Monday, June 22, 2009

The Right to Know

The nation's attention has been turned to the idea of urban gardening. The enormous visibility of the First Lady and students from Bancroft Elementary School really accelerated the adoption of the program. Last week they gathered to harvest some of the produce they planted in March.

The First Lady's comments included; "This garden project, what we've done together, guys, has given us the opportunity not just to educate children, but to hopefully even educate a few parents and adults as we go along the way. How many of you have talked to your parents about what you've been doing? How many of you have started talking about fruits and vegetables and eating a bit more?
So we've seen some progress even among this small group of kids. The students with us today have learned about the seasons, right? We learned about when you plant what and why, where food comes from, what it takes for food to grow, the process of how food gets from the garden to the plate, and how much more delicious fresh fruits and vegetables are when they come straight from the garden."

These are important lessons. But we don't want the children to grow up with unrealistic illusions about gardening and because their school has just gone into recess, this might be a good time to backfill what these students need to know.

For example White House Associate chef Sam Kass said in the same pool report "no chemicals--fertilizer or herbicide-- had been used on the garden, but that the underlying White House soil had been "amended" with crab meal from the Chesapeake Bay, green sand compost and lime powder." He was pointing out the need to enhance the soil he was digging. Urban gardeners face a far more serious problem underscored by The National Gardening Association. They warn of the dangers of lead in urban soils. Their advice is to check with local authorities before starting a garden. To be more thorough you ought to consult the EPA pages "The Right to Know" which explains how to find out the history of the area on which you intend to plant a garden.

Mr. Kass went on to say "that the only problem he had noticed is that something is nibbling a little bit on the kale."

I might add that I find that comment a little suspicious. My experience has taught me that from the moment the students put the first spade in the earth, they became warriors with a host of creatures and critters in a fight to the death over exactly whose food this was going to be, and who was going to get to eat it. To actually get to eat any of the produce they hope to raise they are going to have to learn what an aphid is and how to kill it. This is but one of many pests gardeners learn to contend with and if they eschew chemicals they are going to scrape them off the leaves they infest and squish them with their fingers.
Other pests that they are going to have to learn to manage are outlined here; and that's just the pests that feed on lettuce.

Another form of pest we have to mitigate are the vermin, the mice and rats that will find their way into their garden. Heed the advice from Washington State U.

It is a hard lesson for all of us to learn and not some theoretical exercise; the war is on. When your food supply is at stake you learn to steel your heart and fire away with whatever you've got and that the law will allow. Urban gardeners that raise chickens will never forget the blood curdling squawk of their chicken in the clutches of a possum. You will kill the possum.

Chef Kass pointed out that rain had been plentiful this spring but our gardeners are not going to always have such luck. I have lost more tomatoes to blossom end rot, brought on by uneven watering, than to tomato hornworms. Gardeners need to know what the fertilizer and water requirements are for their plants and plan accordingly. They need to shade some crops from the hot sun and block killing winds with screens, and every gardener learns special tricks to protect their crops from early frosts.

The above is intended to illustrate the fact that we don't want to raise a generation of dilettantes who believe that gardening is an easy and part time exercise the produce of which is trouble free. Chef Kass said that "there has been one big weeding once a week and that he and a pastry chef along with "volunteers" from the White House had done the weeding." Our students are not going to be so lucky in their home gardens.

Antonio Roman-Alcalá is a realist, a professional with in-the-field experience and his story is well worth reading. He started his new career in one of the nation's first urban farms, the Alemany Farm in San Francisco.

What he reminds us of is the fact that food production, even small scale is a profession. It is not for the faint of heart or those with tired bodies.

There are many different motives by many different people who are climbing on the urban gardening bandwagon. Some hope to improve the quality of their food sources by knowing where it comes from and how it was grown. To them it is critical to measure just how much of their annual nutrient requirement they will be able to supply, and become realistic about how to supplant it during the non growing season. Others want to green their cities, cool them, and remove toxins associated with lawn maintenance. These people may need to examine the major sources of pollution and work to mitigate the main causes instead of working on the margins. Still others want to help the poor get a healthy alternative to junk food and provide money saving opportunities. It is asking an awful lot to suggest that a single parent return from her day job, feed the kids, and then weed her patch.

If this is to be a sustainable activity we are going to have to learn how to continue when the grants run out, when the volunteers go back to college, when the economy shifts and cities reclaim these plots as valuable for development. I believe that small scale farmers like Antonio Roman-Alcalá have the answer and we ought to be listening. Support local small scale farming, and appreciate the toil and trouble they go through. Grow your own salad if it makes sense, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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