Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why I Garden

When I was a boy, my Grandpa had a huge garden in his suburban backyard every year. I remember corn, beans, tomatoes and potatoes growing in the plot that occupied what seemed like a quarter of the yard. I remember him having me climb the fruit tree (was it pear or peach or plum?) in that backyard and passing down the ripe fruit that he then gently put in the large wicker basket. On special days (probably when the afternoon thunderstorms rolled through, eliminating the possibility of any further work outside), I got to help Nana deal with that morning's harvest. She canned, froze, and pickled things from his garden. She made pies and Grandpa made ice cream, and we snacked on fruit and vegetables that had just been picked.

My family didn't always have a garden, but I remember that for a few years before my Dad built the big shed, we had a garden. All I remember from that garden is the corn, beans, squash, and radishes. I am sure we grew cucumber and lettuce and tomatoes and peppers, but maybe that is just my adult bias (I can't imagine a vegetable garden without those things!) I recall crawling between the stalks of corn, weeding, and bringing in armfuls of beans that my sister and I would then string while sitting on the back porch, throwing the ends to the dogs.

By the time I was in high school, the only gardens I knew were flower gardens in everyone's yards. I grew up in Denver, and by the 1980's xeriscapes were common. Although every yard had a lawn, people were encouraged to plant native plants to save on water consumption. By this time, home-grown produce was a special treat, but the bulk of our produce was purchased at King Soopers and was generally frozen. When I went to college, in Nebraska, I was amazed at all the farmland. Endless miles of milo, soybeans, and wheat. There were long miles along I-80 that stank of pigs and cows. Or at least their feces. At times, I viewed the drive from Denver to Hastings as nothing but seven hours of industrial waste. And none of it looked edible.

In Chicago, in the early 1990's, I worked at a great cafe that is still around, Uncommon Ground. The cafe had a fairly set menu, but soups and quiches revolved around fresh produce the owner would bring from the farmers' markets in Western Michigan and northern Indiana. It was there I really learned how to cook with fresh produce, and the absolute joy of eating in season. The fresh taste and variety of the produce got me hooked. I learned how to use fresh herbs. I finally understood that a tomato from the store in December is nothing like an August tomato.

Ever since then, I have grown plants. Maybe it was only a basil plant on my kitchen window sill. Maybe it was berries in our dark Chicago backyard. Tomatoes on the front porch in Denver. A yard full of veggies in the Baker District of Denver, and all the meals shared with friends in that wonderful backyard in the ghetto!

I haven't bought a tomato at a grocery store in years. It just isn't worth the money. If they're not in season, I buy canned. Luckily, this year, we didn't even have to buy many cans, as we only recently ran out of tomatoes I canned last summer and fall. In the freezer, we still have tomatoes, ready for a soup or sauce. We are still eating frozen peppers from last year's garden. Ground, dried peppers as spice. Pickled peppers on sandwiches. I know the quality of much of the produce I eat. I know there is nothing genetically-modified about it. And the taste is unbeatable.

There is no going back. In fact, now that we grow a lot of the vegetables (and a good portion of fruit) we eat, our goal is to grow more. Eventually we would like chickens and goats. Maybe sheep and pigs. Already much of our meat was raised and slaughtered locally. I want my food to be as pure as possible. Grown locally, without pesticides and without chemicals. I know I can't meet this goal perfectly. But I will do what I can. It is more work. Today, on a cool and rainy day, I spent a few hours in my seed room. Transplanting cabbages. Starting some late-arriving peppers (Purple Jalapeño, something I know I couldn't find anywhere else) and basil. Already, my garden takes up at least an hour a day, with watering in the morning and evening. And weeding the raised beds where the peas are growing among spinach and lettuce and radishes. And come fall, when the harvest is in full gear, it can be exhausting trying to pick and then process all of that produce. On those days I remind myself how amazing this work is going to taste on a snowy January day, when our dinner tastes as fresh as it would in September.

This is why I garden. It is food for my body, work for my body. It is meals shared with friends. It is a continuing fight against corporate ownership of our food. It is knowing the food I eat and serve to my friends is truly healthy, and not laden with chemicals, plastics, and poisons. It is feeling part of the local food movement. Every time I work in the garden, I learn something new. It is becoming aware of the affects that weather, climate, soil, and animals have on our food. It is the memory of the gardens of my childhood.

The pictures below: 1.) Purple Jalapeño seeds in soil blocks. I didn't cover them as I read that exposure to light will speed germination. 2.) A newly-transplanted cabbage plant. 3.) A flat of tomatoes in soil blocks, climbing every day!

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