Seduced by the pleasures of fresh and local food from farmers in the mid-Atlantic region and inspired by the organic vegetable farmers I met while researching my book, Organic Inc., I began growing my own organic vegetables three years ago.
Luckily, a community garden had opened on Capitol Hill, and I signed up for two plots, with about 250 square feet of growing space. It was just a short bike ride from my house in Washington, D.C.
I didn't have big plans. After all, I was a major proponent of farmers' markets and had come to love the weekly trips there. I didn't think I'd be growing much of anything. And as a city kid, born and bred in Brooklyn, I hadn't a trace of interest in plants until now. Not surprisingly, that first year three years ago was unspectacular.
I planted seeds and seedlings, got some decent greens, Mesclun mix, tomatoes and herbs, and that was about it. My humble efforts didn't replace the weekly trip to the farmers' market in Dupont Circle in Washington.
But in my second year of gardening, I grew more ambitious. I added squash, but the plants ran about and grew far too large. I also planted three Asian cucumber seedlings, which produced crunchy 15-inch fruit, but then they, too, ran amok. I tried my hand at eggplants, but didn't plant enough, and then the tomatoes wilted — it was an extremely dry summer. So I continued to visit the farmers' market, since those farmers actually had the food I wanted.
Occasionally I sought advice from Heinz Thomet, a Swiss-born biodynamic farmer who sells at the market and farms in southern Maryland. Another organic farmer friend, Jim Crawford, who runs New Morning Farm with his wife Moie in central Pennsylvania, also dispensed advice unsparingly, whether at the market or on the phone.
Then, this past winter, a force of nature kicked in, and I became serious about my garden. In December, I bought a set of growing lights to raise seedlings in the corner of our living room. (Don't ask about my wife's reaction). I was determined to create a three-season garden that would produce food from spring through late fall.
I worked out a planting schedule for the coming year and emailed it to Heinz and Jim. They both came back with corrections on when to plant seeds and transplant seedlings.
I dutifully followed their advice, starting my first seedlings in early February. I followed Heinz's advice to plant seeds outside "as soon as the ground can be worked" and entered the garden in March.Soon, I transplanted Chiogga beets, red onions, Romaine lettuce and King Richard leeks, just as Jim suggested.
I weeded constantly. I watered. I mulched with hay. I built complex trellis structures to grow musk melons and cucumbers vertically. I visited the garden nearly every day, just to check in, say hello, even if little work needed to be done. Often, I dragged my daughter Nina along. She liked to water and munched on sweet peas as soon as they came up.
By May, I was harvesting and pretty soon I was overflowing with vegetables, producing enough for two families. I had red onions and Fingerling potatoes, giant beets and Scarlet Nantes carrots, Rainbow chard and Lacinata and Russian kale and four dozen heads of hard neck garlic I planted the previous fall. Spring crops like baby romaine and mesclun mix made way for summer crops like Brandywine and San Marzano tomatoes. By mid-July, I was seeding fall broccoli and Napa cabbage. It was if I was in the grip of a religious gardening fervor.
Two weeks ago, I was back at the farmers' market and visited Heinz at his stand, typically overflowing with his luscious organic produce.
"I haven't seen you lately, the garden must be going well," he said in his unmistakable Swiss accent.
"It is," I replied. I hadn't been showing up at the farmers' market because, frankly, I was producing too much food on my own. Plus, the garden now took up time, especially on the weekend.
"I feel guilty about it," I admitted. "I'm not doing anything to support you guys."
"You shouldn't," Heinz said. "There's plenty of people here and you're learning something valuable, and teaching your daughter about growing food." I ended up buying a couple of eggplants and tomatoes, because mine still weren't producing enough.
On this journey, I had traveled from the produce counter at the supermarket to the farmers' market and finally to tending my own garden — the food miles shrinking each step of the way, even as my consumption of fresh produce rose. The calories I burned gardening and biking back and forth to the plot even helped me to tighten my belt a notch. It was another byproduct of growing your own, though those weren't the most important things.
As farmer Michael Abelman puts it in his wonderful book, Fields of Plenty: "In a society so disconnected from natural cycles, farmers have become the voice of the land. Along with all the amazing food we bring to the weekly farmers' market, we also bring a sense of rootedness and a natural wisdom that people seem to long for. The hysteria over arugula or white asparagus is probably just a symptom, a longing for connection to the real world."
?That's what drove me, the feel of digging in the soil or watching a seed sprout. There's hope in that. But what I lost was a connection with a vibrant, fun-loving food market.
So the guilt lingers. I miss the farmers, the crowds, the excitement of far more crops than I could ever hope to produce on my own. All that advice so freely dispensed by Heinz and Jim helped me to succeed, but also led me to reduce my spending on the fruits of their labor.
What did grow, though, were my relationships - with them, the food, the dirt — all of which might be why they are farmers in the first place. Beyond the guilt, I got a glimmer of their world.
?Next year, though, I think I'll just forgo growing tomatoes. They take up too much space, and Jim's and Heinz's are great.