The only hole we'll ever dig ourselves out of

digvicThe economy is in free fall; peanut butter has become a deadly killer; and you’re worried about the fate of the planet due to our collective, environmental profligacy.  What you’re looking for is a silver bullet, an elegant solution that addresses multiple problems.  Well, by God, Eleanor Roosevelt has an answer for you.  Long considered a quaint relic of American history, her decision to dig up a portion of the White House lawn is being dusted off and discussed beyond the confines of hippie communes and Whole-Food stores.  The Victory Garden has found a new home on page 36 of The Economist (2/28 – 3/6 2009) and managed to nibble into a little bit of concrete outside the USDA headquarters in Washington.  Just in time for the season of seed catalogs and the yearly perfection of mental gardening.

Hardly a day goes by without some pundit or another making a comparison between today and the Great Depression, but there is at least one massive difference between then and now.  Then, something like 40% of the population made its living off the land; now the census doesn’t even bother listing “farmer” as an occupation.  Food comes from the grocery store, and a whole generation of Americans has grown up with few of them knowing what a real vegetable tastes like.  Carrots grow without skin in plastic bags, and few people realize that the massive acreage devoted to corn does not produce the buttered goodness of a late-summer ear of sweet corn.  In short, the majority of Americans would be hard-pressed to eke out survival without the massive, and petro-fueled, supply chain that ends on the dinner table.

Before going one word further, let me state clearly that i am not advocating the overthrow of our modern farming methods or proposing a wild-eyed attack on Big Ag.  I’ll leave that to the misguided hippies who populate comment threads related to food and suggest enforced, organic veganism while dreaming of starting their very own organic farm with an apple seed that they saved from a particularly delicious heirloom variety.  (No, seriously, that last example is true.  The commenter listed a whole business plan while being unaware that apples don’t grow true from seed…hippies.)  The modern food chain isn’t going anywhere, particularly if it remains tasked with providing the full compliment of food to a nation of 300+ million people.  Any reformation of that system will require first taking a great deal of stress off of it.  And we’d be wise to remove as much of that stress as possible before systemic problems rend its ability to provide for us.

At the end of WW II, 40% of America’s vitamin intake was produced in Victory Gardens.  That is an astounding number.  Imagine the difference in your monthly budget if you lopped 40% off the grocery bill.  Now imagine preparing a meal with the knowledge that it did not require the petro-chemical inputs of industrial agriculture, nor the Mexican slave labor of produce farmers, nor the diesel fuel to travel its average 1500 miles, nor the energy inputs at the grocery store, nor even the trip to the grocery store.  Now imagine that the tomato in the salad actually tastes like a tomato!

But again, this is in no way a call to “return to nature” or a suggestion to grow dreadlocks because they provide a home for insect biodiversity.  It’s about doing what you can with the space that you have.  It has nothing to do with bringing down “The Man”, but everything to do with the freedom that comes from being able to take care of yourself.  There is no freedom for the man who is given (or purchases) a fish; freedom comes from knowing how to fish.

In most cases, calls to help the environment revolve around all the things we should give up or stop doing.  Here we have something we can start doing that produces benefits for the environment and beyond.  It’s not even a difficult or massive change like buying solar panels or investing in a new car.  With between 30 and 40 million acres of America devoted to turf grass, there is plenty of room to expand food production and bring it closer to home.

Eleanor Roosevelt inspired roughly 20 million Americans to grow their own.  Barack Obama should follow in her footsteps, but i do not expect to see the president out weeding the arugula.  He and the first lady have spoken of their desire to keep Sasha and Malia “grounded” in spite of their residence at the White House.  The first family believes that chores are more beneficial than servants, and i agree.  I would add that the best way to stay grounded is to get your hands into the ground.

The Obama girls should be put in charge of the National Vegetable Garden.  Fresh air, exercise, responsibility, and the pride of putting food on the presidential table will all follow.  Chances are they could get school credit for the project as well.  Perhaps they will also serve as a source of inspiration similar to Eleanor Roosevelt.  If they succeed, they will be able to credibly lay claim to bringing more hope and change to their nation than their father.

In the coming weeks this introduction will be followed by practical articles concerning what you can do, what you need to know, places to gather information, and ideas.  Many of the ideas will be geared towards small yards and city dwellers who are likely to think that they have few options…thankfully, they are wrong.

21 replies »

  1. Lex – Real tomatoes… you tease. Wonderful post, I can’t wait to read the follow on chapters.

  2. “The first family believes that chores are more beneficial than servants”

    Really? How many servants did they employ in Chicago?

  3. Lex, are you going to include something on canning, drying and pickling? Produce, that is?

  4. “But again, this is in no way a call to “return to nature” or a suggestion to grow dreadlocks because they provide a home for insect biodiversity.”

    Was this really necessary? Way to insert really offensive stereotypes about black hairstyles into a totally unrelated (and otherwise good) post.

  5. Oh, boy, I feel queasy when I read things like this. It sounds so . . . inspiring and useful.

    But the reality is, well, not so fun.

    My parents grew up during the Depression and knew all about hunger. So when I was a kid, we had a vegetable garden; it provided an enormous amount of the food we ate year round. (No, we were not even remotely well off; we needed that food.)

    And I’m here to tell you: a garden large enough to feed a family requires an enormous amount of labor: tilling, planting, weeding. Weeding takes several hours a day.

    And when it’s time to harvest, the hard work begins. My mom spent the entire month of August, all day every day canning produce. Which is hot, heavy, hard labor.

    So the idea of gardening as a way to save the planet and our wallets sounds great on paper. And believe me, I’m mindful of how much human labor goes into producing all the food that comes out of, say, the agricultural fields in California.

    But I’m trying to imagine Americans coming home from their jobs, and spending the rest of their daylight hours bent over a vegetable garden. And then committing to canning the harvest. (Yes, if we’re all unemployed, it might be easier….)

    I dunno. I think I’ll stick with canned tomatoes.

  6. Bill, I believe that Lex is referring to the fact the Obama’s have stated that even though they will be living in the White House, the kids will still have chores. Having a housekeeper, etc. does not preclude having chores. We had a cleaning service for a few years, and believe me, just because she came once a week didn’t mean there wasn’t a dishwasher to be emptied or beds to be made. She sure wasn’t cleaning the litterbox or doing our laundry.

    For the girl’s age appropriate chores could be making their beds, picking up their toys, taking care of the dog, and maybe cleaning their own bathrooms under supervision. Working in a garden would be a nice addition.

    Lara Amber

  7. Maureen,

    My parents grew a garden my entire childhood, either in our backyard or by renting a part of an acre at a communal farm. We would can the excess and I gave my teachers gifts of pepper jelly, apple butter, and zucchini bread. My parents live in LA now and they still get their limes, peppers, blood oranges, and figs from their backyard.
    I don’t think it would be reasonable for people to replace their entire fruit/vegetable intake with homegrown, the amount of time and space they have available can be very limited. But what if people just started with growing their own herbs, then maybe branched out to just replace the fresh fruits &veggies they consume, but continue to buy frozen. Heck just going to a “pick your own” would be a new experience for a lot of people.
    I won’t be starting a garden anytime soon, our minuscule backyard is too small for just our dog to stretch her legs. But I like the idea.

    Lara Amber

  8. 1: I wish we had the room. But we’re trying to live on a small footprint and as such have a patio, but no place we could grow enough food to make a middling-sized salad.

    2: Pollyanna: not sure where you live, but around here I see dreads on as many whites as blacks – maybe more. I can’t say I think said whites are making the world any easier to look at, but there it is. Yes, it’s a traditionally black style, but I think we’ve gotten to the point where it’s abused by so many non-blacks that it’s hard to argue Lex’s line as racist in any way.

    And never mind insect life. The woman I saw at a restaurant a few days ago could be raising badgers in her hair.

  9. I think the tone and content of this post is undercut by the cheap shots, strawmen and stereotypes. But, I guess you were trying to establish authority by distancing yourself from the follies of others.

    I have been a micro farmer for a little over ten years. We raise dairy goats. I have learned a lot from old men whose farms predate the Civil War, feed store owners and former hippies turned blacksmiths and farmers. I suppose I can even learn something from some guy blogging. The movement towards
    local markets and sustainable methods cuts across some surprising social divides. We have some common ground with people who have been bucking the system for decades and I think it is counterproductive to belittle them.

  10. Any reformation of that system will require first taking a great deal of stress off of it. And we’d be wise to remove as much of that stress as possible before systemic problems rend its ability to provide for us.

    Yes, exactly.

    Unfortunately, we’re in the same predicament as Sam. As apartment dwellers, gardening would entail us finding a plot for a community garden, unlikely in the suburbs (where we live). Very frustrating for my wife, who loves to garden.

  11. @Pollyanna: I’m pretty sure he was referring to hippies with the dreadlocks comment, not being racist.

    I grew up in the deep south and was raised on a farm. As good an idea as people supplimenting their diets with fresh grown food is, I don’t see most people doing it.
    Farming is far harder work than most people are going to do and requires equipment a lot of them aren’t going to buy to do it on a scale larger than a tiny plot. (Be sure and cut that carrot up small, it’s all we had room for.) At the very least it requires something to break the ground up.
    It also requires constant maintinence that people are going to avoid. Not just weeding, but fertilizing, spraying for pests, staking up plants, etc. Organic farming is even harder work and takes even more resources, thus the reason organic farms pretty much suck unless starving people are your idea of a good time.
    Food from a garden rots fast, the only way to preserve it is to can it. I’ve done a lot of things, and I shit you not that was probably the worst work I’ve ever done in my life. What I took away from canning every time I did it was about 300 quarts of tomatoes/green beans/peas/etc and the knowledge Grandma was a far stronger person than I’ll ever be. Imagine what it’s like to shovel 250+ degree asphalt onto a blacktop road in July in Alabama. Canning is hotter, harder work than that.
    My parents could’ve easily afforded all the food they wanted. They just thought growing up farming would be good for me. It probably was and I’m sure I’ll forgive them for it someday.
    I still keep an orchard and a fairly large (4 acres) garden in the summer and a huge greenhouse in the winter. Not because I want organic food, but because storebought vegetables and fruit have less taste than the cardboard they’re packed in and storebought herbs suck for flavor.

  12. Uh, yeah, i was talking about hippies, not African-Americans. Sure, i was being offensive to a small group of people; that’s me. I spend a lot of time reading on this (and related) subjects. 9 times out of 10, the conversation gets taken over by the Vegan brigade railing on about Big Ag and “organic”, though at least half of them don’t seem able to discuss the organic process…and half of the other half obviously only read about it in books. …i could go on.

    There’s no question, as a society we’re not geared for producing our own food. And it’s well near impossible for some people to make anything more than a token effort (if they can even do that). But there are some ways that might be applicable, and we’d all better start thinking about it. If you want to get real depressed, have a long conversation with a farmer. I don’t believe that the sky is falling, but we’re certainly looking at what could be bleak agricultural times in the near future.

    And i realize that gardening is hard work. I spend 40+ hrs/wk doing it commercially. I do it as side work. And i do my own within the limits of my living situation.

    This wasn’t about hoping to see Americans come home from their job and then slave in the fields, but like i said, “doing what you can”. It’s also in how you look at it. Americans might be a little bit happier and healthier if they spent an evening hour in the garden rather than plopping down in front of the TV.

  13. It does work like a charm, Ann. It’s also a great way to get rid of yard waste. The only fault i’ve seen with it is that it seems to produce large insect populations. But it is by far the easiest way to build a new bed. And there’s the bonus of them looking like a burial mound for the fall/winter/early spring.

    Never seen it done in a container…

  14. @Polyanna. Wow, I have to say it didn’t even occur to me that Lex may have been making a racist comment. First thing I thought of was hippy kids dancing around at Woodstock and some of the crunchier rich kids roaming around Boulder when I lived there.

    @Lex. I don’t have much of a yard for a garden, either. Besides, I practically live in a desert (Inland Empire, So Cal). But I DID manage to finally get around to planting an orange tree in my back yard this weekend. Does that count? 🙂 I did discover, however, that the damned ground around my house is practically sandstone. I won’t be burying any dead bodies back there any time soon (ala Johnny Depp in Secret Window). Way too damned much work.

  15. This place is an insect heaven anyway… and our winter season is about two months. Now I have big mulchy irrigated beds, but I loved that faux-gravesite.

  16. Notice the guy “diggin’ on” in the poster is doing so with a pitch fork? There is probably a clever analogy there, but barring a change in my inability to be clever, I guess I will have to leave it to another.

    My first job was working in the fields in high school. It was perhaps my greatest motivator to get a college degree and start smoking, of course.


  17. Ann, in my experience things grow great in them. I like being able to compost in place. But the no digging/turning in spring is the best part. I’m going to try the lasagna container this year. Finding a way to free container gardening from potting soil would be out of sight.

    Mike, yeah an orange tree is exactly what i’m talking about. We’re not all going to live like JThompson, and many of us probably don’t even want to. We’re not all going to be self-sufficient, nor should we be. And i don’t advocate a “back-to-the-land” movement.

    I appreciate and applaud the traditional garden, but if that’s the “box” then my thinking on this is way outside it. People with 4 acres to put to vegetables don’t need my advice on the internet. And i want people like you to have success without more toil than it’s worth to you. In fact, my first piece of advice would have been to put in a fruit tree, because it’s easy and will give you returns over a long period.

  18. What goatherd said. Snark is cheap; I can get it in half a billion different places on the internet. It does the exact opposite of making your post stand out. You want to give this impression that you’re so much more mature and thoughtful than “the hippies”? Act like it.

  19. You mean the hay-days of America are not going to last forever? We consume 80% of the worlds good as it is! and why not We are American! We won WWII! we have a big army! We are pretty people! We are entitled! God said so! We are his chosen ones even over the Jews of old! Can’t you tell? We set moralities! We set styles! We dictate the way life is to be! We waist with impunity! We squander our countries resources! We are Free! We are the almighty ones at the top of the food chain! The fattest heaviest physically biggest humans the world has ever seen! Thats us America! At the very top! and now, we can only go down, as our folly was unsustainable, and our time of great sorrows about to begin. The “Cheap Oil Era” gone! over with, disappeared like our “Smoke Stack Industries,” History! Our appetites remain, our great hunger for oil supported, corn fed beef about to be denied, and soon, fields of oil assisted corn will not flourish and even simple sweeteners for our beloved sodas will be hard to find. A comeuppance is upon us! Black days ahead America! Times of teeth-gnashing and turmoil, American against American seeking the old Status Quo – but it is gone forever, to the salted fields, the topsoil ravaged corporate farms, the lakes and rivers contaminated for human use, dying now in green silt, once filled with Factory Farm wastes, greening and dying in the sun. Artesian formations pumped dry by corporate interests to maximize ROI in the Hey Day times, now hollow and dry, Mines with sahfts full of water where gold was once found. Texas, dry on top! Dry underneath! the oil pumped into the roaring twenties, the dirty thirties, and the war and party afterwards! Burned into smoke an pollution and gone ! The great plains raped of buffalo and all else that serve mankind, and Kentucky mountains , hills of dusty rubble! Where will we turn our voracious hunger? Whom will we victimize next? By what great declaration of conscription will we mobilize our great armies and for what conquest? Turkmenistan and China’s oilfields? Canada the frozen Tar Sands? but no food there! Just oil freely given for jobs and toys? We have left to us Solar Wind Wave Tidal Geo-Thermal and super-insulation technologies for survival, for energy to build a new sustainable America, but will we measure up? Can we do this? Will we fail and become many little kingdoms of civil war and bitterness each blaming the other? What now America?