternut squash risotto and that delicious-sounding salsa, and only afterwards acknowledging that the meat it comes with is just fine. (I’m also a sucker for unusual produce; I once ordered a meal at a restaurant in Oregon that was… probably fish? I don’t recall, but what sticks with me is asking the waiter what sea beans were, and when he was unsure, placing the order anyway and then pulling out my phone to search. They were great; can’t grow them here, alas, because they require a salty environment.)

But the point of those restaurant meals, and most of the ones we eat at home, is that the meat is in the middle. Even many vegetarian meals center a protein element that explicitly substitutes for meat, from plant-based burgers to Thanksgiving Tofurky. Many meals don’t, of course; pasta, pizza, and stir-fries are a few of many examples that combine elements from different food groups. But don’t we tend to describe them in terms of the protein, unless they’re a side dish themselves? How often do we talk about, yum, that dish I made with Chinese broccoli and those wonderful little peppers, oh and by the way I also put in chicken?

I think this is very much a cultural thing, and this is not the place to try tracing it through American history and sociology and noting the influences of and changes in various immigrant communities. I also don’t have the expertise to tell you exactly how much protein you need in your diet based on what food choices you make, and where you can find that protein. I do know, however, that it’s possible to eat healthily while thinking of meals in the way we’ve come to consider inside-out, that is with the vegetables first. This doesn’t have to involve spectacular centerpieces that take hours to cook; the pumpkin stuffed with onion, apple, fennel and cornbread, with maybe a little bacon for fun, can be relegated to the big holiday meal. But vegetables can at least be first in our meal planning part of the time. Maybe even all of the time.

Tamar Haspel, who writes for the Washington Post about larger perspectives having to do with diet, had a recent article about which plant foods are most and least impactful on our climate. (All plant foods are usually better climate choices than meat.) She concluded that fruit, nuts, and row crops such as grains and beans are better in an environmental sense than vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, and tomatoes, because the latter use more fertilizer and pesticides, go bad quicker and so contribute more to food waste, and provide fewer calories per acre. What this doesn’t account for, of course, is growing your own. Your home-grown veggies have zero crop transportation costs, and you will likely be using a lot less in the way of inputs. So I think you can eliminate climate guilt from the equation if you plant a garden. (Buying locally-grown produce would be the next best option.)

What are the best crops to grow if you’re trying to center vegetables on your table? Anything you like and will eat, basically, but if you’re going for the big centerpiece, think about squash or peppers that can be stuffed, beefsteak tomatoes (especially colorful heirloom types), or indeed cauliflower, though you’ll have to keep up with the fertilizer and water to achieve big, fully-formed heads, especially for a spring crop. Also think about ingredients you’d like to add to savory pies, galettes, or other pastries, or quiches and frittatas, or casseroles. Greens make a great base for many other dishes, or can star on their own mixed in with pasta or grains. And there’s always a big salad filled with lettuce, arugula, herbs, cucumbers, etc. – oh, and maybe some meat or fish too.

I’m still trying to shift my thinking from saying, when making meal plans, “We’ll have pork chops and…” “We’ll have macaroni and cheese and…” to a vegetable-centered focus. Here is a big lovely winter squash, I might think—what meat goes with that? Or maybe cheese and nuts? Can they go inside? Those Yellow Cabbage Collards I grew and put in the freezer: great with a little ham and a high-protein grain. I mean, sometimes we’ll just want a steak and potatoes with the greens on the side, but it’s worth doing the vegetable mind trick several days a week. And when there’s a little leftover steak, it might add something to a stir-fry of broccoli and beans.

If you’re looking for recipes, either search online for the vegetable you want to feature and “main dish,” or use a cookbook, vegetarian or not, that makes vegetables or vegetable families one of its primary organizing principles. And when you’re browsing the seed catalogs that are starting to arrive, consider what you might like to grow next year that will feature as the center of your table.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

Food waste reduction: It’s everyone’s job!

Our society wastes food at every point in the food chain from farms and gardens to home kitchens, restaurants, supermarkets, food service companies, and large institutions like universities that feed  thousands of people daily. Last December I was astonished to lean about the extent of food waste at the MD Food Recovery Summit organized by the Maryland Department of the Environment. 

Surplus food is the term used to describe unsold and unused food, like crops that don’t go to market because prices are too low, perishable items tossed into supermarket dumpsters, and groceries and restaurant meals bought and not eaten. 

In 2019:

  • 35% of all U.S. food went unsold or unused 
  • 23% of all surplus food is fruits and vegetables 
  • Only 15% of Maryland’s 900K+ tons of food waste was recycled 

Why it’s a problem:

  • Huge economic and environmental costs of producing surplus food
  • 1 in 6 U.S. residents are food insecure. Surplus food can feed hungry people
  • Surplus food is the #1 landfill material (24% of landfill space) 
  • Food waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can trap 28X as much heat/mass unit as CO2
  • The value of wasted food at the consumer level is $161 billion/year
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Cover crops for climate-resilient soil: Try it, you might like it

Cover crops are so important for improving soil and protecting the environment that it’s public policy in Maryland to use federal funding to subsidize farmers to plant them. Nearly ½ a million acres across the state are enrolled in Maryland’s Cover Crop Program. Cover crops protect Maryland’s farm fields from soil loss over the winter and scavenge the soil for the fertilizer nutrients that weren’t used by corn and soybean crops and might have moved into groundwater and surface water. 

Cover crops are typically planted from late August through October and include grasses like winter rye, winter wheat, barley, and oats and legumes like crimson clover and hairy vetch. Plants in the legume family, together with special soil bacteria, transform nitrogen from air into a plant-available form. Tillage radish (a type of daikon radish) and other plants are also grown as cover crops. 

Cover crops improve soil health and help make soils more resilient to the climate crisis. They

  • increase soil organic matter and carbon sequestration by feeding soil microbes with sugars and other root exudates 
  • improve soil structure and the strength of soil aggregates which lowers erosion risks
  • increase water holding capacity which allows crops to withstand drought better   

Cover crops use the sun’s energy (when food crops aren’t growing) to produce biomass- roots, shoots, and leaves. The cover crops are killed in the spring. Nutrients in the decomposing plants are eventually available for uptake by the roots of the vegetables and flowers we plant. This reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, whose production requires fossil fuels.

What’s good for ag soils is also good for garden soils! 2022 is the Year of Soil Health for Grow It Eat It, the food gardening program of the UME Master Gardener program. This infographic by Jean Burchfield introduces the idea of planting cover crops, a key practice in building healthy soils: 

Infographic about cover crops

Photo of seed packets
UME Master Gardeners distributed 5,000 crimson clover seed packets for residents to plant in flower and vegetable beds this fall.
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Diggin’ into plant-based diets

As gardeners, one of the many actions we can do at home to mitigate climate change is to grow and eat some of our own fresh produce. Meat and dairy products account for an estimated 14-16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Having a home or community garden gives you access to nutritious foods that can be part of a more plant-based diet — one that’s healthy for you, and the planet! Today’s guest post on this topic is from University of Maryland Extension Family & Consumer Sciences Agent Beverly A. Jackey.


Following a plant-based diet is very trendy these days. Whether it’s an environmental reason (reduce your carbon footprint) or a health goal (decrease the risk of some chronic diseases), many people, including myself are consciously reducing their consumption of animal products.

What does it mean to follow a plant-based diet? That really depends. Some interpret it as being a vegan or vegetarian. Others view a plant-based diet as being broader, including more plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, and also fewer animal foods, like meat, fish, and dairy. It’s not necessary to give up all the animal foods you enjoy; however, you can consider decreasing the portion sizes so these foods are no longer the main attraction on your plate. 

Ever since attending a 2019 nutrition conference, I’ve been inspired to consume more plant-based foods. It’s unlikely I will give up my glass of cold, fat-free milk in the evening (with one cookie); however, I do consume at least three meatless meals per week, eat smaller portions of chicken, fish, and lean beef and pork, and I load up half of my plate with vegetables (see my grilled vegetable recipe). This summer, my deck garden provided enough delicious red tomatoes to enjoy almost every day on salads. Since making these changes, I’ve maintained a healthy weight and blood pressure and feel good about doing something for Mother Earth. 

Are you ready to ‘dig in’ and adopt a more plant-based diet? Here are some tips that helped me get started.

  1. Go meatless one day a week. Beans, lentils, and nuts are great sources of plant proteins and add fiber to your diet, which makes you feel full. Instead of adding meat to my pasta, I toss it with grilled vegetables. If you like chili, peruse recipe websites for a bean-based chili that appeals to your taste buds.

  2. Combine vegetable proteins. Quinoa is a perfect protein, meaning it contains the 9 essential amino acids your body needs daily. You can also combine other plant foods to get that perfect protein. Some of my favorite combos are black beans and rice, chickpeas and pasta, and whole wheat bread and peanut butter (with some jelly).

  3. Re-think your meat portions. You can still have meat at your meals, but in smaller amounts, like 3 cooked ounces (the size and thickness of a deck of cards). Many meals like soups (winter) and salads (summer) are full of vegetables and whole grains, but I add a small piece of protein, like a leftover grilled and shredded chicken breast or a few slices of pork tenderloin.

Try this recipe for Easy Grilled Vegetables!

Selection of vegetables:

  • Red, yellow, or green peppers – cut in half and seeded
  • Yellow and green squash – sliced length-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Eggplant – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Mushrooms – whole cleaned
  • Onion – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick

Additional ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons, minced garlic
  • Fresh chopped or dried herb (parsley, thyme, basil, etc.) for garnish

Instructions:

1. Mix oil, salt, pepper, vinegar, and garlic together.

2. Arrange vegetables on the grill or in a grill pan (medium heat). Note: depending on the size of your pan you may need to work in batches.

3. Grill vegetables for 6-8 minutes, brushing with oil, and vinegar mixture.

4. Remove vegetables from the grill or grill pan and place them on a platter. Drizzle the remaining oil and vinegar mixture on the vegetables. Sprinkle herbs over vegetables and serve.

By Beverly A. Jackey MS, RDN, LDN, Agent, Family & Consumer Sciences, University of Maryland Extension (UME). This article was published originally on the UME Breathing Room blog, which covers topics on health, wellness, nutrition, and financial management.

How to adapt your garden to climate change

The news is filled with references to global warming and climate change. In fact, 99% of scientists agree that climate change is real with negative impacts on the environment, weather, human health, and agriculture. In Maryland, climate change is already causing higher average temperatures, more drought, longer heat waves, more intense storms, and flooding. 

So what can we do as gardeners to help the cause and help our gardens adapt to these changes?

Adopt sustainable practices. Environmentally smart practices build climate-resilient gardens and can slow future warming by reducing emissions and boosting carbon in soil and plants. Here are a few ways to get started:

Plant more trees

Trees filter air and water and are carbon sinks, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas. When placed well, trees can save up to 30 percent on heating and cooling costs.  

  • Plant deciduous trees on the west, east or southwest side of your home to block summer sun then let it in to warm your home in winter. Site evergreens to the northwest to buffer winter winds. 
  • Lean toward native trees. They’re well-adapted and need less water and fertilizer, the manufacture of which can contribute to greenhouse gases.  

Add or nurture native plants

Don’t stop with trees. Native shrubs, perennials, grasses, and groundcovers also help build a climate-resilient landscape. Native plants, once established, require less water and fertilizer, help store carbon, and reduce soil erosion. Since they co-evolved, native plants best support native pollinators and beneficial insects which provide chemical-free pest control. 

HGIC Website: Native Plants and Climate Change

Keep it diverse

Plant diversity also boosts resistance to pests and disease, so add many different types of plants to your gardens. Yes, more is better. 

Save the soil

Washington County Master Gardener Gary Stallings turns compost, a tool in building soil health and climate resilience

Great gardens grow from the ground up. So protect and improve your soil which stores massive amounts of carbon as carbon dioxide and organic matter.  

  • Keep soil covered since bare soil invites problems. Soil covered with plants, mulch, or cover crops best stores carbon, resists erosion, holds moisture, and has more even temperatures. 
  • Minimize soil disturbance from digging and tilling which speeds up the loss of organic matter and disturbs the soil community.  
  • Recycle nutrients by making and using compost. Compost adds organic matter, helps soil hold water and nutrients, and reduces the need for fertilizers. 

HGIC Website: Improve Soil Health for a Climate-Resilient Garden

Water wisely

  • Save water to make your garden more climate-resilient. Use a rain barrel or create a rain garden to capture and filter rainwater.  
  • Water when plants need it, not on a fixed schedule. And plant in the spring or fall when plants need less water to become established.

A few more tips:

  • Limit the emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases. Use gas-powered mowers, trimmers, and other equipment less and opt for alternatives. 
  • Shrink your lawn and replace it with groundcovers and other alternatives which need less water, mowing, herbicides, and fertilizer. When you do fertilize, do it based on a soil test to use only what you need. 
  • Help more by growing some of your own food or supporting local growers to cut down on emissions from long-distance transportation. 

You can make your garden more climate-resilient. Start with a few steps and build on them to help your garden successfully adapt to climate change.   

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Maryland gardeners are adapting to climate change

How are Maryland gardeners adapting their gardens and green spaces to climate change? We posed this question to our colleagues in the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and several of them shared examples of everything from composting and food gardening to planting trees and native plants, installing rain gardens, and more.

Action on climate change is needed on a large scale, and our individual actions at home and in our communities all add up too. Check out our Story Map showcasing the variety of ways Marylanders are adapting their green spaces with climate change and sustainability in mind. Then take our quick poll at the end of the Story Map and let us know: Are you doing climate-resilient gardening?

Screen shot of the climate-resilient gardening story map

View the Story Map

Learn more:

By Christa K. Carignan, Coordinator, Digital Horticulture Education, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Read more posts by Christa.

Climate Change and Sea Level Rise with Dr. Kate McClure – The Garden Thyme Podcast

Listen to the podcast

In this month’s episode, we are speaking all about Climate Change and Sea Level Rise with Dr. Kate McClure from the University of Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program. We talk about the effects of climate change that we are seeing right now and what sea level rise looks like.

Dr. McClure also gives us some online prediction tools to help us better plan our landscape for the future. 

We also have our: 

  •  Native Plant of the Month – Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)
  • Bug of the Month – Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton)
  • Garden Tips of the Month

If you have any garden-related questions, please email us at UMEGardenPodcast@gmail.com or look us up on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GardenThymePodcas. For more information about UME and these topics, please check out the UME Home and Garden Information Center and Maryland Grows Blog at https://marylandgrows.umd.edu/. 

 The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Theme Song: By Jason Inc

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