—that is the question:—‎
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The bugs and weeds of outrageous (but typical) vegetable gardens,‎
Or to take arms against a sea of carrots imported from California,
And by growing our own end them?—to buy,—to sleep,—‎
No more; and by sleep to say we enjoy
Once again the gorgeous and scarce summer weekends
Instead of shelling peas, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wisht…‎

by Margaret Martin

My thanks to William Shakespeare for allowing me to revise Hamlet’s soliloquy in support of my blog. If you’re wondering what happened to the blog this summer, I have two words for you: ‎vegetable. garden. In mid-July I swore I would not be doing this again next year. I live in a part of the world in ‎which I can get pretty decent fresh fruit and vegetables year-round, including a fair amount of ‎locally grown and organic food. Home food production makes no sense at all, unless you are ‎crazy or have lots of time on your hands. I made some calculations this summer to prove it:
Two people shelling peas calmly for two hours yields approximately 4 pints, an amount I ‎could buy at Morning Glory, our natural foods store, for about $12, organic, frozen, available ‎year-round, from Washington state. They taste good, too. That’s $3/hour for our labor, just for ‎the shelling. It doesn’t include all the work and cost that happened before that: converting a ‎hunk of field into good vegetable garden soil, buying seed, planting, weeding, watering, ‎harvesting, boiling the water to blanch the peas, and making the ice to cool them down ‎quickly before freezing them. Don’t forget the propane used to boil the water and the ‎electricity used to make the ice and then to keep the peas frozen all winter.‎

And that is just the peas. Other food, such as tomatoes and peppers, get started from seed ‎under a light, in February or March, with a heat mat under them, getting checked for moisture ‎levels almost daily, then “hardened off” by taking them out during the day once frost is past ‎and brought back in at night before you can actually plunk them down in the garden for good. ‎Then they have to be watered daily until they have settled into their new home. There ‎are also the vegetables that don’t make sense to freeze or can, such as potatoes. If you can ‎get a root cellar put together—no small task—you then need to monitor the humidity and ‎temperature all winter so your valuable produce doesn’t go bad.‎

Then there’s the issue of actually having the time to weed and deal with pests and pick and ‎process the food. If you have a regular full-time job and you want to relax once in a while and ‎enjoy the summertime life, either you work all the time at your second job (the Garden) or you ‎let half or more of the food go by. Or you call up your non-crazy friends (the ones without ‎gardens—why do I not have very many of those?) and get them to come over and pick their ‎own. I roped my mother and her husband into actually WEEDING as part of the deal this year.

Of course, you couldn’t buy the TASTE of freshly-picked and shelled peas too easily, and it is ‎utterly satisfying to make a meal with food you grew yourself. There’s also the whole political ‎side of the story—take back your food production, go local, good for the environment, ‎decrease dependence on petroleum products, and so on. Lots of people have written ‎about this, including Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where it sounds so ‎romantic and just and where making your own cheese is like Julia Child whipping up the ‎proverbial soufflé (actually, it is not that easy). And there are the apocalypse folks who believe that when our whole ‎economic infrastructure goes to hell, you will be glad you have all of your food in the ‎basement and seeds you saved from last year’s crop in the pantry. All good reasons to produce your own food, for sure, and I’m as enthralled as the ‎next crazy gardener when it comes to watching gorgeous little pink and white beans turn into ‎big, healthy plants full of beans that are also gorgeous AND delicious AND keep your belly ‎full. I’m not jaded or bitter. I have been in love with that process since I started hanging ‎around the UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden Project in the early 90’s. Just for the record, I am not going to let my Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association membership lapse. But is it really practical? And is it really worth the work and time? ‎Maybe I’m trading one kind of healthy activity for another by weeding and ‎canning and freezing instead of walking and kayaking and swimming.‎ Producing your own food and relying on it can be fun, but it is also—at times—a serious, stressful business.

I have a neighbor who is 85, a tiny lady who still chops her own wood and likes to trade ‎recipes for getting rid of tomato blight. I think she has the best take on the whole ‎thing. She just smiles a little smile, shrugs and says, “Gardening is a disease I get every spring.”

I’m ‎already thinking about what I’ll be growing next year.‎

Monday, Oct. 4, 2010