Words of Advice for Those Who Grow Their Own

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Tuesday March 27, 2007

It is idle to imagine that growing one’s own food saves money. Regardless of factoring in one’s time, the average Berkeley back yard is not sufficiently large and sunny to grow enough food for one person, let alone a family. 

Add a few food-producing animals and the cost rises accordingly. I once calculated that the cost of home-raised eggs is $7 a dozen. Admittedly my poultry eat well: organic wheat and tofu, tomatoes, lettuce, bread and milk—Wonderbread only. All other kinds are spurned, and even the price of that has tripled. 

However, the one feature of one’s own grown fruits and vegetables that is always superior to anything grown commercially, even organically, is, to state the obvious, flavor. There is simply nothing like a few peas popped from the pod as they grow, a nectarine warm in the hand and juicy between the teeth, even a freshly pulled beet. 

Then there is the watching of all this growth. Can anything compare to gazing at deep pink blossoms against a Berkeley blue sky? Checking daily on those dark green leathery leaf-rosettes that herald new potatoes? For these aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures, gardeners are willing to toil from sunrise to sundown and, a sign of the truly obsessed, after dark too. 

If they are successful vegetable growers, sooner or later they will encounter a problem, the surplus. There are two responses to one’s efforts to give it away. First of all, if one has too many zucchini (the stereotypical example), so has everyone else; it is not a surplus, it is a glut. Second, and far more surprising, is the average consumer’s mistrust, even fear, of anything home grown. 

Before I met a wonderful neighbor who trades snails for eggs (I have not seen these useful providers of protein since I acquired my first hen), I tried hard to give eggs away. There were many complaints. The eggs were too large, the shells too strong, and a funny color (blue-green). The yolks were too bright, too orange, the whites were too thick, not nice and watery like supermarket ones. And the flavor was too rich.  

Too bad! In fact, tragic. 

In spite of all the hard work, there is a carefree element to growing one’s own. Take those beets, for instance. Last year mine were sown late, in June. By the time of our Indian summer they looked horrible, as though they had some vile disease, leprosy perhaps, that caused their leaves to change from green to mottled buff and khaki. Not being a commercial grower, I could snip off these offending leaves. During the winter rains an abundance of new growth appeared. By March, on this very day in fact, a tasty crop is ready, including a few golf-ball-sized roots. Rushed to the stove, these leaves provide a whopping amount of Vitamin A and useful amounts of practically every other nutrient necessary for health, including fiber. The beet’s downside is its capacity to bind up some minerals, preventing their absorption. Eating a dairy product at the same time is recommended. 

The beet, Beta vulgaris, in the family Chenopodiaceae, is related to quinoa, Swiss chard, lamb’s quarters, epazote and spinach (which shares the same binding characteristic), among other plants. The common name for this family is goosefoot, for the shape of its leaves. It is a biennial, setting seed in the second year of growth. Every so often a virus strikes, causing crop failure. This is not for the home gardener the disaster it would be for the commercial grower. It is simply to be expected from time to time. There is no financial loss where it counts, at harvest time, no increase in cost to be passed on to the consumer, just an expenditure of time and energy that keeps the gardener’s weight down. If vegetable gardening is not at the top of the list of aerobic exercises, it should be. I do not remember ever meeting a gardener who is overweight. Crop failure can be a reminder to pay attention to crop rotation. In my rotation plan, beets follow potatoes, because potatoes leave behind deep, friable soil ideal for root vegetables. This year I hope to get the beets in earlier, by May at least. Potatoes keep for months if refrigerated, so I will harvest them all at once. 

Beet seedlings come up in clusters because three or so seeds are in each seed capsule. It is possible to separate these before sowing, so that thinning is not necessary, and soaking the seeds for a day probably speeds germination. I tend not to save their seed, as the parent plant takes up room in limited space. Beet seed is viable for several years, making the purchase of a package worthwhile 

Perhaps because they are biennials, beets survive the heavy frosts which arrive in my low-lying garden in late November and recur until February, unlike my peas, which, planted in good time for a change, and sporting beautiful flowers and lush stems, were stricken and although not destroyed, depleted. In a previous article I described the challenge of protecting peas from birds by using wire. This was a recommendation that I found exasperating and ineffective and wished I had not written it since the peas grew through the wire and the birds were waiting outside. Now I use a whirligig from Mr. Mopps. This fragile toy with aluminum sails and a handle made from a drinking straw, priced at a little over a dollar, has survived two winters tied to the top of the pea trellis and so far has given total bird-protection. But how to protect against frost? There’s always some new challenge in the vegetable plot, it seems. 

Prehistoric man is said to have cultivated the beet for the medicinal properties of its leaves. Native to the Mediterranean region, their roots as well were enjoyed by Romans. According to Internet sites (HungryMonster.com and viable-herbal.com) early Russian homeopaths touted beets as a cure for toothache and tuberculosis, while their ladies rouged their cheeks with the impermanent juice. Aphrodite indulged in them for the sake of her beauty, and if a couple should share the tasting of a beet, they will fall in love. 

Beets to my taste are delicious simply boiled in their skins for twenty to forty minutes, depending on size, left to cool in their liquid, peeled and eaten plain and warm as a side dish. A pressure cooker cuts this time in half. Cooked peeled beets sliced and dressed with red onions and vinegar make a piquant salad, as do raw beets, peeled and grated. As for borscht, without the beet it would be an undistinguished vegetable soup. 

Beets are a particularly spectacular addition to a creamy potato salad, turning the whole thing pink. Since potato salad is always a winner, the next time you are invited to a potluck, try taking this version along. Just be careful who shares it with you.