From The Earth
To Your Table
By Phenomgirl / April 13, 2018
Kenyan born Magaret Gathunguri is not afraid to get dirty. Margaret sinks her hands into the earth, massages and preps the soil for sowing to perform the tedious task of planting seedlings in pots and landscaping flower beds. With dedicated patience, Margaret nurtures the growing buds with a simple watering can, more often she uses a hose attached to her favorite spray nozzle or she timely plants just in time for the clouds in the sky to burst open with rain. Over time the results from her labor of love are spectacular fresh organic herbs, fruits, beans and gigantic leafy green vegetables in massive abundance. Margaret distributes some of her reaped crops to friends and family. The rest of the picked harvest that's left over, Margaret prepares, cooks and serves delicious mouth-watering, healthy and eye-catching (as seen from her IG account Rock_Your_Unique) meals to her immediate family.
We spoke via Face Time. Always smiling, the 27 year old pretty-faced young lady with her long dreadlocks neatly banded, expressed her passion for growing her own food and her determination to pass on important information and instructions to her audience. One is how to help us achieve the best nutrition our bodies need from organic foods we can learn to grow ourselves, and how to accomplish this feat the right way. Another is to encourage women to eat more veggies and cultivate lifelong health.
Was it by accident you started studying ecology?
Kind of. I was actually in the engineering program in the University of Kansas. Straight out of high school I made it into the program. That was the direction I picked mostly because I received several scholarships. They were paying for my schooling and it seemed like a promising program. You get a job immediately after graduation with an engineering degree. At least that's what I've seen in my community.
I'm Kenyan. In the Kenyan community you're either a nurse or something like that because you got a job right away. But I didn't know what engineering was all about. So I decided to give it a chance. I started going to the classes and just did not like it at all (Laughs). The first two years were really rough for me. I was saying, “What am I doing with my life?” I started to question everything. “Is it really worth it to be spending all these hours studying, not getting any sleep and not liking what I'm studying?”
They would show us videos of what a chemical engineer does and how they value life. Big companies value life in a very interesting way. They won't build fertilizer companies here in the US which is risky because of pollution. So they’ll build them in India and pollute that community. As long as they're making money, these companies didn't care about what the pollution is doing to the community in India. So I question myself again. “Is that what you're willing to do for a career?” They tell you this beforehand because it is a reality of the industry. I decided I did not want to get involved in all of that. Then by chance I needed an extracurricular elective. I chose environmental studies. I don't know why I chose that class. Probably because it just fit into my schedule. So I took that class and found it very interesting. I never knew much about the environment, how everything is interconnected, and how the way we live affects the environment. It was all new to me.
I wanted to do a study abroad program. They had two choices: To go to Europe or Australia, where they have a lot of good engineering programs. Or go with another program which I found through the University of Amherst. They no longer have it, but it was called Living Roots. Basically you go and live in an eco-village oversees or an international community around the world and learn from teachers who were locals and also from the US. The latter sounded really interesting to me given my introduction to environmental studies. I ended up going to India. That's where I found my passion for growing my own food. Getting introduced to more ecology and learning how to live a sustainable lifestyle. That's where it started, in college.
Where is your garden located?
In several places. I have a container garden along the fence by our house where we rent. Also, I have a small patch of gardening area. This year I'm experimenting to grow on the front flower bed that's facing south. Then I have one of the community gardens in our neighborhood which is two blocks from home. I’m starting another garden that's on the north part of town. It's a community garden, but it's in a food desert. It's one of the bigger ones in town. This community garden was seeking someone who was knowledgeable about growing and maintaining a garden. In the past, the person(s) who had the garden would quit and the crops would eventually go to waste. They wanted to see whether I can encourage more people to go out there or figure out more ways to grow a garden and distribute the picked crop because there's a lot of it.
Is the food that you grow consumed by you and your family, or do you sell it at a farmer's market?
It's all been for us (my immediate family). Then whatever extra I have I give to my parents or neighbors, but this is the first year that I am attempting to sell or give more of crops produced from the gardens because of that project in the other part of town. In addition, through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, local community members who sign up with me, get a box of produce that I grow delivered to them.
What inspired the name “Rock Your Unique?”
Well, I think it was just more of a motto for myself. To embrace the fact that I just don't know a lot of people my age and my race who are into growing their own food and living in what would be traditional ways. So that's what inspired the name. I tell myself, “I'm embracing this!”. It's something really important that I've been keeping low-key, just to be under the radar, but I'm over that now.
What is fermentation? What is the process and its benefits?
I discovered fermenting from my friend’s nice book collection. The book is called The Wild Fermentation. I read about bacteria and yeast that people used to preserve food. I got fascinated and wanted to experiment because of my love of science and I like things that I can use in my daily life. Fermenting was a kind of science experiment for me. The benefits for fermenting food is that it predigests your food for you but it also makes your food more nutritious. The food already has nutrients, but our bodies doesn’t access all of the nutrients. So when you predigest the food through fermentation, it releases those locked-up nutrients and your body gets all of the nutrients…not some.
It also helps with gut bacteria and getting that balance again. If you're eating a lot of processed food, that messes up your gut. You end up having bad gut bacteria and that affects your immune system and the way you digest food. Gut bacteria affects your body even your mood. There's research that makes the connection between depression, mood swings and gut bacteria. I've noticed I'm starting to have an issue with eating too many grains that are not presoaked. The soaking process is fermentation. When you're soaking beans, rice or whatever grains you use you're actually fermenting the food. If you put flour in water and leave it for a while before you use it, that's fermentation. Chocolate is made from a fermentation process. Coconut oil is made from a fermentation process and also yogurt. These are the more common ones that people eat without really thinking they're eating fermented food.
What are the three main things people should know when they're starting a vegetable garden?
The first thing is to be very wise about where you choose to grow. In North America in general, the southern-facing side of your house or southern-facing garden will get the most sun. So you need at least six hours of sun. If you only have four hours of sunlight you're limited by what you can grow. So the first thing is choosing the right location for the garden.
Then the second thing is choosing crops that will work for your time and your space. Start small and expand. Don’t start out growing tomatoes, peppers, greens, and squash your first time that's not a great idea. I would start with greens and root vegetables and then have a few easy-growing flowers like marigold in there. So greens and root vegetables are perfect to start with and build from there.
You don't have to grow everything the first year. I know from experience that you're going to fail if you do. I've known many people who, like me, started with everything and it gets really overwhelming because you're learning about so many different types of plants at once. So stick to greens and root vegetables. The third thing is really focus on the soil. Using compost and worm castings are my easy recommendation to start out with. Don’t use manure-based compost, use plant-based compost from yard waste and kitchen scraps. That kind of compost with worm castings helps build back the soil. Do not use existing soil from the ground. I would say for pots don't use potting soil, which is a common thing that people use. I would go with plant-based compost.
When is the best time of the year to start your garden?
It depends on a couple of things. I would say your schedule has a lot to do with when you can start a garden more than the season, because sometimes in the spring people have a lot of things going on. So if you have a month or two before the summer, before you go on a trip or vacation, you can start some greens and root vegetables in the springtime. Keep it really simple. The fall is also nice to start because you have fewer issues with the weather changing. Right now the weather is coming from winter to spring. Because of global warming the winter is unpredictable in a lot of places. It could be fine for a week, and then all of a sudden you have a snowstorm. That can destroy what you just planted. So wait until spring has established itself. This can be good for your first year. After that you will know which crops you can start a little bit earlier that won't be affected by the seasonal change.
What did you learn about the method of how food is grown and how this method is destroying the earth and our health?
From my travels I've learned a lot With mono-agriculture where one type of crop is grown, the soil is destroyed and the biodiversity not only in plant life but in insect life and wildlife is destroyed all over the world. Here in the US you see corn or soybean. Soybean is a little bit better just because it kind of helps the soil. Still, when you're just growing one crop there's nothing for the bees to feed on. This typically ends up destroying forests and acres of lands which contributes to destroying wildlife. I keep hearing the reason for doing mono-agriculture and doing industrial agriculture is to feed the world. The population is increasing, so this is the only way that we can feed the world. But what I'm learning is that these actual industrial ways of growing are destroying local farmers' capability to compete or make a living. Then they are dependent on Food Aid, which supplies all these mono-agriculture crops like rice which is low-nutrient, corn and beans. Instead, the farmers could be growing a whole bunch of different varieties locally and be able to feed their community. This doesn’t happen because the farmers can’t compete because the Food Aid floods the local markets.
For example, in Haiti the farmers can grow rice along with other crops but because rice is a staple crop that they grow and sell for sustenance for a living. When Food Aid comes in and brings all this rice from the US or from Asia and floods the market, the local farmers don't have any business. Then they don't farm and grow the other varieties, so the community misses out on those varieties that they could be getting locally. All they're getting is rice, beans, and maybe corn crops. It ends up creating an unsustainable way to feed the world. The industrial way can feed the word, but it's not sustainable. Small farmers can feed the world too, it’s just that they cannot compete with industrial and corporate agribusiness. It creates a weird dynamic.
I don't think a lot of people notice that's what's happening. My parents and I have this discussion all the time. My dad says, ”Small farmers can't feed the world." I’d say, "Yes, they can, because they grow in more restorative ways for the earth." They're always giving back to the soil and building it up so they can farm on that land forever, whereas in the industrial way they use it until that ground is pretty much dead. Then they move and clear out another forest and start the whole process over again. It's basically just creating deserts everywhere in the world.
How can the current mode that's in place be improved?
On an industrial scale, it's hard to do what a small scale farmer is able to do because the benefit of a small farm is that they can put more love into that small farm and more energy to create biodiversity, because biodiversity is the key to keeping the soil healthy and keeping the insect life in abundance. They can improve the current mode by reducing the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Moving towards more of a smaller scale agriculture is better. On a large scale, it's not efficient.
Why do you feel greens are the most under-consumed vegetable?
It's just something I've noticed after I moved from Kenya to the US. In Kenya, we would eat greens every single day, at least twice a day. The dish is called 'sukuma wiki'. It literally means “push the week” or "stretch the week". You eat greens because it gives you the nutrients to make you strong. It’s seen as a poor persons' food in Kenya. Here in the US I feel like it's just kind of a forgotten food, almost. For instance, how do you prepare it? How do you make greens tasty? But when you grow them or get them locally, they are actually quite tasty if you prepare them right. When I prepare greens for people who don't regularly eat greens, they’d say, “I didn't know greens could taste so good”. I think it's the convenience of buying packaged or canned greens which doesn't taste anything like the fresh greens that’s grown and cooked. It's just that combination of advertising for different types of foods, whereas greens – I mean who advertises or promotes eating greens? Nobody.
What are the five important vegetables that we should be eating and preparing for our families?
I would say dark, leafy greens are number one, and there are a wide variety of those, especially if you grow them. That's why I like growing my garden, I can grow vegetables that you can't find in the stores. The stores are actually limited with greens. Cabbage, especially raw or fermented, is really great for you. Wild greens is another one. Wild greens like dandelion greens are really great. Lamb's quarters is really great for you. Beans, either green beans, or dry beans, are really great for your health. I would also say berries, which is not a vegetable, but a fruit. Strawberries are really easy to grow. You should be incorporating more berries into your diet.
What is the Food Justice Fund?
The Food Justice Fund is what I'm doing in North Lawrence. It's the first project. What I see with community gardens in wealthier neighborhoods is that they have all the tools they need. They have a large quantity of plants they share together for free. They can fix their flower beds problem. They are funded well.
Community gardens that are in food deserts need more help. Let me step back. I used to work in the health department. I was a mapper for them. I would map health issues around town. One of the projects was to see where food deserts were in town. I had a discussion with an epidemiologist and the community planner about accessing fresh food through supermarkets, but when you walk into a supermarket you're bombarded with advertisements for things that are not fresh foods. So is this a solution? Is it really helping consumers get access to fresh foods? Those were the questions we were always discussing.
In community gardens you're going there because there's fresh food. There's nothing else there to distract you or lure you to things that you're not supposed to be having. So that's where the Food Justice Fund idea started. The program helps to fund the community gardens by establishing proper watering systems, to purchase gardening tools and to build sheds.
Describe some of the services you provide for gardening enthusiasts.
My primary way is to teach and coach. I have an online course. I'm going to start smaller, shorter two-day courses on specific things, like growing salads. Right now I have a three-month course that is pretty intensive. It's for people who want to be proficient in how to grow eleven different things. The garden they grow must fit into their schedule. The course is geared towards helping them create a low maintenance garden that's not overwhelming but productive. The course is for people who are one hundred percent dedicated to getting into growing their own food but just don't know where to start and how to plan everything out.
Your social media is littered with beautiful pictures of plated foods. How important do you feel that this is the way you should present food to your followers?
I think that's the way people are most familiar with seeing food. When I share just a picture of my daikon radish greens, something that most people have no idea what they are because they've never really seen or eaten them. But when I show them a soup that has that kind of radish greens in them, now that's interesting to them. It's just how people are used to relating with food which is what they see on their plates. So it's relating to something they are familiar with.
You're a full-time mom. You work part time. You're a student. You're building a business. Where do you find the time? How do you juggle all these things?
It wasn’t easy in the beginning but I think it's just the way you relate with your time. Getting my sleep is as important as getting my work done and not being so upset when I’m not able to finish my tasks quickly. I try to do everything fast-paced. That's how I was approaching it in the beginning. “Oh, I've got to get this done....I can't go to bed...I need to get it done today”. Now, it's more like, okay, today I'm taking care of these things in the house because this is the day to take care of things in the house. Whatever I get done, I get done. Next week I'll continue to finish whatever I need to do until I get to where I want to be.
What vegetables are you planting now?
So far I've planted potatoes. Then I've planted a lot of mizuna greens and lettuce. Soon I'll be getting to radishes, turnips, peas, beets, and chard. So a lot of root vegetables and greens which I had started with in the beginning of gardening. Also I'll be planting green onions or scallions.
What are your future plans for Rock Your Unique?
Future plans? That's a good question. My dream is to continue teaching and creating more courses and content to help people get started in growing their own food. I want to expand that more and have other teachers come in.
I also want in the future to do mini retreats with families where they travel to Costa Rica and learn from farmers there. I don't think there’s this type of retreat for families. That would be really interesting to do in the future. A lot of what I've learned is really from old farmers who just do things from a long time ago. Permaculture and biodynamic methods of sustainable agriculture are really borrowed ideas from what our ancestors figured out.
There are a few people in the world who still grow crops the old way. I think it's so inspiring to see them at work, see their farms and see how those small farms produce in abundance and to prove once and for all that small farmers can indeed feed the world.
In addition, I want to start with health coaching. I did a free workshop a while back and I realized I didn't know how to coach someone in this way. Now that I’ve studied the program I can get to a place where I can start working with people again in that capacity. I’m interested in working with women and especially women of color to coach them through their health journey.