by Heba

Gardening and Living in Rural Virginia: An Interview with Jeanne of Seven Oaks Farm

May 17, 2014 in Farming, Interview by Heba

I’ve been wanting to start growing my own food (or at least some of it) for the past 5-6 years — even before I got married and before I started getting knee-deep into working to promote the organic food movement. I guess I just had a tendency to like this sort of stuff even before I learned about why it’s so important. But even as I started to frequent farmers’ markets and buy raw milk, I was too intimidated to try figuring out how to start growing some of my own food. To be fair, for a while I was living in a high-rise in Chicago without a balcony, and the most I could grow were few herbs near the window. Unfortunately, they didn’t last very long. I must have over-watered (I’m not the type to keep plants starving). Or maybe it was the unpredictability of Chicago sun – who knows.

In any case, I intend to start growing some of my own food. Last year I backed the NourishMat project on Kickstarter to get me started on the process of preparing my garden. By the end of the year, hopefully I’ll already have a few plants that are producing enough to help with dinner … As you can also see from my Pinterest board called “Growing Your Own Food”, I’ve been gushing over this sort of thing even more than before for the past few years. I’ve even pinned some mythical looking gardens like these … (one can dream, right?)


So anyway, the desire is there, and so is the conviction. But the know-how is not. Lucky for me, I’ve made some awesome connections online over the past few years through blogging, and one of them is an experienced gardener and fellow blogger named Jeanne Grunert. I stumbled upon Jeanne’s blog about her farm, Seven Oaks Farm, in rural Virginia, and was really impressed with her extensive knowledge about growing all sorts of delicious food. I bookmarked some of her posts on building raised beds, and I thought it would be great to hear more about her journey and learn from her experience of moving out to central Virginia to live a simpler life. So, I asked if I could interview her for my blog – check out the dialogue below. If you’re reading this and are an experienced gardener, I would love to hear your feedback or story of how you got into gardening as well as any resources that you could recommend for getting started!


An Interview with Gardener and Blogger Jeanne Grunert

1. According to your blog About page, you left your Manhattan marketing executive job in 2007 and decided to move to rural Virginia to live on 17 acres and grow your own food. Many people dream of a simpler countryside life, but have no idea how to make it work practically. What prompted you to make this move? What tips do you have for those who have similar dreams but have no idea how to make it happen?

Peaches_watermarkedWell, I didn’t really leave the New York area just to grow my own food. My husband and I thought about it for a long time, and wanted to leave the New York City area for many reasons. We had always dreamed of living in a more rural, relaxed location. But we couldn’t find jobs outside of city environments. Then the internet took off, and it was easier to find work and telecommute. My big “ah-ha!” moment came when my boss told me that the company we worked for was going to do another round of layoffs. I was tired of being part of the corporate culture and really yearned to make a go of it on my own, to go back to my creative roots. I enjoyed my work as a marketing director, but knew there was no longer anything called “job security”…  We were finally able to realize our dream of buying land in Virginia in 2005, but we didn’t move until 2007. It took a lot of planning to make it happen.

I would say that the first thing you need to do is be very realistic about your life situation. Take your time to research, plan and save every penny, because once you decide to freelance or become your own boss, you need a safety net! Make sure you have portable skills — skills that do not depend on a single employer or place. See if you can telecommute or find a way to earn money from home, because jobs are harder to find in a rural place than a big city. I focused on building up skills I could use through telecommuting so that I could live in a rural area yet find work. That meant refocusing on my writing, and finding ways to promote my marketing services to companies around the country.

If you move to a rural location from a very urban area, as we did, you have to be sure you can handle it — that you will love it. There will be culture shock, so you must also be patient with yourself as you learn about your new area and explore your new lifestyle. I made a lot of mistakes, but am grateful that the people whom I’ve met since moving have been so welcoming and kind. My farming neighbors have taught me so much about living and loving the country lifestyle.

2. I can think of so many positives associated with living in the Virginia countryside… but some possible drawbacks come to mind. What has been the biggest downside (if any)? What about the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge for me was getting used to the slower pace. Being born and raised in the NYC area, I’m always on “fast-fast-faster!” speed. Another challenge was getting used to driving everywhere. I was so used to walking to the store, the bank, church, whatever, that it took some time to get used to planning my trips to maximize each drive into our local town so I could complete all my errands at once.

3. How long have you been into gardening? What’s the fondest memory of gardening that you have?

pansyOur home on Long Island had a tiny, tiny yard – I think it was 10 x 20 feet or something like that. But my dad built an incredible garden there with raised beds and grew so many vegetables in a tiny space that I grew up learning by watching him. He loved house plants too, and we always had many interesting plants growing under lights or on windowsills throughout the house.  He also grew flowers for the Long Island Chrysanthemum Society Shows. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Hoffman, had built his house when the development had been created, and he owned one and a half lots of land – a bigger piece of property than usual. It was known locally as “Hoffman’s Farm” because he grew so many vegetables, just like a farm! So I tagged along with both my dad and Mr. Hoffman, and learned how to plant flowers, shell peas and things like that along the way. Lastly, my older sister loved plants too. She even converted part of our childhood bedroom into an orchid-growing area, complete with plant lights, so she could grow her prized orchids. It was really a great environment to introduce me to gardening.

My earliest memory of gardening is learning how to collect pansy seeds. Mr. Hoffman always grew a big plot of pansies and he taught me how to collect the seeds. The picture below is of me (Jeanne) picking pansies in my dad’s tiny garden. To this day, pansies are one of my favorite flowers and every time I see pansies, I think of him! I also remember running around my grandmother’s Queens, New York City garden. She had a wonderful kitchen garden, complete with an apple and pear tree as well as vegetables, in Queens, and I loved to play there.


4. How did you decide on the name “Seven Oaks” for your blog? Do you have any oak trees on your property?

Wflying_vulturese actually bought a 17-acre timber tract here in Virginia and it’s all loblolly pines, which are grown for the paper industry. It was part of a larger farm devoted to growing pines for the paper mills around here. There are some wild dogwood trees, tulip trees and maples, but mostly pines as far as the eye can see. That’s one of the typical crops grown in my part of Virginia, along with hay and cattle. (We do not raise livestock here).

The real story of how Seven Oaks got its name is pretty funny. When we were building the house, we stood on the cleared field and watched seven birds soaring through the sky. We had just been talking about what we would name the farm when I saw the seven birds. I said to my husband, “Look! Seven hawks! It’s a great sign. We’ll call the place Seven Hawks Farm.”

welcometo7oaksOne of the local men working on the house cleared his throat and said, “Ah, ma’am? Those aren’t hawks. Those are buzzards.”


“Yeah you know – like vultures.”

Since Seven Vultures Farm sounded awful, we decided to name it Seven Oaks after the seven oak tree seedlings we’d planted in the corner of the property. They’re descended from a 100-year old white oak tree that grew on my husband’s parent’s property on Long Island.

But yeah…it was originally Seven Hawks….or vultures, if you want to get technical….

5. What’s the best way for me to start growing some of my own food, organically, right here in Northern Virginia? Say I have a small shady 5×5 ft garden plot but I have no idea what the quality of the soil is — let’s assume that the soil is mostly eroded and has been sprayed with herbicides in the past. How hard would it be to recondition the soil for organic growing for example?

The first step would be to find your local County Cooperative Extension Office and get your soil tested. It costs about $10, maybe $20, but it’s well worth it. Collect soil from several areas where you plan to grow your vegetables and place them in separate plastic bags or containers (never metal – metal can interfere with the test results). The soil test results provide detailed information on what amendments you need to add to the soil and in what quantity, so you’ll get your garden off to a great start.

6. What are some of the easiest foods to grow outdoors in Virginia (including herbs, roots, vegetables, etc)? How about some of the easiest foods to grow indoors with intermittent shade in the summer? Do all indoor-grown foods need plenty of sun?

It depends a lot on where you live, but I find that leafy green vegetables such as lettuce, chard, spinach and others are easy to grow. Root crops such as beets, turnips, and potatoes do great in my garden too.  Indoors, start with herbs; you can’t go wrong with a few pots of herbs such as basil, parsley, and rosemary on the windowsill. All food crops need full sun. At best, you can get away with partial shade for some herbs, lettuce and green beans, but most do need sun. If you don’t have great sun in your garden, but have it at the side of your house, try growing vegetables in large containers. Many adapt quite well to container gardening and you can place the containers in full sun.


7. I personally loved your posts on starting raised beds for growing your food outdoors! A little birdie told me you’re publishing a book on Amazon that can help those looking for step-by-step instructions on building raised beds. What can people expect to see in your book?

Yes, I’m compiling the information on raised bed gardening into a short booklet that will be offered for sale via Amazon. Right now, the information is on my blog, Seven Oaks – Home Garden Joy.

8. What are some of the best online and print resources you can recommend for a novice looking to start growing the majority of his/her own food?

Online, start with your Cooperative Extension Office. You can also find good resources on Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening magazine. And of course, there’s my blog –  I have some free books and resources, plus tons of blog posts on growing your own food.

9. What about composting; can you give some tips on how to get started on a project like that if I don’t have a lot of space? How should I use compost for improving the quality of the soil?

Composting is great for the environment and great for the garden. You don’t need a lot of space to start a compost pile. You can purchase a commercial compost bin or tumbler, or build your own. I’ve started compost piles in a small 3 foot by 3 foot space behind my garden shed. I used recycled building materials such as bricks or foundation blocks, piled up, and then just layered the materials inside the square. You can also use pallets nailed together to make a square bin.

Compost can be added freely to garden soils once the materials have thoroughly decomposed. Compost should look like chocolate cake mix when it’s ready to be added to the garden. You really can’t go wrong adding compost to your garden, and I don’t think there’s anything like “too much compost”!


10. What are your favorite foods to grow, and why? The two first plants I’d love to try growing are mint and tomatoes — do you have any tips for me?

I’d stay away from mint, unless you can grow in a container. Mint is super invasive! I made the mistake of growing it in my herb bed the first year, and the darned stuff tunneled out under the wooden walls of the raised bed and into the lawn. It’s nice to mow the lawn now — all you smell is mint — but it’s coming up everywhere, in other raised beds, you name it.  I moved most of it to the edge of the woods. I suggest growing it in a container to keep it contained!

Tomatoes are great to grow in containers. Be wary of the tomato hornworm, which seems to be very common here in Virginia. Marigolds planted around the tomatoes, especially the old-fashioned marigolds with that strong “marigold smell”, are great to keep tomato hornworms away organically.

I have great luck growing peppers here in Virginia, and have so many organic peppers that we can many batches throughout the summer. The same with my root vegetables – beets, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, onions and garlic all do very well in my garden. The raised beds really help.

Lettuce and radishes are nice, easy crops for anyone starting a garden, as are green beans. But I think that anytime you plant a garden, you should plant what you and your family like to eat.  The more you love what you grow, the more fun you’ll have, both in the garden and in the kitchen when it comes time to enjoy it!


Who is Jeanne?


Jeanne Grunert is an award-winning writer and content marketer living and working on a 17-acre farm in Virginia. Prior to moving to Virginia in 2007, Jeanne led marketing departments for a variety of publishing and education companies in the New York City area. Today, she grows a life instead of just making a living. She is the author of Pricing Your Services – 21 Tips for More Profit, available on Amazon, and blogs about her exploits at her farm on Seven Oaks – Home Garden Joy. On her site, you’ll find free presentations, ebooks and more. She welcomes connections via social media.


by Heba

Grain-Free Apple Crisp (Paleo, Vegan, Gluten-Free)

May 8, 2014 in Brunch, Dessert, Homemade, Snack, Vegan, Vegetarian by Heba


I discovered the easiest dessert to bake, by far. The recipe is quite forgiving, and you can make many substitutions. It evolves with the seasons and you can use whichever fruits and nuts strike your fancy. Can’t have apples? Use berries. Trying to avoid gluten but miss desserts that typically have it? This doesn’t have a trace of glutenous grain and beats any other flour-based crisp out there in terms of both taste and texture. Want to make it vegan? Use coconut oil instead of ghee. And it will still taste quite amazing.

For me — a much more comfortable cook than a baker — I actually get giddy when I learn about new desserts that are as easy and flexible to make as a pot of stew or roasted vegetables. Of course, I wouldn’t want to get too comfortable with making desserts on a daily basis, even the refined-sugar-free and gluten-free type. There’s a chance my sweet tooth would get the best of me, and I would want a little dessert after every meal … and one could see how that could potentially spiral out of control.

Having said that, I’m also a huge believer in indulging in good food because heck, life is too short to be too uptight. But my rationale goes a little further than the superficial “everything in moderation” excuse for unhealthy eating. I figure that if I’m going to indulge, I’m going to do it right. So, no takeout Chinese, no bad-ingredient pizza and sliders, and definitely no soda. These are not things I am “depriving” myself from; I really do not crave these things at all. What I do crave is real food cooked using good ingredients, and I feel good about craving this. Here’s what “indulging” means to me: it’s homemade desserts, organic wine, and super dark chocolate. It’s also fun, colorful salads, using real cream instead of anything watered down (it’s healthier anyway!), and eating out sparingly only at restaurants that make delicious, from-scratch meals. It means knowing where my food comes from, savoring my dinners (not in front of the television), and enjoying meals with loved ones.

Notice I didn’t include the word “guilt” in there anywhere? I really never got why people assume indulging in good food has anything to do with feeling guilty. It’s fun to eat good food that tastes delicious and is nourishing for our bodies, is it not? As long as you feel you are nourishing yourself and that the food you are eating is making you feel stronger and healthier, then why would you feel guilty? If you are staying within budget and listening to your body’s hunger and satiety signals, I see nothing wrong with indulging.

Of course, not everyone is going to agree with me, and it all comes down to how we define indulging. For me, indulging only makes sense if I’m willing to partake in it without feeling guilty. If I’m going to get a stomachache after binging on store-bought nachos and dip, where’s the fun in that? If I make a chocolaty dessert and eat it non-stop without balancing the rest of my meals, that doesn’t sound good to me either. If I spend $50 at a restaurant that pan-fries everything in soybean oil and serves factory-farmed chicken, I would hardly consider that an indulgence. See where I’m going with this? Indulging intelligently is something to be proud of, whereas indulging out of desperation or thoughtless choices can induce a guilt that has no place in a healthy lifestyle.

Anyway, I set out to write this post to share a recipe, and somehow I’ve ended up rambling about food psychology! Back to the recipe — this is a great dish for when you’re expecting people over, and also for when you have seasonal fruit through your CSA that will go bad if you don’t eat it quickly. That’s exactly the situation we had recently: we got 40 lbs of York apples from the farm co-op right before Easter and we didn’t have the space to store all the apples at one time, so we needed to use some. We made apples sauteed in ghee, apple-raisin chutney (served with pastured pork chops,yum!), apple cinnamon muffins (grain-free and nut-free), apple kombucha, and raw apple pie. When we had friends coming over, we decided to change it up a bit from the regular raw apple pie, so we decided to make a crisp. It was probably the most delicious of all the apple goodies we made so far! So, here goes. Try this and let me know if you make any substitutions and how it turns out.

Bon appétit!



Grain-Free Apple Crisp (Paleo, Vegan, Gluten-Free)

by Heba Saleh

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30-35 minutes

Keywords: bake breakfast snack dessert gluten-free low-carb low-sodium soy-free sugar-free vegan vegetarian almond flour apple arrowroot powder coconut fall spring winter

Ingredients (Serves 8-10)

    For the apple layer:

    • 10-12 medium organic apples (any variety, but I prefer Gala, York or Honeycrisp), peeled, cored, and chopped
    • 1 tablespoon arrowroot or tapioca powder (you can use another starch such as organic cornstarch instead)
    • ½ cup maple syrup, Grade B preferred
    • ½ cup fresh orange juice (the juice of one large orange)
    • juice of half a lemon
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • 1 tablespoon cinnamon powder
    • ¼ teaspoon each of cloves, nutmeg, and allspice

    For the crisp topping:

    • 1 cup almond flour
    • 1 cup medium coconut flakes
    • ½ cup chopped walnuts
    • ½ cup slivered almonds
    • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
    • pinch unrefined salt
    • 1 tablespoon maple syrup, Grade B preferred
    • ½ cup coconut oil or grass-fed ghee (or mixture of both), melted


    (1) Preheat your oven to 350°F. Prepare a 9×13 inch baking dish (I use glass).

    (2) Prepare the apple layer: Wash, core, peel, and chop your apples. You’ll want the apple pieces to be each about a half inch and an eighth inch in thickness. Put chopped apples in a mixing bowl, and add the maple syrup, starch, orange juice, lemon juice, spices, and vanilla extract. Mix well to incorporate the ingredients, then place to the side while you prepare the topping.


    (3) Prepare the topping: In a separate mixing bowl, add the almond flour, chopped walnuts, slivered almonds, and coconut flakes. Sprinkle cinnamon on top and a pinch of salt, as well as the tablespoon of maple syrup, and mix well. Melt the coconut oil and/or ghee separately and add to the bowl with the nuts. Mix well to incorporate.


    (4) Assemble the dessert and bake: Spread the apple mix evenly on the baking dish. Add the “crisp” topping evenly spreading it to cover the apples. Place in the preheated oven for about 30-35 minutes till apples are bubbling and the topping is nicely browned.


    (5) Serve your apple crisp: Remove promptly and wait for about 10 minutes to eat warm. It’s also incredibly delicious cold with a glass of milk or café latte. This seasonal dessert is very satisfying on its own, but everything can be made better with vanilla grass-fed ice cream or coconut ice cream. I’ve also had it with farm yogurt and it’s quite phenomenal (see pic below).



    by Heba

    Grow Your Health Festival on 3/23 – Learn About Nutrition + Gardening

    March 19, 2014 in Social Event by Heba

    This Sunday, I will be teaching a class at the 2nd Annual Grow Your Health Festival in Fairfax, Virginia called “What Organic Really Means.” That caught your attention, didn’t it!? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been confused in the past about all the different food labels out there: Certified organic. Naturally grown. Non-GMO Project verified. Locally-sourced. Free-range. Grass-fed. And the list goes on … How’s a conscientious food shopper to know what to buy? I’ll be going over all of these and more, giving tips on how to identify greenwashing and “industrial organic” food, and busting some of the myths that persist regarding organic food and agriculture.


    If you live in Northern Virginia, come join us on Sunday! Tickets are $10/adult when bought ahead of time and all proceeds go to the Weston A. Price Foundation, the nutrition education non-profit that has helped open my eyes to real food and the importance of traditional food preparation and cooking. Besides the class I’m teaching there are also 17 other classes that cover a wide range of topics including starting a garden, small space gardening, managing pests without chemicals, gut health and chronic ailments, how I healed myself through nutrition, and the health properties of common kitchen herbs — just to name a few! Check out the bios of the talented speakers and a listing of all the interesting classes, with descriptions.

    Besides classes, there will be all kinds of food and wellness exhibitors (including my startup, so look for me there!) and local, healthy lunch options from Nourish Market and New Family Naturals.

    I’m stoked for the festival and hope to see you there! If you’re a local blogger interested in exhibiting your site at the Bloggers’ Alley at the festival, there’s a special deal of $25 for the entire day (includes admission for two adults). Feel free to comment below or connect with me for more details, or you can simply secure your spot online here.