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Harvesting Food And Knowledge

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, June 26, 2008

In a corner of the 7th Street Garden in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, three leafy peach trees have begun their seven-week gift to the gardeners who tend them.

Last year, the trees produced 20 peaches a week for each of the low-income families that rely on the community garden for fresh fruit and vegetables. This year, with the four-year-old trees only now reaching full bearing age, the harvest should run to many hundreds of pounds of peaches. "We picked 50 pounds this week," said Liz Falk, co-director of the garden. At current supermarket prices, that initial haul is worth at least $150, but it is priceless if you consider the freshness and purity of the fruit.

As I look at the branches, weighed down with ripening red-and-yellow orbs, I think of the peaches I bought a few days earlier in the grocery store. Harvested way too soon, they were brought back to my kitchen counter, where they followed the curious progression of rotting without ripening. One taste and they were trashed.

As food prices soar in concert with spiraling fuel costs, seed companies report an explosion of sales this spring to home gardeners who are turning to food growing for the first time or enlarging their plots.

A well-planned and -maintained plot can yield a continuous supply of fruit and vegetables from May to November, and with tomatoes costing almost a dollar apiece at the supermarket, significant reductions in one's food bill are possible. At the Glover Park Community Garden in Northwest Washington, gardeners say they rarely visit the produce sections of markets in the growing months. Although creating a garden requires some investment in tools, materials and soil improvements, the more resourceful the gardener, the more of a bargain that investment is. Recycled lumber to make raised beds, scavenged wood chips for pathways and the use of seeds over nursery-bought plants are some of the measures for making your garden more cost-effective.

At the 7th Street Garden, most of the produce is cultivated in 32 raised beds measuring 8 feet by 4 feet and framed by 2-by-8 boards screwed together.

This somewhat modest community undertaking yields a lot of fruit, vegetables and herbs in the growing season and last year kept as many as 12 families in "substantial quantities of food," Falk said, with weekly allotments of produce weighing between 30 and 80 pounds.

One of the lessons of the garden, co-director Susan Ellsworth said, is that a growing plot can be created relatively cheaply. "One doesn't have to have a huge amount of money in order to grow food," she said. "Almost everything in this garden is salvaged or donated or scrounged." In addition, it gives the low-income families who use it the skills and confidence to start their own gardens at home.

In addition to the food recipients, the garden is tended by a cadre of 50 regular volunteers.

The fever for growing your own is all well and good, but the ability to do it takes dispassionate planning, labor and patience. Fruit and vegetable gardening is not about instant gratification, but whatever the ups and downs of consumer food costs, the long-term trajectory of prices is pretty clear.

Skimming turf to convert a part of the back yard to a veggie plot is a laborious task, and learning how to grow various crops requires time and experience. I think it takes two to three years for a novice to become comfortable with the different growing requirements and seasons of various vegetables, but the learning curve is steeper in a community garden, where experienced hands can advise.

One of the many puzzles facing a new gardener is the optimum size of the plot. The wisest counsel is to start small but leave space to enlarge the garden as you learn. At its most basic, that might be a patio tomato and some basil in a half whiskey barrel.

At the demonstration vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, the beds are a standard 4 feet by 20 feet. The width allows gardeners to reach in from either side without stepping on the growing bed, said Cindy Brown, the assistant director. She suggests a bed of 4 by 15 or 20 feet for a beginner, which would allow for tomato plants, bush beans and a pepper plant or two. In spring and fall, you could grow lots of salad greens in the same space.

The garden ( http://www.greenspring.org) is staffed on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon, when gardeners are happy to answer questions about growing fruits and vegetables, she said.

Amusingly, one World War II-era book I own suggests that a family of five could meet all its fruit and vegetable needs in a "scant half-acre." As Brown points out, that size today would be considered a truck farm, given modern intensive-gardening practices. The garden has moved away from the family-farm model of large quantities of a few crops, which produced a seasonal surfeit and a canning frenzy, toward one of smaller quantities of more varied fare. In addition, imaginative use of fencing and trellising can almost double your space as you grow up instead of out.

That is a major reason the 7th Street Garden can provide a stream of produce for five or six months. The beds contain long-term plants such as chives, leeks and carrots in addition to quick-to-crop eggplant, okra and squash. A well-balanced garden should make space for such perennials as strawberries, asparagus and rhubarb along with bramble fruit, figs and blueberries.

In terms of a model for the aspiring gardener to follow, we can think of no finer example than that of Dino Kraniotis at the Glover Park Community Garden. We include a plan of about two-thirds of his hillside garden, which will give you an idea of what's possible with experience and commitment.

Needless to say, Kraniotis is a stranger to the supermarket, except to pick up sweet potatoes and garlic bulbs, which he then plants in the garden to increase his yield or stock. He couldn't find seeds of a favorite black radish, so he bought two of them, now in flower. In a few weeks, the radishes will yield hundreds of ripe seeds that can be sown in the fall or next spring.

Saving money in these hard times is satisfying, but what is more rewarding is the knowledge that your fruits and vegetables are more interesting, more organic and certainly tastier than most high-priced food at the grocery store.

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