At Home in the Web of Growers

Gardening is a nearly perfect family activity. It instills wonder of life (whether from a scientific or spiritual perspective), healthy eating habits, and early environmental ethics, and it’s just plain fun. I don’t know any kids who don’t light up at the prospect of digging in the dirt, planting seeds, watering plants (and themselves), and filling baskets with produce from the garden.

Gardening instills wonder, healthy eating habits, early environmental ethics, and fun.

The first time my three-year-old son helped with gardening was on his first birthday, when we sat him in the dirt to plant a fig tree in honor of the occasion. Since that time, he has enjoyed gardening as part of our home life and part of church (where we started a garden for the hungry—more on that in a future post). I love that my son gets to know natural rhythms and the richness of…well, dirt. I especially love that he gets excited about eating so much nutritious food—and I fantasize that these eating habits will stick with him through adulthood. From the garden, my son eats everything from fennel, to beans (he sometimes snacks on them raw out of eagerness), to zucchini, to a staple in most U.S. gardens, tomatoes.

<i>My son helping plant for the first time...a fig tree for his first birthday.</i>

My son's first venture into gardening, planting a fig tree for his first birthday.

Tomatoes are part of the impetus for my post today. I read an opinion piece by Dan Barber in the New York Times about the pernicious, tomato (and potato), late blight fungus, which is affecting farmers across the Northeast. I began to read out of vague, superficial interest (I live on the west coast and I am not a farmer, so I expected the article to be interesting, but not directly related to me except in terms of produce prices). By the time I finished the article, I realized that I have unconsciously helped to create a problem that is decimating the crops of even the small farmers who I try hard to support.

Late blight is a fungus that affects tomatoes and potatoes (and some weeds) late in the growing season. While it isn’t harmful for humans, it ruins the crops, rendering them unusable. (Late blight was a culprit in the Irish potato famine of the 1840s). This year, the fungus has appeared much earlier in the season and been much more destructive than in other years. The reasons for this surprise crop attack may be many. But among them is the rise in home gardening, whether in pots or backyards.

Increasing numbers of people are starting their own gardens. But, over the decades since the general population stopped growing its own food in favor of grocery stores, people have lost much of their inherited knowledge about the red flags of plant disease. So, they don’t see the early signs of infections like late blight and let the plants go. Late blight takes effect quickly—in as short as a couple of days. And the spores can travel up to 40 miles.

This year, apparently many large retailers (like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Kmart, and Wal-Mart) sold some starter plants that had been infected with late blight. Unsuspecting customers purchased the plants, planted them in their gardens, and helped to create a late blight epidemic in the Northeastern (rapidly spreading into the Southeastern) United States. (After doing some research, I discovered that late blight is also spreading this year in the tomato-growing regions of California, where we live. See Master Gardener Fred Hoffman’s blog.)

When we plant things in the ground, we are inserting ourselves into an agricultural web, which comes with responsibility.

I easily fall into the category of ignorant suburban gardener. I grew up in the suburbs of D.C., with no garden and no plant knowledge. My husband, although he grew up on a farm, paid little heed to the gardening lessons of his grandmother (partly in rebellion against farming and partly because his chores focused more in pastures, hay fields, and the kitchen). So, over the years, we have taken a somewhat laissez faire approach to gardening. We usually start from seeds (which reduces some of the risk of infection), planting a wide variety of almost anything that seems interesting. Then we water, weed infrequently, and see what takes. Some years we reap vast quantities of food and other years, almost nothing works out. This is certainly a fun approach to gardening, but it is not a responsible or conscientious one.

What this article made clear for me is that when we plant things in the ground, we are inserting ourselves into an agricultural web, which comes with responsibility. Our responsibility extends beyond decisions not to use pesticides and herbicides (which can leech into and pollute groundwater for everyone). It is also about the types of plants we use and the care we take of them. The article offers this advice on selecting plants for your garden:

…If you’re planning a garden (and not growing from seed — the preferable, if less convenient, choice), then buy starter plants from a local grower or nursery. A tomato plant that travels 2,000 miles is no different from a tomato that has traveled 2,000 miles to your plate. It’s an effective way to help local growers, who rely on sales of these plants before the harvest arrives. It’s also a way to protect agriculture.

In addition, as part of the web of growers, we have a responsibility to learn about the plants we grow. Regional master gardeners, local universities, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are good starting places for information. These resources can help home gardeners learn how to spot diseases, invasive plants, and other growing concerns.

Taking care in plant selection and gaining knowledge are part of living consciously. Because, although fences and walls may give home gardeners the illusions that they are doing their own thing and not bothering others, life is interconnected and our choices have effects.

*For more information, including identifying photos of late blight on crops, check out Cornell University’s Agricultural Center.

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3 Comments on "At Home in the Web of Growers"

  1. Amanda
    10/08/2009 at 8:59 pm Permalink

    Wow, what a helpful post. One of my tomato plants (bought at Home Depot after my first batch of seedlings died) may have gone down with that fungus, or at least something similar. I’m hoping I didn’t leave it in the ground so long that the others got it. That batch certainly was less healthy than any other tomatoes I’ve ever planted. We’ve been out of town too much to try to start seeds again for fall, but I’m hoping to order some from an organic grower here in CA soon. Maybe they’ll have a better chance if I can get them in the ground quickly — and in a totally fresh bed!

  2. Austen
    13/08/2009 at 11:14 pm Permalink

    Thanks Amanda! We haven’t gotten to our fall planting either…actually, we are still getting regular veggies from the spring planting. I hope your tomatoes work out in a fresh bed. :)

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