It takes a village to make a garden

Cultivating — with help

June 13, 2008

Television weathermen, at least in cities, consistently rate approaching weather by whether or not golfing or sailing will be good on the weekend. Just once, it would be so gratifying to hear a newscaster say, “It’s going to rain this weekend if all goes well, because boy, we need rain!” And we always need rain in the desert. But they never say so.

We gardeners and farmers measure the weather by a different ruler. We look at our brave seedlings refusing to grow (or even germinate!) until warmth is assured. Or we watch our lettuce wilting in a hot, dry wind. Worse, we stand in a field of greens and witness its destruction by a three-minute hailstorm. Grow something, anything, even a six-pack of lettuce, and you too will be thinking a lot about the weather — your weather. And you will know why people so often talk about the weather, especially farmers.

garden starts
Brave seedlings waiting for the sun.

Despite all the curve balls weather throws, people are wanting to grow things this year in surprising numbers. “I want to have a victory garden,” says an older man who is staring at my beds of potatoes and greens, practically envious. Another young couple says the same thing. Then another. Every other person I talk to seems to want a garden, and they want gardens now. (Notice I didn’t say they want to garden; they want gardens. Hopefully they will like to garden once they have them. Gardens aren’t objects in the usual sense, after all.)

My neighbor hired a young man named Sean to put in a garden for her. He dug the soil, made the bed, grew the plants, planted them, and then drip-soaked them. His company of one, called Earthen Access, provides a turnkey garden, but he’ll also work side by side with a client.

“I sell victory gardens,” says Sean. He’s not old enough to have known them, but he’s read about them and he’s attracted — passionately — to the notions that during World War II, America grew 70 percent of its food in backyards, that we might once again have to feed ourselves, and that even if we don’t have to, there’s much to be said for growing some food and working outdoors. Sean’s 20- and 30-something clients think of victory gardens as existing in opposition to corporations.

A city chicken.

“They want them, even though they don’t know anything about food,” Sean says.

“So, how’s business?” I ask him.

“I can’t keep up!” he says.

Recently I suggested to a friend, Ken, that he design and build grow beds, something like Sean’s project, but without the plants and soil. Actually, I wanted some for my garden. Ken worked out a plan for a sturdy, well-built red-cedar bed that comes with hoops and coverings for summer and winter — and gopher-proof mesh. He happened to have one in the back of his truck when he went into Whole Foods one day. When he came out, he had a crowd of people ready to order, and business hasn’t stopped.

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Maybe next winter I’ll get mine.

At a local-foods festival near Albuquerque, another fellow was also making grow beds, while a second had designed portable chicken coops for the backyard, just large enough for three hens. He was passing out flyers like mad. A Ph.D. candidate in Florida, Sam, is also making chicken coops; he calls his company Coupe de Ville, and he made 10 in the last month.

“There are a lot of folks with great gardens and now chickens,” Sam says. “Backyard coops are definitely on the rise. I was talking to a chicken breeder and he said that this year he ran out of hens because of their increasing popularity as people want fresh eggs, more cost-effective eggs, fun eggs, etc.”

Sam, who has a garden and chickens, described the quiche he and his wife had made “using our eggs, tomatoes, onions, and elephant garlic and zucchini from our garden.”

At an Albuquerque farmers’ market in late May, a 12-year-old girl was selling young hens she had raised for people who wanted chickens. And next to her was a booth filled with nifty, well-designed alternatives to the ugly orange rain barrels we all use here to catch runoff. Our Santa Fe nurseries are selling starts, but not the usual ones. Instead, they’re growing all kinds of heirlooms. The owner of one nursery says that he takes suggestions from local gardeners and does the growing for them, which nicely solves the problem of what to do with all 100 zucchini seeds.

I can’t help but feel something very interesting is going on, that this is a time of big change, a time when people are wanting to reclaim some independence from unwieldy food systems in favor of some degree of self-sufficiency — whether it’s having a bed of lettuce and three hens for eggs, or a huge, full-fledged garden.

It’s hard to grow a garden if you’ve never done it, if you don’t have much time, and if have heavy clay soil and a weak back — even if you have a strong back. Gardening doesn’t just happen overnight. Victory gardens could happen because people already knew how to grow vegetables, but that’s not true anymore. So these new little businesses — grow beds, chicken coops, poultry, rain barrels — are a boon to those who want to start fending for themselves by feeding themselves, but who, realistically, can’t start from scratch and do it all alone.

I doubt that any of our new victory gardeners will put an end to their trips to the farmers’ markets. And we small-time gardeners certainly won’t replace farmers. But as the demand for local foods grows — they’re wanted now not only in homes and restaurants but in schools and businesses — maybe individuals can, in fact, help out by growing the most local food possible in their own yards, front and back.

In the meantime, my garden is still holding back until the weather cooperates, but my lovage is fantastic and huge. A lovage sandwich is an excellent thing to have with drinks at the end of the day, as you survey the fruits of your labors. Enjoy it before the leaves get tough.

Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Fasenfest on Jun 15, 2008 at 7:31 AM PDT

So the hope in all this excitement is that it will sustain itself with continued follow through. It can be very like our fad-of-the-moment culture to take it on from the outside in - like “that sounds like fun”, and be disheartened when the reality of tending, eating (generally mottled), preserving and renewing the garden becomes reality, year after year after year after. We all know the story of the lure of the cute puppy. Well, gardens and chickens can call us much the same way. Victory gardens appeal on so many levels but should not be an impulse buy. Despite that, however, I applaud the instinct but caution people to think if they really have the time to care for what will surely be much more then they expected - both good and not so.

2. by TheJewAndTheCarrot on Jun 20, 2008 at 11:44 AM PDT

This is great :) A farmer friend of mine (who farmed in Santa Cruz and recently moved to Seattle) told me that she wanted to start a business to help Seattle-folks start backyard gardens. She said so many people want to start gardens but don’t b/c they don’t know how. Seemed pretty genius to me!

Another man I know DID take the plunge and ripped up his lawn to start a lawn farm. He’s writing about his experience at The Jew & The Carrot - it’s equally funny and inspiring! I thought you might like to read it:

3. by P.Price on Jul 8, 2008 at 8:06 AM PDT

There IS something in the air...and online. As fun as it is to see these matters on blogs and in MSM, it’s an even more exciting thing to watch the Victory Garden notion manifest itself again in our yards and communities. There’s so much potential in the concept! Yes, we will want to be cautious about it becoming a shallow fad, but it if we even increase the number of home gardeners a wee bit, we all benefit because we make real progress in putting sustainability issues top of mind. JMHO.

I’ve been tracking the trend’s growth on my blog just for fun, and you’re welcome to check it out.

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Local Flavors

Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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