I was recently speaking with someone who is building a new house. He asked to include space for a vegetable garden, and the architect was shocked. Apparently no-one asks for garden space anymore. They want landscaped courtyards requiring minimal maintenance.
While I wouldn’t want that for myself, I get it. We are all busy, and gardening takes time and effort. Why grow your own vegies when you can buy them at Woollies for the same price it would cost to grow them, and for a lot less hassle?
I have a few reasons.
We eat a lot of vegetables. We are not vegetarian, but we eat less meat, and we eat vegetables with almost every meal. The vegetables we eat are predominantly organic, and are picked at peak ripeness and freshness. Because we use no herbicides or pesticides, almost no vegetable is peeled, retaining the vitamins. I know that I can feed it to my children and my little niece and nephew with just a wash to remove the dirt. I don’t have to worry about chemical residues.
Seasonality and freshness
Our vegetables are picked and eaten immediately, retaining vitamins and freshness. They taste amazing. Until I started growing my own, I didn’t realise that the faint unpleasant taste in many vegetables from the supermarket is actually mould. Even when vegetables in the supermarket look pristine, they are already starting to go bad.
Much of the produce we buy is stored for a long time before we buy it. This is because it has to travel a long way. Then we store it for even longer, in our fridge or freezer, before we get around to eating it. Often, we eat it out of season, expecting to eat asparagus in Winter, or a fresh apple in Spring. When you grow your own produce, you connect with the seasons and understand that asparagus in Winter will not only taste bad, it has likely been grown outside of your country and transported thousands of kilometres in cold storage.
When you grow your own vegetables, you learn to eat seasonally. What we don’t eat, we preserve at the peak of its freshness for later use, or share with family and friends.
Right now it is almost the end of Summer, we have finished our fresh tomatoes, and are eating a second crop of late climbing beans, endless zucchini, eggplant, and capsicum. We are obsessively watching the pumpkins swell, looking forward to an Autumn crop and lots of pumpkin soup and risottos. We are planning our Winter garden of broccoli, cauliflower, pak choy, and kohlrabi.
Marx said that in a modern, capitalist system, humans are often alienated from the product of their labour and from the act of production itself. I am not a socialist, and I do think that human health has benefited in many ways from modern food production, but I do believe that we are mostly alienated from food and food production. I grew up in a regional area, aware of how fresh food was produced. I spent many school holidays staying with friends on a dairy farm, and I worked in agricultural farms in high school and when at university. I had an appreciation for the hard work required to produce the fruit and vegetables we eat. But while I was picking it, I was still disconnected from it because I was not maintaining the land, taking care of the trees, producing the fruit, and living off its proceeds.
This disconnection from food production is evident in the amount of food that Australians waste each year (over $20bn of food waste annually, according to Oz Harvest). When you grow your own fruit and vegetables, you are connected to the land, the seasons, and the hard work that is inherent in the production of the food you grow. I don’t waste the food I grow because I understand how hard it was to produce. I also value the wonky capsicum, the slightly burned-on-the-bum eggplant, or the enormous zucchini. They may not be perfect, but they are mine. I made them, and I will find something worthwhile to do with them.
Much of our seed biodiversity has been lost due to broadacre farming, monocultural farming practices, and a demand for uniform produce that can be stored and transported a long way.
Biodiversity is at risk. Giant companies like Monsanto and others have tried to reduce biodiversity by patenting genes in seeds and created hybrid varieties that are sterile after their first planting, meaning that plants grown from these seeds cannot reproduce. This has the greatest effect on low income farming communities that can no longer save seeds for replanting. Monoculture farming and a focus on growing varieties that store well reduces plant biodoversity. Home gardeners are less interested in these factors and help continue endangered varieties. This is why I am a member of the Diggers Club, which works to preserve these heirloom varieties.
Growing a garden also creates wildlife corridors and mini ecosystems for plants, animals and insects. This is particularly important for nectar and pollen foraging birds and insects. As humans have reduced their home gardens, bees, birds and other creatures reliant on plants have had to travel further to find food. I make sure to plant a variety of flowering plants to attract foraging insects and birds, and in turn they pollinate my vegetables and fruit.
Diversity and interest
Last year, I planted two heirloom apple trees, purchased from the Diggers Club. I will not be able buy those apples in a supermarket as these varieties are not commercially grown. I am so excited to be able to taste these apples that probably do not travel well or store for long in a fridge, but for as long as the season lasts, will be a delicious burst of flavour in our house.
One of the great joys of growing your own produce is being able to grow unusual or heirloom fruits and vegetables that are in danger of being lost forever if they are not grown by home gardeners and their seed saved. I love to grow different varieties of vegetables and test the varieties. I save the seeds of the best and replant the following year, doing my bit for biodiversity. This year, I am growing different varieties of zucchini, pumpkins, eggplants, tomatoes, beans, broccoli, lettuce, cauliflower, sunflowers, and sweet peas, and saving the seeds. I know some will be better than others, and I will learn from my tests. I don’t only grow heirlooms, but I have a lot of fun doing it. Sometimes the heirloom varieties are better than the hybrids, and sometimes the hybrids are better. This year I grew a hybrid sweetcorn that was exceptional, and an heirloom tomato that was the best I have ever grown. I am growing several different heirloom pumpkins: one is a bit of a dud, the other is doing really well. By trialling plants, saving seeds and sharing with other gardeners, I am participating in this rich tradition of home gardening that has helped maintain the seed biodiversity of this planet.