This time of year, most Americans who love to garden, can’t. It might be planting season in southern Florida or Texas, but for the rest of us, it’s dreaming and planning (only). We might not have dirt under our fingernails, but we can’t get it out of our heads!
So, it’s fitting that when I ask gardeners I why they garden, the first thing they talk about, without exception, is how they love it.
“I have been dreaming of a garden for my entire adult life,” says Megan Lightell. She was finally able to make the dream a reality when she and her husband bought a home in the suburbs. “The day we closed on our house, we didn’t measure for drapes or choose paint swatches—we built our compost bins and installed our cold frames!”
She spent winter nights that first year poring over seed catalogs and diagramming garden layouts. I guess people who love to garden can garden in the off-season, even if it’s only in their minds (as most gardeners already know).
Speaking for myself, it’s more than enjoyment. It’s restorative. I can come from a difficult day of bank negotiations, selfish vendors or solving tough customer service problems and completely rejuvenate in a few minutes in the garden. Some people go to the fitness club or their psychiatrist to work out their angst. I go to the garden!
I think the “work” of gardening is so satisfying because it’s so immediately productive. There’s few things as rewarding as pulling a tomato plant sucker or crushing a potato bug. One minute it’s a problem. In another it’s resolved! There are very few places in this complicated world where you can do anything and see the results so quickly. You even get to have that heart-warming sense of accomplishment over and over (because there’s rarely just one of either of those two little pests!)
Besides the personal sense of accomplishment, however, there are other rewards.
Safety – The problem with store bought food is that you can’t be sure of its bonafides. Small family farmers have told me that the latest version of organic labeling requirements were practically written by the corporate agriculture machine. And, I’ve noticed lately that labeling seems more and more difficult to understand. Is it just me or are they trying to make it more opaque?
I often look at the picture perfect fruit lining store shelves. I know I can’t grow fruit that perfect looking without using what seem like too-large-to-be-safe doses of chemicals. How can they be any different?
I’m also bothered by how inexpensive it seems. I know enough about retail to know that at least 20% to 30% of the retail price goes for retail overhead and transportation. So, how can the farmer who grew it possibly make enough to pay their mortgage, labor and fuel bill while still doing the work required to produce safe, chemical-free food?
“It is important to know where you food comes from and what has been done to it or what stuff has been sprayed on it or used in the soil. Most people are too far from their food,” says Marci Blubaugh.
Quality – When it comes to produce, “fresh” is synonymous with “quality.” But, in a world where “Fresh” with a capital F has become a part of so many brand names, it’s largely lost its meaning.
I still remember listening to a Cleveland Indians radio broadcast many years ago. Long-time “voice of the Indians” broadcaster Herb Score was talking about how a fan had sent him tomatoes from their garden. He said he couldn’t understand why someone would do all that work when tomatoes were so cheap at the local grocery. I thought to myself that only a man who has never tasted a fresh tomato would ever say that.
It saddens me that we’ve lost touch with what real quality fruit and vegetables taste like. My taste buds don’t lie, I can tell that the “vine-ripened” imprinted on store-bought produce don’t mean what they say. I know this: Fruit picked “ripe enough to travel” isn’t the same as fruit picked “ripe enough to eat.”
Cost – Back in the 1970’s, it seemed like most everyone gardened. Why? Because they had to do it to make ends meet. Over the last 2-3 decades, I believe the typical share of the average household income spent on food has steadily fallen. In other words, food is cheaper now in comparison to our paychecks than it used to be. As a result, not many people garden for the cost savings any longer.
But, there’s no denying that food raised in your garden is cheaper than cheap. It’s free. A little less time watching TV or reading the paper is the only price you pay!
Security – There’s nothing that makes you feel safer or more ready for an uncertain future than a growing garden. Knowing that you can produce your own food ties into an American tradition of self-reliance and pioneering spirit. This is a nation of immigrants, a nation of people who took their future into their own hands and stepped out of the common mold. Somehow, whether through our DNA or our upbringing, I believe that desire to make our own way still rings true. And, gardening is a great way to connect to that great value!
Variety - The sad fact is that the produce you find in your local grocery store was grown mainly for appearance, ease of handling and durability. Taste is a factor, but it’s far down the list. That’s why heirloom seeds like those from Seed Savers Exchange are catching on. There’s a host of “lost flavors” we can never know unless we grow it ourselves. That’s why my Facebook Friend John Juhasz wrote, “Good luck finding Purple Russian tomatoes or Country Gentleman sweet corn at the supermarket.” He says many heirloom fruit and vegetables just taste better.
There’s one final reason that’s a little harder to put your finger on. From a young age, we dragged our children out into the garden with us. At first, they were just in the way. But, with a big dose of patience and tolerance for less than perfect technique, we eventually turned them both into gardeners. At some point, they magically caught the desire to create that special beauty and peace that can only be found in a garden.
When my son went to college, he got national media attention for his dorm room garden. We were proud of him, but that sense of pride was nothing compared to the values, relationships and unwashed cucumbers we shared over the years in our garden.