March, 2013: Although it might look foreboding outside, there is plenty that eager gardeners can do at this time of year, says Chris Bobbitt, staff person at the Bloomingfoods Garden Center on the Eastside. Bobbitt, who has worked at the Garden Center since the fall of 2011, is a longtime gardener himself, as are his coworkers, Linnea Good and manager J.D. Lucas.
“All three of us have been gardening for decades,” Bobbitt observes. So when a customer comes in with questions, they are excited to help. Bobbitt notes that March is a good time of year to plant hardy cold-weather crops like potatoes, onions, members of the cabbage family, lettuce, radishes, and Swiss chard. March is also a good month to start growing tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings indoors.
“In March it’s not too late to get a soil test so you know what the Ph is. If it’s too acidic you can add lime—the test will tell you how much to add—and if it’s too alkaline you can add sulfur,” he says.
Bobbitt says he’s seen home gardening’s popularity increase in the last few years. “I think it’s related to the food contamination problems; people are much more interested in growing their own, particularly after the spinach scare several years ago. Last year, for instance, we sold out of spinach seed, so this year I got double the amount.” Unlike most gardening stores, the Bloomingfoods Garden Center sells many vegetable seeds by the spoonful. “Our bulk seed is so much less expensive, partly because you can get just as much as you want.”
One challenge the Garden Center faces is getting noticed by customers who come to Bloomingfoods buy their groceries. “A lot of people don’t know that we’re open or what we do here,” he says. Bobbit hopes that this year’s Gardening Workshop series, the first of its kind, will help raise the Center’s visibility. So far, the workshops have been well attended; the winter gardening workshop Bobbitt led in February, for instance, “was literally standing room only—we had 30 people and only 25 chairs.” More workshops are scheduled this month and throughout the spring.
One element that sets the East Bloomingfoods Garden Center apart from big box stores, says Bobbit, is the knowledgeability of the staff. “In a big box store, whoever’s in charge of the garden area, it’s unlikely they know about gardening—last week they might have been selling electronics and next week, housewares. But I’ve been doing this for almost 60 years, since I was a toddler.” For those who haven’t been gardening since their diaper days, Bobbitt recommends starting small with a container garden. “Do containers first rather than tear up the yard, in case you decide it’s not your cup of tea.” Put the containers somewhere that you’ll see and enjoy them and plant things you’ll enjoy having, Bobbitt suggests.
“If you really like some kind of vegetable that’s expensive in the store or that’s hard to find, like purple okra for instance, go ahead and grow it. Or things that are perishable; if you look at greens like Swiss chard that have been shipped in from California, by the time it gets here it’s been traveling for a week, but if you go to your garden, pick it, rinse it off, and put it in the pot, nothing could be fresher or better for you.” Bobbitt himself does container gardening and he appreciates the control it gives him over the end product. For soil, he puts together a modified version of the recipe suggested by author Mel Bartholomew in his book Square Foot Gardening: one third Sphagnum peat, one third vermiculite for drainage, and one third homemade compost.
“I like using my own compost because I know went into it. It’s 99 percent organic and 100 percent vegan, with no herbicide or lawn clippings. I like to know what goes into my food,” says Bobbitt, who is himself a vegan.
Even busy people can enjoy gardening; Bobbitt savors the memories he made as a grad student, working in his plot in the IU family housing gardens. “My therapy was getting on my hands and knees and playing in the dirt—because gardening is fun.
Many of the products sold at the Garden Center are Principle Six items, meeting at least two out of three P6 criteria: local, small farmer or producer, and/or made or distributed by a co-op or non-profit supplier. Principle Six products represent Cooperation Among Cooperatives, and help build a better market for small, local, and co-op producers.
by Laura Gleason