Gardening – getting back to your roots

Digging through sun-warmed soil with one’s bare hands is what a gardener looks forward to feeling each and every spring. Seed catalogs arrived many weeks ago and plans for this year’s planting have been made.

A sure sign that planting time is near are the stacked bags of mulch and other gardening necessities at stores. In fact, these items made their appearance several weeks ago, competing with the remaining old and dirty piles of snow left over from the winter. It’s not too late to spring into action for gardening and reap all its benefits.

More and more health and economically conscious people are taking an interest in gardening and what was much more common in the “yesterdays” era of our grandparents. People are recognizing the negative effects of food additives and all the chemicals used in producing food on massive scales in the food industry. People are looking for more natural alternatives, non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) foods, and even organic options. Fortunately, simple gardens, even in small spaces, can produce an abundance of produce, while at the same time save people money.

Raised garden beds have become more popular in recent years. Although not a necessity, they do have some advantages. One is weed control, particularly if a weed block fabric is put down before filling in with soil. A raised bed makes it easier on the back and knees when pulling out the weeds that do appear or just working the bed. Heavy rain tends to drain out of the bedwithout pooling around new seeds and plants. During a period of drought, watering is easier and more precise. Enhancing the bed with special soil and such is also more efficient because it is contained and does not wash away. Many people make raised beds with lumber, but they can be made from materials such as rock which can be a good idea if it is readily available on one’s property.

Deciding what to plant is a challenge because there are so many choices and places to get seeds and plants. More people are opting for heirloom varieties from times past, before scientists began playing with nature in their attempts to “improve” it.

While some seeds and plants have been developed to resist insects and disease, an adverse side effect is they can make people sick over the long haul, not to mention killing friendly insects that we need such as honey bees!

GMO, or genetically modified organisms, are genetically engineered plants with new or modified genes. Seeds have pesticide attributes to control weeds and insects, similar to chemical weedkillers, but at what harmful effect to the ecosystem and humans? GMO seeds are widely used for crops such as corn, soybeans, squash, alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, and others. For this reason, more people are avoiding food products made from these, such as sugar made from beets and anything made from corn, including high fructose corn syrup. Some large companies have also modified a seed’s makeup so that they are sterile, forcing farmers and other consumers to purchase new ones every year. But again, at what economic and health cost? What might happen if the sterile seeds cross-pollinate with the true plant? In times past, farmers and gardeners always saved part of the best crop for next year’s seed. This is just one more reason for people to garden and produce some of their own food.

Beginning gardeners are not necessarily that much different from expert ones. They both look through catalogs and the seed and plant aisles in the store as they ponder over what to do this year. Of course, an expert gardener has the advantage of building on past successes, but in the age of the internet, beginners can use their expertise to help in the process.

Some local resources are the “master gardeners” living throughout the county. As part of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Agriculture Program, Chautauqua County has an outreach program located at the Ag Center on Turner Road in Jamestown. Periodic training over the course of 15 weeks certifies people as “masters,” who then remain certified by volunteering for 50 hours each year. Much of the work by this friendly group of people, including the coordinator, is educational in nature through writing articles, a help-line at the center, and presentations around the county.

For example, “Trowel Talks” are given at several libraries, including Dunkirk. These free workshops address diverse gardening topics. The website has information regarding when these workshops occur as well as the hours when the help-line is open at 664-9502, ext. 204.

Why not consider a night out to learn more about gardening? The Cooperative Extension at the Ag Center has an “Evening in the Garden” once a month. The master gardeners have created several beds of educational or demonstration gardens where novices can come and learn about good varieties to plant such as heirlooms, those that attract pollinators, seed preservation for next year, and even taste testing when food is harvested.

Still trying to decide what to plant? There is a link at the master gardeners’ website that has recommendations for 2014 from Asparagus to Zucchini. Just choose a few things and get going. Personally, I am going to grow a bed of onions again. Certain varieties store well for several months and I barely run out of onions until the next harvest rolls around again. Considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, they are loaded with phytochemicals and a host of other good things with so many health benefits that it would require at least one column dedicated just to them.

Make it a good week and get digging.

Mary Burns Deas writes for the OBSERVER weekly. Comments on this article may be directed to