BREAKING GROUND - DREAM - Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)

Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)



Afarm must first begin with a place, a piece of decent land somewhere you and plants can put down healthy roots. The land you’re considering should ideally be fallow, untouched by the potentially toxic habits of owners before you, and have all of its nutrient-rich microbial layers of topsoil and subsoil intact. A house in the middle ground of suburbia or on the urban outskirts will do just fine, as long as it’s attached to a small patch of soil with decent sun exposure and reasonable drainage. It’s important to think of yourself as a farmer from this point on, to redefine the very idea of farming for yourself: Micro you may be, but if you’re feeding your family and others, that’s who you are. “A farmer,” according to Webster’s, “is a person engaged in agriculture and the act of raising living organisms for food.” That’s you.

The ideal growing space should, in fact, and perhaps ironically, not already be a farm. Not only because—unless it’s only been organically cultivated—the soil will have been depleted by harmful chemistry and the compaction of machinery, but because my central cultural argument here is the reintegration of food growing into the mainstream. As most of us live in cities or suburbs, a farm on the rural outskirts that’s been left to founder there as populations have migrated to urban and suburban centers doesn’t advance the idea of local integration as well as community-based farming. Decent farmland is, of course, a highly valued resource, but there’s not enough of it in organic cultivation. Most farms in the last 100 years have been turned into housing developments or bought up and consolidated by agribusiness, which grows monocultures of corn and soy. The USDA’s 2012 statistics show that in the last 80 years, the number of US farms has fallen dramatically from a peak of almost 7 million in 1935 (when population stood at 127 million) to less than 2 million today (with a population of 317 million). There are half a million farms with fewer than 50 acres. And it’s those half-million small farms, which tend to be more accessible to population centers, that are consistently threatened by development but are the most necessary for food security and integration.

The most efficient way to begin growing food is to start small and build up over time as your skills and needs evolve. The biggest mistake people make when they begin to grow their own food is to let ambition get ahead of experience. Farming and gardening are empirical, learned by dirt-under-the-nails doing. If you overreach, you may get discouraged by how much you don’t know or how much work it takes to maintain and nurture your small farm or garden. There’s nothing sadder than an ambitious plot of once-productive land that’s been abandoned to the elements, annexed by weeds, and beaten down by neglect. A garden of any size presumes care and keen interest, and starting small can keep it manageable and let you adjust your lifestyle to include the new rhythms and routine of growing food. It may be that a small salad garden, with a few essential herbs, leaf lettuce, and tomatoes, is ambitious enough for you; or you may want to grow enough for a few meals a week, enough to feed yourself and a few neighbors, or perhaps farm for an entire community. Whether this is a personal health and lifestyle change or a way to affect change for others or an added revenue stream, the basic principles are the same.