How Your Garden Grows (It's Not Too Different from Corn!)

For me, growing plants is both a profession and a hobby. I’m an avid gardener, but my day-to-day job is helping farmers grow healthy crops. My education in plant and soil science can be applied to thousands of acres of corn, wheat and soybeans — and it can just as easily be used to help a few tomato plants thrive in my backyard.

child reaching for fruit

My friends often ask for my help during the summer when they encounter a particular weed or pest in their own garden. In fact, many of our “garden-variety” concerns are the same ones a commercial farmer would encounter.

Identify the culprit

When my friends ask for gardening advice, the first step is to identify the weed, disease or pest causing the problem. It’s no different than a crop farmer. In fact, that’s one of my jobs as an agronomist. I walk through fields to understand the cause of the problem and determine how widespread it may be in a field.

Last year, one of my friends had a tomato hornworm problem in her garden. We talked about the pests, and she described the damage. After we determined the cause, I recommended a few pesticides I use and trust. I also gave her advice on how to safely use the products so she can feel confident slicing those tomatoes later in the summer.

Selectively used

My friend wasn’t going to use a pesticide on her garden unless she really needed to. Yet, she didn’t want to suffer a complete crop failure either. It’s really the same for farmers. Pesticides or weed control products can be expensive, and I’ve never known a farmer to spray their crop unless it was needed.

Whether you’re dealing with a few plants or a few acres, the rate of application for a product is likely similar. There’s sometimes the idea farmers are hauling jugs of chemicals to the field and dousing their plants. That’s just not true. You wouldn’t do that in your garden, and farmers wouldn’t do it on their crops. Often, farmers are applying a few ounces of a carefully selected, highly regulated product on a per acre basis. To help with perspective, that’s often the amount of product measured by one or two cups over an area roughly the size of a football field.

Thoroughly tested

Pesticides and weed control products are intensively regulated by state and federal governments. The fine print on the back of any pesticide sold at your local lawn and garden store is the result of years of research — and it’s not all company-provided data either. The research supporting a new product approval needs third-party science to back up its safety and effectiveness.

My first recommendation to everyone is: read the product label. There are specific rates of application and wait times for harvesting the resulting crop. Using a product off-label may even damage the plant. That’s true for corn farmers and carrot growers. It’s all right there in the product label.

In fact, the downside for not following the label is serious for a farmer. Commodities are regularly tested for chemical residues. If a shipment is rejected, then a whole year of profit may be in jeopardy. The farmers I know would never risk their livelihood, and most growers I work with speak passionately about the responsibility they feel when raising food for a growing world.

I believe the world needs both gardeners and large-scale growers. I love working in my garden and getting my hands dirty. I feel just as confident feeding my family from the grocery store as I do serving up salad from the garden plot. Farmers and gardeners may use different tactics, but the science is the same.

By Jami Loecker, CommonGround Kansas farmer volunteer

Jami and her husband, Billy, live in Manhattan, Kan., with their two children. Together, they raise a chicken flock and garden while Jami is employed full-time off the farm as a local agronomist. She helps other farmers and retailers in eastern Kansas by recommending improvements to crop production practices for corn, soybeans, milo, wheat, alfalfa and cotton.