Why Garden

Fall 2013

Fresh, ripe raspberries at your fingertips – just one reason to grow a home garden. English photo.

By Joyce White

Gardening has been an abiding interest since my first 4-H garden at age 10. The year was 1942 and we called it my “victory garden,” because President Roosevelt, “FDR,” had inspired the nation – well, some of the nation, anyway – to plant victory gardens as a patriotic endeavor, a part of the concerted war effort.

I don’t remember what I planted or its degree of success. I do remember the satisfaction I felt at digging purposefully in the dirt with the sun on my back and the breeze in my hair, that satisfaction linked with pride in doing something adult and helpful to the country. Oddly, I don’t remember black flies or sunburn, tired back or sore knees.

Nearly every household in the small Maine town of Canaan, where I grew up, had a vegetable garden. Extensive flower gardens were not so common – understandable with the Great Depression just ending. The primary focus had, of necessity, been upon growing edibles, and during World War II, the focus on growing food was enhanced by FDR’s motivational talks about gardening to help feed the troops and ourselves.

Few people then had extensive lawns. The grass around our house, barns and gardens was studded with daisies and dandelions, red and white clover, purple vetch, orange and yellow hawkweed. I thought it beautiful (still do) and didn’t know they were “weeds.” A variety of bees and wasps appreciated those colorful blooms, too, so there was no problem with getting the wild blueberries and cranberries and garden crops properly pollinated.

The gardens on our farm were organic before there was a word for it. The manure pile behind the barn, left from the previous winter, was spread on the gardens in the fall and covered with lime in preparation for spring plowing and harrowing. My youngest brother lives on that farm now and has nicely mowed lawns and attractive flower gardens – but he still has a large vegetable garden fertilized with cow manure from a neighboring farm plus some commercial fertilizer.

Now people ask me why I keep gardening. “How can you stand the black flies?” “Is it really worth it?” “You can buy vegetables pretty cheap at Wal-Mart.”

Yes, black flies and mosquitoes are a bit of a nuisance, but a smudge pot keeps them at bay until late in the day and then it’s time to go inside anyway. And, yes, occasionally raccoons are a challenge in the corn and porcupines in the raspberries. Or we have too much rain. Or not enough. Or a new kind of voracious stink bug invades the pole beans and raspberries. Or a rot attacks the peaches. Admittedly, food gardening can be a little disappointing and frustrating.

But I grow gardens not only for food, I’ve realized in my old age. The food aspect is important, of course – how else can you get perfectly ripe raspberries and peaches grown without pesticides? How else can you get sweet corn picked at its prime and popped immediately into boiling, salted water, or deliciously sweet green shell peas fresh from the vine?

Certainly the incomparably delicious and healthful food plays a part in my gardening habit – some have called it an addiction – but it’s the food plus all the other aspects of gardening that have kept me growing things year after year. Gardening keeps me connected to the rhythms of the larger universe. It keeps me grounded in Nature, and that keeps me humble. I still know so little of how this mysterious universe works, how the delicious corn and tomatoes actually grow from those small seeds.

I still feel a deep satisfaction, a kind of wholeness – peace, even – with my knees on the earth, the sun on my back, the wind in my hair and the complex melodies of bird song delighting my soul. A feeling of belonging on this earth. A feeling that no matter what horrors are happening in the outer world that I am helpless to prevent, in my inner world all is well while I take care of these plants and this patch of good earth, a manageable patch of peace in this unpeaceful world.

I believe I’m not alone in this. Why do you garden? It seems odd that such an important part of growing things is so seldom discussed.

About the author: Joyce gardens peacefully in Stoneham, Maine.

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