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On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, 20 million people rallied in parks and on city streets across the United States to demonstrate their concern for the environment and show their support for clean air, clean water, and a healthy planet. Earth Day has grown to become an international movement, but the ideas and principles of Earth Day are not too big for your own back yard.
“Gardening is a huge part of people’s connection to the earth, to renewal and bringing things to life,” says Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, which is based in Washington, D.C. “Gardening makes it more real — when you start to talk about protecting the earth, gardeners are Earth Day advocates,” she says.
Rogers grows tomatoes in sturdy planters on her deck, and rolls the planters into her sunny kitchen at the end of the gardening season to keep the tomatoes going as long as possible in the fall. She is a bird watcher and a flower gardener, too. She grew up gardening with her mother, and learned as a child, she says, “that if you plant a seed, something will happen.”
Gardening is an easy path to environmental awareness, Rogers says, and vegetable gardening is an especially delicious way to get involved. Garden-fresh tomatoes, peppers, squash, lettuce, herbs, and other crops are easy to grow, enormously satisfying, and really do not demand a lot of space.
You can always start small. If you’re planting your first vegetable garden this year, plant just a few seeds, or a six-pack of transplants from a garden shop. Instantly you’re a farmer and an environmentalist: when you grow your own food, the sun, the wind, and the rain are more relevant to your everyday concerns. Grow flowers, too: bees and other pollinators will be attracted to the blooms, and good pollination increases the yield of your food crop.
Turning a shovelful of compost into the soil as you plant adds organic matter and nutrients and improves both drainage and moisture retention. Mulching with compost or straw after planting keeps the soil temperature even and reduces loss of moisture through evaporation. Think of weeds as a reason to get out in your garden every day. The smart and proactive way to keep weeds in check is to stay ahead of them.
Pests are not a big problem in small gardens: pick caterpillars off the broccoli plants and hornworms off the tomato vines if you see them. The birds help you if you let them. Pesticides will kill off the birds’ food, so avoid their use. In a healthy garden, nature is in balance and you shouldn’t need pesticides.
When your crops start to mature, get the most out of the harvest. The more beans, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers you pick, the more the plants will produce. It’s hard to grow too much: as anyone can tell you, vegetable gardeners are ideal neighbors, and success has rewards beyond the harvest.
“We all learn, and every year I learn more and more,” Rogers says. “Gardening is the jumping-off point for people if they want to care for and protect the environment, and it’s fun.”