Winter Rest Involves Gardening Books and Plans for Plant a Row for the Hungry

In winter, when many gardeners are planning, ordering from seed catalogs, and dreaming of spring and the day they can get out there and dig, I’m just thrilled to see that the dirt stains are finally gone from beneath my fingernails and hands. I work all day helping customers plan their gardens, choose their plants, answer their questions, and then come home and tend my own gardens. When the nursery closes for the season, and the plants are resting, it’s my time to rest too. I am not a garden planner, plotter, or hatcher of good ideas during these cold months. I couldn’t enjoy winter to its fullest if I was busy planning for the next season. But still….I can’t really forget about gardening entirely for a whole season. I get my fix by catching up on garden-related reading, and by attending seminars and lectures on the topic. 

If you are one of those who plan ahead (I’m breaking my no-planning habit for this one), why not plan for a little extra and “Plant a Row for the Hungry”? The Plant a Row for the Hungry initiative is a nationwide campaign to provide fresh, healthy produce to those in need. The premise of PAR is simple: plant an extra row of vegetables and donate the harvest to a local food pantry or soup kitchen. Since 1995, over 14 million pounds of produce have been grown, providing over 50 million meals donated by American gardeners. 

Due to the economic situation in this country, a rapidly increasing number of Americans are turning to food banks for hunger relief. Reports show an unprecedented number of them are middle-class families and first time visitors. Alarmingly, many of them are turned away because there is a lack of available resources. Billy Shore, the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, an organization working to end childhood hunger in America says, “Relief groups are getting hit hard by the same economic factors affecting those they serve. In these tough times, they need support from caring, everyday Americans more than ever.” 

When learning about PAR, I got excited and started making phone calls. Through the help of a local social service agency, I was led to a church in town that serves “Open Door” dinners to anyone in need of a hot meal. Every Tuesday night, they provide a sit-down meal to between 80 and 100 people and prepare about 120 take-out meals. Speaking with the pastor, he said they’ve seen an influx of people served in the past year, and would be delighted to have donations of produce. Any surplus will go to the local food pantry. I’ve got gardeners and a small farm more than willing to commit space and time to growing vegetables for the program. Because the produce will go toward providing that many meals at one time, we will be concentrating on one vegetable this first year: green beans. They’re easy to grow, produce a lot for a long period of time and have a longer storage-life than many other vegetables. My next step is to get the word out via our local newspaper and the Master Gardener newsletter to rally more participants. I have high hopes, and will keep you posted throughout the growing season on how the program is going.

If you’re interested in starting a Plant a Row for the Hungry campaign in your area, check out the Garden Writers Association’s website. They offer tips on getting started, support and printable brochure downloads. 

I read about PAR in a letter from the editor of GreenPrints “The Weeder’s Digest”. I ordered this unique gardening magazine as a Christmas gift to myself. The “greatest story” edition arrived a couple of weeks before Christmas. I would have promptly read it, but Shelby knew it was my gift to myself, snatched it out of my hands and wrapped it to put under the tree, telling me I had to wait until Christmas like everybody else. Drat! Sometimes what we teach them backfires. Luckily for me, the winter issue came shortly after, and I’d sneak some reading time while no one was looking. 

One of the best parts of my job at the nursery is the interaction I get each day with people who love gardening as much as I do. I’ve laughed with my customers, commiserated with them, and even cried with them as they’ve shared their personal stories revolving around their gardens. It’s stories like these that unfold in the pages of “GreenPrints”. Digest-sized, it “focuses on the human, not the how-to side of gardening.” This is a magazine for anyone who gardens not just for the harvest or for aesthetics, but for those who find that reaping the emotional benefits from gardening is just as – if not more – satisfying. I can’t wait for the Spring, 20th Anniversary Issue to arrive. 

Another good read that isn’t just another “how-to” book is Farm City; The Education of an Urban Farmer, (Novella Carpenter. The Penguin Press, 2009). During early summer last year, I read a review about the book that promised it was “hysterical and uplifting … a wry, yet humble sense of humor … not just an informative manual for the urban homesteader, but also refreshing and highly entertaining.” I like hysterical and highly entertaining. I had to wait this long to find out for myself; my library didn’t have the book, but promised to put it on request for an inter-library loan. It finally came in, and I couldn’t put it down until I finished the last page.

It’s the author’s account of her attempts at urban farming in a ghetto neighborhood in Oakland, California. She has no desire to leave the city for the country, preferring its noise, energy, and “its late-night newsstands and rowdy bars” over the quiet isolation she knew growing up on a ranch in Idaho. But she can’t ignore what her hippie, back-to-the-land parents instilled in her: a love of nature, self-sufficiency, and the satisfaction of growing vegetables and raising animals. Amid drug dealers, the homeless, gang shootouts, and across the street from a speakeasy, Novella starts a “squatter’s garden,” complete with raised beds and fruit trees, on the vacant lot next to the house she and her boyfriend rent. She keeps bees, chickens, geese, turkey, ducks, rabbits and two pigs. Her idea of foraging for food is different than what most people have: it’s late-night dumpster diving excursions to the best restaurants in the city, to get scraps for the pigs and poultry. 

Interwoven throughout her story are tips on growing vegetables, raising animals, and of the history of the urban farm. Urban farming is not a new way of life; it’s been practiced in various parts of the world since the ancient Greece era. Even in this country, where “most Americans believe in the separation of city and country,” pockets of urban areas have been farmed, most notably in Philadephia, New York, and Detroit, since the 1800s. This is a book about the celebration of the urban farm and of life. It’s about failures and successes, sorrow and joy, birth and death, and how to richly live the life we choose. The book is everything the review I read promised, and so much more. 

Speaking of so much more … ever think about what a tree does for you and your family besides standing there, looking pretty? What if the next tree you purchased afforded you the same type of federal tax deduction as does installing a new solar heater or energy-efficient central air-conditioning? Dr. Robert Schutzki, professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Horticulture, contends it might not be too far in the future that those tax deductions will be available, and trees will have ratings similar to the Energy Star Rating. In mid-December, I attended a lecture given by Dr. Schutzki, “What Sustainability Means to the Green Industry,” in which he stated some government and other agencies are exploring those possibilities. 

There are a number of calculators which attempt to put a dollar amount on the benefits a tree provides. One I found online is very easy to use: if you’d like to see just what benefits a tree already growing in your yard provides, just type in your ZIP code or your geographic location from the provided map, choose your tree from the drop-down menu, enter the tree’s trunk diameter measured 4.5 feet from the ground, and the type of dwelling you live in. I admit, I’ve had a lot of fun wading through the snow to measure the trees in my yard, and dragging Shelby in her pajamas with me to hold the tape measure so I could take a picture; what a ham. It’s amazing what one single tree can do. 

According to the National Tree Benefit Calculator, the largest tree in our yard, a sugar maple, “provides overall benefits of $361.00 every year; the same tree if located on the California coast would have an annual benefit of $661.00. Here, on the coast of Lake Michigan, my maple will intercept 7,694 gallons of stormwater runoff. This year it will raise my property value by $138.00; it will conserve 213 kilowatt hours and reduce my natural gas consumption by 72 therms. It will reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon by 1,461 pounds. Kinda neat, huh? Especially when you consider 26 pounds of carbon dioxide equals 11,000 miles of car emissions. Actually, the sugar maple probably provides greater benefits than this; its diameter is more than 50 inches – the calculator only goes up to 45 inches. 

So there you have it – while I haven’t been busy thumbing through catalogs and ordering seeds (I didn’t even order a catalog), or plotting this year’s garden on graph paper, I have been kind of busy with gardening stuff. Or at least well-occupied. I hope you get a chance to check some of these things out, and find them as time-worthy and enjoyable as I have.

  • Published on Feb 8, 2010
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