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Published March 15, 2010, 12:00 AM

Local interest in veggie gardening grows

In all his years working as a county extension educator, Bob Olen has never seen such tremendous interest in locally produced fruits and vegetables.

By: Jana Peterson, Duluth Budgeteer News

In all his years working as a county extension educator, Bob Olen has never seen such tremendous interest in locally produced fruits and vegetables.

Flowers, yes.

Edibles, not so much.

“I see a confluence of trends,” Olen said, noting people’s increased concerns about nutrition, saving money, preserving the environment and ensuring food security. People want to know where their spinach comes from, how it was raised and who handled it before it got to the table.

“Something else I’ve noticed is a desire to return to family values, to simpler times,” he added.

As always, the well-known agricultural expert is working the education angle. He’d like to make it easier for local folks — from the first-time gardener to folks who grew up with dirt under their nails — to grow a vibrant, healthy, edible garden.

On Saturday, at the Coppertop Church in Duluth, the local extension office is putting on the “Growing Your Own Fruits and Vegetables” conference. It lasts all morning and features an array of expert speakers, including Olen himself, who will speak about appropriate vegetable varieties in the Northland, as well as 10 steps to a successful vegetable garden.

Make no mistake. Although things might work out for you if you just go to the local Wal-Mart store and pick out several packets of seeds, odds are equally good those seeds won’t have been selected for our region. Face it, warm weather tomato plants will freeze up here before they produce much of anything.

However, says Olen, get the right tomato plant, and “you won’t believe the yields you can get.”

It’s a question of maximizing your efforts with a little prior education, really.

Other speakers at the March 20 morning conference include Dr. David Wildung, who will discuss growing tree fruits (apples, cherries and plums) as well as small fruits (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and grapes) in our northern Minnesota climate. Wildung actually invented the half-high blueberry plant, which Olen says grows better up here than just about anywhere else.

Live in an apartment or have a dismally small lot? Rick Boen and the Master Gardeners will present information on growing vegetables in containers, starting vegetable transplants from seed and mini-

greenhouse systems.

In addition to seeing the various speakers and displays, people who attend the conference will leave with a reference book, which will include everything discussed there, including updated fruit and vegetable variety lists for this area and where to get them.

“I think the biggest driver [of this interest in homegrown produce] is food quality and food security, then economics,” Olen said. “When you hear about things like the Chinese contaminating products with nitrogen so they will have a higher protein count, even though it might be toxic, well, that’s pretty frightening. When you know who you’re buying from or you grow it yourself, you know what you’re eating.”

People are encouraged to preregister to reserve a spot, because past conferences have filled up.

If you go

  • What: Growing your own fruits and vegetables conference

  • When: 8:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Saturday, March 20

  • Where: The Coppertop Church, 230 E. Skyline Parkway

  • Cost: $25

  • To register: Preregister with the St. Louis County Extension office, (218) 733-2870, to guarantee your spot.