Photography Paulette Phlipot
Growing vegetables and flowers without Miracle-Gro doesn’t take a miracle after all, as any organic gardener can tell you. And while bugs might nibble a few holes in the arugula, most gardeners consider that a small price to pay for avoiding the chemical feast found in the produce aisle of most grocery stores.
When a gardener goes organic, there are no chemical helpers to speed the growth of a plant, kill competing weeds, or knock off unwelcome insects. On the other hand, you can eat sun-warmed tomatoes and sugar-snap peas directly off the vine—something not recommended with commercial versions, unless they wear an “organic” label certifying them free of chemical interference.
Chrissie Huss, head gardener at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden and former manager of an organic garden operation outside Boston, believes organic gardeners can beat their problems in Idaho without much effort—fertilizing without chemicals, eliminating weeds without Roundup, and discouraging vegetarian insects without pesticide spray. “You can plant flowering dill, marigolds, calendula, cilantro, parsley, and nasturtiums to attract beneficial insects,” suggests Huss. “This is the organic method of pest prevention.” Safer Soap, a commercial spray soap solution for organic gardeners, makes leaves inedible to pests, as do garlic oil and sprinklings of cayenne pepper.
The Sawtooth Botanical Garden runs an entirely organic operation, in the allotment plots rented to organic gardeners in the summer, inside its greenhouse, and on the 1.5 acres of cultivated land used to raise crops sold to a variety of local restaurants including East Avenue Bistro, Pl¯ace, and Akasha Organics. According to Huss, pest control within enclosed greenhouses is as simple as purchasing a box of ladybugs from one of the local gardening stores, then setting them free to eat aphids and flea beetles to their heart’s content. Green lacewings and praying mantis are also helpful predator insects that safely contribute to the elimination of garden pests.
Many outdoor gardeners cover their beds with a white spun-polyester fabric that allows an exchange of air and moisture but not the invasion of insects. The cloth also discourages deer from biting into the harvest. “They just can’t get in there,” says Huss.
Organic gardeners typically prepare their soil with kelp meal, llama manure, and infusions of organic compost, creating a living layer as thick and dark as chocolate in which to plant seeds or seedlings. Pulling weeds by hand or hoeing seedlings instead of spraying with herbicides, working the soil with natural enhancements, and using insect predators to prevent pest damage might require a little more time, but not much, according to Huss. She considers the results worth the effort, and more and more people would agree with her.
For example, Atkinsons’ Market in Ketchum stocks 25 to 35 percent organic fruits and vegetables in its grocery, a substantial increase over the past three years. “Per capita, Ketchum is unusual,” says Chip Atkinson. “I’d like to believe we were on the leading edge of the movement.”
There has been a demand for organic produce for many years in Ketchum, but Atkinson says that supply has been a problem. Lately, though, more and more farmers are using the organic method, many earning a 100-percent organic label for avoiding chemicals in all forms. The label “organic,” as spelled out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, allows 95-percent organic materials, a step down from the 100-percent label.
The local farmers who have banded together to form the Wood River Farmers’ Market head into their fourth season this summer. Tuesdays from June 10 through early October, residents can find an array of organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat offered by farmers from Emmett, Buhl, Gooding, Fairfield, and Glenn’s Ferry.
“When you buy something from us, it’s no more than 24 hours old,” says Clarence Stilwill, manager of the Ketchum Farmers’ Market this year. Co-owner of Fair Mountain Farm in Fairfield with his wife, Tona, Stilwill says that their business doubled in the first year, and has continued to expand 20 percent annually. Fred Brossy, owner of Ernie’s Organics in Shoshone, has experienced a similar increase in his business.
Freshness is a tangible quality, and patrons of the Farmers’ Market know that. “The flavors are more dense,” reports Anne Kalik, a steady customer. “The food stays fresh longer at home, and I’m sure the nutrients are more intact.”
The Ketchum Farmers’ Market has friendly competition on Thursdays in Hailey, where mostly organically grown fruits, vegetables, and flowers have similarly enthusiastic buyers.
Other residents buy into the Community Supported Agriculture program at Sawtooth Botanical Garden. Summer shares are sold in advance for organic crops grown by farmers within a 100-mile radius of Ketchum. “I like supporting all the local growers,” says Tom Pomeroy, a CSA shareholder for six years. “The food is so much better. They pick it the morning they come up, so it’s really fresh. And you can tell the farmers like what they do—there’s a lot of love in that food.”
Jo Lowe, another CSA shareholder, cites both health and taste as reasons why she participates in the program. “I love the flavors, so there’s also a gourmet reason to buy organic. I’m not totally driven by science.” She isn’t alone. Nationally, retail sales of organic products have grown more than 20 percent over the past decade.
For most gardeners, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as nursing a tiny seed into a big, healthy plant heavy with fruit or bountiful greens. Add to that the satisfaction of growing healthy foods untouched by potentially dangerous chemicals, and you have a natural miracle grown right in your own backyard.