Farm Fresh Perspectives: Time to grow your own

Part of the motivation behind the rise of this “good food movement” is the widespread desire for people to regain their connection to their food, land and community. They want to know the person who raised their food, what production practices were used and that it will be beneficial to their minds and bodies, as well as to the soil and water.

Well, there is one very simple way to know the answers to all these questions and to make a very meaningful reconnection with food and land: grow something!

I am told that in years gone by, most households in the Midwest had a vegetable garden, especially farmsteads. Unfortunately, I’m not even old enough to remember that. People grew at least some of their food, and they planned for cold winter months by preserving foods through canning, drying, freezing and storage in root cellars.

Today, there is only a small (but very committed) minority of people who still put forth the time and effort to provide for themselves. If you drive around the city or countryside, you are likely to see only a handful of yards growing anything but grass and, perhaps, some trees or flowers. Root cellars have all but disappeared, and most people think home-canned food is going to be, at best, bland, or, at worst, spoiled and dangerous.

In our present global economy, a consumer can purchase nearly any type of fresh fruit or vegetable at any time of the year at the average supermarket, but there is also a widespread perception that such things simply don’t taste as good as they once did. I have heard of so many people who bite into a fresh, local apple or tomato or peach and exclaim that they haven’t had anything that tasted so good since their grandmother grew it decades ago! Something is wrong with this picture. I think it’s time to revive grandma’s garden, and make sure age-old skills and practices don’t die.

Anyone who can plant a seed can grow food. Food production does not require huge amounts of space, money or work if you do not want it to. All it requires is a little time and planning.

A garden can be very, very small. Container gardening is starting to get more popular, partially because many city dwellers long to have some sort of green influence in their concrete-dominated existence. They are planting flowers in window boxes, growing trees in their living rooms and letting vines climb over their porches. So mix some culinary herbs in with the flowers, put a dwarf apple tree in your living room (some varieties are getting that small), and grow grapes on your porch. All of a sudden, you are a gardener, without a square inch of ground.

Those of you with land don’t have to spend a fortune to start a significant garden. Instead of buying a Rototiller, put down a thick layer of organic material and let it compost in place. Presto, you have a seed bed. Instead of buying expensive insecticides, grow a diversity of plants that will provide habitat for pests’ natural predators.

Forget the weed-killers and put down mulch; it will squelch weeds and hold in moisture, reducing the need to irrigate. Using methods like this, you keep your work to a minimum, your productivity to a maximum, and your only expense is seeds. If even seeds are prohibitive on your budget, go in with a couple of neighbors and buy open-pollinated, rather than hybrid, varieties so you can save your own seeds for next year.

I have friends and family who keep peppers, onions, jellies, jams, salsa, pickles, root vegetables, fruits, squash, even meat and poultry, for use long after the garden has been put to bed. If done correctly, these preserved foods will be just as safe and nutritious as anything bought from the store, and probably much tastier.

University of Illinois Extension puts on food preservation programs, so get a group together that wants to learn and call my office. If you have gardening questions, most counties in Illinois have an Extension Master Gardener Hotline you can call. Check for your county’s number. Whether you want a full acre of garden and orchard, or a small window box of culinary herbs, just start growing.

With a little willingness, we can maintain the old skills and great foods that our grandparents had. For minimal investment in a garden, the rewards you reap will be many-fold what you sow. Great-tasting, fresh, local food is only a few seeds away.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the March 22-28, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!