Saturday, July 7, 2007

In Defense of Vegetable Gardening

My earlier meditation on the use of two-stroke engines in landscaping, and whether it is politic to do something on a personal level when one sees global warming in progress on one's home turf, brought out the hate mail.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," writes one local resident, "you grow a garden in your front yard!"

Well, yes. We don't have a back yard.

This is the usual "kill the messenger" stuff, much of it personal and ugly, and much of it centered on our decision to grow vegetables where everyone can see them. So even though The Slow Cook isn't a gardening blog per se, I am posting a previous meditation on our edible-landscape-in-progress that has appeared in Garden Rant, the D.C. Urban Gardeners Blog, and in the regional newsletter of the
American Institute of Wine and Food.

Meanwhile, in case you'd like to read other authors on the subject of vegetable gardening in the city, I highly recommend this story of a recent
bicycle tour of D.C. community gardens, and this about gardening in a small space, and this about discovering the joys of urban gardening.


I am sitting in my kitchen, staring at a bunch of starlings pecking at my vegetable beds. I’m feeling a bit paranoid, because last spring I watched birds very much like these descend on my vegetable beds and attack my emerging bean and cucumber plants.
I went out to the garden to see what the birds were pecking at and found that all my little seedlings had been nibbled down to nubs. What could have possessed the birds to do that? I wondered. Since when do birds eat plants? Were they trying to send me a message?

Well, probably not. This was just my initiation into that fraternity of gardeners and farmers who, through the ages, have railed at the brickbats and insults and sometimes just plain mysterious curve balls that nature dishes up. Drought, hail, locusts and now birds. Welcome to the world of trying to grow your own food!

Mine is an inner-city garden, which makes me an urban farmer, I guess. Three years ago, I wrote an article for the local paper about a young farmer in Southern Maryland who is passionate about growing greens outdoors in winter. He loves nothing better than dressing up in a pair of Carhartt coveralls in the middle of January and picking arugula in the freezing cold.

I was inspired. My wife and I signed up to receive weekly deliveries of the farmer’s winter greens. And I wondered if there was any reason I could not do this in the city. I mean the growing food part, not the dressing up in Carharrts in the middle of winter part.

We live in a big house on a big corner lot in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington, about a mile from the White House. The neighborhood had fallen on hard times when we bought our house. There was no landscaping in the front yard. I had never given it much thought before. But now, instead of crab grass and dandelions and chickweed, I saw beds of tomatoes and cucumbers and carrots. I saw rows of leafy lettuces and tall, spiraling Brussels sprouts. I saw my own truck farm smack dab in the middle of the city that would feed not only me and my family, but my personal chef clients as well.

One day I picked up a spade and just started digging.

I may have neglected to mention that although there was no landscaping in our yard, my wife had plans for landscaping. Detailed plans.

“What are you doing?” she asked when I started digging.

“Planting vegetables,” I said.

“Where, exactly?” she asked.

“Right here,” I said, pointing to a spot in the front yard.

“Don’t get too attached,” she replied.

We did pretty well that year with my first vegetable bed. We harvested tons of cucumbers and radishes. The Brussels sprouts took forever, but eventually we had enough for a few meals. We had a fair crop of tomatoes, although the tomato plants came down with some kind of awful wilt. We had lettuce.

But I wanted more. So the next year I started digging again, tearing up sod, pulling tons of rocks and broken glass and strange pieces of metal out of the soil.

“What are you doing now?” my wife inquired.

“More vegetables,” I said.

“You can’t plant there,” she said. “That’s where the front walk is going.”

I kept digging. It was a race against time.

It is said that everyone longs to grow things, that we all have a secret dream of becoming a farmer. I think I was just following behind my father, a sort of renegade brush salesman who dug up part of the forest preserve behind our house when I was a kid to plant rhubarb and strawberries and tomatoes.

As my garden grew, I was determined to make it as self-sufficient as possible. Call it enviro-gardening: I started composting. I built a three-bin system to compost yard wastes and grass clippings and kitchen scraps. Pretty soon I was cruising the neighborhood, picking up bags of dried leaves my neighbors left at the curb.

Then I took classes to become a Master Gardener. Then I built a huge container garden at my daughter’s charter school down the hill.

Obviously, I was turning into some kind of gardening nut.

In the summer, I built trellises for the beans and the cucumbers to climb. The okra stood eight feet tall, exceeded only by the sunflowers and the amaranth. Now we also had huge beds of zinnia and marigolds and dill and basil. I had parsley to feed an army. I made dill pickles in August and pickled green tomatoes in October.

I kept waiting for someone to come along and say, “You can’t do that.” But the neighbors love it.

People—strangers--on their way to work stop, lean on the iron fence and chat about the gardens they had when they were growing up. How their grandmother used to plant Lima beans. People—strangers—stop at the red light across the street and shout encouragement out their car windows.

“What’re you planting there?” they shout.

“Oh, just about everything,” I shout back.

This year practically the whole yard is under cultivation. Yep, all except one little spot where my wife put her foot down. She keeps threatening to bring in a crew to start building a retaining wall. She keeps pointing to spots where my vegetables are going to be under a walkway.

I keep planting.

My wife and I have reached an accommodation. We are going to combine my vegetables and her design to make an edible landscape. As for the birds, I am hip to their tricks. This year I bought fabric row cover to keep them off my seedlings. Take that, you birds!


Joanna said...

Hate mail? Bizarre. I, too, wonder about how much you can "spread the word" - particularly since I can't claim to be perfect, I'm really only starting out on a journey ... but I'd like others to go on that journey too. It's just that, having neighbours who hate you is a very uncomfortable thing. Maybe engineered casual talk is better than email?


Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, you are right. People say things in e-mails they never would say in person. A conversation, engineered or otherwise, would be the better strategy. But really, I was musing on the idea more than anything, interested to see what other people thought of this idea...

susan harris said...

It's a movement, people; get used to it:

And what's with all the anonymity? I don't allow anonymous comments on my blogs and now I see why that's a good idea. Susan

lisa schamess said...

In some cities there are zoning laws on the books to prevent people from planting food crops in their front yards, just as there are laws on the books against keeping certain kinds of animals (and bees!)...maybe we will see that zoning can change to accommodate more self-sufficiency in urban settings? Maybe we will have to fight for that?

In any case, a lot of recent immigrants are happily planting their front gardens with corn and tomatoes and you name it. I worry about the soil quality and whether there is residual lead from all these decades of car traffic, but otherwise, live and let live.

I am intrigued by your commenter's implicit link between propriety, right thinking, and, um, vegetables.

You should be "ashamed" to be growing food in your "front" yard. Hmm. Because we want to grow food privately, because growing our own food is shameful?


Joanna said...

No link implied there, Lisa - my journey isn't just about vegetables (nor, I think, Ed's)... but, now that you mention it, there probably IS a link, along the lines of: grow or locally source your veg, eat more veg / less meat, proselytise = less emissions, less time for consumerism, better health for individuals and planet = right thinking. Spur of the moment thought, also early morning here, so not entirely thought out, but you get the drift.


grace said...

in california, my mom grows the most delicious plums in her backyard. she hangs throw-away CDs (remember when AOL kept bombarding mailboxes with them?) to scare away the birds.

Ed Bruske said...

Lisa and Joanna, I believe there is an important link between growing your own food and how you approach the rest of the world. I don't fault anyone for landscaping with ornamentals--meaning, not growing food--but I think those folk should make allowances for people who do want to have a relationship with the soil, who do want to engage in feeding themselves, whether on a farm or in the middle of the city.

Grace, I bet those plums tasted good, and you sure do have a strong memory of them.

WashingtonGardener said...

Had to weigh in:
- For many the FRONT yard is usually where all the sun is and ii just makes logical sense to grow veggies in the front and grass or whatever in the back.
- Many of my multi-culti neighbors are growing edibles up front -- one has a full front/side/back yard of squash vines - I love it!
- I'm mystified at the "shame" - does this person believe we should only eat in secret? Is food now akin to porn? I just don't get it.
- In 5 years when gas is $5+ a gallon and food costs major $$$s to truck here to the city, those same neighbors will be begging, borrowing, and stealing your edibles. Mark my words.

Ed Bruske said...

Kathy, those are my wife's sentiments as well. Although what she has in mind really is more of an edible "landscape" where the veggies will not just be growing willy-nilly and producing food, but will have an aesthetic purpose as well. You could also cite the famous French potagers that landscape those gorgeous old castles...