The joy and rewards of growing your own

Get ready. On Nov. 3 at 2 a.m. we will “fall back” to Standard Time. Those who like to come home from work and putter in the garden have already felt the curfew of the shortening days, and soon there will be a whole hour less for leaf clean-up, compost-making, beet-digging and other fall jobs, so there’s a little urgency in the air.

Daylight Saving Time, an idea originally conceived by Benjamin Franklin to save fuel, was finally established in 1918, coinciding with a great revival in backyard vegetable growing. The reason for both was war. An army of American gardeners took up shovel and hoe to make up for food scarcity, send provisions abroad, and help ensure the nation’s self-sufficiency.

Rail transport needed to be conserved for the war effort, and energy of all kinds rationed. So citizens burned fewer lights and used that extra after-work hour to grow peas and broccoli in their “War Gardens.” During World War II these plots were revived as “Victory Gardens,” producing as much as 40 percent of vegetables consumed.

Community gardens sprang up in city lots and people weeded with patriotic fervor, pleased to have a productive way to pitch in — and enjoy a better diet.

When peace came, home gardening again declined and our food supply became more centralized than ever. Farms were consolidated and relied heavily on the petrochemical fertilizers that emerged from the cauldrons of the gunpowder factories. Each year food traveled farther from farm to plate.

American agriculture leans on fossil fuel at every step. The result is a food supply that seems a cornucopia by most of the world’s standards, kept artificially cheap by subsidies and taken entirely for granted, a giant feeding trough that is almost always full. But the entire system could grind to a halt. Perhaps nothing will befall it, but many things could: war, terrorist acts, weather disasters, pandemics, a depression, a shortfall between the end of our current fuel sources and their replacement by safe renewable ones.

The problem isn’t just that these threats are becoming more disturbing, it’s that our food supply is no longer in our own hands.

Here’s the good news: it wouldn’t be that hard to get it back and there are hopeful signs that the work has begun. Even as big farms get bigger, the number of tiny ones increases, offering their harvests at local farmers markets or through CSAs (subscription farms).

A growing food security movement views local, community-based agriculture, quite rightly, as an important means of lifting people out of poverty, and its best efforts give people the pride of growing their own sustenance. If we would only recognize it, our towns and even our cities abound in arable land waiting to be tilled, currently disguised as “lawn.”

I can imagine a day when the greenswards surrounding empty industrial parks become our salvation. Ironically it was Henry Ford, the godfather of motorized transport who said “No unemployment insurance can be compared to an alliance between man and a plot of land.”

The reasons why I grow my own food have nothing to do with a sense of fear and foreboding. I make time for it because I enjoy doing it and because I love the taste of what I grow.

Still, it is reassuring to know that if push came to shove my family could be fed within the closed circle of our yard. We would plant in soil enriched with compost from wastes the garden and kitchen provide. By eating food appropriate to the season, root cellaring some crops, drying and canning others, making sure we grew enough staples like corn, potatoes and dried beans, we could be self-sufficient.

We wouldn’t even have to buy seeds if we grew only open-pollinated varieties rather than hybrids, so that we could save the seed from each year’s crop to plant the next. I hate using power equipment anyway, and the garden wouldn’t suffer from lack of fuel.

We’d all miss chocolate and olive oil, and I personally would suffer a bleak period of withdrawal if coffee was no longer shipped up from the south, but we would survive. And so could you. Cities might even relax their rules about keeping chickens and pigs. Think about it: if disaster struck, which would you need more, your accumulated frequent flier miles or a large bed of parsnips to be dug through the winter?

In 1918, more people knew how to raise food than do today. Luckily, it isn’t hard to learn, and if you can grow a small garden you’ll have a head start if you ever need a bigger one. It’s a great skill to have on hand — worth far more than a cupboard filled with canned spaghetti or instant pudding, and a lot more useful than duct tape.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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