THIS MIGHT sound crazy, but I voluntarily spent Mother’s Day afternoon digging in the dirt. When other moms were raising mimosas, I was razing weeds. I am determined to have a vegetable garden.
Our new house came with loads of landscaping duties, which I happily embraced. I take the idea of subduing the earth as a personal challenge and I relish the idea of stewardship.
I come by my “Project Neurosis” through genetic and environmental means, a product of both nature and nurture. Before I was born my parents moved from a rental on Greenlake to ten acres of woods and swamp near Littlerock, WA.
For a decade, they beat back the wilderness attempting to plant lush green lawns in the rocky aftermath of a now-absent glacier. They built part of their own house, plus a shed, chicken coop, dog pen and flower gardens.
When my dad’s job meant a move for our family, we said goodbye to the country life and moved to the suburbs near Auburn. The projects have never stopped, however. Though my parents have moved several times since, they continue to take on massive landscaping and house remodeling plans with a “why would I hire a contractor when I could do it myself” kind of attitude. It’s genetic -- clearly, I can’t help it.
I have to take responsibility for feeding the monster, though. When I am in relaxation mode, there is usually a book in my hand, and I’ll read it obsessively from beginning to end. My reading habits are inclusive. But the one category I can’t seem to get enough of are food books -- cookbooks, food writer memoirs, urban farming, rants against the industrialized food industry, nutritional theories and restaurant stories.
Michael Pollan’s best-selling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was like my gateway drug into the reality of America’s ailing food system. In addition to a gut-wrenching (pun intended) account of CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations), Pollan also balances the equation featuring farmer Joel Salatin, who is doing things differently in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The way Salatin rotates cows and chickens through pastures makes so much sense that I almost clapped when I read the chapter “All Flesh is Grass.”
Next in my queue was “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by critically acclaimed novelist Barbara Kingsolver. She and her family left the arid deserts of the American Southwest to run a farm in southern Appalachia. Kingsolver writes, “We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground.”
The book details the year in which her family committed to living off their land, eating only locally grown food. They ground local wheat into flour, grew vast quantities of zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables, made their own cheese, and witnessed the clumsy miracle that is turkey sex (yes, a funny chapter).
SLIGHTLY MORE attainable standards were set forth by Novella Carpenter in “Farm City,” a memoir by a former Seattleite who moves to a concrete urban neighborhood in Oakland. Carpenter takes advantage of the abandoned lot across the street, hauling stinky trunks full of horse manure into the city to serve as soil in her raised beds. Though her garden was impressive, she didn’t stop there -- beehives, rabbits, chickens, turkeys and even pigs had a home in her backyard and eventually some moved into her freezer.
It really says something about our culture when growing food seems amazing. I want in on that action. It is so satisfying to know exactly where your dinner came from, down to the branch.
At least, it would be if I were any good at growing vegetables. Maybe it’s because I’ve moved around too much, never settling into a garden for long. Or maybe it’s because when I read the fertilizer to cubic yards of soil ratios, my brain resists the calculations so I end up just mixing a good lot in. And how do you cover seeds with a mere ⅛ inch of soil? Do I need a ruler?
That’s the difference between book knowledge and real hands-on experience. One can hold its own during a discussion on food and one can actually produce a cucumber. Perhaps it is time to stop talking and start listening.
What are your real-life gardening tips?
I’m currently reading “The Town That Food Saved” by Ben Hewitt.
In addition to the books listed throughout this article, here are a few more of my favorites:
- “Garlic and Sapphires”; “Comfort Me With Apples” by Ruth Reichl
- “Kitchen Confidential”; “Medium Raw” by Anthony Bourdain
- “Spoon Fed” by Kim Severson
- “My Life In France” by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
- “Julie and Julia” by Julie Powell
- “The Art of Simple Food” by Alice Waters
- “Urban Pantry” by Amy Pennington
- “Salt & Pepper” by Michele Anna Jordan
- "How To Cook A Wolf" by MFK Fisher