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Organic Escapades

Organic Escapades

Success and failure in my back yard organic garden.


Standing at my kitchen sink, I look at the clock and realize I have slavishly devoted an hour and a half to cleaning ten heads of lettuce that grew in my tiny organic garden. After all my effort, I am bugged to discover a few white bugs that almost look like little white flowers. How dare they try to trick me like that! Bugs are in no way kosher, so I had to scrupulously keep checking my home-grown produce to ensure I wouldn’t serve or swallow a little creepy crawly thing. I also spy a caterpillar, slyly camouflaged in the exact pale green as the leaves. Man, I bet it’s easier to de-bug the Kremlin than a head of organic green leaf lettuce. Beginning one last rinse, this time with an extra drop of vinegar, I think, Maybe pesticides aren’t so bad after all.

If pesticides were so bad, could someone explain why were we all living longer?

For years I easily resisted the hoopla over organic produce. If pesticides were so bad, could someone explain why were we all living longer? Organics are also pricey, suited to the Lexus crowd, but we are on a Honda budget. I began to reconsider a few years ago when one of my closest friends went on a strictly organic, vegan diet as part of her treatment for cancer, and I wanted to cook for her and her husband. After three months, she was certain her diet was helping her gain strength while vanquishing the cancer, one cell at a time.

I nearly fainted when surrendering my credit card to pay for my organic shopping spree. For that amount of money I could have sponsored the Kiddush at shul. And all I bought were some vegetables, fruits, rice, spices and cooking oils! I’d have had to have won the lottery to afford the organic kosher chicken! On the other hand, I had to admit that the meal I made was tastier than usual. Even my husband, who had not seen the Whole Foods receipt, agreed. I continued to buy organic to cook for my friend. Sheepishly, I also began to buy for my family when prices didn’t induce sticker shock.

Had I become brainwashed under the avalanche of “organic, organic, organic” marketing messages, with photos of organically fed families promising an irresistible apple-cheeked wholesomeness? Yeah, probably. And maybe I read one too many articles sowing fear about the so-called “dirty dozen,” a list of produce said to harbor the most pesticide residue. The list includes many family favorites: sweet peppers, broccoli, apples, cucumbers, and strawberries.

Whatever the tipping point, last year I decided to pull out a row of useless rosemary bushes to start an urban organic garden of my own. My greatest botanical achievement has been learning not to kill an orchid after only two weeks, so I hired a professional for the job, and bought a pair of gardening gloves, giving me the conceit I was a faux farmer. I tried to persuade myself that this connected me more closely to my Jewish ancestors: In the desert we weren’t all accountants, dentists and therapists. We were an agricultural people! I could be a little agricultural, too, if I wanted to. But if I thought buying all organic produce was expensive, it was chump change compared to funding an organic garden, even one as miniscule as mine: less than two feet deep and fifteen feet long. Seeds are inexpensive, but new soil, mulch, fencing, labor and the drip irrigation system add up fast.

I was excited just reading the little tags jutting out from the fresh soil, identifying where snap beans, zucchini, lettuces, tomatoes and peppers would sprout. I waited for the magic to happen. But for every promising new shoot, I also saw trouble: Was that mold assaulting the leaves of my zucchini plant? How dare bugs nip at my neo-natal peppers? I tried to coax the defiant snap beans to grow with encouraging words, but, seemingly against their will, they yielded a miserly sixteen beans. I chose not to try to amortize the price of each bean.

My gardener returned to deal with the bugs and mold, but he explained that yields were always unpredictable. “What did you expect in such a small space?” he asked. I watched my garden with equal measures of concern and anticipation, a worried Jewish mother. I bent low to the ground and pulled weeds, channeling my ancestors in ancient Israel. Five weeks later I had bright, fresh butter and red leaf lettuces. A few weeks after that, I snipped kale with a sharp gardening tool whose name I do not know and twisted off scrumptious orange and red grape tomatoes from the vines. I served the scanty yet tasty bounty at dinner with pride. One night, we had as many as three grape tomatoes each.

My escapades in organic garden have been expensive, and I think I am going to give it up. I only have so many hours in a day to pull out the Chinese garlic, which I didn’t plant but is somehow taking over the entire area. Why are even my weeds made in China? I don’t get it. I admit I felt great satisfaction in gifting my lettuces to friends and neighbors, ensuring them that they were kosher-certified from my laborious bug-checking. But I don’t care to become a mulch maven. Let someone else worry about the ideal nitrogen levels required for soil to yield broccoli (a lot) versus blueberries (a little). I’ve got other things to worry about.

I appreciate the Almighty even more now, having seen how much attention to detail, patience and hard work goes into the process of growing our food. No wonder we say a bracha both before and after we eat! He provided amazing variety in the universe of food for us to enjoy. And thankfully, He also made enough people willing to work hard to plant and harvest it, so I don’t have to!

July 19, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Jack Defez, July 28, 2014 10:13 PM

Dear Judy, I read with great interest about your experiences. I may be of some help. Please go to There you will see technology created by NASA. The former head of "The Land" at Epcot has a patent and brought it down to earth. It is all about how to grow a lot of organic food in a small space with the least effort.
Healthfully yours, Jack Defez

(3) Helen Schwab (Chaiah), July 23, 2014 4:43 AM

I'm an organic mini-garderer -- using containers on my porch.

My secret for healthy plants is compost. G-d makes compost with my help: Each week I dump my fruit & vegetable peels in a pile behind my house and cover them with leaves I raked from my trees each fall and stored in two empty 32 gallon garbage pails. After a year, the bottom of the pile yields rich black earth. Meanwhile I start a second pile so there's always one "cooking" (They heat up inside and decompose the peelings.)
I grow strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and five herbs, along with zinnias (my favorite flower) and marigolds (easy to grow. pretty, & they help keep away the bugs), begonias, coleus, and other flowers and plants. There are 60 pots on my porch, the only sunny place on my tree filled property. I have some chairs, too, so I can enjoy my garden and invite company. I wish I could grow more of my own food, but it's not in the cards. I pull weeds when they are small; it's easier with pots. Watching seeds grow to plants is for me a revelation of G-d's greatness. The grandkids love it, too. I've seen butterflies, golden finches and even hummingbirds, up close. All of them love zinnias!

(2) Mitch, July 22, 2014 7:33 PM

What about the Vegan?

I enjoyed your column especially when you started talking about the person who went vegan and started feeling better.

I myself am "Powered by Plants" and try to adhere to a WFPB (whole foods plant based) way of life.

So yes, as with most things in life, if you really want to do things right, it takes time and effort. Of course if you have some extra cash, then you could always pay someone else to do it for you.

But truthfully, one needs to at least experience what goes into the work to appreciate the results that much more.

Hopefully then one will see all that Hashem has given us and be thankful!

(1) Anonymous, July 22, 2014 4:33 PM


Leave the Chinese garlic to grow: it will help keep away bugs.
Gather horsetail at your local ditchbank, and make a tea concentrate (boil it in water, then strain out the twigs).
Spray that tea concentrate on the leaves of your zucchini or other squash plans. It will keep the mold off.
Try just one or two things in a small space. It will feel more abundant.

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