Exploring Edible Gardening’s Larger Issues

Gardening is usually an individual, contemplative activity. Sometimes, we engage in planting, pruning, weeding and other tasks with a friend or a group of friends.

Countless gardeners have pursued this satisfying work for millennia, unconcerned by the larger context of advances in agricultural technology, political and economic struggles and growing concerns over sustainability.

Such issues abound in the world of ornamental horticulture, but are more intense and consequential in commercial farming.

These issues are the focus of the 33rd Annual Eco-Farm Conference, which happens next week at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. This event, organized by the non-profit Ecological Farming Association, is about educating, networking and celebrating. It combines joyful commitment to farming organically, sharing ideas and successes in the field, and exploring concerns over policies and practices that favor so-called “conventional” farming.

In fact, “conventional” farming depends on synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and employs practices that have been introduced since World War II. Many advances have made large-scale agriculture more efficient and productive, but too often those advances also generate social impacts: fewer natural food choices, declines of taste and nutrition and long-term damage to the environment.

Such alleged problems of course are debatable. We cannot treat them fully in this brief essay, but the Eco-Farm Conference supports valuable in-depth discussions.

Many of the Conference’s sixty workshops are designed for professional farmers, but here are some sessions that relate most directly to consumers.

  • GMO Labeling: Capitalizing on the Momentum of Proposition 37: That recent initiative lost narrowly by 2%, but it catalyzed a national conversation about the deceptive, untested, and novel proteins added to the American diet.
  • Teaching Farming and Gardening in Waldorf Schools: Topics include garden-based woodworking, herbal studies, growing and processing grains, and integration of classroom math and science lessons.
  • The New and Old of Organic Insecticides: Improved methods for managing insect pests using organically approved natural materials.
  • Fresh Rx: A Prescription for Improving Healthy Food Access in Low-Income Communities: Strategies to improve community access to fresh produce, including farmers’ markets in low-income areas, CSA programs, community gardens, nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, and produce distribution by food banks.
  • Preparing for Climate Change: Thinking about and preparing for climate change, water scarcity, and extreme weather.
  • Farm Bill Update– What’s In It and What Does It Mean to You?: Update on the status of the Farm Bill and the standing of key organic and sustainable agricultural programs, including conservation, organic certification cost share, and others.

The Eco-Farm Conference runs from Wednesday, January 23rd to Saturday, January 26th. For more information, visit the conference website: http://ecofarm2013.org/.

This conference presents a positive vision of the future for all consumers and home gardeners. It is gratifying that it happens in the Monterey Bay area.

Books of Gardening Essays

Compilations of newspaper garden columns make enjoyable books. After a garden writer has generated weekly garden columns for several years, he or she often realizes that those columns could be redefined as essays and republished in book form.

Newspaper garden columns usually are time-relevant, and books based on them are almost always organized with reference to the four seasons.

Another characteristic of such compilations is their breadth of topics, ranging throughout the multi-faceted world of gardening, with each essay only seasonably related to those that come before or after.

Thirdly, books of garden essays present the author’s personality or attitudes more clearly than garden books that focus on a single genus (e.g., the rose) or a select group of garden-worthy plants (plants for shade), or a gardening technique (pruning).

Some compilations of essays are not organized seasonally, but have some other structure. One example is Green Thoughts (1981) by Eleanor Perenyi, and reprinted in 2002 for the Modern Library Gardening Series. Her book includes seventy-two essays listed alphabetically, from Annuals to Woman’s Place, an eloquent and impatient perspective on women in the history of gardening.

Compilations based on newspaper writing occasionally achieve the status of classics of the genre. Examples include Vita Sackville-West’s series of four books: In Your Garden (columns from 1946–1950); In Your Garden Again (1951-53); More For Your Garden (1953-55); and Even More For Your Garden (1955-58). Her columns, written for England’s The Observer, are marked by her extensive knowledge, deep enthusiasm and lively writing style.

Another classic of this type is Washington Post columnist Henry Mitchell’s The Essential Earthman (1981), which was followed by One Man’s Garden, and Henry Mitchell on Gardening. His works are beloved for sharp observations, humorous adventures and shrewd horticultural advice.

A new book of newspaper columns on gardening is Carolyn Singer’s The Seasoned Gardener: Five Decades of Sustainable and Practical Garden Wisdom (Garden Wisdom Press, 2012). Her essays, which are organized by month, bounce through an extraordinary range of gardening topics. Indeed, many essays touch on several related topics. A thorough index supports searches for topics of current interest.

Ms. Singer’s essays were written originally for The Union, the newspaper for Grass Valley, California. She is also the author of the award-winning Deer in My Garden series. Her writing style conveys her personal love and deep knowledge of gardening, and presents solid facts with a light and readable tone.

The Seasoned Gardener serves well as both a practical reference and a satisfying wander through many aspects of home gardening. Reading a randomly chosen chapter for pleasure could very well inspire the reader to pursue a new idea in the garden. That provides a reliable measure of quality for a gardening book.

Fruit Trees in the Garden

The New Year marks the season for planting bare root roses and fruit trees. What inspires you to add a fruit tree to your garden? Perhaps you have an excellent location for a tree, plus the need for a visual feature. Or, you have fond memories of fruit tree blossoms in the spring, and want to recreate the scene. Or, best of all, you would enjoy eating a favorite fruit from a tree in your own garden.

These are all good reasons for visiting your local garden center to choose a bare root fruit tree for the New Year. Dwarf varieties are readily available, so just about all gardens will have enough space for a new tree.

Preparations begin with site selection. As the first consideration, the site should have good exposure to sunlight, with eight hours per day being preferred.

Also, consider the appearance of the tree as a feature in the landscape. Visualize it as a full-grown specimen from all angles to confirm that it will always be an asset and not obstruct a viewshed or a pathway.  There should be easy access for cultivating and harvesting,

When space is limited, consider an espaliered tree. A side yard with southern exposure could be a great location for an espaliered tree.

The step is choosing the particular fruit for your garden, based on personal preferences. As with many other plants, the Monterey Bay area provides a fine climate for a wide range of fruit trees.

A first priority should be to select a fruit that you will enjoy eating, but as with other garden choices, consider unfamiliar varieties that are not commonly available.

An important issue is the tree’s chill requirement, which is measured by the number of hours of temperatures below forty-five degrees. Apple and pear trees, for example, need more chill hours than peach trees, and fig trees require only a few hours. Garden centers will offer only trees that are suitable for growing in the local area, while mail order nurseries will list trees for all areas.

For more information:

Seminar: All About Fruit Trees, Saturday, February 16, 10:00 – 11:00, Griggs Nursery, 9220 Carmel Valley Road.

Short Course: From Planting to Harvest, February 8–10, UCSC Farm and Garden. For information, visit Brown Paper Tickets.

Book: Fruit Trees in Small Spaces: Abundant Harvests from Your Own Backyard, by Colby Eirman (Timber Press, 2012)

Garden Center. The McShane’s Nursery website offers a detailed list of available trees and other related information.

Non-profit Organization: The California Rare Fruit Growers provides extensive advice on fruit tree selection and cultivation.

Planting a bare-root fruit tree would be a positive step into the New Year, and the beginning of years to enjoy future harvests in your garden.


For details on chill requirements for various fruit trees…and much more…visit the University of California website, The California Backyard Orchard.