The following is a compilation of a number of calls I have gotten recently. They all have something in common, which I am pleased to see happening…
She called the extension office looking for help with her garden, but mostly with her tomatoes. The list of problems was too long and varied to be accurate over the phone. A site visit was in order.
“They started out fine but haven’t put on a single tomato!”
“Well, they are a bit on the yellow side. When was the last time you fertilized?”
“End of April.”
“Might be time to give them some. We are just about growing hydroponically in these coastal sands. If we don’t supply it, the plants don’t get it.” Or it goes: “I have been fertilizing them regularly, and they are not blooming.”
“Yep, color is good, maybe a bit too dark green. Maybe try withholding nitrogen until they set blooms, and then hit them with nitrogen when they start to make.” Or: “They are growing well, but they set blooms and the blooms fall off and I have no tomatoes forming.”
“Have you seen any bees in the garden?”
“Not a one.”
“If there are no bees to pollinate the flowers, you will get no fruit.”
Another recent favorite of mine is: “My plants are setting fruit, but not many and they are small.”
After ruling out irrigation as an issue, she said, “I am trying to grow organically. What nitrogen source can I use to get these plants going?”
“That will be difficult. Organic sources are by their very nature slow release sources of minerals, and you need minerals now. You have a choice: Stay organic and have a few tomatoes, or apply fast-release mineral sources that are not organic and have a chance at a decent crop. Just how much are you willing to bend your definition of organic?”
And to top it off, just yesterday: “One of the residents in our subdivision is keeping bees. He has three hives! Can somebody from your office talk to him and make him stop?”
“What specifically is the problem? Why are you concerned?”
“Well, we have children here, and we don’t want them stung!”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I am encouraging beekeeping. A few years back about half our crops were fertilized by native bees and half by kept bees. We lost all our native bees when Varroa mite hit a few years back. The only bees that survived were the ones being kept by beekeepers who cared for them and controlled the mites. Now the bees you find out in nature are escaped Italian bees that have gone feral. We need lots more bees and lots more beekeepers. Did you know that about one out of three mouthfuls of food you eat is from pollinated crops, and most of that is done by bees? We need these bees not just for food, but for protection as well. Have you heard of the Africanized honeybee? They are very aggressive and have moved into southwest Georgia. Our kept bees help slow the spread of the Africanized bees by consuming the nectar sources before the Africanized bees do. The more bees and beekeepers we have, the slower the spread of the Africanized bee will be. But people who do not know how nature works can mess the whole thing up. The people in Tampa, Fla., got all panicky about Africanized bees and passed an ordinance against beekeeping in the city of Tampa. It made ignorant people feel good and got politicians’ votes but it made no sense. It was like saying, ‘An enemy army is at our city gates. Let’s avoid war by disbanding our army!’ If politicians decide how food gets produced in this country, we will all starve.”
The reason I am enjoying these encounters is folk who have never tried to grow food before are now trying it for the first time, and guess what — it ain’t as easy as they thought.
“You mean plants get diseases?!” still is one of my favorite “Aha!” moments from a new gardener. Americans have had it so good for so long, they have forgotten that somebody has to do actual work in order for them to enjoy the best, most-economical food in the world. We have lost our connection to the earth, land and farm. For the past several decades, more and more people who know less and less about how to produce food have been making more and more of the decisions about how food is produced.
Maybe this influx of new gardeners is the first wave to help turn the tide. Growing food is not about what sounds nice or makes us feel warm and fuzzy or how we want it to be. Farmers have to deal with what is — with reality — and deal with nature on its terms. You can’t pass an ordinance and keep Africanized bees out of your town. You can’t reason with feral hogs or coyotes. You can’t negotiate with soybean rust or kudzu bugs. And you surely cannot grow food with political correctness.
Bugs, fungus, viruses, weather, hogs and dogs don’t care about how you feel or how much you care. They are going to take what they can until and unless you stop them. If you don’t know about producing food and don’t particularly care to know, you still can do your part. Just remember that we have a dearth of statesmen and a surplus of politicians. Start there. You work that end, and I’ll work the other.
If we are really lucky and work really hard, we might meet in the middle.
Gardner lives in Keller and is the UGA extension agent for Glynn County serving South Bryan.