Smile Politely

Sleeves Up, Hands Dirty

Now, nobody imagines his modest little patch is going to be the greatest thing since copper bracelets, no. But it will be personal, and it will be fascinating, because there is no such thing as dullness when the gardener is going full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, as it were.

–Henry Mitchell

Something usually happens around late January/early February that helps me shift into Backyard Mode. Maybe that something is happening a bit earlier this year thanks to the inauguration of a new President (catch that whiff of hope in the air?), or maybe it’s happening in response to grim economic news (or is it the faint stench of fear?). All I know is that it’s time for me — and you — to take some inventory, assess the situation and step outside our comfort zones so we can grow a thing or two.

2009 marks the ten-year anniversary of my first Grown-Up Garden, i.e., one not presided over by my parents. My daughter was just a few months old when I broke ground in our rental house’s too-shady backyard; my son was not quite seven. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I tugged up what seemed like half the sod in the yard (but was really only a patch about three feet wide and six feet long) and planted some tomato and sweet pepper starts in the dirt. But a few months later, when the plants were huge and bearing all kinds of fruit, I was triumphant. I felt like Mother Earth — beneficent! Bestowing tomatoes on the world! The biggest surprise to me was that getting things to grow really wasn’t that hard.

While gardening definitely has its pitfalls and frustrations, coaxing things out of the ground — at least on a smaller, residential scale — really isn’t that difficult. While many people (legitimately) mention space for gardening and time for gardening as the main deterrents from trying it out, another, often unspoken deterrent is the perceived learning curve in combination with that lack of space and lack of time. The fear of failing, wasting time and money, or not having necessary implements to make it happen can be intimidating, because who likes to put time and money into something only to have it not “work”? I believe these exact same fears are what keep people from learning how to cook basic, nutritious and fresh meals from scratch, by the way. But for both, full-on failure is a rarity. The payoff, even from mistakes, is huge. The end result may not be ready for prime time, but it is certainly salvageable (barring a total crop failure, or, in the kitchen, a total oversalting or burning).

The thing is, gardening is an immensely rewarding pursuit. You put in a little bit of work, Nature does Her thing, and you get results — visual and edible and otherwise tangible results — that not only afford you a little bit of independence from the grocery store, but also provide you with a valuable, teachable skill and something to broaden your culinary horizons. Yes, even just with peppers and tomatoes.

The Vernal Equinox is just 58 days away. If you’re thinking of starting a garden, now — some call it JanuFeb — is an excellent time to start dreaming of seeds, compost, tools and the food you’ll end up with. If you’re uncertain about how to proceed, consider coming to the Block by Block Cooperation’s First Annual Groundhog Day Eve Seed Swap, happening on Sunday, February 1 from 1–4 p.m. at Common Ground Food Co-op in Lincoln Square Village. The group will host a seed swap and have retained a couple folks to talk about seed starting and seed saving. The atmosphere will be deeply casual and highly centered around sharing information about seeds, gardening, skills, tools and experiences. Don’t have any seeds to trade? Don’t worry — the event is free and there will be seeds for everyone to take home.

Other gardeners are a new gardener’s best resource, so I’ll be writing in future columns about seeds, tools, garden planning and other inspirational topics to get newbies and old-timers into the mood to get into the dirt.

Dig it!

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