Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Grow your own

There is something about growing my own food that I love. I relish the taste of a real, garden-grown, red, ripe tomato – whether it’s tossed with my salad, cooked into sauce, or eaten right off the vine, all warmed by the sun. I find great satisfaction in going out to the garden before dinner to see what looks good tonight – the beans or the zucchini or the broccoli. I love digging potatoes in the late summer days, searching for those Yukon golds in the dark dirt of my garden.

I have no illusion that I could live off the land. I grow my own food in the summer, but I’m not much good at canning it – and even if I were, I’ve a long way to go before what I grow would sustain my family for more than a couple of weeks after the garden is put to bed for the long Franconia winter. Nor could I survive, if lost in the woods, by foraging on wild foods, because I have no idea which roots or mushrooms or leaves are safe to eat and which would kill me.

I have no intention of ever raising animals for meat. Chickens for eggs I consider all the time, but I doubt I’ll ever convince my husband that it’s a good idea. But meat, no. My brother and his girlfriend, over the course of two summers and autumns, have raised three pigs. They’ve fed them and scratched their backs and watched their quirky pig antics and given them a comfortable life. And they’ve butchered them with the help of friends when it’s time to fill the smokehouse and the freezer.

My mother tended a large backyard vegetable garden when I was a kid – rows of green beans and yellow, carrots, corn, zucchini and summer squash and butternut, potatoes and beets. I grew up eating fresh vegetables all summer and home-grown frozen ones into the winter. I remember my brothers and me loading a little red wagon with an overabundance of veggies and carting them through the neighborhood, selling squash and cucumbers for pocket change. My brother, as a small boy, grew the biggest and best tomatoes around.

In college I would return, after a school year of dining hall food, to the garden freshness of home. Then I moved to Colorado, and there was no garden in the high mountain town where I lived, and where it is not unusual to see snow in summer. My roommates and I planted pots of flowers, but no food. When the travelling farmers market was in town, I’d happily bike over and buy a few items.

It took me a few years after moving back East to build a garden of vegetables. I consider myself a novice and learn a little bit each growing season. I try to add something different to the garden each spring.

This year we discovered a wide and thriving patch of blueberry bushes in the southeast slope of the field. I could spend hours there picking those small, dark, sweet berries, and we’ve been packing them into muffins and pancakes – and the freezer for later. In the fall we gather apples from our gone-wild trees and the tamer one with the wide branches at my in-laws’ house. These, we eat fresh or press into cider.

In the late winter we tap maple trees and boil the sap into one of New England’s best food products: maple syrup. My husband and his brother and their father made syrup the old-fashioned way when the boys were boys. They collected sap in buckets and fired the evaporator with hardwood, sitting at the sugarhouse for the long hours it took to cook the sap down. A few years ago my father-in-law had a beautiful new sugarhouse built, and modern plastic tubing strung through the sugar orchard to collect the sap. But sometimes we just make a few gallons in our driveway, using the turkey fryer and a big soup pot. It’s all hard work. And in the end, the syrup tastes just as sweet, and – despite the cost of propane used to heat the pot – costs less the $20 per pint at the grocery store.

Sometimes, food just tastes better when you grow it, or make it, yourself.

Obviously my carbon footprint – a catchphrase for those of us who like to think we are gentle to the earth – is smaller when I go to my backyard for vegetables instead of to the grocery store 2 miles or 7 miles away, where the food comes from even further afield – sometimes the farm down the road, often a country across the globe. But that’s not why I plant a garden each spring.

I plant the garden because it feels good, after a long winter, to dig in the muck. Pulling the weeds and tilling the soil by hand and adding compost and forming rows is hard work, but it is good work. Planting seeds and willing them to grow – not knowing if we’ll have a late frost or a wet summer or a local drought or an infestation of those annoying green caterpillars that eat broccoli leaves – is an act of hope and faith.

I plant a garden because my mother did – still does – and I hope that someday, when they are grown, my children will, too.

I plant a garden because vegetables grown there taste more real, like sunshine and earth, than the ones you buy under florescent lighting.

I plant a garden – and harvest wild berries – because months from now, when the days grow colder and darker, there will be something tucked away in the freezer – green beans or blueberries or pesto – that will still taste like summer.

I plant a garden because it brings me joy.

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