As gasoline and grain prices rise, the cost of food at the grocery store increases dramatically, too. The closer to your kitchen food is produced, the less it costs to ship, the better it is nutritionally and the lighter your carbon footprint is environmentally. The amount of energy it takes to ship a packet of seeds is a fraction of that required to transport water-dense vegetables, resulting in cleaner air and lowered diesel fuel consumption. The culinary delectability of fresh harvested vegetables, the personal health benefits (i.e., exercise and fresh air) and the deep-rooted sense of satisfaction of having one’s hands in the soil may have already converted you to the ranks of avid gardener, but if you haven’t been prompted to take up a spade yet, perhaps the increasing environmental and social benefits of grow-your-own gardening will move you to till up a patch.
The extra nutrition and great flavor of freshly harvested foods are well known. My grandmother never harvested her sweet corn until the pot of water had already reached a boil. We don’t have to be that speedy to the pot now with the improved sugar corn hybrids, but fresh is still fresh. Gramma taught me to cook with the freshest produce and homegrown herbs, in a traditional New England cooking style but with a very unique twist. She spent time with me in the garden teaching me how to sow, weed, pinch, prune and harvest. The kitchen waste was put in a pail under the sink to be carried out after dinner for a direct compost burial in-between the vegetable garden rows. Gramma gave me my own special space, a little corner of her massive garden, to grow things on my own, hens and chicks, creeping thyme and twisted allium. I learned from her both how to garden and how to love a garden.
Building New Beds
If you haven’t gone down the urban farmer path yet, a visit to the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden is a good way to start. The demonstration garden is a wonderful example of what you can grow in a relatively small space. It is also a great place to volunteer and learn from the knowledgeable staff. If you have never gardened before, four quick tips: Start small, get some good reference books (the Garden Gate Shop has several), take a class, and grow something you know you love to eat. Happy gardens have a way of producing more food than you can consume. With a bumper crop, you can have the joy of sharing with friends and neighbors. And think of weeding as free mental health therapy. There is no better way to offload stress and tension than taking it out on the weeds.
It might make sense to hire some chores out, if it’s in the budget. Breaking ground for a new garden can be hard on the back, knees and elbows. Hire someone with a rototiller to do it for you. (It’s cheaper than physical therapy.) Building raised beds is within the scope of a weekend handy dandy but is also easy to contract out. To make a soil mix for new beds, Julie’s recipe is simple: 50-50 mix of topsoil and compost, liberally laced with Turface. The recommended rate of this natural clay-based product is 50 pounds for 25 square feet for improved water absorption, drainage and soil friability (translates to ‘ease of digging’). The benefits will last for years.
Planting Fall Crops
Now that the ‘big heat’ is over, you can start planting a fall rotation of vegetables. By seeding and transplanting this week, you may have a fresh, homegrown salad in September and other fresh produce up to a killing frost. Julie consulted with our local expert, Walter Behrendt, the Garden’s vegetable gardening guru who maintains the extensive vegetable garden at the Kemper Center for Home Gardening. He had already put his broccoli and cabbage plants out for fall the third week of July, but with our milder winter, you could still set some out now. Heavy fertilization is needed to jumpstart small plants in the late summer season. Behrendt says you can start spinach, lettuce, beans, radishes, carrots and beets from seed here anytime after Aug. 1, although at this point in the season, you might be better off finding starter plants at a local nursery. He loves autumn crops of green beans because the cooler days keep the beans tender as they mature. Behrendt’s tip for those pesky holes in the garden where something has run its course is to try filling in with a hill of summer squash from seed. Even if you don’t get much of a fruit set, stuffed squash blossoms are divine!
Home Gardening For Our Future
Stuck in traffic at a highway construction zone, I was behind a car with a bumper sticker on it that said ‘Peace will come when the hungry are fed.’ Pondering that statement for a while, the truth of it struck me. Researching it more, I was shocked at the number of news articles this year on riots around the world caused by the scarcity and escalating cost of food. If you are a successful home gardener, you can make a difference here in our own community by donating the surplus from your garden to a local food pantry or soup kitchen. A program called Plant a Row for the Hungry, sponsored by the Garden Writers Association, promotes this approach (www.gardenwriters.org/Par/).
Another way for our society to improve overall community health would be to use vegetable gardening as a path toward better living. We can address obesity by exercise (hoe a row, two, three or four) and eating more fruits and vegetables. A great local organization that helps develop community gardens is Gateway Greening, www.gatewaygreening.org.
Trust me, you will want to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables when they burst forth with color and fragrance in your own backyard. You will also feel healthier and less stressed. So find a child that needs some outdoor time to help you, and plant a garden for fun. Plant a garden for your health. Plant a garden for the planet.