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Village Idiot: As the garden grows; you are what you plant

We have a big garden. A huge garden. I only wish that it was outside the house. And in a few weeks, when it is warmer, it will be, but right now there are bedding trays of tiny plants and seed catalogs in almost every room covering every flat surface. It looks like a vegetarian hoarder exploded in our kitchen. Since it's like this every spring, you'd think I'd get used to it, but I'm still not. I told Sue that they have this new thing called outdoor gardening, which only got me a withering look and a smack with a Johnny's seed catalog upside the head.

Sue grew up in farm country; I grew up in supermarket country. The only thing I ever saw my mother grow was an avocado pit. She'd stick a few toothpicks in it and suspend it in a tall glass of water on the windowsill. It didn't seem to matter what time of year it was -- we'd get to watch a miracle of nature as it slowly grew roots and sent up a shoot.

When it got about two feet tall and she realized that it was getting too big for the window and would never live outside, it would go in the trash along with the percolator coffee grounds, the empty Spam cans and the newspapers. City people didn't separate their trash back then, it all simply disappeared every Monday and Thursday. We thought that was a miracle, too, until the '70s, when we found out all the garbage was going into the town dump next to the reservoir and was leeching into our drinking water. It only takes one taste of avocado pit, newsprint and Spam water to realize that some miracles are more miraculous than others.

I still have no idea what a mature, fruit-bearing avocado plant looks like, any more than today's gourmet caffeine junkie would know what a percolator looks like. Still, I've gone from not knowing where my food comes from to knowing the names of the people who grow a lot of the vegetables and raise the animals that I eat. A friend with backyard chickens brings us eggs once a week and the yolks are a bright, sunny orange, not the pale yellow of most store-bought eggs. I'd like to go on and on about how fabulously wonderful they taste, but once I've cooked them with ham and home fries, I can't honestly say I can taste the difference between them and supermarket eggs. The difference is that I know the chickens that laid these eggs. And they all have different personalities: curious, aloof, scared, bossy and every combination in between. When I stop by their house, some run away, some strut right up to me and some ignore me. Just like their owners do when they see me.

It's happened gradually over the years, but more and more of my friends seem to be producing more and more of their own food. Some keep bees, some make goat cheese, some bake bread, some raise sheep, some raise pigs, some make wine, some grow fruit, and Sue grows all kinds of herbs and vegetables. Eight different kinds of basil the last time I counted. She'll trade some of her heirloom tomato plants with the baker for bread and with the beekeeper for honey. We don't use much honey, so maybe we'll trade that for a pound of bacon from the guy with the pigs.

Of course, we still shop for most of our food -- it's hard to grow bananas, wheat and coffee in the backyard -- but once you know where things come from, you shop with different eyes. Where do they get tomatoes in April? We'll use the ones we canned last summer. Garlic from China? I can plant a year's worth in the backyard in 10 minutes. That asparagus at $3 a bunch? I could grow my own. I think I will.

Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.

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