Part 1: Why?
It’s hard to tell, of course, but spring – or at least the beginning of the garden season – really is just around the corner. Yes, there’s snow on the ground and nothing could really grow or germinate yet, but the time to begin is…now. In fact, if you live in a more southerly climate than central New York, the time to begin was yesterday. And for that, you need a plan.
But first, I want to talk a little bit about the “why” of gardening. And why write about my garden plans, when there’s art to be done and an unfinished painting on the easel?
Gardening is, of course, a very useful activity for any number of reasons:
- It provides excellent free exercise.
- It can – if you stay away from most of the gizmos and gimmicks in the fancy garden supply catalogs – save a considerable amount of money.
- Gardening also appeals to the “(sub)urban homesteader” in a lot of us.
- And it makes us much less dependent on an unsustainable and polluting industrial food system that slurps up ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy it produces.
But there’s another reason that most folks don’t think about. And for me, it rates pretty close to the top of the list:
Growing your own vegetables and fruits is essential to saving wild spaces and the species that inhabit them.
Yes, you read that right. If you grow food it’s not a stretch to say that you’re literally a life-saver.
I was blissfully unaware of this reality – as most of us are, I think – until I read a wonderful book called Gaia’s Garden – A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. Once you understand it, though, the logic is unassailable.
There are seven billion-plus humans currently inhabiting this planet. All of them deserve decent living conditions including a home, clean water, and quality food. Certainly, those of us in the affluent developed countries expect and indeed, sometimes feel entitled to all of this, particularly the proverbial “three squares a day”. Hemenway explains that while we in the United States only live on about 6 percent of the nation’s land area, we’ve commandeered another half to three-quarters of it in order to support our insatiable “needs”. He states,
“Monocultured farms and industrial forests, grazing land and feedlots, reservoirs, strip and open pit mines, military reservations, and all the other accoutrements of modern civilization consume a huge amount of space, and almost none of it functions as native or healthy habitat. Each non-homegrown meal, each trip to the lumber yard, pharmacy, clothing store, or other shop, commissions the conversion of once –native habitat into an ecological desert. The lumber for a typical American house of 2,500 square feet scalps roughly three acres of forest into barren clearcut – thus, living in a modest house will aid native species vastly more than will installing a few mountain laurels on a small suburban lot.”
This was a bit of a revelation for me. While I was becoming more aware of connections like these, reading this suddenly brought a much greater clarity to my projects in the garden. What I was doing out there really can make a difference, especially since I’m far from alone in this activity.
So here’s the situation. My property is already altered for human habitation, as are millions and millions of others across this country and around the world. My modest house (with my not-so-big studio) was built 50-odd years ago. It sits, surrounded by a ubiquitous sea of mono-cropped lawn grasses (okay, weeds – since I refuse to use weed-killer of any kind) that I’m forced to mow – in order to keep up appearances – while spewing toxic fumes and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, somewhere far away, where you and I can’t see it, an industrial agriculturist (aka “farmer”) is converting more woodland into farm fields, or destroying riparian habitat so that I – and the rest of our growing population – can have tomatoes out of season, fruit flown in from New Zealand and “Gogurt” or similar GMO-laden junk that passes for ‘food’ lining the shelves in our grocery stores.
On the other hand, I can take matters into my own hands and start to take back at least some responsibility for fulfilling my own needs. Absurdly, turf grass is America’s biggest crop and from nature’s point of view, it’s an ecological wasteland. Estimates vary, but the amount of lawn in this country totals around 40 million acres. Think how much food could be grown on that much land! Thankfully, lawns are increasingly seen for what they are: environmentally and economically unsustainable. So more and more of us are growing food, not lawns.
Anyone who professes to love nature and her wild, wooly and wonderful biodiversity has, in my opinion, an obligation to help protect her by converting some (or heck, all!) of their property to food and functional production. (Permaculturists refer to this as the five F’s: fiber, fuel, food, pharmacy and fun.) It’s no longer enough to write a check to your favorite environmental charity. It’s time to get down in the dirt and plant an edible eco-system. Get some exercise without spewing pollutants while you drive to the gym. Re-learn what real food tastes like. Teach our kids that ‘fruit’ is not a flavor, but a wonderfully diverse and colorful edible harvest. And who hasn’t at least thought about unplugging from our industrial food system and its endless litany of contamination recalls?
And oh yeah, let’s also do it to save lives. Maybe even our own.
Coming soon in Part 2: How?