A combination of recession economics, a rising awareness of the healthy benefits of organic produce and a growing appreciation for the taste of the freshest fruits and vegetables locally grown has spurred a mass movement of home vegetable gardening, similar to the victory gardens of World War II.
Last year, a record number of Americans experimented with growing vegetables to offset rising food prices. The Burpee seed company did a study that confirmed that there is a cost-saving ratio of 1:25 for growing your own vegetables rather than buying them at the supermarket. That means if you invest $50 in your garden on seeds and fertilizer, you should be able to harvest $1,250 worth of produce, not to mention the health and ecological benefits! Of course, this study was done by one of the largest seed sellers in the world but even accounting for its vested interest, you should still be getting a lot of bang for your buck!
Michelle Obama, as we all know, is growing summer crops on the south lawn of the White House. Our own first lady, Maria Shriver, is now planning a garden at the California State Capital to help teach kids about food. Increasingly, schools are incorporating gardening into their curriculum.
These nouveaux jardiniÃ¨rs are “late bloomers" (pardon the pun) when compared to our local garden guru, Bill Roley, anthropologist, horticulturist and environmentally concerned person, who founded Sprout Acres in Laguna Beach in 1977. Sprout Acres continues to be a model for a complete ecological approach to the environment that uses water, energy, food, waste soil and technology to mimic the balance and cycles of nature.
As we drove up Summit Way to meet with Bill, we marveled at the extraordinary variety of fruits and vegetables growing along the narrow corridor on the side of the road. Walking under a canopy of plum, peach, banana, citrus, loquats and avocado trees, we noticed in the lush foliage, a number of different squashes and tomatoes. Later, Bill would walk us back here and point out all the varieties that we had missed. This is the concept of edible landscaping, both beautiful and useful.
As we entered the jungle-like back garden behind his eco-house, we were again overwhelmed by the profusion of nut trees, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs. A short list includes: cucumbers, beets, celery, all kinds of peppers, soybeans, cauliflower, potatoes, cabbages and lettuces. Then there was chamomile, lemon balm, Russian kale, parsley, borage, eggplant, mangos, kumquats, cherimoya and sapotes.
Bill is so enthusiastic about his stewardship of the land that he delights in showing you everything in his realm. He plucked blossoms from a pineapple guava tree and handed them to us to taste. They were wonderful, sweet with a delicate fruity flavor and, as he pointed out, make a delicious addition to salads. The pineapple guava tree is an excellent street tree because insects don’t like it and it’s drought tolerant.
Bill’s mission is to teach people how to live sustainably. He describes Sprout Acres as a place, “dedicated to those who find nature not an adversary to conquer and destroy, but a storehouse of infinite knowledge and experience linking man to all things present and past; and dedicated to those who know conserving our natural environment is essential to our future well-being." He calls this Permaculture, a living environment that breathes with nature’s rhythms and cycles. His symbol is the yin-yang circle surrounded by the closed cycle of food, energy, water and waste.
If this all seems a bit overwhelming, remember you can start small and still make a difference while reaping the benefits. Container gardening is certainly an option. The New York Times had an article about “square-foot gardening" that utilizes a three-foot-square space to produce nine different edible plants. (To view this, go to thefoodsection.com/appetizers, and click on gardening at the bottom of the page.)
Those of us lucky enough to live in Southern California benefit from a year-round growing season, yielding three or four separate crops from the same ground. There is always something growing, something maturing and something dying.
Bill recommends these low maintenance edibles for our climate: alpine strawberry, carob, chayote, fig, kiwi, lemon guava, loquat, mulberry, natal plum, olive, Oriental persimmon, pineapple guava, pine nut, pomegranate, prickly pear, sapote and strawberry guava. Of course many other trees and plants will grow easily in Southern California but those listed require less effort.
However, the disadvantage of gardening in our climate is that drought is a constant companion. For the good of the planet as well as your plants, water conservation is of utmost importance. Bill has suggested a number of things to think about:
?Climate appropriate landscaping
?Drip irrigation systems, which distribute gallons per hour rather than per minute
?Mulching, to slow down evaporation of irrigation
?Hydrozoning, grouping of landscape planting around common water needs
Contact Bill at the Permaculture Institute of Southern California at (949)494-5843 for tours and more information.
If starting a garden on your own seems daunting, there are number of people in Laguna who might feel as you do. Also, there are people who don’t have space for a real garden. Then, there are those who would like to work together to share the experience and the bounty of a community garden.
Susan Tenison, owner “Your Garden," would love to get all these people together and find some space to build a community garden, using her expertise.
If you know of any available land or are interested in participating, Susan would love to hear from you. Contact her at (949) 280-8247 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If the downturn in the economy has created an upturn in people growing the food they eat, the corollary effects may be even more profound: an increased consciousness of our interdependence with the earth, a heightened awareness of the healthy advantages of fresh homegrown fruits and vegetables and the ecological benefits of locally grown produce.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at email@example.com.