As coronavirus blooms, freaked-out people are planting gardens all over the world and I completely understand why. Having access to good nutrition even if there isn’t much at the grocery store (or if I suddenly can’t afford what’s at the store) is definitely a primary reason why I plant a garden.
Honestly, I’ve been working at it for years and still only grow a portion of what we eat. With last year’s drought, I didn’t have enough tomatoes to can. All winter I’ve been extremely grateful we weren’t relying entirely on my skill, and I could still buy them at the store.
This doesn’t mean don’t garden! I salute every coronavirus gardener, and I dearly hope they will make a permanent habit of it! Because there are some excellent reasons to garden that have nothing to do with food security.
Perennial, edible malva flowers are so abundant around here that people are starting to declare they “don’t like them.” Can you imagine?
1. The blessing of abundance
Once upon a time I drove around, sleeping in the back of my truck. Then I ran out of money, took work in North Carolina and met my husband. In what seemed like an instant I was a new mom to a tiny 4lb 8oz baby who cried all the time and never, ever slept. I didn’t go back to work partly because of the paying-to-work phenomenon: I buy gas, work clothes, daycare, a little extra money on convenience food and poof, a good salary is all used up. It would have cost me almost as much to work as not to.
I became painfully aware that my days of cheerfully lowering my living standards to fit my income were over. A child with issues and ideas of his own really puts a limit on some things. Such as moving back into the truck.
Food prices were up and rising, so we tightened the budget and planted a garden. I tented the raised bed in the shady yard behind our rental house with $7 worth of ½” PVC and clear painter’s tarp. I scored some free composted manure to improve the sad soil. It was winter, so I planted things I knew would tolerate a touch of frost under the tarp: spinach, radishes, arugula, lettuce and other greens. There was no longer any money for luxuries, but there was salad.
Bowls of salad. Heaps of salad. My husband got tired of it. Even I got tired of it, and that is saying something.
When things are stressful, there’s a genuine magic in having too much of something. I was tight on time and money and sleep, and I’d designed the stupid tunnel so it was difficult to open and also difficult to move through, but the abundance itself was a balm to a worried mind. I could let go of the big developments (which I couldn’t do anything about anyway) and focus on getting rid of the salad.
Too much zucchini makes great frittatas, great stir fries and great assurance that one thing, at least, is going right in the world. Too many raspberries make yummy jam, yummy smoothies and yummy saturation of the senses so that there is one thing, at least, that I don’t crave any more of. Too many salad turnips make interesting lunches, but also interesting breakfasts and interesting gifts to friends and neighbors who do not yet know the glory of salad turnips.
Too much anything will do, really. So plant a lot.
These strawberries are inviting me to trim their runners, so they will put their energy into more fruit.
2. An excuse to move
I don’t know about you, but my body and I do not always get along very well. I’ve got a condition called CRPS that makes it painful to move, but even more painful to sit around. I’ve got to move, even though I don’t want to. In the morning when it’s already steaming hot and everything hurts and it’s hard to get myself going on anything serious, I can still shuffle out to the garden. I’m not going to work, I promise myself, I’ll just look around and see how things are doing.
Here among the beets are some weeds to pull. And there in the path are some more weeds that can be hoed. Here are peas that need trained to the fence, or tomatoes that need suckered. Before I know it I am raking beds and planting stuff and picking piles that really can’t wait another minute, thinking about what should go here once this bed is clear. I’m working just hard enough to be good for me, but not so hard I’m hurting myself.
Science supports that for many people, especially some with limited mobility, gardening is one sort of gentle exercise that can help a body. If you need raised beds (or even beds on stilts) to be able to do it, that’s fine because those gardens are beautiful. I personally needed to learn a completely new way of moving and resting called the J-shaped spine, and I’m much healthier for it.
Sure, gardening also involves some heavy, unpleasant work. Today, I mucked the goose stall to mulch the blueberry plants. That was quite a lot of shoveling and 12 trips with a wheelbarrow, 300 feet from the barn. There was a hill involved, and at the end I was tired and sweaty. Tonight I feel the comfy glow of having had enough exercise. Priceless.
Beautiful sweet salad turnips. Ugly spicy radishes. No problem, they made a pretty good pickled radish garnish, the sort of thing you’d otherwise pay a lot for at the fancy grocery store.
3. Money saved
When we moved into our little straw-clay house, we had this goal of producing 80% of our veg, fruit, meat and dairy within five years. There are lots of reasons for this: the environmental impact of growing and shipping our food in unsustainable ways, such as greenhouse gasses, soil erosion and waterway damage. The horrific farm animal welfare situation in our conventional food system, and the health impacts for people stemming from that mess. Then there are positives to growing our own, such as nutrition and freshness and access to unusual varieties. But also, there is cost.
Good food tends to be expensive food, while cheap food is often less nutritious and more damaging to the planet. We were never extravagant eaters; after we started eating less meat in order to eat well-raised meat, when prices in general were up and we had an infant with particular needs, I wasn’t in the habit of spending more than $600 a month on food. Now that there are four of us, about 3 ½ adult servings’ worth, we’re down to under $400 a month and still eating pretty darn well.
We raise goats, chickens and geese, doing our best to give them an excellent life and utilize every part of the ones we cull. Animals, though, are a wash financially, if we’re lucky. Chickens have paid for themselves, but it took a while. Geese might still break even, while goats are an endless money hole. Sometimes I fantasize all my does will produce daughters and I’ll make back the cost of the fence, but I know it isn’t true.
In contrast, the garden cost very little to set up and started paying us back in a couple of weeks. I spent about $140 on fencing, and I spend $30 or so on seed every year, and I estimate it saves me at least $600 a year at the store (likely quite a bit more). Maybe that doesn’t sound like much to you, but it’s a lot to me. We eat less junk and more veg, so we might even save money at the doctor.
Because I knew for sure I would plant too many beets, this spring I’m growing the regular Detroit Dark Red, but also a golden and this funny variety, which is called Cylindra. I’m sure it’ll make fine hummus.
4. Freedom from the tyranny of whims
I admit it. I don’t know what I want for dinner.
This drives my husband nuts. He would eat nachos three times a week until he dies, but if I’ve had my absolute favorite dish in the last 15 days, I don’t want it again tonight and I can’t figure out what to make instead. The garden frees me from this conundrum.
First, it forces me to learn six different ways to make the same thing. We have sautéed beets and greens as a side. Then we eat them boiled and slathered with butter, then roasted beet salad, beet risotto pasta, beet fried rice, beet hummus, then pickle a bunch before I’m back around to sautéed. About the time I can’t stand to even look at another beet, all of a sudden the beets are gone. Instead, I need to come up with six ways to make yellow squash. When the seasons roll around, I’ll be ecstatic to see beets again.
Asking myself “what’s the thing I want most in the world?” is a recipe for disappointment. I’m just not a perfect cook, and at this point it’s safe to assume I never will be. But asking “how can I use this huge pile of veg most deliciously?” is a recipe for surprise, novelty, creativity and satisfaction, and I owe it all to the garden.
5. The invitation to think outside my own stuff
If you’ll permit me, I’ll just step back for a minute.
We humans are born into these warm furry bodies with all their particularly mammalian concerns: the milk, the sleep and the standing up without falling down, shortly followed by the chattering, the relationships and the rushing around and around. It’s easy to forget that we’re surrounded by beings whose needs and struggles are so different from ours as to be almost unimaginable.
As I poke around out in the garden (pretending I’m not about to do any real work) I have an opportunity to get in the place of a plant, at least dimly, temporarily. Stuck there where my seed germinated, I might be thirsting to death if it hasn’t rained recently, or suffocating if it has rained too much. Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it silently but desperately, as all lives on Earth are a little bit desperate. I might be pushing the limits of my ability to grow, or quietly suffering from a lack of nitrogen or an onslaught of squash bug.
I do love to walk through the woods and attempt to observe the life of wild plants. Try to figure out why this tree is covered with galls, while its neighbor is healthy. Try to understand why this herb grows here and not over there. The wild plants I collected and used in my youth, from blueberry to fireweed to coltsfoot, sometimes gave up a few of their secrets to observation. Mostly, though, their complex lives remained opaque to me.
The chard and chickpeas that I planted with my own hand communicate more, because I am responsible for their well-being. If they are strong I will reap the benefits. If they are sick I will not, and so I had better notice. I’m still a newbie with much to learn, but I now know the desires of dozens of species: how they look when they’re overfed, how they show their stress, when it’s getting just a little too hot and they’re about to throw their energy into seed. This observation is good for my eyes, my mind and my heart.
I still get surprised, of course, for good or for ill, and I expect I always will. And maybe these little green details are boring to everybody else. But for me, these tiny bits of information, these small successes and failures are endlessly fascinating. As I collect them I build our food security, but I also build myself an interesting life.
Why do you garden?