No more excuses
By Elise Cooke
Every year, you plan to grow a vegetable garden. And every year you just can't muster the motivation. Well, this year's going to be different. Here are 10 reasons to grow some of your own food.
1. Seed diversity
We can thank large commercial farms for growing enough food for all of us, and for keeping it affordable. Unfortunately, mass production comes at a price. Seeds developed to produce crops with traits best for large-scale cultivation — such as better disease-resistance, easier harvest and more shipping durability — lose genetic variability in the process. The fewer strains growing, the greater the chance that one "superbug" could wipe out a whole crop.
If you think this Doomsday scenario is a little far-fetched, consider the Irish potato famine. In the early 19th century, about a third of Ireland's desperately poor citizenry depended on the potato for most of their food. No type of potato that they grew was resistant to a particular fungus menacing European farmers for some years. With the stage set for disaster, winds from Southern England brought phytophthora infestans, variously called "late blight," "wet rot" and "potato blight," to Irish family farms. Affected plants shriveled and blackened. In just eight years, Ireland lost about a quarter of its population as a million people starved and another million fled the country.
As a home gardener, just by buying seeds for crops well-suited to great taste, good nutrition and small-scale cultivation, you're doing your part to maintain a viable market for genetic diversity in our produce. You'll be keeping the world safe from crop monocultures, one cucumber at a time.
With the economy and California itself being on shaky ground, it just makes good sense — and cents — to have fresh and preserved produce to rely on no matter what the market or the Hayward fault might deliver.
Growing your own produce is a hedge against one and a help against the other.
3. Thoughtful gifts
Not sure what to give that someone who has everything? A vegetable garden yields numerous possibilities throughout the year.
In the spring, tie a bow around potted plants that you started inexpensively from seed. Give at least two if they need to cross-pollinate to produce food. Be sure to include easy care instructions. Even non-gardeners enjoy having a food plant or two growing in their yards. Even the most black-thumbed can grow a low-maintenance herb or two.
In the summer, your surplus will be treasured by those who don't often experience the taste explosion of produce that's actually ripe, so take pity on the supermarket-bound and share.
In the fall, one trip around a commercial pumpkin patch will tell you how grateful others will be when you present them with their own winter squash. If your intended recipients aren't the jack-o-lantern types, they'll surely love your pies and thick, hearty purées. If you've got fruit trees, give crisp and delicious apples, by themselves or in pies and butters.
Dried or canned, or as flavoring in oils and vinegars, your garden harvest still makes wonderful gifts even in the winter. Tuck your handiwork into stockings, or offer a selection in a nice box. You even can give those special gardeners in your life their own seeds, saved from your harvest and attractively packaged. The homemade touch is a nice respite from the commercialism of the season.
Do you sometimes feel just a little silly walking or running nowhere on a machine like an overgrown hamster? Gardening is exercise with a purpose.
For a rigorous workout, double-dig a plot and feel the burn. Bending down to plant something is called a "squat" in jock-talk and "future food" in garden-jargon. Turning compost works your back and biceps. Pulling weeds by hand works those triceps. What's more, you'll have so much fun accomplishing something, you won't even know you accidentally strength-trained until you wake up with sore muscles the next day.
5. Cut fossil fuel use
Anything we can do to use less oil helps to lower our nation's foreign trade deficit and decrease pollution. Vegetable gardening aids in that objective in three valuable ways.
# Fewer globe-trotting groceries. Perhaps it's a little different in heavily agricultural California, but some studies indicate that on average, our produce travels some 1,500 miles from the farm to our dinner table.
# There's a little-farm advantage in plant nutrition. As you're not a large commercial farming concern, you can fertilize easily enough without relying on petroleum-based fertilizers. Anything from manure, fish emulsion or finished compost all provide plenty of nitrogen to grow a productive crop.
# Cut your own travel, too. You can avoid many trips to the supermarket when fresh produce is just outside. Isn't it great that gas prices peak at the same time the harvest does?
6. Save time
If you think you don't have enough time to garden, consider this: When seeds or plants find themselves in fertile, moist soil where the sun can see them, they can grow all by themselves. Hover over them if you like, but you're just blocking their light.
If you're always growing something, your typical morning will consist of going out and picking the day's tasty fiber, bulk and vitamins. The meals practically plan themselves.
7. Lessons for kids
Working in the garden with kids is truly quality time. They'll gain hands-on experience in botany, entomology, horticulture, nutrition, ecology, geology and biology. A garden teaches investment, savings and meal-planning. Your children will grow character along with the plants, learning patience, self-sufficiency, a strong work ethic and the sense of responsibility that comes from nurturing vulnerable seedlings.
Do they need a timeout? Send them to the garden to pull weeds. You'll get real time together away from the video games and television sets. All this is worth a little dirt tracked into the house, right?
Mounting evidence suggests that a healthy diet is the most effective in preventing many chronic diseases; multivitamins can't make up the difference.
Produce at the supermarket loses much of its vitamin potency because it's often picked before ripeness, then transported for long distances to sit for days on the display shelf. In contrast, your garden produce is ripe, crisp and chock-full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants at their peak of freshness.
Growing your own vegetables is one of the best healthy habits you can do for your family.
When your cranky snowbound friends call you a Zone Niner, it's not an insult. They're referring to the United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone, where we live.
Our temperate Bay Area climate is the envy of gardeners who lose valuable months out of the year waiting for the ground to thaw. Here, we hardly know what "hard frost" means. Even in January, you can be picking your own fresh carrots, onions, chard, snow peas, parsnips, lettuce and more.
In a lot of ways, winter gardening beats summer labor hands-down. The dew, rain and general cold temperatures ensure that your crops will need almost no water — a real plus in our drought-conscious region.
Most garden pests, such as aphids and snails, are sitting out the low temperatures and waiting for spring. Even weeds slow down during the winter months. Is it any wonder why our farmers' markets are open year round?
10. Save money
That $1.69 package of seed typically will grow at least 10 times the value in wholesome, organic vegetables, even accounting for the cost of water and reasonable germination failures. Let's do a little math to try to quantify how far your food bill could drop.
Suppose each member of your family eats about a pound of produce a day, in keeping with the Centers for Disease Control recommendation. A small year-round cultivation plot conservatively can produce half of the vegetable needs of a family of four.
Now suppose that the average cost of fresh, pesticide-free, organic produce is about $2 a pound, which means you'd be spending $8 a day for produce you buy. Your bed yields an average of $4 worth of food each day, or $3.60 after expenses. Your savings during the course of a year would total $1,314. That's a "raise" of more than $100 a month, tax-free.
So there you have it; 10 good reasons to put down the remote and pick up a shovel. What are you waiting for?