I've always regarded urban ag fanatics as a strange species, to be dealt with carefully. These folks claim that urban farms, community gardens, and even backyard gardens will be our savior. I would look at my own life as an apartment dweller who had no idea how to garden and think that they must be crazy. I had tried growing herbs in pots a few times but it always resulted in utter failure. I would spend a lot of money on pots and soil and seeds and then... nothing. Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle made me wish I could garden, and even kind of ashamed that I couldn't. After my own book (Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do To Fix It
) came out, I joked in interviews that the only thing I grew was mold in my refrigerator. For somebody so passionate about sustainable, local food and the natural world, I was totally pathetic as a gardener. And if I - a college graduate and sustainable food and agriculture activist - couldn't figure out gardening - what are the chances that the rest of the nation could do it?
As it turns out, I can do it. And so can a large percent of Americans. During World War II, victory gardens produced 40 percent of the nation's produce. Backyard and urban gardening probably account for nowhere near that today, but - whether due to the economy or the rise in sustainable food activism or both - seed companies have boasted record sales for each of the last two summers. No doubt some people don't have a yard (or even space on a patio for some pots), and some people just plain don't have time. But if you have those two things, you can garden. And - as a new and totally addicted gardener - I think gardening can be a major part of transforming our food system to a more sustainable, just, and healthy one.
The gardening bug bit me a few months ago. I spent the second half of 2009 visiting farms and gardens around the country while on my book tour. I'd arrange for speaking gigs and book signings at night, reserving the days to visit farms and learn more about sustainable agriculture. When planning for a trip to Wisconsin, I reserved an entire day to make a pilgrimage to Milwaukee-based Growing Power
, an urban farm so successful that even President Clinton took notice. Visiting Growing Power was nothing less than a transformative experience. They turn free inputs like food waste into healthy, sustainable food, all on a mere two acres - and they do it year round in Milwaukee's cold climate. Growing Power is Milwaukee's last remaining farm but cities with a glut of foreclosed, empty properties have an opportunity now to repurpose city land for growing food. In fact, Detroit, of all places, is gaining recognition as a hub of urban agriculture
. Totally inspired by the Growing Power experience, I started up a worm bin when I got home.
A few months later, my life changed drastically. I moved in with my boyfriend and his two kids - into a rented house with a yard. My worms made the move with me. After conversations with my boyfriend and his daughter's Girl Scout leader, we made plans to take the girls to a local, organic nursery and for me to teach them how to make a worm bin. The girls were unruly and I wonder how much they actually learned from the visit to the nursery, but the trip was a turning point for me. As we finished our nursery tour, the owner of the nursery let each Girl Scout plant a fava bean to take home. I planted a fava bean too, but I was incredulous that it would actually grow. It seemed too simple. I put this fava bean into this container of potting soil and it grows? Just like that? There's no special trick to it or magic spells I need to say to make it all work? I withheld my disbelieve and planted my bean.
After lunch, the girls reconvened at the troop leader's house and we sat in a circle and talked about how to make a worm bin. It was much less organized than I expected - I was used to speaking to adults, not second graders - but the kids went absolutely crazy for the worms. Learning happened, even if it didn't happen in the linear fashion I had planned. Girl Scouts ran all over the yard, shredding newspaper and grabbing handfuls of dirt and worms. Many girls wanted to take the worms home as pets and give them names. They were jealous that our Girl Scout would get to keep the entire bin of worms, and they wanted to come to our house to visit the worms. My boyfriend's daughter was thrilled to be the center of attention, and she and her sister spent several days afterward carefully attempting to name each worm. When it was time to toss out the kitchen scraps, the girls each wanted a turn to feed the worms. Over time, the worms became less entertaining, but the girls still come and check out new discoveries when I find them in the worm bin (like worm eggs, sprouted squash seeds, and fungi). When their friends visit, they always ask to see the worms.
For me, somehow, the adrenaline of a yard of screaming Girl Scouts felt much more powerful and moving than an entire book tour of speaking to adults. Don't get me wrong - I love speaking to adults - but the girls are hilarious when you tell them things like "Some chickens lay green eggs" or "We use worm poop as food for our plants." When I showed our youngest daughter worm eggs, she asked if she could eat them. In her mind, she ate chicken eggs, so eggs must be for eating.
Getting back to the subject of gardening, the two fava beans we brought home grew. We planted them in the soil and they continued to grow. Nobody was more surprised than me. Then my boyfriend decided to plant some carrots - which we did as a family activity - and I planted some sugarsnap peas and two varieties of squash. All of a sudden, our yard became a garden. It hasn't been without a few bumps along the way, but it's addicting. In addition to the plants listed above, we've planted cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, scallions, garlic, several types of lettuce, spinach, arugula, chard, lima beans, marigolds, figs, pomegranates, blackberries, dragonfruit, and herbs. It's a very powerful feeling to grow your own food, and I look forward to the convenience of picking our food just before dinnertime each day instead of trying to manage a fridge full of perishable fruits and veggies. Gardening, it turns out, is as easy as asking for advice and following simple directions.
For the kids, gardening isn't as stimulating as worms. Our little one is eager to help with gardening but she wants to do it her
way. She's basically playing (which is great) and we have a good day when she doesn't kill any of the plants. Our older daughter usually doesn't want to work in the garden but she surprised me this weekend when she asked to help me "plant stuff." Gardening opens up a world of possibilities to teach the children about biology, ecology, and conservation.
Through this experience, I've become a believer that gardening can be and must be a major part of reforming our food system. And children absolutely must be part of the picture. I've often heard laments that agricultural and cooking knowledge can die out with just one generation. If that is true, then it must also be true that a society-wide effort can bring that knowledge back in one generation. By engaging the kids in gardening as a means to teach science and to interest them in healthy eating (it remains to be seen whether the kids will actually eat the broccoli they grew themselves), we can produce a generation of gardeners who will grow up to produce their own food and understand the difference between real food and the processed food-like substances often sold at supermarkets.