Food for Thought

January 22, 2014
Written by Brian Minter
About five years ago, “vegetable gardening” exploded into the more encompassing “food gardening” and it’s never looked back. It happened quite suddenly for reasons which all seemed to connect. Young folks felt it was horrid people could die from eating mass-produced foods, like they did 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, schools started to address the obesity issue and healthier foods started to replace sodas and chips.

The Boomers, who grew up on fast food, now want to have healthier lifestyles. 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. Growing a food garden provides significant savings, especially if some of the produce is frozen or preserved.

Many young people today are “foodies.” They embrace the Food Channel, love Asian, Spanish and other cultural cuisines, and want to grow some ingredients themselves. These folks are also very concerned about the environment and strongly support locally grown organic foods. They also embrace heirloom varieties. 

All these issues have set the stage for new opportunities in food, but high density living with little or no space for gardens is a challenge. Early research from the National Garden Bureau in the United States indicates that about 54 per cent of food gardening is done in containers. Another significant issue is the enormous lack of knowledge about how to grow plants. Our urbanized society is now two generations removed from the rural land and food growing skills are rare. How do we as an industry help fuel success in growing one’s own food?

I get quite upset when our industry’s response to the opportunities in food gardening is simply to grow more vegetables. We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot and have not made the most of this societal change. The key is knowing what types of food our customers want and what can be grown easily, successfully and in a container. 

Take lettuce, for example. Sales of gourmet and mesclun blends have jumped 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,’ ‘Global Gourmet Mix’ and a ‘City Garden Mix,’ each creating a salad blend. 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. Crossover peppers like ‘Basket of Fire,’ ‘Loco’ and ‘Chenzo’ are easy to grow in containers or as garden varieties that produce early and give a beautiful display of hot peppers.

Tomatoes round out the big three. Easy-to-grow varieties like ‘Tumbler,’ ‘Tumbling Tom,’ ‘Tumbling Tiger’ and ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat’ produce early in containers or hanging baskets. 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. Varieties like ‘Sun Gold,’ ‘Sunset Falls’ and ‘Sun Sugar’ will spice up any salad. Growing heirloom varieties in less than favourable climates has been addressed by grafting. The ‘Mighty Mato’ branded vegetables can produce grafted plants of flavourful, early maturing and disease resistant golden oldies like ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Black Krim.’

The folks at Burpee have collected the “healthy” vegetables into a series called Boost. ‘Healing Hands Salad Mix’ has 20 per cent more lutein, 30 per cent more beta-carotene, 30 per cent more carotenoids, and 70 per cent more anthocyanins than similar varieties. That’s just plain healthy – and a great way to promote the health benefits of growing your own food.

Because of their ability to add wonderful flavours to any foods, herbs have skyrocketed in popularity. It’s important to have a wide selection of varieties. Basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, parsley and chives are the very best sellers and the most useful for customers. Recipe cards on how to use herbs are also very helpful. 

Providing the plants is just 50 per cent of the job. The best containers, soils, nutrients and organic pest control products are the other half of the success story. Make sure your customers have everything they need to succeed when they leave your store.

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