Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tired of the snark

Michelle Obama sets an example for the country in planting a garden on the White House lawn, and what do we hear? Nothing but snark. First the people complaining that she was overdressed for the occasion. I saw comments on news article about the garden that complained that the chickens and the laundry line had to be coming next, because the trash had move in. Nice. (I bought a laundry line last year, and I would love chickens. So color me trashy.) Of course, on the other side, one of the women on Slate's XX Factor had to complain that growing your own food was elitist. (Tell it to the Italian, Latino, Asian and Portugese immigrants in Somerville, MA, who stuff every inch of their tiny yards with eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and greens, and grow grapes in hand-built arbors over their driveways - they wouldn't waste their money on pansies at Walmart's. Annuals, no less! Her "most people" is so clearly "the suburbanites that live around me.") Slate is on a roll with this one - today, they've added an article about how expensive gardening is - that tomato is NOT free! It's not even cheap!

I love this argument, because it just shows how much people take for granted. This woman actually argued that you might need a $3,000 irrigation system to keep your plants watered during your two-week vacation. Honey, I make a good living, and I haven't had a two week vacation since I graduated college. And some people have these things called "neighbors" or "friends" who might be willing to give your plants a water, assuming there's no rain during the two weeks you're lucky enough to be in Boca. Or on Lake Winnipesaukee, whatever.

Sure, you have to spend money on a garden. First, you need a hoe, a spade, a hand trowel, a pair of gloves, and ideally a pair of clippers, plus a hose. Of course, these things will last you approximately the rest of your life if you take care of them (except the gardening gloves, you will have to replace those - that's going to run you SEVERAL dollars). And none is exactly expensive - we're talking a whopping $50 investment here, total, assuming you can't buy them used at a garage sale or something. Then there's seed. I bought a lot of seed this year. Pinetree Garden Seeds sells smaller packages than most companies, so you can get more variety for less money. I went crazy and spent almost 15 dollars. I have enough seed to last a few years, even if I don't save seed from the plants, which, of course, I could. People have done been doing that as long as they've been growing things on purpose. Just don't buy hybrids, and you're good.

Okay, so now you're out $50 for tools and $15 for seed. What else? A fence? Sure, in some areas where deer and so on are a serious problem, this is a legitimate expense. But in many urban and suburban areas, a fence is hardly required. Some people have one anyone, for the sake of the kids, the dog, the property line, and so on. But a lot of the other stuff people bring up when they want to emphasize the price of gardening is bunk. Really. It's the habit of thinking about everything in terms of shopping. Pots? Not necessary. Pretty, but there are many, many containers that can serve as plant holders. Check your basement, the curb on trash day, the town dump. Starter pots? Even stupider. Try the yogurt containers in your recycling bin, or the paper cup you were going to throw out. Fertilizer? Compost is free. Coffee grounds are really good. Mulch? Please don't buy mulch. The best mulch around is rotted ground leaves - if you have or can borrow a lawnmower, you can push it back and forth over the leaves a few times, then put a nice thick layer over the garden in the fall. Straw is pretty cheap, if you're buying mulch. And pesticides? Please. My grandparents had a fantastic garden. The two big "pesticides" they used were 1) soapy water in a spray bottle for aphids and 2) little cardboard rings they taped around the bottom of the tomato plants. The best pesticide is the right plant in the right place, plus a good dose of not caring if one crop doesn't work out this year. Plant a lot of things, and you'll figure out what works for your soil and sun conditions. Oh, and you know where you can learn about gardening? Free at the library or on the internet.

I know not everyone can have a garden. I've been a renter my whole life, and I've only been able to have a garden in two of my many, many apartments. But this whole "gardening is for elite yuppie types" is just crazy. I have a friend who is a painter. For years and years he lived illegally in his studio, showering at the Y next door. He had a plot in a community garden and grew his own produce in summer. He made pickles in his girlfriend's kitchen and was able to eat some food from his garden all winter. There is no way that man was an elitist - and there was no way that garden didn't save him money. I have a friend with four kids who buys no vegetables at the store from late June to early October. Her garden explodes with great produce - and she doesn't spend money on pesticides. In addition to the produce that fed them, and us, through the summer season, my grandparents had a deep-freeze full of beans and peas and carrots. Freezing is not some arcane art; mostly you dunk vegetable in boiling water for a minute, then you, well, freeze them. I can't imagine how much all of that produce would have cost them. And as for the argument that "your time is money"? Bull. Your time is only money if someone is going to pay you for it. If you run home early from your hourly wage job to work in your garden, your garden costs money. If you work in the garden instead of watching TV, your time hasn't cost you anything. If you work in the garden instead of going to a gym, your garden saved you money.

Sometimes I think people just enjoy being contrarian. Screw 'em, Michelle - I love the garden. Gardening is for people who want some self-sufficiency. A garden will give you good food, good exercise, and a respect for the work farmers do. A garden gets you outside where you can meet the neighbors. A garden gives children an opportunity to learn some biology and some patience - and most kids will eat carrots they grew themselves. A garden gives you an increased connection to the seasons and the weather that can be deeply meaningful in a culture where we are so terribly divorced from the natural world. Gardens are good. The White House garden is a nice example for the American people. Let's drop the snark, okay?