Modern produce varieties are bred and selected with little regard for taste. As an example, tomatoes must be red for most shoppers to buy them, but the long distances that they may have to travel from farm to table require that they also be sturdy enough to survive the journey. Varieties are selected for tough skins and firm flesh, not inherently bad qualities, but quite often it means they have lost other desirable attributes such as flavor and color.
Commercial vegetables are also typically picked before they are fully ripe to ensure that they are firm enough to stand up to the jostling and bumping. Many do not continue to ripen and thus do not achieve their fullest flavor and color when they have been picked so early. Standard producers of vegetables also rely on a very few varieties that have predictable performance; thus diversity is scarce.
Commercially produced vegetables have also been grown in large monocultures, making them prime candidates for pest and disease outbreaks. To counter those problems, farmers resort to chemical sprays that may be applied as preventatives even before any symptoms appear. Intensive farming also means that soil nutrients are in short supply, so fertilizers are also routinely added to the mix. What that all leads to is potentially toxic vegetables with few of the healthful and delicious attributes they could have.
One solution is to buy produce from local growers who can pick it at its peak and bring it to market without the long distances and delays. This allows them to choose to grow varieties that have more intense flavors and other desirable properties. If the grower is also growing a diversity of crops and using time-honored techniques to improve soil fertility, such as mulching and allowing beneficial fauna to help with insect control, the resulting vegetables and fruits will far surpass their store-bought counterparts-they’ll have more favorable flavor and appearance and won’t be hazardous to your health because of toxic treatments.
Another way to fulfill these same goals is to grow your own crops. Even small gardens can be made to supply fresh, healthful produce for the table. In California we can do this more or less year-round, but it seems like spring is when we get in the mood to spend some time and energy in the garden. So here is a short list of what can be planted now for delicious meals in just a few months. Root vegetables like beets, carrots, potatoes, turnips, and radishes will be sweeter and crisper and come in a wide variety of colors and types you won’t find in the supermarket. Greens such as lettuce, Swiss chard, and spinach, as well as all the cabbages, kales, and Asian specialties like bok choy can be sown from seed or transplanted from six-packs for even earlier harvest. Start peas-sugar, snap, and regular podded peas-from seed. Their fresh taste can’t be replicated by the scarred and wilted ones in the chain store bins. Onions and their relatives-leeks, shallots, and chives-are so easy to grow. Why take the car out of the garage, when you can walk out the door and pull a few fresh from the garden?
Green beans come at a premium in the markets, but they are extremely prolific, and there are some varieties with much deeper and better flavor-like Romano beans-that you will only find either at the Farmers Market or in your own back yard. Fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, and dill, from the garden or a pot near the kitchen door, will outshine those shipped around the country in plastic clamshells. Deciduous fruit trees and berries can be planted now, and your choice of varieties far exceeds what you can find in the store. Hold off on planting citrus or avocados until the soil is warmer, but-in our mild climate-if your neighborhood has space, you should never need to pay for these easy-to-grow fruits. Soon it will also be time to plant warm weather crops like squash, tomatoes, and peppers, so plan your garden to accommodate them when their time comes.
Once you get started, you may find that you need more space. You might want to take a look at Heather C. Flores’s book Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community. Flores advocates taking control of your own food production and creating a new urban ecology. The book is a good primer on growing your garden with the principles of permaculture, but it goes beyond that to inspire a new way of looking at the community you live in. By cooperating as a community to grow a wide variety of fresh food crops, you build a better environment, foster good health, and unite your neighborhood toward at least one common goal.
Grow Some, Give Some
Mesa Food Exchange
As you are planning your garden, be generous. One of the joys of harvesting your own produce can come from sharing it with others. There are some great ways to do that besides just passing some lettuce over the back fence to your neighbor. At least one neighborhood in Santa Barbara has started a more organized community swap. Members of the Mesa Food Exchange meet somewhere (hosts are always welcome) on the Mesa twice a month (first Sundays on the West Side and third Sundays on the East Side/Marine Terrace area) to share their bounty with fellow gardeners. It not only serves as a way to eat healthy food, it brings friends-old and new-together. Since it is so local, it is easy, as they say, to “walk, skip, bike, scooter, skate, wagon, or stroller” on over and leave the car at home.
If you live on the Mesa, check out the Web site (mesaexchange.org) for announcements of upcoming exchanges. If you don’t live on the Mesa, you are welcome to participate, but the idea is to avoid using your car, so you might prefer to start a similar project in your neighborhood instead. Handy hints on how to get organized are included on the Web site as well as resources and even recipes. Mesa gardeners are also invited to start a free box whenever they have garden-related mater borhood and see what is on offer, but one of the newer innovations will be the Share-shelf Kiosks. If one garden boasts a prolific lemon tree, its owners don’t need to stress about picking a boxful for the next exchange, they can put a handful out on any given day for their neighbors who have just scored some seafood. More information about starting a food-sharing community can be found in a brochure produced by Owen Dell (another Mesa foodsharer) at his Web site owendell.com/images/Foodshed.pdf. Any of the methods of exchange can be about plenty, not just food: worms to start your own worm box, seeds or cuttings of any type of plant, or just a note about extra firewood. No one garden may be able to grow everything for a family’s table; perhaps not even the larger neighborhood can replace an occasional trip to the big-box store. Every attempt to think, grow, and share locally will result in healthier lives, however.
Plant a Row for the Hungry
Sharing your garden treasures with your immediate community is wonderful, but sharing them with people who do not have homes and gardens is also an option worth considering. For 14 years, the Garden Writers Association has been recruiting communities to Plant a Row for the Hungry. Individual gardeners, church groups, master gardening classes, and others are enlisted to grow more than their own families can use and donate the excess to area food banks and other charitable organizations. In 2005 nearly 10 million pounds of food, produced in home gardens around the country, were donated.
Santa Barbara does not (yet!) have an organized Plant a Row program, but with the help of Jim Roehrig and the Backyard Bounty program supported by the Foodbank of Santa Barbara, anyone can share their extra food. Backyard Bounty will not only pick up your produce, they will pick it for you. Roehrig started the program when he had five or six acres of lemon trees on his horse ranch that produced way more lemons than he could consume. He could pick as many as 1,000 pounds of lemons per week during the peak of harvest. The Foodbank was grateful for the bounty and the program was off and running.
Roehrig does most of the work himself at this point, but a church youth group and some UCSB students who support Habitat for Humanity have on occasion been recruited. A group of these students converged on a large, old persimmon tree last season and not only helped its owner harvest the crop, but they got to taste-some for the first time-the fruits as well. After the harvest, the owner was so enthusiastic about the program that he promised to plant some squash for the program this year. So when that bean crop threatens to overwhelm you or the zucchini are growing faster than you can eat them, give Backyard Bounty a call and know that your excess is going to provide a more healthful meal for someone in need. The Foodbank supports 100 local charities from Head Start programs to emergency shelters run by Domestic Violence Solutions and food pantries and soup kitchens run by the Salvation Army and other organizations. One tree or 20, they will be glad to come and get what you have. If you have food to donate, contact Roehrig at 896-4724 or Jane Lindsay at the Foodbank at 967-5741 x101. Your donations are also tax-deductible.
Gardening can be its own reward for many people, but being able to enjoy tasty, fresh meals from your own labor makes it even more fulfilling. Sharing the bounty with friends and community adds another dimension of satisfaction.