Our parents saw supermarkets and processed foods as the height of convenience. But nothing is more convenient than grocery shopping in the backyard. A vegetable garden offers the best defense against rising food prices, the most environmentally sound way to eat, and better exercise than any gym. It will turn anyone into a wonderful cook, since nothing tastes more vibrant than homegrown. And it can take less time every week than a trip to the supermarket.
In Grow the Good Life, Michele Owens, an amateur gardener for almost two decades, makes an entertaining and persuasive case for vegetable gardens. She starts with two simple but radical ideas: Growing food on a small scale is easy, and it is absurdly rewarding.
With her wry, funny, and accessible approach, Owens helps beginning gardeners overcome obstacles that keep them from planting a few seedlings every spring. She explains why dirt isn't dirty; the health benefits of growing one's own food; and that vegetable gardens are not antithetical to the frantic pace of modern life, but simple and undemanding if intelligently managed.
Grow the Good Life is not just another how-to. Instead, it will teach you the true fundamentals of vegetable growing: how to fit a garden into your life and why it's worth the trouble.
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Why Don't Americans Garden?
On March 20, 2009, the First Lady of the United States did something unprecedented in post-World War II America. She picked up a spade and broke ground for a vegetable garden at the White House. Clearly, this was more of a cultural statement than a physical challenge she'd be taking on personally. Mrs. Obama's attire for the groundbreaking--what appeared to be a dry-clean-only wool sweater and wool pants tucked into fashiony motorcycle boots--was so inappropriate for shovel-work, it made gardeners everywhere smile. But as a statement, that White House garden is just superb. Somebody has to say it: Growing vegetables is a perfectly sensible part of running a household, even a household as elegant as the Obamas'. This is something that clearly has not occurred to most of our countrymen.
In fact, I almost never go for a walk or for a drive without being struck by how many big, sunny yards I see and how very few vegetables I see in them. This is true in rural Washington County, New York, where I lived for a dozen years and where I now have a small weekend house and a big vegetable garden. It's certainly true in the small, lively city of Saratoga Springs, New York, where I lead my weekday existence.
And it's trebly true in suburban Bergen County in the Garden State of New Jersey, where I grew up. Drive down Franklin Turnpike from Ramsey to Allendale on a sunny day in early May, and you will be assaulted by an insane exuberance of lilacs, ornamental cherries, magnolias, and crabapples in bloom--not to mention the cheerfully clashing colors of their flowers. The suburban yards there are lush; the bushes, trees, and grass all green and healthy; the soil clearly excellent; yet in many years of visiting my family, I have stumbled across only two vegetable gardens.
The first was a small one next to an unkempt old house that suggested both an elderly occupant and economic necessity; the second, also small, is maintained by my sister-in-law Na, who is Thai and a professional cook. Unlike her fellow suburbanites, Na comes from a gardening culture, knows it's no big deal to stick a few of her kids' favorite vegetables into the ground, and knows they taste better than what you can buy even in the fanciest supermarket. For years, she worked for organic grocer Whole Foods, but preferred her own vegetables even to what she could buy at a discount there.
Strangely enough, if you want to see vegetable gardens, you might do better in a big city like Detroit or Washington or Boston, where there are real grow-your-own-food movements in neighborhoods largely ignored by supermarket chains and activists who use community gardens to erase urban blight, as well as lots of hip young people who understand the glamour of working the soil.
The United States Department of Agriculture confirms how little backyard farming really occurs in America. It has records dating back to 1869 that consider the dollar value of homegrown food compared to total expenditures on food eaten at home. The last time the nation shopped the backyard for 20 percent of its food by dollar value was 1943. The basic pattern since has been steady decline, and today, we grow just a little more than 1 percent of the food we eat at home. Of course, 1 percent may be on its way to 2 percent, since seed companies have reported dramatically rising sales in recent years. But this is not yet enough of a revolution to satisfy me.
More about that later. First I want to address the why not question. Why did the backyard garden, once an important part of most households, nearly disappear by the early years of the 21st century?
Ask any non-gardener, and he or she will tell you it's because growing food is too hard--sweaty and time-consuming and tricky--the kind of thing nobody in his or her right mind would do once the supermarket was invented.
Actually, it's arguably just as sweaty, time-consuming, and tricky to navigate crowded roads in a car in order to arrive at some cavernous supermarket and push a cart around its miles of aisles a few times a week. And the supermarket is certainly a less pleasant experience.
I'd argue that the main reason we don't grow food is because our parents and grandparents didn't.
Sure, they patriotically tended their Victory Gardens during World War II, easing pressure on the food supply and allowing the government to feed the troops more cheaply. The USDA estimates that in 1943, 20 million Victory Gardens produced 40 percent of the country's fresh vegetables. My father, who grew up in the most urban way possible in Astoria, Queens--playing stickball in the streets and dragging a mattress out onto a fire escape on sweltering summer nights--vividly remembers working the Victory Garden at the Catholic school he attended as a class assignment.
But when the war was over, the culture actively turned against such humble labors. For people who grew up amidst the privations of the Great Depression, followed by the privations or outright horrors of war, nothing was more seductive than the idea of leaving the old ways behind.
My mother is a prime example. She grew up in Germany on a particularly charmless small farm in a particularly charmless small house--dark, low- ceilinged, and since the stalls are attached to the house, full of nasty flies and a powerful smell of manure. She also grew up at a moment when living on a farm did not mean you wouldn't nearly starve to death, since most of the food her parents produced was earmarked for Hitler's soldiers. My mother still shudders at the memory of nothing to eat but lard on stale bread and the atmosphere of terror as bombers whined overhead and the Gestapo staged unannounced inspections that threatened to have her father dragged away. It was not comparable in misery to what Jewish children were suffering at the same moment, but it was not blithe either.
The war ended when she was 12, and when she got the chance to go away to the city to school the next year, she took off like a rocket and never looked back. In her twenties, she came to New York City, and in her early thirties, moved to New Jersey, where she settled in suburban splendor, with a gold velvet couch, creamy wool wall-to-wall carpeting, and a leather- seated luxury car to convey her from place to place.
Though our first suburban house had a yard of almost 2 acres, including a sunny, flat spot perfect for a vegetable garden, my mother did not garden. I remember her going once, and just once, to pick up a bushel basket of manure at the last surviving dairy farm in our suburbanizing town because she wanted to grow some rhubarb. Though rhubarb is one of the most indestructible of edible plants, it barely lasted a year before she mowed it over. The manure may have finished the endeavor off. I think my mother's whole adult life has been about putting the greatest possible distance between herself and a shovelful of manure.
Even those people who spent World War II on the comparatively comfortable American home front were ready to begin anew when the war ended. They'd endured the Great Depression, when the country's poorest could be seen eating out of garbage cans. They'd had to adjust to life without their young men, who went off to war by the millions. After May of 1942, they'd had to adapt to food rationing, too, so the government had what it needed to supply its soldiers and sailors.
Of course, as Harvey Levenstein points out in his book Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, rationing hardly represented deprivation: Americans were asked to survive on about 2 1/2 £ds of meat per person per week, while the British got just a £d and the Russians almost no meat at all. And of course, thanks to the Victory Gardens, there was a bounty of fresh vegetables. My father tells me that his urban working- class family never lacked for anything during the war. If they didn't have a ration coupon for some food, it could easily be bought on the black market.
Nonetheless, since rationing inspired a black market, protests, hoarding, and conspiracy theories, it's clear that Americans at least felt deprived.
The deprivations of the war also included a severe housing shortage. Beginning in the early '40s--inspired, I am sure, by impending separation and the dangers the men would soon be facing--young couples began reproducing at a startling rate. There had been very little new housing built since the onset of the Great Depression, so by 1947, six million families were shoehorned into the households of relatives and friends, and more were struggling along in temporary housing or places that were absurdly small.
Since the GI Bill guaranteed low-interest loans on new homes, these young families exploded out of the cities into the suburbs by the millions as soon as developers could slap together the Capes and ranches to house them. Many of them now owned their first bit of ground that gave them a chance to grow their own food. Only they didn't.
The developers of the new suburban communities that sprang up to house these postwar families encouraged passivity towards the landscape in their customers. They installed not just the houses, streets, trees, and lawns, but the community gathering spaces as well, such as shops, playgrounds, parks, even churches. They also put in place the rules to enforce uniformity in this landscape, with the Levitts of Levittown fame micromanaging the landscape down to the point of prohibiting clotheslines and mowing any unmowed lawns long after the houses were sold--and sending their more slovenly homeowners the bill.
Though the homeowner's guide for the Pennsylvania Levittown includes pages and pages of micro-instructions for lawn and shrub care, vegetable gardens are never once mentioned. "Mow your lawn and remove weeds at least once a week between April 15th and November 15th," the guide demands. "Nothing makes a lawn--and a neighborhood--and a community--look shabbier than uncut grass and unsightly weeds."
The truth is that all this aesthetic consistency and shabbiness-prevention suited young American families just fine. They were not interested in scrabbling for a living with chickens in the backyard. The country had been scrabbling for two decades, and they were heartily sick of it. They wanted to move from air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned houses as clean as spaceships--to lead lives that were pristine and factory-made. Since World War II, America has defined progress as any development that holds the natural world at a genteel remove.
Since there was considerable money to be made off of people determined to have done for them things they once would have done for themselves-- including producing much of their own food--new businesses instantly sprang up to serve them. The self-service supermarket, which had been invented decades earlier, only really took off after the war. And what really characterized these supermarkets was the startling array of packaged "convenience foods" they were now selling, now that home refrigerators began to include a freezer compartment and a new car-based suburban life encouraged less frequent shopping and more reliance on the already preserved and prepared.
Of course, "convenience" was not a postwar invention. In the final volume of his brilliant intellectual history of America, The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Daniel J. Boorstin notes how many means of transporting and preserving food were invented or perfected here in America. By the mid-19th century, the railroads were being used to bring out-of-season produce to New York City. By 1858, Gail Borden had perfected the canning of condensed milk, inspired by pity for the Donner party, pioneers who were forced to eat their dead companions while snowed in for a winter in the Sierra Nevada. By 1881, Gustavus Franklin Swift's advances in refrigerated railroad cars allowed the shipment of dressed beef from Chicago to the Eastern cities even in the summer. And by the 1920s, Clarence Birdseye was working on a quick-freezing method for superior frozen food.
Boorstin characterizes this inventiveness in food preservation as one example of the relentless force of American democracy: "The flavor of life had once come from . . . the special taste and color of each season's diet. The American democracy of times and places meant making one place and one thing more like another by bringing them under the control of man."
It's the nature of our economy. Here in America, name any luxury--including the incomparable luxury of a fragrant strawberry in season--and some clever entrepreneur will eventually find a way to bring it to everybody at any moment.
Never mind that the strawberry may well have given up that fragrance in the process of being packaged, transported, and sold. Never mind that many convenience foods tasted horrible, so lifeless and colorless that by 1958, an arsenal of 704 chemicals was used to manipulate foods that had already been manipulated into pablum. But taste was never the point of convenience foods--clearly not.
It's questionable even whether time saved was the point: Is jarred mayonnaise really faster than the vastly tastier stuff that can be made in a blender in 30 seconds? Is a pancake mix really faster than throwing flour, eggs, milk, oil, and baking powder together in a bowl? Economist Valerie Ramey of the University of California at San Diego has found that per capita, the time adults spent on housework in the United States hardly altered at all during the 20th century, despite the explosion in labor- saving electric appliances and prepared foods. The time that before the war might have been spent gardening and cooking fresh foods, after the war was devoted to less life-affirming and creative pursuits like hauling one's car and one's tired ass to the market.
And certainly, money saved was not an argument for convenience foods over homecooked and homegrown. In Paradox of Plenty, Levenstein points out that by the 1930s, even in rural areas, processed factory foods were considered more desirable than local foods: " . . . Even those who could little afford them sacrificed to purchase them. Poor Appalachian farmers shunned tasty country hams in favor of water-logged canned ones; they sold homegrown vegetables to buy the brand-name canned variety."
Convenience foods stole a lot of flavor out of a lot of lives, not to mention the joyful experience of garden-making. But they did clearly offer something meaningful in return, or no one would have bought them: They made one part of the modern world. And that was why even the poorest farmers wanted to eat them. In a country made up of all kinds of outliers, from new immigrants to lonely farmers in lonely hollows, adopting national brands was a way of belonging.
Table of Contents
Introduction: What I've Hauled Out of the Garden ix
1 Why Don't Americans Garden? 1
Better Than Berkshire Hathaway Stock Bought in '65 24
If You Haven't Grown It, You Haven't Tasted It 44
Eternal Youth's Not in a Fountain, But in a Garden 69
5 The Soil
Why Dirt Isn't Dirty 84
Prettier Than Sod and Shrubs Any Day 113
7 The Kids
What They'll Take Out of the Garden 132
8 The Never-Ending Education
Why You'll Soon Be as Much of an Expert as Any Expert 150
How to Stay Adaptable in Uncertain Times 172
The Best Reason to Garden 189
Suggested Reading 201