Everyone seems to be growing food. The popularity of growing vegetables in our home gardens has not been greater since World War II (1939-45), when we were encouraged to plant “Victory Gardens.”

The difference between the outpouring of interest in homegrown food then and now is that back then we “had to,” as labor and transportation shortages made it difficult to harvest and move fruit and vegetables to market. Today, most of us do not have to grow food, but we choose to for a wide variety of reasons. Chief among these, perhaps, is the responsibility that the new generation of gardeners is taking for the quality of food that it puts on the table.

Whatever our reasons for wanting to grow fresh food, we all want to grow top-quality vegetables with a minimum of disease, insect problems, and work and an optimized usage of space.

MINIMIZE PROBLEMS

Experienced gardeners know that the best defense against disease and insect problems is to plant resistant varieties in the first place. With tomatoes, the most popular homegrown crop, it is easy to determine which varieties are bred for disease resistance. Look for the letters “VFN” after the name of a tomato. V is in reference to verticillium wilt, and F refers to fusarium wilt; both diseases are hard to control but can be avoided by planting resistant varieties. N references nematodes (small microscopic roundworms in the soil that attack the roots of the plants). Potential damage from nematodes can be avoided by using VFN varieties.

To minimize the occurrence of many insect pests, plant your vegetables in “new” soil by rotating your crops (don’t plant the same vegetable in the same spot every year).

Daily inspection of your vegetables also helps to alert you to problems that can otherwise get out of hand. Removing some insects by hand usually works quite well. In the case of aphids, a sharp blast of water from the end of a hose does the job.

MINIMIZE WORK

No gardener likes to be a slave to weeding and watering. This is where what I call “the miracle of mulch” comes in. Insulating the surface of the soil with a 2- to 3-inch layer of natural mulch, such as finely ground-up cedar or pine bark, works wonders for your schedule. With weed problems reduced by up to 90 percent and watering reduced by up to 50 percent, you will have more time to enjoy your garden in ways that suit you.

OPTIMIZE SPACE

Urban and suburban gardeners face the challenge of an inherent lack of space. Making the most efficient use of the garden space available to you can be achieved in a variety of ways.

Choose plants that are the most bountiful based on the space that they demand. Beets, bunching onions, bush beans, carrots, leaf lettuce, mesclun mix, parsnips, peas, peppers, radishes, tomatoes (staked), and spinach are just a few of the most productive vegetables per square foot. Avoid planting “space hogs” such as artichokes, corn, cucumbers, okra, pumpkins, squashes, and virtually any vegetables that crawl or spread their leaves.

Plant in containers. Gardening in pots, wooden boxes, or raised beds gives you almost complete control over the quality of soil in which you plant and much greater say over the location of your plants. All vegetables love sunshine, while a handful, such as leaf lettuce and spinach, will tolerate up to half a day of shade. Container gardening provides the opportunity to move plants into sunny positions on the patio or deck or in the yard as need arises and as the Sun’s position changes with the season.

Use vertical space. Consider how to use the walls on the sides of a condo balcony or a fence in your backyard. Cucumbers and peas use tendrils to reach out and support the vertical growth of the plant. You may have to help the plant from time to time by moving stems closer to netting or wire supports. You can also use twine to tie up plants that lend themselves to growing vertically. I grow my cucumbers on wooden lattice structures that hold the plant off the ground. Not only will you use less space by “growing up,” but also the vegetables will perform much better. The increased air circulation and sun exposure provides the perfect environment for great quality and quantity at harvest time.

TOP 7 REASONS TO GROW YOUR OWN FOOD

* Save money on groceries.

* Enjoy better-tasting food.

* Improve your family’s health.

* Know where your food comes from.

* Eat a greater variety of food.

* Get outdoor exercise.

* Build a sense of pride.

MAKE LIKE A BEE

If you are growing vegetables on a high balcony or rooftop, be sure to pollinate the flowers of fruiting vegetables such as cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squashes by using a small paintbrush or cotton swab. As a rule, bees and other natural pollinators do not fly above the second or third story, so it is your job to move a paintbrush or swab from flower to flower, making sure that you transport pollen from the male anthers to the female stigma in order to ensure maximum fertilization. A fertilized or pollinated flower will produce fruit; an unpollinated one will not.

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