About five years ago, ‘vegetable gardening’ exploded into the more encompassing ‘food gardening’ trend, and it’s never looked back. It happened quite suddenly for several reasons which all seemed to connect at the same time. Young folks, in particular, were shocked that people could die from eating mass-produced foods, as happened during the outbreak of E. coli on spinach. The sense of having some control over the quality and safety of the food we eat, especially for our children, suddenly became far more important. At the same time, the obesity issue, particularly among young children, began to be addressed by schools where healthier foods started to replace sodas and chips.
The Boomer generation, who grew up on fast food, now wants to have healthier lifestyles as they age. Folks in this demographic are driving the health food market, and nutritious foods with high levels of antioxidants top their list.
The weak economy has also nudged many folks to grow some of their own foods as a cost-saving measure. Growing a food garden provides a significant saving, especially if some of the produce is frozen or preserved.
Many young people today are quite the ‘foodies’. They embrace the Food Channel, love Asian, South American and other cultural cuisines and want to grow some of these foods themselves. These folks are also very concerned about the environment and strongly support locally-grown foods that are organically grown and free of harmful pesticide residues. They also embrace heirloom varieties and are very much about flavour and nutrition.
There are, however, challenges such as high density living with little or no space for gardens in sunny locations and the enormous lack of knowledge about how to grow plants. Our urbanized Canadian society is now two generations removed from the rural land, and food-growing skills are rare. How then do we as an industry help fulfill the need for success in growing one’s own food? The keys are knowing what types of food people want, promoting the best varieties and educating folks on how they can be grown easily, successfully and in a container. Progress is being made on all these fronts.
Take lettuce for an example. The consumption of romaine types of lettuce has grown because of the popularity of caesar salads, as have gourmet and mesclun blends because they fit into the category of new foods and flavours. I am impressed with the Pan American introductions of the ‘Simply Salad’ blends of lettuce. They offer an ‘Alfresco Mix’, a ‘Global Gourmet Mix’ and a ‘City Garden Mix’, each one creating a salad blend by itself. These blends are easy to grow in a container, look fabulous and taste divine.
Peppers are another example. The trend is towards hot peppers that fit cultural cuisines. The innovation of crossover peppers, like ‘Basket of Fire’, ‘Loco’ and ‘Chenzo’, are easy to grow both in containers or as garden varieties that produce early and with a beautiful display of hot peppers that can be harvested over a long period of time. Part of the new focus for bell peppers is for smaller and ‘stuffable’ varieties.
Tomatoes round out the big three vegetables with several innovations. The first is easy-to-grow varieties like ‘Tumbler’, ‘Tumbling Tom’, ‘Tumbling Tiger’ and ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat’ that produce early and over a long period of time in containers or hanging baskets, and they have pretty good flavour too. Secondly, there are lots of innovations to fit special culinary uses with varieties like ‘Fresh Salsa’ and ‘Baby Red Roma’. Colour is very important as well and varieties like ‘Sun Gold’ and ‘Sun Sugar’ will spice up any salad.
The folks at Burpee have collected the ‘healthy’ vegetables into a series called ‘Boost’. For example, ‘Gold Standard’ cucumbers contain 500% more beta-carotene than any other variety. ‘Healing Hands Salad Mix’ has 20% more lutein, 30% more beta-carotene, 30% more carotenoids, and 70% more anthocyanins – now that’s just plain healthy! ‘Power Pop’ tomatoes contain 55% more lycopene and 40% more carotenoids. What a great way to enjoy the healthy benefits of growing your own food.
Choosing the best plants is just 50% of the job. Using the best soils, nutrients and organic pest control products are the other half of the success story. It’s the beginning of a brand new growing season, so make plans to enjoy your own home-grown fresh foods this year.