Thursday, February 2, 2012

Why Garden?

When I was at the county Extension Office earlier this week, putting in some volunteer hours answering questions on the “horticulture hotline,” I spoke with a staff member about the number of veggie questions that come to the office.

She has been at the Extension Office for six years, and she said that, when she first started, the vegetable gardening questions were the main focus of about 5 percent of the total calls. Now, they constitute closer to 50 percent of the calls. That’s a huge increase, but it matches my own impression of the increased interest in home vegetable gardening.

This is the part I hadn’t thought about: Most of the callers who were new to veggie gardening cited safety concerns as their main reason for wanting to grow some of their own food. “Safety” encompasses a fairly wide range of more specific concerns, from e. coli outbreaks, to GM foods, to the widespread use of systemic pesticides that can’t be washed off.

The second most-frequently cited reason to take up veggie gardening has been saving money, and a distant third has been related to lowering the carbon footprint of the household.

Saving money through growing your own food is totally possible, but it takes more advance planning than when the gardener is more concerned with safety than with costs. The same strategies a gardener might use to save money would probably also help lower the carbon footprint of the resulting food.

For some people, though, I would guess that the real reasons for taking up food-gardening are more complex than a single, simple word or phrase can encompass. The short answer probably is just easier than the long explanation (like when someone asks, "How are you doing today?" and we all answer "Fine, and you?" - regardless of reality).

A couple of Saturdays back, after our usual volunteer work on a nearby garden-farm, my family went to our local museum’s “Trains, trains, trains!” event. We stood out because we were the only family there without small children. Our earlier morning activities came up in a conversation with the woman at the Railroad Crossing Safety table, and she told us about her garden.

She had grown up on what she called a self-sustaining farm. All of her family’s food was raised on site, from the dairy and meat cows, to pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pheasants, corn and other grains, beans, fruits, and veggies. She had helped with the chores related to raising all of this food throughout her childhood. A year or so back, she had been feeling a little nostalgic about the farm and its abundant good food when she overheard a young man at another event mention that he would love to have access to a big yard where he could plant a vegetable garden.

The two started talking, and it turned out that she had a big sunny yard and that he had grown up helping his parents in their big vegetable garden, and they decided to put in and tend a garden together in her backyard.

She had thought that they would start small, with a few different kinds of plants, but when they went to the garden center to select seeds and plants, the young man wanted to try everything! In the end, enthusiasm triumphed over prudence (and isn’t that a common story for gardeners!), and they ended up with enough plants for quite a large garden.

Unfortunately, neither of the two remembered all that they really needed to know, including how much work would be involved. It turned out that the woman with the yard ended up renting and running the roto-tiller and doing a much larger portion of the work than she had imagined, including most of the weeding. And when the plants began to mature, she learned the hard way that a lot of the pepper plants were habaneros - an exceptionally hot variety.

She had thought they were miniature bell peppers, and she cut one up for a salad one day after work. The first bite was a big surprise! She said that the taste didn’t go away for at least a week.

The main motivation for this pair didn’t seem to be about food safety, about saving money, or about lowering anyone’s carbon footprint. I think it might have been more about connecting with the past, about building community, about getting access to some really good food, and about being outside. I could be wrong, of course, but the two are already making plans for this year’s garden - this time with fewer habaneros.

3 comments:

  1. Oh my! Habaneros in the salad... We always grow both hot and sweet banana peppers and then can't keep them straight. DH sometimes gets a surprise when they aren't as expected - sometimes even 2 peppers off the same plant vary wildly in hotness.

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  2. I love stories like that where gardens are created by mutual interests. I garden for all those reasons you listed. But mainly because I love knowing where my food comes from.

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  3. Owlfan - yes, the garden world is full of surprises! That's probably part of what brings us all back, year after year.

    meemsnyc - It was great to hear the woman tell the story. It does add a lot to the concept of "why garden?" - but doesn't cover all the bases. I think lots of people want to know where their food comes from, but mixed in are usually other reasons.

    Even though my main gardening focus is on growing good food, I love plants of all kinds. One of my earliest college-and-beyond jobs was identifying (using a microscope), counting, and culturing phytoplankton - kind of like gardening in Erlenmeyer flasks!

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