I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’d really like to be a farmer. Maybe “gardener of vegetables” would be more appropriate, but I’d like to keep the option of chickens and pigs on the table for some time in the future when we have more room, some land out back to speak of. (Buying a farm in lower Fairfield County shouldn’t be too hard, right? A few acres, a barn? Would I technically be a gardener until I got some animals to raise?) In that vein, I’ve been doing some reading on growing things. Apparently there’s a lot of planning, planting, digging, reading, and work involved. Choosing vegetable varieties, understanding water flow, root biology, pH, growing zones, botany. But then you get all this free food! I feel like several aspects of my life can all come together if I can just grow some vegetables, harvest some of my own crops and eat them. There’s the biology of it that I’m interested in, photosynthesis actually being practical for me, beyond the details of NADPH and the Calvin Cycle (which are incredibly useful, of course*); the principle of it, being at least a little self-sufficient; and the culinary applications of cooking and eating something homegrown. I should also mention here that I’m very interested in compost. The idea of compost, I guess. This is the science nerd part of me again, which I have a hard time getting away from. It just makes so much sense: plants take nutrients from the soil as they grow, especially when they’re taking the time to dump resources into the production of fruit and seeds; return those nutrients to the soil so that future plants can grow. Easy. Let time, microbes, and the pull of entropy do the work so that I can get better tomatoes and carrots.
I should be more clear here, in what I mean by being a farmer. It’s a romantic notion, I understand. And it’s possible that I like the idea of being a farmer better than I will the reality of it. I did mention work and digging earlier, which I’m okay with. I like dirt. But I’m not in for 12 hour days of plowing and picking and milking. This is backyard farming we’re talking about, and I’m certainly keeping my day job. Maybe I stick with “gardening,” despite the Smith & Hawken image that I’d like to separate myself from. So for now the plan is to try it out, see how many different things I can grow in the back yard and learn from the experience.
Michael Pollan is to blame for all of this, by the way. I just finished his Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991). This book, along with The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and Botany of Desire (2001) have gotten me to consider gardening, farming, composting, photosynthesis, entropy, and industrial food production in a different light, one more practical than academic. I enjoyed this book (and his others), which I read on a recent vacation.
In Second Nature, Pollan describes his experience of starting (and developing) a garden at his home in Cornwall, CT. He is a curious beginner, and he describes his successes and failures along the way. As several reviewers on Amazon comment, this is not a “how to” book, but one more on the philosophy (and history even) of gardening. Which makes it not for everyone. It might not teach you as much as get you to think about gardening, and to get you to think about why you do it. It might also get you to start. Pollan is at all times thorough, academic, and entertaining. And I’ve totally bought in. I enjoy how he writes, certainly, but I also agree with him on his food politics. That became clear for me while reading Omnivore a few years ago, when I found myself railing against Big Corn. I had no idea what a big mess it was, or how many millions of dollars are spent in subsidies that would be better placed supporting organic farmers growing fruits and vegetables. So you should read that if you haven’t yet. But here, Pollan gets you to the point where you believe you should garden. He talks about the relationship between the wilderness and civilization over the course of history. People believe that those two concepts are diametrically opposed. Maybe they’re more comfortable if they are; people do love a dichotomy. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: the deep dark woods or the all-American lawn. Gardens represent a compromise, and Pollan also uses his garden as a metaphor for this middle-ground relationship between culture and nature. Yes, humans like to (need to) carve out a place in the wilderness to make their own. This process of development isn’t all bad. Some is necessary. But he makes the important point that environmental conservation today cannot revert to a completely hands-off approach. This leads to situations like the Yellowstone Fires in the late 80′s. In that case, managed fires and prescribed burns have become absolutely necessary after decades of fire suppression. But I digress. Back to gardens and planting: getting people to be involved in growing anything other than large sweeping swaths of Kentucky Bluegrass is a good thing. It’s good for preserving the genetic diversity of plants (if done the right way), it’s good for sequestering carbon, and in the case of vegetables, it’s good for your nutrition (see In Defense of Food).
So I’ll continue planting things in the back yard, and I’ll keep you posted.
* After a discussion/lecture on photosynthesis and entropy a few years ago, I had a biology student say, “Man, plants are freaking important.” Why, yes they are. I think that was on an Enlightenment Friday.