Economy, ecology, family draw many to the dirt

Misty Phillips is growing edibles for the first time this year.

After losing her job as an administrative assistant recently, when she’s not looking for a new position, she’s likely to be planning and planting her new garden.

Both the layoff and the gardening were something of an epiphany for the Lafayette Countian.

“I’d always complained that we didn’t have any trees in our backyard, and I finally thought, well, that would be a perfect spot for a garden. After that it just became a driving passion,” she said.

“Last summer, I’d look every Wednesday out at the Farmers’ Market and see the people out under the colorful umbrellas and enjoying the day, and I’d think, wow, they’ve got the life that I wish I had. I guess in a mysterious way it worked itself out to where I could have that chance.”

Though as a novice gardener Phillips doesn’t plan on selling produce just yet, her backyard is lined with raised beds, the heavy clay soil amended with sand and generous doses of aged horse manure.

Already, she has blueberries, chokecherries, strawberries, broccoli, lettuce and arugula, among other crops. As many gardeners do, she’s also gambling against further cold weather with a handful of early tomatoes, squash and basil.

Phillips is part of a growing phenomenon – people who’ve never gardened before but now are raising vegetables and fruits. When Mississippi State University Extension Service held a “So You Want to Grow Your Own Food” class earlier this year in Tupelo, the phenomenon showed up en masse.

“We had an amazing response: 137 attended the three-hour class, so we offered it again and 54 more attended,” said Susan McGukin, program associate for volunteer management. Attendance in the second class was reduced more by space limitations than by waning interest.

“The neatest thing was watching the younger folks take notes and be so serious about learning,” McGukin said.

Allie West and Barbara Robins, both of Tupelo, are among the new gardeners who’ve trained in the art of gardening.

“I’ll probably start with my summer crops. I just want to see something grow,” Robins said. “I can do this from now on, and it’ll be something I can build on each year.”

“We’re going to start small,” West said. “My husband’s going to build a raised bed for me this weekend – probably out of either weather resistant wood or cinder blocks.”

Why do it?
Again and again, new gardeners reveal any of three main motivations. One is the desire to save money.

“In this economy, at least we know we’ll get to have fresh vegetables,” Phillips said.

West, an account representative for a software company, said, “The economy’s been hard on everyone.”

A second factor is concern for personal and environmental health.

“I wanted to grow things organically. We wanted to have a better life as far as eating,” Robins said.

Organic growers depend on natural fertilization, disease-resistant plant varieties, manual or mechanical cultivation and similarly benign practices for problems that conventional gardeners and farmers often address with synthetic chemicals.

“Our family is pretty big on organics,” West said. “That’s another reason we choose to grow some of our own.”

“I’m growing organically, which means no pesticides, no boosters, no MiracleGro,” Phillips echoed.

McGukin added that recent scares over food safety are part of that concern, too.

“I have a good many health-care professionals taking our courses,” she said.

Yet another motivation for some new gardeners is family connections.

“My mom has gardened before, and we decided this would a good way for us to spend time together,” West said.

For Phillips, it’s a three-generation connection. Her dad’s garden from her childhood was part of her inspiration, and he has offered to share space for corn and other expansive crops.

Her husband, Stephen, a curriculum developer and trainer for a software company, has helped with much of the heavy labor, and their children – Lucas, who’s almost 11, and Miriam, 5 – also have a hand in tending the garden.

“I’m having a fun time,” said Lucas, who named one seedling “Basil Guitar Adam,” after Adam Clayton, the bassist in the Irish rock band U2. “We’re going to have a real good summer because we have all these plants.”

Although Misty Phillips hopes to provide sustenance for her own family and some to share with the Oxford Food Pantry, her garden is as much about raising her children as it is about raising food.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a 400-acre field of cotton,” she said, “but passing this down to them is important.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

Getting Started
– If you’re thinking about vegetable gardening for the first time this spring, there are five things you must provide for plants, according to Master Gardener Bill Fisher of Amory:

– Sunshine (Six hours per day is a minimum, and more is better for most plants.)

– Soil (While many dream of acres of gardens, even a single tomato plant in a pot pays off handsomely.)

– A source of water

– Control of weeds

– Plant nutrients (from organic matter such as grass clippings and aged manure to conventional commercial fertilizers)

– Fisher said it’s getting late to plant most early crops such as broccoli, English peas, cabbage and carrots.

“It’s not that they like cool weather so much,” he said. “It’s just that they really can’t tolerate hot weather.”

– Still, it may be too early for most summer crops: It’s not just the air but the soil as well that needs to be warm for them to thrive.

“Wait until after May 1 before you put any warm-weather plants outside,” he said, recalling the late-April freeze that devastated gardens and orchards two years ago. “If you want to start plants from seed, this is the time to do it, and if you want to buy some plants now and keep them in pots, you can bring them outside on warm days and back inside when it’s cold.

“Patience is not something that most gardeners start with,” Fisher said. “But gardening teaches you patience.”

Errol Castens/Daily Journal