Good Dirt: The Family Garden

My wife and I are wannabe gardeners.  We would someday love to avoid purchasing fruits and vegetables in the spring and summer.  We would grow our own abundance, know the sources and procedures, and allow for little transit from Earth to table.  Apartment living, where the only stretch of tillable land behind the building abuts four garbage cans and a dirt pit that easily turns to mud, has not allowed us many opportunities to grow food ourselves.  We’d resorted to using our stoop in years past.

Summer 2009: All of our porch plants died without bearing fruit.

Summer 2010: The squirrels ate all the blossoms off our porch plants.

Summer 2011: Squirrels, heat, lack of sun.  A shriveled cucumber and one small pepper.  We sent home our pots.

Summer 2012: A family garden.  Three radishes grown from seed already harvested!

This year, we were offered a four-by-eight bed at our friends’ home.  Since they were planting this year, they provided all the infrastructure: fencing, raised beds, even the watering.  We felt it important to get our baby daughter outside and interested in plants and veggies as early as possible.  Even I, with my limited palate, have promised to eat tomatoes and eggplants we produce this year.  There’s something different and wonderful when you grow your own!

Recently, we flew to California for a wedding.  Imbued with Pacific air and a few dips into the ocean, I found myself craving more and more natural things – the basics that we often shuffle off our plate early so that more decadence can arrive.  On our flight home, I scarfed down a bag of cucumbers and celery I had prepared for the weekend, wanting more and more as I ate them.  So fresh, crispy, and juicy.  Upon returning, I have stripped down my diet even more – enjoying berries, stone fruits, and even some watermelon – while putting aside the heavier fare that we cannot seem to avoid even as the seasons progress.

The fruits we’ve eaten have not been the fruits of our own labor, however.  They were store bought, and though organic, they have that mass-produced and well-shipped taste to them.  At the farmers market this week, in fact, I was so thrilled to find local blueberries that I splurged for two boxes.  The fragrance and taste of freshly picked produce just cannot be found in the grocery store.  Note for our next garden: grow blueberries!  Grow all the berries!

Tomatoes aside, we have no fruit growing this year.  We’re happy to have our radishes coming up and what looks to be a bumper crop of cucumbers on the march.  We’ve started slowly, because we have little experience as gardeners.  In my own family, my grandfather kept a garden.  I was too young the last time he tended plants at my parents’ house to glean any techniques from him.  I do remember the sights and smells though.  The only word that describes the phenomenon: fresh.  Fresh has life to it.  Fresh is clean.  Fresh lets you know where your food has come from, since it just walks from the backyard to the kitchen.

We’ve been looking for “fresh” and would like to take our money and effort out of a food system that exploits that which is proper.  The food industry has degraded itself in the name of profit, so conventional produce now comes sprayed with toxic chemicals that leech into groundwater and could harm the grossly underpaid and possibly imperiled workers who tend the farm fields.  Or, organic producers have a slew of paperwork to tend which helps bump up the prices of food that is grown closer to its natural way of being.  The workers are likely exploited still, but they don’t have to worry as much about toxicity.  Often, the produce travels thousands of miles to reach us, meaning it is hardly fresh once we have it on a plate or pop it into our mouths.  Large monocultures, too, create a sameness in taste and look that eventually could harm the soil.  The sameness bores the Earth the same way it bores us.

Open your best carton of industrial organic’s strawberries.  Organic stores, conventional supermarkets, and our local co-op seem to carry only one brand.  Pluck out one strawberry and take it with you to your farmers market or a farm next week.  Do a look, smell, and taste test.  I guarantee that the local strawberry might be smaller, but it will offer a fuller experience for your senses.

Life is about experiences, the ones we enjoy physically rather than the visceral ones we get from ever-present entertainment.  Let’s not confuse the two and let’s add more actual experiences into our lives.  We’re doing that through our garden this year.  We really didn’t know what we were doing.  The chamomile and fennel don’t look like they’re going to join the cukes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and radishes.  Our marigolds are coming up to help protect from pests, but the oregano and basil seem to be struggling.  It’s a work in progress, but we’d be nowhere if we decided not to have the experience.

Today, some salads.  Next year?  Maybe a summer spent away from the produce section altogether.

Here are some helpful websites for those looking to freshen up their plates:

  • Mother Earth News: Blogs on planting schedules and a bunch of how-tos.
  • Urban Organic Gardener: Proper growing in any space (we probably could have used this site the last few years).
  • Edible Schoolyard: Get the kids involved!  Since this is Alice Waters’ baby, you know it will be properly grown.
  • Earthing Institute: Garden barefooted and see what the E.I. notes will happen for you as you “Earth.”

Before two weeks ago, I had never grown anything from seed.  Now I have.  My hands were in that dirt.  And since we use organic principles and practices, it was good dirt indeed.

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