March 2012

Charlotte Freeman


Spring. Spring. Spring.

Spring's not quite here yet, but the tulips and daffodils are poking through the recently frozen soil, and I've managed to both redesign and rebuild my raised bed vegetable garden. And under hoops and plastic (plastic, the dark secret of organic gardening) I've planted spinach and arugula and Asian greens and broccoli rabe. In the mudroom, on the heated germination mats, I have tomato and pepper seedlings. One more trip around the sun, one more season in the garden is upon us.

And so this month, Cookbookslut is Gardenslut, because for some of us, gardening and cooking are inextricably related. Especially for those of us out here in the sticks. If I want anything out of the ordinary I have to grow it myself. So my cooking year always begins in February, with the garden catalogs and their promise of riches. And so I was thrilled to find a new book by one of my favorite garden blog writers: Michelle Owens of Garden Rant has just published Grow the Good Life, a manifesto about why vegetable gardening matters.

Owens divides gardeners into two types: cooks who garden and gardeners who cook. I'm pretty sure I fall into the first category; I do love growing things, but more than the satisfaction of growing them, I want to grow delicious things I can eat. If they're things that are also difficult to find in stores here, then so much the better. Hence my propensity for Asian and Italian greens. Gardening to cook is the driving force behind my quest for the perfect homegrown hot peppers that I can string and dry in my pantry. (I've been narrowly defeated by frost the past two years. If I'd harvested one night sooner, I would have been able to force-ripen them, but frostbite reduced them to moldy slush.) As far as tomatoes go, I have a few varieties I know perform well here, but I still can't help experimenting every year to see what else I can grow.

The point is, that for me, cooking and gardening are part of the same continuum. What's more, in the same way that I can't quite wrap my head around the notion that cooking at home is no longer the norm, neither can I quite understand why everyone who cares about food does not have at least a pot of herbs going, or a cherry tomato in a pot, or a small flat of lettuce growing someplace. My early gardens were in crazy, inhospitable spots: on a New York city windowsill, at 9,000 feet in Telluride, in a window box hanging over the freeway in Seattle, in repurposed recycling bins in a Salt Lake City alley, and in the clay surrounding our Bay Area patio. I bought my house in Montana largely because of the fifteen-by-twenty-five-foot vegetable plot in the backyard (well, that and the five-foot cast iron bathtub).

I know, I know -- it takes too much time, it's too expensive, I don't know how. I've heard all the excuses. They're the same excuses that people who don't cook use. In a world where uncertainty is the norm, I take comfort in learning some skills. How to grow a tomato. How to cook with said tomato. At home. Without outsourcing these things to faceless corporations who might be able to do it cheaper, but they certainly can't do it better. I mean, the industrial food industry thinks adding "pink slime" back into the meat supply is a good idea -- you're going to trust those people with your produce?

In the quest to get people outside, with their hands in the dirt, growing something they can eat, Michelle Owens and I are united. Grow the Good Life is both a terrific read, and a manifesto in the tradition of great garden writers like Michael Pollan and Joan Dye Grussow. In ten brief chapters, Owens will calm your fears and do her best to convince you that gardening is not too hard, too time-consuming, or too scientific for the ordinary busy person. Her own garden is out at her weekend house, where it must fend for itself during the week. You can hardly get more hands-off than that.

The book is short, a mere ten chapters and her argument hinges in two directions. On the one hand, she argues well that gardening will save you money, teach you practical and useful skills, and prepare you for an uncertain future of climate change. On the other hand, she argues with equal persuasiveness that gardening will add beauty, flavor, and happiness to your life and to the lives of your children. Both are persuasive arguments.

She begins by rehearsing the cultural messages the industrial food system has used to convince us that not only is growing our own food too inconvenient, difficult, and messy, but that cooking our own food is as well. She follows this by a chapter where she runs the numbers. Gardening, like cooking, is as expensive as you make it. In the food world this argument comes up in the annual articles "debunking" canning as an expensive hobby (it is if you buy expensive flats of fruit at the farmers' market, it's not if you can what is abundant in your yard). In the gardening world, the gold standard for this argument is William Alexander's 2007 book The $64 Tomato -- the number anti-gardeners love to cite. What they never remember is that the man's tomatoes cost $64 apiece because he spent sixteen grand having a landscaper build his garden for him.

Um, I'm nowhere near that rich or that profligate, and even in Montana I eat my own tomatoes by the end of the summer.

Owens's answer to this specious argument is to advise new gardeners to start small. All those years I spent growing things in tubs and patios and oddball garden spaces served me well by the time I finally had a plot of ground. For one thing, I got over taking it as a personal failure if things died. Sometimes plants die. Owens is particularly good on this topic, citing all the new gardeners in the Northeast who started in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Unfortunately, 2009 was one of the worst summers on record in the Northeast -- what with the torrential rains, cold weather, and tomato blight. One of the joys of continuing to garden is finally figuring out that sometimes there's just a bad year. It's nothing you did. (Ours was last summer: snow until early July, then 100 degrees in September, followed by a hard frost. Nothing grew well.)

Owens also debunks the argument that gardening is unsanitary because it's dirty. I have to admit, this one was something I'd never thought about. I was raised mostly in riding stables and on farms of various sorts, so my people are not anti-dirt. I was raised in a pack of dirty boy cousins, and together we're evidence that the hygiene hypothesis works, a hypothesis Owens describes in detail, followed by a fascinating discussion about soil systems. Really, folks, dirt is fun. Dirt is good for you. Especially if it's your own dirt that you've been building with compost over a couple of years. There are few things as satisfying as turning over a spade in your own garden and finding it teeming with worms.

However, it's when she's discussing the intangible rewards of gardening that Owens's book really shines. Her discussions of the brilliance of eating your own produce, of the joys of watching your toddlers devastate a row of sugar snap peas while learning to love the crunch of a fresh vegetable, or the sheer pleasure of doing physical work with a purpose are what earned this book a permanent home on my shelf of garden literature. Gardening, like cooking, is not merely a means to an end. Yes, the produce (or the dish) is worth it -- things simply taste better when you grow them and cook them yourself, but it's the in the process where the real joy comes. Simply being outside in the sunshine (or in my case right now, in the wind) building something tangible, feeling muscles you haven't used all winter creak back to life in your back and legs, and watching teeny little seeds become enormous plants with which you can feed yourself and your loved ones, it's all a joy. Sometimes, it's a cranky joy, but it's still a joy.

So, because there are some stunning vegetable cookbooks coming out this summer, I'm going to start the year off by urging everyone to plant something you can eat. Really, you're going to be happy you did. Just trust me.

There's a terrific little primer out from Microcosm Press for you newbies: Homesweet Homegrown: How to Grow, Make and Store Food, No Matter Where You Live. It's a wee book filled with practical advice for finding places to plant things, starting seed, keeping plants alive, and cooking with them once they're grown. Another terrific new book filled with ideas for those of you with small spaces is The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Produce in Small Spaces. It's full of ideas for repurposing containers and growing on windowsills and balconies. There are some gorgeous rooftop gardens as well. Like Owens advises, start small and, as with learning to cook, as you figure out the skills you need to succeed, you will be rewarded with delicious clean food and the undeniable satisfaction of having grown it yourself.