Filthy Hard Work: Container Gardening for Food and (Not) Profit

There's this tendency in America, particularly within DIY circles, to romanticize farming. Let me make it clear: Farming ain't all that bucolic, y'all.

Feb 9, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

I've gotten pretty bougie in my lifestyle. I take my dog to doggie daycare, I refurbish furniture we find on the side of the road and I grow my own food.

There's this tendency in America, particularly within DIY circles, to romanticize farming. Eat Local movements, while sound in principle, don't always make it clear: farming ain't all that bucolic, y'all.

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Actual farming is filthy, hard work. If you've ever had a garden plot of any size, you know that, while it can be enjoyable, there's no avoiding some pretty grueling labor. Breaking ground, treating soil, planting of rows, weeding... Heck, I like building raised beds but I'm not going to pretend it isn't work.

If you throw animals into the mix, you're also faced with a lot of things that most people really would rather not deal with. While I eat meat and have a keen appreciation of where it comes from (animals), I also get really attached to anything I raise myself. I'm a bad candidate for a livestock farmer, and I know it.

But even without chickens (or goats or pigs or...), there's a lot of really pastoral imagery sharing the same airspace as all the talk about the superiority of organic fruits and veg. There's a lot of "Imagine yourself, plucking tender baby vegetables grown the natural way without any hassle for your dinner."

That's all well and good, except for how it's actually bullshit. It is satisfying to grow your own food -- but none of it is simple.

People who like to judge what poor people eat often act like it's super easy to plant and grow food. Like many other old-fashioned tasks that people once did out of necessity (I'm looking at you, sewing), gardening has become a pricey hobby. Community gardens help alleviate some of the expense and effort, which is why I think they're brilliant. But telling people just to grow food is not only short sighted, it's willfully dismissive of real-world concerns.

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My grandparents (and great-grandparents and so on) have always had gardens. And I don't mean little urban gardens packed into a couple square feet (though you'd be surprised how much food you can get out of that kind of area). While their gardens have decreased in size over the years, with fewer children at home and less need to preserve food for the upcoming seasons, my grandparents still plant a fairly substantial area.

Almost every summertime visit with my grandparents ends in fresh vegetables. This is why I keep trying summer squash -- even though I loathe summer squash.

Last year, I finally got the timing and the motivation right for container gardening. We planted a late fall garden, but it's Central Florida -- our actual dead zone for growing things is August and about two weeks in the middle of January when there's the risk of freeze. We harvested fresh tomatoes and Thai chili peppers right up until Christmas.

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I'm a fan of containers because it is worlds easier to grow in pots than to plant and maintain an in-ground garden -- especially if you also happen to have a day job and an active social life and hobbies other than battling the forces of nature for your daily bread. Containers do change things -- you can get enough food for two people, but containers are not necessarily practical if you're trying to feed an entire family.

That's your first compromise: convenience over yield. If your level of gardening satisfaction is determined by how many pounds of cucumbers you harvest over the season, container gardening might be a disappointment. If you're in it for supplementing your produce and because caring for living things actually is pretty satisfying, container gardening ranks high on the returns list.

Container gardening -- and this is actually a really big downside -- isn't cheap. That's why I kind of feel so full of myself when I talk about it. You have to buy dirt -- ignoring the free resource of dirt sitting there on the ground all around you. Potting mix, especially organic potting mix, can run you upwards of 15 bucks a bag.

That's how I came to spend $60 on dirt this weekend.

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Yes, I'm a little bitter.

We've repurposed and recycled rubbermaid bins and cat litter tubs for most of our plants -- but pretty outdoor pottery can get excruciatingly expensive. I splurged on a couple of nice pots this time around; the aesthetic payoff is wonderful but my pocketbook is feeling the hurt.

The plants themselves can suck up your cash, too. Seeds are relatively cheap -- but require additional investment if you're really angling for success. Seed starter, peat pot flats, fertilizer... It all adds up. (I do recommend Southern Exposure Seed Exchange though -- I can spend so much here.)

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This year we've planted:

  • Bonnie Select tomato (this is our only full-size tomato)
  • Bonnie Grape tomato (two of these)
  • Sweet Red Cherry tomato
  • Yellow Pear tomato
  • Chocolate Cherry tomato (two of these) (basically, I'm aiming to have the most colorful, wonderful salad tomatoes possible)
  • More basil (our plant from last year survived our short winter and is putting out new growth but juuuuuuuust in case... we have two more plants -- there is no downside to how much pesto we're going to have to make)
  • Dill
  • Oregano (a gift from our gardening neighbor)
  • Parsley (also a gift from our gardening neighbor)
  • Apple mint
  • Peppermint
  • Lemon Balm
  • Catnip (on the porch so the neighborhood cats can't get to it)
  • Lavender (because it smells so lovely)
  • Indonesian chili pepper
  • Avocado (Ed found it growing in our compost heap -- it's an experiment)
  • Cucumber
  • Zucchini (we wound up with more of these little guys than I thought -- we are going to have so much zucchini if we can get them to fruit)
  • White acre peas (these are a favorite and I'm hoping for a mess of them)

That's a lot. And it all needs to flourish if we're going to depend on these plants for food in a way that substantially decreases our grocery bill. And it takes on, average, two to two and a half months ntil the plants are mature and producing.

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During that time, you have to water, fertilize, check for pests (not as bad as in-ground gardening, fortunately), do a bit of weeding because stray growth almost always creeps into your pots, and otherwise check over your plants every day.

Last year, we lost our cucumber and zucchini plants to the end-of-summer rains just as they were starting to form fruits. We bet our labor and investment would payoff... and we lost without a single zucchini to show for it. This was particularly hard to take because zucchini is famed as a sure thing. Gardening is a gamble -- and having to rely on it for subsistence can take it from "relaxing" to super stressful faster than any poker metaphor I can come up with.

With all of that in mind, why the hell do I keep doing this to us? It's a valid question. I've put a lot of thought into answering it. I don't really buy into the idea that you have to raise your own food to be a good person -- there's way too much false hippie morality getting tossed at people to guilt them into this sort of activity. I also don't believe that growing your own food teaches you to feel magically connected to the earth and/or the seasons.

In fact, I'm really only in this for one reason: Homegrown vegetables taste amazingly good. Commercial fruit and veg are, by and large, strains that have been developed to grow really fast and in abundance. That's great if you're trying to feed a lot of people in a short time frame. But quick fruit development sacrifices flavor.

And I don't like food enough to eat bland tomatoes.

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We've also turned our outdoor container garden space into a really wonderful area to sit and hang out. We've added solar-powered twinkle lights and solar-powered garden stake lights. We've got salvaged trellises and tables and wicker seating. We've also got strong enough wi-fi that I can sit out there on my laptop and surf ye olde Internets. I'm looking forward to spending a bunch of time there as the Florida summer progresses. I'm hoping our time and our enegy pay off in veg and herbs and tomatoes in my salad.

So, maybe what bothers me about the current persistent need American culture has to downplay the effort involved in food production is how very disrespectful it is of those who depend on it for a living. That crowbars the class gulf even wider and dismisses real-world obstacles barring people from participating in growing their own food.

In that context, I'm just a gambler and an optimist. I feel so far away from the work that my grandparents have done, the work it took to keep the food flowing to their table. It feels really strange to do this as a hobby when they did it as a means of feeding themselves. My container garden is going to be pretty great -- like I said, this stuff tastes good. I'm proud of the garden. But it isn't accessible to everyone. Why do we keep trying to pretend it is?