Gardening for Groceries

Despite our long, COLD spring, the veggie garden is coming along nicely.  I did put most of my tomatoes in the ground a week or so ago (and thanks for all the reassurance that tomatoes like to be in pots!) and they are continuing to grow nicely.  The peas are starting to appear on the vines–next time I’m trellising them even if they are dwarves; it will be much easier to find the peas themselves in the curly tangle!–the carrots seem to be coming along, and the chard, kale, and beet greens are growing inches a day.  I planted more spinach, lettuce, beets, and mesclun mix in a slightly less sunny spot probably 3 weeks ago, and they are also coming along fine.  Most exciting–the strawberries are getting riper, and the fava beans are loaded with pods that should also be ready within the week.  Hurray!

I had some hopes for the ways in which having a big home garden would impact our lives.  Besides some emotional, ecological, and spiritual goals, I have been hoping that our grocery budget will decrease significantly through the summer and into the fall as we mostly eat out of the garden.  I’m still working on that assumption, though I’m going to really have to keep on top of the succession planting.  Succession planting is when you have a crop that takes a specific number of days from seed to maturity, and when it’s mature, you eat the crop and it’s done.  So a carrot, for instance, grows to the right size, and then you pick it and eat it.  This is different than peas or beans or vine tomatoes, where as long as you keep picking, the vine will keep producing, sometimes for months on end.  In order to keep eating the former crop regularly throughout the season, you plant a patch every couple of weeks, so that you have crops ready to eat consistently for months.

The problem so far for me has been partly busyness, but also partly that after 2-3 weeks the previously planted seeds don’t look particularly inspiring.  As a new gardener, some crops have surprised me in how long they take to germinate, and it’s been at times an act of faith to keep planting.  Then, a month or so later, the first planted crops look AMAZING, and I’m kicking myself for not planting 3 times as much and for succession planting  like crazy!  Lessons learned :).

One of my friends suggests that all of my university training, combined with some inherent personality traits, makes me a person who’s very concerned about doing things “right”.  I know that she’s right–although I fight the tendency intellectually because I don’t believe that most of the time there’s only one right way to do things.  But it’s true that I tend to be fairly conservative when I approach something new; I want to learn the rules/conventions first, and then when I’m comfortable with them and the reasons behind them, then I start changing things according to my own instincts.

Such has been the case with the garden.  As I’ve begun, I’ve read a ton, asked lots of questions, joined some online forums.  But much of gardening is so changeable and fluid, with variables like weather, temperature, micro-climate, goals, varietal choices, etc etc.  So at times it’s felt like I’m stumbling around trying to pin the tail on the donkey.  I’ve had take everything I’ve learned, and then take action according to all that information and my best educated guess.

To my surprise, I’ve been reasonably successful.  Certainly I’ve learned some lessons–both to take more risks and to be more consistent 🙂  in planting.  I will be a little more reckless with my seeds from now on, planting more and earlier because eventually stuff does grow, and it is a treat to have a gamble pay off (see the self-sufficient gardener on the garden tour testing the limits below).

How else do I know that I’m on the right track?  Because of how my grocery shopping habits are already changing.

I love to shop at the farmer’s market, and Duncan has a great one.  When we moved to the valley last year, I started learning as much as I could about where the local farms are and how they operate, because following the un-beaten path down to the farm gate is one of my great pleasures.  As the garden has been new, and the crops not yet ready in the last couple of months, I’ve eagerly headed to the farm markets to supplement the backyard feast-to-be.  And so I’ve experienced one of many D’oh! moments.

I’ve come home empty handed from most of my trips.  Why?  Because the produce that the farms have for sale, I’ve clued in, is the same produce that I have growing in my garden, and at roughly the same phase.  I’ve been doing things (mostly) right!  That’s the good news.  The bad news (and the D’oh!) is that we’re all–home gardeners and farmers–growing the same stuff at the same time, because we’re all subject to the same growing conditions.

Eliot Coleman has built a substantial farm business based on selling produce through the winter in Maine when no one else is farming at all.  I’m a little surprised, actually, that no one’s doing that here.   Or perhaps they are, but it’s really greens and fairly simple things being grown under simple covers, rather than large overwintering crops.  Surely some farmers could have been selling broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower for a couple of months with enough planning?  That’s what I’m planning for us to be eating next spring.

In the meantime, I’m realizing that my grocery shopping and approach to eating seasonally is going to change in ways that I’m still processing.  If we’re growing what the market farmers are, then we’re not going to be supporting them financially.  And what we’re supplementing our produce with–some greenhouse-grown crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers are available reasonably locally, but it’s mostly soy milk, dry staples (rice, pasta, flour, etc; I am growing dry beans, and we’ll see what size crop we end up with), nuts, cheese, and sometimes oranges, etc in the winter–is not easily produced locally and will probably always need to be purchased at a chain supermarket.  Although we’ve shopped at farms for years, and considered ourselves seasonal eaters, it’s a very different feeling to look at the garden in the backyard with many crops almost, but not quite ready and to realize that this IS what’s locally available–not just to buy, but also to produce.  Again, I suddenly understand the pleasurable gardening obsession with pushing the zonal boundaries!

After years of feeling like part of the consumer movement, where personal purchasing choices are the daily political statements that comprise much (if not all at times) of my activism, I’m going to have to re-think my strategy.  Gardening for some level of self-sufficiency has long been appealing as a way to opt out of the bind of consumer choices that sometimes seem always already tainted by global capitalism.  But I’m realizing that opting out is also giving up the consumer currency that feels like a voice and practical action within that system.  If I am invested in changing the system, and opting out removes one way to effect change, then I’m going to come up with some new ways!

If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them! 🙂


One thought on “Gardening for Groceries

  1. Hi Toni,

    Madrona Farms here in Victoria grows food all year round – vegetables mostly, with some fruit, herbs and flowers. There may just such a farm near you 🙂


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