Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
If you already grow some vegetables, or buy fresh local ones, you know the much- improved flavor over ones shipped from afar. In addition to better flavor, some of the reasons gardeners cite for growing their own vegetables include better health, food safety, saving money, helping the environment, and having a better quality of life.
Changes continue to be made in both varieties of vegetables and their post-harvest handling, resulting in improved flavors than in older varieties and past years. Yet if you’ve tasted fresh produce compared to that in stores or frozen, you don’t need research to tell you the difference in flavor. Nutritional quality of vegetables is generally higher as well when freshly harvested.
By growing your own vegetables you may end up eating more, which is good for the health of most. Research continues to show that those who eat more fruits and vegetables are less likely to have chronic diseases such as strokes and cancers. You can get vitamins and minerals from supplements, but produce contains other natural compounds (such as anti-oxidants to help prevent cancers) as well that may help protect you from chronic disease. Research shows too that most don’t eat enough of these each day. There is a fun and quick calculator online from the government to figure what is best for you (www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov).
You don’t have to think too far back to recall food safety scares, such as those on peppers and spinach. You may not realize that pesticide residues remain on some crops you buy in stores, some more than others. These have been ranked from tens of thousands of USDA and FDA studies between 2000 and 2007. By avoiding the top 12 on this list, the “Dirty Dozen”, an estimate is that you can reduce your exposure to pesticides on food by 80 percent. Those vegetables on this list you may want to grow yourself (or buy locally or organically) include bell peppers, celery, potatoes and spinach. (By the way, fruits on this list are apples, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, red raspberries, and strawberries).
So how much money can you save growing your own vegetables? Some calculations by the National Gardening Association in 2009 (www.gardenresearch.com) showed that a general, national estimate was that for investing $70 in seeds and supplies you could grow 350 pounds of vegetables worth about $600. So you would save, for an average 600 square foot garden, over $500. Of course this figure may vary up or down depending on your own area, season, vegetables grown, and other variables.
Growing your own vegetables helps the environment in at least a couple of ways. Non-local but domestic produce we buy in stores travels an average 1500 miles or more (www.foodroutes.org). Produce from other countries obviously travels even farther. This shipping and transport burns fossil fuels, which produces greenhouse gases that increase global warming. So buying local, or growing your own produce, reduces these effects.
Another environmental benefit from your own production is the ability to produce relatively small amounts, with little or no pesticides and synthetic chemicals. Farms, even small ones, often use these with some ending up staying in soils or washing into waterways. Even organic farms often use plastics and fossil fuels for tractors, items you can avoid in a small home garden. If you can’t produce some or all the vegetables you’d like, at least buying local and organically will have better environmental and economic impacts.
In addition to the tangible benefits of growing your own vegetables and fruits is the intangible benefit of a better quality of life. If you garden you know its stress-relieving qualities and health benefits from exercise. There is the taste pleasure of sampling the fruits of your labor, fresh off the plant, as you work. There is the visual pleasure of a well-laid out and maintained garden. In a chaotic world where you may not have much control over events, a garden and landscape can provide you that sense of order (as long as you don’t get too large too quick, with your garden out of control).
If your garden isn’t at home or on your own property, it may be at one of the over a million community gardens across the country. If you’d like to start gardening, and need such a space, you can likely find one from online (www.communitygarden.org). Although such gardens lack the convenience of being on your property, if you don’t have the space they make gardening possible. They allow interaction with other gardeners, including swapping of seeds to fruits to knowledge. Such gardens may be part of larger beautification and development projects, and in cities often result in a reduction in crime.
Convinced to start a vegetable garden yet? Even if you already have one, you should benefit from information at local garden stores, some of the many books, and websites including those of state Extension services. Watch your local newspaper, too, for gardening events such as classes and workshops.
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor