On Earth Day I had the opportunity to visit and volunteer at the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture in Atlanta, Georgia. The center has three goals: (1) producing natural food, (2) educating others on how to grow food, and (3) creating a welcoming space where people can gather and find harmony with the earth. I realized how important the educational aspect truly was as my team of volunteers struggled to identify weeds among the crops and pest insects versus harmless ones! Familiarity with gardening and tending flowers and houseplants has taught me more about plant identification than I initially thought. My knowledge of local plants has grown through my mushroom-hunting and wetland adventures as well, but there is still much more to learn.
Chives and onions look very similar, with long, round green stalks which match their grocery-store appearance admired by those of us with a penchant for savory foods. Chives are immediately recognizable by their purple, garlic-scented flowers, whereas onions are typically flowerless and a little thicker towards the base. A surprising guest on the chives were little black aphids which nearly crawled up my nose when I decided to take a whiff of the flower before looking close! I was thrilled to see these bugs up close because I have met scientists who study these fascinating matriarchal critters. In springtime, the aphids found on chives are usually all female because aphids are able to perform parthenogenesis, or asexual reproduction. These female aphids would be genetically identical to their mothers, but will also have a lower level of genetic diversity as a group, potentially rendering them more susceptible to wipeout by disease.
Though the presence of aphids was overwhelming on the chives, I’m unsure of their impact on the crops. The chives appeared to be thriving, blossoming and pointing straight up towards the sky. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, aphids typically cause little or no damage to the health of plants. Aphid feeding becomes problematic if there are twisted and curled leaves, yellowed leaves, stunted or dead shoots, and poor plant growth. Competition with other insects, such as ladybugs, can help control aphid populations. I definitely noticed a variety of other insects, and birds, in the garden.
It is important to know what edible plants look like for the purpose of survival (and usefulness at volunteer gardening events) but it is also important to know what they taste like! One of our tasks was cutting flower stalks off of overgrown collard greens. As the plant dedicates more resources to growing the not-so-tasty stalks, less nutrients are dedicated to the tasty plant below. The key is to maintain the nutritional value of the plant and prevent it from becoming even more sour than it typically is. Cooking them thoroughly with lemon juice and ham will counteract those flavors for a healthy and savory dish.
I was easily able to identify mint, as it smells wonderful, grows in large patches, and has hairy leaves. However, there were weeds which looked very similar to mint growing individually near the onions. It’s very important to know what your crops will look like as seedlings in order to protect them and yourself from weeds or potentially poisonous plants! One mysterious vegetable I stumbled upon was rutabaga, which I have neither planted, nor cooked, nor eaten in my entire life. I also found some mushrooms, which I struggled to identify due to my dashed dreams of being a mushroom hunter.
How was your Earth Day 2022? Share in the comments below!