Grow beauty and eat it too

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

To understand just how disconnected we are from food today, consider that in the 1930s, 30 percent of Canada’s population was actively involved in farming, while today it’s only 1.6 percent. Also consider that while gardening is a major leisure activity in North America, only 10 percent of gardeners grow food. This shows how seriously disconnected we are from our food source, which has become an industrialized commodity shipped around the planet, thereby contributing to climate change.

It’s amazing to think that activities as basic as growing and eating locally grown food could contribute so profoundly to the climate change solution. Think of the fossil fuel saved by not shipping the average plateful of food 2,000 kilometres. Think of what would happen to our collective consciousness if city dwellers grew their own food and reconnected to nature.

Is the abundance of cheap food nourishing us or compromising our health? We know that health is intrinsically connected to what we eat. When I see what’s happening to kid’s health – obesity, Type II diabetes and neurological learning disorders, such as autism and ADD – I think we should look more carefully at what we are eating.

I have come to the conclusion that food can only be REAL or not real. REAL conveniently stands for regional, environmentally responsible, agricultural land use. When organic farmers get back on the land and gardeners go back to organic vegetable plots, we’ll get more “real” food on the table.

The good news is that reconnecting with food and health – and saving the planet in the process – is really simple; all that’s required is a paradigm shift in thinking. For instance, if we start 2009 thinking about edible landscaping, we can have beautiful gardens and eat them too. If we planted food gardens in public spaces for all to see, and fruits and vegetables in our front yards, we would soon reconnect people (children especially) to the source of their food.

For specimen landscape trees, think figs, cherries, plums, almonds, olives, apples, crab apples, apricots and peaches. For groundcover, think strawberries, Miner’s lettuce, chamomile and thyme. For hedges, you can have Sunroots (Jerusalem artichokes) – they fast-grow to six feet – ever-bearing raspberries and lavender or rosemary.

For vines, think Red Malabar climbing spinach – it grows 15 feet a year – hops Humulus lupulus (20 feet) and showy Painted Lady scarlet runner beans (10 feet). Thornless blackberries, kiwis and grapes make perfect edible ornamental vines and don’t forget Vitis purpurea for its showy, deep purple leaves and grapes.

For a bright splash of colour, plant clumps of chives with edible purple blossoms. Garlic chives are very attractive for their showy white or mauve starburst flowers. Grow calendula for its edible flower petals and borage for its blue cucumber flavoured flowers.

For a colourful border, plant a row of purple lettuce; lettuce comes in every texture, shape and colour. Last year, I came across several eye-catching food gardens on the boulevard and in people’s front gardens. The sight of them stopped me in my tracks because I realized all it takes to move food from the back yard to the front is a transformation in thinking.

When people grow food in their front gardens, the result is colourful and ornamental. This brings neighbours together and soon leads to food and seed sharing and building friendships, which eventually leads to community. Small-scale regional food production puts the culture back into agriculture; it’s what we can do by growing food up-front and personal.

I believe there’s nothing better for us than the food we grow ourselves. There’s no question that it’s real and, best of all, it nourishes communities as well as individuals.

Happy edible landscaping in 2009!

Carolyn Herriot is author of A Year on the Garden Path: A 52-Week Organic Gardening Guide. She grows her certified organic “Seeds of Victoria” at The Garden Path Centre where she blogs The New Victory Garden online.

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