I began gardening in earnest when I lived in Southern Illinois at the start of my graduate studies in anthropology. With the hot, humid climate and the rich, loamy soils, it was easy to raise enough tomatoes, peppers and okra to self-provision through the winter. This was my first experience of learning-by-doing, and I plunged into planting, weeding, harvesting and preserving with naive glee. My knowledge remained mostly above-ground at this stage, but the gardening conditions were very forgiving.
When I moved to Madison, Wisconsin for my PhD studies, I discovered the glorious convenience of community gardening. I was assigned a plot on a reclaimed railroad bed close to my apartment, and was amazed at the amount of vegetables I could coax out of a couple of square meters. It provided enough to help me balance my meager graduate-student budget.
During my PhD studies, I began a parallel life of long-term fieldwork trips in various regions of Russia. While I didn’t start out to study food production, I somehow couldn’t keep it out of my purview – I was continually attracted to the marvelous examples of food-growing systems I encountered, and eventually my formal research topics started to bend in that direction. I’ve prepared a separate page to tell that story.
When I finally settled into my first teaching job, it was in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was a challenging place to pursue gardening, with the extremely short growing season. But summer temperatures in the continental climate of Fairbanks could reach into the 90s, and the intense, round-the-clock sunlight could be put to a gardener’s advantage. Plants grow at breakneck speed, and flowers put out jumbo-sized blooms. It was here that I discovered how easy it is to grow potatoes – and to use potatoes to prepare never-gardened ground. Adding a greenhouse to the garden complex made it possible to coax forth a few cucurbits and nightshade vegetables in containers.
I pretty much gave up on brassicas when I realized how irresistable they were to our nomadic neighbors, the moose!
I eventually took a job in Ireland and settled in Dublin. It may be the Emerald Isle with impressive formal gardens that attract tourists, but the home vegetable gardening culture was almost non-existent. I did manage to find a small but quickly-growing GIY (“Grow it Yourself”) movement (that’s us at left, volunteering in a local community garden). My GIY compatriots told me that it was difficult to interest Irish suburbanites in gardening when they felt they had just gone through a period of economic growth that had freed them from their grubby agrarian heritage.
I joined my local GIY chapter in order to learn something about how to master the growing conditions around Dublin – plenty of rain, but a dearth of sunlight, and maddeningly cool summer temperatures that make it impossible to grow my favorite crop – tomatoes – outdoors. When I began to break ground in my backyard, I also discovered another dirty little secret: the construction crews who had built my row of houses – and I live at the end of the row – had pushed all of the construction refuse to my end and buried it. I’ve never felt such sickly soil. I called in the potatoes and willed in the worms. Both did the hard work, and now I can get some decent crops out of the ground.
I still stick mostly to containers, which enable me to shift things around as light patterns and cool spots in my garden change through the season. Tomatoes and peppers only grow inside my glass-walled side porch – which, maddeningly, was built on the north side of the house, so it receives limited sunshine.
Eventually I realized some of the best sun was bathing the front of my house, inspiring me to create an urban edible garden outside my front door. Irish neighbors are impeccably honest and never steal the produce!
In the last several years I have been experimenting with saving and sharing seeds. It is hard to imagine a more pleasurable aspect of gardening than reaping a harvest not only in food for now, but potential food for the next year and beyond. To be given the seeds of an heirloom variety of vegetable – in my case it was ‘Siberian’ tomatoes – and to be a part of perpetuating the longevity of that variety is exciting indeed.
And there is nothing more mesmerizing than gazing at the embryonic tomato plant curled up inside a seed…
My Irish garden remains the least productive garden I have raised, but it has also been the best teacher. I have learned about soil health by necessity, and have mastered the art of producing compost from kitchen and yard waste. I hardly feed my plants anything else.
|And I do get some tasty meals out of the garden. That, obviously, is its own reward.|