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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


A Daily Gazette community blog
Ideas on greener living

Measuring your garden

What’s a kitchen garden worth?

There are a lot of answers, depending on whether you measure your yield in salad bowls or bushel baskets, in fresh air or fresh produce, in vitamins or exercise.

One family answered in cash terms: $2,149.15.

Roger Doiron of Maine came up with that figure after he and his wife measured and weighed everything they harvested last season, and cross-referenced their output against produce prices.

Roger didn’t include labor, figuring that if he did, he’d have to add in the value of the gym membership he didn’t need because of all the exercise he got in the garden. And he didn’t include the wild food he gathered, or the produce that got eaten before it made it into the house.

He also didn’t include things like carbon offsets, from the shopping trips he didn’t make because the food was right there in his yard. Still, the value for his family of five, from a 10th-of-an-acre garden, was remarkable. (Click here to read more.)

The eat-local and organic food movements have done a lot to remind people of the value of gardens. But the recession has done even more. With unemployment growing and hours and wages being cut, “food stability” has become a real and local issue. Over the past two years, more and more people are trying to figure out how to feed their families for less. Sales of seeds — and even chickens for backyard flocks — have been growing as a result. Hatcheries report selling out of chicks; seed companies nationwide are reporting higher sales.

The Burpee seed company saw sales grow 30 percent last year over the year before, and the company predicts an additional 20 percent gain this year. Sales of starter kits indicate a big jump in first-time gardeners, the company says.

Other seed companies report similar growth, and “recession gardens” are filling the niche that “victory gardens” held in the 1940s. A new National Gardening Association survey predicts a 19 percent increase in home gardens this year, and half of the gardeners surveyed cited grocery savings as the reason to garden.

But should everyone really have a garden? The naysayers point out that gardening is work, and that cheap food is available in grocery stores, and that most of us aren’t really capable or willing to grow our own food.

“The entire concept of a ‘recession garden’ is totally bogus,” says the blog Urbzen, which bills itself as “a modern meditation on food, drink, politics and style.”

The posting continues: “In purely economic terms, you could hardly make a worse investment than growing your own food. Even if you are blessed with a reasonably large yard full of rich, fertile soil, the cost of irrigation and basic gardening tools alone vastly outweighs the cost of buying a rutabaga at the supermarket, and that’s to say nothing of the often several-month delay between planting and harvest. Yes, it’s great that you’re expecting a fantastic crop of kale in June, but what are we having for dinner tonight?” (Click here for more.)

I’m a gardener myself, and we grow as much of our own food as we can, and preserve it for year-round use. And we are blessed with “a reasonably large” area to garden in, and soil continually enhanced by the byproducts of having chickens and oxen, and by the kitchen compost. Still, it’s good to weigh a few jaded warnings along with the unfettered enthusiasm of growers like me.

Because it’s true that gardening is work, that weeds grow and deer and dry spells happen. But it’s also true that abundance happens with good stewardship, resulting in freezers full of beans, shelves full of salsa and tomato sauce, and basements full of potatoes and squash. Really.

If you’re looking at starting a garden for the first time, the easiest way to ensure success is to find a partner. Get some friends or neighbors to share the plot, the work and the harvest. Share seeds, share seedlings, share shovels.

If you live near a community garden, you’re set — with ready garden neighbors to share advice, questions and tools with. Or maybe you can find someone in your neighborhood who wants a garden partner.

Even if you have a few gardening buddies spread out through the region, there are ways that you can share. Plan rotating get-togethers for planting and weeding, and by all means share the tools that you’ll only need a few times a year. You’ll need your own hoe and spade, of course, but you can certainly share hard rakes and big shovels, especially in your first years.

And no, you don’t need a rototiller. Your neighbor has one. Or you can rent one. Or you can be like us and use an old grub hoe to break new ground, or just start a “lasagne garden,” layering cardboard or newspaper over the grass and piling composted manure on top of that for raised beds. No need to till at all.

What you cannot do without is sun, so if you’re yard is all shade, find someone else’s yard. Barter with a sunny neighbor — a small plot of sunny yard for tomatoes in August, or for that fantastic crop of kale in June.

It’s worth a try.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Add a comment below, or email

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March 30, 2009
11:33 a.m.

[ Flag Post ]

A reader, and a gardener, called to say that you can't grow vegetables directly in composted manure, that it's too strong.

The stuff we use -- extremely-well composted ox manure -- is four years old before it goes into the garden. At that point it's like garden soil, and vegetables will certainly grow directly in it. But if you're buying bags of composted manure from a garden center, or even getting year-old stuff from your neighbor's barn, it's got to be mixed with soil.

I haven't tried a lasagne garden myself yet, although I'm planning one this spring for my son, who wants a secret garden with flowers and tomatoes and sunflowers to hide in. I'll let you now how it works out.

April 2, 2009
1:08 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

We're looking to help out a neighbor, my nutrient ingredient label, and our winter pantry by renting a patch of scrubland at the back of his lot for a vegetable garden this summer. What's a fair price for a 25' square plot (about 1/8 acre)? for seasonal use? Is there a web resource for determining value of land used for gardening?

PS—we're in zone minus-4 or 11 (I'm never quite sure which, but its the one that is least climatically hospitable to growing much beyond large snow banks).

April 3, 2009
3:33 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Most, but not all, of the snow is out of our vegetable gardens, but both the existing and future flower gardens are still under our own large snow banks. I may be in the same zone as you.

Between your frigid zone and the "scrubland," you might have to stick to potatoes and pumpkins, unless you have a couple of oxen willing to offer fertility. If you can get tomatoes and peppers to grow there, salsa always is good for rent. Or fresh eggs.

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