Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Please don't give up yet

This has been the year, I've been waiting for it a long time. The year that vegetable gardening went completely mainstream. It seems like everyone and their mother had a vegetable garden this year, or at the very least tried their hand at growing tomatoes in pots on their deck (discussion about those upside down tomato things another time.) You could actually get transplants at every nursery, supermarket and big box store with lots of variety. Heirlooms, improved hybrids, I had a hard time sticking to just the amount of plants that I needed for mine. The National Gardening Association reports that between 2007 and 2008 there was a 10% growth in home vegetable gardens and between 2008 and 2009 there was a 19% increase. The reasons noted for the rise are food safety, prohibitive cost of organic food and focused attention on childhood obesity. So of course everything is going along fantastically, and out come the haters.

It was bound to happen, those who want to rain on our garden parade. The New York Times published a series of articles this summer called "The Starter Garden" by Michael Tortorello your average joe newbie gardener. The self effacing author makes all kinds of mistakes along the way, as most new gardeners do. Last weeks article detailed his economic failure with this endeavor in which he states that he spent $940 in equipment and has only grown $190 (66 lbs) worth of produce. I'm not really sure how he spent so much money (composting with gold flakes perhaps?) But looking back through all the articles it became obvious that for someone with no experience, he went way too large. He does admit that he can amortize the cost of some of the supplies in future years, and that he doesn't mind running in the red, but what a way to discourage readers! Please start small if you are planning to start a vegetable garden. If done right, you can grow a lot of produce in a very small space. I'd recommend containers for those who are really new at the game. There is a lot to be learned by trial and error with gardening. Just for the sake of contrast I share with you this blog, Compost Confidential in which the author had very different results that Mr. Tortorello.

The weather this year has been challenging for even the most experienced gardeners and farmers. Late blight on tomatoes became widespread throughout the Northeast months earlier than normal due to cool wet rainy conditions through July. I lost 10 tomato plants to the blight, all heirlooms, due to the fact that I would not use potent fungicides to keep it under control. Many others I know, including several farmers had the same battle on their hands. So hater #2 came in the form of an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Dan Barber in early August. Mr. Barber is the well known and well respected chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY. What really bothered me about this article is that Mr. Barber blames the spread on the disease not on the weather (which is the #1 factor) but as he says, "Here’s the unhappy twist: the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory." Really? I'd love to see scientific proof of that. The disease spreads via airborne spores which can travel up to 40 miles. So yes, I live less than 2 miles from a Wal- Mart and Home Depot (also shouldering part of the blame) but I also live less than 40 miles from Stone Barns, how can I be sure that the spores didn't travel all that way from your farm to my yard. I could tear apart this op-ed line by line, but don't want to come across as too angry (probably too late for that.) I'll leave you to form your own opinions on the article.

My main message remains however, please grow vegetables, don't listen to the naysayers. You can even start now, with veggies for fall and winter harvest. More on that another day...the kids are almost home from school.

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