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Last year I decided I was finally going to learn how to grow a proper vegetable garden. I’m not new to either vegetables or to gardening—in fact, in my daily life I could be mistaken as somewhat of a “plant expert” where I work, as a visual merchandiser at a garden center. With a few plant ID classes and a lot of time around nurseries under my belt, I can answer questions about plant illnesses and rattle off botanical names with the best of the plant nerds—but behind this image of horticultural prowess lurks a shameful secret: I can’t grow a decent tomato to save my life.
One year when my finances were especially lean, my dad suggested I garden to supplement my food budget.
“Can’t you grow some vegetables and reduce your grocery bill that way? Any little bit helps,” he reminded me. I hesitated.
The truth is, each year I do put a tomato plant or two in the ground, along with a casual sprinkling of fertilizer in May or June (or sometimes, as late as a relaxed early July). After watering a few times I then completely abandon them; from this routine I consistently earn a small handful of desperate tiny cherry tomatoes that arrive sporadically throughout August and September—even if their variety was supposed to be a “Roma” or “Slicer” type of tomato, all tomatoes are rendered equally forsaken and puny in my garden. Any basil planted goes straight to the bugs, while the rosemary and thyme never realize their culinary ambitions and remain purely ornamental. I will, however, get to eat a strawberry here and there—should the plants manage to produce a crop on the outskirts of the veggie bed, where it honestly gets dry as a desert precipice by July, and should I remember to get to them before the slugs.
“I don’t think I can grow enough produce at my place to really make a dent in the grocery bill,” I responded to my dad vaguely. You see, he grew up on a farm in Ohio and is an organic and non-GMO food advocate. Growing produce is a family tradition—and profession, as my great-grandfather was an agricultural scientist who contributed to the development of modern hydroponic gardening and even wrote a book called The Vegetable Encyclopedia and Gardener’s Guide. Under this weighty mantle of familial inheritance, it’s always been hard for me to admit to my dad that I’m such a slacker when it comes to veggies.
This lack of agricultural prowess makes me not only a black sheep in the family but also an exception amongst the neo-homesteading culture that is especially prevalent—and political—in Portland, Oregon. Come Spring each year the air is thick with aspirations towards a sustainable and virtuous Mason jar and apple crate-decorated lifestyle. Everyone here seems to keep chickens for eggs and bees for honey, plus runs their own home canning operation and maintains at least a few raised beds and fruit trees—everyone except me, that is.
One year my friend Kirsten asked me about my plans for the garden at my then-home. Kirsten then lived on a yurt at a Community Supported Agriculture farm with her husband, Shaun. Far more economical and resourceful with nature’s offerings than most people would ever aspire to be, when Kirsten and Shaun see roadkill they are often known to pull over to pick up the carcass and render hides for fashioning new boots or hats.
“What kind of crops are you going to plant this year?” Kirsten asked—not whether I would plant them, but which kind.
“Well, I’ll do a few veggies in the bed by the patio,” again skirting the issue of discussing the ill-fated tomato bed in much depth, “but most of the yard is for all the other stuff.”
“What ‘other stuff’?” Kirsten asked, perplexed.
As much as she couldn’t fathom what else a person would dig in the dirt for, I didn’t even know where to begin. I grow plants for their beauty, not for any practical purpose that would serve me or other humans. Actually, simply being in nature is proven to improve health and quality of life, of course. Beyond that, appreciation of nature and the perception of beauty helps us stay connected with the rhythm of life and the universe. I wouldn’t dare take this on as a platform against a sustainability advocate (especially not one from Portland, or my dad for that matter), but I have always enjoyed the quiet ethos of growing plants to feed my soul—rather than my gut.
There’s the shade bed along the perimeter of the back garden where grows a Hosta that’s now nearly as big as I am; the bamboo-filled containers, potted heliotrope and geraniums on the patio; the hot sunny bed along the side of the house with New Zealand and Mediterranean plants, and then the front North-facing bed where fuchsias, conifers, and Cyclamen battle some tremendously tough and fertile weeds that I spend much of each summer making futile (but at least, poison-free) efforts to eradicate.
To be fair, my plants are not grown solely for pleasure; they also serve as green (or mottled or purple or striped) markers of my life and reminders of the people in it. I look at the hydrangea and hope my friend José comes to town while it’s flowering this year, because it’s his favorite shrub and he always likes to take a bouquet to his mother on his visits from New Orleans. I keep an eye on the soil beneath the mimosa tree, looking for signs of the flower seeds I scattered last year as a memorial to commemorate Nonnie, my maternal grandmother, and her love of flower gardening. A few of the plants in my yard were planted by former roommates, or by the squirrels and birds who like to rearrange things a bit each year. Others came from cuttings of the many species I planted at my mom’s house before I had a place of my own—most of which originally came from the free pile at the nursery where I worked back then. Much of the rest of the garden came from friends whose homes foreclosed in the dark years between 2009 and 2011; more than once I attended a work party at friends’ foreclosed homes, and like horticultural rescue teams, with shovels and buckets and nursery pots, we furtively dug up long-established plants as carefully and quickly as possible.
“I can walk away from the house and the man just fine,” my friend Jillian lamented, “but the Hellebores! I can’t leave my Hellebores!” Her only comfort was that at least her beloved plant friends would grow on in the gardens of people whose homes she visited often. And each year, her purple hellebore comes into bloom in my shade bed, a symbol of survival and new beginnings.
So you can see why my gardening energy is drawn towards these sentimental and aesthetically appealing plants that come back reliably year after year, instead of dealing with some scraggly squash plant gasping for life over in the “Edible Bed.”
“It will only be there a couple more months anyway,” I often find myself thinking, passing over the desperate vine with a brief hose sprinkling. That’s the other tough thing about edible gardening: it’s so much effort that all goes into annual plants that are only with you for a season. At the end of the summer, you take everything they have to offer, all of their efforts towards their own biological reproduction, and summarily rip them out. This reminds me of Nonnie’s argument against the logic of vegetarianism:
“Anything that’s living has to be killed for us to eat it; when you pull a carrot out of the ground, you’re ending its life,” she would say pragmatically. “Is a carrot any less worthy of life than a cow?”
What we innocently call “vegetable gardening,” then, is only ritual plant murder. I wouldn’t tell that to a permaculture activist, but maybe that is part of my block around nurturing my peppers and squash along to term—because I know I’ll only have to kill them. Like many a city kid, somewhere in my psyche there probably lurks a Pollyanna version of nature, where humans and plants and animals all live alongside one another in a nonviolent, picturesque tableau.
Still, I admire the knowledge and economic efficiency of the neo-homesteaders. And it stands to reason that if I can maintain an entire landscape of perennial and hardy plants, I should be able to grow at least some of my own food, right? That’s why I don’t want to give up yet, even though my track record is poor.
My last hope, it seems, to address this gardening handicap is to hop on the “edibles are beautiful” trend that is hot in the gardening magazines lately. This is a gardening trend that I could really get behind. If the aesthete in me can be retrained to experience the scratchy leaves of tomatoes and the crowded faces of marigolds as “beautiful,” perhaps I can be lured to tend them more consistently. I’ll have to keep the end-of-season killing time, aka “the harvest,” out of mind.
To experiment with this new approach, instead of torturing anew that same 4’ x 6’ plot of land, last year at the garden center I had the idea to build an employee community vegetable garden. The idea was the garden would provide food for the staff while demonstrating that edible gardening can be done in a small amount of space, and that is can be just as visually appealing as an ornamental bed. For the sake of my gardening self-image, and for the survival of the plants going into these beds, I really hoped this would all be proven true–and the fact that the beds were to be a shared responsibility boded well for our collective success. But what ended up happening was the clearing out of the area where the beds were going to be kept took way longer than anticipated, and the beds were never in fact built. I scaled back my ambitions to simply two small raised beds built onto a pallet, which could be moved around as needed throughout the season. And move them around we did–or rather, out of the way–as by late August there was only a scraggly, desperate-looking bunch of onions outcompeted by an aggressive mint-like thing. And that was that.
This year–every spring is a new beginning, a second chance, right?–I have scaled back my ambitions even further, and my only nod to the idea of urban farming is one medium-sized focal point display situated between the fruits. Provided the plants are watered regularly, this approach should be pretty bulletproof, as none of the plants are actually planted, they’re just in containers–which could be sold and taken home to a loving family at any time–and the entire set-up is entirely temporary. I admit to nursing dreams of living on a farm someday, and having the know-how to participate in it like a true earth mother. But for now, I will stick to making things look pretty and buying my produce on sale.