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Why His Garden Grows. Food that's safe and superior to store-bought is one reason; history is another. INTERVIEW: ROGER SWAIN OF `VICTORY GARDEN'

By Laura Van TuylStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1989


ROGER SWAIN doesn't worry about chemical residue on the apples he eats. He grows his own and knows exactly what he's biting into. Not all of us are so privileged, as we comb through mounds of produce at the grocery store, remembering recent reports of pesticides and poisoned grapes.

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But Mr. Swain says concerns over food quality will persuade more people to cultivate their own fruits and vegetables, as he does. ``I haven't bought onions or squash in 20 years,'' says Swain, whose bearded face is familiar to fans of ``The Victory Garden,'' the popular PBS TV show of which he is a regional host.

Few people share Swain's passion for home-grown produce, seen in the 150 pounds of braided onions swinging from his basement rafters and the 250 pounds of squash stashed under various beds in his house. But he'll encourage anyone, no matter how inexperienced, to give gardening a try.

Swain tills a hillside farm in southern New Hampshire and carts the bounty back to Boston. Most of the produce in the supermarket is ``nothing compared to what I can grow,'' boasts the plant expert, who shares his home office with a sprawling, six-foot pandanus and a kumquat tree.

Though trained as a biologist, Swain has been digging in gardens since his teens and has recorded much of his hard-won wisdom in his new book, ``The Practical Gardener'' (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, $18.95).

Yes, pesticides and herbicides make large-scale food production economical, ``but there's a trade-off,'' remarks Swain, tromping through his house in work boots.

``For those of us who want produce cheap and whenever we ask for it, we're going to have to pay for it'' by settling for ``mediocre'' food and potential chemical hazards, he says. He pauses to introduce his coffee-bean bush and a towering, 25-year-old grapefruit plant.

Back at his desk, Swain cuts into an apple with his pocket knife. ``I picked this apple on the 15th of October last year, and it's been sitting in a cold cellar at about 45 or 50 degrees [F.]. You taste that,'' he says, handing a slice to his visitor.

It was surprisingly moist and flavorful. He applied just two sprays, he says. Sure, it's slightly soft and has a few scars. But he prefers this to a firm, flawless grocery-store apple that had been sprayed eight or 10 times with who-knows-what, he says.

``Doing your own gardening makes you much more aware of food cycles, what it takes to grow it, and what the range of food quality is.'' And if food has been sprayed, ``you know exactly what it's been sprayed with and when.''

Growing food teaches a person to be ``less fussy'' about blemishes and imperfections. ``So much of the poison that we put on our crops is not there to make the crop possible, but to make the harvest beautiful and attractive,'' says Swain. Bananas, for example:

``There is no known insect that can pierce the peel of a banana,'' he says. All the insecticides sprayed on bananas are to prevent blemishes on the skin.

Then there's peas. A bag of generic-brand peas costs less, though the peas are not uniformly sized, like name-brand peas.

``Ever picked peas?'' he asks. ``They're different sizes, aren't they? Bother you a whole lot?''