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Build Your Own Bounty — The How-Tos of Organic Vegetable Gardening
By Juliann Schaeffer

Backyard vegetable gardening: It may or may not be something to which you’re already accustomed, but it’s surely growing in popularity among the masses. According to Yahoo! search data, people across the country are turning to the Web this spring to research gardening, searching for what to plant, what to build, and how to grow certain vegetables. In particular, Yahoo! searches for “organic gardening” were up 171% in March. 

The idea is not a novel one, but whether because of environmental concerns, rising food prices, or convenience, more consumers are turning to backyard vegetable gardening, and your clients may soon be going to you for gardening guidance (if they haven’t already).

Amy Pennington, cook, gardener, and author of Urban Pantry: Tips and Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable and Seasonal Kitchen, says she has definitely seen an increased interest in backyard vegetable gardening since 2007. “No longer the hobby of people with plenty of space, people are now gardening in backyards, parking strips, and balconies,” she says.

“Additionally, in recent years, we’ve had plenty of food scares—contamination, disease, etc—and taking matters into your own hands and controlling your food sources has become appealing,” she adds.

Could the First Lady’s foray into gardening also help? It certainly hasn’t hurt people’s interest in growing their own food.

“Where better to see America’s recent resurgence of the victory garden than at the White House? The First Lady spearheaded the White House Kitchen Garden, and it very publicly showcases the health benefits of eating fresh and local vegetables,” says Sallie Scribner, master gardener for Summer Winter at Boston’s Marriott Burlington Hotel, a restaurant that houses an on-premise, four-season greenhouse that grows more than 60 varieties of vegetables and herbs for its menu offerings.

“Outside of the White House, it seems like everywhere you turn, someone is talking about how they are starting a garden, rejuvenating a forgotten garden, or joining a community garden. Gardening is becoming an extremely popular endeavor for people of all ages in all communities,” adds Scribner.

Gardening Benefits, Organic and Otherwise
Whatever the reason for backyard gardening’s increasing popularity, its benefits are well known and widespread. According to Scribner, the first and foremost factor in favor of backyard vegetable gardening is health. “Health is a big concern fueling the backyard vegetable garden movement. More often than not, grocery stores just cannot deliver the freshest, healthiest produce,” she says.

In addition, rising food prices the world over add more than just convenience to grabbing some peppers from outside your back door for dinner: It’s also less expensive. “Seed packets are relatively inexpensive to buy and contain way more seeds than you can use in a season for a typical backyard garden. Seeds are also very easy to save from year to year,” says Scribner.

Beyond the hardware it takes to get a garden started (such as a shovel, soil, and amendments), the only other factor is an investment of your time, says Scribner, “which can be as much or as little as you can afford in your schedule. Against the bleak outlook for global food prices, growing even a few staples in your backyard garden and saving them isn’t a hard argument to make!”

RDs will love what Craig Jenkins-Sutton, owner and president of Topiarius, Inc, sees as the most prominent benefit to backyard gardening. “When we grow our own vegetables, we tend to eat more vegetables,” he says. “Vine-ripened vegetables have more nutrients than those picked early and forced to ripen during transport. Additionally, vegetables can lose nutrients as they sit on the shelves, so freshly picked and eaten vegetables offer additional health benefits.”

While the question of whether organic food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food is the subject of ongoing debate, Mary Hartley, RD, MPH, nutritionist for CalorieCount.com, says there are some unarguable benefits to growing organic. “Organic foods reduce exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, food colorings and additives, animal hormones and antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms,” she says.

Plus, when you’re talking about growing your own food, Jenny Perez, herb garden manager at Bastyr University, says there’s more to growing organic than the health of you and your clients. “Organic gardens feed more than humans.  Cultivating a symbiotic relationship with nature is of utmost importance to maintaining healthy ecologies and healthy communities,” she says.

Garden Building Basics
Not quite sure where to start or how to prioritize your gardening tasks? Take these tips from Jenkins-Sutton and Scribner and let the growing goodness commence!

Choosing the site: When deciding what spot in your backyard oasis is best for a bit of gardening glory, Jenkins-Sutton says to make sure the spot you choose gets at least six hours of sunlight each day and is “preferably a location that has easy access to water and is protected from strong wind.”

Scribner says to also make note of where your hose is located: “Will it be easy to reach or will the hassle prevent you from enjoying taking care of the garden?” she asks.

 • Assess and build the soil: Next, it’s time to test the soil, which is a factor integral for success. “Many garden centers will have test kits that you can purchase for this,” says Jenkins-Sutton.

“Once you know what your soil is lacking, you will know how to amend it properly,” notes Scribner. “If you live in a highly urban area, the easiest and safest option is to garden in raised beds and containers, which have no chance of lead contamination.”

Scribner recommends contacting your local extension agency to figure out what temperature zone you are located in. “Are you a Zone 5 or a Zone 9? Depending on your zone, you may be able to grow some vegetables but not others,” she says.

Identify sources for organic seeds or plants: Jenkins-Sutton says this step is becoming much less difficult, as many seed companies are increasingly offering organic options. But still, purchasing organic plant starts isn’t always easy. “Try asking at local farmers’ markets and garden centers or research local garden clubs as many will have spring plant sales,” he recommends.

Research and purchase tools: Next, you’ll want to find organic gardening products for both pest control and fertilizer. But Jenkins-Sutton warns, “Please understand that many of these products will still have application warnings and can still be harmful.”

Sowing basics: Once you know your zone and you’ve bought the necessary tools, you can then plan sowing dates. “Though it can be difficult to fight the excitement of the coming season, it pays to be attentive to the heat requirements of your vegetables and plan their indoor sowing dates accordingly,” says Scribner.

If you are starting your vegetables from seed, Scribner recommends reading the back of the seed packets for vegetable-specific planting details, such as when you should sow, whether you should direct sow in the ground or transplant from cell trays, and other cultural requirements of plants (eg, sunlight, heat, water).

Conversely, “If you are starting your vegetables from transplants you picked up at your local nursery, make sure these transplants have no evidence of insect pests or diseases,” she says.  “You can grow these transplants in your sunny window until it is the correct time to place them in your garden outside.”

Scribner recommends “hardening transplants off” before moving into the garden. “Hardening off simply means placing the plants outside during the day and bringing them inside at night for several days,” she explains. “You should also withhold a little water—not too much—during this time. The plants will start to develop an understanding of the unpampered world, and after three to five days, they are ready to be transplanted.”

Get Gardening!
While building an organic garden is in many ways similar to nonorganic gardening, Jenkins-Sutton says the time involved is one difference to note. “There is definitely more time and effort that goes into organic gardening. Daily monitoring of the garden for invading pests and careful weeding become more important when you are no longer relying on chemical controls,” he says.

Afraid clients might shy away from such a time commitment? Maybe they’d be more inclined to take it on if you were to highlight one added benefit that was to come: “Building that healthy soil can take more effort, but as a positive it definitely offers an excellent workout,” says Jenkins-Sutton.

— Juliann Schaeffer is an associate editor at Great Valley Publishing Company and regular contributor to Today's Dietitian.