Gisela Pursel plants the seeds for food and friendships throughout Kansas City one garden row at a time.
Not only does she nurture the many food-bearing plants growing in her Kansas City, North, backyard, Pursel also cultivates relationships between area nonprofits in order to feed the hungry. As president of the Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City, Pursel works with Kansas City Community Gardens and supports Harvesters — The Community Food Network to help get fresh produce to those in need.
Pursel also relishes time with her husband, Ronald, five children, eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild as she enjoys bringing in the bounty from her backyard to prepare delicious dishes in her kitchen.
Q: Do you have to be a master gardener to grow food in your backyard?
A: Growing food in your backyard isn’t a new concept, it’s just something the last generation or two hasn’t grown up doing. It’s not hard to plant seeds or plants — you just need a plot that receives sun for at least six hours a day in rich soil to which you’ve added compost.
Start small, keep out the weeds, fence it in — to keep out critters, if you must — and water it. It’s really gratifying to be part of nature and be a participant in the miracle of life. Little seeds grow food, which can feed many, and that is a wonderful thing.
Q: Tell me about Harvesters’ Plant a Row for the Hungry program.
A: Hunger isn’t just a problem found in impoverished countries outside the United States; hungry people are right here, in the heart of Kansas City.
The most expensive food in the grocery store is the organic produce, and that means the poorest people can be the ones who have the least access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Good, healthy, fresh food shouldn’t be a luxury, and that’s why it’s important to get involved in growing your own food.
This Plant a Row program is a partnership between Harvesters and the Master Gardeners of Greater Kansas City. We are encouraging gardeners to plant an extra row of fruits and vegetables, so the additional bounty can be donated to feed people fresh produce.
Last year, local gardeners donated 17,000 pounds of fresh produce — greens, beets, carrots, green beans, onions, peas, peppers, squash, tomatoes and watermelon — to Harvesters. Produce can be dropped off at Harvesters directly or at participating garden centers, and is then distributed to local food pantries, shelters and other food assistance programs.
Q: Is it too late to plant a backyard garden?
A: Cold crop plants — lettuces, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard, kale and peas — should be in the ground by now. When the soil warms up in May, it’s time to plant the peppers, melons and tomatoes.
It’s wonderful to plant your own backyard garden, but I have also enjoyed being part of the Ivanhoe neighborhood’s efforts to build a successful garden in their community. Now the residents are vested in growing their own food, and it has become a success.
Children also can see that they can grow their own food and are getting a taste of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, too.
Q: So is this Spinach and Feta Square recipe one that you enjoy making for your own children and grandchildren to eat?
A: This recipe is an oldie but goodie. I started making this specifically for my daughter when she gave up eating meat. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy this dish, which resembles Greek spanakopita.
I think it’s the dill and lemon in the filling that really makes these squares and brightens the taste of them. You can also grow most of the ingredients in your backyard — onion, garlic, spinach and dill — which is also very gratifying.
Harvesters’ network provides food assistance to as many as 141,500 people each month. People are hungry year-round. We are grateful for everyone who donates what they can, and it’s amazing what happens when people come together for the greater good. Planting an extra row in your garden is a small act that reaps huge benefits and rewards for everyone involved.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Plant a Row
Spinach and Feta Squares
Makes 24 servings
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium sweet onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 (10-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained in colander (see note)
1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese
1 cup cottage cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or 1 tablespoon dried dill
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2/3 cup butter, melted
1 roll from (16-ounce) package frozen phyllo pastry sheets, brought to room temperature
To make filling: In a large sauté pan, melt butter over medium-high heat on stovetop. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until tender.
In a large mixing bowl, stir spinach, sautéed vegetables, feta, cottage cheese, eggs, dill and lemon zest together until well combined. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Brush a 9-by-13-inch baking pan lightly with melted butter. Place a sheet of phyllo dough into prepared pan and brush lightly with melted butter. Continue layering and buttering process until you have used 12 pastry sheets. Keep unused phyllo dough sheet covered with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.
Carefully spread prepared filling evenly over phyllo in pan. Place remaining phyllo sheets on top of the filling, brushing each sheet with melted butter as you layer.
Brush top phyllo sheet with remaining butter. Using a sharp knife, cut through the layers of phyllo to score 24 squares.
Bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Using a sharp knife, recut squares over scored marks and serve at room temperature.
Note: To use fresh spinach: clean, chop and steam 1 1/2 pounds spinach. Drain in colander and squeeze out excess water before mixing with other filling ingredients.
Per serving: 128 calories (75 percent from fat), 9 grams total fat (6 grams saturated), 43 milligrams cholesterol, 2 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 274 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.