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Everything and the Moo: Sunset's Margo True on Urban Farming

Until recently, Margo True, food editor for Sunset magazine, hadn’t done more gardening than tend to a pot of basil in New York when she worked at Saveur. Today, she’s got a year-and-a-half of vegetable and fruit gardening, chicken rearing, bee-hive caring and even cow milking under her belt and is the author of the new book The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table (Ten Speed, $25). Sunset is currently holding the One Block Party contest, inviting people to live as local as they can get. Check out the One Block blog to follow their trials and tribulations of urban farming.

What were your back-to-the-land preconceptions before you started this project at Sunset wherein you and the staff start out by deciding to learn to make everything for an end-of-the-summer feast?
For me personally, having not really ever having gardened, I just had this hubris of a cook. Basically, I thought you could think about the things that grow in spring, and then you would write up your menu based on that. But what I didn’t realize that is you grow things first, see what you get and then compose the menu. And nature totally rules. In the book, we have these four different seasonal menus. All the crops got ripe and grew for two, but for the fall menu, a lot of things ripened really late. And we ended up having tons and tons of butternut squash, so you’ll see we have like three butternut squash recipes. By the end, I was like, ‘Wow.’

And when did you and the Sunset staff have the time to do all this between producing a monthly magazine?
During lunch breaks, we’d check the bees. The idea was to simulate for the reader what it would be like to do this if you had a fulltime job. How to make it accessible for people who have backyards, jobs, kids.

How big of a plot did you use? And how long did it take?
Just 550 square feet at Sunset. We didn’t use all of it all the time either. It took us about a year and a half to produce everything that we needed for that first summer dinner.

Biggest challenge?
The bees. You would not believe how many ways a bee can die, including attacks from killer ants that’ll swarm up into a hive and take over it. Bees are like flying balls of spun sugar. Blue jays eat them straight out of the air. But I learned that honey bees are so gentle. If you move very slowly, you can scoop them up with your bare hands and hold hundreds of them. They’re weightless, vibrating and warm. It’s electrifying.

Biggest learning curve?
The cow project. We found out that we could legally keep our Jersey named Holly at Sunset. But we realized that we didn’t know enough to have a cow here. It’s not just taking care of the cow, it takes impregnating the cow, and I just didn’t feel I was up to it. Do you bring a bull? Does it take a giant needle? And then you have to deliver the calf and then do you go into the veal business? So for those reasons, Holly lives on her farm. And we visit her and we milk her and we drive back to Sunset and make cheese.

Sunset is on 8 acres in Menlo Park. What do you suggest for us here in Union Square at 7x7 where we only have window boxes with fake flowers from IKEA?
Well, you can grow mushrooms. They like the dark. You could definitely start a rooftop garden. And you could look into something hydroponic. You could make cheese!

We only have a microwave and a toaster oven.
Well, it would be so hilarious. But you probably still could.

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