Spring Gardening (Well Weeding Actually…)

With our good weather lately, lots of us are outside and many are gardening. At my house you could just call it weeding because I think we have more weeds than plants. For all the gardeners who are also busy weeding, and maybe planting vegetables, here are two books that look at gardening in different ways.

paradiselotIn Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier, two plant geeks have a lifelong dream of designing and growing permaculture gardens with plants that provide food. Permaculture promotes sustainable, long-term agricultural systems. These gardens substitute perennials for annuals so you don’t need to replant each year, or ever, if you’ve planned it right. Ideally, the garden forms its own ecosystem.

Unfortunately, most people have permaculture gardens in the tropics, so the plants that are known to grow well and reseed themselves year after year are only suited for warmer climates. The author and his friend live in Massachusetts, where it gets below freezing over the winter, so tropical plants won’t work. They have always lived in rented places, so these become their first experimental gardens. Finally, they buy a duplex that sits on 1/10 of an acre, which adds another wrinkle to the problem in that 1/10 of an acre isn’t much land to grow a food garden on. The lot is also overgrown with weeds, and the soil underneath is better suited for a parking lot than a garden.

The book details their work over the course of several years of planning and planting their garden. Their garden eventually provides a lot of their food, including bananas, persimmons, grapes, pears, kiwi, pawpaws, and much more. For a place that gets below freezing in the winter, they’re surprised to find that they can grow tropical fruit. Take that, Florida! Their garden becomes a classroom for others interested in making their own permaculture gardens. This book was inspiring both for seeing the amazing variety of plants they could grow and for the dream of not having to weed much because the plants you want crowd out the weeds.

harvestHarvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms by Richard Horan follows a man who decides to participate in the harvests of a dozen different crops on small, family-run farms (and then write a book about it). He goes coast to coast and lives in the farmers’ homes while working in the fields with them. He finds similarities among the farms and the farmers, even though they differ in many ways.

Some of the farmers have chosen their crops for historical or heirloom value, some chose them because they like growing them, and some seemed to have just happened upon this lifestyle and found that it suited them. Obviously, these are all people who care deeply about the land and its health and ecology, yet most of them are not from generations of farmers.

Surprisingly, when you consider the premium we pay for organic food (those organic bananas better taste organic), most of these farmers have partners or spouses who need to work at other jobs in order to make a living wage. The work is extremely hard and Horan recalls his youth when he was able to do this kind of physical labor that is now so wearing on him. He also gives us some background on the new growth of family farms and compares their practices to commercial agriculture. This sounds clichéd, but Horan re-discovers his soul and purpose and a new optimism by working on these farms.

Not many of us get to do what we love. So, get out there in your garden and put your hands in the dirt. Get dirty. Get downright filthy. Eat healthy food and get enough fruits and vegetables (because they just might keep you from turning into a zombie).


The Last Hunger Season

With the good weather upon us, I’m sure that many of you are out working in your gardens. I’m pulling lots of weeds that did very well with the rain and sunshine, but lamenting that a lot of my vegetables didn’t get a good start this year. Even if my garden doesn’t produce well, however, I can always buy food at the store ensuring that I won’t go hungry. 

This is in stark contrast to the situation described in the book I just read, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow. The Last Hunger Season is the story of families that do go hungry if their garden doesn’t grow, no matter how much strenuous work they put into it. If their home-grown food runs out, they go through a hunger season while they wait for the next harvest. The irony is that the hunger season comes after the crops have been planted, and hopefully those plants are thriving, but before the crops have matured enough to eat.

The majority of farmers in Kenya are small-scale farmers, most with an acre or less to farm. They struggle to keep their children in school, because they realize that education may be the only way to ease their poverty. For most, the choice becomes attempting to feed their family or paying school fees. Unfortunately, many of the children are not in school for parts of the year because of unpaid school fees, and their families are also hungry.

One Acre Fund, a non-profit company, works in Kenya with the mission of helping small farmers with all aspects of farming. They provide farming education first, because many African countries have not had any sort of “master gardener” aid aimed at small shareholders. Loans are provided to purchase seed and fertilizer, which are also made available through the organization, farming practices are taught, and storage systems are developed. A lot of the grains grown are eaten by weevils or go moldy during storage, so efficient small-scale storage systems are important. Unfortunately not much development has been done in this area because you can’t run a company by marketing to impoverished people. One Acre Fund is funding and encouraging research into storage systems, as well as improving seeds and fertilizer for African farmers.

The Last Hunger Season follows four families as they begin their planting season with the aid and backing of One Acre Fund. Their goals are so basic: to feed their families and educate their children. Even the poorest of Americans seems wealthy compared to these families. If you are a gardener, some of the practices the Kenyan farmers employ may seem contrary to what we practice here in the Northwest. As the book progresses, however, you come to find that the growing conditions in Africa are quite a bit different from ours. 

The biggest difference, of course, is that the Kenyan families will starve if they can’t get their farm to produce. They simply don’t have the luxury of experimentation on their own. The book follows the families through to their harvests and beyond, into what would normally be their next hunger season. If you read this book you will learn quite a bit about a world totally different from ours. A world that many of us could not imagine living in, yet at its’ core is very similar to our own.