Going organic is one way gardeners make themselves accountable to the land


April 20, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro

In the truest sense of the word, Gloria Luster has built a victory garden. When she adopted her cluttered Pimlico lot from Baltimore City a decade ago, she could not get a pick ax into the hard pan that had replaced a razed house.

To "help the soil become alive," Mrs. Luster fed her lot with organic matter; grass clippings and leaf compost, mostly. She fought what few pests plagued the garden with "beneficial" insects, such as praying mantises, and if absolutely necessary, made judicial use of Rotenone and Pyrethrum, powerful organic insecticides. Mrs. Luster allowed squirrels and birds to eat their fill of produce. They always leave enough for her, she says.

Today, the reclaimed garden plot is loamy and loose, brims with natural nutrients and produces an abundant annual harvest. "This was the neighborhood dump," Mrs. Luster says in a voice as rich and earthy as the soil itself. "I was 10 years building the soil."

Tomorrow's celebration of Earth Day is, in part, a celebration of gardens such as Mrs. Luster's, fertile proof that without chemicals hazardous to the environment, beautiful tomatoes, sweet strawberries, sturdy potatoes and comely onions are more than possible.

Earth Day is also a reminder that gardening with environmental common sense works for backyard gardeners and commercial growers alike. In Middletown, west of Frederick, Marty and Eric Rice practice the same, painstaking principles as Mrs. Luster on their 73-acre farm. The Rices, co-founders of the year-old Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association (MOFFA), are careful to return to the earth what it gives to them. When it comes to fertilizers and pest control, they use no easy chemical fixes, and largely avoid organic compounds that can be dangerous to beneficial insects, other wildlife and in turn, the Chesapeake Bay.

"Farming by definition is disruptive," Mr. Rice says. But, "farming that pays attention to cover cropping and building organic matter in the soil" actually has the "potential to improve" the environment, he adds.

All growers who wish to practice environmentally sound gardening can abide by the philosophical and practical examples offered by Mrs. Luster and the Rices. Conscientious caretakers of the earth, they are aware of the polluting effects of over-fertilization, overzealous use of pesticides, and no controls for run-off and soil erosion, which dump fertilizers, toxic chemicals, sediment and nutrients into the Bay.

Mrs. Luster and the Rices also extend their holistic theories in the field to their relationship with the communities they serve. In doing so, Mrs. Luster, on her small scale, and the Rices on a larger scale, have made themselves ecologically accountable to the land they work, and to the people they feed.

As a young apprentice to her grandfather, also an avid Baltimore urban gardener, Mrs. Luster, 66, has never considered applying chemical fertilizers or pesticides to her garden. She has always intuitively understood that building the soil organically improved its tilth, kept it warm, improved water and air drainage, held water and nutrients for plants, encouraged extensive root systems and increased biological activity within the soil, among other benefits.

Through field work, reading and classes, Mrs. Luster, a former Baltimore City employee who is now retired, has also come to understand the positive impact her organic gardening policy has on the health of Chesapeake Bay watershed she inhabits. "The use of chemicals increases erosion and has weakened the soil," Mrs. Luster says, as she stands by her city garden in a recent cold spring drizzle.

As they have pursued their dream of running a farm, the Rices, too, have constructed a learned, systematic approach to growing that does not isolate their work from the earth's fragile tTC ecology. "Farmers can farm smarter the more we know about the whole system," Mrs. Rice says. "With the proliferation of the chemical industry we forgot to look at the whole system, which includes water and the air."

The Rices' farm, which produces fruit, vegetables, beef cattle and is in the early stages of an aquaculture operation, is in itself a system in which all aspects of their business interact. Manure from the cattle herd, for example, fertilizes the Rices' fields. And when they are expanded, the aquaculture ponds will also produce nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

The Rices' systematic approach to farming and business

extends to MOFFA's mission of promoting regional, seasonal fruits and vegetables as an alternative to less fresh, less nutritious produce shipped here from Florida, California and South America.

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