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Creating Your Own Produce Section, Right Outside Your Door

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, September 4, 2008

More than a century ago, a plant breeder and seed merchant named W. Atlee Burpee bought Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pa., and developed varieties of vegetables for the home gardener. Today, the enterprise continues in the same soil under W. Atlee Burpee & Co.'s president, George Ball, who has seen the circle come full turn. Sort of.

The company's founder was selling seeds to people who relied on a domestic vegetable garden to provide much of their family's food. The world changed; successive generations grew less reliant on their own horticultural mettle and more on hopping into the car and driving to the supermarket.

But seed companies report a huge increase in sales this year as the once-fusty idea of a home veggie plot has come back into vogue.

Ball said his company's sales have jumped 37 percent, occasioned by what he calls the "perfect storm" of interest in the home garden. You know the story: Food prices have gone through the roof, and energy costs and its related effects are biting into personal incomes. Concerns about food safety and a desire to reduce one's carbon footprint have engendered interest in eating fresh food locally. And where does a locavore find the freshest, closest source of nutrition? In the back yard (or even the front one; more on that later).

To prove the point, this year Ball has tweaked his trial garden at Fordhook Farm and renamed it the Grocery Garden. He and his staff checked prices at local supermarkets in surrounding Bucks County and then applied those prices to the produce grown in raised beds totaling 4,000 square feet. Many of the beds are used for successive crops (the lettuce of spring might yield to the eggplant of summer, for example), but he estimates the value of the food harvested here from May to October to be about $20,000. The seed would cost $800, and if you add in the costs of tools, fertilizer, mulch and your own sweat equity, the figure climbs to about $4,000, he said.

You're still $16,000 ahead on your grocery bill, according to Ball's calculations.

That sum, however, doesn't account for the infrastructure of the garden: the board for retaining the growing beds, fencing, trellising, the drip irrigation system, the gravel for the paths, or indeed the soil. All this could be installed somewhat economically if you are handy and thrifty and willing to make your own soil by composting on a large scale over many months. Or you could spend a pretty penny buying designer soil and ready-made fences, etc.

However, there are further considerations, which I raise not to discourage this worthy enterprise, but to offer the complete picture.

The Grocery Garden has reached that merry state in which the soil is in good heart and the weeding is at an easy maintenance level. If you inherited an abandoned plot, as my brother did a few years ago, it might take two years or more to eradicate weeds and build the loam to perfection.

Another thing that strikes me about the Grocery Garden is its size. In Burpee's day, 4,000 square feet would have been nothing, but with today's intensive gardening techniques and more contained but productive varieties, such a space could feed a whole street, which is good, of course, but a lot of work.

Ball said a garden this size would take two people to maintain, and the assumption is that people who undertake such a large garden enjoy the process of gardening, not just its bounty. At this time of year, you'd have to be in the garden daily, if only to see what is ripening and ready for harvest.

Ball does offer a scaled-down concept, saying a family of four could raise a lot of produce in a simple bed measuring 6 by 12 feet, which could accommodate a series of vegetables in spring, summer and fall, including 24 broccoli plants, 84 root vegetables, 12 cabbages, 9 leeks, 66 salad greens, 48 pea vines, 9 bean plants, 3 cucumber vines, 3 pepper plants, 9 tomato plants and 3 squash vines.

He said, however, that the Grocery Garden is meant to convey the savings over current food prices rather than offer a suggested garden size and succession of vegetable varieties. "One of the reasons we don't do designer vegetable gardens (in the Burpee catalogue) is there's a section of the population that doesn't like this vegetable or that vegetable," he said.

There are, though, principles worth considering if you are serious about growing your own food intensively. Root crops are often neglected and yet can be harvested over weeks or months a little at a time, as a meal dictates. These include carrots, potatoes, beets, leeks, onions and shallots, not to mention those European favorites: parsnips, turnips and rutabagas, all unfairly maligned on this side of the pond.

In a Washington garden, you can begin harvesting greens in late April and still have carrots in December. With a little protection using row covers, you can cut fresh chard, spinach, beet greens and arugula right through the winter.

But home gardening isn't just about replicating what you can get at the grocery store, it's about growing things you would be hard-pressed to find there. At the Grocery Garden, one of the most appetizing crops was an assortment of fingerling potatoes, which produce abundantly in raised beds. Planted in April, they are ready for lifting by late August.

Rosalind Creasy, a landscape designer and author, has championed the idea of an edible landscape by using her own small suburban garden in Los Altos, Calif., as a laboratory and stage set. Food plants are incorporated into containers and ornamental beds and up arbors, and much of what she grows is cultivated in her 2,000-square-foot front yard because her rear garden is shady. The arbor over her entry steps is draped in a cherry tomato. Squint and it might be a rose bower.

Her advice to beginners: Choose varieties that are highly productive or expensive in the grocery store, and grow more herbs, which are so easy that she calls them "edibles with training wheels."

Creasy recommends a garden of no more than 200 square feet to start; in her 100-square-foot bed, she produces an estimated $400 to $500 worth of food, including more than 30 salads from 18 lettuces. She snips the outer leaves and allows more to grow back "until the plant says, 'Enough,' " she said.

She also said it's important to pick not just types of vegetables, but varieties that are proven to have a long and productive season. She recommends a few invulnerable tomato hybrids, for example, Early Girl and Better Boy, and favors Sungold as a foolproof cherry tomato. Among heirloom varieties, she finds Cherokee Purple a better cropper than Brandywine.

Pole beans are more productive than bush beans, but runner beans are even more so. Purple Ruffles basil "doesn't have to be cut back all the time" like sweet basil, she said. "And it's beautiful."

In two months, she has harvested 15 quarts of blackberries from a trained, thornless bramble. She has measured 80 pounds of zucchini from two plants of a variety named Raven. Why, Creasy asks, put in a boring forsythia shrub when "you can have blueberries?"

She integrates a lot of flowers with her edible plants and tries to pick vegetable varieties that are attractive as well as productive.

"I think people can grow a tremendous amount of food in a small area. They just don't know it," said Creasy, whose latest book is called "Recipes From the Garden" (Tuttle, 2008). "And they can be in the front yard and look absolutely beautiful."

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