It all started with my father-in-law. Rather, it started with his small vegetable garden. One year, my in-laws came to visit and brought extra produce to share, including some lettuce. I’d never known lettuce could be so delicious. I know what you’re thinking -- you’re thinking, “Um, it’s freaking lettuce.” But it was incredible. All other lettuce I had ever eaten (and I am very fond of lettuce) paled in comparison.
I have a balcony. I should say we have a balcony, as my husband technically has access to it as well, but I am the only one who really goes out there these days. Most of the year it’s because the weather is unkind, but during the summer? It’s because there’s really only room for one. Me, and my plants.
The balcony in question is roughly five feet by seven; not a puny amount of space, but not a vast canvas on which to paint my container-garden dreams either. Last year was the first year I gardened with any commitment beyond my usual habit of buying a plant, setting it on the balcony, and then watching it slowly die. Do you know how many tomato plants have met a torturous death at my inept hands? I should be developing a spontaneous nightshade allergy to satisfy their thirst for revenge.
For my first real garden, I bought books -- I strongly recommend "The Bountiful Container," by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey -- and read up on how to keep things alive. Watering is important, apparently.
I approached this garden with my typical bravado. I was going to GROW ALL THE THINGS, to borrow from Allie Brosh, and my produce output would be mighty. A veritable cornucopia.
I chose my favorite herbs: mint for making tea, sage and thyme for cooking, basil which mostly got used up in homemade ice cream (YES REALLY AND IT IS DELICIOUS). I tried some vegetables but failed to properly research their needs and for the first time I felt real sadness when my plants withered and expired, as this time they were doing so in spite of my tender loving care, and not bowing to a complete lack thereof.
I managed to wring a bit of sad lettuce from my small containers, but all the true vegetable-bearing plants I attempted did not survive my efforts.
See, having a garden teaches you humility. I look around all day and see green stuff growing seemingly without a whole lot of human influence, and I foolishly assumed that all it took was some seeds in a pot and BAM I’d have a salad. Mostly what I got was spiders. Evidently I’d built the best-ever summer resort for spiders.
This year I have approached the garden with more deliberation, and thanks to that I am actually seeing results for the first time. A few days ago I was astonished to find seven full-sized sugar snap peas on my vines. Like magic. Food, on my balcony. I had aided in the construction of a vegetable. Which I could now consume and nourish myself thereby. The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming.
I imagine it to be a pale shadow of the accomplishment new parents feel upon successfully growing an infant, except they don’t get to eat the infant once it’s done, which I consider a critical drawback.
Philosophers far smarter than I have ruminated on the division of labor and its cultural impact going all the way back to Plato. The gist of the concept is that by working on a single part of a greater project -- say, for example, only producing one leg of a chair, and doing so over and over again, making millions of legs for millions of chairs one will never see completed -- we’re distanced from the product we help create, never feeling the accomplishment we might if we were involved in the entire process.
Karl Marx argued that this arrangement was socially and emotionally toxic to humanity.
I think about the size of the plants necessary to produce a whole bag of the far-less-delicious sugar snap peas I get at the supermarket, indeed, to produce all the bags at the supermarket, and all the fruits and vegetables in the produce department.
I think of the hard work of the laborers who pick my raspberries and deposit them directly into the plastic trays in which I will buy them at my local Stop ‘n Shop -- raspberries being so fragile, this is necessary for them to arrive whole -- while griping about how expensive they are, and how I will never see the plants from which the berries came, nor will I ever know the names of the people who dropped them into these packages for me.
This disconnect makes me sad at the same time it makes me feel extraordinarily privileged. I am fortunate to have the time, money and space for even a tiny container garden, knowing I'll never grow enough to subsist on.
I am also fortunate to have easy access to fresh produce at my local grocery store. There are too many people in the US who lack ready access to either of these options, especially in urban areas, people who live in food deserts where most of what they eat comes from convenience stores, or who lack the time or space or sunlight necessary to have a successful garden.
Urban farming has built up a lot of cultural steam as a possible solution to problems of access to whole foods for low-income folks living in cities, but these efforts are never so simple as dropping seeds in a pot and just waiting for the inevitable banquet to arrive. Such efforts usually need to be funded (yes, sometimes on the taxpayer dime) to pay for materials and training. Maintaining even a small garden to supplement one’s grocery purchases is a pleasant enough hobby for middle-class folk like myself, who have the time and money to read books about it and to shrug off our minor disappointment when a crop fails, but a farm meant to supply produce to dozens of people requires far more attention, labor and knowledge than many folks who have spent their lives living in urban environments possess, or can easily spare.
Urban farming is a noble project, but it’s hardly a one-size-fits-all solution to problems of food access for a city’s poorest residents. It's complicated.
Working in my garden has demonstrated to me in a deeply visceral way how much I take food production for granted, and how out of character this is for me, as a person who usually has a million questions about everything I consume.
I think about that, while I eat my sugar snap peas on my little balcony overlooking the ocean, while I wonder at how I can feel so much personal gratification for managing to do on my own something done for me by thousands of faceless strangers every day: that is, produce my own food.