Have you ever wondered which fruits and vegetables are available in Connecticut, and when? The Department of Agriculture created this chart to help:
By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD
Though some economic indicators are showing that things are getting better, there are many Connecticut citizens who still find tough going. The result has been that more and more people are growing food in their backyards or on patios, and some are growing enough to need to know how to freeze and can the fruits and vegetables for storage into the winter. It is likely that the home vegetable gardening trend will continue until there is a change in our collective jitters about the stock market or the fact that raises are few and far between.
When budgets are tight, we often are forced to make diet changes that might not be in our health’s best interest. One study, in the November 2007 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, showed that limited resource families would need to spend up to 70% of their food budget on fruits and vegetables in order to meet USDA Dietary Guidelines recommendations. So, it stands to reason that when things get tough, folks are likely to make other, less costly, food choices. A study appearing in the Journal of Nutrition indicated that a population of French adults, when confronted with cost constraints, would be most likely to limit purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables (along with meat and dairy foods).
So, if you can’t afford to buy fresh tomatoes from the market, why not think about growing some in your back yard?
Americans have a history of using kitchen gardens to feed their families better when times are tough. During the Second World War, the presence of backyard kitchen gardens or “Victory Gardens” emerged as Americans did what they could to help with the War effort. At the time, these gardens provided over 40% of the fresh produce eaten in this country. That meant commercial production could be devoted to supplying our troops here and overseas.
How can you plan and grow a kitchen garden that contributes significantly to reducing your food budget? First, you need to do some planning.
When choosing a place for your garden, keep in mind that fruits and vegetables need a lot of sun to grow and good drainage. Of course, the ideal place for a kitchen garden is just outside of the kitchen door. Convenience makes it user-friendly. If you do not have a sunny garden space, try planting a container garden on a sunny deck or patio. Tomatoes, peppers, onions, small lettuces, and, of course, herbs, can do very well in well-drained containers. Check with the UConn Home and Garden Education Center or your local Master Gardener for help in choosing varieties suitable to container gardening.
It is best to start small. Remember that anything you grow and do not eat within a few days will need to be preserved. When times are tight, being wasteful makes no sense. Canning and freezing take time and is usually done during the hottest months of the year. Most would agree the effort is worth it, but it might be wise to get into this one baby step at a time. Once you figure out what you can grow, use, give away or preserve in a timely fashion, you may choose to increase your garden size.
What to Grow
It might seem obvious that a kitchen garden includes primarily fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you commonly use in your kitchen. Planting a bunch of Brussels sprouts so that it will be available for the fall and winter table makes no sense if the family can’t get the sometimes odiferous cruciferous past their collective noses.
Consider growing fruits and vegetables that can contribute the most to the quality of your diet. Some of the most “good for you” fruits and vegetables can be grown easily in a Connecticut garden. Try growing cantaloupe or watermelon, strawberries, or blueberries. These can all be expensive when buying them in your supermarket. If you have room, you can get several pounds of raspberries from each plant you put in the ground. Think about that when you pick up a half-pint costing upwards of four dollars in the market.
Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard greens and romaine lettuce are easy to grow. When it comes to greens, darker is always the best nutritional choice. Choose romaine, spinach or other dark leafy greens over iceberg or leaf lettuce if your garden space is limited.
Yes, market tomatoes can be expensive—especially if you want them to be organic, or of the heirloom variety. But consider this: one packet of seed can yield up to 30 plants. And each plant can produce more than 25 pounds of tomatoes. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that it is cheaper to grow the things than to buy them. Finally, choose carrots, green or red peppers, winter squash or pumpkin. All of these pack a healthy punch and will be a great addition to your kitchen garden.
Herbs are a good choice if you want to add wonderful flavor to foods without adding salt or sugar. Basil, parsley, rosemary and thyme are must-haves. A small pot of oregano will produce more than enough fresh herb for the summer. You can bring potted herbs indoors and continue to grow them all year long if you choose to. You may never have to spend a fortune on little cans of the dried stuff ever again.
Finally, be sure to develop a garden plan that includes early season choices (peas, salad greens), mid-season (berries, green beans) and later season produce (winter squash, Brussels sprouts). This will help to insure that you have something fresh at your table from spring until winter.
Keep your vegetable gardening budget friendly with some of these additional tips:
- Start and maintain a compost pile—a future of free fertilizer
- Start plants from seed or purchase the smallest plants available from your garden store
- Save seed from this year’s crop to use next year—free seeds!
- Trade and share excess produce or seeds with other gardeners or neighbors
- When you need help, get information or advice from the UConn Home and Garden Education Center or your local library—free help!
Once your kitchen garden is established, your produce section is just outside your door and you will have easy access to fresh garden tomatoes or blueberries. For more information about growing a kitchen garden, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-486-6271.
….be sure to grow with food safety in mind
By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD
It is hard to believe that spring is just around the corner. Though we in Connecticut were all teased with 35-degree temperatures, we are quickly back in the deep freeze, surrounded by ugly, dirty snow piles that are just not going away.
But go away, they will…and it won’t be long before many churches, schools, community organizations and day care centers are planning, digging and planting their vegetable garden. Gardens have become very popular. It seems like everyone has or wants one: to teach kids about where their food comes from, to grow food to donate to food pantries or community organizations, to save a little money on the ever increasing food budget, or simply for a little outdoor exercise. The locally grown movement has also helped to fuel the garden trend.
If you are working with a group of folks on a community/school/church garden, have you thought beyond the seed catalogues, watering schedules or how you are going to share your bounty? Will this bounty be grown, harvested and handled post-harvest in a way that will minimize the possibility of contamination with the microorganisms that might cause foodborne illness?
Did you know that fresh produce is the number one food source of foodborne illness in the US? The Centers for Disease Control found that 46% of all foodborne illnesses from 1998 to 2008 were attributed to produce and 23% of deaths from foodborne illness (meat and poultry contributed to more deaths-29%).
And yet, few think as they are growing produce to be shared with school children or those with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables that they might want to consider the fact that there are microorganisms in the soil, in bird poop or on the hands of the harvesters that could, in fact, make someone sick—especially those that may have a compromised immune system such as those that have a chronic disease, are pregnant, or are malnourished.
So what should you do? By using good gardening and harvesting practices, you can help to reduce potential food safety risks from the food you grow.
When planning your garden…
Locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, garbage cans, septic systems, run-off from any potential sources of contamination, and areas where wildlife, farm animals, or pets roam. Test soil for contaminants, particularly lead, prior to planting. If lead levels are greater than 100 ppm, precautions should be taken as outlined in the document, Soil Lead Interpretation Sheet, available from the University of Connecticut Soil Laboratory at 860-486-4274. Do you want to use compost? To be safe for gardening, your compost must reach a temperature of at least 130°F. Check the temperature with a compost thermometer. Don’t use untreated manure in a garden that feeds a community group, school or neighborhood.
Know your water source and its potential for contamination. Irrigate using water from an approved public water system. You can be sure that water from a municipal or public water system is safe and potable (drinkable). However, water from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams can be polluted by human sewage or animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry and is more risky. Even water from a rain barrel can be contaminated – best to save that for non-edible plants. If well water is used, be sure to test it at least annually to ensure its safety. During the gardening season, keep cats, dogs and other pets out of the garden, as animal waste can be a source of bacteria, parasites and viruses. Curtail nesting and hiding places for rats and mice by minimizing vegetation at the edges of your fruit and vegetable garden. Fencing or noise deterrents may help discourage other animals.
During harvest time…
People who are sick, particularly with vomiting or diarrhea should not work in the garden or harvest produce. Everyone should wash their hands with soap and water before and after harvesting fresh produce. Do you have hand-washing facilities nearby? Harvest into clean, food-grade containers. Food-grade containers are made from materials designed specifically to safely hold food. Garbage bags, trash cans, and any containers that originally held chemicals such as household cleaners or pesticides are not food-grade. If children are helping out, be sure they are supervised by adults who understand safe harvesting practices. It is best not to let them eat fresh picked food before it is washed. If tools are used for harvesting (knives, clippers), make sure that they are cleaned regularly and designated only for garden use.
If you choose to wash fruits and vegetables before storing, be sure to dry them thoroughly with a clean paper towel. (NEVER wash berries until you are ready to eat them). If you choose to store without washing, shake, rub or brush off any garden dirt with a paper towel or soft brush while still outside. Store unwashed produce in plastic bags or containers. Keep fruit and vegetable bins clean.
When washing produce fresh from the warm outdoors, the rinse water should not be more than 10 degrees colder than the produce. If you are washing refrigerated produce, use cold water. Fresh fruits and vegetables needing refrigeration can be stored below 41° F. Those that are safe to store at room temperature (onions, potatoes, whole, uncut tomatoes) should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.
UConn Extension’s Connecticut Vegetable & Small Fruit Growers’ Conference was held at Maneeley’s in South Windsor on Thursday, January 16th. The annual event is co-sponsored by UConn Extension, UConn’s Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) and USDA. Over 260 vegetable and small fruit growers from throughout New England attended, and thirty vendors were on-hand at the trade show.
Participants praised the conference, and 98% stated they learned something to improve their crop production and marketing. Vegetable and small fruit growers also gained insight to improve their farms’ environmental quality and profitability through new practices introduced at the conference. Growers in attendance also earned 4.5 hours of pesticide re-certification credits.
Nine different speakers presented on various topics from recirculating hydroponics systems, to weed-free fields, and deep zone tillage. Speakers included Jamie Jones from The Jones Family Farms in Shelton, Jude Boucher from UConn Extension, Tom Giammattei Jr. of the Flower Farm in Prospect, Michele Collins from Fair Weather Acres in Rocky Hill, Mary Concklin of UConn, Wade Elmer from CAES, Charles Bornt of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Mark Parlee of Parlee Farms in Tyngsboro, MA, and Tom Morris of UConn. Several growers provided comments at the end of the day, and these included: “Excellent assembly of topics and speakers,” and “Hard to choose the two best talks.”
Next year’s conference will be held at Maneely’s on Thursday, January 15, 2015. The committee from UConn Extension is already working to secure speakers and pesticide re-certification credits for attendees. This is a great educational event for growers, and will continue to expand in the future. For more information on the vegetable and small fruit programs at UConn, please visit: www.ipm.uconn.edu