By BECKY GILLETTE
The farm-to-table movement is becoming increasingly popular across the country as consumers lean toward wanting to support local growers who can provide tasty and fresh produce that doesn’t have to be shipped across the country.
Dr. Christine Coker, a specialist in urban horticulture vegetables and green roof food systems at the Mississippi State University Coastal Research & Extension Center, said there are new restaurants on the Coast that are locally sourcing ingredients.
“The menus will list the farm where they got their ingredients, everything from where they got their vegetables to where they got their grass-fed beef,” Coker said. “That is a hot, trendy business thing going on right now. It is really kind of brilliant. Not only is the farmer getting promoted, but the farmers are good promoters of the restaurant. This is especially good for farms that may not be selling direct to the public. They may not be at the farmers’ market, but it is great you can find their product at a local restaurant.”
It takes a lot of time on the farmer’s part to go on the farmers market. Coker said most of truck crop farms are small operations. If farmers have to take a day away from the farm to go to the farmer’s market, they can’t be farming while they are selling the products.
“Especially with the rainy spring we have had, if they have to take off for rain and then the market day is sunny, they lose a day on the farm,” Coker said.
While buying locally is a great contributor to sustainability, the freshness factor may be even more important.
“Local produce can remain on the plant longer as less transport time is required to get it to market,” Coker said. “Also, fruits and vegetables begin to lose some of their nutritional attributes after harvest, so fresh is best. The easiest way to eat fresh is to eat local.”
A lot of urban residents are interested in producing some of their food themselves from a home garden. Coker said this allows people to have control over what inputs have gone into their food such as fertilizer and pesticides. Many people also find it rewarding. In fact, gardening is considered the No. 1 hobby in the U.S.
Container gardening is popular because it saves space and adds beauty to an outdoor deck, patio area or windowsill.
“Anything you can grow in a traditional garden can be grown in containers…even corn,” Coker said. “Some advantages include the small amount of space needed, no need to till up your yard, proximity to your kitchen, and physical accessibility.”
Herbs are particularly popular. Coker said herbs are basically weeds. A great resource is Easy to Grow Herbs for the Landscape, which can be found at www.extension.msstate.edu.
Biloxi has a thriving Vietnamese community and many families have gardens in order to grow specialty Asian vegetables that might not be readily available at a store.
“Many households are multi-generational, with older generations sharing their culinary knowledge with children and grandchildren,” Coker said. “Fresh and affordable specialty produce is often hard to find. In these cases, families often choose to grow their own favorite vegetables.”
Coker said people really enjoy being able to go out into their garden, and picking what they want for a meal getting the reward of eating as fresh and nutritious as possible.
“Gardening can be a really fun activity that does not have to take a lot of work,” Coker said. “MSU Extension has so many great resources for gardeners from beginners to masters. I always recommend The Garden Tabloid, also found on our website.”
Heirloom plants, especially tomatoes, remain very popular among gardeners. Coker said people love that there are just so many interesting shapes, sizes, colors, and flavor profiles from which to choose.
Another trend in urban horticulture is using shipping containers to make into hydroponic greenhouses. Since China sends far more goods to the U.S. than the U.S. sends back to China, there is an abundance of used shipping containers.
“I am familiar with a single grower in the state who is taking on this type of project,” Coker said. “It’s interesting and exciting to be sure.”
Another innovation is using rooftops of building to grow food or ornamentals.
“As a Certified Green Roof Professional, I am only aware of one green roof on the Coast,” Coker said. “It is located at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport. The facility has nearly two acres of vegetated roof space. Although this roof is not used for food production, it does have many environmental benefits such as reduction of the heat island effect and storm water runoff mitigation.”
MSU Extension/Research Professor Dr. Gary R. Bachman said many urban areas have small lots, and home gardeners may think there is not enough room for a traditional garden. Also, the amount of time and work required to break new ground can be daunting, especially for an inexperienced gardener.
“A better solution to this problem is to grow vegetables and ornamentals in compact, raised beds,” Bachman said. “With an intensively cultivated area, you need less time and space to produce the home-grown vegetables that everyone desires.
Constructing raised beds and growing plants in them is one way to help new and old gardeners have greater success in the garden and landscape.”
A raised bed should be no wider than 4 feet, but length can be whatever suits the site or gardener’s needs. The 4-foot width allows you to reach the center of the bed from either side.
Bachman said raised bed benefits include increased yields, primarily due to the much-improved drainage of the raised bed compared to in-ground gardening. Back strain is reduced by bringing the garden up a little bit. Also, because the planting soil is not being walked on, the texture of the mix will remain loose and airy.
“The first step in planning a raised bed is deciding where to put your garden,” Bachman said. “Vegetables prefer full sun all day, but they can get by with a minimum of 6 hours per day. If all-day sun is not possible, select a site that receives morning rather than afternoon sun. Orient your bed from east to west to minimize possible shading within the bed.”
Bachman said the choice of materials is the gardener’s decision, including the newer, treated lumber. The treating process has become very garden-friendly and still resistant to decay. Of course, if you don’t want to use treated lumber, then cedar, fir, and redwood have natural resistance to decay. There are commercial vinyl or plastic materials made for raised-bed gardening. These are more expensive but will last much longer than untreated pine.
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