Shane Emmett believes vegetable gardens should be as attractive and easy as they are nutritional and healthy, and he's launched a venture to prove his case.
He and his business partner and childhood friend, Ivan Fehrenbach, started the United States of Food, which custom builds and installs raised vegetable gardens sized and suited for homes and businesses, especially restaurants.
"Michael Pollan suggests growing your own food to get to truly understand food policy. I tried and it took me weeks to realize that I was planting the poor herbs in rocks. I thought there must be a way to help people grow their own food.
"We are here to make the experience easier to the gardening neophyte. Also, the gardens just look great in a yard – they are works of art."
United States of Food operates from Ivan's 20-acre property in New Kent County. Ivan, also 32, is a contractor who built his home while living in a tent for a year. During that time, Ivan mostly ate what he grew in a large garden there. Now, the land supports a small composting operation, poultry, vegetables, specialty plants, turkeys, peacocks and goats. They mix their soil blend, and build the garden frames in a carpentry shop. Saturdays, they set up shop 8 a.m.-noon at the Williamsburg Farmers Market at Merchants Square in Williamsburg.
In Williamsburg to install a culinary garden at Berret's Seafood Restaurant, Shane shows visitors how the gardens are designed to fit individual needs and how they enhance the landscape for visitors walking by. Each plank of cedar is individually cut, trimmed with a router and treated with tung oil. Thin copper wire that glistens in the summer sun is used for trellising. The raised beds are filled with a mixture of compost, leaf mulch and vermiculite. Drip hoses operated with timers ensure watering is easy; a deer netting system is available.
Shane and Ivan plant the gardens with heirloom varieties raised by seeds they purchase from organic sources such as Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and A Thyme to Plant, both in the Richmond area. They also like Johnny's Selected Seeds. When it comes to tomatoes, they favor oldies like Matt's Wild Cherry, Purple Cherokee, Yellow Pear and Green Zebra.
"It looks almost like a piece of lawn furniture when it's complete," says Shane. "We've been amazed and pleased with how well everything grows in these gardens."
With proper care, succession planting and regular harvesting, the gardens pay for themselves in less than two years, says Shane. The gardens with soil and plants start at $88; some small kits are shippable. A home garden typically costs about $785 or more depending on size and add-ons such as irrigation systems. They will seasonally replant your garden for a fee based on the garden's size and number of plants needed.
The company also custom builds trellises, arbors and chicken coops – and will provide the chickens with instructions on how to care for them. Everything is outlined – and more coming, including the "real food forum" – on its website at http://www.unitedstatesoffood.com.
"There is no better way to appreciate food systems and real food than growing your own, even if it's just a handful of plants," says Shane.
"We want to help people with healthy living and rediscover a very American value: local sustainability and understanding of where food comes from."
Create a good soil mix. Thoroughly work aged organic matter such as shredded leaves and mulch into existing soil or topsoil you have brought in.
Think raised gardens. Plantings created above ground drain better, are easier to weed and harvest and allow you to improve the soil without a lot of tilling and digging.
Plant properly. Space vegetable plants so they get good air and light circulation for even development and fewer disease and pest problems. Use compact varieties for small spaces and containers.
Plan your crops. Succession planting ensures crops throughout the season instead of everything coming in at once. For instance, plant tomatoes now through July 1 for later harvests; learn how at http://www.dailypress.com/digginblog.
Water wisely. Lay soaker/dripper hoses along rows of vegetable plants for deep watering in root zones. Cover hoses with mulch and regulate with a timer. Avoid using overhead sprinklers which waste water to evaporation and wind and keep foliage wet, making it susceptible to fungal diseases.
Harvest regularly. Herbs in particular do best when you prune and use them often. Check squash and cucumbers often because they grow quickly and get too big if left on the vine.
United States of Food at http://www.unitedstatesoffood.com; 804-925-8763.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange at http://www.southernexposure.com/index.html.
Johnny's Selected Seeds at http://www.johnnyseeds.com.
A Thyme to Plant at http://www.athymetoplant.com