This is an excerpt from my book “The New Canadian Garden.”
Why do we grow food? It seems like an easy question with a simple answer: we grow food to survive. After all, we need food to fuel our bodies, to supply our tissues with moisture, nutrients, and vitamins to move, grow, repair, and think. Beyond that, though, beyond the necessity that engulfs the process, why do a third of Canadians engage in food gardening when the Majority of us generally have easy access to a wide variety?
Gardening for food is more than a means to an end. It is a time to play in the dirt, to let the soil run through your hands, to not feel guilty when you get dirty; it is the thrill of watching those seeds, tiny and seemingly insignificant, emerge from the ground and grow a little every day; it is knowing where your food comes from, where it’s been, and appreciating the effort it took to get it here. Above all else, it helps us to understand how connected we are with Mother Nature and how dependent on her we are for survival — not the other way around.
I get a thrill out of growing food in my garden each spring and summer. I guess that’s why I carved an acre out of our property for this purpose!
According to a National Gardening Association Special Report, the number one reason that we grow our own food, though, is to produce something that tastes better than what we can buy. This does not surprise me, as I have purchased some pretty tasteless tomatoes from the grocery store.
Also on the list: financial savings, increased food quality and safety, being able to eat more locally, and getting more exercise and time outdoors. But are these all good reasons to “grow your own”?
Financially speaking, I’m inclined to say yes. Not only do you save money at the grocery store, you will likely avoid excessive car trips in search of fresh produce, money on plastic bags when you forget your reusables, and I personally find that less goes to waste when I’m growing my own: I just can’t throw away something I worked so hard on to produce.
Not convinced? Here are some numbers. If you grow one tomato plant and one pepper plant, and you do a good job of it, you will spend just over $3.50 for the seeds. In return, you will yield about $45 in produce. Not a bad investment opportunity, if you ask me!
Many of the supplies you need are one-time purchases that last quite a long time: pots, tools, fertilizer (and if you compost, the fertilizer is free). Note that your soil will need to be amended each season and it is impossible to put a value on that. Seed packets come with an average 10 seeds and, assuming you keep them in a cool, dry place, they can last several years.
The quality and safety of our food has become increasingly important to us. Food quality includes, of course, what you expect to see on food store shelves, how the food smells and feels in your hand. When you’re eating it, how does it taste? What are its nutritional qualities? How was it produced?
Today’s consumers seem to be shifting gears: to a greater degree than ever we don’t want to give up valuable nutrition and taste for something that looks perfect. Some Canadian consumers are quite willing to grab the tomato that looks a little beat-up if she knows it was grown in a sustainable manner. With the widespread use of chemicals to ward off insect pests and disease, we have sacrificed food safety for aesthetics. Growing your own food puts you in control of your food’s safety and quality.
The Basics: You can group all vegetables (or fruits) into four categories based on their growing habits.
Leaves and stems: Characterized by their leafy structure, we often do not eat the flowers and focus our attention on keeping these plants from flowering to avoid bolting; these include: broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, kale, and spinach.
Fruits and seeds: These are the plant whose flowers turn into the parts of the plant we eat and require either self- or cross-pollination to produce a fruit: tomatoes, peppers, corn, and squash.
Roots and bulbs: The parts most often eaten grow underground; for example: onions, garlic, carrots, and beets.
Legumes: a subsection of the fruits and seeds category, legumes produce a flower, which, when pollinated, grows into a fruit with seeds. The difference, though, is that legumes can return nitrogen to the soil and are separated into their own category so they can be rotated at the appropriate time; examples include: peas, green beans, peanuts, and lentils.
It’s best to have a little from each category to avoid the potential problems of monocropping. For the all-important crop-rotation, you can start each plot or row anywhere in the cycle. Just remember: leaves, fruits, roots, and legumes.
Excerpted from “The New Canadian Garden,” $19.99, 2016, Mark Cullen. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, “The New Canadian Garden” published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.