The barn sticks out like a dandelion seed on a rayon suit. This miniature Pennsylvania Dutch farm at Disney's Epcot Center sits anachronistically beside the giant "Innoventions" pavilion where kids are getting the latest word in high technology. Here at the barn, passersby are getting the latest on dirt.
Not gossip dirt, but old-fashioned, under-the-nails garden-variety soil.
The International Garden Festival is in full bloom at Epcot through May 31, and again this year, the Rodale Institute is telling visitors to this magic kingdom about the gritty realities of regenerative gardening.
That presents a certain challenge for the three Rodale spokespeople who tend the farm. Dirt isn't inherently interesting to people who have paid to see Mickey.
In a state better known for its sand than its soil, Florida gardeners have a lot to learn about dirt. The grainy, loose dirt in which many backyard gardens are grown would produce stronger plants and require less fertilizer if more care were taken in preparing the soil.
Vermicomposting, or using worms to make compost, is one of the best ways to prepare good potting soil. Get a large covered box, preferably made of wood, and fill it with dirt. Add earthworms. Bury leftover food bits such as eggshells, peels and other organic matter in the dirt. The worms will help decompose the material and turn it into rich, fertile soil.
The box should be stored in a shady area, and the soil kept moist, so that the worms don't decompose with the food bits.
After a while, the soil can be rotated so that one side of the box is sod in progress, while the other side holds the soil going into the garden.
"We are telling people about regenerative gardening, which is a system that improves the soil while using it," said Anthony Rodale, vice chairman of the Rodale Institute. "You really need 10 to 12 inches of good soil in your garden."
The regenerative system is a step beyond organic gardening. It abstains from using commercial fertilizers, instead composting dead plants and other organic matter and returning them to the garden. Cyclically, the garden reproduces its own fertilizer.
"With the regenerative system, you really form a connection with your garden," Rodale said. "After two or three years using the method, the soil is very healthy, and the plants are strong."
On a 333-acre farm in Pennsylvania, the Rodale Institute has been successful using the regenerative system.
For health reasons, J.I. Rodale moved to rural Pennsylvania from Brooklyn in the late 1930s and took up farming. During the war, nitrogen shortages _ diverted from fertilizers to munitions _ prompted him to look into organic gardening, a revolutionary concept at the time.
"Organics is not a fad," Rodale wrote in 1954. "Present agricultural practices are leading us downhill."
Rodale also founded several publications, including Health Bulletin, Organic Farming and Gardening and Prevention magazine, before his death in 1971. His daughter-in-law and his grandson Anthony now carry his message, through the non-profit Rodale Institute.
"If you want the message to move on, you have to tell children," said Florence Rodale, Anthony's wife, who is creative director of the institute.
"Kids need to have a love affair with plants. It's amazing that from a seed in the ground you can feed an entire family. Children are the gardeners of tomorrow."
A hexagonal pizza garden is an edible way the Rodale Institute is showing kids how foods don't just magically appear on the table.
Each "slice" of the pizza garden grows a different ingredient: pepper, basil, hard red spring wheat, onion, oregano, tomato.
The actual utility of the garden is limited, since the crops ripen at different times. But as an educational tool, it gets kids' attention. For inspiration, the Rodale Institute gives away pizza garden seed packets.
One challenging aspect of growing edible plants in Florida is getting to eat them before the bugs do. In regenerative gardening, insecticides aren't conducive to the healthy soil, plants and people equation.
"It's not that you don't want insects in your garden," said Jennifer Craig, from Mertztown, Pa., a Rodale employee. "What you want is to keep imbalances out."
Certain plants can attract or repel insects. Called companion plants, they can be grown right in among the vegetables and flowers in the garden to help balance the number of insects.
Nasturtium, for example, tends to repel bugs. If aphids are tearing up the place, catnip can be planted to attract ladybugs, natural enemies of the aphid.
If the plants themselves don't attract enough good bugs, entomological suppliers, often advertising in the back of gardening magazines, can provide a S.W.A.T. team of good bugs to neutralize pesky insects.
Regenerative gardening may seem difficult, but Floridians have a tendency to overfertilize and over spray with insecticides, neither of which is an environmentally sound or cost-effective way of gardening.
If your home garden were the work of the Frugal Gourmet, a Disney garden would be the repast of the Two Fat Ladies. At the International Garden Festival's opening ceremony, Disney paraded close to 600 members of its horticultural staff before a crowd of people who were showered in rose petals. A live band imitating the Beatles sang I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends.
Plants, in turn-of-phrase fashion, get by with help from their little friends. Millions of microscopic organisms live in a single teaspoon of healthy soil and are essential to plant growth. The regenerative method provides them with plenty of nourishment through decaying matter.
PIZZA GARDEN SIDEBAR
Pizzas don't grow on trees. They grow in gardens.
From the wheat used in the dough, to the tomatoes and herbs in the sauce, to onions and green peppers topping it off, the Rodale Institute hopes that gardeners might try to grow a pizza of their own.
1. Choose the ingredients. Wheat, peppers, tomatoes, basil, onions and oregano are some of the basics. It is not recommended that you attempt to plant pepperoni and cheese.
2. Lay out the garden. The Rodale pizza garden is organized in the shape of a pizza, with each slice growing a different ingredient. Taller plants in the back make for a better-looking display.
3. Pick as needed. The vegetables may not ripen at the same time, so there may not be a single day on which where one can go out and pick an entire pizza.
For a free Pizza Garden Seed Packet, write the Rodale Institute at: Free Seed Packet Giveaway, 611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, PA 19530.