Talk about food is everywhere. Never before has there been such wide interest in where food comes from, how it was grown, who grew it, who should have access to which kinds of food, what is good for us to eat and what is not, what can be sold at farmers markets and by whom, what’s for lunch in school cafeterias, prisons, hospitals and other institutions, how our food suffers (or might suffer) the effects of weather and resource depletion and pollinator reduction, and more. The list of subjects and outlets for these subjects is endless. There are books about our food system, TV shows and movies addressing our food system’s inadequacies, and countless blogs dedicated to food and… our food system. From the White House to conversations between friends and neighbors, from the mass media to the underground press, we’re soaking in food system news. And it’s this soaking in it that can make a person think it’s all too big and out of reach, kind of hopeless, and that anything the little guy can do is largely symbolic. Except… there is a practical response to this food system overload, and it involves taking care of business from the ground up. Literally.
When I first moved to downstate Illinois from Chicago fourteen years ago, I really wanted to grow some food, since I had moved to what seemed to me to be the “country,” where growing food was what people did, right? It sure wasn’t happening in Chicago back then. Anyway, our first landlord wouldn’t allow us to put a garden in — it was the perfect lawn for such an endeavor, too — so I satisfied myself with growing basil starts in a window box. The plants did pretty well, but it occurred to me, as they grew, that I had no idea what to do with basil. None whatsoever. I eventually figured it out, but I also learned the first of several valuable lessons: it’s fine to grow things you’ve never tried, but… not when it’s the only thing you’re growing.
A couple of years later, I had some help: a friend who acted as my gardening guru. We had moved to a different house and this time, the landlord was cool with me trying to grow food in the backyard. My very first food garden was made up of three tomato plants and two pepper plants. I won’t lie to you: I felt like Mother Earth Herself when I picked — and ate — that first tomato. The lesson learned that year was that growing food is about relationships; the relationships you develop with other people to teach and be taught, and the relationship between growing food and eating it. Both are powerful.
I was sold. The small backyard garden wasn’t enough, so I dug deep into my pockets and rented some community garden space south of town. I learned how to build trellises and fences, I fought with deer and bugs and weeds, and learned quite a few things from my garden neighbors, some of whom had been in the plots for two decades. I also learned about garden fatigue, which usually sets in during late July after the weeds and the heat have won, and it seems like too much work to get out to the garden. Another lesson: growing things is hard work.
Now, even though I’m back in my own yard, I deal with pests, heat, weeds, fatigue, and, occasionally, my own agricultural illiteracy. But… harvesting that first tomato or snow pea and eating it right there? The feeling of having grown something you can eat is unmatched, whether you’ve been doing it for one summer or ten. It never gets old.
So. All kinds of food can grow in containers. Food can grow in yards. Food can grow in a plot at a community garden, especially since there are more of them around now than there have ever been.
Knowing these things, then, it’s also important to remember two basic concepts.
The first is this: you don’t have to know how to garden in order to get started. You don’t have to have a full set of skills in order to plant a few tomato or pepper or basil or flower starts. The basic ingredients of gardening will get you through it — you need seeds or plants, soil, sun, and water. Also, having a philosophical attitude toward the whole enterprise doesn’t hurt. If something doesn’t work out, you can always replant — or plant something else altogether. There is always something else you can plant.
The second concept — and maybe the best concept — to remember? In many places, right now, you don’t even need to have land and a set of tools to grow food. In the Urbana-Champaign area, there are two organizations: the Douglass Garden Co-op in Champaign and the Sustainable Student Farm at the University of Illinois in Urbana who are always looking for people to help out with a wide variety of garden-related tasks at their sites, utilizing all of the skills that’ll come in handy to get your own garden started when you’re ready: planting, composting, weeding, watering, harvesting, transplanting, and much more. They’re not just interested in your labor, either; leaders at both projects want to teach people garden skills. They’re just as excited as you are about doing the work that makes seeds grow into actual food, and the skills you learn will last you a lifetime.
The best way to learn how to do something is, of course, by doing it! So, go on, give it a whirl. Even if you come away from your gardening experiences swearing off growing your own food, I can guarantee you’ll understand the most important lesson of all: how much work has to happen to get those tomatoes onto your plate.