|Kids at the original Woodstock event (Photo by Ric Manning, Wikimedia Commons)
Even when I had 25 grapevines in the back yard I still considered it gardening
|A good days harvest from my garden a couple of years ago
|My grand daughter picking an apple in my yard
|My Grandpa out in his garden
Grandpa used to joke that during peak zucchini season he would put a bag of the squash at a neighbor’s door, ring the doorbell and slip away so they couldn’t turn it down! I never had to do that, but I definitely had times when I wasn’t keeping up on the squash harvest and some became three foot long “pool toys” for my kids. We used to have a fig tree in the yard and when those became ripe, we had far more than we could eat. We had friends and family members, however, who love figs and who were thrilled to get that treat.
5. A garden can be a way to get certain treats that aren’t generally available to buy.
Now as I said earlier, food choices that are available in modern, U.S. grocery stores are remarkable. There is a whole POPagriculture podcast about that topic titled, “An Apple a Day.” But even so, there are many really interesting and tasty crops that are either too delicate to make it to a store or not known well enough to represent a market. A garden can provide some real treats of that nature.
For instance, I like to grow beets specifically for the leafy tops. That particular option isn’t all that available in great condition in the store.
Recently I found a local nursery that specializes in tropical plants and I bought a lychee tree and a dragon fruit tree. I’m spoiled enough to live in a frost-free location where those specimens might just survive in my care and provide some options, that at least for now, rarely show up in stores. I also like to grow some lettuce plants and then harvest it by the leaf, just enough for the salad that night so that it is super fresh.
Now, “bagged salad” is definitely a nice option in stores today, but it’s just fun to supplement my salad until it gets too warm here and my lettuce goes to seed and becomes very bitter. Wherever you live, you might check with the local “Master Gardener” groups to see what backyard specialties you might be able to grow.
6. A garden can give you options to do something “green” with unavoidable food waste.
If you consume a lot of fresh produce, there are the parts that have to be trimmed off, husked, or peeled. If your local waste treatment plant does anaerobic digestion, the “greenest” thing you can do is send it down the disposal. What you really don’t want to do is send something like this plant waste into the landfill. As a gardener, you can have a “worm box” or maybe a small compost pile to recycle these materials. If nothing else, you can just bury it in the garden to let it decay and return to the soil. For instance, I like to fertilize things in my garden with my coffee grounds.
7. Gardening can help us to better appreciate what farmers do for the rest of us.
I’ve left what I consider to be the best reason to garden until last. In the modern, developed world, only a tiny subset of our population is directly involved in food production. While that is great because it allows most of us to pursue other fulfilling vocations, it separates us as consumers from the realities faced by those who do produce food. Even worse, we can drift into a sort of “armchair quarterback” stance in our thinking about how we think farmers should do their job. It doesn’t help that farmers are often the subject of seriously unfair and misleading narratives in the press, in the agendas of some activist groups, or on social media. As a non-farmer who got to spend my career with some connection to farmers, I got into blogging because I was so troubled by the misinformation out there about who farmers are, what they do and what they care about. I would encourage people to participate in some farm tours or agro-tourism to get themselves a somewhat more balanced view. If you can’t go to a farm yourself, gardening is a remedy for this sort of possible blind spot and can give you a bit more perspective on the many challenges and benefits to growing food.
Lots of things can go wrong in the life of a food crop and if you garden you are likely to experience at least some of those challenges – just without the potentially catastrophic economic effects faced by farmers. There can be damaging weather events like hail, frost, heat waves or drought and those will show a gardener just how delicate a plant might be vs the ravages of nature.
The other harsh reality of nature that a gardener is likely to experience has to do with pests. You might have the only local specimen of some kind of plant in your garden or on your balcony, but it is amazing how specific insects and diseases can find your crop and mess it up.
If you go to your local garden supply store, you can get some products to help you safely manage these pests. There are certainly not as many advanced options as are available to farmers or others with the appropriate certifications based on extensive training, but there are options that will work for you. You might want to check to see if there is any local guidance available to you through a Master Gardeners group or your state Cooperative Extension agents.
One thing I really wish I could buy for my garden would be “GMO” sweet corn. There is usually nice sweet corn available in stores, but it would be fun to grow and it is a crop that can be grown just about anywhere at least some time during the year. Also, my grandpa used to grow sweet corn back in the days when you really had to cook it almost immediately after picking to keep it from going starchy. Breeding advances have turned that into a store-ready crop, but I’d like to grow it for nostalgic purposes, thinking back to the days when Grandpa would say, “Get the water boiling and then I’ll pick some corn.”
There are some nasty “worms” that eat their way into the ears of corn from the tassel end, and its really gross to start husking the corn where instead of finding nice kernels, there is a wriggling caterpillar in its frass (read “bug poop”). Farmers, including organic farmers, have been spraying a biocontrol bacterium called Bt since well before Woodstock, but for that to work you have to re-apply it every few days. Sweet corn hybrids exist that have been engineered to make their own Bt protein, so they might never need to be sprayed. That elegant and environmentally friendly option has been almost completely denied to farmers and certainly to gardeners because of anti-GMO phobia and the related brand protectionism in food retail. I really wish that wasn’t the case – more for the farmers than for me and other gardeners.
Sometimes, however, I do see some great pest management options available to consumer gardeners. For instance, I’ve purchased tomato plants at the local nursery, which were grafted on to pest resistant “rootstocks.” Often the “heirloom” tomato varieties that we gardeners like to grow are really wimpy when it comes to dealing with soil-borne diseases and nematodes, but if they are on a robust, resistant rootstock they will do much better.
Now, a gardener is likely to accept a much higher level of “cosmetic” pest damage on their own produce than they would in the store, but seeing what pests can do to plants is a good education and hopefully something that generates some perspective about what farmers have to deal with as they manage pest challenges on a much larger scale. A gardener might sometimes get by without any real pest issue, particularly on a quickly growing crop. The same is true when farmers get lucky in a given season. Still, a gardener is likely to get a dose of reality about the fact that nature includes many organisms that like to compete with us for the crops and food that we need someone to produce.
So, whether you want to go to the 50th anniversary version of Woodstock this summer or not, there are still lots of good reasons to want to “get ourselves back to the garden.”