In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
December, 2011
Regional Report

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The easiest tomatoes to grow are the cherry types, and new varieties like 'Terenzo' have a bright, acid taste.

Grow Your Own Food

Those who do not grow at least some of their own food often think the rest of us are crazy. Why spend all that time and energy when food stores and local markets have it all? For good exercise, surely, and time outdoors, but mostly because home grown tastes best.

Understanding Food Miles
Growing edibles is at the intersection of green philosophy and practical good taste. Whether it is a fig tree bearing weeks of fresh fruit or a vegetable patch that feeds six year round, one delicious bite makes the gardener's labor worthwhile. When food travels the short distance from garden to back door, the quality decline timeline of its post-harvest physiology is short. The stresses of transit plus the natural changes after harvest increase as the distance from farm to table increases. These food miles can cost the consumer in taste, but a good case can also be made for their impact on the environment in two ways.

First is the carbon footprint argument, which calculates the actual transportation costs and resulting pollution created by the trip. Second, and perhaps more convincing, is the overall environmental impact of the aspects of large scale food production that consume energy. From irrigation to commercial fertilizer to elevated pesticide levels, the costs are high and growing every year, even before the crop is trucked. Either way you look at it, that carrot from California has a lot of miles on it, while the one you grow or purchase from a local farmer does not. Couple that with better taste, and limiting the travel time for your food should be everyone's goal.

Create Better Growing Conditions
Home-grown food can be easier on the environment, particularly if you grow it organically. Organic practices, from composting to integrated pest management, have less of an environmental impact than their conventional counterparts.

For example, the leaves I rake from my yard go into the compost and later become fertilizer for my garden. My neighbor blows his leaves into piles and then stuffs them in plastic bags for the trash collector. Each spring, he hauls in bags of commercial fertilizer for his garden, which produces more leaves for his annual ritual.

Because organic gardeners understand that huge expanses of one crop will more easily succumb to any pests that attack, we interplant. Instead of long monocrop rows, we interplant beans with corn, sow patches of spinach at weekly intervals, and often add flowers to the vegetables and vice versa. Overuse of pesticides, whether from organic sources or not, can reduce the beneficial insect population and spur the use of even more pesticides. Organic gardeners aspire to avoid these energy-sucking cycles and grow better tasting food as a result.

Start Simple
If you have never grown food before, it is wise to start with some that have a track record for success in our regions. Plant a strawberry guava or loquat next month for delicious fruit with no more effort than growing an azalea or cape jasmine. Dig a richly organic, fertile, and well-drained bed for potatoes late in January. Plant the spuds in a trench down the middle of the bed. Fill it in with soil from the trench as they grow. By late April, you can dig new potatoes. At the same time, sow beet seeds to harvest a taste of the best vegetable you never ate. Follow these with cherry tomatoes for their disease resistance and forgiving nature. Less demanding of water and fertilizer than larger fruited tomatoes, cherry tomatoes also ripen faster on the vine and have longer shelf life.

Be adventurous beyond these easy choices and soon your food miles will plummet. To those who grow already, take a dish of food you grew to the office party, and when they ask why it tastes so good, spread the word about the good taste and wisdom of growing your own.


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