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Gardening Columns

Food Gardeners Unite

First published on on May 8, 2008, by Suzanne DeJohn

Like many of you, I take announcements of new "trends" with a grain of salt. One year purple is in, the next season it's orange. One year it's Victorian baroque, the next, minimalism. However, a recent spate of news items caught my eye. It seems that home vegetable gardening is on the rise. "Interesting," I thought. "Can it be true?" So last weekend when I was buying plants at a local greenhouse I asked the grower if he had noticed an increase in vegetable transplant sales. He said yes, he's seen a big rise, and he's already running low on tomato and pepper plants -- and the official spring planting date (Mother's Day) was still a week off. He told me people are buying vegetable plants early and storing them until it's time to plant, telling him they are worried about rising food prices.

A Gardening Renaissance?
Except for some of the local old-timers and "back-to-the-landers," few people I know have been growing a significant amount of their own food in recent years. Supermarket food has been relatively inexpensive so there wasn't a financial imperative. Flowers and lawns were the focus. Food gardens were a novelty -- a few tomato and pepper plants.

All that appears to be changing. Is this a food gardening renaissance or a blip in the statistics that will flatten if and when food prices drop -- or when we just get used to them? I hope it's not just a fad, but rather a sea change in the way we look at our food.

People ask me why I'd rather can and freeze my own food when it's so much easier to buy it in the store. (And probably cheaper, when you add up the cost of growing the food and buying the mason jars and electricity to can them.) Because to me growing and preserving food are life skills with intrinsic value. I'm not a purist, but if I have a choice I'd rather eat food from my garden than food grown who knows where by who knows who. And I DO have a choice.

I value the old-fashioned homesteading skills -- gardening, canning, sewing, cooking, baking bread. It makes sense to me to know how to fulfill my basic needs. And there's no place I'd rather be on a sunny day than in my garden. I'm one of those annoying people who likes to weed. In my spare time I read books about plants and botany and gardening. I noticed the odd glance of a passerby one day as I was examining up close the beautiful bark on a tree. I suspect she murmured, "She must be on drugs." No, I just love observing nature. To me plant bark is just as enthralling as art in a museum. I suppose you could call me a plant nerd.

Plant Nerds, Unite!
It seems like every few generations there's renewed interest in gardening and garden-related things. WWII had its Victory Gardens. The 1970s had the back-to-the-land hippies. Now, after a few generations of high-tech, gee-whiz electronics -- the "Revenge of the Nerds" era -- maybe us plant nerds will have our day in the sun again.

Several "20-somethings" have recently asked me to show them how to do homestead-y things. I showed one young couple how to bake bread, and now they bake all their own. Another exuberant friend called, asking "Do you know how to make pumpkin pie from a pumpkin?" As though it were akin to brain surgery. I shared how to make a homemade pie, from cooking and pureeing the pumpkin to making the crust. I think she was surprised at how easy it was, and I doubt she'll ever buy canned pie filling again.

Whatever it takes to get people back into the garden, I'm all for it. Gardening gets people outdoors and offers a glimpse into the natural world. And when people grow food, they tend to be more concerned about what pesticides they're spraying. So in a roundabout way, food gardening is good for the environment.

The Times Are A-Changing
Can you believe that some subdivisions prohibit food gardening? According to one source, almost one in five Americans -- 57 million -- live in homes regulated by homeowner associations (HOAs), whose covenants regulate what residents can and can't do. And some of those convenants prohibit or restrict food gardens (see

According to the Web site for the Crest Mountain gated community in Asheville, North Carolina, vegetable gardens are not allowed (

At Tavistock Farms in Leesburg, Virginia, you can have a vegetable garden as long as it doesn't exceed 64 square feet. Just how much food can you grow in an 8' x 8' garden? And no veggies in the front yard. And free-standing greenhouses are forbidden. Where is the farm in Tavistock Farms?

Something is very wrong with these restrictions. If your property has a covenant that prohibits you from growing your own food, maybe now's the time to take a stand and help this food gardening "trend" become a "movement" and eventually, maybe, a way of life. Share your knowledge about gardening. Growing your own food gives you power. In a world where so much seems to be out of our control, this is one place we can all participate.

If you're inspired to grow some edibles this season, be sure to check out National Gardening Association's Edible Landscaping Web site and eNewsletter:

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