Gardening and Food

What do we learn and achieve from gardening?

Exuberant butternut squash vines

Many of us in Chester County celebrate Earth Day every day. Earth herself is being mistreated, but we can work hard to mend our human ways toward her, and at the same time mend our own life styles and diets.

One way of making things better between ourselves and Earth is enjoying the thrill of seeing seeds wend their way into flowers, vegetables and fruits… and healthy food on the table.

If squash wants to grow twenty-foot vines, should we interfere? It’s a question of philosophy: some of us would give it free rein, even at the expense of other plantings being submerged; others of us would severely restrict it to its appointed space.

Flower or vegetable?

Sometimes the distinction between the esthetic and the edible isn’t clear. The tomato, imported to Europe in the 16th century, was originally grown there for decorative use and the fruit was considered toxic!

When we garden, we install plants in a hybrid environment, neither in the state of nature nor protected by four walls and a roof; and in return, they enter into a state of symbiosis with us: we give them a place to grow; and they offer us satisfaction, beauty, and food.

It is a particular pleasure when we see desirable plants seed themselves or resprout another year. Many flowers do this, of course, from one year to the next, such as the invincible annual cleome; and some, like foxgloves, are on a savvy two-year cycle with perennial longings. The attractive white and yellow flowers and glossy leaves pictured above grew from a potato that lurked in the ground over the winter.

Gardening also teaches us some valuable life lessons:

Bloody sorrel, a distinctive chard-like plant

• It takes time for plants to grow, and like people they go through recognizable stages. Pea or squash vines, starting as small seeds, develop fast in their infancy, move along to maturity, weather permitting, and produce what can become, if we save seeds, the next generation.

• We can open ourselves to surprise by giving unknown plants a chance to declare themselves before we weed. Plants can unexpectedly overwinter or self-seed, or appear from unknown sources. This bloody sorrel, a red-veined spinach-like leaf crop with an unfortunate name, must have been carried into the vegetable garden by a passing bird.

• Good results depend on patience and continuous effort. If we stop weeding for even a couple of weeks we will spend more time repairing the damage than we saved by taking a weeding vacation; if we stop watering when our plants are drying up, they will not come back.

• Let’s learn our limits! We can collaborate with plants but we can’t control them, or their needs, or the weather; we can amend the soil, but only within limits: it would take generations for clay to become loam and lawn will always be reluctant to grow under trees.

• We need to pay attention, look for facts and evidence about what is going right and wrong, and remain in touch with something outside ourselves: the reality of the garden.

Kitchencycling made easy

• There are no good shortcuts; compost and mulch, our friends, take time to produce. To the right: unusable organic matter from the kitchen returns rapidly and aerobically to nature, under a strong wire mesh bordered with stones to keep rodents from feasting.

• Pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers destroy soil organisms, beneficial insects and worms, and ultimately the soil itself.

• Peace of mind and inner relaxation — qualities not easily acquired in today’s busy life — dwell in the garden for us to gather into ourselves along with what grows there.

Gardening fosters a whole consciousness and understanding about the Earth and how we relate to it:

• The climate is changing; many areas are more subject to drought and floods, heat and cold, than they have been for many centuries. Large areas in Australia and California have been burning due to record hot and dry weather; the prospective 2021 grape harvest was destroyed in France by hot weather followed by freezing; one of the prime wine regions, the Jura, is becoming inhospitable to the grape. We may think “It can’t happen here,” but it will.

Honey bee, West Chester

• Because native plants have adjusted their needs to our climate and soil, they do a lot better than exotics when adverse weather strikes. And they evolved in symbiosis with native pollinators, which depend on them.

• The amount of water that soil can hold depends largely on the amount of organic material in the soil. This would be a good time for American gardeners and farmers to depend less on chemical fertilizers and more on treating soil as a living organism that also takes carbon out of circulation.

• Nature has evolved as one great system in each location. We need to respect plant and animal life that live together in a natural order we can’t readily grasp. We do know that if we want to eat healthy food, it must be grown in healthy soil.

By gardening in our own yards, we show our appreciation of nature; and we can give away some of our produce to those who need it, and we can encourage others to garden… and in turn to spread the satisfaction and knowledge of feeling in harmony with nature.

Many of our neighbors have been working hard to bring us programming, both online and in person, about how we live on and with the Earth. Please find the large array of locally accessible events in our calendar at the bottom of our home page; and join in!