GARDENING WITH MALAYSIAKINI: bring back the backyard garden

Growing food at home or in community gardens
can help you avoid exposure to chemical pesticides,
get exercise, and save energy.

Home gardens are common in many parts of Europe, and they were a big hit in the United States during World War II. One food expert has publicly urged U.S. President Barack Obama to appoint a White House Farmer to plant five acres of the White House lawn as an example for Americans. The energy savings to an oil-obsessed country would be extremely significant. As the Pesticide Action Network - North America (PANNA) puts it "While your average tomato travels 1,500 fossil-fueled miles from farm to fork, produce from an urban garden seldom needs to travel more than 1,500 inches."

Pesticides are toxic chemicals used in large-scale farming to kill various bugs -- but they can also be hazardous to human health, especially for children, according to PANNA. Using pesticides has become standard practice in industrial agriculture, which, according to PANNA, creates a vicious cycle: as pests become more resistant to the poison, more of it needs to be applied, and new crop varieties -- genetically engineered to withstand a high poison level -- have to be introduced. Over 70 percent of all genetically modified crops are altered to be herbicide-resistant, notes Beyond Pesticides, a community advocacy group. Growing your own fruits and vegetables can help break the cycle.

During World War II, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, encouraged citizens to plant "Victory Gardens" around their homes and neighbors cooperated to turn vacant lots into community cropland. In 1943, 20 million U.S. gardeners produced eight million tons of food. San Francisco's Golden Gate Park became the home to 250 gardens producing fresh, local food for city residents.

In Britain, home gardens have been part of the urban landscape for generations and today, many European Union countries are encouraging city gardens by providing seeds, tools and outright grants. Belgium gives its gardeners checks worth thousands of euros to purchase soil, compost and seeds (or to build rooftop gardens and rainwater harvesting systems). Belgium's government also pays homeowners to transform basement space into shelters for bats that control insects better than chemical treatments while producing nutrient-rich guano for the garden.

Home gardens take toil but save oil. While your average tomato travels 1,500 fossil-fueled miles from farm to fork, produce from an urban garden seldom needs to travel more than 1,500 inches. In 2007, about 22% of all U.S. households (25 million homes) had some sort of backyard vegetable garden, according to the National Gardening Association. And this year, the Garden Writers Association reports, 39% of America's flower gardens also will be growing vegetables-up 5% from last year.

A word of warning. Before starting a home garden, test your soil for common urban contaminants like arsenic, motor oil, and lead from paint chips and leaded gasoline. Soil tests can cost as little as $10.

The nonprofit Food Project tested more than 125 home gardens in Massachusetts and found 83% were contaminated with lead concentrations more than double the EPA's safe level. The quickest way to surmount this problem is to build raised planter beds filled with new, clean soil.

If you don't have a yard, look for a nearby community garden. Many older residents have fruit trees they can no longer harvest, so groups like Urban Youth Harvest in Oakland, California, pay kids to do the work. In July, these plucky teenage "gleaners" harvested 600 pounds of apples, figs, oranges and blackberries that would otherwise have gone unpicked-and, 99% of the time, the fruit is pesticide-free. This year, Silicon Valley's Village Harvest gathered 80,000 pounds of backyard fruit and new online "forage" sites allow gleaners to swap and barter produce in cyberspace.

[Bringing Back the Backyard Garden?, UK ]

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