When the going gets tough, Americans start growing — vegetables, and lots of them. During periods of war and economic hardship, we bring out the shovels, seeds and watering cans in our quest to save money and gain some sense of control over troubled times.
It happened most dramatically during the two world wars, when the U.S. government urged the country to plant victory gardens and Americans responded with millions of home and community plots of tomatoes, beans and other produce.
Today, with a troubled economy, sky-high fuel costs, rising food prices and concerns about food safety, millions of Americans are once again putting down roots of the edible kind. From back yards, condo and apartment patios, community gardens, school yards — and even sunny windowsills — anyone who wants to grow food can do it.
But today's home produce garden isn't your grandmother's garden — or anything like your parents' garden, for that matter. With new ways of growing produce, high-tech growing containers and a plethora of seeds and starter plants, growing food at home has never been easier. But it can come at a price.
If you're new to vegetable gardening, there can be considerable start-up costs, especially if you think bigger is better and you want the instant gratification of starting with container plants rather than seed. Even a small garden requires an initial outlay for such items as growing medium, soil additives, hardware for building garden beds, containers, seed and starter plants.
"Production the first year will be more expensive than you realize. You might not even have a shovel or a rake or a watering can. But once you have it in place, it becomes more economical," says Pinellas County horticulture agent Pam Brown, whose recent community workshop on vegetable gardening drew a record 230 attendees, a sure sign of the times.
Saving money isn't the only reason to grow your own food. It's good knowing your salads and vegetables aren't treated with pesticides, contaminated with bacteria or shipped thousands of miles from the foreign farm to your grocer. And there's the satisfaction of growing a foot-long zucchini or bunches of crisp lettuce from tiny seeds. And the taste. Fresh from the backyard farm beats supermarket produce any day of the week.
The Winzeler family of St. Petersburg had another reason to grow their own: teaching their two young children. Whereas plenty of kids think carrots come from plastic grocery bags and are just about 2 inches long, the Winzeler girls know better.
"I wanted the kids to see where their food came from," says stay-at-home mom Susan Winzeler. Her two daughters help in the backyard garden by regularly checking the tomatoes, green peppers and carrots for ripeness, then harvesting them.
The Winzelers' garden is a manageable wooden raised bed, 6 by 3 feet, which Dennis Winzeler built one weekend and filled with commercial soil and cow manure.
Providing the right soil should be your first priority for a successful vegetable garden in Florida, Brown says. Heed her caution: "If you don't amend the soil, you might as well not start." Florida soils are typically sandy, nutrient-deficient and loaded with harmful microscopic nematodes that chew through plant roots with abandon. It's not impossible to grow vegetables directly in the soil, but be prepared to regularly add organic compost and additives to adjust the pH level and rotate crops seasonally to ward off nematodes, Brown says.
For the rest of us, building or purchasing a raised garden bed or using containers filled with store-bought soil, organic amendments and our own compost is easier. It's not the least expensive way to get started, but it's a smart investment that will improve our success in the garden and reward our efforts at harvest time.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.