Well, it’s that time of year, and for those of us with dirt in our blood, it’s all seeds and soil. Yup, it’s garden time. I garden here in the city, in my own small back yard, and upstate, in a much larger raised-bed plot, and boy is it fun. Not to mention productive — I just this week cracked open my last jar of home-grown, home-canned tomato sauce — my small garden/harvest has kept my small household pasta well-sauced for going on eight months.
Fun aside, I was thinking about recent sharp increases in the cost of food, and the stories I’ve been hearing lately about growing shantytowns in L.A., near-empty food banks, and folks who can no longer afford to buy milk. Not to mention the startling news last week that Pilgrim’s Pride, the world’s largest poultry processor, is closing down a good part of its operations due to high feed costs caused by the exploding ethanol market (ethanol and chicken feed are made from corn, and corn is fetching record prices). Strange things are afoot, my friends, in the world of food, and in my humble opinion it’s time for us to do something.
Backward-looking as I am, I immediately thought of the Victory Garden movement during WWII. Ordinary people gardened like mad to keep the soldiers fed and the war effort going. They fed themselves, and their neighbors, and made a huge impact on the home front. Why can’t we?
Earlier this week I checked in (online) with No Impact Man, New York City’s most famous environmentalist: he’s been blogging exhaustively on the subject of garbage. At the tail end of one of his posts, he asks for feedback from his readers thusly: “Are there areas at the cultural or structural level where we could eliminate materials waste and end up improving the lives of our citizens?” And, as I began preparing seeds and pots, filling old egg cartons with dirt to start growing, it occurred to me that we could take a lot of our “refuse” and turn it, with labor and sunshine, into a lot of food for ourselves and our neighbors.
I know, I know, you (I, we) live in New York, not exactly prime farming country. But there is a lot of open space, in small pieces. Community gardens, back yards, rooftops and balconies all have room for plants. Window boxes mounted on sills are great for herbs and smaller plants — a good-sized box can play host to cucumbers, or beans, if they’re given a string or stake to climb. Basil will grow anywhere, as will cilantro, sage, oregano and rosemary — remember to cut and dry those last three to provide for your spice needs when the growing season ends. Both mint and lemon balm grow like weeds and can be cut all summer long, then consumed fresh or dried for tea drinking. A decent-sized box in a sunny window can provide lettuce enough for a family of two or three.
On the garbage-reducing tip, be resourceful and use kitty litter buckets, or large plastic and metal containers for planting — soybean oil containers from Chinese restaurants are great if you cut the tops off. If you want to get REALLY fancy, search online for “self-watering planters” — you can buy them (trade name Earthbox) ready-made, but they’re better for the environment if you make them out of re-purposed trash. And your “crops” will flourish without your having to water everyday. And don’t forget to take any plastic pots from plants you buy back to the grower, or to Argus/New Leaf at the Greenmarket for reuse.
For soil, visit one of the compost events being run by the LES Ecology center, or check out the events listed on NYCCompost.org, many of which offer free compost give-backs. Add a little soil and you’ll have a super growing mix with fertilizer already added. And you’ll be closing the loop from food waste to compost, and then back to food. You’ll be growing in garbage!
To make a real difference, try collaborating with your friends or neighbors — share outdoor space if you have it, along with the responsibilities of tending plants. If you grow rosemary, let a friend grow oregano and split the harvest 50/50. You’ll have plenty, and plenty more to spare (unless one of you is a chef). And if you are lucky enough to grow a surplus, give it away! See if you can think of any neighbors who seem to be in need, or find a senior center nearby — many seniors live on fixed incomes and don’t get enough (or any) fresh, organic veg. Or maybe there’s a soup kitchen near you that could use stuff to cook with? With a little sleuthing I promise you’ll find someone overjoyed to share the bounty.