Summertime side-yard garden, Amy’s yard, in a previous year. PHOTO/Amygwh

The Appeal of Growing Your Own Food

Gardening requires actual, physical labor in the great outdoors. Right away, those requirements are going to put-off a lot of potential gardeners. Each year, though, people across the U.S. decide to take up food-gardening, joining those of us who already know how great it is to harvest food from our yards.

I have been growing food for more than three decades, partly because I love plants and partly because I love good food. It helps that I like to be out-of-doors. I am always interested, though, to find out why other adults — especially ones like me who did not have gardening parents or grandparents — decide to start a garden.

Working in horticulture at my county’s Cooperative Extension office gave me the opportunity to visit with lots of people about their gardens, and sometimes they spoke about why they got started. Another staff member was also interested in why people started gardening, and between us we talked with hundreds of new gardeners.

The Usual Answers

Most of the callers or visitors to the office who were new to vegetable gardening cited safety concerns as their main reason for wanting to grow some of their own food. “Safety” encompasses a wide range of more specific concerns, from E. coli outbreaks, to genetically modified/engineered foods, to the increased use of systemic pesticides that can’t be washed off.

The second-most frequently cited reason to take up vegetable gardening was saving money. A distant third was related to lowering the carbon footprint of the household.

None of these answers springs from a place of joy or positivity. Each one is more of a reaction to some negative aspect of our food system. The first answer, safety, is the most obvious as a response to something negative, but the idea of saving money hints at the notion that good food ought to cost less. Starting a garden out of concern for the large carbon footprint of most commercial agriculture is another reaction to a negative.

Less Common Answers:

I’ve continued to ask people the question — why did you start gardening? — even after leaving that job at Cooperative Extension. Additional answers to the question have included “so my children will know where food comes from” and “to stick it to the man”, which may be closely related to the answer given by one guy, “for the revolution”.

For others who begin gardening in adulthood, the real answer may be more complex than a single, short phrase or sentence can encompass. The short answers probably are just easier than the long explanation, like when someone asks, “How are you doing today?” and we answer, “Fine, and you?” — even when we are not “fine”.

Also, most people can relate to the idea of starting a new project in order to fix a problem. The answers about food safety, for example, are going to get a lot of nods of understanding. Answering that you are out to get some joy from digging up the yard, sweating in the heat, and becoming intimate with insects might get fewer of those nods of understanding.

Two People Started a Garden

One Saturday, after my family’s usual volunteer work on a nearby garden-farm, we went to our local museum’s “Trains, trains, trains!” event. At the time, my youngest son was in college; we attracted comments because we were the only family there without small children. Our earlier morning activity came up in a conversation with the woman at the Railroad Crossing Safety table, and she told us about her garden.

She had grown up on what she called a self-sustaining farm. All of her family’s food was raised on site, from the dairy and meat cows, to pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pheasants, corn and other grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. She had helped with the chores related to raising all of this food throughout her childhood.

A year-or-so back, she had been feeling a little nostalgic about the farm and its abundant good food when, at another event, she overheard a young man mention that he would love to have access to a big yard where he could plant a vegetable garden.

The two started talking, and it turned out that she had a large, sunny yard and that he had grown up helping his parents in their vegetable garden. It didn’t take long for the two to decide to put in and tend a garden together in her backyard.

She had thought that they would start small, with a few different kinds of plants, but when they went to the garden center to select seeds and plants, the young man wanted to try everything! In the end, enthusiasm triumphed over prudence (a common occurrence for gardeners), and they ended up with enough plants for quite a large garden.

Unfortunately, neither of the two remembered all that they really needed to know, including how much work would be involved. The Railroad Crossing Safety woman, who had the sunny yard, ended up renting and operating a rototiller and doing a much larger portion of the physical work than she had imagined. This work included most of the weeding. Then, when the plants began to mature, she learned the hard way that she should have looked more carefully at the plant tags at the garden center.

She had thought that most of the peppers were miniature bell peppers. When she cut one up to add to a salad one day after work, the first bite was a big surprise. The peppers were not little bell peppers; they were habañeros, an exceptionally hot pepper variety. She said the flavor of that experience didn’t go away for at least a week.

A More Complex Answer:

The main motivation for this pair of returning gardeners didn’t seem to be about food safety, saving money, or lowering anyone’s carbon footprint. Instead, it may have been more about connecting with the past, about building community, about having access to really good food, and maybe about being outside and getting some joy out of the process. The answer was complicated, but the two were already making plans for next spring’s garden — this time with fewer habañeros.