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It takes a village to make a garden

(article, Deborah Madison)

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Television weathermen, at least in cities, consistently rate approaching weather by whether or not golfing or sailing will be good on the weekend. Just once, it would be so gratifying to hear a newscaster say, “It’s going to rain this weekend if all goes well, because boy, we need rain!” And we always need rain in the desert. But they never say so.

We gardeners and farmers measure the weather by a different ruler. We look at our brave seedlings refusing to grow (or even germinate!) until warmth is assured. Or we watch our lettuce wilting in a hot, dry wind. Worse, we stand in a field of greens and witness its destruction by a three-minute hailstorm. Grow something, anything, even a six-pack of lettuce, and you too will be thinking a lot about the weather — your weather. And you will know why people so often talk about the weather, especially farmers.

[%image reference-image width=400 float=right caption="Brave seedlings waiting for the sun."] 

Despite all the curve balls weather throws, people are wanting to grow things this year in surprising numbers. “I want to have a victory garden,” says an older man who is staring at my beds of potatoes and greens, practically envious. Another young couple says the same thing. Then another. Every other person I talk to seems to want a garden, and they want gardens now. (Notice I didn’t say they want to garden; they want gardens. Hopefully they will like to garden once they have them. Gardens aren’t objects in the usual sense, after all.)

My neighbor hired a young man named Sean to put in a garden for her. He dug the soil, made the bed, grew the plants, planted them, and then drip-soaked them. His company of one, called Earthen Access, provides a turnkey garden, but he’ll also work side by side with a client.

“I sell victory gardens,” says Sean. He’s not old enough to have known them, but he’s read about them and he’s attracted — passionately — to the notions that during World War II, America grew 70 percent of its food in backyards, that we might once again have to feed ourselves, and that even if we don’t have to, there’s much to be said for growing some food and working outdoors. Sean's 20- and 30-something clients think of victory gardens as existing in opposition to corporations. 

[%image hen float=left width=400 caption="A city chicken."]

“They want them, even though they don’t know anything about food,” Sean says.

“So, how’s business?” I ask him.

“I can’t keep up!” he says.

Recently I suggested to a friend, Ken, that he design and build grow beds, something like Sean’s project, but without the plants and soil. Actually, I wanted some for my garden. Ken worked out a plan for a sturdy, well-built red-cedar bed that comes with hoops and coverings for summer and winter — and gopher-proof mesh. He happened to have one in the back of his truck when he went into Whole Foods one day. When he came out, he had a crowd of people ready to order, and business hasn’t stopped.

Maybe next winter I’ll get mine.

At a local-foods festival near Albuquerque, another fellow was also making grow beds, while a second had designed portable chicken coops for the backyard, just large enough for three hens. He was passing out flyers like mad. A Ph.D. candidate in Florida, Sam, is also making chicken coops; he calls his company Coupe de Ville, and he made 10 in the last month.

“There are a lot of folks with great gardens and now chickens,” Sam says. “Backyard coops are definitely on the rise. I was talking to a chicken breeder and he said that this year he ran out of hens because of their increasing popularity as people want fresh eggs, more cost-effective eggs, fun eggs, etc.”

Sam, who has a garden and chickens, described the quiche he and his wife had made “using our eggs, tomatoes, onions, and elephant garlic and zucchini from our garden.” 

At an Albuquerque farmers' market in late May, a 12-year-old girl was selling young hens she had raised for people who wanted chickens. And next to her was a booth filled with nifty, well-designed alternatives to the ugly orange rain barrels we all use here to catch runoff. Our Santa Fe nurseries are selling starts, but not the usual ones. Instead, they’re growing all kinds of heirlooms. The owner of one nursery says that he takes suggestions from local gardeners and does the growing for them, which nicely solves the problem of what to do with all 100 zucchini seeds.

I can’t help but feel something very interesting is going on, that this is a time of big change, a time when people are wanting to reclaim some independence from unwieldy food systems in favor of some degree of self-sufficiency — whether it’s having a bed of lettuce and three hens for eggs, or a huge, full-fledged garden. 

[[block(sidebar).

h1.Lovage Sandwich

Generously butter a slice of whole-grain bread, using cultured butter or a good sweet butter. Add a pinch of salt. Press lovage leaves into the butter, then cover with cucumbers, sliced the long way and seasoned with sea salt and pepper. Top with a second slice of lightly buttered bread. The butter holds it all together. Cut it into bite-sized pieces and serve with a gin and tonic made from cucumbery Hendrick’s gin. Especially good after planting potatoes.

]]

It’s hard to grow a garden if you’ve never done it, if you don’t have much time, and if have heavy clay soil and a weak back — even if you have a strong back. Gardening doesn’t just happen overnight. Victory gardens could happen because people already knew how to grow vegetables, but that’s not true anymore. So these new little businesses — grow beds, chicken coops, poultry, rain barrels — are a boon to those who want to start fending for themselves by feeding themselves, but who, realistically, can’t start from scratch and do it all alone. 

I doubt that any of our new victory gardeners will put an end to their trips to the farmers’ markets. And we small-time gardeners certainly won’t replace farmers. But as the demand for local foods grows — they’re wanted now not only in homes and restaurants but in schools and businesses — maybe individuals can, in fact, help out by growing the most local food possible in their own yards, front and back.

In the meantime, my garden is still holding back until the weather cooperates, but my lovage is fantastic and huge. A lovage sandwich is an excellent thing to have with drinks at the end of the day, as you survey the fruits of your labors. Enjoy it before the leaves get tough.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.


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