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Published on May 7th, 2010 | by Steve Savage

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Four Great Reasons to Garden (Beyond the Food)

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I often write posts about the practical limitations of “local food,” but I am a huge advocate of the “very most local food”  – that which comes from your own garden.  

Gardening “Roots”

I have serious roots with gardening.  My grandfather was born in 1899 when 40% of the population was directly involved in farming.  He was part of the trend away from that.  He worked as a typesetter for a newspaper in Denver, but he became a serious “victory gardener” during WWII and never stopped.  He supplied vegetables to us and to many of his neighbors (sometimes whether they wanted it or not during peak zucchini season).  I grew up in the 1960s helping him and also my Dad – whose raspberry patch I remember fondly.  My wife and I started our own first two gardens in 1977 when we were graduate students in Davis, California.   I have since gardened in Grand Junction, Colorado;  Newark Delaware; and for the last 20 years in Northern San Diego County, CA.  For the last 8 years I have also cultivated a little home vineyard.  I really can’t imagine not gardening.

What Gardening Has Taught Me

What I’ve learned over all those years is that there are many different reasons to garden, and that most of them are not really about my food supply.  Yes, of course I get some wonderful fresh produce of a quality you couldn’t even buy at a farmer’s market (like the fingerling potatoes I harvested this week pictured above – 5 lbs from a 2 x 3 foot area).  I think that on occasion I save some money (my snow pea crop was a big success this year!).  But the other advantages are as follows:

Gardening is good for the body and the soul

I, like many people, work all day long on the computer and over the phone.  What I do is rather abstract and about as “physical” as it gets is a PowerPoint presentation or a blog post.  So it is great in the evenings or the weekend to get out and do something that is tangible.  Its great to get some dirt under the fingernails.  It is healing to deal with living, breathing things and to re-connect with Nature.  For me, there is a spiritual element to that, and certainly a means of relaxation and meditation.  Gardening, not just for food but for landscape plants, is one of my major forms of exercise.  I run 2-3 times a week, but I like the more “productive” exercise that comes from work in the garden.  I get to see the results.

Gardening is good for education

We live in such a post-agricultural age that we owe it to our children, and any other kids we know, to give them at least a slight sense of where food comes from.  Gardening can do that.  Its a setting where you can show kids that there are “good bugs” and “bad bugs.”  Its a place where you can show them a non-threatening example of a life-cycle and talk about how everything eventually dies.  Its a place where you can explain the difference between “dirt” and the living, breathing community that is a soil.

Gardening is good for empathy with farm workers

When one is gardening (say pulling weeds or picking beans) one could imagine what it would be like to do that for eight or more hours a day.  What is a pleasant diversion and minor exercise source for me is a very-much-needed, but under-appreciated role in our society. The tending of many crops, particularly fruits and vegetables, involves serious hand labor that our society demands from a demographic that many deride as “illegal” and whom we force to deal with much personal risk and injustice.  Gardening is a slight window on that – if we think about it.

Gardening is good for empathy with farmers

Inevitably,  actors in nature (insects, weeds, diseases, birds, rodents, racoons, skunks, possums, deer…) will find your garden and damage it.  Typically, if the crop is doing well, you will have plenty to “share” with the pests and nature, but sometimes the results can be pretty disappointing.  I’ve actually had the worst experience with that in San Diego because we don’t have winters that knock back pest populations.

The serious gardener should contemplate how these pest problems would look if one were farming and ask, “what would it be like if my livelihood depended on this crop and this pest issue came up?”  For most gardeners, any produce they can grow is a nice “plus.” Pest damage for a farmer with thin profit margins can be catastrophic.  I believe that gardening is a great way to begin to understand some of the challenges that are faced by commercial farmers.

Conclusions

So, I think it would be great if everyone who could garden did so.  It would make a very slight contribution to the food supply, but it would mainly increase the proportion of the public that both enjoys this great hobby and which might be able to think more clearly about farming issues.

Potato image from my garden

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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



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