NEWPORT NEWS, Va.
Dressed in blue jeans and short-sleeve cotton shirts, wet grass clippings caked on their shoes, Whitney and Fred Farris look comfortable and relaxed as they stroll their family farm, a 300-acre elongated point of lush land on the Nansemond River in southeastern Virginia.
The farm, about 30 miles from their home in Newport News, is where the couple spends weekends and many vacation days, tending to more than a dozen beds of various sizes they've created on two acres. Collectively, their plantings are called Long Point Gardens .
Organic gardeners for decades, they prefer the aromas of aged compost and ripening heirloom vegetables and fruits instead of the smells of gas fumes from traffic along city streets. They dig many beds by hand, and Fred fashions trellises, pergolas and fences from fallen branches and sticks. Tools are kept in a vintage corn crib, which is now officially their gardening shed.
"We have been organically gardening together even before our marriage on a North Carolina organic farm in 1980," says Fred, deputy director of the educational Virginia Living Museum (www.thevlm.org) in Newport News, Va., since 1999. Many of Fred's conservation ideas have been incorporated into programs at the museum, including the Living Green exhibit with a green roof, rain barrels, compost system, energy-conserving tips and earth-friendly building methods and products, according to Christine Lewis, museum education director, and other staff members. Fred is also a member of the local Green Building Council.
"The physical gardening work is not really work but fulfilling exercise that has made us both healthier. Being outdoors and tending the garden is invigorating and fun," he says.
After restoring the farmhouse on the Suffolk property from 1980 to 1983, they moved to Newport News to raise a family.
"We wanted to be near neighbors and for our kids to walk to school," adds Whitney, a preschool teacher.
Although the couple gardens at the farm, their crops begin at their city home. Seeds are started on heat mats under grow lights, and then the seedlings are transferred to a small backyard greenhouse before transplanted into Suffolk soil.
The list of vegetables, fruits and flowers they grow for personal use and for gift-giving reads like a gardening catalog -- four kinds of pumpkins, six kinds of gourds, three kinds of muskmelons and two kinds of watermelons. Zebra, Dancer and Black Beauty are their favorite eggplants; Romano, fava and regular snaps are their preferred beans. Spring and fall gardens include cabbages, kales, mustards, broccoli, kohlrabi, collards, peas and cilantro.
Tomato varieties they can whole and also make into pesto and salsa include Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra (winner of the 2011 Monticello tomato-testing contest, says Fred), German Riesentraube, Italian San Marzano, Sun Gold, plus Tomatillos.
Flower crops that benefit pollinators include zinnia, coneflower, black-eyed Susan, yarrow, lemon basil, sweet pea, bachelor buttons, butterfly bush, agastache, mountain mint, statice, strawflowers, larkspur, ageratum, amaranthus, cleome, sunflowers, hyacinth beans (seeds from Monticello), Ammi white dill, celosia, Sweet William and phlox.
"We provided all the cut flowers for our daughter's wedding on the property in 2008," says Fred.
"We provide . . . about half our family's food needs through this garden and share additional produce and flowers with family and friends."
The couple sticks to strict organic techniques using horse manure and bedding from a nearby farm to establish compost beds that fertilize the gardens . Dormant oil (oil mixed with an emulsifier and water that can be sprayed on plants when they are dormant) helps control insect issues on fruit and nut trees -- apple, pear, plums, figs, pomegranate, cherry, pecan, English walnut, persimmon, apricot, trifoliate orange, Chinese chestnut and hazelnut. They harvest two kinds of kiwi -- fuzzy and smooth Russian.
They hand weed, mulch extensively and grow cover crops such as crimson clover, buckwheat and wheat during winter to improve soil conditions for upcoming plantings. No pesticides or commercial fertilizers are used, and limited botanical sprays and soaps eliminate most pests on other plants.
Gardening organically and diversely, especially with native plant mixes, brings increasing numbers of butterflies, bees and other good wildlife to the gardens , they say. "When we first started coming here, we had a really bad mosquito problem, but not now," says Whitney. "We have a good hawk and owl population, tons of birds and lots of good bugs. We depend on predators to help us in the garden ."
Fred and Whitney Farris suggest:
* Compost, compost, compost. Recycle non-meat kitchen scraps and also all yard waste, including all your fall leaves. Homemade compost is your best and cheapest fertilizer.
* Savor seeds. Start from seed as many vegetable and flower plants at home as you can. Try new and unusual varieties and help preserve valuable heirloom types for future generations. Many new varieties are bred for commercial production and long-distance shipping, so your home-started seedlings produce better-tasting harvests.
* Mulch, mulch, mulch. Cover your garden with compost, leaves and grass clippings to reduce weed growth, reduce watering needs and increase soil fertility.
* Reuse rain. Add rain barrels to your downspouts to water your seedlings and garden .
* Learn to love insects. Many insects you see in a garden are not pests but beneficial insects that help control the real pests. Spraying a garden with pesticide kills all insects (good and bad) and eliminates any hope for natural control of your garden pests -- you just end up spraying more often. Stop to watch and identify the insects that visit your garden ; even the bad guys are fascinating.
* Diversify. Plant different types of plants together. Avoid large sections of one type of plant. Interplant flowers and herbs among your vegetables to encourage beneficial insects to live in and help protect your garden .
* Don't be a perfectionist. Don't expect your garden to be perfect with large harvests from all types and blemish-free fruit and produce. By accepting a few bumps and bruises, your produce will taste just the same but be healthier because you have reduced your need for pesticides.
* Focus on the soil, not the plants. Adding compost, mulch and cover crops to your garden enhances soil fertility and moisture retention.