Lessons From the Vegetable Garden

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Though the dung beetle’s work might seem like a crappy job to us, in the beetle’s world, this labor-intensive ball is soon to become a nursery.
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Growing food cultivates our awareness of other lives, such as this fluffed-out Baltimore oriole. 

After a recent talk I gave to a Sierra Club chapter, someone asked what I consider to be the most promising evidence of humanity’s interest in sustainability. I’d never been asked that particular question before, but my answer sprang to mind immediately.

“Vegetable gardening,” I said without hesitation.

There’s a burgeoning interest, around the world, in the cultivation of vegetables for food. We see it in our correspondence, in our research, in the traffic to our website and in the growing volumes of advertising MOTHER EARTH NEWS runs for seed companies and outdoor equipment manufacturers. The spectrum of vegetable gardeners is expanding, from the container gardener nursing three tomato plants on the deck of a townhome to the enthusiast guiding a big rototiller up and down the rows of a half-acre plantation.

Some people make fun of us. They claim we spend more on seeds and tools than we save on groceries. They don’t understand that our time in the garden — up to our elbows in soil, weeds and bugs — can be as valuable as the same time spent with the most expensive therapist on Park Avenue or in Santa Monica’s best spa. It is about the food, but it’s not just about the food. The benefits are felt far beyond the taste buds.

Nature provides us with an incomparable education, and the tuition is free. We get regular reminders of nature’s simple laws and its profound wisdom.

We learn that every living thing has its own idea of paradise. The aphid may find it on the underside of a leaf; the toad in the litter beneath the blackberries; the dung beetle, well, in the dung. Maggots like a dead animal’s carcass. Orioles weave their homes from grass and hang them in trees. Our knowledge of nature’s offerings can extend from the grub worm’s tiny tunnel to the wide open skies where the turkey vultures soar.

We learn that life’s vital balance comes from sacrifice. We may lose some fruit to pests, but if we poison all of the pests, then the beneficial insects never arrive and we’re left with a perpetual bumper crop of the critters that compete for our food. If we poison the mice eating our corn, we may sicken the kestrels that keep them in check.

We learn that every living thing is built from the same basic elements. In spring, the garden is simple dirt. We provide the genetic blueprints — in the form of seeds — and nature provides the sunlight, minerals, water and air. In a few weeks, the manure, dirt, air and water have been transformed into immeasurable variety.

We make contact, through the soil and seeds, with biology’s most fundamental miracle: the assembly of infinitely varied life from simple elements.

I eagerly tell people I’m a big gardener. They often misunderstand that to mean I’m a good gardener. I’m not. I’m a poor gardener. That’s why I need to be a big gardener. I invest my time and effort in spring to put in as large a vegetable garden as I can afford. My brain seethes with visions of row after row of beautiful variety. Watermelons, okra and winter squash loom in my mind’s eye, growing to unusual size and perfect conformation.

By midsummer I inevitably have been distracted by business or vacation. I am discouraged by the blazing Kansas heat. Someone invites me to go fishing. The next thing I know, a third of the vegetable garden has been overrun by weeds. Several crops have been destroyed by pests. Others have been crippled by too much water (or too little), by cool weather or extreme heat.

But something always comes through with flying colors. One summer we had excess okra. We ate it every day. We froze as much as we could. We finally resorted to letting it dry, then decorating the house with it. We had some spectacular dried okra on the windowsills for a while.

Several summers ago, the edamame soybeans went crazy and we blanched bag after bag of them for the freezer. There’s still an archaeological layer near the bottom of our deep freeze that’s primarily made up of those green soybeans.

In one of our first gardens, my wife and I found particular success with spaghetti squash. It seemed that every plant yielded dozens of 3- and 4-pound squashes, each of them packed with crisp, delicious strings of meat. My household budget from the time shows that our annual disposable income was $37. I’m not kidding. So each time we made a meal from spaghetti squash, we increased our annual income surplus by about 20 percent.

We had squash with red sauce and squash with gravy. Squash with butter and garlic salt was a favorite. We tried it with sugar and milk for breakfast. It was pretty good in a casserole. Its one drawback, as a dietary staple, was that an adult human being would need to eat about 4 cubic yards of spaghetti squash each day to sustain life. I’m estimating, but that’s how it seemed. I don’t think I’ve planted spaghetti squash in about 25 years.

Among the lessons I’ve learned from nature is the value of abundance. Given the opportunity, nature always creates extra of everything. Nature plants a big vegetable garden. The natural prairie where I farm has evolved to support about 700 different plant species. Some thrive in dry weather, others in wet. Some like a hot spring. Some like it to stay cool. Some broadcast seeds in June. Some wait for September. Every year, something prospers and something trims its biological budget by slowing its growth or going dormant. No single species flourishes every year.

The garden teaches us the value of extravagant diversity: We plant lots of seeds and experiment generously. An extravagant garden is an adaptable garden. At the same time, nature teaches us the value and necessity of frugality. When fate doesn’t provide the right resources, a species survives by conserving its resources and waiting for the right opportunity.

This summer, for the record, I hope the watermelons are extravagant and the soybeans are frugal.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS Publisher and Editorial Director Bryan Welch tends his big garden on his ranch in northeastern Kansas. He is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want.