Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Ask yourself why you garden

Urban farming isn’t for the merely romantic

By
June 16, 2008

Hello again. It’s your reliable urban homesteader, in from the wet and the wild to give you an update. I’ve been busy planting and planning and have been generally rewarded by both. Today the potato plants are thigh-high, the spinach waves tall in the wind, and the lettuce holds forth with vigor and endless days of salads. I stand breathlessly over my tomatoes and eggplants, hoping to see some growth, but no luck. It’s still not their season, and they know it.

Those things which season and custom would normally bear, like my strawberries and currants, are being stunted by recent oh-so-chilly weather. But I hold out hope that those days are numbered. As for my preserving classes, they are being held indoors, as it is just too cold to teach in the lovely outdoor space we built. That too will change, and I look forward to the months ahead, when all can go according to plan.

Harriet’s early-summer garden.

But the motivation to post was more than a desire to update the world on the incidental goings-on of my life. It was, rather, stirred by the June 3 cover story in the Oregonian’s Food Day section on victory gardens. It seems like folks are catching on to the concept of growing their own food as the value and logic to do so presents itself in ever greater force. No doubt I am happy and applaud the effort, but there is something more to my emotion; something, well, annoyingly smarmy.

I am clearly ashamed by this feeling, but hey, what is all this public disclosure worth if it is not truthful? I suppose there is something defensive in the stance. Trumpeting the effort when everyone, particularly my mom (sorry, dear), thought I was either insane, obsessed, or, at the very least, highly impractical, apparently bruised my tender psyche. For her and others, putting all that time and money into growing your own food simply didn’t make sense. Not then, anyway.

“Just how much does that salad cost you, anyway?” she chortled during one of her summer visits. Now, I love my mother, but the instinct to snatch away the salad bowl and leave her and husband (sorry, dear) to chuckle unabated was restrained only by familiarity with living outside the norm. The fact is, I had grown accustomed to people glazing over when listening to me speak. Even old friends were passing me by at the annual holiday party. Evidently no one wants to get drunk with a Luddite — it’s rumored to ruin the buzz.

Still, for me “victory” gardening was and is a reactive stance, a way to put some measure of sanity into a world without any. It feels like a solution, not only to food prices and security but to the larger consequence of historical greed and indifference — two things we have yet to face up to entirely. It is not our fault, exactly, but the failure to act will be.

So while growing and preserving ever more of the food my family eats makes me feel humble, responsible, and connected to things outside the “ease of modern living,” I truly understand why not everyone wants to turn the effort into a hairshirt: it’s burdensome in the extreme. And so it is with that open-mindedness and in that spirit that I welcome the emerging fellowship of muddy-kneed victory gardeners to the good ship Crazy. It has been lonely on deck.

Like I said, I’m sounding a bit smarmy, but there is truth behind the sentiment. What I guess I’m trying to say is that entering into this life of increased self-reliance feels a little crazy at times. For the record, I am not speaking about the gun-toting backwoods brand of self-reliance known to ferment in the wilds of Idaho (or what my fellow urban homesteaders refer to as the guns-and-lentils group), but rather the type that attempts to carve out a renewal of trades and systems that just might bring about a renewed sense of purpose and community in our lives.

Still, crazy is as crazy does, and the good ship sails daily between a life and culture defined by leisure and comfort to a life and larger ideology defined by little of either. I don’t mean you will never have leisure or comfort again but only, rather, that it will come in different time allotments: namely, short and sweet and by new barometers, a re-evaluation of every premise you ever had about your place and privilege in a first-world nation.

Hey, I gotta be honest here. Painting the picture with a broad brush of primary colors and decorative garden art would be a disservice to the mission. I would simply hate to be responsible (if only tangentially) for the sea of abandoned vegetable beds dotting our Portland lawn three years hence when the impulse to do the right thing softens under the startling truth and consequence of living à la victory. It would break my heart to see the impulse co-opted as a fashion statement. Or worse, if the true depth of the commitment fell victim to hipster chic — you know, sustainable and sassy or some such thing.

Make a list

So let it be said. Before you too become a city farmer, I suggest you make a nice long list of why you are picking up the pitchfork. Make it once and check it twice and get real with how much of your motivation is funky or nice. And if you still decide this is your calling, then I say, go forth strong and steady. I would hate to discourage a single honest effort, since there is much wonder and goodness to be found along the way. But don’t ever toss out the list, because you are going to need to review it from time to time.

Sometimes I take mine to bed with me when my middle-aged back is sore from a day (or hour) of garden work; somehow reading it helps to relieve the pain. I clutch it to my heart when all the cats in the neighborhood reward my efforts in a most unseemly fashion (I’ll not elaborate). I use it to blot my brow when turning over the compost pile (always cold) or making sense of the gardening advice I regularly receive from self-proclaimed professionals. I mean, just what are the ancient mineral deposits, soil biology, and micro-climate of the inner-city Willamette Valley anyway, and do I really need to know?

I use the list to fan my creativity when facing off day after day after day of spinach or arugula or chard. I know I can, and do, give it to neighbors and friends, but then I am trying to use the bounty, which means we eat lots of spinach lots of ways for lots of days when spinach is “what’s for dinner.” Which also means, by the way, that we’re not eating out all that much despite, wanting to support and enjoy all the efforts of friends in the business.

Talk about trying to pass by friends unnoticed. What does one say? “Hi, I know I’m trying to subvert mainstream economic systems, but best of luck with your new enterprise.” Awkward!

And speaking of using what you grow, does anyone know why tomatoes peak the day before you leave on that much awaited (and deserved) vacation? Evidently just because you didn’t have plans to put up 50 quarts of tomatoes in 95-degree weather while packing for your trip does not mean you can’t. Note to self: no more vacations in August or September. Silly me.

Yep, I suggest you keep that list close at hand for constant and reflective re-evaluations, because it will change with time. Why you started in the first place may be very different than where you end, but hopefully it will always move you forward. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, your list will expand in ways you never expected.

“Harriet always went her own way,” you will hear your mother saying. And she will mean it as a compliment. So even though your mother’s, friends’, husband’s (sorry, dear), or children’s (I think I got you all covered) hard-earned respect was never on your list, it will find its presence an added bonus.

And one morning, you will read how others are taking the plunge into victory gardening. You will smirk just a little and say, “Welcome to the good ship Crazy.” Crazy for trying, crazy for crying, and crazy for loving this new life in between. So be bold, be true, and make that list.

And if it is any consolation, you will eventually be invited to a lot more parties.

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