Chemical fertilizers = poor gardening?

  • Debra Smith
  • Monday, April 28, 2008 4:23pm
  • Local News

When Barbara Damrosch published the first edition of “The Garden Primer” two decades ago, most people thought vegetables when they thought gardening.

A lot changed.

We got busier and our yards shrank. Home-grown veggies yielded the throne to supermarket food. And ornamentals became queen of the garden.

Veggies are back, Damrosch said, and so too is the book thousands of gardeners lugged dog-eared and dirty around their gardens. Damrosch was in Seattle recently signing copies of a revised edition of the gardening classic, which includes chapters on soil, tools, landscape planning, buying plants and a dictionary of some of the best plants for the home garden.

She intended the original to be a how-to guide and the second edition delivers advice in the same plain, practical language.

In the past two decades, Damrosch, now 65, evolved from a landscaper to a vegetable farmer, and her speciality is growing vegetables year-round. She and her husband tend 40 acres in Maine. On just an acre and a half they grow $120,000 worth of produce annually, all in raised 30-inch beds. They incorporate tons of organic matter and grow veggies in 20 below zero Maine winters using a combination of unheated greenhouses and floating row covers.

The second edition includes plants she now considers indispensable and she ditched plants that could become invasive. Readers will see more native plants, more seed saving and a more ecologically-enlightened approach. This edition is “100 percent” organic — it says so right on the cover — but Damrosch said she has always felt pesticides were harmful.

When she learned millions of microscopic organisms lived in an inch of soil and that those organisms play an important role in plant health, she realized “soil is precious and fragile.” Worried about soil compaction, she rototills less and steps more carefully. And no chemical fertilizers.

“There is a growing awareness that anything that reduces the life of the soil is just poor gardening,” she said.

More people are returning to vegetables because of concerns about the safety of the industrial food system, but she said the trend got its start with mindful cooks looking for the freshest and best produce for their kitchens. People have lost touch with the good basic things in life like sitting down with family and eating together, she said. Food has been devalued.

She hopes her book inspires more people to incorporate vegetables into their yards. It doesn’t take much space to grow a significant amount of food, she said. A 10-by-12 foot sunny plot can yield tomatoes, squash, salad greens and beans. Even a container can support a nice mix of greens or herbs.

“I’d like to see people get into serious gardening and even community gardens where you can rent a space,” she said.

It’s not all about the vegetables. She also wants people to do something more interesting with their yards, something more than “muffin-shaped topiary plants” and a respectable lawn.

“People have been browbeaten into a certain aesthetic,” she said. “People should wake up a little bit. I have this tiny piece of earth I have use of. What could I do to make it more interesting? More useful? More fruitful?”

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