When the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association formed 50 years ago this week, I knew nothing about it. I also knew nothing about gardening, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know that organic vegetables even existed. In the years since then, however, MOFGA has improved my life in many ways, gardening just one of them.

In its early years, I paid scant attention to the organization, never even attending any Common Ground fairs in Litchfield, the fair’s first home. I had no reason to pay attention. I’d never planted a vegetable garden, or much of anything else, until 1976, the spring after we moved into the then-new house in Cape Elizabeth where we still live. My chief job was to provide manual labor, following instructions from my wife, Nancy, and her grandmother, whose vegetable plot we mostly took over. Previously, the sum total of my gardening experience was occasionally spreading fertilizer on my parents’ lawn. I did do a lot of lawn-mowing, though.

That vegetable garden was definitely not organic. The soil was sandy, with a lot of fist-sized stones and not a lot of organic matter. The fertilizer we used was granular, a standard 10-10-10 split on nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. One year, on the advice of a college friend from Aroostook County, I actually used Sevin to kill Colorado potato beetles that had attacked our crop. Other friends and relatives, more environmentally aware than I was, advised me not to do that again. Sevin, I learned, may kill the beetles, but it’s also toxic to humans and bees and other beneficial insects.

Nancy was in charge of our ornamental gardens, although she would allow me to dig holes for shrubs, plant flower bulbs, and remove lawn and add compost to make new flower beds. She always provided specific instructions and worked nearby to make sure I followed them to the letter.

As a garden columnist, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but until 1986, we actually had a lawn-care company tend our lawn. We had more sun then, the company was a one-person operation, fairly environmentally friendly and based in our hometown. When he sold the business to a chain, we dropped out.

Peaches growing in Atwell’s garden. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In the 1980s, we created a new vegetable plot on a part of Nancy’s grandparents’ farm that had a past as a hay field, and before that a cabbage field. That’s about the time we joined MOFGA and also when Nancy became more involved with the Cape Elizabeth Garden Club and the Garden Club Federation of Maine. By then, we were no longer basing all of our gardening on information handed down by relatives or from the book “Crockett’s Victory Garden.”


We’d begun to learn by reading garden books, garden club publications, and also MOFGA’s quarterly newsletter. Nancy usually got to the quarterly first, but we both read it cover-to-cover. I especially looked forward to anything written by seed saver and farmer Will Bonsall or MOFGA organic crop specialist Eric Sideman, while Nancy enjoyed the pesticide-legislation reports, the recipes and even the classified ads that last because, she said, people often had unreasonable expectations about what land should cost and she liked looking at some of the unusual products for sale.

We were learning, for instance, that we shouldn’t just fertilize our plants to feed them directly, but instead use compost, green manures and other products to feed and improve the soil, which will, in turn, feed the plants. We began to add more native plants. Our most significant – and recent – change is going no-till in the vegetable garden, opting instead to cover the soil with leaf mold at the end of the season and planting through to the soil in the spring. That change, you won’t be surprised to read, was based on some good Will Bonsall advice. Today, though our garden could never be certified organic (certification is a very complicated process), we do follow organic-gardening practices.

We’ve also learned that our gardens are not a universe unto themselves. Our gardens, we’ve come to understand, are connected to the outside world by the insects, birds and other animals that visit, then travel out into the world at large; and by the rain that falls on our property and slowly seeps through the soil, eventually flowing to the sea.

We are still learning today, and I am glad about that. The thing about learning a lot over a long period of time is that you do it almost unconsciously – it becomes ingrained in who you are. And, while we seldom attend MOFGA meetings, one of the things Nancy and I are is proud MOFGA members.

In 2019, the Maine Sunday Telegram gave a Source Pollinator Award to Jean English, editor of the MOFGA newsletter since 1988. When I got on stage to present the award to her, I revealed that I had applied for that very job – and had been rejected. Why? The person who interviewed me said I didn’t know enough about gardening. That got a laugh, but it was true: I didn’t. But I was learning.

When I was asked in 2004 to write the Maine Gardener column for this paper, I almost turned the offer down because I thought I still didn’t know enough. Nancy, who is a better gardener than I am, persuaded me to accept. She reminded me that by then I had been gardening for 28 years, had adopted many MOFGA practices, and, as a longtime reporter, even if I didn’t know the answers, I knew how to ask questions. Together, those things convinced me to become the Maine Gardener.

MOFGA made me a much better gardener over time. And it also played a part in giving me a part-time job that, 17 years on, I still really enjoy.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: tomatwell@me.com.

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