How (and what and why) does your garden grow?

Despite all this snow, I'm already in garden planning mode. The first thing that needs to happen is to think about what your goals are, and the best way to achieve them. Here are a few topics to consider, and some of the reasons I have: FUN: Most of the reasons below are pretty serious, so I thought I'd start with this one. As the founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream say, "If it's not fun, why do it?" I think it's exciting to plant a little seed in some dirt, and watch it become a plant that can help sustain someone's life. Plus, it's fun to play in the dirt! That's why kids like doing it!

Food security: Did you go to the grocery store around Christmas? If so, you might've noticed that there was often a lack of decent produce. This wasn't just your usual combination of high demand due to the holidays, and poor quality because of the winter. There were ferry disruptions throughout December, and as a result there was a lack of fresh produce available. If you grow your own, you can have fresh vegetables pretty much year round (something we'll cover in another post), so ferry issues won't affect you as much.

Food quality: Vegetables shipped in from the mainland are normally picked well before they are ripe, and then allowed to "ripen" on the trucks. This makes for pretty sad examples of produce in many cases. When you grow your own, it's as fresh as picking it and eating it!

My Apartment Garden in 2009

Availability: Some vegetables and herbs are just difficult to come by in Newfoundland. Whether it's because there's not a lot of demand for a product, or because it doesn't ship well, the bottom line is that sometimes if you want something unusual, you've got to grow it yourself.

Environmental concerns: This is two-fold for me. The first is the environmental impact of all the shipping involved in bringing produce here. Trucks and ferries all consume various fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming and generally spews all sorts of unplesant chemicals in to the environment. The second is the impact of how a lot of vegetables are produced. Our modern agricultural system is highly dependant on fossil fuels for machinery, as well as the production of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. All of those chemicals end up in our food and water, which means that we are consuming poisons. When growing my own food, I have at least a degree of control around what chemicals are used.

Biocontaminates: Over the last decade, we've had more and more large recalls of produce AND meats. I think this reflects two unfortunate realities: Industrial Agriculture causes a lot of serious side effects, and we can't count on the big producers to protect us. The best way to avoid e. Coli-contaminated spinach is to grow your own!

Rising Food Costs: The cost of food has been steadily increasing over the last few years. With the cost of gas (and thus, shipping) climbing, we are only a few major crop failures away from enough of a food shortage to significantly increase the cost of just about everything we buy. The cost of seeds, on the other hand, have stayed relatively constant over the last 5 years, and a single seed can produce a plant that will provide you with so much more food per dollar than you could get at the supermarket. Yes, there is some "sweat equity", but if you're smart about it, you can keep that to a minimum.

As you may have guessed, I'm a fan of growing organically. I think it's the best way to produce food, and in fact has a better chance of "feeding the world" than agriculture that is centred around chemicals. Besides the fact that I'm not in to poisoning myself or the environment, I also garden organically because I like to keep my garden costs to a minimum. Many sources of organic fertilizer are available for little or no cost. For example, if you have a composter, you not only put less garbage at the curb, you also turn what would otherwise be a waste product in to one of the best soil-building additives out there! If you're lucky enough to live near a farm that raises certain kinds of animals, they might be willing to spare you a few bags of their manure, which can be a great way to boost the soil again. My final reason for growing organically is that I can be a bit lazy. Organic practices require a bit more work up-front than chemcial growing, as well as some forethought, but most of the techniques are designed to reduce the overall labour required to grow. For example, spreading mulch over the garden beds reduces the weeds, as well as helping to reduce the number of times you have to water.

A lesser-known area of gardening that I'm an advocate for is growing varieties of herbs and vegetables that are open-pollinated. This means that the variety is not a hybrid or a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), and that seeds from that plant will grow the same plant. This allows you to save seeds year after year, which takes the money you spent on the initial purchase of the seeds and stretches it out over years. As well, the plants will adapt over time to the local climate of your garden (also known as a microclimate), allowing you to select the best possible examples of a plant to propogate for your area. The seeds do tend to be more expensive ($2-$5 per packet, as opposed to $0.99 at the grocery store), but since you can save seeds from these plants, your investment in one packet could be spread over a lifetime. You might even end up passing down seeds to your children or grandchildren!

Speaking of handing things down, another kind of seed that I find interesting is heirloom. There's not a ton of agreement around what constitutes an heirloom variety: some say that if the variety was documented 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or pre-1945. There are others who argue that that heirloom should only be used for seeds that are literally heirlooms - passed down through the generations of a family. Still others argue that non-hybridized varieties that were grown commercially but are no longer in production should be allowed to be called heirloom. Whatever your definition, they are usually somewhat rare and are often quite different from what you may be used to. As a fun exercise, try putting "Heirloom tomato" in to Google Images, and see what you get. One of the things that attracted me to heirloom varieties is their diversity of shape and colour. I think having some unusually-shaped tomatoes on a plate is a heck of a lot more interesting than the regular round ones!

So, while the snow is deep and your garden space is still just a dream, what are you are looking to get out of your garden?