Friday, November 28, 2008
Victory Gardens-Red, White & Blue is Green Again
This country was created by small sustenance and plantation farmers and I believe we will be returning to that way of life out of necessity. The women in my family have always had vegetable (and flower) gardens in abundance. My maternal grandmother and grandfather moved to a 100-acre New Hampshire farm from suburban Radburn, New Jersey in the spring of 1946, just after World War II ended. Inspired by the writings of author-agriculturist Louis Bromfield from his Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio, their intention was to raise enough food for their family of eventually six children, but also for those who came to buy the surplus from their roadside farm stand. For over fifteen years they succeeded in that enterprise and their motives were entirely democratic ones (even if they themselves were old school Republicans). [Even my Ohio great-grandparents (both sets) had large estate gardens which were particularly important during World War II when they raised most of their own produce during hard times.]
My grandparents' four daughters, as well as their two sons, always had gardens. About twenty years ago one of my aunts converted an old tennis court into a large vegetable garden, with its own built-in, critter-proof fence. Another moved back to New Hampshire and set up gardening on her hillside farm where she grows enough to keep her family, friends and coworkers in fresh fruit and produce. When we visited my uncle this spring, a retired doctor in nearby Tennessee, he took great pride in showing us his flower beds. While we were children and long after we'd moved out, our mother continued to tend a large garden at the farm for almost thirty years and now has a smaller, more manageable plot (yet equally abundant) at her new home.
During the decade of my parents' marriage, my mother even grew tomatoes, flowers and pumpkins on our tiny postage stamp-sized lot in suburban Akron, Ohio. My earliest memories are of visiting local greenhouses with her and smelling the fecund, tamped soil in pots and on the floor. I thought Elmer, my great-grandmother's gardener, was Mr. McGregor from Peter Rabbit, while my farming New Hampshire grandfather seemed to be more like Mr. Green Jeans from my favorite children's television program, Captain Kangaroo. Elmer gardened in a brick, walled garden after all--something that seemed out of a storybook--and would emerge with gifts of seedlings or potted geraniums for my mother. In New Hampshire, my grandparents also tended their own greenhouses. Gardening was in my mother's blood and gave her a chance to stake her claim on her foreign, suburban land.
I have made various well-meaning garden attempts over the years but not with the same ambitions as my relatives. I have a brown thumb with slight hints of moss on them but I believe with more due diligence it can turn a respectable shade of gardener green. The first thing I wanted to do when I rented a small farm apartment in the 1990s was to plant a garden. So I did, along with my daughter--I created a small little patch, "a bit of earth" like Mary Lennox sought in A Secret Garden. We didn't sustain ourselves from that garden but the process was fun and we grew some vegetables. Over the years at our house in Hancock we had several gardens--mostly squash and pumpkins and tomatoes, herbs, rhubarb and mint. In the past few years, I have not bothered much and I truly believe it is because I have not felt rooted. I knew I was about to be transplanted.
Tonight I happened to catch Michael Pollan on Bill Moyers' Journal. I have read The Omnivore's Dilemma and want to revisit his book this winter. Pollan is one of the advocates, if not the main thrust, behind the "Buy Local" food movement. What started in a small, semi-precious, even intellectual and expensive, way with more affluent people has burgeoned because of fluctuating gas prices and predicted hard times ahead. There are even farmers' markets in inner city neighborhoods and a return to urban gardening on formerly neglected lots.
In early October, Pollan wrote a letter entitled "Farmer in Chief" to the (then unknown) President-Elect, urging him, among other things, to use local foods at the White House. What a message that would send! Not only that but to take some of the White House lawn and have a sustainable garden and hire an official vegetable gardener. Eleanor Roosevelt had a "Victory Garden" at the White House and, initially, the Department of Agriculture was concerned that it might send the wrong message to Americans. That was hardly the case: by the end of World War II 40% of our food was being raised in such gardens by 20 million Americans on plots of land not much bigger than a suburban back yard. Other bloggers have written about Pollan's letter, and Obama's awareness of it, with great links and detail, such as over at Fair Ground, an agriculture-related blog from "toxic free North Carolina."
In his interview with Moyers, Pollan describes gardens as "very powerful things" and not "sweet and old-lady like" (but yet they can be that, too, and personally that's part of their appeal!). The following steps are those that anyone can do now, particularly in hard times when we are apt to feel more powerless. As Pollan says, a garden can empower and uplift the human spirit (while putting food on the family table):
1. Plant a garden (or rent community garden space).
2. Cook. Declare your independence from the culture of fast food...as soon as you cook you start thinking about ingredients: plants and animals and not the microwave.
3. Invest more time in food. Cooking has become a spectator sport...if you would invest the time you spend watching cooking shows in actually cooking, you would find you have plenty of time to put food on the table.
4. A freezer is a good investment. Pollan sees this as a "cost effective" investment and advocates hunting in overpopulated wild herds and raising one's own grass-fed meat and eggs.
To these I would also add: 5. Learn how to preserve foods that will not require electricity to store them. To this end one could also install a root cellar. [A recent article in The New York Times, "Food Storage as Grandma Knew It," outlines its return and practical uses.] The Mennonites and Amish are experts at canning and food preservation and are only replicating what has occurred on farms for generations, especially before rural electrification.
Pollan admittedly tends his own 10x20 foot garden plot that produces so much he has to spend time figuring out how to give some away. He also referred to the marvelous Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, writer, poet and philosopher whose writings are at the heart and soul of the entire "Green" movement, decades before it was even called that. Berry bemoaned that we don't do anything for ourselves any more. We have "cheap energy" minds. Gardening is an empowering way to actively engage in feeding yourself and your family and, as Pollan cautions, as "preparation for the world we may find ourselves in."
Come to think of it, most all of my good friends who have space have gardens (or produce stands such as Tenney Farm in Antrim). My friend Edie even started an organic garlic farm last year at Bee's Wing Farm in Dublin, New Hampshire. Here in Kentucky everyone who has any patch of land, large or small, seems to have a small sustenance garden. Our Mennonite friends and neighbors certainly do. Canning and preserving are ways of life and have been forever. People here will survive through hard times because in many ways they always have.
Today we are a nation still at war but the spoils are not the same. While World War II galvanized everyone in a different way on the home front, today's Victory gardens can be victorious over dependency on oil to truck produce from great distances and an agricultural culture of reliance on chemicals. We can be victorious for knowing what is going into our diet and for helping the sustainability of our planet. Now that we're settled on our ridge, despite a few small, affordable and abundant local produce stands during a long growing season, I want to dig into the earth again. Next spring, if the good Lord's willing and the creek don't rise, I will.
[PS On a related note of possible interest to readers, last year I wrote an on-line piece for WHYY.org on "The Wartime Pantry" as background to the documentary, The War.]