The current state of global environmental instability has many people around the world attempting to reduce their negative environmental impact and to try to live in greater harmony with the planet where possible. For the average person this usually means participating in neighborhood recycling programs and taking re-usable bags to the grocery store most of the time. People with big budgets might install a solar power system on their roof or buy an electric or hybrid car.
But what about people like my family? We are the typical suburban family of four, living a very average life on a very average income. We work at our jobs and work on our house and do all the things you might read in a magazine article about “Ways to Live Greener”. We recycle, we diligently use those re-usable bags at the grocery store, we changed all the light bulbs in the house to compact fluorescents, we don’t run the air conditioner too cold and we always turn the water off while brushing our teeth. While all of these things are important, it feels like we are making very little impact on the environmental issues facing our planet today. So what can a regular family on a budget do to make a bigger positive impact on our planet? I took this question as my personal challenge and set about doing research to find an answer.
There are many articles and websites available today that are encouraging people to try growing their own food as a way to have a positive impact on the environment. This inevitably brings up the question of what makes backyard produce better for the environment than grocery store produce?
Growing your own organic fruits and vegetables can cut out a lot of the resource intensive parts of your personal food chain. Using organic growing methods enriches the soil you are using while not harming the environment with toxic herbicides and pesticides. Harvesting from the backyard does not require the use of tractors to work the land or airplanes, ships and trucks to bring the harvest to the store thereby saving on all of that gas and subsequent pollution.
The problem is that I have dabbled for years in small scale backyard veggie growing, sometimes with stunning and exciting success (my immediate family will probably never forget the "Bok Choy Bonanza" of 2010!) but more often I ended up with little to show for a lot of hard and sweaty work. When things did work out right and I could harvest and then prepare and eat the veggies I grew, I would feel so happy and I would savor every bite. I especially liked when I grew more than my family could eat and then I could share with neighbors and friends as well. Up until now my garden has been a fun but not very productive hobby, how then, can I turn it into my personal produce department?
After days of research, I have decided to use the Square Foot Gardening method made famous by Mel Bartholomew. In his book, he instructs the aspiring gardener in a raised bed method where you don't even use the dirt in the ground but instead rely completely on his recipe for an organic growing medium that is made up of organic compost, vermiculite and peat moss. The other big difference from traditional gardening or even farming is that the plants are placed much closer together than usual in a grid formation instead of the traditional long rows. This means that theoretically a small 4' x 4' patch can produce as much total food as an area twice that size, making this method attainable and realistic for those of us who don’t count our property’s size in acres. Another eco-advantage to this method is that due to the composition of the growing medium, it takes much less water than the traditional method. This is important to me because it ties in to my interest in exploring the concept of Rain Water Harvesting. I am hoping to figure out how to make and use a Rain Barrel to catch the abundant rain which falls in my area and then use it to water the plants in my garden. I would thereby lessen my impact on an already overstressed local water supply while providing my veggies with clean, non-chemically treated water.
I have a lot of work ahead of me to make my raised beds ready for the next planting season. I need to find a source for large quantities of vermiculite, peat moss and organic compost that won't bankrupt me and I have to clear grass and lay out my landscape timbers which will define the borders of the raised beds. This will be an opportunity to recycle some old landscape timbers that we bought years ago to create a backyard playground for our kids, but, if I didn't already have lumber to use, I could buy 2" x 6" x 8' boards of pine at the local home improvement store for about $4 each which brings the cost per garden box to $8 each.
According to my trusty book, and all of the articles I read, it is possible to grow enough fruit and veggies in even a small suburban backyard to supply most of our produce needs throughout the year. I don’t know if I can accomplish that goal in the first year, but I am definitely going to give it my best try. I love the idea of reducing the heavy environmental impact of industrial agricultural production by taking control of my own produce in my own backyard. Who knows, if this works out maybe I’ll even think about raising some chickens back there too! I sure love farm fresh eggs…