Already published on my desertification weblog on April 25, 2007
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The Ottawa Citizen
The joys and perils of urban gardening
Kate Heartfield, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2007
For me, this year, Earth Day lost a capital letter. It was about earth this year: the brown stuff with worms in it. As an urbanite with an environmental bent, April 22 has always been a time for me to think about Earth, the planet. It’s been a time to conserve electricity, to walk, to reduce, re-use and recycle garbage. This year, it was also about tending the four tomato plants growing at an alarming rate on the top of a bookcase in my downtown apartment (one of the few places my cats can’t jump). It was about getting closer to the earth. Actually, it was about getting closer to a seedling mix of sustainably harvested peat, compost and perlite. But you know what I mean.
People who read this page on a regular basis might remember my complaint about big-box stores several weeks back, in which I lamented my trip to the suburbs for gardening supplies. Well, the mix went in the peat pots and the seeds went in the mix, and now the beautiful green stalks are waiting for the weather to warm so they can go outside in the containers I bought for my tiny deck.
This is my first attempt at growing vegetables in containers. I grew up in the country with a sizable family garden, but as an adult in the city, I’ve had very little connection to growing food.
On Sunday, at the Earth Day events that wrapped up this year’s Ottawa International Writers Festival, I was the host for a talk with Thomas Pawlick, author of The End of Food. He has been lucky enough to spend much of his life eating fresh produce, so he was shocked when one day he bought a supermarket tomato that looked ripe but was as hard as a tennis ball. Our produce is designed to travel long distances and look perfect in the grocery store. Mr. Pawlick says those concerns take precedence over nutrition or even taste.
In his book, he argues that planting a garden is “very nearly an act of subversion.” Urban Canadians are so disconnected from the food industry that they have no idea what effect their food is having on them or on their environment.
Of course, planting a few organic tomato plants won’t make up for all the contents of one’s refrigerator. But it does get a person thinking. I can put food on the table that didn’t have to ripen artificially, that didn’t travel on polluting trucks, that didn’t require chemical fertilizers and pesticides that might affect nutrition and pollute waterways.
Growing even a little bit of food reminds us that plants still do follow seasons. We can relearn the joy of being deluged with fresh tomatoes in late summer. In the winter, we can make imported fresh tomatoes an occasional treat and choose the more sustainable dried and canned tomatoes more often. That’s how concern for the Earth intersects with getting one’s hands into the earth.
I started my Siberian Pink tomatoes in mid-March with heritage organic seeds. I’ve got some seeds for peas, beans, beets and herbs to plant directly outside on Victoria Day weekend, when the tomatoes will go out too.
I was as excited as a little kid to see that first pale-green shoot under the glow of a compact-fluorescent bulb. Nothing demonstrates just how ridiculously urban I’ve become as much as the fact that I named my first shoots. Sprouty was first, then Alice the next day. Then, disaster: both Sprouty and Alice keeled over on their third days in the world. It took only a few hours for them to go from vigorous little sprouts to dark, wrinkled bits of thread lying on the soil.
I put it down to the fact that my peat pots weren’t in plastic, so the twice-daily watering wasn’t enough. I tried again, this time putting the peat pots in a makeshift greenhouse made of a food container and plastic wrap. And I watered a lot. This time, I couldn’t bear to name them.
All sprouted, all thrived and I had to choose the best four. I put them in a bigger pot, hooked up to nifty ceramic cones that draw water in through a tube when needed.
On Earth Day, the plants were a month old and growing so quickly I transplanted them to their outdoor containers (I put the containers in the home office and shut the door in what will probably turn out to be a futile attempt to keep the cats out).
Urban gardening brings unexpected challenges, but also lovely surprises. The tomato plants are filling my office with a beautiful smell that reminds me of both food and flowers. No matter what happens now, as of this Earth Day, my little apartment garden has given me joy and reminded me that food is a miracle.
Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen’s editorial board. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org