Grow the Good Life: A Manifesto for Uncomplicated Gardening

If there’s one thing Michelle Obama and Glenn Beck can agree on, it’s the notion that growing some of your own food is a good idea (though I suspect the Obamas get their seeds from sources other than Beck’s shifty, grifty seed bank sponsor).

You might think that level of bipartisan support would light a fire under our collective (gr)ass. But the much-ballyhooed kitchen garden revival has yet to make a dent in the bentgrass. As NASA reported in 2005, lawns now constitute “the single largest irrigated crop in America,” taking up at least three times the acreage we devote to irrigated corn. Has any nation in the history of mankind ever squandered so many resources to cultivate so much vegetation of such dubious value?

Meanwhile, we currently grow less than 2 percent of our own food.

“This,” Michele Owens declares in her just-published Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, “is not yet enough of a revolution to satisfy me.”

Owens, who cofounded and contributes regularly to the uber-popular, highly respected GardenRant blog, is a self-taught amateur gardener. And that may be why her book is one of the best manifesto/memoirs so far this century on growing your own veggies.

With nearly two decades of experience under her own backyard greenbelt, Owens makes the case that the simple act of growing food is just that–simple. “Years of vegetable gardening have turned me into a complete minimalist who uses nothing besides shovel, seeds and mulch.”

Finally, a Bittman for the backyard! Owens also manages to distill the essence of vegetable gardening into a breezy precept that carries just a whiff of Eau de Pollan: “…give your crops lots of sun, fertile soil, and sufficient water.”

Of course, this kind of admirably concise advice is so simple, Owens admits, that it’s “hardly enough to fill a page or two, let alone a book.”

But, just as the Minimalist has filled multiple massive tomes with recipes short and sweet (or savory), and Pollan has created an apparently infinite franchise around the seven words, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” Owens has no trouble weaving a compelling read from the thread of her Twitter-length thesis. Grow The Good Life begins with an incisive analysis of why so few Americans garden, then rolls full steam ahead into a cheerful campaign to recruit more of her fellow citizens into the cause of homeland (food) security.

Owens knows a thing or two about how to rally the troops; she’s a former speechwriter for, among others, governors William F. Weld and Mario Cuomo. Her day job clearly helped her hone her instincts about what inspires people, as well as what turns them off.

One factor that discourages folks from planting a kitchen garden, Owens believes, is “the incredibly off-putting literature of vegetable gardening,” which she credits with “driving so many would-be gardeners into scrapbooking instead.”

So many gardening how-to’s dwell on all the potential pitfalls a gardener might encounter that “a beginner might reasonably conclude that growing food is nothing but a series of problems.” Problems for which plenty of companies want to sell you solutions, as Owens notes. She’d love to overthrow the military-industrial-horticultural complex that promotes gardening as a form of chemical warfare requiring frequent trips to the gardening aisles of Lowes or Home Depot for reinforcements. If guerrilla gardeners needed a general, I’d nominate Owens.

But she’s equally underwhelmed by the tree-hugging bat guano boosters at the other end of the spectrum (like me) who stockpile their own artisanal arsenals of finely crafted specialty tools and exotic dung from far-flung places.

No bit of conventional gardening wisdom is too sacred to be shredded. In her chipper fashion, she makes mulch of such nuggets as “send your soil off to a lab to be tested”:

…as if the vegetable garden were a delicate chemistry experiment rather than a partnership with nature that’s generally proved successful for the last 10,000 years. By all means, test your soil if you suspect lead or industrial waste–but otherwise? I know a lot of serious gardeners and not a single one has ever had his or her soil tested.

And what of the deeply entrenched notion that you need to double-dig your vegetable beds? Don’t think twice, it’s not right. Aside from being ludicrously labor intensive, it actually messes up the soil’s structure and gives old weed seeds a new lease on life by exposing them to light.

The best way to make a bed your veggies will thrive in, Owens says, is also the easiest–quite simply, to employ the no-dig method known as sheet mulching or lasagna gardening.

Not that Owens has anything against working up a sweat; on the contrary, she notes that gardening gives you a workout that’s as good–or better–any routine you could do at the gym. And as a bonus, you’ll be rewarded with good things to eat and a nicer yard.

“When I’m done cleaning out a flower bed, I’ll sit back and admire my work,” a doctor who studies the effects of gardening on aging told Owens. “If I’ve done 30 minutes on a treadmill, I don’t stand there admiring the treadmill.”

Owens’ common sense stance that you don’t need a garden expert to show you how food grows echoes the refrain that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” But though Dylan would presumably prefer not to be the inspiration for the bomb-building revolutionaries who took their name from his song, I suspect Owens wouldn’t mind terribly if her book ignited an explosion of homegrown terroirists and seed bombers.

Grow The Good Life is less a breath of fresh air than a blast of gale force gumption. Gardening newbies, seasoned seedsters and the somewhere-in-betweensters will all find much to enjoy in Owen’s eloquent, witty and empowering guide, which redefines the joy of gardening for our fraught and fractious times:

…in a world where so much is beyond the control of any one of us–as much as I’d like to, I cannot personally rid us of the internal combustion engine and replace it with something less noisy or dirty or less likely to turn a beautiful landscape into a field of asphalt–there is a lot of pleasure to be had in reshaping the little piece of earth that is under our control. Thanks to my garden, I can take a small stand against everything I find witless, lazy, and ugly in our civilization and propose my own more lively alternative.

I’d love to see Owens offered a spot on Oprah’s sofa, but at the very least, Grow The Good Life deserves a slot on the bookshelf of every dreamer who’s got visions of sugar-sweet plum tomatoes dancing in his or her head. This is the book that could bring those dreams to fruition.

Originally published on AlterNet

2 thoughts on “Grow the Good Life: A Manifesto for Uncomplicated Gardening

  1. I need to read this book! This is the attitude that I’ve been advocating for awhile. “…as if the vegetable garden were a delicate chemistry experiment rather than a partnership with nature that’s generally proved successful for the last 10,000 years.” Some people are just so intimidated by gardening that they are afraid to start at all. So what if you kill a few plants at first? You’re learning!

  2. It’s true. It can be as easy as you want (grow easy stuff in slapped together beds) or as hard as you want (grow plants that are not supposed to grow where you live or at times when they are not easy to grow. Start easy and work up to hard. Have fun and eat well.