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Does it Matter if You Buy Veggie Starts From Big Box Stores?

Every spring, vegetable seedlings sprout like so many weeds at retailer storefronts across the country. They crowd the entrance of nearly every grocery store, supercenter, and home improvement retailer, the basil smelling of sweet licorice, and the tomatoes of a tobacco-leaf pungency.

And while it’s likely a tomato start from your nearby Home Depot will produce tomatoes that taste the same as those from an organic, local tomato seedling, the growing processes behind the two, and sometimes the health of the seedlings they produce, can be quite different. Read more

The Elephant in the Garden: Study Urges Urban Growers to Tackle Soil Contamination

Urban gardeners don’t like to talk about contaminated soil. After all, who wants to dwell on the chemical legacy of industry, illegal dumping, paint chips, and leaded gasoline when you can discuss bees, the weather, or the cool purple beans you’re growing?

But city growers must tackle this elephant-in-the-room subject. That’s the message Brent Kim, a program officer at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, wants you to know. Read more

Gardener’s Delight: Seed Pack Art for Spring

There’s no better way to celebrate the beginning of spring than to stock up on seeds and get ready to break new ground. Gardening always keeps you guessing, because you never know from one season to the next what might delight you, and what might disappoint you. Inevitably, some seeds sprout and thrive while others rot, wither, or fall victim to fungus or critters. That’s life. Read more

Berkeley School Gardening, Cooking Programs Face Cuts

Three of Berkeley Unified School District‘s elementary schools–Malcolm X,  Rosa Parks, and Washington—are in jeopardy of losing their entire cooking and gardening program funds beginning in October this year.

Under existing guidelines, the schools will no longer qualify for federal funding because they have fewer than 50 percent of their students enrolled in the free and reduced-lunch program, according to Leah Sokolofski, who supervises the program for the district.

Berkeley has an international reputation for its edible schoolyards, where public school children of all economic means learn what it takes to grow a radish and sauté some chard. Such funding cuts to the program, whose total budget is $1.94 million a year, would represent a significant setback in the city’s pioneering efforts to date. Read more

City Fruit: Guerrilla Grafting

San Francisco will experience an unexpected windfall of free fruit thanks to a group of graft-happy gardeners. They call themselves the Guerrilla Grafters, and their vision is to see the trees lining the city streets begin to produce perfectly edible food.  When I interviewed one of the Guerrilla Grafters recently, I learned that it’s not all about the grafting.

I discovered that Tara (last name withheld to protect her privacy), an early member of the Guerrilla Grafters, cares deeply about the society in which we live and our relationship with public spaces. We had interesting and engaging chat via Skype, and she explained what’s behind their efforts to crowd-source caring for fruiting trees in public spaces. Read more

Linking Heirlooms and Civic Agriculture

“Heirloom” is an interesting term, and like the word “sustainability,” it means different things to different people. Recently, I read The Heirloom Life Gardener, a book written by Jere and Emilee Gettle. The Gettles are the co-founders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, which publishes a lush and incredibly informative seed catalog and has spun off a variety of gardening-related enterprises across the nation.

The Gettles define heirloom seeds as being “nonhybrid and open-pollinated” and as usually having been in circulation for more than 50 years. Some heirloom seed types currently in use could have been found in Thomas Jefferson garden at Monticello. Some appear more recently, during the Great Depression, including the Mortgage Lifter tomato (who couldn’t use one of these in today’s economy?).

While reading the Gettles’ book, I began thinking once again about the relationship between land and the American character. I was inspired to pull some of my favorite books off the shelf and revisit them, to consider the notion of “civic agriculture.” Read more

Urban Planting: Turning Blight into Bounty in the Inner-City

Armed with soil and seeds, Catholics in blighted cities are taking social justice into their own hands.

In Camden, New Jersey a jumble of railroad tracks, freeways, and abandoned factories lace through the Waterfront South area on the Delaware River just across from Philadelphia. During heavy rains, a nearby wastewater treatment plant frequently leaks raw sewage onto the streets.

An urban exodus from Camden has left 4,000 empty lots in a 10-square-mile area; half of the houses have been abandoned. This makes the city a prime place for people to dump stuff they don’t know what to do with. One day an old speedboat ended up on Broadway, one of the city’s main streets. Two weeks before, a huge abandoned factory caught fire and burned to the ground. Read more

The Bronx’s Pied Piper of Peas

Whatever you call him, Steve Ritz is an extraordinary example of how one person can make a difference.

He has two missions: The first is to get his Discovery High School students to grow and eat vegetables. The second is to ignite the Green Bronx Machine and get all of the borough residents to grow and eat healthy food. (Watch out for the soon-to-come Web site and meanwhile follow Green Bronx Machine on Facebook and Twitter.)

Ritz is fueled by the irony that although the Bronx is the distribution point for produce to all five boroughs, its residents have very little access to high quality, fresh vegetables.

“If my kids can’t buy good produce at the local supermarket, we’ll get them to grow it,” Ritz decides. And grow they do! Hundreds of pounds of it a year. Where? On the classroom walls. Read more

Dig Deep: Rehabilitation Through Gardening

It’s 2:30 on a Friday afternoon. The loudspeakers blare, “Garden Program is Good.”  Then, out of grey military barrack-like buildings meander 30 or so men, headed to the “chapel” for class and some days, to a garden bursting with color. Dressed in their “blues.”

The group of men is predominantly African-American, with a healthy mix of other races. On the yard, razor wire and heavy chain-link fences surround them, with several guard towers looming over the area.

They are the class participants of the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison. Read more

Grow the Good Life: A Manifesto for Uncomplicated Gardening

If there’s one thing Michelle Obama and Glenn Beck can agree on, it’s the notion that growing some of your own food is a good idea (though I suspect the Obamas get their seeds from sources other than Beck’s shifty, grifty seed bank sponsor).

You might think that level of bipartisan support would light a fire under our collective (gr)ass. But the much-ballyhooed kitchen garden revival has yet to make a dent in the bentgrass. As NASA reported in 2005, lawns now constitute “the single largest irrigated crop in America,” taking up at least three times the acreage we devote to irrigated corn. Has any nation in the history of mankind ever squandered so many resources to cultivate so much vegetation of such dubious value?

Meanwhile, we currently grow less than 2 percent of our own food.

“This,” Michele Owens declares in her just-published Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, “is not yet enough of a revolution to satisfy me.” Read more