April 18, 2012 11:02:11 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Pete Melby's affinity for the good earth is rooted in his childhood, growing up in St. Louis. "My fifth-grade teacher challenged us to grow a garden," said Melby, now a professor of landscape architecture at Mississippi State University. "I enjoyed it so much, I sold (produce) to the neighbors from a basket on the front of my bicycle."
Melby never lost that itch to get his hands dirty. His keen interest later inspired his daughters, Hannah and Caroline, who helped in the garden and even raised zinnias to sell to Starkville restaurants.
Several years ago, the landscape architect became increasingly aware of how unhealthy most Americans, and Mississippians in particular, were eating.
"He really got interested in gardening from a health and nutrition standpoint," said Cindy Melby, his wife and an adjunct professor in music at MSU.
As it happened, a food-based high school science fair project of Hannah's proved to be a catalyst for Melby's research and development of the Home Food Production Garden poster. The valuable guide shows how a home garden of raised beds, maximized for spring, summer and fall growing seasons, can produce enough vegetables and fruits for a family for an entire year.
"If you create four raised beds that are 3-feet wide by 40-feet long, that will grow all a family of four would need, and that's pretty significant," said the professor. "That's not pie-in-the-sky; that's based on plant productivity rates from MSU scientists."
Do the math
The USDA recommends five servings of vegetables and fruits daily. Based on eating three meals at home five days per week, a family of four would need 20 vegetable and fruit servings per day, or 100 servings per week. Multiplied by 52 weeks, the total is 5,200 servings per year.
Dr. Sylvia Byrd, of MSU's Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion, converted raw food quantities to servings, allowing Melby to calculate servings yield per linear foot of all the vegetables on the chart.
With an available online food-servings calculator, a family can determine how many feet to devote to a vegetable to produce a certain number of servings.
"For example, if you put in a 10-foot row of okra, you'll get 80 servings out of it," noted Melby. "The chart makes gardening predictable."
Many would-be gardeners are put off by the physical effort they fear a garden will demand. That work is reduced thanks to high-producing raised beds Melby recommends.
"For years, I had a traditional garden and just worked myself to death for what I got out of it," he stated. He's been a raised-bed convert for the past three years.
"I don't even have to use a shovel, and I should just go ahead and sell my tiller," he said, half-jokingly.
The beds are framed with 2-by-6-inch boards cleated together. The boards, Melby said, discourage running grasses, like Bermuda and St. Augustine, from encroaching on the garden. Each bed is only 3-feet wide, easy to reach across to hoe or harvest.
"You can reach all the way across them, so you don't step on your soil, compacting all the voids where the roots grow," he explained.
The soil can be a combination of compost and potting mix available at area co-ops.
"Every year just take your grass clippings, pine straw and leaves and pile it up, let it degrade, and then take that compost and add it to your garden," encouraged Melby. "It turns into this amazing growing medium that's really, really productive. You'll have the best soil in the world."
Another key factor is all-day sun (six hours, at minimum).
"The more sun, the more productivity," the gardener remarked.
Canning, freezing and drying fruit and vegetables will be necessary to supply servings throughout the year.
"Pete worked on this a long time -- lots of statistics, visiting with scientists and lots of weighing of produce. I couldn't pick anything unless we weighed it," smiled Cindy Melby, who is already enjoying Swiss chard, radishes, spinach and lettuce from the family garden.
"We're waiting now on rutabagas, broccoli, cauliflowers, carrots, potatoes, onions ... and he's already planted green beans, tomatoes, squash, okra, zucchini and egg plant."
Melby is so enthusiastic about home food production, he helped instigate the Starkville Community Garden, through Starkville Parks and Recreation. He serves on the Park Commission.
Residents can rent one or more of 32 fenced-in raised plots varying in size from 2-by-8-feet to 3-by-10-feet at Josey Park. Rental is $20-$30 a year.
Parks and Recreation Director Matthew Rye said, "We have full sun all day, water supply, and renters are given a key to the gate."
It's ideal for people who don't want to be "big gardeners," said Melby.
"Response has been great," Rye remarked, adding that he's even seen college students take advantage of the rentable plots.
"We reach out to the community in different ways; this is just one of those ways of providing a service at very low cost," he said.
Pickin' and grinnin'
"One of the best parts of all this is that I don't have to go to the store all the time," shared Cindy Melby. "I do a lot of picking; I can just go out and get what we need."
It's not only the fresh produce.
"We put it up, too. I'm just pulling it out of the freezer and making dishes. It saves me a lot of time and effort. It's a real convenience, and I feel like we're eating more healthy food, because we know what the process has been."
The home garden leaves the Melbys more time to listen to Nash Street, the award-winning band Hannah and Caroline are in, (when not coming home from Nashville, Tenn., to help Dad make a gardening video).
Pete Melby emphasized, "My interest is how do we make (home food production) an integral part of living, for food security and for convenience and enjoyment? ... That's my main challenge, to show people, through the chart, how they can garden with the least amount of effort."
Get the poster
The Home Food Production Garden poster can be purchased in hard copy ($15) or in digital form ($10) at energyusereduction.com. Click on "Growing all Your Family's Vegetables and Fruit in Your Home Landscape." A link to a brief "how to" video featuring Pete and Hannah Melby is also on the site.
The online food production calculator is available for $8.
The hard copy poster can also be purchased at The Book Mart, 120 E. Main Street, Starkville.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.