Organic's a great way to show true colors

The cilantro and thyme are off to a good start at the writer's home.
The cilantro and thyme are off to a good start at the writer's home.

Ever wondered what those little bar-coded or numbered stickers on your produce mean?

BR>Apart from helping the retailer, wholesaler and producer keep track of their inventory and speed you through the checkout line, they tell you a lot about how the produce was produced.

Each sticker contains a four- or five-digit number known as a Price Look-Up (PLU) code to identify conventionally grown, GMO (genetically modified organisms) and organic produce:

  • A four-digit PLU in the 3000s and 4000s means conventionally grown.
  • A five-digit PLU starting with a nine means organically grown.
  • A five-digit PLU starting with an eight means genetically modified.
  • Conventional produce is grown using synthetically manufactured fertilizers and pesticides. Organic farmers treat their soil and plants with fertilizers and pesticides produced from natural sources. Genetically modified produce has been grown from seeds derived from genetically modified organisms. Organic farmers do not use GMO seeds.

    Now we have another piece of information to help when buying produce at the store.

    Farmers markets tend not to have bar-coded labels on their produce. Typically the produce is locally produced, so another factor plays into your food purchase -- food miles.

    A recent trip to the Redland Farmers Market in Homestead was such a thrill to see tons of fresh produce. The array of peppers (dried and fresh), tomato varieties and heaps of cactus pads catering to the local Mexican community were set alongside the traditional potatoes, beans, onions, avocados and fruit.

    When I am buying produce, I am guided by the dirty dozen ( list of produce to buy organic when I want to avoid synthetic pesticides. Of course, I make tradeoffs but there are choices out there to help me decide what's right for me at the time.

    Very soon I will be growing greens, mainly Swiss chard, mustard greens and lettuce in my raised-bed vegetable garden. My raised bed gets four to six hours of full sun, which is less than optimum for fruiting vegetables like squash, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes. But the greens can withstand more shade.

    I will grow tomatoes, bell peppers and herbs on my porch, which easily gets six to eight hours of full sun. Having begged my husband to help me move my raised bed (comprising 75 concrete bricks) a third time, I hope not to repeat mistakes from previous years.

    My mustard greens, thyme, parsley, cilantro and dill seedlings have been started in pots. In another few days the mustard greens will be moved to the raised bed. I have figured out that I can grow four romaine lettuce in a square foot of garden, so I plan to cycle the lettuce throughout growing season alongside some mesclun lettuce. They are easy to grow from seed sown directly in the raised bed. Next month I will pick up my bell pepper starter plants from the Big Pine Key Flea Market.

    It has taken a while to incorporate more fruit and vegetables into our diet but now that I have an opportunity to grow my own and supplement with purchases from Annie's Organic Buying Club, I'm not sure I can always meet the nine daily servings of fruit and vegetables recommended by the American Heart Association. But I'll give it my best shot.

    Shirley Gun is a member of the Keyswide nonprofit Green Living & Energy Education. She writes about green living and the four Rs -- reducing, reusing, recycling and rot (composting). She can be reached at