Epigenetics and The Garden Diet

Kale, cilantro, sharp cheese, apple, pumpkin seeds and tart dried cherries, oh my

Holiday Greens On The Plate

For me, the phrase ‘gathering holiday greens’ always meant harvesting fir and pine, sequoia and cedar, as well as lots of garden gleanings to weave into wreaths and swags. After facilitating a recent program about epigenetics and diet, my December green gathering now includes raw ingredients for a daily dose of leafy greens. The study of epigenetics has been around for a while, but it’s been in the news lately as research on the benefits of dietary improvements accumulates. In extremely basic terms, epigenetics is the study of the way genes get expressed in humans when influenced by various behavioral and environmental factors (the genes themselves aren’t changed but the way they function can be).

That’s kind of a bad-news-good-news idea, since it makes it clear that some of our daily choices may underlie mental health symptoms/effects such as depression and anxiety. Since my family shares the genetic predisposition for both, I’m interested in anything I can do to help me keep my emotional and mental balance in these troubling times. While it’s challenging to do much about factors like our exposure to wildfire smoke and various kinds of pollution, we do have control over some important factors, notably what we choose to eat and how much we are able to exercise. That’s part of the good news, since the unhelpful gene expression effects are reversible, sometimes fairly quickly, when we change our habits and behaviors to more beneficial ones. That daily walk turns out to be a biggie, but even getting outside to breathe fresh air and have a change of scene can be helpful.

Getting Greens Back On The Plate

While I always assumed my daily diet was pretty healthy, listening to that epigenetics program inspired me to re-examine it. The presenter was an RN who’s been working with patients for years, helping them recraft their daily diets to promote mental and physical health. That’s especially valuable as many of us slip easily into poor eating habits, especially during the holidays. Over the pandemic, many of us began eating what used to be occasional comfort foods on a more regular basis. While supply chain issues made some healthy ingredients hard to find, inexpensive, low quality junk food was mysteriously still in great supply and somehow more tempting than usual. I was shocked to recognize that over the hot, dry summer, when my garden was less productive and more disease prone, my diet shifted away from fresh produce.

Want to watch this fascinating program on how our lives can be altered by epigenetics (the way gene expression can be modified by food and other factors)? Here’s the link:

I’m not alone in this: a recent USDA study found that the average American eats only three vegetables on a regular basis: potatoes, tomatoes, and lettuce, and mostly in the form of French fries and ketchup, with lettuce represented in tiny side salads or tucked in a sandwich. Kids’ lunches may still include carrots and cucumbers, and family dinners may offer broccoli, corn and peas, as well as very simple salads, but a lot of people don’t really cook anymore. The good news is that takeout from local food trucks or restaurants may well include onions, garlic, and sweet peppers, as well as beans, all considered ‘super foods’ for their beneficial phytonutrients. Even the ketchup isn’t all bad; after a couple minutes of heat, tomatoes start losing Vitamin C but double down on cancer-fighting lycopene, reaching over 160% more in half an hour of simmering.

Love Those Leaves

Happily for me, a key ingredient in the epigenetic-adjusting healthy diet is the cole family, especially leafy greens. I tend to eat raw salads in warm weather and lean into cooked vegetables in cool seasons, roasting everything from kale and Brussels sprouts to squash and chunks of red cabbage. Any leftovers can be added to soups or casseroles, used as omelet filling, or added to fresh salads for contrast. Contrast is the key to a truly delicious salad, along with a dressing that sets off other flavors rather than drowning them. A good mix of tender and crunchy ingredients make a good base for all kinds of additions that give those daily greens a different twist.

After a recent birthday party, I was left with a huge bowlful of dressed salad that remained delicious for several days. I stored 4 cups in each of 4 containers and the salad still tasted amazingly good every day. One reason was the lack of limper lettuces and spinach, which tend to get soggy and slimy once dressed. Another reason was the dressing my son makes, which includes fruity vinegar (nectarine-vanilla bean this time) and a splash of maple syrup. Ever since, I’ve been enjoying a delicious base salad mix, boosting it with additions like fresh fruit, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, and fresh herbs for variety. Washed and spun, bagged and tucked in the crisper drawer, a big batch of base salad stays fresh for up to a week, so it’s easy to pull out a bowlful and gussy it up.

Bases Loaded

The fresh apple bits in that birthday also held or even improved their quality over several days, but seeds and nuts tend to lose their crispness once exposed to dressing and are best added at meal time. Other pleasant additions include tuna or smoked salmon, or really any meaty leftovers you might have on hand (teriyaki chicken is a fantastic addition). Sharp cheese and roasted squash add warmth and depth, while a little leftover cranberry-orange sauce adds a refreshing zip. In just a few weeks, these hearty salads leave me feeling more energetic, more positive and less fuzzy headed, which makes me crave salad over sweets (I know, I’m amazed too).

Leafy Greens Base Salad

1 bunch Scots or any curly/frilly kale
1 bunch Black Tuscan kale
1 bunch cilantro, stemmed

Tear the kale in pieces, rinse, spin dry and toss with the cilantro (if you like it). Stored in a bag, this keeps up to 5 days or longer.



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A Different Way To Celebrate

Redwall mousefest in action

Creating An Alternative Holiday

My grandkids are very fond of a book series called Redwall, in which heroic mice protect their land from various threats while eating an enormous amount of delicious food. As the characters are all mostly rather small critters, their food is entirely ovo-lacto vegetarian (and very heavy on the whipped cream). While they’re still steeped in the lore of the series, we decided to turn thanksgiving into a Redwall Feast. The kids have a Redwall cookbook and spent a long time going over the various recipes and voting for their favorites. After much debate, they settled on a bean and vegetable soup, a potato casserole, spiced cider and mint tea, and 16 desserts.

They also made simple costumes, including mouse ears for everyone, and face paint. A cardboard tube became a shining silver sword (thanks to plenty of duct tape) for Martin and finger knitting provided the special Gull Whacker used by Mariel, both heroic warrior mice featured in many stories. We even found some special Redwall music and songs, jaunty English neo-folksongs that made an appropriate soundtrack for the feast. We managed to hone the mighty dessert list down to a fabulous few, including Cherry Pudding and Banana Oatmeal Cake with (of course) whipped cream. My grandson carefully made a batch of his special not-too-sweet whipped cream with mascarpone which made the feast special indeed. (Recipe below if you want to give it a try.)

Thankfulness and Gratitude

Though we haven’t celebrated thanksgiving traditionally for quite a while, we do make it a day of gratitude as well as atonement. Over the years, so many voices have raised prickly points about the appropriateness of creating a national holiday around the displacement and genocide of indigenous people by white colonizers that it’s impossible to carry on in the same way. One way we can atone is by starting our gatherings with a land acknowledgement, stating (in our case) that the land we are living on is the ancestral home of the Suquamish people. This helps both adults and children realize that Island history, like national history (and ok, really ALL history) is complicated and often uncomfortable. That said, something I’m very grateful for are the lessons in deep hospitality and loving kindness demonstrated by the Suquamish Tribe, Bainbridge Island’s nearest neighbors.

Sadly, Bainbridge Islanders have not always been particularly respectful or interested in building a positive relationship with the Tribe. In recent years, as a nearby town has made very serious missteps, gravely damaging their own Tribal relationship, many Islanders are realizing that it’s past time to work for better understanding ourselves. One thing that eases the process is the fact that generosity and hospitality are deep traditional values in the Suquamish culture. Given all that’s happened, long ago and into the present days, the Tribe is an amazingly generous neighbor, sharing knowledge and skills with students and visitors as well as donating significantly to many local nonprofits that feed the hungry and house the homeless.

Meeting Trouble With Integrity

Instead of reacting to thoughtless acts and insensitive comments with well deserved anger, Tribal elders demonstrate the kind of moral strength Dr. Martin Luther King lived into. They certainly feel the anger, but rather than responding in kind, strong Tribal traditions help shape thoughtful, reasoned responses that are both impressive and far more effective. Having just experienced a very difficult event that felt like a personal attack on a group of us who have been working very hard for years on a complex and difficult project, my own first response was shock, outrage and pure anger. It’s taken me a week to realize that the act wasn’t really personal for most participants, anyway, many of whom were as shocked as I was at the way things played out.

It’s very easy to take difficult situations personally and quite challenging to step back and use the time and space to do some breathing and some pondering. Both those tools create a change of perspective, letting me think more deeply about who and how I want to be, in myself, in the community and the world. As I cooled down over the next few days, I realized that if I truly believe all voices should be welcome at the discussion table, then I should work on responding thoughtfully rather than reacting in anger (as I admit I initially wanted to). So that’s what I’m doing, and it’s very clear that being thoughtful feels both emotionally and physically so much healthier than being furious. Onward, right?

Mighty Mice Make Great Whipped Cream

When any situation needs to be sweetened, a little cream and maple syrup can be soothing indeed. Here’s my grandson’s special recipe, give it a try and let me know what you think!

Whipped Cream With Mascarpone & Maple

2 cups heavy cream
4 ounces Mascarpone cheese
2-3 Tablespoons maple syrup
1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract

With an immersion blender or electric mixer, whip cream to soft peaks, then add mascarpone and whip to stiffer peaks. Add maple syrup and vanilla to taste and spoon liberally over any dessert you may have on hand. Serves at least one.

Granny Mouse loves her big ears




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Making The Most Of Quince

Golden quince shimmer in late autumn sun

From Funky To Fabulous

Lumpy, rock hard, and fiercely tart when raw, quince is an uncommon backyard fruit these days. However, cooking works magic on this unassuming fruit, which was once the ‘golden apple’ of lore and myth. Native from Greece to Persia, quince has many varieties, some ancient, some developed more recently as it made its way across the then-New World. Edible quince trees and shrubs have generally small flowers and hefty fruit, while decorative flowering quince have showy, fragrant flowers and small fruit that are generally held to be inedible.

My Ukrainian neighbor has a lovely small tree that was bending under a huge crop of fruit this year. When I passed by recently, the oldest son was up a ladder, handing down fat golden fruit to his mother, who carefully chose some perfect specimens for me. I was delighted, as there are several favorite quince dishes that add a piquant note to holiday meals. Quince jam or jelly is equally delicious on toast or mixed into soft goat cheese and served with salmon or poultry. Sliceable quince paste, aka membrillo, is a traditional partner for sharp aged cheeses but also makes an intriguing filling for chocolate cake or truffles. My grandkids call little membrillo cubes ‘quince gummies’ and they like to stir quince jam into vanilla pudding, which they just learned how to make in time for the holidays. Speaking of which, may your holidays be peaceful and restorative, as I hope ours will be(!).

Ukrainian Quince Dessert

My neighbor makes a simple and subtly sweet traditional dessert from ripe quince that’s a lovely way to savor this unusual fruit. She says, “Wash quince and cut in half, remove the core and dice the fruit. Put in a saucepan with a little water (as if making applesauce). Cook over medium low heat until the cubes soften and expand. Serve warm with some sour cream mixed with honey.”

Jammin’ With Quince

Though quince fruit is cream colored, when cooked, it turns rosy. One of my favorite food writers, Harold McGee, explains that heat changes the tannins that make raw quince so astringent, and as they break down, they release anthocyanins, which range from the red of cabbage to the blue of blueberries. If quince is peeled, the jam will be pinker, but if unpeeled (the Ukrainian way), the result will be more of an autumnal golden color.

We like this chunky jam on rosemary sourdough toast

Rustic Quince Jam

Start by peeling (optional), coring, and chopping the fruit. For a less rustic effect, grate the fruit (it will also cook more quickly).

3 cups water
4 cups chopped or grated quince
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
3 cups cane sugar

Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add fruit, lemon juice, and rind (if using), return to a boil and simmer until tender (10-15 minutes depending on size of pieces). Add sugar, stir until dissolved, then reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and turns rosy. If need be, add a little more boiling water and continue simmering until jam is thick and pink. When a spoonful put in a saucer gels quickly, pour the jam into 4 prepared 8-ounce jars, seal and process in a boiling water bath. Makes about 4 cups.

Membrillo (Quince Paste)

Thick, sweet quince paste is prized throughout South and Central America and much of Europe. Again, peeling the quince makes for a rosier paste, while leaving the peels on usually results in a caramel color.


Avocado or any vegetable oil
2 pounds (about 6 cups) washed, 
and chopped quince
1 cup water
3-1/2 cups cane sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Lightly oil a glass baking dish (8×8 or 9×9 inch), set aside. Combine fruit in a large sauce pan with the water, sugar, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. The mixture will turn golden, then rosier as it simmers. When it reaches 220 degrees F, pour a spoonful into a saucer and let it cool; if the mixture sets a bit, it’s done. If not, keep simmering until it gels on the plate. Remove from heat, let it cool a little, then puree with an immersion blender or food processor and pour into the oiled pan. Smooth the top with a soft spatula and cool to room temperature. Cover tightly and chill in refrigerator for a few days until fully set and firm. Run a knife around the edges and flip the paste onto a clean cutting surface. Cut in squares, wrap each piece tightly, and refrigerate for 2-3 months or freeze for 6-12 months.


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Serving The Planet With Plants

Even tiny gardens honor and serve the earth

So Many Ways To Serve

On Friday I facilitated a fascinating and troubling conversation with a group of service veterans, a few still active, most long-retired. They shared stories about some of the hidden costs of service, from not being around to raise your own kids to returning from active duty in Viet Nam to be harassed and jeered at by civilians. One main theme that ran through the stories was the deep bond they share to this day, recognizing each other as brothers and sisters no matter when or where they served. The word camaraderie was mentioned many times and was obvious in the respectful, affectionate way they listened to each other and encouraged each person to speak.

That bond of sibling-hood seems beautiful to me, as does the kindness every participant displayed towards the others. However, there were also comments expressing the idea that people who don’t participate in military service don’t appreciate their freedom and “don’t know who paid for it.” It didn’t really need that to make very aware of my own complex feelings about the many ways we may be protectors of freedoms of many kinds. During the Viet Nam years, I was an active war protestor and though I certainly never felt or expressed animosity towards anyone who served our country (or any country), I did and do feel strongly that far too many wars are less about righteousness than about political power and corporate interests. I also have strong feelings about the nature of service, and what we may choose to be in service towards. Personally, I want my life to serve not just family and country but the planet and all its myriad, marvelous beings.

Building Powerful Connections

In my lifetime, that tension between those who fought and those who did not has echoed and reverberated through the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, Black power, gay pride and more. All those powerful social justice energies provoked shifts in awareness that are still changing the world, but always so slowly and painfully. I’ve been thinking all weekend about the intense bonding those veterans share, and how sadly rare that camaraderie has been in the various social justice movements I’ve participated in. There were certainly moments of feeling part of something larger than ourselves during peaceful marches and protests, yet perhaps because many people were serving different visions, the unity seemed fleeting.

Several veterans suggested that our society would benefit from a mandatory year or two of basic training or community service at age 18. I don’t know how much the psychology of military training contributes to that deep bonding the veterans share, but I suspect the deliberate breaking down of old patterns and habits that basic training involves may be a factor. When people are ‘trained’ out of old patterns into new ones, they end up with shared common goals and earn healing respect for their new skills. A similar sense of connection often exists among young people voluntarily offering a year or two of community service in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps or similar groups, again perhaps because of being shaken out of familiar patterns and developing common goals.

Planting Joy For The Planet

For most of my life, I’ve followed the Quaker tradition, and consider both praying for peace and being a social justice activist to be forms of service as valuable as anything involving weapons and destruction of life. As a gardener, I find myself praying for planetary peace that includes the planet, the plants and animals, and the habitats they depend on. In one of my favorite books, a post apocalyptic culture has arisen in which people choose to become Sisters To Trees, replanting places destroyed in destructive battles. I fondly imagine myself to be a Sister To Plants, encouraging people with concerns about climate change to become proactive planters.

Quite often people dismiss such ideas as simplistic and ineffectual, yet proactive planting is far from a bromide. Recent research shows that adding as little as a quarter inch of compost to bare earth or poor soil triggers carbon drawdown almost immediately. Every little backyard pollinator patch may be habitat for a surprising number of tiny creatures, each with important roles to play in local ecology. In my little neighborhood of mostly small, elderly mobile homes, pocket hanky sized gardens support hundreds of living creatures, while a bigger, monocultural lawn can’t support much of anything. When tempted to give in to fear and despair, let’s plant pollinator patches, plant trees, spread some compost. Equally important, let’s teach others to do the same things and find joy in them.



Posted in Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Climate Change, composting, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Plant Diversity, Plant Partnerships, Pollination Gardens, Social Justice, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening | Tagged , , | 7 Comments