Another cold, gray early December day. The temperature is dropping and the light rain that has been falling since the middle of the afternoon is beginning to change to sleet. I trudge up the increasingly slick sidewalk from the bus stop to my house around the corner. Bare trees. Brown grass. The world has gone monochrome and dull. If only we could have a sunny day. But December has decided to behave as though it is November and I wonder how long I’ll have to put up with it before a good snow falls and brightens things up.
I climb the steps of my porch to my front door, open the mailbox and my eyes are assaulted with a riot of color. I squint at the unexpected brightness. Is it…? My heart beats faster. My hand pulls out a seed catalog and I find I have a goofy grin on my face. I may even have let a small squeal escape. Hopefully none of the neighbors are watching. Heck, let them watch! They probably already think I am odd so why worry?
I hurry to open the door, put my coat and damp shoes away, greet the cats, change into something comfortable and warm. Husband is working late and I will be dining alone, a perfect chance to peruse the catalog! I sit down to my meal and open the catalog. I have not brought a pen to the table because I am only going to look. It is not time yet to begin thinking about what seeds to buy. But after two pages I get up and get a pen.
So many interesting vegetables, beautiful flowers, tools I didn’t even know I needed! My greedy eyes dart over the color-enhanced photos, my red pen marks exes next to everything that I can imagine eating, smelling, or using. My dinner is long gone but I continue to sit and turn the pages. During a lull in the frenzy I look up and take a breath and realize—a garden catalog at the beginning of December? They usually don’t start coming until January, after Christmas at the earliest. It’s like how the Christmas season didn’t used to start until the day after Thanksgiving and now the department stores are decorated and playing holiday music before Halloween. What is going on here? Unsettled, I put the catalog away.
Over the next couple weeks my enthusiasm for all the catalogs landing in my mailbox drained away as it sunk in just how commercial the gardening industry had become. That I could even comfortably call it a gardening industry made me go cold. But maybe it has always been like this and I just didn’t notice? Maybe it took catalogs showing up a month early to get me to pay attention? If I haven’t been paying attention, and given my behavior when I got the first catalog in the mail I wasn’t, am I one of those garden consumers? I shivered at the thought.
The reason I’ve spent the last several years learning about permaculture and sustainable gardening practices is because I see vegetable gardening as one of the most anti-consumer, health positive, climate positive things I can do. What better way to stick it to a society built around consumption than to opt out of the pre-packaged and processed and grow some of my own food? What better way to reduce my carbon footprint than to grow food with zero carbon emissions? And what better way to live a healthy life than to engage in an activity good for both body and soul? I don’t garden to be hip or cool, or because store-bought tomatoes taste terrible. My reasons go much deeper than that so the whole garden industry consumer mindset could definitely not be me. Could it?
Perhaps the heyday of non-consumer gardening in America was World War II when the patriotic thing to do was grow a Victory Garden. With rationing and food shortages and the country needing most of its resources in the war, growing a garden was a necessity. Yes, there were seed catalogs, but many people traded seeds and produce with neighbors. Gardening was not a commercial production.
After the war when times began to be more prosperous, people turned their vegetable gardens into lawns. Why get dirty and work so hard when you could go to the store and buy whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted? Industrial agriculture became big business. Small family farms were pushed out. In 1940 18% of Americans were farmers and the average size of a farm was 175 acres. Today, farmers make up less than 2% of the workforce and the average size of a farm is 434 acres.
There are an estimated 40 million acres of lawn in the United States with about half of those acres belonging to homes. Since the 1950s, achieving the perfect lawn went right along with the American Dream. An expanse of green meant you didn’t have to grow your own food, you could afford to buy it. The lawn indicated economic class and wealth.
As a result, lawn care is big business. Americans spend over $30 billion a year on it. Judging by all the lawn care service trucks I see around town, people are increasingly outsourcing the work. I don’t even have anything resembling a lawn anymore and every spring I still get half a dozen flyers stuck to my door offering lawn care services. And even though lawns are against my gardening principles, I have not yet been able to rid myself of the small twinge when I see a flyer—is someone trying to tell me that my yard looks bad? I’m the only one on my street who doesn’t have a lawn, are the neighbors mad about it? No one has complained, but this is Minnesota, land of ten thousand lakes and so much passive aggression we twist it into something we proudly call Minnesota Nice.
When it comes to food gardening, times began to change back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Climate change, the environmental movement and local food began lighting up people’s personal radars. Buying produce at a farmer’s market has become a badge of pride. Community supported agriculture is a growing trend. And people have started gardening again. Big box stores like Home Depot make it easier than ever to buy a tomato plant or two. In 2008, 36 million households had a food garden. In 2013 that number had increased to 42 million. And how much did people spend on their food gardens? $3.5 billion, a 40% increase over 2008 spending. Industry studies predict it will only continue growing.
Food gardening has become a market segment. No wonder those seed catalogs start arriving in early December. And now that I think about it, I get emails year-round from various companies trying to get me to buy gardening stuff. There is one company that sends me at least one email a week, sometimes more. I never really paid attention because I would just lump them in with all the other emails I get from various places I am not interested in.
Now that growing your own food is fashionable again, companies are selling gardening products for all they are worth: compost, mulch, fancy tomato cages, fertilizer, pesticides, drip irrigation hoses, raised garden bed systems, tools, lots and lots of tools, critter deterrents, and large potted vegetable plants grown in greenhouses that already have flowers on them. If you are a do-it-yourself person, then you are assaulted with expensive seed starting mixes, seed trays and pots, grow lights and special misters for watering.
Seeds are inexpensive, a packet of 200 shelling pea seeds costs $1.75. Companies don’t want you to think gardening is as easy as putting a few pea seeds in the ground near a fence for them to climb up. Even two sticks with twine strung between them isn’t good enough. No! You need an entire trellis system that is collapsible for easy winter storage! And for marking your garden rows, forget bothering to know what radish, carrot and pea plants actually look like or using something as pedestrian as a wooden popsicle stick, you need fancy brass row markers! So much classier and your neighbors will be impressed.
This most basic of activities, growing you own food, has gone the way of the green product movement that is ultimately not green at all. The green product industry tells us that instead of consuming less we should keep buying everything we always have just get the recycled version instead. Buying recycled is good, but it is still buying and we aren’t going to buy our way to sustainability. People feel good about having a vegetable garden, and they should, but the industry feels pretty good about convincing gardeners, especially new ones, that they have to buy all kinds of stuff in order to do it right. The gardener gets green plants and the gardening industry gets green cash. Go green!
I’ve been feeling so proud of myself. Actually, smug is the honest description. I figured out long ago that the pictures in the seed catalogs are all photoshopped. There is no tomato that red, no apple that unblemished, no rose so perfect and pure white that it glows. Nor can you grow full-sized oranges on a two-foot tree in front of your window. And bananas? I fell for that one. You can grow them but it will take several years for the tree to flower and when it does the bananas will be about as long as a finger and it will take five of them—the entire bunch— to make a peanut butter and banana sandwich. A novelty, yes. Worth the effort and resources, definitely not.
Gardening has been, and is, an ongoing education for me. I’ve learned how to compost and use leaves from my trees for mulch. I’ve learned how to use twine and branches from pruned trees and shrubs as plant stakes. I have learned about heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid seeds. I have learned how to grow vegetables without buying fertilizer and pesticides. I’ve learned about perennial vegetables and fruits. I’ve learned how to save seeds and preserve my garden produce. I am immune to all the marketing tricks the gardening industry can throw at me.
Except I’m not.
I should have realized this before given how I react when the seed catalogs arrive. It’s not just that they arrive in the middle of winter when it is cold and snowy. Every year I think my seed order will surely be smaller and cheaper than the year before because I save seeds. But when I think about it I realize I am terrible at seed saving. I save pumpkin seeds and bean seeds but those don’t make an entire garden it turns out. So every year I have to buy more seeds. And every year I have a list of new seeds to buy for plants I have never grown before that are supposed to do things like bring more pollinators to the garden or deter pests from nearby plants, or is the latest superfood. I read a gardening article and suddenly the plain green mustard I grew and saved seeds from is no longer good enough. I need this big, beautiful purple-leaved mustard instead.
Wanting to try new vegetables or trying a different variety of bean or zucchini is only natural. One of the best things about growing your own food is that you can grow varieties of vegetables you cannot buy at the grocery store. The challenge is not knowing what it tastes like and how well it will do in the microclimate of your own garden. So much of gardening is experimentation. When I find something that works, Lincoln Peas for instance, the thing to do is to not eat all of them but to save some for seed for the following year. I never have saved any and didn’t think it was that big of a deal until now.
I have begun to realize how wasteful I have been. I don’t know, and I am afraid to find out, what the
environmental cost of a packet of pea seeds shipped halfway across the country is. Nor do I want to factor in the cost of someone else growing the plants to produce those seeds, the amount of water and fertilizer used, the labor to pick them and pack them, the paper and printing and other resources that go into making the envelope they arrive in, and the fossil fuel used to transport them to me. It may seem like a small thing but to me the cost is terrible and I come out of it as a hypocrite.
Seed saving is not always easy, especially in a small garden like mine. Sometimes there is unwanted cross-pollination. One year we discovered the pumpkin must have cross-pollinated with the zucchini the previous summer, since both are squashes and the plants are insect pollinated it is not all that surprising. The pumpkins from the resulting seeds were tear-drop shaped and bumpy, the flesh was kind of woody and the flavor was not very sweet and only slightly pumpkin-y. If I had saved zucchini seeds I wonder what the resulting zucchini would have been like?
But just because zucchini-pumpkin crosses might produce weird squash the following season is no reason not to save seeds. There are things I can do to make cross-pollination less likely. There are also plenty of garden vegetables where cross-pollination is never an issue. Really, I have no excuse. Seed saving will not only save me dollars but release me from being a hypocrite. From all my recent garden reading about seed saving and plant breeding, it will also, if I do it right, eventually give me seeds that are evolved to grow specifically in my garden habitat. No seed company is ever going to sell me seeds like that.
I am not sure I will never again fall prey to seed and garden catalog frenzy nor will I give up trying to grow new to me vegetables or stop trying a different variety of green bean because the last one I tried didn’t produce well or wasn’t to my taste. I will, however, save seeds from my successes. And instead of being smug, practice a bit of humility and be aware of how garden marketing and those technicolor catalogs in the midst of winter affect me. One more lesson learned, one more step towards an environmentally friendly and sustainable garden.