It is hard for me to imagine talking about local, sustainable foodsheds without talking about gardening.
The two go hand in hand.
And speaking of hands, there is no greater pleasure on earth for me, (other than tearing into a freshly baked loaf of whole grain bread, steaming and fragrant from the oven) than sinking my hand deep into sun-warmed soil, and planting something beautiful and edible in that fragrant, fertile bed.
I don’t really understand people who don’t like gardens and gardening. Being outside, in the open air, with the sun on my face, and the wind at my back, the sounds of birdsong filling my ears and the thousand shades of green that the natural world cloaks herself in dazzling my eyes, is a great comfort to me, and fills me with quiet joy.
I reckon that I’ve been a gardener since I could walk, toddling after my mother, making furrows in the dirt with chubby fingers, and carefully covering seeds she planted, then patting the earth firm, “like tucking the flowers into bed,” as Mom would say. And if I wasn’t following Mom, I was at Gram’s side as she instilled in me her principle for foiling weeds and having the prettiest porchboxes in the neighborhood. “Crowd the flowers in, Barbara,” she’d say as she tucked petunias, geraniums, allyssum and coleus tightly into her green enamelled metal porch boxes. “Then feed them well, and water them,” she’d say, “and when they grow, they will tumble all over each other, and spill out of the box, and cover the box and the railing with blooms. Their roots will grow together like one plant, and will crowd out every weed.”
Or, if not Mom or Gram, I’d be padding barefoot along garden rows behind Grandma or Grandpa, as I helped plant corn with the antique contraptions that Grandpa saw in a book somewhere and built in his woodshop, or as I picked green beans off their neatly trellised vines with Grandma. Sometimes, I’d just patter through the garden on my own, enjoying the warm kiss of damp red clay under my toes and the scents of ripening tomatoes mingled with the well-rotted perfume of cow manure and chicken bedding used to dress all of the plants. I remember running through the stands of corn, placed in perfect rows, laughing as the tassles danced in the wind and the leaves struck my face, as I played imaginary games with the crows who called overhead in a chorus of raucus voices.
I simply couldn’t keep my feet and hands out of the dirt growing up. I even inveigled myself into the neighbor’s gardens and helped plant and prune, weed and tend, trim and water. Flowers or fruit, herbs or vegetables–it didn’t matter. I loved them all, and dearly.
Everywhere I have lived, I have had one sort of garden or another, and I usually grow flowers and herbs in equal measure.
My first herb garden was when I was in high school, and I saw small herb plants neglected and alone in a local nursery in Charleston, West Virginia. Rosemary, sage, thyme, chives and oregano came home with me that day, and I put them in a row of pots on our back steps, where the sunwarmed brick would hopefully simulate the rather dry, very warm Mediterranean climate that these plants favored.
Those herbs became an object of interest to my parents, the neighbors and the rest of the family. The only herbs most folks grew in town around us were dill for pickles, catnip for cats and maybe some feverfew because it was pretty. Herbs were not popular then, not with West Virginia cooks, nor with gardeners, so folks came to see what I was about.
The only lady who knew at all what those herbs were and what they were for was old Mrs. Abdella, the grandmother of some of the kids I went to school with. She was Lebanese, and she knew quite well what I was growing, and when she heard, she came by and had me follow her to her backyard, where I was thrilled to see larger versions of my potted baby herbs sprawling over the landscape, mostly in place of a lawn. “You going to cook with yours?” she asked me, her dark eyes twinking.
“I aim to, ma’am,” I answered.
Nodding, she pointed to the back gate that opened into the alleyway. “Until yours grow and get big, you come here and pick–just come through that gate, anytime of day, and I won’t mind. I have enough for the whole neighborhood, if they only knew how to use it.” She rolled her eyes, and snorted. “So, I share with you, eh?”
Mrs. Abdella had been the terror of the neighborhood kids for years, threatening many curses upon any child that dared think of opening that back gate or even stepping a toe on her lawn, so I felt rather as if the Wicked Witch had just transformed into The Herb Fairy in front of me, and instead of flapping her apron and screaming imprecations in a couple of languages, was smiling at me as her gnarled fingers stroked her plants lovingly.
Needless to say, when Grandpa loaded us down with vegetables that summer, as he always did, and we distributed bags anonymously to the neighbors, I made sure that Mrs. Abdella’s bag had lots of extra tomatoes, squash and eggplant, and I always left it at her back door, with a smiley-face drawn on the bag with magic marker.
Over the years, I have made gardens in the most unlikely of places.
In the last house I shared with Morganna’s father, I made a garden in a foot and a half wide strip of hardpan that stood between the house and the curb of the alleyway it fronted. It was the width of the house–about twenty feet or so, and was nothing but baked subsoil, in which only dandelions and thistle could grow. When Morganna was about five months old, I remember sitting on the porch with her, surrounded by asphalt and concrete, looking across the alley at the middle school I had attended years ago, with the brick building and chain-link fence looking prison-like, and being utterly despondant, as I longed for the sight of green. I looked down the street jealously at the wee, postage-stamp sized yards of the row of apartments that made up the little working-class to poor neighborhood, and wished I had just that much room. What I could plant in it!
Well, what I had was that depressing strip of baked dirt.
I ended up calling Mom, and after saving up my money, I had her bring her digging tools, and take me to the nursery, where I bought cow manure, topsoil and a small bag of gravel. And with a pick and shovel, I rooted all of that hardpan out, sweating like a pig, and cursing like a sailor while Mom kept Morganna occupied. I grubbed about two feet down, and then treated the resulting trench as if it were a long porchbox. I sprinkled gravel in the bottom for drainage, and then mixed the manure and topsoil together, and shovelled it in.
That was the first day, and in subsequent days, Mom and I planted every kind of culinary and scented herb we could find. She got so into the project she bought all of the plants and gave me a bunch of her old terra cotta flower pots so we loaded up the porch, too. We planted morning glory seeds in the back, so they clambered up the porch railings to the porch roof, and made a spot of shade to cool the glare from the alley. Dill, bergamot, mint and oregano stood tall and regal in the back, with thyme and creeping chammomile spilling over the curb. In the middle, basil, rosemary, Greek oregano and lemon balm grew in profusion, while at the corners, chives stood watch, thier pale purple blossoms nodding in every breeze. Nasturtiums bloomed where the thyme hadn’t spread yet, and borage’s sky-blue flowers cooled me with the scent of cucumber. Pots of lavender and more rosemary lined the steps, while scented geraniums stood sentry along the porch rail.
By midsummer, it was beautiful. Everything grew in grand profusion, tangling and twining around each other as I applied Gram’s principles of crowding out weeds in a porchbox to a grand scale. My cooking improved immensely, since I could just run outside and pick handfuls of whatever herb struck my fancy, and when I nursed Morganna, I could go without a shawl, because no one could see past the screen of morning glories that tumbled over the porch to the roof, and cascaded back down in a curtain of green heart-shaped leaves and sky-blue blossoms. The smell of baking asphalt was covered by the scent of rich earth and green and growing things, and in the evening, when I would strap Morganna to my back and tend the garden, the neighbors would stop and talk, marvelling at the transformation of that depressing squat house that sat crooked on its foundation, to a magical cottage covered with a verdant cloak.
Since then, I have gardened in boxes, crates and pots, in plots of earth large and small, and I have a few observations.
One–I despise the American obsession with perfectly clipped, tidy green lawns. A more wasteful, stupid preoccupation with perfection I cannot imagine, and a worse use for a good bit of land I cannot fathom. The amount of petrochemicals poured out in the form of fuel for noisy, air-polluting lawnmowers and trimmers, in the form of fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide in the creation and maintenance of a wide expanse of perfectly manicured green grass is horrendous.
I think that Americans would be better off getting rid of lawns and planting other stuff in thier place. Preferably some vegetables, fruits and herbs, but I wouldn’t ever hold it against someone for planting flowers. The problem with my wish is that gardens require tending, while lawns, once established only require mowing, which now, one can do sitting down, with little to no effort at all.
But look at how much local, sustainable food could be grown, even in a small yard. And think of how good it would taste!
A second observation is this–gardening creates community–something that is lacking in many American neighborhoods today.
But, it is true. I have never had so much luck meeting neighbors as when I am engaged in gardening. People are drawn to plants, and the cultivation thereof. Many people regard the ability to grow plants well almost as some sort of magical gift, and will stop and ask about it. The colors, scents and if you grow vegetables or fruits and share them, flavors, of a garden make people slow down and want to talk. And talk is good–it is the first step in creating bonds of fellowship that grow into a real community feeling, which is necessary for humanity. We are not meant to live in isolation, but instead, in groups–that is what we evolved to do.
My third and final observation is that gardening creates kinship with the rest of nature–and that is something that is also sorely lacking in the urban and suburban word of modern America. While some gardeners rail against nature in the form of deer eating their tulips, others are enchanted by the nesting habits of wrens or the appearance of butterflies in the echinacea in the morning and the fluttering of moths near the same flowers at night. Learning to work with the natural world–the world of which we humans are a part, no matter how hard we try to ignore or deny that fact by living in air-conditioned homes and driving in closed cars to malls that are the very epitome of artifice–reforges the bond humanity must reclaim with the environment, if we are to reverse some of the damage we have done with pollution, overpopulation and soil depleting agricultural practices. Gardeners learn volumes of information that cannot be read in books or on blogs, that must be absorbed through the fingers, and toes, through the senses of sight, scent, taste, hearing and touch, that cannot be conveyed by mere words.
We humans grow roots when we garden, just as surely as the plants we lovingly tend do. We plant seeds in the earth and find seeds planted within ourselves, and as we watch our gardens grow, we, too, are made anew.
That is the principle of sustainability writ small, and in a person’s heart. Learning to live rooted to place, learning to live within the rhythyms and cycles of nature, learning to nurture life in all forms, are all lessons that a garden can teach us.
I write these words as I look out upon the expanse of our back lawn. Green swarths of grass cover a steep slope–too steep to till, and I dream. Next year, or the year after, that slope will be terraced, and the soil will be mixed with compost and manure, and our fingers will sink into it, learning the secrets that it holds. We will plant flowers, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in vast profusion, with glee, and watch as what was once just an unuseable hill grow into a place of fertile abundance.
And I can tend the herbs again, with a baby strapped to my back, with the sun on our faces and the breeze in our hair, and it will be good.
Oh, how can anyone prefer a lawn to that?
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.