Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2008
Regional Report

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Blackberries add beautiful flowers to the landscape as well as healthful food to our plates.

Greening the Garden

The public's growing interest in environmental, or "green," issues is pervasive in the media. Although I haven't checked out the tabloids yet, just about every other magazine at the grocery checkout counter is telling us what we can do to help the environment. Much of this gardeners have known about and done for years. Although my mother wasn't a strict organic gardener, we certainly learned to eat around the bugs in the corn, beans, apples, and broccoli. Still, there are ways we can improve our gardening.

In a recent survey of gardening trends by the Garden Writers Association Foundation, a significant majority (68 percent) of American households expressed concern for the environmental impact of the gardening products they buy today. Also, as reported in a previous National Gardening Association column, vegetable gardening is on the rise, with an increase of 22 percent of money spent in 2007 on vegetable gardening and a 19 percent increase in berry growing.

With this amplified interest in gardening comes a barrage of gardening products and techniques, with proponents all touting theirs as the best. How do we sift through this? Certainly, over the years, I have found particular products and techniques that have worked for me, and you probably have as well. Still, as I read catalogs and Web sites, I wonder if other options would be better.

Some Truth-Telling
Two books have given me some fascinating insights into choosing garden products and methods: The Truth About Garden Remedies, and The Truth About Organic Gardening, both by Jeff Gillman (Timber Press, 2008). Gillman is an associate professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted original experiments, as well as sifted through the scientific literature, to assess both new and historic advice, revealing the how, why, and why not. He examines products and practices, determining whether they are safe and accomplish the task intended. You may not agree with all his conclusions, but these books do provide an important springboard in "greening" your garden practices.

Organic Matter Matters
As the daughter of a farmer who specialized in rescuing and restoring abandoned, depleted, eroded farmland to productivity, the backbone of any success I have with gardening has to do with my interest and concern with the soil. Healthy soil is the key to satisfying gardens. And I don't want to hear anyone complaining about their soil. It can be improved. Just like raising healthy, happy children, it takes time and TLC.

Using organic matter, including compost, composted manure, and organic mulches that readily decompose, is essential to improving garden soil, whether sticky red clay or sandy. It's also important to fertilize, especially as you're building up the organic matter in the soil. My own preferences lean toward the natural-based fertilizers from Espoma (, each with "Tone" in the name. Why did I choose these? They're widely available and reasonably priced, the company seems conscientious, and the ingredients are thoughtfully chosen. There are many other options that are equally good.

Pest and Weed Control
Insects, diseases, and weeds are the gardener's nemesis, unless you're a proponent of working in conjunction with them (yes, there are those). For the others who are looking for ways to limit the impact of pests and weeds, the two Gillman books are invaluable. Two other references that I find particularly useful for controlling insects and diseases are The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food (Storey Publishing, 2003; $22.95) by Tanya L. K. Denckla; and Gardening: The Complete Guide to Growing America's Favorite Fruits & Vegetables by the National Gardening Association (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1986, used copies available).

Get Ready to Eat
Between the slowing economy, rising food costs, and concerns about food safety, food gardening is on the upswing, projected to be increasing by almost 40 percent this year. The Denckla and National Gardening books mentioned above are the perfect ones to help you grow fruits and vegetables for years to come. As much as I want to see fruits and vegetables in every yard, don't get carried away. Better to grow a few things well rather than going big and being overwhelmed with failures. Even adding a few new crops to your garden will have an impact on your own life as well as the planet.

Among the ways I choose what to grow is looking at the list of most pesticide-ridden crops that should either be bought or raised organically. A list is available from the Environmental Working Group ( For example, apples are at the top of the list, but they are not the easiest of crops to grow. Organic ones are readily available at the grocery, so I put them lower on my gardening list. Bell peppers are second on the list. Organic ones at the grocery are very expensive but they're easy to grow, so I grow plenty of these and freeze them for winter use.

Potatoes are number 9 among the most pesticide-ridden crops. Using a straw mulch around them keeps potato beetles at bay. Plus, there are dozens of wonderfully flavored varieties available for home growing that make the few varieties available at groceries pale in comparison. Ronniger's Potato Farm (, Fedco Seeds (, Wood Prairie Farm (, and Southern Seed Exposure ( are four excellent sources of seed potatoes.

Raspberries and strawberries are numbers 10 and 12, respectively, on the list. Both of these are also easily grown in home gardens. Among raspberry varieties, 'Caroline' has been found to have the highest nutritional and antioxidant content.

Sure, being "green" may be old hat for gardeners, but there are many ways that we can improve, continuing to help the environment as well as improving our own lives.

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