Five Exciting Reasons–and One Downright Scary One–You Should Learn to Grow Food This Year

Spring has sprung, and another Earth Day has just been celebrated. If you’re looking for a good way to “go green” this year, don’t stop at planting a tree, attending a rally, or giving to your favorite conservation fund. Instead, make 2011 the year you move beyond symbolic gestures and engage with the Earth in the most primal, profound and productive way possible: by learning to grow your own food.

It’s interesting to me that people work so hard to acquire the skills we need to make a living, yet most of us neglect the most basic, essential and valuable skill of all: the ability to feed ourselves. We depend almost totally on other people to provide the nourishment that keeps us alive.

When you ponder the implications — especially in an economy that seems to be hanging on by a thread — you can see it doesn’t make a lot of sense. For this reason and many others, I’d love to see more people experience firsthand the miracle of growing food.

Plenty of people dabble in gardening, of course. A survey by the Garden Writers Association revealed that 38 percent of Americans grew some of their own vegetables in 2009, a number that reflected a growing percentage of under-40s, many of whom dragged or coaxed their kids to get down and dirty, too. And apparently something like 37 percent of food gardeners aim to expand their gardens this year.

While these aren’t bad numbers, I’d rather see that 38 percent reverse itself into 83 percent. Growing your own food brings with it a huge variety of benefits. Even if you discount the ever-more-plausible specter of economic collapse (more on this later), it’s hard to deny the gifts that gardening brings to your life:

  1. It’s a source of fresh, delicious, wholesome food. Guess what most people list as their first and primary reason for growing some of their own food? That’s right: the food itself. Fresher, healthier, tastier — especially if it’s grown organically, without toxic chemicals — homegrown food is just closer to what food is supposed to be about. It doesn’t just keep you alive; it makes life worth living. And it keeps your body as happy as your taste buds. What’s especially pleasing is that so many young people still have a taste for fresh and homegrown, for live and soil-born, hand-harvested and heirloom. Contrary to what modern taste mavens have written, the young haven’t all gone over to the artificial strawberry-flavored column.
  2. It helps us get mo’ satisfaction. Seventy-one percent of young people, and at least that many older vegetable gardeners, spend hours on their hands and knees in proximity to earthworms and ants because they get some kind of satisfaction out of it. Part of that satisfaction is doubtless chalked up to tasty food and bragging rights. But a large part of it is owed to the ancient, unshakeable, bred-in-the-bone sense of competence and self-reliance that comes from providing for yourself and your loved ones and friends something that you and they absolutely need. These are feelings most Americans have lost since they’ve come to depend on the economy to supply them with food. They are bone-deep feelings we share not just with those hearty, self-reliant colonial Americans we’re so proud to trace ourselves back to, but also with the first humans that figured out that maybe if they left those apple seeds where they lay, maybe scuffed a little dirt over them or scattered a handful of those self-sown wheat seeds where the light and soil were better, why, darn, miracles would happen over which they had some control. On-demand food, 10,000 B.C.-style.
  3. We’re up for downtime, and digging in the dirt supplies it in (pun alert!) spades. Gardening’s hard work. It takes concentration and focus. But for most Americans, the break from artificial lighting and air, plastic plants, a chair that may or may not be ergonomic, multitasking, 24/7/365 exposure to interruption, and other demands is more like a vacation than work. Sixty percent of the young vegetable gardeners in the Garden Writers Association survey said that’s why they gardened: It relaxed them. When you’re in the garden, you’re working on plant and wind and sun and rain time, not clock time. If you let yourself be fully present to what the garden needs from you, you’re automatically attuned to Life’s more leisurely time frames, not the customary frenetic human ones.
  4. It’s a spiritual thing. The original sacred texts of most of the great spiritual traditions begin in or refer to some sort of garden. Most of the world’s spiritual teachers have taught us how we should live in the world and with each other by using gardening metaphors and parables. So is it any wonder that for many, the garden, even one created in pots huddled on a patio on the 15th floor above an urban street, triggers a spontaneous, instinctive connection with that larger Life within which we have our lives and that ineffable Source of all that is, which makes new life arise out of something as unprepossessing as a seed? Gardening makes us partners in the ongoing Creation. Like other forms of what feels like playing and praying at the same time, gardening is something that can be done alone. Its depths and pleasures are, however, amplified greatly by being shared. Where I live in the Bible-belt South, it would be safe to say “the family that breaks clay together, stays together.”
  5. It keeps us fit and healthy. Bend and stretch, bend and stretch. No doubt about it, gardening is one of the best ways to get and stay fit even before it offers up bounties of food that, if we eat them instead of what we pick up on the way home or have in a box in the cupboard or bag in the freezer, amplify fitness. Whole muscle groups you didn’t know you had get worked out at least seasonally in the process of digging, turning, hoeing, raking, sowing, weeding. Infamous 20th century homesteader, vegetarian, and gardener Helen Nearing liked to say, “Gardening is an adult sport.” It’s also an aerobic and isotonic one. And, since she didn’t have children, she couldn’t have known that they take to gardening like doctors to golf courses, too.
  6. And last–but certainly not least!–it might someday save your life. Here, without a doubt, is the most compelling reason of all to get proficient at growing your own food. The entire global economy is not too big to fail. Dwindling resources, climate instability, skyrocketing prices and other red flags point to a future in which the cheap, abundant, and readily available food we currently enjoy may no longer be there for us. As hard as it is for most Americans to imagine, there may come a day when grocery store shelves are bare. If and when that day comes, the ability to grow your own food will no longer be a hobby, but a survival skill. Even if the worst doesn’t happen (and I fervently hope we’ll get on top of our converging problems so that it doesn’t), a society that’s not disconnected from its food production is a healthier one in general. And when you consider how easy it really is to grow fruits and veggies — in backyards, on vacant lots, in community gardens, and in patio pots — there’s certainly no reason not to.

Gardening well takes skill, but seeds, soil, earthworms, more billions of soil microbes than you can count (if you don’t kill ’em with inorganic chemicals), rain and sun do most of the work. The food is built into the seed and is called out of the seed by the other five. To take charge of our food supply again we just need 83 instead of 38 percent of Americans to bring seeds into contact with them, love ’em a little, and wait.

Ellen LaConte is a memoirist, magazine and book editor, and freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and trade journals on subjects ranging from organic gardening and alternative technologies to the evolution of consciousness, democracy theory, and complex systems. After three decades of homesteading in Connecticut and Maine, she gardens now on a half-acre in the Yadkin River watershed of the Piedmont bioregion of North Carolina. She is the author of Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it.

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