A Cook's Garden

A Cook's Garden

The chemical fertilizer and pesticide industries say their products are vital, but many gardeners are going without.
The chemical fertilizer and pesticide industries say their products are vital, but many gardeners are going without. (Bigstockphoto)

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By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 7, 2009

It seems like a pretty innocent idea, doesn't it? Planting an organic vegetable garden in your yard so that your kids can eat fresh, nutritious, safe food. But now that Michelle Obama has gone and done it, big agriculture is terrified that we'll all follow her example. First came a letter addressed to her from the Mid America CropLife Association, which represents the chemical fertilizer and pesticide industries, urging the first lady to give "conventional" agriculture equal time. One of the authors separately told association members that the thought of an organic garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. made her "shudder." And an industrial agriculture media group, CropLife, started an online letter-writing campaign to encourage Obama to use synthetic pesticides, euphemistically called "crop protection products," which her effort seemed to impugn.

Such a response might seem comical if it did not highlight so clearly the fear these industries try to inspire to convince us that our world would crumble without them. The association's letter asked Obama, "If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?" It goes on to explain that nobody has time to grow their own food. The message: Leave food production to the experts.

The fact is, Americans are planting peas, carrots and potatoes in surging numbers, partly out of economic necessity and partly out of dissatisfaction with the nation's commercial food supply. And a lot of these new gardeners are using organic methods. The Obamas' garden is a great example to follow, but it's also just a sign of the times.

Maybe the pesticide ads, with their military rhetoric, aren't working anymore. Perhaps gardeners are taking a wait-and-see attitude about stocking their sheds with an arsenal of poisons. What if we staged a war against the beetles and the caterpillars and it turned out there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found, only the odd nibbling pest here and there to pick off and squish? What if we found that well-rotted manure and homemade compost, patterned on the natural world's fertility program, grew plants better than something sold in a bottle? When gardeners nurture the life in their soil by keeping it free of harsh products that might imperil it, they often find that there is nothing they have to buy except for a few seeds. That's dangerous knowledge.

The great dark secret is that nature is generous and determined to make plants grow. Much of how this happens is still a mystery and a worthy study for our country's best scientific minds. It is also a worthy subject for you, and if you are naturally curious you can learn a lot from your garden. Meanwhile, grow some tomatoes. You're in charge.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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