Local organic produce is expensive, here’s how to grow your own

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Local food is all the rage, and what's more local than your own back yard? Added bonus: it's cheaper. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Local food is all the rage, and what’s more local than your own back yard? Added bonus: it’s cheaper. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — Farm to table cuisine revolves around two interlocking ideas: environmental sustainability and good tasting food. It’s the philosophy pushing the Wilmington food scene, but it’s also expensive.

As Chef Craig Love of Surf House told Port City Daily in a recent interview, the philosophy has to do with how food gets on your plate.

“If people want fresh tomatoes when they’re not in season here, that means putting them on a truck and shipping them from somewhere else, California or Mexico. The tomato that ends up on your plate has been sitting in a truck for a long time, and you’ve burnt a lot of fuel to get there. It’s bad for the taste, and it’s lousy for the environment. You get the tomato you asked for, but you don’t really get what you want,” Love explained.

The idea is this: the closer the food is to your plate from the start, the better it is for everyone. But while the price of industrially farmed foods has dropped worldwide due to ever-increasing mechanization and declining oil prices, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the costs of local – and in particular local organic – produce has risen.

In the American southeast, organic produce costs between 30 percent and 50 percent more than conventional produce, according to the USDA’s regional produce report (you can compare prices on fruits, vegetables and other products here). The same is true of local produce which, like organic produce, frequently comes from smaller farms without the economy of scale of industrial farming, marketing and distribution.

The local organic produce that has been the foundation of farm to table cooking is expensive. That cost at the supermarket, let alone on the restaurant table – can be prohibitive.

So what can you do? Grow your own.

Costs of growing a real food garden

In a coastal region with a high percentage of apartment living (about 40 percent of New Hanover County rents) and large swathes of sandy soil, not everyone will have access to a garden, let alone a tilled plot of hearty soil. But if you have room for a few planters somewhere that gets eight hours of sun, you can grow a variety of cultivars of tomato, squash (which will grow vertically), cabbages, peppers and a number of herbs.

Port City Daily set up a demonstration model garden, planting several herbs from Shelton Herb Farm and two kinds of heirloom tomatoes (Black Krim and Green Cherokee) from a local farm in Burgaw. (To prepare for the garden, we visited the Herb & Garden Fair at Poplar Grove on April 2. We spoke to several local farmers for background, and attended a lecture on gardening in southeastern North Carolina given by Meg Shelton, who’s family runs the Shelton Herb Farm in Leland).

Organic heirloom tomatoes, rosemary, cilantro, thyme and basil. Cost: about $15 dollars. The tomatoes were 'hardened' in small planters outside for a week before being transferred to large planters. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Organic heirloom tomatoes, rosemary, cilantro, thyme and basil. Cost: about $15 dollars. The tomatoes were “hardened” in small planters outside for a week before being transferred to large planters. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

The investment is moderate: $75 for a shovel, compost, potting soil, plant food, planters and seedlings. The potential return is far more. According to Shelton, a single Black Krim tomato plant can produce 12 – 20 pounds of tomatoes (which sell, locally, between $5 and $6 a pound). So one tomato plant could net you at least $60 worth of heirloom tomatoes.

For the demonstration garden, we used organic plants, compost, soil and plant food. The difference in cost was about $3 for the soil, $2 for the plant food, and less than a quarter for the actual plants. Leaving aside the contentious debate between organic and conventional growing methods, it does seem clear that the cost difference in growing produce is less than the cost difference in buying produce.

The debate over organics aside, the difference on small scale gardening was minimal: the Miracle Grow cost $7.50, the organic EcoScraps cost $9. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman).
The debate over organics aside, the difference on small scale gardening was minimal: the Miracle Grow (shown for reference) cost $7.50, the organic EcoScraps cost $9. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman).

How to grow your own food garden

At the recommendation of Shelton, the herbs and tomatoes were left outside in small planters for about a week. They were brought inside during the extreme winds last week, as well as during one violent thunderstorm. Otherwise, the plants were left outside.

This was done about two weeks after the last potential frost, when the nights are no longer going much below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. (The weather in southeastern North Carolina has been unpredictable this year, and several farmers we spoke to had different opinions. But in general Shelton said, “early April is a good bet.”) This process, according to Shelton, “hardens” the plants, toughening cell walls and preparing them for the shock of being transplanted into the ground or – in this case – larger planters.

Store-bought seedlings plants come packed in soil that is often dry and nutrient depleted; shaking this soil loose to expose roots helps plants adapt to their new soil. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Store-bought seedlings plants come packed in soil that is often dry and nutrient depleted; shaking this soil loose to expose roots helps plants adapt to new soil. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Next, prepare a mixture of compost, soil and plant food. Whether you’re planting in a garden box on top of sandy soil or using a planter, this mixture is important as it replaces the nutrients created by worms and microbes in fertile soil.

Before planting, it is important to shake loose some of the original potting soil, gently exposing the roots. Some plants – like heirloom tomatoes – also benefit from a small sprinkling of Epsom salts in the potting hole.

Salting the earth? Some salts - like Epsom salts - are beneficial to plants. Tomatoes, in particular, benefit from them. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Salting the earth? Some salts – like Epsom salts – are helpful to plants. Tomatoes, in particular, benefit from them. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Tomatoes, as well as several varieties of squash and peppers, grow well vertically. This method keeps the ripening vegetables off the ground, but also puts a strain on the plant; using a trellis or a cage allows you to secure the plant as it grows. Secure the trellis or cage early, rather than later, to allow the root system to adapt to it.

Cherokee Green tomatoes, like Black Krim, can weigh in over a half-pound. A cage or trellis will help the growing plant support that weight. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Cherokee Green tomatoes, like Black Krim, can weigh in over a half-pound. A cage or trellis will help the growing plant support that weight. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

What comes next? Vigilance – and knowing your crops. For one example: Tomatoes are thirsty plants and can be watered every day, an herb like thyme can succumb easily to root rot, and doesn’t need as much water.

It can seem overwhelming, but there’s a great deal of information available online. There’s also a lot of local knowledge. In addition to information from the Shelton Herb Farm (in Leland), Port City Daily also spoke to the Green Seasons Garden Center (in Wilmington). Several local farmers hold informal information sessions at the Poplar Grove Farmer’s Market (off Highway 17 in Wilmington), which runs April 19 through late October.

A good general rule of thumb: don’t be afraid to ask questions when – and where – you buy your seeds and plants. Finally, both New Hanover and Brunswick counties have Cooperative Extensions, resources centers for commercial farmers and backyard gardeners alike.

Sunlight, water and vigilance are all you need now. (Photo Benjamin Schachtman)
Sunlight, water and vigilance are all you need now. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)