Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The garden -- under glass

My summer garden so far! Right now it's just a collection of black plastic pots and youthful, if rather exuberant, seedlings, but this weekend they'll be coming home to spend some time in the cold frame before going out into the garden.

I started these back in March, when everything was cold and blowy, long before tomatoes and melons and squash and peppers should be out in the garden. I my climate, the highly variable Pacific Northwest, such neotropicals pretty much have to be started indoors if you want them to bear fruit. To succeed, plants started indoors need plenty of light. The average window won't do, even if it's south-facing.

A climate-controlled greenhouse is ideal, but rather over-budget for my garden. So now, shall I confess? I borrowed a greenhouse:

Over on the right are the glass shelves my plants are on. This is the greenhouse on the roof of the building where I teach. Nice, huh? I figure I should use the resources that are at hand, and that was one resource very much at hand!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Arugulence

Dahlings, haven't you heard? All this digging in the dirt... er, soil, mixing in manur... er, quality organic plant enhancements, and growing vegetab... er, hoity-toity organic produce, is so terribly faddish these days that it's only for Hollywood celebs and something us ordinary mortals can safely ignore?

Yeah, I didn't get that memo, either.

Maureen Dowd, however, in an editorial about Alice Waters, comments on a growing backlash coming from certain segments of our society against the rising popularity of backyard vegetable gardens. They're fads, you see. People falling for this silly organic stuff. The realm of both chic, elitist yuppies in search of fashionable greens and aging hippies who can't forget the 60's still piddling around in their among the weeds and the weed in their back yards.

Mere arugulence, y'see.

Strange. I grew up in a family where gardens were for saving money and for growing fresh, healthy produce that produced healthy (and sometimes fresh) kids. My parents were born during the Depression, and my grandparents gardened their way through those hard years as a means of getting by.

To dismiss gardening as a mere elitist fad, as arugulence, is a slap in the face of every frugal family that managed to feed itself by getting a little dirt under their nails.

What ever happened to the American kitchen garden? It was crushed under the oncoming steamroller of Consumerism of the 50s, which was driven by a distaste for the scrimping, saving, and doing without of the Depression and the war years. Back alleys disappeared in the new suburbs, front yards were given over to driveways and a tidy facade, and the back yard became not a service entrance and a place for the kitchen garden, but the new outdoor living area.

In recent years, several forces have contributed to the rise in vegetable gardening. One is a growing movement against lawns for ecological reasons: lawns are expensive to maintain both economically and ecologically. Another is a slight but increasing recognition that suburbs can only grow so much and farmlands shrink so much, as suburbs sprawl out over rich farmland, before there isn't enough farmland to feed all the people in those houses. It only makes sense to let some of the farmland that is now suburb give back. Another factor is the recession that we've been falling into for the last couple of years, the full brunt of which we're finally feeling.

As we hunker down for the worst, people are more and more interested in learning survival skills: gardening, spinning, knitting, and the like. Whether we need these skills for survival now isn't the issue. It's about knowing you could grow your food, raise some hens, and knit your own sweater from wool you've spun if you had to that brings a little comfort. And for some people clutching their pink slips and wondering how they'll get through until the next job turns up, that backyard veggie garden may be the means of feeding the kids and giving them something interesting to do all summer.

Arugulence? I think not.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Oh, noes! Organic gardening threatens the American Way!

Or so the Mid America Croplife Association would have it. As you've probably heard by now, Michelle Obama has taken a page out of the life story of First Families of a century ago and is having fresh produce grown on the White House grounds in an organic vegetable garden. Backyard gardeners nationwide are grinning. Vegetable gardens are back in fashion again for multiple reasons, including economics, health, environmental awareness, an interest in a locavore lifestyle, or simply because they want tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, not the flabby imitations we're greeted with all winter at the supermarket.

But wait! Not so fast! According to a letter sent from MACA to Mrs. Obama, the White House veggie garden could be the beginning of a dangerous trend! If people farm all their own food individually, well, it could be the downfall of our society! Better to let the professionals take care of the farming with their superior technology. Or something like that.

Like the only choices are "grow it all yourself on a small farm" or "grow nothing?" Let's take some of their claims apart and see what they're made of. I already posted most of this response on one of the forums on Ravelry, so a few readers may have seen this.

Many people, especially children, don't realize the extent to which their daily lives depend on America's agricultural industry. For instance, children are unaware the jeans they put on in the morning, the three meals eaten daily, the baseball with which they play and even the biofuels that power the school bus are available because of America's farmers and ranchers.

Yes! True! Absolutely true! And exactly the reason why kids should be in the backyard happily digging in their own gardens! If I had my way, the prerequisite for my biology class would be to spend a summer growing an organic garden and observing the microwildlife that inhabits it. Then we'd all have a concrete, common point to start with when we have discussions of ecology, diversity, and the like. As it is, we have students like the one who, when asked, "So why don't the cells in the onion have chloroplasts? Where does the bulb part of the onion grow?" replied, "I don't know. I've never seen an onion tree." This is a college course, mind you. We as Americans are so far removed from our food sources that the resulting ignorance about our food is appalling. Even my biology majors, when shown a stalk of broccoli and asked what part of the plant it was, couldn't recognize flower buds when they saw them -- except a couple of them who had grown broccoli in their own gardens and knew what happened if they didn't cut the head before the buds burst.

Agriculture is the largest industry in America generating 20% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Individuals, family partnerships or family corporations operate almost 99% of U.S. farms.

And they're threatened if people grow a few tomatoes and some fresh lettuce on the back porch? Really? Wow. I think this letter says more about the industrial food complex than all of Michael Pollan's books put together.

Today, an average farmer produces enough food to feed 144 Americans who are living longer lives than many of their ancestors.

Are we hinting here that it's because of chemical-based agriculture that people are living longer? Because one doesn't necessarily follow the other -- little factors like, oh, indoor plumbing, clean municipal water supplies, and advances in medicine just might have something more to do with that.

Technology in agriculture has allowed for the development of much of what we know and use in our lives today. If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?

The rise in influence of American culture in these areas began well before chemical-based agriculture, when many more people were living on family farms. So what are we saying here? Pesticides make us better artists and engineers? Farmers are ignorant slobs who don't contribute to the arts and sciences so let's have fewer of them doing more with bigger tractors and more chemicals? Huh? This statement really needs to be thought through, because it doesn't flatter our American farmers at all.

We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents. The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens, certainly not a garden of sufficient productivity to supply much of a family's year-round food needs.

Well, heavens to Betsy, so few of us can grow a garden large enough to supply all the produce we need to feed us for a year, so let's not garden at all! What a pitiful argument! It's not an either-or situation by any means. Our choices aren't limited to "grow all your own food" and "grow none of your own food." You can grow veggies in a tub on your apartment balcony and devote just a few minutes a day to the operation if you want to.

Much of the food considered not wholesome or tasty is the result of how it is stored or prepared rather than how it is grown.

This, after the whole tomato recall hysteria? And the spinach recall affair? Food handling begins in the field and does affect produce quality. This is true of both organic (what used to be "traditional") farming and "conventional" (or "chemical") farming.

There's one other factor that's not being considered here: the variety that is grown. Most commercial varieties are selected for their shipping and storing qualities, not for their flavor and "wholesomeness." Since most Americans have been raised on plastic strawberries grown out of season in Chile and shipped to the U.S., too few of us have known what a real, warm-from-the-sun, fresh-from-the-vine, peak-of-ripeness strawberry even tastes like. Waxy, flabby tomatoes in the produce section can't hold a candle to a fresh-picked (but tender-skinned) Brandywine or Cherokee Purple, but who is going to know if they don't grow their own? The heirloom varieties aren't sold in the produce section. Lucky are those with a farmer's market nearby where heirloom veggies can still be found. And as for asparagus, if it's not fresh-cut from my own garden, don't even offer it to me. I'm spoiled that way.

Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical.

More economical than what? Be specific. I hope they're not hinting that it's more expensive to grow a vegetable garden. Of course it all depends on how you go about vegetable gardening. We don't all have to grow The $64 Tomato as one book title proclaims. Some of us can exercise more sense.

Local and conventional farming is not mutually exclusive. However, a Midwest mother whose child loves strawberries, a good source of Vitamin C, appreciates the ability to offer California strawberries in March a few months before the official Mid-west season.

I won't comment twice on the quality and flavor of those berries, not when I have much better varieties in my own yard. I won't even begin the argument about eating with the season, and that there are other sources of Vitamin C besides strawberries shipped from afar and stored so long that their vitamins have already begun to degrade. All I'll say is that this is still no argument against growing a backyard garden. Think of how much more Junior would appreciate those berries if he grew them himself in a big pot on the back porch -- and how much more he would learn about where his food comes from.

Look, if putting a veggie garden in behind the White House and encouraging people to grow a little food themselves is a huge gigantic threat to the farming industry, the industry has bigger troubles than anyone realized. Nor are its issues going to be solved by discouraging people from encouraging others to garden and depend totally on supermarket produce. Michelle Obama isn't saying, "Hey, everyone should grow all their own food instead of buying food from the store." We can't all raise chickens, milk cows, and orchards, not in the fringe of grass and shrubs around your average McMansion. But for much of my life I've seen good farmland bulldozed and covered with housing developments, because as every builder knows, building on nice, flat land is easier than building on unfarmed slopes. We've lost acres and acres of prime farmland to suburban sprawl. Isn't it only fitting that at least a little of that land should give back in the form of a home vegetable garden?