Saturday, January 2, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

"A garden is the most direct way to recapture the issue of health and to make it a private instead of a governmental responsibility." --Wendell Berry, "The Reactor and the Garden," The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural.

January is not a typical time of year for gardening. Not in Boston, certainly. Not in the sense that we typically think of: digging our fingers under the soil to plant, to weed, or to harvest. This time of year, we are buried in snow and the ground is frozen hard. But, this does not mean that the January gardner sits entirely idle. On the contrary, the deep winter season offers time for contemplation. What will be planted in the growing season to come? What lessons can be learned from the last? Even I, with only my tiny herb planter to ponder, find myself considering what new varieties I might try out next year, what more I would plant if I had the luxury of a yard to do it in.

January also brings in a new year, prompting many of us to reflect on how we'd like to make our lives better over the next twelve months, how to grow ourselves as individuals and work together to solve larger social problems. After a few long weeks of holiday overindulgences--thankfully tempered by the start of a new farm share--I find myself thinking a great deal about food and the myriad ways that our choices in that realm stand to effect not only our personal health, but that of the planet as a whole. Following Thursday's New York Times article about the ubiquitous presence of ammonia processed beef in this country's hamburger, and a recent re-viewing of the incredible documentary, Food Inc. (if you haven't seen it yet, you really must) Berry's words about recapturing the responsibility for our health hold particular resonance. The government agencies responsible for fostering and protecting our food system cannot currently be relied upon to do so given the revolving door between corporate agriculture and positions of power at the USDA and FDA. And, while this system needs to be held accountable and fighting to change it is an essential endeavor, it can feel like chipping away at an iceberg.

A garden, on the other hand, provides much speedier results, and a much more satisfying path to getting there. The means are as satisfying as the end, and the gardener has ownership in the entire process. Yes, there are the perils of pests and weather to contend with in order to achieve success, but these are much more pleasant adversaries to consider than profit-hungry CEOs whose power seems to have no end. As stated at the end of Food Inc., planting a garden, even a small one, is the most direct way to regain control of your food supply, and thereby your health, in a system that has gone so terribly awry. It is also far more delicious than letter writing.

So, for those of you inclined to spend these snowy days indoors, pondering your plantings for the first or the fortieth time, I offer a few reading suggestions to help you percolate on the possibilities until the spring thaw.

First, there's Karel Capek's The Gardener's Year, part of the Modern Library Gardening Series, edited by none other than Michael Pollan. Originally written in Czech in 1929, Capek's observations are whimsical and insightful, reminding us of the wonders of growing while poking light fun at the quirks and obsessions of the average gardener. The book's pages are also adorned by a charming collection line drawings created by Capek's brother. As Pollan writes in his series introduction, "there's plenty of how-to here, but the emphasis is more along the lines of how-to-think-about-it than how-to-do-it." Just right for the time of year when you're better off under a blanket than out in a field. The series has become home to many other forgotten books, including enticing titles such as In the Land of the Blue Poppies, Old Herbaceous, and The Gardener's Bed-Book: Short and Long Pieces to Be Read in Bed By Those Who Love Green Growing Things. You can peruse and purchase any of them here.

For a more contemporary but still varied list of gardening-related books, click here to see the year's 10 best gardening books, according to the Gardening blog.

To see you through until you get your hands on one of these, or until you can get your hands good and dirty, here are a few encouraging winter words by Capek, from a chapter entitled "The Gardener's February":

"But do you know what? The snowdrops are in flower; and hamamelis with yellow stars is in flower, and hellebore has fat buds; and when you look properly (but you must hold your breath) you will find buds and sprouts on almost everything; with a thousand tiny pulses life rises from the soil. Now we gardeners will stick to it; already we are rushing into sap."

1 comment:

  1. Cultivating Delight by Diane Ackerman is another wonderful book about gardens!