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March 25. 2013 4:48PM

Former 'Victory Garden' guru: Show off your crops


Roger Swain, former host of the PBS series "The Victory Garden," delighted gardeners in Windham Thursday evening with his program, "Growing Food in Public." (APRIL GUILMET PHOTO)

WINDHAM - He's the former science editor of Horticulture magazine, holds a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard and has written five books.

But most folks simply remember Roger Swain as the jolly "man with the red suspenders" and longtime host of PBS's "The Victory Garden."

Swain, who lives near Peterborough, delighted gardeners gathered at Windham Town Hall last Thursday when the Windham Garden Club hosted the program, "Growing Food in Public."

"We're pretty thrilled to have a celebrity here," club member Evie Saad said as she sat down for an engaging evening of gardening tips and amusing New England anecdotes told in a way only Swain can tell them.

But in spite of his celebrity status, Swain remains humble about his many accomplishments, instead preferring to pass along his knowledge to fellow plant lovers.

Asked about his fondness for red suspenders, Swain's response was simple. "They hold my pants up," he said. "But it can be a bit problematic when they ask me to remove them at the airport."

Speaking to about 40 local garden club members, Swain got down to business, asking the locals if they currently grow their own food.

About half of the audience's hands shot up.

"Well, when I'm done here tonight, here's hoping all of you will be raising your hands," he told them. "My number-one goal here tonight is to encourage all of you to grow your own food."

Swain, who despite his advanced education has never taken a formal gardening class, said he mostly learned his skills from simple necessity.

Alluding to the victory gardens of decades past, he urges gardeners not to limit their edible crops to their backyards, but to instead "go public" by planting potatoes, carrots and other vegetables and fruit wherever the sun shines brightest - even if that means planting squash in the front yard.

In absence of a sunny front yard, a neighbor's yard will also do, he added. "Maybe your neighbor down the street has a nice, bright yard," Swain said. "And maybe she needs her lawn mowed and you could work something out. Maybe you can barter with her."

In 1944, at the height of World War I, the victory garden movement was going quite strong. Amateur gardeners, according to Swain, grew nearly half of the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States that year.

Things have certainly changed nowadays. "These days I can walk around suburbia and not see anything growing in anyone's yard," Swain said. "But the finest food you can eat is food you grew yourself."

Since sunlight and water are essential for healthy plans, Swain encourages the use of rain barrels.

"The plants don't care where the water comes from," he added.

And since many local gardeners have rocky soil on their properties, a variety of containers might work in a pinch. They need not be picture-perfect containers- recycled pails, buckets and bins work just as well as fancy planters.

"Trust me. Once the plants are growing, well no one will be looking at those containers," said Swain.

aguilmet@newstote.com


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