In the Garden

Scott P. Richert“How’s your garden doing this year?”  It’s a familiar question, as normal as the greeting that began the conversation and the goodbye that will end it.  I cannot start a conversation with my grandmother, or an aunt or uncle or cousin, without being asked the question within a minute or two—or, depending on the time of year, one of the related questions: “So, are you going to put out a garden this year?” and “How did your garden do?”To the outside observer, the question might seem like idle chit-chat, the kind of thing you say when you don’t know what else to talk about—like asking about the weather.  But listen a little longer, and you realize that there’s more to it; the question is only the beginning of the conversation, because they each have gardens, too.  How many tomato plants did you put out?  What varieties of peppers?  The melons are doing well, but the squash failed early in the season.  It’s been a great year for okra.  You grow everything in raised beds, don’t you?

We talk about the weather, too, because it tells us something about the state of our gardens.  We’ve had too much rain; they haven’t had enough.  The hot, dry weather, ironically, has made for the best watermelons in years, because they grow like wildfire and send down amazing taproots.  The last frost was early, and it looks like the first frost will be late; this may be the longest growing season in years.  Some of our fruit trees bloomed too early, however, because we had a stretch of warm weather before that last frost, so we’ll have no plums or mountain ash berries this year.

We never talk, though, about “the environment” or “global warming” or “greenhouse gases” or “carbon emissions.”  More often than not, the people who chatter on endlessly about such things would have to answer “How’s your garden doing this year?” with “I don’t have a garden.”  Too busy worrying about “the environment” while spending most of their day engaged in activities that increase carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, they do not have any time left to spend with, and in, nature.  They have never consciously reduced nature to the abstraction of “the environment”; the very structure of their lives has done it for them.

When I was younger, talking about our gardens was a common activity among most of the people I knew.  Now, I rarely hold such conversations with anyone other than family or coworkers.  Partly, that’s because I grew up in a small village along a river that flowed through some of the best farmland in the Midwest.  Our yards were large; our soil, fertile; and families had plenty of children to send out to weed and water and harvest.

Now, though, I live in a mid-sized city, which surrounds a river that flows through some of the best farmland in the Midwest.  City folk today are less likely to plant a garden (at least a vegetable garden), but you can still see, especially in certain older neighborhoods, where gardens and home orchards used to be.  Raised beds and terraced sections of back yards are covered with grass.  Apple trees, beechnuts, mulberries, edible crab apples go unharvested except by birds and bugs and squirrels, while the homeowners purchase unripe pears from California and Chile, hazelnuts imported from Turkey, and gigantic but tasteless Mexican-grown raspberries at $3.99 a pint.

There’s an inverse relationship between the rising cost of industrially raised fruit and vegetables and their declining flavor and quality.  You simply cannot ship a ripe tomato to Rockford from Mexico or California, so they are picked green and artificially ripened in the trucks on the way here.  (Any that ripen on the vine are sold to canners for tomato juice or paste or sauce.)  For the dubious pleasure of eating a bland and often mealy tomato, we pay for the cost of transportation and of the ripening agent.  As late as a decade or two ago, most people purchased such produce only in the winter, because even chain supermarkets bought what fruit and vegetables they could locally during the growing season.  Now, you can’t find a naturally ripened tomato or peach in a Rockford supermarket in August.  In part, that’s because there’s less and less locally grown produce for stores to buy; but sadly, it’s also often a conscious decision based on corporate logistics and supply lines, as well as a desire to provide “consumers” with a consistent “product” throughout the year—even if it’s consistently bad.

When the “fresh” produce that’s available is so unappealing, is it any wonder that people turn to processed foods that at least have flavor, however artificial and unattractive that flavor might be to anyone with even a slightly refined palate?  But processed foods, of course, require more energy and more chemicals and travel farther between field and plate than even raw industrial produce does.

In the end, it all takes its toll—on “the environment,” on our culture, our neighborhoods, our families, our health.  Congress and the United Nations spend time and resources debating the causes of global warming and environmental degradation and negotiating treaties and laws to set standards and goals and restrictions, and taxpayers pay—both monetarily and in loss of freedom—to implement it all.  Of course, we also pay taxes to support federally subsidized industrial agriculture and state and local tax breaks for the national chains that contribute so much to the very phenomena that Congress and the United Nations wish to eradicate.

How much, I wonder, could carbon emissions and greenhouse gases be reduced if all those who could devoted a little corner of their yard to a garden, and bought other produce at their local farmers’ market or through a CSA (community-supported agriculture) or coop, and patronized, when possible, those locally owned grocery stores that still try to purchase produce nearby?  What if people lived the way that people used to live, instead of neglecting their own responsibilities and clamoring for legislation to deal with the consequences?

One thing is certain: Children would grow up once again knowing what a tomato really tastes like.  And they would have something to talk about the next time their grandmother calls.

Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles.This article first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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