It’s late (for me) on a Saturday, after a long day of detector moving and fretting about broken (asbestos?) tiles and other silliness in the lab. I’ve been stewing over Michael Pollan’s latest piece, directed to our future president. A lot of it isn’t new. We’ve heard his thoughts on how broken the American food system is, and how we might try to change this — at least on an individual level. But one idea in particular stuck with me:
Since enhancing the prestige of farming as an occupation is critical to developing the sun-based regional agriculture we need, the White House should appoint, in addition to a White House chef, a White House farmer. This new post would be charged with implementing what could turn out to be your most symbolically resonant step in building a new American food culture. And that is this: tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.
Wouldn’t that be bloody fantastic? Actually, more accurately, wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing to watch this fad take over the nation? I find vegetable gardens, herb patches, any bit of edible beauty, infinitely more fascinating than the same green patch of grass copied and pasted over and over across a suburban landscape. When James and I walk through our neighborhood, we cheer on neighbors growing tomatoes on the tiny strip of land lining the street, or discuss improvements they could make in their gardening technique. Those are the places we remember — the people we want to meet. Everywhere else is just another house.
Granted, we understand that not everyone can do this. Access to sunny, south-facing land with decent soil is really a key part of this potential transformation. But in the process of planting and eating from our own garden, we’ve started to realize two things: 1) Gardening is not nearly as difficult as we thought it might be, and 2) Being able to go out in the back yard and pick dinner is a privilege that we don’t want to do without.
Ok, I should elaborate a bit. We had successes and failures this year. This is our first year of planting seeds in the soil, in starting this whole endeavor of seed choosing and starting and all of that, so we expected this. And it’s been worth every bit of frustration, especially since we’ve probably learned more from each failure than each success. Really, it hasn’t taken that much. Once we built up our soil (with compost, soil, and our own hands), and we realized that we had to share our harvest with whatever might come our way, we did just fine. Though I still hold a grudge against those strawberry-eating birds…
But I digress a bit. My point is, if you have land, try and use it. Suppose this crazy idea works: the garden in your front yard actually produces something edible. Chances are, you might find some satisfaction in watching something planted by your very own hands emerge from the soil and provide you with sustenance. If it doesn’t, well, you’ve learned from that. You’ve given it a shot. And maybe you’ll be motivated to try again — perhaps in a slightly different setting. Maybe, like us, you’ll become addicted to the lifestyle, and take that into consideration in future house searches, lifestyle choices, hobbies … Jobs. James keeps talking about starting an heirloom tomato farm on the side, in Australia. Who knows? It might just be crazy enough to work.
That said, it’s a daunting hobby to start. There are startup costs, for example. You will have to put in some cash to get everything started, for seed, for soil preparation, and for the occasional things that make your life a bit easier, and you will have to spend some time setting up your plot in the first place. I figured I’d tell you a few things we learned this year, that might help you get started a bit more quickly.
- Set up a compost bin and USE IT. Your garden needs three things: excellent soil, sunlight, and water. Anything else is a bonus. When you first set up your garden, that compost (properly maintained or not) will help you build the soil quality you need to get started. And it’s really not that hard. You need a plastic bin with holes in it (or any container with holes in it) and a bit of space in your backyard. Or, if you have an apartment, you can go the vermiculture route. Here are a few resources to get you started. Remember, a big trash bin with large holes poked in it (or even some chicken wire strung around wooden posts) is enough to start with.
- Diversify. If you love tomatoes, plant three different varieties, and see how each does in your plot. We know, for instance, that choosing one type of bean (haricots verts), was not such a good idea … They didn’t thrive in our soil. When we planted three types (purple and yellow bush beans, and more haricots verts), we found the bush beans thrived where the haricots verts could not. As a result, we had an awesome, multicolored thai stew tonight, featuring the beans we finally managed to grow. And all of this is without pesticides or anything of the sort… I guess the local bugs liked the haricots verts a little too much…
- Plant more than you think you can eat. You will be sharing with the birds and bugs, if you don’t plan to use pesticides. Trust me, they’re not worth it.
- Get over supermarket-perfect food. If a bug has had a nibble, chances are you can still use the rest of the produce. Take it as a sign that you’ve produced something delicious.
- If you live in an apartment, ask your landlord if you can have some garden space. If not, check out community gardens, or start a collection of edible plants in pots. Herbs, salad greens, and peppers all do pretty well in pots (especially if you have sufficiently large ones). If you look for compact varieties in the seed catalogs, you should be able to find some good stuff to choose from. Just make sure you put the pots somewhere with a lot of sunlight. A roof can even be a good choice!
- Plan your garden early. Look up what zone you live in, which will tell you when you should start seeds, etc. There’s a great book — The New Organic Grower — that covers all this material. It’s aimed more at farmers in colder regions, but a lot of the techniques apply to home gardens.
- Talk to local gardeners. Chances are, they can tell you more about what will thrive in your neighborhood than anyone else.
That’s all I have for now. If you have questions, let me know … I’ll give them a shot. Oh yah, and I’ll get back to the food blogging soon. 😛