Eating Local, Part 2: Grow Your Own

Sarene Marshall is the managing director of The Nature Conservancy’s global climate change program. This is the second of her four-part series on the importance of eating locally produced food.

In my last blog post, I introduced some of the health, taste, and environmental benefits of eating locally. Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore different ways to do this, starting with: grow your own!

I know this may be a daunting suggestion. You live in a city or suburb with minimal space, you work and don’t have free time, you have no idea what to plant or when, and/or, you are not fond of the dirty, back-breaking labor involved. Fear not! There are several simple solutions to all those obstacles.

First, let’s demystify the question of what to plant and when. When I first began gardening, I got the greatest tip from a colleague who was way more experienced than I: plant radishes! Even if you aren’t crazy about radishes, trust me – do it. Radishes are among the earliest and fastest-growing veggies, so they give you a great sense of satisfaction. And they take up very little space. On one or two 50-degree days in early spring, sow a few seeds, and in 3 weeks you’ll have a crunchy treat. Toss them with some sour cream, rice vinegar, and honey for a delicious salad.

Make your own connection between food and conservation this Earth Day and throw a Picnic for the Planet. Join all the others who are putting their dot on the map and taking the Earth to lunch.

Next up: greens. Lettuces are also very easy to grow, but don’t wait until it is too warm, because lettuce does not like heat. Opt for loose-leaf varieties such as black-seeded Simpson that can be picked one leaf at a time so you don’t have to wait for a whole head to grow. Sowing just a few seeds every few days during early spring will yield weeks and weeks of daily salads. Not only will they be fresh and delicious, you’ll save a bundle of money (and carbon pollution) over bagged varieties flown from far away. And one of the greatest advantages: with salad right outside, there’s no need for last-minute trips to the store.

Once it’s warmer, go crazy with your summer veggies– tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and the like. I start most of these from plants, since they are more reliable and yield results faster. And don’t forget to put in some herbs, like basil and oregano, which are wonderful in tomato salads and in marinades for simply-grilled meats. Just writing that makes me hungry for a patio dinner on a summer evening.

But you don’t have acres of land? Me neither. On the advice of another experienced gardener, I follow the square foot gardening method, a tried-and-true approach perfectly suited to those of us with little space, little time, and/or little energy to dedicate to growing food. The square foot method prevents you from engaging in one of the biggest errors of the hobby gardener: overplanting. For years, my garden – which produced plenty for our family of four – consisted of three 4 foot-by-eight foot raised wooden boxes, and one two-by-eight box with a trellis (for vine crops like tomatoes, beans, and melons). In addition to providing straight edges for each square, the sides of the boxes made for easy seating, saving my back and knees from bending and digging. Having everything neatly delineated in squares makes it easy to plan and maintain mini-plots for each item you grow, to water as needed and to spot intruding weeds or insects. And children can even get involved in tending their own square(s).

For those with no space to put a single box, community gardens – in other words, shared plots of land that neighbors tend – are a great alternative. Beyond providing a source of recreation, social connection, and green space, these plots can generate plenty of local food. According to the American Community Gardening Association there are more than 18,000 such gardens across the U.S. today, but, during WWII, an astonishing 44% of vegetables in the United States were grown in community “Victory Gardens.” In contrast, today more than half of the nation’s produce comes from California’s San Joaquin valley. Imagine what a resurgence of community gardens would do to reduce the massive amount of fuel we use to transport food, and cushion the blow of shrinking family budgets and rising food prices.

(Image: Winter harvest in a square foot garden. Image credit: KoryeLogan/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Enjoyed your article and the tip about radishes. I have a small raised garden spot of my own alongside the driveway of my small suburban lot. Love the idea of squares. Never considered that. My garden yields enough for me and a few friends/relatives every year. I even grow cantalope by using a tomato cage and hammocks. Again, I enjoyed your article.

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