Living The Frugal Life
I know that some people imagine gardening to be an arcane practice that only those steeped in earthy mysticism can successfully perform. Others might see it as the extravagant lifestyle choice of Smith & Hawken clad mavens. Still others dismiss it as crunchy-granola, hippy-dip folly. Harried folks just trying raise the kids while working full time simply write it off as something for those with more free time than they've got.
But here's the deal: Gardening can be very frugal. It can substitute for a gym membership in terms of the exercise it will provide you. Yet I don't want to promote the idea that gardening consists of backbreaking labor. Many garden tasks can be downright meditative; pulling weeds, for instance. For many people gardening is a form of stress reduction. Less stress equals more health, and health is always the first wealth. And gardening can put the highest quality food available anywhere, at any price, on your table for pennies on the dollar. Beyond just trimming the grocery budget, producing some of your own food helps to insulate you from the turmoil of an economy that seems to be going steadily downhill. If you know you can eat no matter what, that's one crisis that you don't have to worry about.
There's another way that gardening is frugal. When you earn your food with the sweat of your brow, rather than a swipe of a plastic card, waste is much, much harder to accept. I first remember coming across this idea in print, at the end of Joan Dye Gussow's This Organic Life. She wrote about harvesting her tiny carrots:
December 30, 1999 - I realize today as I wash the last of the just-dug carrots in the sink - cleaning up even the littlest ones because the crop was so bad this year - that what this is all really about is using up, making do, cutting down, even more than it's about eating locally. It's about fighting to model self-restraint in a society built upon encouraging lack of it. Why are we surprised when our children shoot each other over sneakers when we, their parents and grandparents, have been trying to live out the lesson that we must yield to our impulses because if we don't the economy might falter? Who but me would clean these tiny carrots? Who would try to salvage every last one against the winter that is coming and will come, and will require me to buy food in order to get through it?I read this passage years ago, and something about it lodged in my memory, but it didn't truly become alive to me until the first time my husband and I pressed our own apple cider. We had spent hours scrubbing our homegrown apples clean, grinding them by hand, and pressing them manually in an old apple press. While my husband was pouring the cider from the collecting bucket into a sterilized plastic jug, the jug wobbled and threatened to tip over. I was genuinely alarmed. "Don't spill any!" I barked at him. The prospect of losing even a dribble of that cider was simply appalling after the hours of labor we had put into producing it. A farmer friend who was pressing her own apples and pears along with us, summed it up: "Food really becomes precious when you put all this work into it." She was right.
The end result of food becoming precious is that wasting food becomes anathema: the wastage of genuine care. And we all know there's not enough of that to go around in the world today. Since becoming more serious about gardening, and since getting to know many of my small scale, local food producers, I've come to realize that I want all of my food to be this precious. I want to eat food that either I or someone else actually gave a damn about, because I know in my bones that it is better for me, for my local community, and for the environment as a whole. Very little such food is available at the grocery store. There I find commodities, almost never anything that is precious. If we are what we eat, I don't want to eat those things. The vegetables and pantry goods are poor enough in spirit, whatever marketing term du jour might be slapped on the label. The factory farmed animal products represent another level of commoditization entirely. The misery that lies thinly concealed in those "foods" is nothing I want to consume.
One recurring "problem" with gardening is the inevitable surplus of produce. Oh, yes. It will happen, novice gardener though you may be. It might be your lettuce, or zucchini, or tomatoes, or green beans. It will change form from one year to the next. But happen it will. The predicament of course, is an asset in disguise. The solutions range from getting serious about food preservation or bartering with neighbors (both of which will further insulate you from inflation and an uncertain economy), to donating to a soup kitchen or food bank (which will make your community - and by extension you - a little more food secure), and to finding a market for your excess (which will put a little ready cash in your pocket). Needless to say, the horror of food waste mentioned above won't allow you to let the food rot in the backyard.
If the high quality of produce or the prospect of saving money doesn't move you, what about a chance to leave your children and grandchildren a viable environment, a life not horribly overshadowed by the spectre of starvation, or ecological disaster, or the civil unrest brought about by such things? In Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton's recent book A Nation of Farmers, they argue - convincingly, I might add - that enough people farming on a small scale (i.e. gardening) might save the world from the worst repercussions of global climate change and peak oil. Industrial agriculture is responsible for a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions just on the production end. Packaging and delivering that food to people accounts for another significant chunk of our climate changing gases. The fact that 28-50% of that oil-drenched food (depending on which source you believe) is subsequently wasted and thrown away in the US should be a national shame. Meanwhile, the fertile soils of gardens are capable of sequestering truly impressive amounts of carbon while reducing the fuel costs of feeding ourselves. Microscale agriculture can also easily avoid the worst abuses of arable land commonly perpetrated by industrial agriculture, and it produces far more abundantly per acre at the same time. The supply of food from a backyard garden is not subject to fuel shortages, power grid failures, or contaminated food recalls. Much of what was once the best farmland in America is now carved up into the sub-acre lots of suburbia. In the times that are coming, that will come, can we really afford to ignore what remains of that precious resource?
Sharon Astyk also claims, incidentally, that the sex is better when you garden. Gene Logsdon, one of America's foremost agrarian writers, asserts that successful farming or homesteading couples exude a "sensuality" that hints at what goes on behind closed doors. So there's a host of good reasons to take up gardening, either as a hobby or as a more serious commitment: healthy eating, exercise, frugality, greater food security, the environment, hope for the future. But if none of those convince you, do it for the sex.
Those of you reading in the southern hemisphere, it's time to start thinking about seed catalogs and where you'll plant in a few short months. Those of you reading in the northern hemisphere, it's probably not too late to squeeze in a batch of fast growing and cold tolerant crops this year. So get to it!