What’s the opposite of a suicide bomber? Maybe a community gardening activist – like a Green Guerilla — lobbing a benign grenade filled with seeds and fertilizer onto a vacant lot. The mission of the New York City-based Green Guerillas is to “help people turn vacant, rubble strewn lots into vibrant community gardens that serve as outdoor environmental, educational and cultural centers.” About 25 years ago I became a green guerilla in my own yard, and what I learned along the way changed my life.
Growing vegetables and fruits taught me the value of filling time with something that feels right. I’d spend Saturday planting vegetables and digging a new plot in the crazy quilt I called a garden, then Sunday morning, I’d just want to do more of the same. Getting so much exercise and good food taught me what it felt like to feel great, and I wanted more of that feeling. (My then-wife customized a T-shirt for me that read “Mr. Vigor,” which I wore proudly as I ate organic broccoli or battled slugs and hailstones.)
I learned what a passion is about – something you did whether or not it seemed like a good idea to others. I noticed, though, that people would tour my little garden and comment on how much work it must be; then next year, they’d call with questions about how to start their own gardens. It’s not that we gardeners are trying to be “old-fashioned” or unsocial with our time, more that we are reviving a skill we can take with us into the future – a pastime that doesn’t cost money, but saves it, also delivering wide-ranging health and environmental benefits. If I eat a sweet pepper or a handful of raspberries as I work, I can count on an energy boost that lasts hours, because that food is still charged with life as I’m eating it. Rather than traveling an average 2,000 miles to my mouth, it’s more like two feet. The fuel savings are huge. The food that comes from my garden also doesn’t require pesticides, but rather skill – again, a great energy-saver and environmental bonus. Gardens create habitats; absorb storm water to reduce flooding; and give us something to take care of – a basic, primordial human need.
When we take the risk of planting a seed or a tree, we step right into the flow of nature. We become part of a daring experiment in which the seed is hope and the tomato is joy – juicy, flavorful joy. Ironically, life’s mysteries become more manageable as the garden presents greater challenges. Between 2008 and 2009, the percentage of Americans who risk time and energy to grow fruits, herbs, and vegetables increased by 19 percent, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive. (And the previous year was also up by 10 percent.) Picture 43 million households putting off mowing the lawn to instead hoe rows of bell peppers and strawberries. Why the increased interest? 58 percent of U.S. gardeners say they want better tasting food, and about half want to make sure it’s healthier, and safer. In today’s economy, 54 percent also want to save money on their grocery bills. One gardening family tallied up the value of last year’s yield, and subtracted expenses. “If we consider that our out-of-pocket costs were $282 and the total value generated was $2,431, that means we had a return on investment of 862 percent,” says Maine resident Roger Doiron.
Lawns use ten times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farmland, and more than half of those herbicides and fertilizers are wasted, washing into our rivers, lakes, and streams. The luxurious power mowers that now dominate our neighborhoods emit more air pollution in an hour than a 1990s-vintage car emits in 8 hours or 350 miles – and as much noise as a jackhammer. Deciding which lawnmower or herbicide to choose becomes irrelevant and unnecessary if you decide to un-plant your lawn and plant a garden instead.
From my own perspective, there are many benefits and few disadvantages in converting lawns – at least partially – into edible landscapes. For the past ten years, my front lawn has been a lush, fragrant groundcover of strawberry plants; I really haven’t noticed a downside to this variation on an American theme. Probably the greatest benefit is watching through my kitchen window as neighborhood kids sneak into my yard and steal strawberries, an adventure they may remember years from now. Whatever berries the kids overlook, the birds get, but there’s another boxed-in strawberry patch out in the garden, so who cares? I feel great knowing I’ve taken one small square out of the 23 million-acre green quilt that blankets America. Americans pay $30 billion a year to maintain that quilt, an average per-lawn expense of about $500. As America’s largest single crop, the lawn consumes about 270 billion gallons of water each week, enough to instead water 81 million acres of organic vegetables.
I looked at economist Manfred Max-Neef’s list of human needs the other day, which reminded me that the “food-miles” of a given backyard vegetable can better be measured in feet; that the best way to know if your food is safe is to grow it yourself; and that gardening is a challenging sport you can eat. If what we truly value in life are subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom, gardening delivers about 100%. So when we take the lawn into our own hands, we don’t have to feel like we’re in a hurry, since just about everything we genuinely need is already provided, if we slow down and harvest both the food and the satisfaction. Gardening is not an add-on activity, but a possible replacement for trips to the mall, staying late at the office, watching one more TV crime show, or aimlessly surfing the web.
In the book, The Zen of Gardening, I wrote, “In the garden, life’s struggles, snags and snafus decompose into rich, black earth. I see and feel things happening – things that are real, not just white-knuckle policies and commercial blabber. As I plant seedlings or hoe a sturdy crop of basil, I don’t think about operators who are “currently busy helping other customers.” I can touch, smell, see, and taste where I live; I know about Golden, Colorado partly by making horticultural deals with it. I learn what it can provide and what I can coax from it, as my knowledge and skill continue to expand. In the garden, life and death dance before my eyes every day, and I come to a better understanding of my own health and mortality. The garden literally brings me back to my senses.”