Food Gardening - the New Vegetable Garden

The major topic in gardening for 2009 is quite obviously vegetables; but it is not being called that!
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

March 29, 2009

Selecting which cultivars of vegetables you will grow, especially in the first year, can be a daunting task. Here are some favourites. Above, Tomato ‘Sugary’ and Mini-Cucumber ‘Top Green’ and an example of growing cu-cumbers in a hanging container. Below, Carrot ‘Sweet Baby Jane’, Squash ‘Bonbon’, Eggplant ‘Fairy Tale’, and how not to grow vegetables, the pots are much, much too small! Author photos.

When is vegetable gardening not vegetable gardening--simple, when, as now, it’s suddenly called food gardening! With the economic crunch, house-owners and even many, many non-house-owners are being urged to learn about growing their own food--not just vegetables but fruit as well. Since the poor economy is affecting most of the world’s countries, this has already become a world-wide phenomenon.

As I have reported for a couple of years now, various wholesale sales statistics in the U.S.A. are indicating that horti-culture and gardening are in a serious decline. Each and every year, while there may have been decreases in some segments, they were more than offset by increases in other segments. In reporting on the year 2003, over the previous years, Dr. Marvin Miller, researcher with the Ball Company in Chicago, reports in the company’s authoritative trade magazine, Grower Talks, that in the potted plant category, for example: sales of potted flowering plants in 2003 were off 1.8%, this, after rising every year since 1994. What is even more telling is that the 238.5 million units sold in this segment, represented the lowest number of pot plants sold since 1995. It appears that many consumers have lost interest in many of the potted flowering plant offerings on the market, with the exception of potted flowering orchids. Indeed, orchids represented the only potted flowering crop where both unit and dollar sales increased in the 2002 to 2003 period. Sales of African violets, florist azaleas, pot mums, Easter Lilies and poinsettias were all off in both units and dollars.

The story among potted annuals was not much better. Though unit sales of potted annuals in 2003 were up 1.2% from the 2002 figure, sales still lagged the totals from 1998 and 1999.

The perennial story presented another trend of some concern. Total perennial dollars, which represented 25.5% of total bedding/garden plant dollars in both 2002 and 2003, increased 1.2% in 2003; this growth did not match inflation. Overall, unit numbers fell 3.6% from 2002 to 2003. The one segment of the industry that looked slightly brighter was that of hanging baskets. Data for sales of these accounted for 10.1% of the bedding/garden plant segment’s 2003 sales. Unit sales of hanging baskets increased 1.5% from 2002 to 2003, continuing a general trend, and dollar volume increased an even greater 2.5% over the period. All in all, the data from the report suggest the industry really did “hit a wall” in 2003. Sales in some segments suggest the consumers’ tastes and preferences are shifting, while in other segments, it seems the consumer has lost interest altogether. This report seems to suggest that “volatility” and “uncertainty” are the new watchwords for the industry.

But now we are going to see a vast increase in all aspects of food gardening. That increase, however, will not make up or the increasing losses in numbers of plants and dollars in the other segments.

Now major seed companies in the U.K. are gearing up for a record spring sales season, as are those in North America. Requests for plots in established community gardens already exceed availabilities. Municipal politicians are jumping on the bandwagon as are garden clubs and horticultural societies. Of course garden communicators will likely be there soon as well.

As with anything else, those of us who have been involved in gardening for at least three decades, may well remember the last time vegetable gardening surpassed all other aspects of the hobby. In the late 70s and 80s the public demand for vegetable seeds went crazy and there were a number of changes in the world’s wholesale and retail seed selling corporate structures. Then all of that began to change, and vegetables started to take second place to annual flowers and later third place to annuals and herbaceous perennials. Now for 2009, it will be vegetable gardening again in the forefront. You’re going to hear a lot about growing food--as usual, much of it from people who themselves have had little experience with those crops. As usual, beware of your sources of information!

If you have never grown vegetables before, and have decided to add some to the garden this year, there are ever so many considerations. First, vegetables, with few exceptions, require a full sun location, with a reasonable soil (loam or sand, but not heavy clay). Though garden centres and other plant sellers each spring sell small transplants of many vegetables, most can very easily be grown from seed, but you should order your seed from one of the Canadian catalogues very soon now, particularly since demand is expected to be stronger than supply with some types.

You also need to make some decisions, such as how you are going to start your seeds--using a sophisticated seed-starting kit, or something as simple as a one-dozen egg carton, and ½ egg shells filled with peat moss or equivalent. Remember not to start your seedlings too early. There is still plenty of time to start your tomato plants right now.

You also need to decide whether you are going to plant right into your garden’s ground, or if you need to make raised beds, which are very popular (but not deservedly so!) right now. Absolutely the best sources of information about growing your vegetables are your seed catalogues--such as that of Stokes Seeds in St. Catharines. Virtually all of the catalogues are free, so order at least five, and do it now. Plan to start many of your vegetables in the home, but most root veggies--carrots and beets--prefer to be seeded in situ. And be prepared to combat insect and disease problems.

Emphasis on Food Gardening is causing veggie gardens to appear in unusual spots.

News about a vegetable garden in a far-off corner of the U.S. Whitehouse grounds came as a bit of a surprise. But it was not the first time it had been suggested! While I don’t think the idea is that great, one other idea whose time has come is Schoolyard gardens. And so the new book Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea by Alice Waters seems to have appeared at just the right time.

The author tells the story of an Edible Schoolyard, from which more than 3,000 students have graduated since 1996, and shares the transformative effect the project has had on her life. She also suggests the Edible Schoolyard as a possible template or a hands-on way to reshape what and how we are feeding our children, and how they are learning about food.

With the help of a school principal and a small group of committed teachers and volunteers, Mrs. Waters transformed an acre of cracked asphalt into the Edible Schoolyard. Combining a lush garden with an expansive teaching kitchen, the Edible Schoolyard is today a vital part of the fabric of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California where students learn how important--and how joyous--a sustainable and thoughtful approach to growing and eating food can be. From big-picture ideas to meaningful moments, with plenty of photographs that showcase what a visual feast the garden has become, Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea captures the essence of Mrs. Waters’ guiding principles. The 80-page book is distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books; the cost is $32.50, clothbound.

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