Why I still grow food at home

Why I still grow food at home

Sometimes gardening feels like a leisure activity, but sometimes it feels like work: weeds, aphids, gophers, heat waves. At which times I think, Why not just buy all my food at the grocery store? It’s so convenient. You show up anytime and choose from all sorts of fresh stuff with the only effort being driving to the store. Yeah, but . . .

There are a lot of good reasons to persevere in the gardening adventure despite the obstacles of weather and pests and so on. Here are ten that come to mind:

1. Taste

My friend bought an apricot at the store the other day. It was terribly bland, he said. A waste of money. Apricots are notoriously delicate, and in order to get one from a farm to a store shelf, it must withstand a lot of handling and transportation, so they’re picked before they’re ripe so they’re still firm enough to survive the journey. Apricots don’t sweeten up after they’ve been picked. On the other hand, the Blenheim apricots on our tree can spend as much time as necessary becoming rich and sweet because they need to only travel about six inches, maybe two feet at the most, from a branch to our mouths.

2. Variety

I overheard a man in the grocery store a couple weeks ago ask the produce manager if they had any more of those “Dinosaur eggs.” He said his son loved them. They’re the only variety of pluot I’ve ever seen in grocery stores, and they’re also known as Dapple Dandy pluots. I love them too, and so do my sons. But there are numerous other delicious and distinct pluot varieties. In our yard, we have three as of today. We may need even more.

Flavor Grenade pluot and Dapply Dandy pluot (“Dinosaur egg”)

3. Children

Some parents have difficulty getting their kids to eat vegetables at the dinner table, and so do I. Strangely though, they eat raw vegetables in the garden with alacrity. On their own, they’re constantly pulling carrots, picking peas, even munching on heads of broccoli and cauliflower. I’ve often wondered if children were meant to graze.

4. Control

Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides. They’re sprayed on crops and injected into the soil on most farms — even “certified organic” farms. (Organic certification only entails that farmers use a different set of government-approved concoctions. See the USDA’s explanations here.) You never know what has been put on your fruits and vegetables; no farmer or grocery store is required to announce such information. But I like to know what I’m eating, and especially what my wife and children are eating.

5. Quality

It used to infuriate me to buy a handful of avocados at the store and find upon cutting them open that half were rotten inside. In a fit of such anger I wrote a post titled “Mexican avocados suck”. On the other hand, rarely is an avocado from our trees anything but perfect inside. It’s not because I’m a great farmer, it’s just that our avocados don’t need to be trucked and refrigerated and shipped and stacked and squeezed and gassed with ethylene.

The last Mexican avocado I ever bought.

The last Hass I picked from our tree this year. Here in mid-August, it is over-mature (see the root extending from the seed), but it still has no rot. The only problem was that it didn’t taste very good.

6. Trash

There’s a lot less going to the landfill or recycling facility when food comes out of the garden. When we eat our Sungold cherry tomatoes we’re usually standing beside the vines, but sometimes we pack them in a Tupperware container so we can eat them as a snack on the road. Buy cherry tomatoes at the store and you buy a plastic clamshell with an absorbent towel at the bottom. Getting the tomatoes from the field to the store requires a bunch more containers. Ever seen the dumpsters behind a grocery store?

7. Efficiency

Who eats the tops of carrots? Chickens! They don’t go into the trash or get trucked to a composting facility as they would on most farms or in most grocery stores. Here at home, they go to the chickens — a few steps away — where they’re turned into eggs, plus manure/compost as a byproduct. That’s cool, and efficient.

8. View

A garden is prettier to me than any lawn or ornamental landscaping. This is the view of our front yard from the living room window. Here in August, we see grapes and corn and basil and peppers and sunflowers and tomatoes and more. I have never understood the inclination to hide vegetables and fruit trees in the back corner of a yard.

9. Cost

I used to assume that growing food at home was good for a host of reasons except saving money, until I took a closer look. At least for some crops, it’s honestly cheaper. I wrote posts a while back about the economics of homegrown avocados here and the economics of homegrown broccoli here.

10. Convenience

What? Can’t be. Can be! Is be! The other day I’d planned to make breakfast burritos for dinner — eggs, beans, and cheese — but I recognized that they really needed some salsa to be complete. We didn’t have any salsa. But we have a garden. I walked out the door and picked all sorts of fresh stuff: tomatoes, peppers, onions, herbs. A little chopping and roasting later, I had quite the complement for our burritos.

What keeps you gardening?

How long does it take to grow a productive yard?

How long does it take to grow a productive yard?

Well, it depends what you mean by productive, but for me, I had the goal of growing almost all of the fruits and vegetables my family could eat when we moved into our house in July of 2013. Actually, 80% was the arbitrary number I had written in my notes. So “productive” for me means fulfilling that 80% goal. This year, year four, is the first year that our yard is productive in this way.

It’s a dream come true, to be frank. I had long imagined the pleasure of being able to walk out the front door and pick an abundance of snacks or ingredients for a meal. But why did it take so long?

For one, we started with a blank slate. The yard’s ground was bare when we moved in, save a few weeds here and there. And it’s not like it has taken four years to get anything from the yard. Immediately upon moving in I planted vegetables by the front door, which we ate that first summer.

Tomatoes, squash, and watermelon in our first summer.

But it takes time to expand a garden when you’re doing everything yourself, doing it on a limited budget, have to also work, and have small children to take care of on the days that your wife works. Not complaining! I’m a darn lucky fellow, I know. Just explaining.

In addition, I was getting used to the climate. I grew up in Southern California, but to consistently get quality vegetables that your family is excited to eat, you have to really know the particular weather patterns of your exact spot on the planet in order to make sowings and plantings at the right times and in the right arrangements. It took me a few seasons to get tuned in.

In our first winter, I laid out the vegetable beds that I still use today. I simply added compost to the bare dirt surface and spread wood chips to make paths between the beds.

And here is how the beds look today, from the top:

And from the bottom:

We have had no need to buy vegetables at the store this year, though that’s not to say that we haven’t bought any. Just the other day, we bought some celery because the celery in the garden wasn’t quite ready. But that 80% goal is being met.

What about the fruits? It usually takes a couple years for a fruit tree to begin producing, so it has been a necessary waiting game. Even though we planted an apricot that first winter, we didn’t eat apricots until our third summer.

The area where I now have many deciduous fruit trees.

The deciduous fruit tree area, looking down toward the fence, which is now covered with grape vines. The apricot tree is hidden behind the pluot tree on the left.

And even though we planted five avocado trees that first summer, it is only this year that we no longer need to buy any avocados at the grocery store.

Reed and Lamb avocado trees, year one.

Reed and Lamb avocado trees, year four. Combined, they carried 63 avocados this year.

So it has taken four years for me and my yard to become truly productive, consistent and abundant. And it feels awesome to be feeding my family, as rewarding as I’d hoped it would feel. Bringing home a paycheck is crucial, but there is also something more primitively satisfying about creating food and laying it before the people you love most, finally.

Miles just wants the grapes to keep coming.