Column: Back to the Garden

By Jeff McIntire-Strasburg
In Feature, Style

ALIVE’s green blogger weighs in on the growing trend

 

Own a recycling bin you put on the curbside every week? Replaced incandescent bulbs with CFLs? Take your reusable bags to the store? Congratulations: You’ve officially “gone green,” according to common belief. Now you can sit back, turn the AC down a few degrees, and crank up the big screen.

Okay, I’m being a bit sarcastic, and I do think CFLs, reusable bags and recycling bins have their place in terms of reducing environmental impact. I’m glad to see many people have embraced a few “green” practices. And, yes, I do all of these things.

But when the initial self-congratulations subside (it’s okay to give yourself that pat on the back), do you really feel like you’ve changed your life for the better? Sure, you’ll probably see a small drop in your electric bill because of the light bulbs, but do you feel healthier, happier, more connected to the natural world? Probably not, and if we really want people to “go green,” we have to come up with activities and practices that do more than make people feel like they’ve “done their duty.”

If you really want to “green up” your life in a manner that will make you feel more fulfilled, my advice (which is in no way original to me): start a garden.

A garden? With digging and planting and weeding? Yeah, that sounds like work. But gardening doesn’t have to be back-breaking labor, and it can provide rewards that no CFL ever will—a bit of exercise, a sense of accomplishment, some down time and, of course, fresh, tasty produce that beats anything in the grocery store. It’s no wonder that gardening has seen such a huge resurgence in recent years. People not only want better food than what’s offered by large-scale production and distribution, but they also want to be involved in an activity that feels meaningful.

If the meaning you seek involves your own environmental impact, consider the resources you save with a garden. Many will point out that the tomato you buy in your grocery store travels about a thousand miles from farm to plate, but that’s only a part of the story. Growing, harvesting and storing those tomatoes takes energy and water. Those tomatoes are likely packaged for at least part of their lives (more resources). And, to top it off, up to 10 percent of a crop can be thrown away because it either doesn’t have the right appearance for store sales, or it doesn’t get purchased before it has outlived its shelf life. A “yard-to-table” tomato clearly eliminates much of this resource use, and greatly shrinks the rest (especially if you choose to garden organically).

If you’re still concerned about the digging, planting and weeding, let me tell you: I’m not a master gardener (there is such a designation), but I’ve done it for a few years with some success—all while meeting my other obligations. Here are some ways to keep it manageable:

  • Start small. You don’t have to grow a huge plot of food; you can even start with plants in pots. Pick the herbs and vegetables you really want to eat: tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, whatever, and start from there.
  • Use a raised bed. If you want a bit more than what you can get from pots, build a raised bed (or buy one). Mine’s made from leftover bricks stacked on top of each other; it’s much easier than digging.
  • Buy good seeds or plants. Nothing’s more disappointing than plants that don’t grow or produce, so check with more experienced gardeners about their sources. Sites like gardenweb.com can be tremendously useful, too.
  • Spend a little time each day with your garden. And I do mean a little: watering, if needed, and weeding, which is much easier if you do it regularly, or just checking the plants; it’s kind of meditative.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you really want to keep it easy, check out Mel Bartholomew’s book, “All New Square Foot Gardening,” which walks you through the entire process of creating a nearly pain-free garden.

Is it worth it? When I served up a pan of eggplant parmigiana to my family, made with eggplant and basil right out of my garden, I couldn’t have imagined a greater reward. Working to save the planet is great; doing it in a manner that makes people, including myself, happy is not only priceless—it’s genuinely motivating. So take that, canvas shopping bags!

 

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Going Green

Back to the Garden

 

Photo credit: Illustration by Sarah Quatrand

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