Saving Green by Growing Your Own Vegetables

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Of all the hot topics in the news, gardening is rarely one of them. But small gardens made big headlines last week in The Washington Post, when it ran a story on “guerrilla gardens” and “seed bombs.”

It’s not nearly as violent as it sounds, although it’s probably illegal. The story describes how, in big cities, “guerrilla gardeners” have for decades been secretly planting flowers in vacant lots through an ingenious technique.

“Since the early 1970s, these latter-day Johnny Appleseeds have been lobbing the clay-wrapped, compost-rich spheres onto unsightly vacant lots, into alleyways or around sidewalks, where they’ve exploded into bloom,” the Post reported. Nowadays, these “seed bombs” can be purchased online or even from vending machines.

The success of these guerrilla gardens on vacant lots – without the owners’ permission – should inspire anyone who thinks that gardening is too hard. Heck, if they can get flowers to grow by tossing some seeds around, you can cultivate fruits and herbs in your own yard with ease.

Backyard gardening, like guerrilla gardening, is easier these days thanks to the Internet, which offers all the free advice you’ll ever need. And with food prices at record highs, it’s worth your time too.

Most home gardeners looking for food opt for the usual suspects: tomatoes, beans, potatoes, salad greens. In fact, a survey by Mother Earth News revealed the most popular crops. There were no big surprises, other than perhaps the fact that garlic ranks No. 1. The rest of the top 10…

  • Bush snap bean
  • Pole snap bean
  • Slicing tomato
  • Cherry tomato
  • Paste tomato
  • Potato
  • Snow/snap pea
  • Shallot
  • Shell pea

Also on the site is a handy list of the easiest to grow (radishes are No. 1), best use of time and space (scallion), and easiest to store (garlic again).

As a longstanding gardener myself, I can attest to the popularity of several of those crops. I’ve grown tomatoes, cukes, basil, mint, and, in a patriotic bent, red, white, and blue potatoes. (Actually, the blue were more of a light purple, but still.) And I am not alone.

Charlotte Trim of Boston has been gardening at her current home since 2004. After spending 12 years in France, she just wasn’t going to accept the offerings of her supermarket, which she saw as flavorless at best and laden with toxic pesticides and who knows what else at worst.

“I try to grow as much as possible,” Trim says, “starting with spring greens, then carrots, broccoli, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, beans, and potatoes. For the root cellar, more potatoes, onions, winter squash, rutabaga, carrots and parsnips, sometimes endives. Every year I like to try something new – this year it is fennel.”

Gardening can be hard work, but it isn’t hard to understand the steps: Plant, water judiciously, and use some fertilizer of your choice. With one huge caveat: You’ve got to keep the garden free of pests. That means weeds, bugs, and critters. It’s in the latter-most category that I typically have failed miserably. Without a fence, I’ve relied on various sprays and treatments to try to keep deer and rabbits away, to little avail.

The result: Tomatoes with the tops gone, or half-eaten fruits. Still, the allure of growing your own always prevails. This year, with an anticipated late summer move to a new house, I opted for planting just a few crops in containers: purple basil, three varieties of tomatoes, and a couple of pepper plants. So far, so good. But hey, it’s still early.

Despite the fact that summer is half over, you can still find success planting late summer crops. A great resource is Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Fall carrots, herbs, and zinnias will still sprout and be harvested before the first frost. Other great resources for those who want to start from seeds are Totally Tomatoes (which offers a cornucopia of types, colors (yellow, orange, black, white), and flavors, and Seed Savers Exchange (which offers seeds for numerous heirloom varieties).

Heirloom varieties are plant types that were grown previously but have fallen out of favor with the advent of mass marketing, where uniform color and shape are of paramount importance. But the variety of flavors and shapes of potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and more is amazing.

The benefits of all this are many. From an economic standpoint, the more you grow, the more you save, particularly if you preserve your yield over the rest of the year. Trim estimates she saved about $4,000 in food costs in 2009, and she says each year they save more as their garden grows and the soil improves.

“However, the benefits are far more than [just] economic,” she says. “The flavor is so superior that my little girls love their vegetables, and the nutritional attributes of the food are so superior that one does feel greater energy and we certainly enjoy good health.”

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