Go Play in the Dirt

Go Play in the Dirt

In the heat of the growing season, my husband and I like to rattle off the list of foods on our dinner plate that we grew ourselves. It's often over half a dozen and some are so fresh they are still warm from the sun. It's an amazingly satisfying feeling, growing your own food, not to mention how delicious it tastes and how it has helped our wallets over the years -- what with canning, freezing and drying our surplus.
We began gardening 25 years ago, when we were newly married and poor. We didn't purchase a whole lot of gardening items--a few hand tools and sturdy fencing. As we gained experience and our income increased, the way we garden did not change much.
Lately, many newbie gardeners have been coming to my husband, Todd, the master gardener in the family, seeking advice on how to get started. He fears they are following a fad, for some think it is cool to be "green," and he worries they are buying into media propaganda.
Ads and infomercials lead our friends to think they need a rotary tiller to turn over their postage stamp size gardens, as well as miracle grow chemicals to make enormous veggies. They're led to believe that they need to buy sacks that hang from their porch rafters to grow tomatoes and bins that will burst forth with potatoes, as well as grow lights to get a jump on things. Todd tells them that a fancy rotating compost bin is not necessary- just a circle of chicken wire will do.
Accumulating stuff does not make a garden, he tells them. Some think that if they buy enough stuff, the garden will just materialize by magic. And if they accumulate things, they are accomplishing something. Todd says that they've got to stop spending money if they want to save money. Purchasing gardening gadgets somehow feels nobler than buying shoes, but it is the same monster wearing a different outfit.
Our grandparents signed up for this hobby back in the 1940's, when World War II was in full swing. Twenty million "Victory Gardens" were planted across the country in backyards, on apartment porches, anyplace that could fit a pot and a few plants and seeds. Our government requested it from its citizens, so the farm-raised produce could be shipped to our soldiers overseas. Americans rose to the occasion as part of the home effort, for they felt it was their national duty. Their harvest accounted for nearly one-third of all the vegetables consumed in the country.
Today, there is a new "war" effort that is bringing back the Victory Garden- the war on global warming. Planting a garden can drastically reduce the amount of pollution created when transporting food across the country. Our food moves an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table. Walking it from the backyard into the kitchen is a drastic difference. Planting, fertilizing, processing, and packaging that food also uses tremendous energy.
These are very noble reasons to take that spade and turn over your lawn. But most new gardeners are probably motivated to begin gardening because of their current economic woes. Shipping food burns through gasoline and this escalates food costs, which have gone through the roof in the last year. Growing your own seems like it ought to be an easy enough way to reduce spending. It is, but only if it is done the way our grandparents did it.
You really only need a few things: a hoe, a shovel, seeds, a lot of labor (you can't put seeds in the soil and two months later go out and harvest), and a little knowledge (a good gardening book). Start small. Plant a lettuce patch first, not corn. Don't try to start seeds indoors but buy small plants and transplant, at least until you get some experience. Remember that it's difficult to fit gardening into your schedule. You have to tend it when it needs tending. When the tomatoes are coming in, you have to process them.
Todd and I find the energy expended on labor is in direct proportion to the many benefits we reap. Gardening is about the joy of watching things grow and using your body to feel fit and strong. You can then save money by canceling that health club membership. It's having the fun of earning a new hobby. It's about the pleasure of eating healthy, wholesome, organic food. It's about connecting to a simpler life. And it's about knowing you are helping to fight global warming to allow our children to live.
Go play in the dirt.

Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania and has written 6 books about the outdoors. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service