A Year in the Garden
Eating home-grown food is an enormously satisfying experience. On a beautiful fall day, the pleasure of eating raw broccoli right off the stem was superior to eating it in most restaurants I’ve been to. Sharing my extra potted plants with neighbors and friends was especially gratifying as we compared notes and tips and they bragged about how well the collards and potatoes were doing in their backyard soil.
The elaborate planning and hard work that went into helping greens emerge from the ground, combined with the anxiety involved in protecting them and watching them change and grow daily and finally a quick, exciting harvest reminds me somehow of the preparation Olympic athletes make in advance of the big event. But maybe that’s because I was watching NBC while writing this essay.
Being part of TheLocalBeet put me in contact with growers, retailers, chefs and eaters who think carefully before they plant a seed, stock their shelves, select produce or fill their families’ mouths. Some of these people shared the same experience of reading Michael Pollan to awaken them to this new way of thinking. Many were simply raised that way. In truth, though, most people I know could care less where their food came from as long as it’s not poisoned (in itself an article of faith that has little reason for trust). Whether their chard came from Switzerland, Chile or Chicago means little as long as the price is about the same. But most people don’t make the effort to compare the taste, texture and appearance of one farm’s vegetable to another and many farmers who put their hearts into growing a better product decry their inability to convince the buying public to demand to know where their food was grown, let alone whether soil differs from one location to another. Hanging around and reading about locavores for the past year has taught me that the difference between quality local food and commodity food has a value that can be measured. It may not always be worth it for me, but buying local food has become a more regular activity for me than buying organic ever was.
My tenure as a LocalBeet writer helped springboard me into another (volunteer *sigh*) position in helping launch the Morton Grove Farmers’ Market. This has has been a terrific opportunity to work with some dedicated people and some extremely cooperative village officials. Tellingly, most people I speak to about the market are more interested in creating a regular community event—the locavorism is a side benefit.
Since planning my own garden, I have gained a respect for farmers and growers and have talked with about the mundane aspects of planning, growing and harvesting. In a few weeks I will attend a Farm to Fork forum, focusing on the economics of growing sustainable food, an aspect of agriculture that leaves me bewildered. But for some people, the value of improving our local economy and society by supporting our neighbors who grow our food is something to invest in. That’s something that just a few years ago I might not have understood.
Also, in previous years, my wife and I just threw seeds or seedlings in the ground and made do with whatever came up. Being asked to write about the experience encouraged me to plan carefully, to set goals and to do research. I challenged myself as a gardener knowing I would be brutally honest in my reporting, and while the soil did most of the work, I’m proud of my results.
One other benefit to come out of the last year of writing for TheLocalBeet is something I could never have predicted. After a childhood of suffering repeated wasp and bee stings, and an adulthood of wincing at the sound of buzzing insects and often avoiding the outdoors for fear of being stung, an assignment put me in the center of a hive of busy honeybees. Standing on a Chicago rooftop last summer while Anthony McKinney showed off his urban hives was a life-changing experience. Since that day, I’ve barely flinched as bees pass me by. Between the research I did to prepare for the article and the zen-like sensation of standing calmly (protected by a bee suit and bonnet) while the ladies went about their business swept away my phobia, a la Fear Factor. I’m all better now, thank you. And I hope the girls are tolerating their first Chicago winter well.
My biggest disappointment were the pawpaw seeds given to me by Oriana’s Home Orchard. I let Oriana down, and the seeds never sprouted. Our backyard is pawpaw free, which is probably not such a tragedy, as we are selling our house and the soil I so carefully tended and fertilized will become someone else’s property (soon, we hope). Still, the education that I received taught me a lot, and I look forward to starting a new, more productive garden on some other patch of land.