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In uncertain times, growing your food is fashionable again
The era of competitive gardening, with its focus on fabulous flowers and foliage, is being supplanted by a movement to get back to edibles. We’re focusing on rhubarb instead of roses now, and along the way making connections with our communities.
THE HEADY DAYS of high horticulture, when gardeners would kill for the newest and coolest perennial, are well and truly over. The resurgence of food gardening has ushered in a post-competitive era, where people share seeds and meals, and even welcome landless gardeners into their backyards for a little communal cultivation.
It doesn’t really matter whether the food-gardening renaissance is driven by do-it-yourself frugality in a time of economic uncertainties or by concern over food safety and the environment. Its joys are as tangible as the taste of a fresh-picked tomato, as sublime as popping a sun-warmed raspberry into your mouth, as viscerally satisfying as stepping out your back door to pick a dinner you grew from a couple of seed packets. Seemingly overnight, raised beds are the new water features; we’re hedging with blueberries and replacing roses with rhubarb.
Edibles are the engine propelling horticulture these days, with a younger generation of gardener in the driver’s seat. The National Gardening Association forecast that 40 percent more households would be growing their own vegetables in 2009 than in 2007. Vegetable-seed sales are up by more than 25 percent.
How much money are all these vegetable gardeners actually saving? The gardening association figures that food gardens yield a $500 return on average, considering a typical gardener’s investment and the market price of produce. Michelle Obama harvested 740 pounds of food from the White House kitchen garden last fall, at a cost of about $180 worth of seeds and supplies.
It’s not that people hadn’t preached the gospel of front-yard food gardening long before the Obamas dug up the White House lawn. It seems almost quaint to think that landscape designer Rosalind Creasy’s 1981 homage to the front-yard vegetable garden, “The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping,” was considered revolutionary at the time. In his 2008 manifesto, “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn,” architect/artist Fritz Haeg argues that we can transform global food production by growing our own vegetables. Food authority Michael Pollan juxtaposes his advocacy of fresh, local food with larger environmental concerns in his best-sellers, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.” Like Obama, Pollan goes beyond theory to dig in the dirt, growing apricots, figs, persimmons, herbs and lettuces in his Berkeley, Calif., garden.
While these national models are useful and encouraging, it turns out that we here in the Pacific Northwest can find quite a lot of inspiration right here in our own backyards.