It’s the 4th of July holiday weekend and, naturally, the Dakota kids have laid in an awesome amount of meat to grill. No matter that we’re going out for several meals – it is the principle of the thing. Holiday = grilling.

As I was shoveling protein into the refrigerator and freezer, I noticed a label on one package of beef: “100% American farmed.”

I started giggling, thinking of all the marketing and labeling shenanigans that have been foisted on the unthinking public: Light, lite, natural, low-fat, low-cal ,etc.

Protein has been particularly susceptible: organic, farm-raised,  free-range, 100% gluten-free, hormone-free, 100% vegetarian raised, wild-caught, blah blah.

People, read the labels. Then decide for yourself whether you really care that your fish was “wild caught,” when in fact it was wild caught in Thailand, where food safety rules may be, er, rather lax. Or that your pork loin, “100% farm-raised,” contains up to 15% water, vinegar and marinating chemicals.

meatCRR and I grew up with the original organic protein. Our parents raised the cattle, chickens and pigs that went to slaughter to pack our freezers. We snagged trout and walleye and perch directly from the rivers and lakes. But I also don’t sweat animals that have been raised in confinement – check out how super-expensive Kobe beef is raised.

If you really care, do your homework and make your own informed decision as a consumer. Free-range may mean something completely different than what you think. You may not actually know what a GMO is — but Jimmy Kimmel does.

Just don’t be fooled by stupid labels that some PR firm was paid millions to snooker you.

Back to the beef. Americans eat 24 billion pounds of home-grown beef a year; fewer than 1 billion pounds are imported, primarily from Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

And if you want to be truly informed, read this 92-page list of USDA rules about meat additives. Then go shopping, and know what you’re talking about.

And Happy 4th of July. Grill away!

 Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

CRR is a tree hugger. Growing up on the sparsely-treed prairie, it was probably preordained that he would become a lover of trees.

During the Dust Bowl, topsoil literally blew away as winds howled down the prairie. With little natural tree cover, there was nothing to stop the clouds of dirt. Convinced that trees could break the wind, FDR ordered up “shelterbelts,” rows of trees planted by CCC and WPA workers. By 1942, 220 million trees had been planted along 18,600 miles stretching from the Dakotas to Texas. Those rows of trees defined the countryside where we grew up.

Now we have a big suburban yard with dozens of tree specimens, and CRR can name them all. When we first bought the property, the yard had been neglected for years. He brought in an arborist to identify the trees and diagnose what ailed them.

The arborist condemned the persimmon that shades the patio and a giant locust that towers over the property.

The arborist underestimated CRR’s tree powers.

He slowly nursed the persimmon back to health, with some foul-smelling ointment and a burlap cIMG_1315 (2)oat that wrapped it for two seasons.

The giant locust was a bigger project. The arborist predicted it would eventually split in two, fall, and damage our house (or our neighbor’s). CRR brought in a landscaper who cabled the thickest trunks together – even the derecho of 2012, with its winds gusting up to 80 mph, didn’t bring it down.

Snowmageddon took a big chunk out of the magnificent magnolia that graces our front yard. The tree doctor said it would never regain its shape – wrong again, with CRR’s pruning guidance.

When 9-year-old Sam brought home a sycamore seedling from his school’s Earth Day celebration, he and CRR planted it and nursed it to the rangy specimen it is today.

His latest project? A bigleaf magnolia, a mere sapling now that promises plate-sized blooms in a year or two.

IMG_1284For his attention to the trees — mulberry, sycamore, magnolia, dogwood, crepe myrtle, arborvitae, pine, persimmon, locust, tulip poplar, ornamental cherry, cypress and a forest of hollies – CRR has earned the title of tree whisperer.

Happy Father’s Day to a wonderful husband and father of our two sons.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.





I am contemplating Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima as we shift into Memorial Day weekend, a time when Americans remember our fallen warriors. I have no issue with the president’s visit – we must always remember and never forget.

Obama said: “Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

“We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow. Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.”

It seems so long ago. Some 60 million people died over the years that World War II raged, including the final acts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet my own family to this day represents the past and present.

My father sailed into Yokohama Bay as part of the conquering force, having expected to fight his way into Japan but for Harry S Truman’s decision to deploy the first and only atomic weapon. “Everybody knew we were going to Japan,” Dad told me. Then Truman made the fateful decision. In the awful aftermath, the U.S. Navy sailed on to Japan. Dad’s convoy ported at Yokohama, the Imperial Japanese naval base south of Tokyo. Over the next few months, he helped transport the tortured and emaciated American soldiers who had been liberated from Japan’s notorious POW camps to U.S. medical ships for treatment.

Fast forward 70 years. Our nephew Kyle, a Marine, visited last weekend. He was recently posted in Japan, and expects to return. His memories of Tokyo are far different from my father’s, and I am struck by that. Kyle’s stay in Japan took him to Tokyo and Okinawa and Mount Fuji and beyond. He talked of the blinding lights of Shibuya, the Japanese equivalent of Times Square, part of the long resurrection of Japan’s economy after the war years. He’s also stood sentinel at the DMZ in Korea, an ongoing symbol of the uneasy East-West relations.

Yes, Kyle is today’s face of our long military relationship with Japan. As was my father long long ago. Separated by seven decades, yet the mission eerily similar: Keeping the peace.

May we never forget.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.

As I ambled around our gardens yesterday, glorying in the first real sunshine in two weeks, I marveled at the beauty of the roses. Big blooms, heady with perfume.

Then it struck me: Our roses utterly adore the British-like cool rainy weather that has marked the first weeks of May.

That triggered memories of a May trip to London. Mourning the loss of a job I loved, I skipped town – to London, to seek solace with Chris and Jeff.

Chris knew just what I needed: a week-long tour of gorgeous British gardens. From Regent’s Park to Kew Gardens to St. James’ Gardens and Chelsea’s physics garden, we admired and sniffed our way through glorious May flowers. The roses were incredible – bowers drooping with the thickly petaled roses of England, their scent drifting across the manicured lawns and parks.

Sissinghurst was the crown jewel of the week: more than 400 acres of flowers, just a short train ride away in Kent. Chris and I spent the day wandering from one beautiful corner to another of these storied gardens. Imposing crown imperials (George Washington’s favorite flower), tulips and dozens of varieties of daffodils. Clematis, wisteria, azaleas, honeysuckle. Penstemon, foxglove, allium.

And the roses, oh those roses. They were other-worldly in their abundance and beauty. On trellises, climbing up brick walls, adorning stone arches. The entire day was a sensory cacophony.

That trip was a balm to my soul. My mother had urged me for years to stop and smell the roses, a cliché that I disdained until, finally, it made perfect sense.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.

Sorry I have been AWOL. Blame the job. I will try to do better this year.

Mother’s Day seems like a great time to renew this blog, since my mother has been such an inspiration to me. She’s 84 and she’s still gardening.

OK, it’s gardening “lite” – last year she had one cucumber plant and one tomato plant. But she still glories in the small joys of gardening: choosing just the right plant, procuring the right soil (JJJJ, this is your department) and nurturing the plants to harvest. I think she’s a “vegetable whisperer.”

It may be a micro version of the enormous garden she once had, but on the other hand she no longer has to feed six hungry mouths. She only has to enjoy the gifts that God gives us, with her expert care and vigilance against varmints.

Mom: CRR is trying to grow some gooseberries from seed. I remember them from Grandma Benner’s garden, small seedy juicy berries that we ate straight from the plant. They’re called husk cherries in other parts of the country, which I discovered in St. Louis last summer when a James Beard nominee chef joyfully incorporated them into his dishes.

Mom: I don’t “can” tomatoes like you did, but I diligently cook tomato sauce and freeze it, a frugal streak I got from you. Though I have to say, this time-consuming kitchen work is tried when I see that I can buy two 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes for $1. Really, all that work for 50 cents?! I guess it’s the “love” component.

tulipMom: My flower gardens are a direct tribute to your love of gardening. All year long, as I baby the flowers and admire their beauty, I think of you. The lilacs just finished. Roses are blooming. Soon we’ll have iris and peonies and hydrangea. Everything in its time.

These things, so tangible yet so intangible, I owe to you. We owe to you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

xoxo, your favorite daughter (sorry, sibs, you knew that was coming)

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist in Washington, D.C., and mother of two sons. 

Note: The pumpkins are back! Recycling this column and encouraging everyone to buy a pumpkin at the church on the corner of Quaker & Seminary in Alexandria. It’s a small price to watch little children giggle and toddle through the pumpkin patch. 

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I know fall has arrived when the Episcopalians set out the pumpkins.

The front yard of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill turns orange with pumpkins every October. The congregation unloads hundreds of pumpkins of all colors and sizes, trucked in from a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Then church members sell the pumpkins (and some other goodies) from morning til night, through Halloween. The profits go to local charities like ALIVE! and Carpenter’s Shelter and international ones like Heifer International. “Buy pumpkins, help the world,” the church sign says.1186252_518431311583381_357164123_n

Like many places in 250-year-old Alexandria, Immanuel has a historical footnote. Gerald R. Ford lived a few blocks away and the Ford family attended Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill for years. He served as an usher and the first lady taught Sunday school (presumably before presidential duties intervened).

The church plays a role in our family history as well. After we moved to this neighborhood, we would roll a red wagon to the pumpkin sale with our sons and they would carefully choose among the pumpkin bounty. One year, Sam insisted that I not discard the pumpkin “guts” when we carved his pumpkin, and make a pie instead. So from that year forward, I have roasted a pumpkin and pureed it for a pie. A little more work than the $3.19 canned pumpkin from the store, but it brings back memories of Halloweens past.

This year, our “mystery” volunteer plant in the garden turned out to be a pumpkin vine that sent runners around two sides of the garden. Though lush with many blossoms, it produced exactly two pumpkins. CRR turned one into a savory pumpkin soup. The other one will be carved at Laurie and Mark’s annual pumpkin salon.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Source: Deep Into Tomato Season