This is a world of action, and not for moping and groaning in. ~ Charles Dickens
It's Blog Action Day, and the theme this year is poverty. This got me pondering the connection between gardening and poverty. In a world where increasingly "gardening" is something the professionals do while the homeowner is a way, and in some posh districts, the nurseries refrain from referring to their customers as "gardeners," where is the connection between the garden and the poor and hungry of this world?
The obvious connection is via the kitchen garden. Ever since the first creative person poked a seed in the earth in the understanding that a useful plant would emerge from it -- I picture women who had been observing waste middens and the food plants that grew from them, or children playing with their food as children will do -- people have been gardening as a means of staving off hunger. The coleworts grown alongside peasant cottages in Europe, kitchen gardens of the great estates, maize fields of the native people of the Americas, rice paddies in Asia, wheat and barley fields and date palms of the Middle East, all yielded food in concentrations that could be stored, sometimes for years, to fend off starvation in times of famine.
Here in the U.S., the kitchen garden long held prominence in farms and later in suburban back yards. In Colonial times, the old-style square bed gardening learned from England was favored as a means of growing useful potherbs and medicinal herbs in a small space. As European settlers moved westward into the wide open spaces, the kitchen gardens expanded into plowed plots with the now-familiar long, straight rows that the young 'uns had to hoe between to keep the weeds down.
As people moved to the suburbs, they often gave up their rural habits, but the habit of frugality still held sway. While the front yard was more often than not a showpiece, with manicured lawns and flowering shrubs, the back yard was entirely utilitarian. Deliveries of milk, ice, and groceries came to the back door via the back alley. Clotheslines spanned the back yard, and the kitchen garden held court in a sunny corner.
The Great Depression led to a surge in gardening, even among apartment dwellers. Railroads looked the other way as people plowed up strips of land alongside the tracks to grow vegetables. Golf courses gave way to the plow to allow community gardens. Food production increased as more and more people found ways to feed themselves through gardening, and production continued with Victory gardens during the second World War.
The post-war years introduced new ideas about disposability, pre-packaged covenience foods, and consumerism as a way of life. "Citizens" became "consumers." The frontyard-backyard arrangment was turned around as new housing developments eliminated alleys to cram more ranch-style houses into smaller spaces. Backyards became the living space, groomed and pampered, with a lawn for kids to play on and maybe a pool to frolic in. The front of the house now held the garage entrance and became the place to set out the garbage cans and receive deliveries. In a new era of luxury and convenience, the backyard garden began its decline.
By the 1980's, gardening was at an all-time low. But along with economic, ecological, and energy crises of the 90's and the "aughts" came a resurgence in gardening -- and not just decorative gardening, either. Vegetable gardens are making a comeback. Community gardens are bringing fresh produce to inner cities. And with the generous nature that so many gardeners exhibit, food banks are also benefitting.
With the current economic crisis, food banks are feeling the pinch, and gardeners are pitching in by supplying surplus produce. While the ubiquitous zucchini may get looks of askance, there's plenty of produce that gardeners can contribute from their bounty.
The Garden Writers Association started the Plant a Row for the Hungry program, encouraging gardeners to do just that -- plant an extra row to help feed the hungry. Currently, about 25 million people in the U.S. are in danger of going hungry or seek emergency food. There are over 70 million gardeners in the U.S. Do the math -- if all 70 million planted an extra row of corn, an extra tomato plant, an extra squash vine, imagine all that produce arriving at the food backs, ready to feed people in need.
Even better are programs that teach impoverished people to garden for themselves. The working poor may be fortunate enough to own houses, where backyards can be converted into gardens. Renters and apartment dwellers may have access to community gardens -- or may organize to begin one. The American Community Gardening Association has resources to assist the development and maintenance of community gardens and to develop sustainable communities.
Because really it comes down to that -- sustainability. It's not just about feeding the people we have. It's about making sure that we can continue to feed and house people in the future. Teaching people to garden can teach them about how the ecosystem works and how to value the earth as a provider of resources. It can also teach everyone valuable lessons about the work required to feed us, lest we sit back in our comfortable middle-class homes, munching Crunchy Munchies from a box while watching the television, and forget the labor and ecological impact involved in bringing those Crunchy Munchies to us.