Growing the Food I Eat

I have been half-attempting to grow my own food, and mostly failing at it. There was a time when I felt that setting up a blog for this was kind of lame and self-indulgent, but now I feel that it is very practical. I can track my progress, write out ideas, which helps form them, and hopefully get some help and link up with others doing the same. That’s what community’s for. I have a month left here in Iowa to grow conventional crops, pretty much just radishes, as far as that goes. I have realized lately that things come best for me if I view them as experiments – trying something, evaluating, and improving until I get it right. So, for once I’m getting organized, and getting the first set of experiments ready.

I guess I can consider what I have done and not done so far to be an experiment. To evaluate, so far I have grown 1 ½ eggplants, a couple cherry tomatoes, and a habanero pepper. I have a lot of potatoes on the way, but I have yet to see whether they will grow to an appropriate size. At this point, I’m only going to believe it when I see it. That’s the problem with growing food – I plant these tiny seeds with the faith that they will grow into often gigantic plants that I will eat from. In that respect, I have actually learned quite a bit. I have worked on farms before, but I had never grown anything myself, even if they are half-grown, tangled and choked by weeds. Also, many of the things that I have read about were very different from anything I have seen for myself, so to put them to some degree of testing was very interesting.

I began my experiments pretty late in the spring, though I was lucky in that I started after much of the flash flooding that happened. For $40 I got two city plots side by side, each 10 x 40 ft. I sheet mulched according to what was laid out in Lasagna Gardening, by Patricia Lanza. Pretty crazy technique, but it made sense – instead of laying down compost, make your growing bed your compost, in layers 2-6 inches, a total of 1 ½ to 2 ft, and plant straight into the bed. As the bed decomposes, it provides fertility, protection, and a soft bed to grow in, and soil organisms together with the plants being grown, further break down and structure the soil as its being created. This seemed like the fastest and easiest method to garden naturally, and it probably is. With a great lack of focus and organization, I took my sweet time to plant, and when I did, I hardly tended to it. Even the easiest things are easier said than done. I also attempted to double-dig a 10 x 30 ft garden in the backyard of my apartment building, according to How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. I recently checked it, and I saw a tiny 1” watermelon, and a 5” sweet corn cob growing. I threw a bunch of radish seeds in, and it looks like some of them have sprouted here and there. Part of what I have been half-attempting, or at least trying to try, is seeing what will grow with the least amount of effort, and that experiment (though not quite that deliberate), has failed pretty miserably. Though the results are dismal, I did see that if I were focused and organized, it would have worked well. Things actually thrived in the sheet mulched bed – I laid a 6 inch layer of a horse manure and straw mix, and a 6 inch layer of partially decomposed leaves on top. Things shot up, and then they were eaten by rabbits, tangled a little in weeds, not watered enough, and just generally not tended to. If I did tend to the garden, I would have grown quite a bit. I was using More Vegetables as a guide, which has very useful quantities – apparently, one needs only 5000 square feet of growing space for all of their needs. Vegetables, high-calorie crops, and grains are in a 1:3:5 ratio, respectively. With 900 sq ft, I could have grown a lot of food.

I have one month left, and I want to take what I’ve learned and see what I can do. According to a very handy chart made for central Iowa by Iowa State extension, I can grow radishes in staggered plantings. Radishes are the only thing left to grow on the chart, but I’m sure there are many things not on the chart that I can attempt to grow. The first thing I need to do is figure out plants I can and want to grow, and their specs, and plan accordingly. That plan will entail properly double-digging the garden in the backyard, and weeding the lasagna bed, then precisely planting things in their measured distance on well prepared beds. I am lucky that I can test things with radishes – they grow quickly, and if I see it works, I can then hopefully employ the help of some friends for the following plantings, if they would be so gracious, willing and able.

Through what I have read and observed about our food system, I have come to many hypotheses that I want to test. I feel that as a part of an ecosystem, we must work with the “biotic community” as Aldo Leopold called it in the Land Ethic, and co-create a system that is, to the greatest benefit of each member, mutually beneficial. I was deeply inspired by Bill Mollison in the series Global Gardener, where he showed examples of permaculture, a term he coined, designs that work as self-regulating ecosystems. In it, he traveled the world as a consultant, and came back to his own garden, which he had designed to grow by itself to an extent. He went out and collected what he needed, and as he saw how things had changed in his absence, he built on it constructively, adding to its cooperative complexity. I have been very inspired by other examples of permaculture, such as Takao Furuno, and Masanubo Fukuoka, author of One Straw Revolution. In his simple and beautiful book, Fukuoka lays out his practice of nature farming, where he neither tills nor composts, and uses the natural decomposition of rice straw to build soil as it does in nature. He dubs his method Wu Wei, or in its closest English equivalent, Do-Nothing Farming, in which he does less and less, and lets nature take over. The development of this way of farming grew from several deeply spiritual revelations, which he wanted to put to practice. Upon seeing a rice plant growing in a ditch, he turned back to the village he grew up in, where he began expressing his philosophy in farming. Similarly, I have learned that many of the most common “weeds” are actually highly nutritious. If I can pick Lambsquarters, one of the most highly nutritious foods from a sidewalk crack where it seeded itself, why am I working so much to plant spinach (its closest relative)? I have seen people intentionally growing it for salads and pestos, and even heard of people weeding them and selling them at farmers markets for quite a bit. If we stop letting our minds meddle with nature, we will let it do its own job, which is done best left to being, including us in how we relate to it consciously. In the end, it is possible to have a system where we can gather food with ease growing around us, and it is maintained as any species, through the dynamic effects of its actions, and in the case of humans, habit and culture.

There are some skills and attitudes that I have found helpful as I garden. Many of them come from an apprenticeship I had last winter with Growing Power, a large nonprofit that runs an urban farm in Milwaukee. There I gained at least a sense of physical work, and it was very rewarding. At some point I expressed my frustration about my lack of work ethic and focus, and I was told that it will come. I was also told that achieving things takes the help of many, and the commitment of one person to keep it going. I’ve always felt that true security, independence, and control can only come from individuals and local communities that are self-sufficient and equitable. It’s got to start somewhere. Through what I have read, observed, and experienced, I’ve also learned some underlying philosophies and attitudes that has universal application beyond growing food. These tools are as important as the seeds and shovels I use. In this last month, I’m going to make this growing season really count.