From the time my bare feet first hit the spur-filled Wilmington crabgrass, I’ve known the feel of a heavy garden rake in my hands. My pops would put on his white rubber boots and straw hat and merrily march out to his 60 x 90 foot plot of fertile ground hidden behind my grandparents’ ranch in Porters Neck. I would follow, dragging a rake or some other tool from the shed, and stand beside his feral vegetable garden, wandering by the mysteries that lay inside the tall green stalks as I scratched at a patch of sandy soil.
Every summer my pops toiled in his garden, and every summer—holidays too—my family ate some of the best vegetables I’ve ever tasted. That garden sustained life for our family and our community.
Evan Folds, eco-extraordinaire and visionary behind local businesses Progressive Gardens, Progress Earth, A Natural Approach and Soil to Soul, believes that we are stuck in a chemical agricultural rut. Paraphrasing a favorite philosopher, Rudolph Steiner, Folds is convinced that the processed and caloric-driven diets most Americans consume today are missing a vital ingredient to human survival. “Your food does not contain the life force that allows you to carry your will into action,” Folds explains. “It’s empty.”
This “life force” is found in nutrient-rich foods that are harvested from the earth. Folds explains that in 1950, an average head of broccoli, a vegetable naturally rich in vitamins and fiber, had 12.5 grams of calcium. Today, that amount has been reduced to 4 grams; nutrients are being replaced with chemicals and enzymes.
“We can eat a Big Mac and feel full,” he notes, “but we don’t know we’re malnourished until we get sick. There’s no malnourishment pain like a hunger pain. So, we can’t tell ourselves we are sick until we are [seeing symptoms], and that’s kind of the disconnect.”
The best way to regain this “life force” is to grow food. There’s more than one way to get started, and our small coastal town is inundated with resources. Hardy veggies will grow, even in the Wilmington winter. “A garden,” as Folds points out, “is not that difficult, in the end.
To get started with a winter garden, some basics will need to be taken care of: the tools (rake, hoe and spade); sunlight, at least six hours, so choose a place well-lit; and a spot close to home as to ensure more motivation when looking at it from the kitchen window. Vegetables and greens can be cultivated year-round in Wilmington, unless there is an unusually harsh freeze. Good recommendations from Margaret Shelton of Shelton Herb Farms (340 Goodman Road) include carrots, radishes and broccoli and delicious, leafy greens like mustard, turnip, collards, cabbage, lettuce and kale.
Wilmington is notorious for a pesky, sandy soil. However, gardeners can still make an agricultural haven out of it. The most important step, according to Folds, of jump-starting a grow-plan is finding the perfect balance of minerals in soil. You can get a soil test from a private lab to determine the pH and which nutrients need to be added or detracted from the soil; Progressive Gardens (6005 Oleander Drive) can help in finding appropriate resources. A compost pile, made from grass clippings, weeds, newspaper and other organic waste, can charge soil with microbes which nourish the plant. When plants have a natural balance of elements, like calcium, nitrogen and phosphorus, they are able to process energy and exchange microbes within the soil; the pH will always be balanced and the use of chemical fertilizers and plant food, which only feed the plant, not the soil, are avoided.
A balanced mineral composition provides a strong, healthy base for plants during the cold temperatures and is most important for protection when planning a large-scale planting. Small-scale winter gardens require some other forms of safeguarding to prevent damage from the infiltrating frosts. Raised beds can simply be saran wrapped or covered with a sheet; if using plastic, the plants cannot be covered all day unless the sheets are well vented. Gardens can be protected with burlap using stakes in the ground, or by using hay bales to create cold frames. These frames provide instant insulation for your produce plants against rain and cold wind. Wire can be bent over the top of the bales and draped with cover to shelter the plants from the elements for the night. Thanks to Wilmington’s light winters, “You can grow a whole lot with just minimal protection and sometimes no protection” Shelton says.
Folds insists, “You can’t know what’s in your food unless you grow it yourself.” Or perhaps, a neighbor grows it. Not only will this simple process of produce gardening bring nourishment to life, but it will enliven the community; members can share vegetables and gardening secrets, support one another, and relationships will improve. It doesn’t seem farfetched—my pops puts it into practice every year when he carries his corn and watermelons to neighbors, doctors’ offices and churches in the back of his pickup truck.
What Folds calls “the food movement” could change the way we look at our daily needs, and the community around us. Aldo Leopold, an American ecologist and environmentalist, wrote of a “land ethic” that “enlarges the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” To appreciate community, “the food movement” is leading us in steps from the ground up.