“A garden is a solution that leads to other solutions. It is part of the limitless pattern of good health and good sense.” – Wendell Berry
By Sadie Wilbur
Dirty Hands, Happy Heart
My love for all things green began when I was a young girl. I grew up alongside a variety of trees and plants, and my little blue house was dwarfed by the massive oaks, conifers, and hydrangeas surrounding it. We lived on the outskirts of the Washington Park Arboretum: 230 acres of woodlands, wetlands, gardens, and trails.
As much as I enjoyed the Arboretum, my favorite childhood memories were made in my backyard garden. For my father, gardening was a life practice, a constant companion, and a meditative window into larger questions of existence. I remember the sweet taste of ripe strawberries and the wrinkled, fuzzy texture of mint leaves freshly picked from our garden.
My dad was a keen cook and he kept quite a collection of herbs. There must have been twenty different varieties growing in the five different pots, each producing a unique bouquet of smells. My favorite plant in the garden had to be the tomatoes, which my dad and I ate like candy. We would take the first bite at the same time and make silly faces as the juiciness exploded in our mouths. Sometimes we laughed so hard our stomachs ached, which was known as a “belly laugh” in my family.
To buy the seeds for our garden, we went to Fred, the wise master gardener at our local farmers market. Fred and I both liked hydrangeas very much, and he taught me how to take care of the shrubs growing in our backyard. From both my father and from Fred, I learned to care about the provenance of my food. Sharing these trips to the farmers market with my dad helped cement our relationship as well as an appreciation for our food, and to this day we both actively support local farmers and attend farmers markets.
Planting seeds, watering, weeding, and harvesting were all simple tasks that made a big impact on me. Gardening was hard work, and that’s why I loved it; every drop of sweat was worthwhile and always left me feeling fulfilled and proud. When I was worn out from digging, I would sprawl out on the grass and bask in contentment as I enjoyed the soothing sounds of nature. Gardening can be a process that slows us down internally and externally, teaching us patience, which is essential to cultivate given the fast-paced, instant gratification-focused society that we live in.
My generation knows more about technology than the natural resources that support life on earth. I think we get used to not seeing the green around us because nature has become a backdrop in many of our lives. To secure a healthy world for future generations, we need to shift global consciousness to a mindset that values the essential over the desired. When I feel caught up in the frenzy of modern life, I make time to go outside, take a deep breath, smell the flowers, and admire the plant life around me.
I’ve found that gardening can be a great way to ground myself and reconnect with nature. Spend a few months gardening, take a vegetable from seed to harvest, and you’ll soon have a deeper appreciation for the natural systems on which our lives depend. Gardening produces a harvest of subtle lessons about what it means to be a part of an ecosystem. For one, our connection to the earth becomes crystal clear when we watch our plants grow (or fail). For my father and I, the garden has gained significance as a place of retreat, where we can experience pride and ownership, perhaps because we have lost this feeling in our societal institutions and political systems.
Breaking Through the Concrete
As more global citizens move into cities, how will we feed the world when we become further disconnected from the environments that sustain us? Today, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, 68 percent of the total world population will live in cities—meaning an urban crowd that will be almost as large as all of humanity today.
We must choose a new path, one that involves helping the people of the world feed themselves. By increasing control over how our food is produced and distributed, we can shift from being passive consumers of food to becoming co-producers, reconnecting with our planet along the way.
Over the years, interest in farming and food production in cities has skyrocketed. Many aspiring and established urban farmers were in fact once regular urbanites who became fed up with an unsafe, inefficient, and unsustainable global food system. “I grew up like most typical suburban kids: vast mowed green lawns, the SUVs in the garage, food out of boxes, microwaves,” says Brooke Salvaggio, an urban farmer featured in one of our past articles.
Salvaggio and her husband have a biologically diverse farmstead in the heart of urban Kansas City. Their farm is equipped with energy-independent systems for food production, waste, water and shelter, and their products are sold at the local farmers market. “We love growing food for people, and we love feeding people, but I would love to see people feed themselves,” says Salvaggio. “The greater goal is to pass on these skills and empower people, so we can create a more sustainable system.”
Another version of this farming revolution comes in the form of rooftop and underground farms facilitating cultivation in urban areas. Farms like parking garage mushroom plots in Paris’ city center and Lufa’s rooftop farms in Montreal demonstrate that food for cities doesn’t have to be shipped in from far flung agricultural destinations.
We Reap What We Sow
As urbanization threatens to increase the industrialization of agriculture, growing food in cities circumvents this pressure while creating new opportunities for community engagement and greater access to sustainable, healthy, and affordable food. One of the best explorations I’ve seen of this topic is an essay by Jason Mark in Gastronomica. He writes, “Maybe urban agriculture is most valuable for how it forces us to be more conscientious about the people who feed us: the farmworkers, the truck drivers, the processors and the packagers, the prep cooks, all of whom work for next to nothing and have little time themselves to play in the dirt.”
When we grow for ourselves, we see firsthand the inner workings of a complex, vital system that most of us have taken for granted or lost touch with ever since agricultural centers were separated from populated urban centers.
Indeed, the principal merit of farms and gardens is their ability to grow good citizens, their ability to transform regular people into ecologists. Michelle Obama writes about the power of these “gardens of service” in her book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. The White House Garden quickly cast a spell on the former First Lady, she “never cease[d] to be amazed by the wonders, big and small, of this garden—the bounty of fall taught us how by investing ourselves…we were able to fulfill the promise of spring.” A garden, much like a farm, is a classroom for anyone willing to be its student.
Over the seasons, her kitchen garden provided more than 55 varieties of vegetables and fruits that were incorporated into meals for the Obama family, invited guests, and the local soup kitchen and food bank. Mrs. Obama regularly invited local students to harvest the kitchen garden with her, and she enjoyed visiting schools where there was a shared vision for the importance of demonstrating low impact ways of living and increasing self-reliance. Even after her time as First Lady, Mrs. Obama continues to serve as a prominent personification of the public education mission embedded in community gardens and urban farms because, like so many people, she was a newcomer to the garden.
There is realistic hope that urban gardens and farms can provide a growing number of people an alternative source of healthy, low-cost produce. These things will not change the food system in a day, a month, maybe not even a lifetime. But one thing is certain: as our urban environments become home to a growing number of people, community kitchen gardens, and urban farms will continue to be a powerful, place-based way to create local connections and enact positive global change in people’s relationship with their food.
Think Resilience, Think Local
We all recycle, we all turn off the lights, we all buy reusable products, and we do these little actions not because we think we are saving the world, but because we are doing our part. Buying local is a meaningful way to supplement what we cannot grow, and it can make a noticeable impact on the lives of others and on the future of our planet.
When you buy local, you give back to the community and get the best in return. Locally and regionally produced food is fresher and tastier when it reaches consumers, and the benefits extend beyond our palates. Purchasing food grown nearby supports local farms and can bring economic benefits to local communities. As my dad likes to put it: “buying local is investing in the future”, and where you spend your money makes a difference. By supporting local farmers today, you help to ensure that there will be farms in your community tomorrow. We need farms, they provide myriad ecosystem services: they conserve fertile soil, protect water sources, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. So, this is a matter of importance for food security, especially in light of an uncertain energy and resource future.
I am an owner at my local co-op in Santa Barbara and am an avid shopper at farmers markets all around the world. If you’re interested in local, seasonal food, chances are you have been to a farmers market as well. With nearly 8,600 of them in the United States, it’s clear that I am not the only one who loves to buy directly from farmers in the local community.
If you can’t make it to a farmers market, there are many ways to support local farmers and make a difference with your money. In fact, consumer education and choice are often the largest drivers of change. We wrote about how support for community supported agriculture (CSA) has never been higher during the pandemic. Something as easy as buying a box of fresh produce from a local farmer makes a big impact in your food footprint and their business.
When people know and appreciate how and where their food is produced, they can connect to it in a more meaningful way. By educating ourselves and making every purchase count, we can actively co-create the future we want and transition to a more resilient and egalitarian food system. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Inch by inch, row by row
Our earth is heating up and we know it. Scientific evidence for a warming climate system is unequivocal according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The implications of climate change demand to be recognized as their effects are already being felt. Farmers and our food systems are among the most vulnerable to these changes. But, amidst many of our greatest challenges, there is hope. Significant progress is underway and scalable solutions may soon become realities.
A decade ago, we published Taking root in the city, an article that featured Dave and Jill Bell, two ordinary citizens determined to embrace the farming lifestyle. Inspiration made up for the experience they lacked and since we last reported, Bell Organics has become a thought leader when it comes to connecting local farmers to local people. In the last couple of years, they’ve been instrumental in the development of Farmer Next Door, a Community Supported Agriculture operation that provides Utah’s residents with year-round access to locally produced food.
“I think you have to be optimistic,” Bell advises. “You’ve got to be willing to take a risk and I think that for most people you just have to start by doing what you can. I think the old advice is the best: ‘do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve had’; and there’s nothing wrong with starting small. Grow a small patch, see how that works and go from there.”
In times of adversity, we must remember that we are strong enough to meet the challenges we face and that our local actions can and do make a global difference. Bell Organics presents an optimistic glimpse into a future that celebrates what this growing interconnectedness—between producers and consumers, between people and plants—might achieve.
Before I wrap this up, I want to leave you with some food for thought:
“If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear. People who can open to the web of life that called us into being.” – Joanna Macy
To my father, a lifelong learner. You are the living embodiment of your favorite advice: seize the day. You have taught me the beauty in believing in myself, the joy of learning and exploring, and the excitement of living each day in a loving and giving way. Thank you for the greatest gift a daughter could ask for.