Written By Anne Raver
There is a small revolution brewing in Carroll County: More and more people are digging up their lawns to grow their own vegetables and fruit.
“I thought, with so many preservatives and salmonella in our food, I’d like to grow my own,” said Rene Kline, who started a 25 by 54 foot plot in her Finksburg backyard.
“It’s healthier eating,” said Kathy Bentz, who started her own 25 by 40 foot plot in her yard right next door.
The two women, both of whom are unfamiliar with gardening, are being coached by Rene’s mother, Lena, and her stepfather, Mike Huber, who taught them how to operate a tiller and what a hoe was for.
The foursome had signed up for one of the spring “Grow It Eat It” classes given around the county by master gardeners to teach the basics of food gardening: such essentials as choosing a site, testing and improving the soil, regular watering, fertilizing and weeding.
“If your tomatoes are leggy, you can remove the lower leaves and plant them deep,” Kathy Ford told a group of beginners gathered at the Carroll County Extension office in Westminster. “You could also lay them in a trench, and they’ll develop roots along the stems, ” said Ford, a master gardener.
Talk of tomatoes had the foursome from Finksburg riveted: “We bought four packets of tomato seeds -Roma and Big Boy– and they all came up,” said Kline. “We have 140 plants.”
They will plant some, give some away and maybe even sell some.
Their industry and excitement is an outgrowth of a state wide program – Grow It Eat It – launched by the Maryland Cooperative Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center (HGIC) in late March with a mission: to have 1 million gardens growing healthy fruit and vegetables in Maryland within two years (www.growit.umd.edu).
“We didn’t even have food gardening on the agenda, when our strategic planning committee met last November,” said Jon Traunfeld, the regional specialist for the HGIC. “But then we got to talking about what had happened in 2008 – all the phone calls and the request for information – and we decided to focus on growing food.”
It is not uncommon for the HGIC to get 90 to 100 calls a day on its hotline [800-342-2507] from people asking how to grow food. Its website [www.hgic.umd.edu] offers fact sheets on everything from planting times to how to deal with blossom end rot on your tomatoes. And seed sales are up.
“It could be a record year for selling vegetable seeds,” said Beckie Rickell, who has worked for 35 years at R.D. Bowman & Sons, a Westminster garden center. “A lot more people planted gardens this spring, and a lot of them said it was their first one.”
The reason? “The economy,” said Rickell.
Meanwhile, celebrity gardening has given these vegetable warriors a boost.
On March 20, First Lady Michele Obama, aided by a group of schoolchildren and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, started digging up part of the south lawn at the White House to plant a vegetable garden.
They planted 25 varieties of heirloom seeds, kale and arugula, rhubarb and a variety of herbs. One bed contained favorites from Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello, Tennis Ball lettuce and Prickly Seed spinach.
On April 2, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon announced plans to turn the formal gardens around City Hall into 2,000 square feet of vegetable beds (pointing out that the Obamas’ plot at the White House only measured 1,100 square feet).
On April 25, Maryland’s First Lady Katie O’Malley planted a new kitchen garden on the grounds of Government House in Annapolis, with master gardeners from Anne Arundel County. Community gardens have sprung up at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen.
Not since the Victory Gardens of World War I and World War II, when Americans grew 40 percent of their own produce (In 1943, 20 million gardens were producing 8 million tons of food), have people become so enthusiastic about tomatoes and string beans.
But the movement has been building for a long time; from the hippie gardeners of the 1960s and 1970s who read Organic Gardening magazine, and the works of J.R. Rodale, to Rosalind Creasy, who dug up her front lawn in California to plant an edible landscape.
In recent years, artist and architect Fritz Haeg has ripped up lawns around the country to plant gardens – the first in Salinas, Kansas in 2005. His Edible Estates project has spread from Lakewood, Calif., to Baltimore, Maryland.
In February, 2008, Roger Doiron, the founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, in Maine, launched his “Eat the View” campaign, collecting 100,000 signatures on a petition to plant a kitchen garden at the White House.
And prophetic writers like Michael Pollan, whose “The Ominivore’s Dilemma” connecting water and air pollution, the loss of the small farmer and Americans’ poor health to an overdose of corn and corn syrup, finally trickled down to the masses.
Carroll County has been abuzz with the same issues that are hitting home all over the country: soaring food and fuel costs and concerns over food safety. Scientists have begun to link pesticide and herbicide use to many cancers and other diseases. Processed food, and our couch-potato lifestyle have combined to increase rates of diabetes and heart disease, even in children.
So it has slowly dawned on us: why not dig up part of that water-guzzling, pesticide-ridden Kentucky bluegrass, and grow something we can eat?
Of course, many people here grew up gardening. I learned from my cousin, Janice Raver, how to plant extra early, by dropping a few seeds into the fertile humus one might find under an old log.
I grew up in Finksburg, on a little 125-acre farm, where my grandparents raised cattle, milk cows, pigs and chickens, rotated their crops, used the manure on the fields and grew their own vegetables and sweet corn. They held onto their land during the Depression by driving into the wealthy sections of Baltimore and selling live chickens, fresh cream and cottage cheese, sweet corn and tomatoes.
I learned how to plant tomatoes and peppers, following Dad down the row, as Carroll, my brother, dug the hole. I plunked in the plant, my sister, Martha watered it in, and Dad nodded his approval down the long row.
We planted carrot seeds, lettuce, beets, endive, chard and kale. We dropped the peas in the trench in early spring – “two together to keep each other company,” Dad would say – and bean seeds when the soil warmed up.
That was the 1950s, when little farms just like ours lined Emory Road, and half of us were fifth cousins. But most of Dad’s generation, who knew what it was to muck out stables and make hay under an August sun, had gone off to college or to industry jobs that took them off the land.
When I graduated from high school, I took off for college, and then the big city, thinking I would never want to live in such a forgotten corner of the world, ever again. I started writing for newspapers – and funny thing, started missing growing the vegetables I once grew with Dad – so I started planting little gardens wherever I got a job.
I remember vacuuming flea beetles off the spinach in my garden in Ipswich, Mass., on instructions from my neighbor, a devout reader of Organic Gardening magazine. I grew tomatoes in whisky barrels on a rooftop in Brooklyn, where I could watch the moon come up over the Brooklyn Bridge and tell time by the Watchtower clock over the Jehovah’s Witnesses building in Brooklyn Heights.
Eventually, when I had had enough of the city, I came back to Carroll County and my mother was having some health problems.
I became a master gardener, and started helping out at the heirloom garden at the Carroll County Farm museum. I learned something every day I volunteered – about some heirloom plant I’d never heard of, like dragon’s claw or lady’s melon, or some beneficial insect, like the spined soldier bug that spears hornworms in the tomato patch.
And now I am learning from all these other vegetable-holics, on the Grow It Eat campaign, which will continue as the seasons progress, and people want to know what crops they can grow in the fall, or even the winter, with a little protection.(Classes are listed on the Grow It, Eat It website: www.growit.umd.edu, along with instructions on basic vegetable gardening.)
Some of these people can’t get farming out of their blood.
“My grandfather was a farmer in Illinois,” said Kathy Ford. “I walked beans when I was a young girl.” (That means walking down the rows, hoe in hand, chopping down the weeds.)
She remembers her grandmother and mother canning in the kitchen. And now she cans her own beans and tomatoes every summer. “Blue Lake bush beans,” she said. “I can’t get enough of them. We canned 91 pints last summer.”
Now, she and her husband Steve, who run their own company, KSF Construction, have started a CSA – community supported agriculture project – on the five acres that surround their rancher in Union Bridge.
It was late April when she said, “We’ve been carrying 500 seedlings, in four-inch pots, 18 pots to a flat, in and out of the house to harden them off.”
Later, she spoke at the Maryland Heartland Sustainable Living Fair about why she believes in Grow It Eat It.
“People want safe food, environmentally responsible grown food; they want to support local agriculture.Maybe they’re overwhelmed when they think about global warming, but when you think about growing your own food – nurturing something and then eating it – you feel you can do something.”
Planting peas with my father came back to me last month, when Chris Pensinger, a fellow master gardener, told me how she had shown some beginners a little pea-planting trick I never learned: “Lay the peas on the soil and then, since the first joint of your finger is about an inch, just push them in to the joint,” she said.
Too bad it is too late for planting peas. But Chris probably knows all the tricks of getting a second crop in the fall. If she gives a class on it, I will come.