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On being a gardener

Food For Thought

The seed catalogs have been thumbed through, pages have corners turned down, order blanks have a few tentative lines filled in, but the past six weeks or so have not been encouraging. We have put off starting those first seedlings in the greenhouse, sun porch, or under plant lights in the basement. Not long ago, we looked out the window at the patch of earth we’d hoped to have already tilled and partially planted and what did we see? Snow. Not in piles, granted, but lurking in chilly little patches where the meager sun seldom reaches. Will those early seeds rot before it is warm enough to stir them to life and require replanting? Well, seeds are a minor part of the expense of a garden, but what about wasted effort?
We easily gave up the idea of having the potatoes in the ground by Good Friday. As for those other things we like to plant early; we just didn’t get to it and the chill, damp weather kept us from doing much. Let’s just hope the market gardeners were more conscientious than we were, so we’ll be able to buy some of the things we usually raise ourselves. There seems to have been a big chunk of April the Good Garden Fairy withheld from us. Possibly, it was to teach us a lesson about complacency.
In Iowa, we needn’t try very hard to make things grow– they just do. We also have an over-abundance of fresh produce available in the grocery stores. There is no real need to grow our own food, but being Iowans, we are guided by some primal urge to plant seeds. And, having planted seeds, we smugly proclaim the results are superior to the supermarket counterparts. We don’t want to give up either option.
There are many people in this world who do not own land, who do not plant seeds, and who do not mind not planting seeds. I assume they grew up believing carrots, onions and potatoes grow in plastic bags and berries, apples and oranges are born somewhere in the back rooms of the supermarket. There are children (mostly in other states) who believe milk is made by scientists who combine bags of secret ingredients with water from some magic source unrelated to that which pours from the taps in the kitchens and bathrooms of their homes. Such children haven’t a clue as to the origin of peas, hamburgers, drumsticks, potato chips, applesauce or any of the other things they eat, and precious few of them could even tell you where their water comes from.
Fortunately, the State of Iowa does not suffer from a lack of enthusiasm for gardening. We are blessed with a large percentage of gardeners. Part of the reason for an affinity for gardening is the fact in Iowa the arable land is evident. It is not covered with concrete or asphalt and people are able to see plants in their natural habitat. They are aware of agriculture and horticulture and have a certain regard for the land; for the very soil itself. Not simply as a valued possession in the form of real estate, but as an integral part of the processes of nature that sustain life itself. And though it would seem to be optional as to whether or not we grow our own food today, there are a number of reasons why people still put forth the effort.
It is obvious produce from our own gardens is fresher than that which has been grown elsewhere, transported and stocked on the grocery shelves. The things we can raise in this climate are limited, but are riper when harvested nearer to home, thus tastier and probably more nutritious. Then there is the low cost to be considered, and of course the pride of accomplishment.
Years ago, garden size was often dictated by the amount of sod a man could turn over after he got home from work one day and his wife said, “If you don’t get that garden ready, there will be no peas this June.”
The next day, his wife would break up the bigger chunks of dirt with a hoe, rake out the clods, and plant neat rows of lettuce, string beans and radishes. Her back would hurt, her hands would be blistered, and she would be late getting supper on the table.
Many of us, even experienced gardeners, would be hard-put to grow all the vegetables our families require from one spring to the next. We might not starve, but we would miss crisp, fresh lettuce in the winter, probably run out of onions about January, and find the potatoes all shriveled and rubbery long before spring. Most of all, we’d miss the vine-ripened tomatoes. Nobody has yet devised a way to make a prematurely-picked tomato taste like one ripened on the vine and tastes like sunshine.
Just because we don’t have to plant gardens, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, though. After all– we are Iowans.