On obstacles to gardening

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More greenhouse parsnips from 2006 seed

It occurred to me, when I wrote my latest seed-saving post, that I mentioned an obstacle to seed-saving that might just stop some of you from doing it altogether. There is a very human tendency to glom on to a problem first and decide, forthwith, that this problem is insurmountable, so, well, I won’t seed-save. I say, get over it.

So I would like to talk about the concept of “obstacle” as it seems to be such a hindrance to so much in our lives. The particular obstacle I mentioned in re: seed-saving is the separation required between plants to result in pure (unadulterated) seed. Well, dang: the way to get around that is to only allow one variety, say, of carrot to blossom, and then make sure you keep its wild cousin, Queen Anne’s lace, mowed down during flowering season. Or, just be like me and don’t care.

There are so many other quasi-urban legends out there that somehow stop us from doing decent gardening. Urban gardeners might become spooked from planting anything edible in their yards because they have heard that many urban soils are lead-filled brownfields. A soil test or four will confirm or deny this: then, go plant out some raised beds with imported dirt and use lots of homemade leaf mold and compost and (non-chemically-treated) grass clippings…and do some research about which plants might be more prone to taking up ground-borne dangers. Then research lead sensitivity, period: it’s infants through 8 year olds who are the most sensitive. If you live in an old (pre-1978) house, you should get your children’s blood checked for lead levels anyway; there’s much more of a risk of exposure living in a house with flaking window paint than there ever will be than with the few carrots you’ll pull out of an urban garden.

And then there’s the I-can’t-have-a-rainbarrel-because-of-my-asphalt-shingle-roof fear. Well, how old is that roof? The ones on our outbuildings are 40 years old (yep; time for a change, anyone have a spare $20K they wanna give me?) so I don’t have much worry. So, is there something there there? Well, there might be, if the roof is new, and/or you’re downwind from a coal-burning power plant (how about some heavy metals in your rain, folks?) but in general I don’t understand how people can honestly think that fresh rainwater from a rainbarrel will somehow poison your veggies to inedible levels. The key here, of course, is FRESH. Don’t let the water steep in the barrel like tea if you’re at all concerned.

And I guess that brings me to the crux of my rant. I finished reading Michael Pollan’s latest book about a week ago. It is an indictment, rather scathing, of the way we eat. (I’ve blathered on about Pollan for a long time now. I appreciate the man because his Bullshit-O-Meter is finely tuned.) With all these “obstacles” to home-grown vegetable production, people still somehow blindly trust the contents of their grocery stores. Do you have any IDEA how those things were grown? Sure, it might even say it’s organic, but… Anyway, I think we have absorbed the fear and confusion we have toward our purchased food (“high fat” “trans fats” “low carb”) and have transferred that fear to gardening. We’re somehow too spooked by some unseen unknown (lead in soil, cooties in rainwater, cross-pollination) to dare to plant a bean.

All I am saying is be educated, and exercise some common sense. Evaluate the risk against the reward. But even if there’s nothing scary in front of you, don’t let something stop you: most likely, you have the keys available to you (soil tests, etc.). And you will find your home-grown veggies will still be better than anything you could ever buy. They’ll be more nutritious, certainly; they’ll be fresher, they’ll just plain taste better. What’s the risk in that?

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12 responses to “On obstacles to gardening

  1. El, in general I agree with you, but one caveat. Several years ago, when I was managing a program that was developing community garden sites, we discovered that in a small city, the lead levels in backyard soil in some neighborhoods were so high it was dangerous for children to be gardening, let alone eating what came from the soil.

    This happened a long time ago, and I’m fuzzy on the details, but from what I recall, if the backyard was covered in lawn, apparently it kept the soil-borne lead dust in check, but when the lawn was removed to make a garden plot, it allowed the contaminated soil to be windblown as well as exposed children working in the garden. We promptly built raised beds or moved to new sites.

    If small kids are going to be around the garden, a lead check is a must in my opinion. But again, in general I agree with you; what we grow ourselves is WAY safer for us than what big ag produces.

  2. Ali, you’re right of course, but again, completed soil tests (important to do more than one) will assure parents of small children of the risks of gardening (or doing anything) in their native soil. One shouldn’t simply assume all urban soil is contaminated, nor should one assume all country soil is pure: farmers are notorious for dumping things on their land. Exercise some common sense is my message, that, and get the facts before being scared off!

  3. Hi El, I have an off topic question for you. I’ve taken on some new gardeners as part of Pattie’s Victory Garden Drive and one of my newbies has a question about what types of tomatoes make the best for canning whole or diced tomatoes. Since I haven’t started canning yet, and since you’re going to be my canning mentor (right?!:) I told her I’d ask you!! Thanks!

  4. Good question, Ang! I think the Italians are the go-to folks for this, so San Marzanos (an Italian plum tomato) would work well for canning, but any small-is fruit would do. In general, though, if you’re canning whole or big chunks of tomatoes, it behooves you to use a pressure canner and not a boiling-water bath; you want to make sure the contents of the jars get completely hot enough for a long enough period of time to ensure no spoilage occurs.

    I tend to not can my tomatoes whole or even in chunks. It’s only because I’m too lazy to peel them, though! (I cook them and put them through a food mill which removes both skin and seeds.) But I do have a lot of chunky salsa downstairs…again, using the pressure canner mostly because of the huge mix of stuff in the cans. Hope that helps?

  5. Okay, I am wanting a rain barrel. Does the fact that I will have a brand new roof cause a problem? I have yet to do any research since we are still a ways off from moving in, but what can you tell me?

  6. Hi frugalmom. There’s some conflicting information out there, but the one source I saw that gave most sides of the picture out there was this one site. There are lots of people doing this, though; go look at Kelly and Meg’s elaborate collection system. Then Susan at Garden Rant is also hosting a discussion about them.

  7. Hear, hear! Isn’t it amazing how we can take something simple and make it complicated, and yet oversimplify the complex things?

  8. I spent quite a few minutes today convincing a customer to try the local ground beef over the organic stuff from Argentina. I finally convinced them, but it left me scratching my head for a bit. Sure, it’s labeled organic, but c’mon…Argentina? The label is defeated simply by the energy is takes to get that pound of meat here and for us to keep it under refrigeration. I mean, you can drive to this other farm, talk to the farmer for a bit, pet a cow and be back again in about thirty minutes. And hey, it’s fifty cents cheaper per pound. The obstacle is in the semantics and in our minds…I’m working on the new Pollan book as well.

  9. Exactly! Fear is paralyzing, and sometimes you just have to make the jump and hope the net will appear. It usually does.

    I received my copy of In Defense of Food delivered to my door today, and once I’m through reading all of these wonderful blogs, I’m off to read more Pollan!

  10. Hooray! Wonderful post. I’m too tired to add anything productive at the moment, but I just wanted to say how much I love seeing productive rants like this.

  11. Like the looks of those parsnips. Parsnips are going to be a major focus this year–I want more, haven’t focused enough on when to plant. Is soaking the seeds really necessary?

    Lead is a big issue in urban gardens. Not only will children injest it by putting hands in mouth, but soil can be tracked into the house as dust. It’s very important–even if you don’t have kids–to have your soil tested.

  12. El- Well said! I get worked up about Michael Pollan too. I saw him a couple of weeks ago at Grace Cathedral in SF. He seemed more comfortable with the new book than the interview the night it was released. The room was standing room only and there was rapt attention to what he was saying. And the audience was as diverse as it gets. We are getting slowly educated about our food. (I’m having an optimistic day!)

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