May 30, 2012

Gardening Doesn't Produce Free Food.

I showed some friends a picture I took last Saturday of Grace holding a long braid of garlic that we had recently harvested from our garden.

"That'll be all the garlic you'll need all winter!" commented one friend, "And it's free!"

Maybe I was just having a rough day, but boy, did that get under my skin!  No, food from a home garden is nowhere near "free!" 

The braid in question contained somewhere between three and four dozen bulbs, and it accounted for about two-thirds of our garlic harvest.  If you can buy two or three bulbs at the farmers market for a $1, that long braid is about $15 to $20 worth of garlic, for "free."  Except that I paid for the garlic that was planted.  I think we planted about 80 cloves.  Figuring an average of 10 cloves per head and a cost of 50 cents per head, that was a $4 initial expense.  My friend might say that the initial cost is insignificant compared to the outcome.  And I'd agree.  In the case of garlic, I'll even say that the money spent on water and on maintaining the soil is insignificant (but that certainly isn't insignificant for my summer crops).  What is not factored in is the time and the physical energy that goes into gardening.

Garlic, planted in late fall and harvested in late spring, is a relatively low-maintenance crop.  No watering is necessary for most of it's growing period, but as the weather got warmer and the winter storms were fewer, I found myself watering the garlic bed at least once a week.  And then there was the watching, checking and waiting for the greens to fall over and brown, showing signs that the bulbs below the ground had fully formed and were ready for harvest.  (Some of our garlic matured before the rest of it, so I was checking and waiting a few times a week for almost a month.)  Then there was the harvesting. (This took about half an hour.)  And the trouble of finding a "cool, dark, dry" spot to dry the garlic.  (Impossible in my house, so it sat on a patio table out of direct sunlight for a few days and then on the kitchen counter for another few days, waiting for me to find time to braid it for storage.)  Finally there was the cleaning, trimming of the roots and braiding.  (Another half an hour or so.)

Maybe I feel like I am saving money when I harvest fresh vegetables and herbs from my garden, but I certainly don't feel like I am saving money when I prepare and plant the beds. 

This weekend, in clearing space in the beds for summer crops, I harvested about about 10 pounds of red onions (20 nice-sized specimens), a couple dozen smaller white onions with the green tops still attached, about a pound of walnut-sized or smaller garlic and onions that were missed in my first onion and garlic harvesting, two handfuls of baby carrots, 6 small beets, a bunch of parsley, a couple handfuls of baby mustard greens, the greens from a cauliflower plant that never managed to form a head, some dill seeds, a teaspoon of poppy seeds and a half-pint of baby yukon gold potatoes.  My rough estimate of the retail value of my harvest: $16.  (I have a variety of white onion that is still maturing and will be harvested in a few weeks.  The seeds from the rest of the poppies should also be ready to harvest in a few weeks.)
Poppies drying, onions, zucchini, melons

This weekend I spent $35 on fresh compost to replant those beds--we compost religiously, but still didn't produce enough finished compost to refresh the three raised beds--and $69 on materials to build better trellises for this summer's cucumbers and green beans.  I spent a good six or seven hours in garden.  Half of this time was hauling compost from my pickup to the garden and digging the compost into the beds.  The rest of the work was less back-breaking:  Harvesting the vegetables, weeding the melon patch, transplanting volunteer tomato plants that had sprouted up in the melon patch to their new home in Bed #3 (sadly, it does not appear that they survived the move), transplanting thyme to a flower border near the melon patch (it appears to be doing well), re-potting the herbs that I grow in pots and cleaning and braiding garlic and onions.  Jason spent more than one afternoon building trellises.  I also spent an hour picking cherries with Grace and Abby at my mom's house.  That's a significant investment of time.

So why do I garden if it costs me so much time, physical energy and--yes--money?

  • Because I love the convenience of having fresh herbs so close to my kitchen.  
  • Because I prefer this type of exercise to something more competitive or aerobic.  
  • Because I like to cook, and gardening is interconnected with cooking.  Sometimes, when I'm having difficulty finding the motivation to cook dinner, a fresh head of lettuce from the garden or some chard that needs to harvested before it gets too big is just the inspiration I need.  
  • Because producing my own food gives me a deeper appreciation for food in general and for the workers who produce my food.  Four dollars for a basket of cherries at the farmer's market doesn't seem so expensive when you've experienced the time and energy involved in picking your own.  
  • Because sometimes gardening is the "alone time" that I need and sometimes gardening means quality time with my kids.  
  • Because gardening teaches us patience and gives us a sense of place in the world.  
  • Because there is genuine hope and faith to be found in the simple act of planting a seed.

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