Five Lessons Learned from My Kitchen Garden

Fruits and veggies were only part of the story . . .

originally version published Connecticut Woodlands, Summer 2008

When I gave in to my passion for growing my own food a long time ago, I approached it not like a hobby but more like a mission. In addition to countless hours in the garden, I attended endless seminars, built up a large book collection, applied for and received organic certification for my property for several years, and picked up three horticultural certificates.

In short, I really got into it.

It might seem enough to address myself to the quality of the soil, the rainfall and sunshine, and the seeds. You would think that I would be entitled to the satisfaction that I had done my part to feed myself and my family well. You would think that I would be proud that I had set a good example.

But no, even though my garden provided a great deal of food by modern standards, the apparent virtue of my activities did not absolve me from some disquieting topics. As I dug and weeded in the silence of the garden, dark angels of second-guessing visited from other realms with their pesky questions that have no simple answers.

For instance, was I really growing more healthful food? Was it really better than what I could buy at the chain supermarket? Was this homegrown food actually costing more than what I would spend at the grocery? Would it be better for me to buy from local farmers? Was my harvest really worth the home freezer space and stovetop energy I was devoting to it? Weren't mass producers more efficient?

These were important questions in my head, but other questions hit me deep at the center of my mothering heart. Why didn't my family dote on the products of my efforts? Why did I feel isolated in my passion for growing my own food? Was all this fresh, organic food really wasted on a household such as ours? Shouldn't I put my time into something else, like serving as a room mother or football team parent? The time I take to grow food or find other local sources of it takes away from the rest of life. Sometimes, it seemed a difficult involvement to justify.

Kitchen gardening is not just a pretty picture of happy, sunny mornings. To do it well, the kitchen gardener makes a major commitment to a four to seven month activity each year. And that commitment placed me at the intersection of forces and tradeoffs that cannot be denied, even at the small scale I work. While I have not settled all these questions, I have learned five lessons.

Lesson 1. Could, Should, Would

I started out growing for the joy of it and curious about every type and variety I could find in seed catalogs. In this phase, I was limited only by what I could grow based on the soil, season length, and other horticultural factors. But after a few years of this, I came to appreciate how much I should grow given the space and time available.

Instead of compulsively tending tongue-twisters like scorzonera, rocambole and radicchio, I needed to pay attention to what my family would actually eat. While I never met a vegetable or fruit I didn't like, the same is not true for my housemates. The family will devour all the homegrown fruit I can grow and disavows any knowledge of Brussels spouts even under threat of death. Just because I can grow a mean patch of tomatillo doesn't mean that I should. Those long rows of curly dark mustard greens usually only appealed to me and my son's pet turtle.

Lesson 2: Too much, too little, too seasonal

Every gardener knows this problem. One year, there are pounds of peppers; another year, it's all about superfluous squash. How much chili and how many stuffed peppers can your family stand in a two-month time frame? And how many of the other ingredients can you grow? What is the added value of a casserole that is partly organic or local? What about the energy required to freeze that bumper crop of peppers for twelve months, only to throw them away the next season? (Cringe, it does happen!)

You have to make peace with imbalance and, sometimes, get tough with the oversupply. It is also wise to read up on the best storage crops. Every category of garden food has varieties that are better keepers than others.

If you can't cook them or keep them, you also can't feel sorry for your extra vegetables. Your options are (a) soup kitchens or food banks, (b) friends, (c) selling them, or (d) compost pile.

My experience with soup kitchens in the early years was mixed. One time, now many years ago, I brought a massive number of perfect tomatoes to a food bank. They were accepted with lukewarm grace and before I left the building I could hear the head volunteer saying to a co-worker, "Betty, can you take some of these home?" Another time, I saw my squash sit on a food bank shelf for several weeks before it finally disappeared. A delivery of greens went to waste because they weren't serving salad that week.

This is no longer the case. There are now many great community gardens that grow fresh food for donation, such as the Common Good Gardens at Grace Episcopal Church in my hometown, Old Saybrook. They happily accept my garden surplus. 

Distributing to friends is often problematic. I grew up hearing my grandmother talk about neighbors and passers-by relying on her for some vegetables during the Depression. But most of my circle doesn't know what to do with an entire bag of green peppers. When I want to unload a crop of potatoes, I learn how many of them are on the low-carb diets.

For three years, I sold produce to a small, regular clientele. People bought what they wanted (though I often had too little of what they wanted and too much of what they didn't). The problem here is that I found myself running a small business, in addition to gardening and preserving. Are we exhausted yet?

Lesson 3: My passion is not their passion

The kitchen gardener learns first hand just how different she is from the rest of her family-and even from the rest of humanity. Most people have limited tolerance for gardening.

Think about this: What have most people throughout history done when they were freed from the necessity of growing their own food? They ran as if an angry chili pepper were chasing them. As my father once pointed out, farmers two hundreds years ago weren't making a social statement about the goodness of fresh food. They were simply hungry people growing food because they had to. Some may have hated the work, much as I eschew dishwashing today. It was a necessary chore.

This is why I never forced my kids to help in the garden (though they sometimes did). I don't want them to be repulsed by memories of an angry mother shoving a hoe in their hands and standing over them while they did a poor job of a task they hated. I wanted my kids (and others, too) to see me enjoying myself in my food garden.

Lesson 4: Aunts and grandmas needed

To preserve the harvest requires a whole different set of skills-none of them my forte. Where are those aunts and grandmas and cousins? I find myself fantasizing about canning kitchens where I drop the stuff off and pick it up the next day canned and ready for the cellar.

To preserve the harvest means gardening by day and working in the kitchen by night. What I really want is to be the grower for many, while others preserve and prepare and distribute the food.

Lesson 5: I'll do it anyway

It must be clear by now that all that time among the rows under the hot sun was making me crazy. I saw barriers and causes for exasperation in every direction. Why didn't I just quit? Take up kickboxing? Go to NASCAR races?

I didn't quit because the garden is both my cauldron and my sanctuary.

The outcome of my efforts, and the public reaction to them, are separate from the practice of home agriculture. This says as much about the grower as it does about those for whom we grow. We have a sense that we're close to the very nexus of survival, and we like it there. That's why I continue to grow fruit and vegetables and probably will until I can't.

I approach my Connecticut garden now with a lighter heart than I once did--thinking small, thinking optimal. I have made peace with my family, my friends, and myself on these topics. I have taken a thoughtful look at my grocery list and rewritten my seed list. I am happy to help anyone who wants to walk the same path, in whatever form they wish.