Why do we garden? Each gardener will have her own list that might include loving flowers, wanting a beautiful yard, loving to eat sun warmed tomatoes, wanting to save money, liking the exercise, wanting to care for the environment, wanting specialty vegetables for gourmet cooking, wanting to save money on the food bill or just plain liking to play in the dirt.
Michele Owens lays out her reasons in the title of her new book, Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise (Rodale $24.95). In this down to earth (pun intended) but inspiring book Owens leads us down the garden path on chapters with titles like Money, Flavor, Beauty, The Kids, the Never Ending Education and Happiness. She says happiness is the best reason to garden. I have to say happiness is the compelling reason for me to garden.
Owens was not always a gardener. In fact she says she was so ignorant of gardens that the first time she went out to her garden-to-be her husband had to show her how to use the shovel.
Digging in the soil is an education in itself. Owens writes about the depredations of our soil being as big a problem as peak oil. She knows that dirt is not dirty, and that soil is alive with beneficial life and microorganisms. She wants us to see “that [soil] is the key to life.” We gardeners can do our bit to preserve living soil by our practices in the garden.
I found that reading Owens’ chapter on flavor is like reading poetry, and more seductive than the most lavishly illustrated seed catalog. “I’m a gardener who cooks, rather than the other way around “ she says. “In late March – long before any gardener in my part of the world even thinks about seeding salad greens – there the mache was, all perky and inviting. Then I popped a plant into my mouth. Allowed to germinate and grow on its own schedule, the leaves were so tender and melting and the flavor so powerful, it was like eating a strong and expensive French perfume, something on the order of Chanel Coco. Amazing.” Indeed.
Her never-ending-education led her to a 36 x 52 foot vegetable garden that includes three yard wide rows 16 feet long for her children, as well as perennial crops like asparagus, currants, gooseberries, raspberries. She has had so much fun with her own children in the garden that with another parent and “18 insanely excited children” she founded a school garden.
She acknowledges that there will be failures, sometimes understandable, sometimes not, but that is what farmers must deal with ‘You are forever subject to the whims of your less stable partner, Mother Nature.”
Owens has a particular connection with all of us in Massachusetts because in an earlier part of her life she was a speechwriter for Governor William Weld. There are echoes of that former journalist life in the reporting she includes about all the scientific and environmental reasons for growing a vegetable garden. Her chapter on happiness actually gives scientific evidence of why playing in the dirt, and getting sweaty from digging under the summer sun make us happy. Plants make you feel good – hence the new interest in providing greenery at hospitals, housing projects and prisons.
But it is her depiction of the Good Life that inspires me. Her title reminds me of Helen and Scott Nearing’s classic, Living the Good Life which lays out the kind of life the Nearings called Good. We each have to decide what we want out of life. Owens has looked into her heart for her answer. “What do I want out of life? Sex, beautiful food, wine, laughs with the tribe and exhilarating labor out of doors. And my vegetable garden yields or encourages a bunch of the above,” she writes.
She realizes that there are many paths to happiness in the garden, the joy is finding our own way. I know that if all our snow ever melts, I am ready to begin my exhilarating labor out of doors!
It is time for that much awaited sign of spring; the Annual Smith College Bulb Show begins Saturday, March 4 and continues until Sunday, March 20. The Lyman Plant House is open every day from 10 am to 4 pm. A $2 donation is requested. At the same time the Church Gallery is hosting three exhibits: Experiencing Plants Through Art – original works by Smith College students and Holyoke Homework House students; Photomicroscopy of Conservatory Microbes – Projects by students in Laboratory for Microbial Diversity; and Kindergarteners View of the Spring Bulb Show by students from the Smith College Campus School.
Between the Rows March 5, 2011