In the spring and the summer it’s hard to resist the siren sound of the home garden. For some people, this is not a quiet whisper, but a shout:
“With just a little bit of work, you could be harvesting your very own organic salad greens right from your back yard…”
“Kale is so expensive, but so easy to grow. Why are you paying so much at the store?”
“Fresh corn. You know you will want fresh corn in August.”
“It would be a shame if you didn’t grow your own tomatoes.”
If you can’t actually grow a garden, due to lack of land, or restrictive covenants on your property or your spouse’s aversion to dirt, those siren songs can be particularly painful. So this essay is for you, frustrated would-be gardeners. And for those of you contemplating your own harvest bounty, take heed. Sometimes, you really just don’t want a garden.
It’s not any cheaper to grow your own food.
There are economies of scale to agriculture that make the production of your own harvest bounty, but for less!, impossible for most of us. The reason? Labor. If you factor in your own labor, even at minimum wage prices, the cost of that perfect tomato skyrockets. And for most of us who are beginning gardeners and are just learning the art of raising food, there are many costly mistakes and many setbacks that make breaking even rather difficult. There is an inherent joy in pulling your own salad ingredients moments before you assemble the salad, but after you have totaled your supplies (seeds, starts, tools, fertilizer, compost, labor) that salad is no cheaper than the items you can purchase at the supermarket, or farmer’s market.
Oh, in the spring—especially when the soil heats up and releases that intoxicating scent of last year’s rot and this year’s growth; when the sun shines on you as you dig and pull weeds; when you look with joy on all that you’ve planted; the spring is a wonderful time to be in the garden. But that time you spend in the spring must be matched, if not increased, throughout the summer and into the fall. Planting takes time, and really isn’t done all at once. Cultivating (weeding, watering, amending) takes time and never ends. Harvesting and processing take time and have the bonus of needing to be done right after you finish working in the garden. Can you find two to three hours per week (minimum) to cultivate your garden? Can you do this week after week? Because with your garden, that’s what you will get to do.
You’ve actually got to eat all those things you grow.
Before I gardened, my response to this statement would be, “I know! That’s the best part!” And indeed, it’s wonderful bringing things to maturity and then consuming them yourself. It’s fun to tell friends and family, “I grew this!” But sometimes all the lettuce—much too many heads because of poor planning—matures at once and you look at your bounty and think, “what in the hell am I going to do with twenty heads of lettuce.”* And sometimes it turns out you don’t really like radishes, or your maximum zucchini consumption per month is two. Or it turns out you hate, really abhor, corn on the cob. Or beets.** And yet there they are, staring you in the face, mocking all your hard work. What to do? This brings me to:
You’ve actually got to eat all those things you put up for the winter.
Canning the things you grow is a great way to preserve them for eating in the winter. It’s also fun, in that sweaty pioneer way, and you get shelves full of pretty things with remarkable names like “chow chow” and “brandied plums.” But guess what? Unless you already have an affinity for chow chow and brandied plums, most likely, those things are just going to stay on the shelves mocking all of your labor. I mean really, what does one do with chow chow? Eat it with pork? I’m guessing you’ve got better things to go on your pork, things you are already familiar with.
If you are thinking you will be giving them as gifts remember the golden rule of giving. If you yourself aren’t really interested in eating the food you preserved, most likely no one else will want to eat it either. I know there are people out there who love chow chow and even know what to do with it, but I also know those people make up a very small group, none of whom are my friends.
So those of you who aren’t able to garden, rejoice. You are free of the burden of growing your own. Go forth to the CSAs, the farmers markets and the grocery stores to fill your larder and appreciate the amazing miracle that is food production today. And then thank the lord you yourself are not involved in it.
*The answer is to pass off as many heads as you can to friends and deliver the rest to the food bank. All of which takes time.
**Not me, I love them and can’t get enough. But friends grew some really great specimens, roasted them and then said, “Eh.” It turns out they were not fans of beets.