Are Ugly Gardens a Feminist Issue?

The garden blogosphere is aflame with arguments about this post from Robin on Garden Rant. Her argument basically is that ugly vegetable gardens give gardening a bad name, and gardeners should clean up their act — or at least their vegetable patch.

I’m not sure how to respond to this. I love a good-looking ornamental garden. Northern Gardener profiles at least one fantastic garden in every issue, and I have tried hard to keep at least part of my own yard looking good. (Operative word: Tried.) But, hey, no one’s perfect. Life intervenes. People get sick. Jobs get busy. Or, in this economy, jobs disappear. Children need extra attention, or parents do, or spouses, or maybe some weekends, you just need to ride your bike or do something other than weed. And, not every gardener has the cash to invest in artwork or fancy pots or a designer to help them figure out what looks good.

After reading Robin’s post and a few of the responses, I could not help but wonder if this whole ugly garden debate smacks of rivalry among women, a pervasive, really tiresome force in our society. Gardening is largely (though certainly not entirely) a female sport. And, the vast majority of garden bloggers are women. Is this the old cool girls vs. nerds, stay-at-home moms vs. working mothers, Sandy vs. Rizzo deal? Oh, please, say it is not.

In solidarity with the ugly gardeners, I’m posting a photo of one of my less attractive garden ideas. (If I were at my other computer, I’d have some really unattractive photos to post.) Growing food is a feminist issue, as this recent book argues.  But it has nothing to do with how attractive your vegetable patch looks.

Seeds for Survival?

This morning’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune brings news of the latest must-have item for survivalists. For $149, you can buy a canister filled with enough heirloom seeds to plant an acre of vegetables, enough to feed a small group of people for a year.

Several authors of a decidedly non-survivalist bent (if you want to use a crude red/blue, liberal/conservative yardstick) have written books on how to grow your own and the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of doing that. My favorites are This Organic Life, by Joan Dye Gussow, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. Both books tell the story of how a family began to live off its own land — in Gussow’s case, a standard suburban lot. Last spring, Northern Gardener profiled a couple from Prior Lake, Mn., who fed themselves and three teen-age sons very well from a large vegetable garden. Obviously, you can grow much of the food a family needs on an acre or less.

What this survivalist seed offer seems to ignore, though, is that to “grow your own” you need a good deal more than seeds: You need knowledge, and lots of it. Most of the folks I’ve known over the years who are very self-sufficient grew up on farms, or they devoted considerable study to horticulture and animal husbandry as they gradually moved to a grow-you-own approach. To successfully garden on a largish scale (particularly post-apocalypse), you need to know when and how to plant seeds, how to sharpen and repair tools, how to make your own compost and build your soil, how to build fences to keep critters out of the garden, and, if you are an omnivore, how to keep and butcher chickens or other animals among many other things. Most importantly, you have to know how to process enough food to get you through the winter .

So, to any survivalists out there, I say, by all means, put down your guns and plant a garden — though you may be able to get a better deal on seeds than $149. Buy some canning equipment, too, and a dehydrator. Go to the library or a book dealer and pick up a couple of basic manuals on going it alone, such as the 1940s classic The “Have More” Plan or the more recent, The Backyard Homesteader. Enjoy yourselves, learn some skills, and you may find that whether the world ends or not, working in your garden has given you a healthier, happier life — and that’s a lot better than just surviving.

Seed Catalogs in June?

Another sign of the rise of the grow-your-own-food movement arrived in my mailbox today: I got a seed catalog — for vegetables, in June.

The Territorial Seed winter catalog includes dozens of varieties of vegetables to grow in greenhouses, hoop-houses or other season-extending apparatus. As you might expect, the catalog leans toward cool-weather crops: beets, greens, peas, cabbage, and cauliflower as well as a few varieties of greenhouse tomatoes. It also includes books on growing your own food and canning and other food-preservation equipment.

“The winter garden is the key to year-round food security,” says Tom Johns, the company president in a letter in the catalog.  I don’t remember ever getting a vegetable catalog at this time of year, though Johns’ letter says that the company has promoted winter gardening as part of its goal of “improving people’s self-sufficiency” for 30 year.

The catalog speaks to the public’s increasing anxiety about food cost and food safety.  According to a Gallup/USA Today poll last year, 73 percent of Americans are concerned about rising food cost and an industry survey this year indicates that a similar percentage of people are worried about food safety. Admittedly, that survey came on the heels of the peanut butter recall — but the concern about food safety makes some sense. A generation ago, most people ate most meals at home, made from scratch — by someone who loved them. (Thanks for all that cooking, Mom!) Now people eat out more and eat more highly processed foods. The result is more opportunities for contamination from more sources.

Can we garden our way to food safety and security? Like some of my fellow garden bloggers, I’m dubious that people are turning to gardening out of fear of the economy or food-borne illness. New gardeners typically spend more than they save. And the idea that “the big one” is coming and we’ll all be back to living off the land doesn’t strike me as a positive reason to take up gardening. While some gardeners can grow a significant part of their own food, that requires skills in food preservation as well as gardening — and it helps if you live in Zone 6 or higher.

But growing some vegetables — no matter where you live or how many you grow — will increase the nutrients you get from your food and it will remarkably increase your enjoyment of it.  Nothing is as wonderful as tomato and green bean salad from the garden or a big batch of pesto you made. Just picked raspberries — wow! A  melon from your patch — amazing. Gardening also helps you learn new skills, understand nature better, and it gets your eyes off of screens and gives your body some fresh air. Those are great reasons to garden — no matter what the time of year.

Cherry (and Apple and Crabapple) Blossom Time

'Bali' cherry blossoms
'Bali' cherry blossoms

For a few years in the 1980s, I lived and worked in Washington, D.C.  Spring is long and glorious around the Capitol city, so visitors and residents enjoy two months or more of blossoming trees, including magnolias, cherries, dogwoods, crabapples, quince, and many others. The blossoming tree season here is much more compressed, which makes it more startling when it arrives and more precious, I think.

We’ve hit that moment in the year when trees and shrubs have burst into bloom. My cherry tree began blossoming this weekend as did both of the apple trees in back. Lilacs will follow soon enough. We went to the Metrodome Sunday to watch the Twins play and hear the Northfield High School choir sing the national anthem, and on the walk back to the car, I could not stop looking at the massive flowering crabapple trees that line the sidewalks near the Hennepin County Medical Center. These must be old trees as their trunks are about a foot in diameter and the branches were covered with pink and deep lavender flowers. What better sign of spring than a flowering tree, all beauty and promise, gaudy and grand.

Haralson apple blossom
Haralson apple blossom

Critics of flowering trees — yes, there are critics — don’t like the mess these trees create. They drop petals all over the sidewalk, and many of the older varieties drop fruit in the fall. (My mother made crabapple jelly from the fruits of the tree in our yard when I was growing up.) They require a lot of clean-up for only a couple of weeks of show, they say.  So what? The two or three weeks in which we enjoy flowering trees are among the most beautiful weeks in a Minnesota year. Let’s enjoy them.

Dried Bean Philosophy

Pretty, but not dried yet.

What follows: A rambling discourse written over several days about dried beans, home gardens, and the creative impulse.

The Cherokee Trail of Tears beans I planted this summer tasted great green, but also can be used as a dried bean. I’ve never grown dried beans before so I left a few pods on the vines late this summer to get a harvest of dried beans. These are exceptionally handsome beans. I loved the bright purple of the beans in their pods before they dried out, and the shiny black pearl look of the beans after the pod has dried.

My harvest was small — only about 4 cups of dried beans once I’d taken the pods off, but they will make a delicious black bean soup some cold winter day. As I was cracking open the pods and collecting the beans a couple of weeks ago — one of those repetitive, contemplative tasks we don’t get enough of anymore — I couldn’t help thinking how important a harvest like this would have been 100 or more years ago. Dried beans were an accessible, cheap form of protein then — the kind of food people depended on in difficult times. To grow enough beans for a family, how many rows would I need — and how many hours would it take to shell and clean and store all of those beans?

There are many books out now about growing your own food, both of the how-to and we-did-it variety. And, I love both kinds, though I know that I’m unlikely to ever adopt anything remotely close to a “back to the land” lifestyle. So, what is the lure of the idea of growing your own?

Some of it may stem from the natural anxiety people feel about the world today. It seems a scarier place than it has been in the past, and that’s understandable, what with superbugs, global warming, food contamination, wars, terrorism, and the endless stream of gore and violence against women and children that passes for entertainment in our culture. Being self-sufficient — or at least reading about it — may give us a sense of protection against those anxieties; something along the lines of, “If it all falls apart, I can grow my own food.”

But I also think the desire to be self-sufficient and capable, through gardening, is a desire for a more creative, hands-on, day-to-day life than many of us have. Recently, I re-read a book of essays by the late Paul Gruchow called Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (Milkweed, 1995).

One of the extraordinary privileges of my youth was that I worked for a few months at the Worthington Daily Globe in southwestern Minnesota, where Paul Gruchow was then managing editor. Though the Globe covered the same kinds of mundane and exciting issues other small papers did, Paul’s tough editorial eye and gentle prodding ensured we wrote with as much grace and empathy as each of us young, green writers could muster. Working at the Globe was like attending an MFA program in writing, and I got paid $200 a week besides.

In Grass Roots, Paul has an essay that is both about preserving tomatoes and about his mother, a rural housewife. Here’s the paragraph that got me thinking:

Until I sat thinking about her in my own kitchen that Saturday, I would have said that my mother was a plain country woman with few ambitions, but I realize now how wrong that perception was. When she was not canning, she baked her wonderful bread, or wove rugs from scraps of discarded clothing, or made crazywork quilts, or brewed wines….or sewed elaborate wedding and christening gowns and prom formals on consignment, or made clothes that we ourselves wore. Scarcely a day of her life passed in which she did not create something intended to be beautiful or delectable as well as practical.

I don’t want to romanticize what was a very hard existence, but the ability to create something people need that is also lovely or tasty or amusing or inspiring — this is a source of satisfaction I think most people want and need. Happily, it is a satisfaction available in things as simple as shelling dried beans or planting a few tomatoes.