Google based USDA hardiness zone map

This USDA hardiness zone map uses google maps to let you zoom in on your location to find your precise hardiness zone. The main page of also lets you explore the native regions of hundreds of trees and shrubs.

Cooking is what makes us human

I had never really thought of this but after reading What's Cooking from The Economist, it seems obvious that cooking is one of the defining characteristics of being human.
Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals.

The downside is that while the increased efficiency in absorbing calories from cooked foods allowed early humans to power a larger brain with a smaller gut, the same effect may also be a contributing factor to today's obesity epidemic.
Another telling experiment, conducted on rats, did not rely on cooking. Rather the experimenters ground up food pellets and then recompacted them to make them softer. Rats fed on the softer pellets weighed 30% more after 26 weeks than those fed the same weight of standard pellets. The difference was because of the lower cost of digestion. Indeed, Dr Wrangham suspects the main cause of the modern epidemic of obesity is not overeating (which the evidence suggests—in America, at least—is a myth) but the rise of processed foods.

This confirms what I've always suspected -- that the proliferation of diets based primarily on processed foods is the work of the devil. Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas describes in this podcast from the AAAS how as humans began to practice controlled agriculture, we decreased the range of foods we eat, and our health declined as a consequence.

The Harvard University Gazette also describes Wrangham's theories of how cooking was the impetus for increased mating activity and more civilized social behaviors.
For humans, cooking played a major role in the development of smaller jaws and teeth, bigger brains, smaller guts, shorter arms, and longer legs, according to Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University. He also believes that cooking is associated with females getting heavier and more fertile. That, in turn, changed mating and social behaviors. Instead of large males beating each other with clubs for the relatively rare privilege of mating, smaller guys mated more regularly and began to dine with the family more often.

Human Diet: Its Origin and Evolution edited by Peter Ungar is partially available on google books. Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable also edited by Peter Ungar contains a chapter on cooking by Richard Wrangham.

People's Garden to be planted at USDA headquarters

The USDA broke pavement last Thursday to establish the People's Garden at it's headquarters in DC (via Garden Rant and the White House Blog). The garden will return 1,250 square feet of unnecessarily paved space to a green space featuring native grasses and an organic vegetable garden. The vegetable garden will use compost from government cafeterias and the proceeds will be donated to local food banks. A visitor center is planned to educate tourists on sustainable gardening practices.

New Yorkers Try Composting With Worms, Indoors

New Yorkers Try Composting With Worms -
ON a recent Saturday afternoon, Stephanie Stern and her husband poured 1,000 wriggling red worms from a brown bag into a plastic bin outside their bathroom, looked down and hoped for the best.

If things went well, the worms, already burrowing into their bed of shredded newspapers, would soon be eating three pounds of food scraps a week, reducing the couple’s trash and producing fertilizer for their plants.

If not, the bin would stink up their one-bedroom apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and attract clouds of fruit flies.
It's a noble effort to reduce putting stuff in a landfill, but that's only part of the benefit of composting. I don't think the risks of germs, mold, and stench is really worth it just to maybe feed some houseplants. Composting outdoors for an outdoor garden is much more beneficial as the compost can be used to replace nitrogen based fertilizers that can pollute the groundwater.

30 pound cucumber grown in California

I wonder what kind of fertilizers they used, and what they'll make with the giant cucumber. That's a lot of tzatziki!

By the way, the world's largest cucumber was 59 pounds.

The Maggots in Your Mushrooms

Op-Ed Contributor - The Maggots in Your Mushrooms -
The F.D.A. actually condones a certain percentage of “natural contaminants” in our food supply — meaning, among other things, bugs, mold, rodent hairs and maggots. . . .

Tomato juice, for example, may average “10 or more fly eggs per 100 grams [the equivalent of a small juice glass] or five or more fly eggs and one or more maggots.” Tomato paste and other pizza sauces are allowed a denser infestation — 30 or more fly eggs per 100 grams or 15 or more fly eggs and one or more maggots per 100 grams. . . .

The F.D.A. considers the significance of these defects to be “aesthetic” or “offensive to the senses,” which is to say, merely icky as opposed to the “mouth/tooth injury” one risks with, for example, insufficiently pitted prunes.

Do the chemical pesticides used in conventional farming not eliminate these contaminants? If not, given their dangers, what good are they?

The examples cited above and in the F.D.A.'s Food Defect Action Levels Handbook mostly refer to canned, frozen, or juiced fruits and vegetables. All the more reason to buy your fruits and vegetables fresh and wash them yourself.

Tiger Mosquitoes in Maryland (and DC and Virginia)

While starting to think about planning this years vegetable and (maybe) flower garden, I'm reviewing what went wrong last year. Possibly my biggest problem was the tiger mosquito, an invasive species found in Maryland since about 1987. Last year, storms in May created ideal conditions for an increased Mosquito population. The biggest problem with the tiger mosquitoes is that they come out during the day, unlike regular mosquitoes which only come out only at dusk. Last year, I would come home from work and have to change into long pants and long sleeves just to pick a few tomatoes and herbs for my dinner. Without protective clothing, I would get dozens of bites within a few minutes. They seemed to particularly like hanging out near the vegetable plants which were in shade in the late afternoon. Needless to say, this made any extended gardening and other yard work on the weekends rather unpleasant. The result was that I neglected my garden after the end of June.

So what can be done? We all know to eliminate standing water as much as possible. But that doesn't seem to be enough to keep these pests under control. I also don't like the idea of spraying myself with toxic chemicals such as DEET, especially when I'm handling vegetables I'd like to eat. Gomestic lists five mosquito repelling plants. Curbly describes 10 "low tech" (and seemingly environmentally friendly) ways to repel mosquitoes including attracting bats, eating garlic, and opting for fluorescent lights. But do these techniques work for tiger mosquitoes as well? The only suggestions I've found which are specific to tiger mosquitoes come from Garden Rant where Susan Harris suggests banding together with neighbors to use pheromone based traps.