A surprising number of folks in my nearer social circles do not know much about gardening. Certainly, they can browse the colorful annuals on display at the large home store and likewise can stick them in the sunny spots twice a year whilst waving at passing neighbors. Most can even pull a weed or two as well as set a mean schedule on the automated sprinklers but, somehow, the simplest aspects of organic vegetable and herb gardening elude them.
In calling on neighbors, and speaking with extended family members over the years, I’ve come to predict the various expressions that ensue when the conversation invariably shifts to growing food. These facial indications rather line up like the five stages of grief, but instead of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance I see Surprised, Confused, Mildly Interested, Incredulous and Overwhelmed. Getting food out of your own backyard is considered by many to be just too darn complicated.
One of my children usually let the ‘cat’ out of the bag in playing with the smaller versions of the other adults in the room. Some time during the course of the visit a child runs over–face alight and eyes shining–tugging at the arm/dress/leg of their owner and saying something akin to:
“They grow strawberries in their backyard! And tomatoes! They get to pick them and eat them! Can we grow those, too?”
“From the mouths of babes,” I murmur, watching as the parent’s face slides into the first stage.
“How can you possibly find the time to garden?” Surprised then asks of me.
Now, when I was younger–upon being asked this question–I used to launch into a succinct and factual spiel outlining the amount of time that the average American spends in front of television set every day. I would then point out that it was a better use of time to turn over compost and chase after hordes of insidious snails with pale clouds of ditomacheous earth. Oddly, saying these things seemed to inspire little but denial, anger and depression. Now, I simply focus my argument on Losing Weight & Saving Money.
“Do you go to the gym?” I ask.
Confused nods in the affirmative, an answer more often than not a complete fabrication. “Did you know,” I continue, “that a couple of hours of vigorous gardening is comparable to spending the same amount of time at the gym?” No, they didn’t know that, but it sounds pretty good. Confused is quickly replaced with Mildly Interested as I go on to list just how much money my family saves over a given winter season by not having to buy my fresh herbs at the store. ($300-$400)
“That is a big savings,” Incredulous returns. “But it ‘s such a lot of work. How do I even get started?”
Here it gets a little tricky. Too much pushing and the average consumer will balk and return to safer subjects, such as waxing poetic on how their favorite washed-up celebrity weathered Trump’s Board room the previous night. Too much information up front and they’ll leap to the Overwhelmed stage too quickly. Too many dire predictions about rising food costs and the Environment and they’ll tune you out AND lump you in with some odd group they heard about on the news that anoint themselves with carrots and say they can raise goats that defecate copper bullion.
Nostalgia has proven to be the most powerful argument of all. Most folks harbor—way back in the warm recesses of their memory—lingering scents, sights and tastes of fresh produce partaken of as a child. It might be the ripe, red raspberries they picked in a grandmother’s arbor. It may be that luscious purple plum that they bit into one hot summer day. It may be a cool clump of sweet, green grapes that can be recalled, even now, with frank fondness. That same wide-eyed wonder, that propelled their offspring to run over and inquire of our garden, still lives on in them even if they are currently unaware of it. It is a useful tool to help lever the conversation away from the precarious Edge of Unconcern and back into the Realm of Feasibility, and is relatively easy to make contact with.
I show them pictures.
“These are some of the tomatoes we harvested last year,” I say, sliding one full-color image after another over the screen.
“Those look delicious!”
“We get about two-hundred pounds every season, all without pesticides.”
“Are those artichokes?!”
“Yep. They were especially good picked young, pared and sauteed with garlic and olive oil.”
“And you still have time to write books?” This question is best answered with a small shrug and a half-smile.
“My kids help me out a lot, but I like the exercise. These are the strawberries…”
“Wow… look at those! I bet that’s nice to have just out your back door.”
“Not as nice as this basil,” I tell them, going to the next picture.
From there the questions tend to get more sincere. Once folks realize that you can actually raise food on a city lot without having to spend a fortune–or work on it 24/7–they find that other hobbies don’t really cut it. Most parents already wonder how they can encourage their kids to get outside a bit more and move around, and when my oldest daughter walks over and launches into a short monolog on the how one can induce thriving vermiculture with an old plastic tub and leftover coffee grounds, they’re sold.
“Families have been growing food together for millenniums,” I conclude. “It’s a proven method of keeping active, and–as my grandfather used to tell us–’if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’” My grandfather had a rock garden in the high desert–and a cement patio for a back yard–but some information can be safely omitted.
What’s this all leading to? Don’t fear the dirt, nor the rain, toil, time, compost or worms. These help actually achieve that trendy, ethereal ideal of “Eat Fresh, Eat Local” but without the added expense and most of the driving around. We get tasty crops out of a city lot that’s just shy of .20 of an acre, most of it hidden away in the back and sides. We do it on less than $200 annual out-of-pocket expenditures and with the infamous Sacramento Valley hard-pan clay. Now, some of you may have an apartment window–facing a shadowy building–but even YOU can grow chilies and cilantro in an old fish-tank fitted with a neon light. We’ve done that as well.
If your interest has been piqued, then click the following link for my series of my how-to-do-it-yourself articles, based purely on what I’ve done with my own dirt.
L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books