A garden in every yard

Story by Jill McSheehy

A beautiful late winter afternoon beckoned me to the garden. I grabbed the pitchfork and plopped it into the wheelbarrow, guiding it to my compost pile. The wheels etched tracks in the soft winter ground. Arriving at the compost pile, my boots sank deeper. Unlike my children, playing in mud puddles isn’t my idea of winter fun. But the black mixture awaiting me made it worth the messy effort. All winter, this compilation of kitchen scraps, shredded paper, and other yard waste transformed into what would now nourish my raised bed soil.

With the wheelbarrow full and heavy, I grunted my way to the raised beds. Scoop by scoop, I spread the compost on top of the mostly bare soil. Now this pure garden space was ready for onions.

Filling three raised beds with green onion transplants the width of a pencil, I realized I wasn’t even making a dent in the number of onions I purchased. Three hundred onions don’t seem like a lot — until you start planting them.

Still, I have room, and this year I’m determined to go further than ever in my quest of growing enough onions to last my family of four one full year. As these thoughts fluttered through my mind — poke a hole, drop the onion in the hole, tamp the soil, repeat — I felt my first swelling of hope for the new season.

Then another thought sliced through my peaceful moment. I’m not sure where it came from, but it unsettled me.

Why is this not normal anymore? Why has gardening become a specialized hobby for the few? Why do non-gardeners look at my garden as if it’s something special?

To me, everyone should be gardening in one way or another.

I’m a bit of an idealist, but I can remember the days when every home in the neighborhood boasted a vegetable garden. It wasn’t an optional hobby like scrapbooking or hiking. Gardening was part of the culture; it was a way of life.

During my childhood, though, society entered a trajectory where even those gardens were ones of tradition. Gone were the Victory Gardens of necessity. As gardening became optional, little by little we tossed it aside in favor of technology, innovation, new hobbies, and schedules tightly packed.

I was a casualty of that societal shift as well. What was the purpose of a garden when everything I need is available at the grocery store? And who has the time for a garden anyway?

I, along with the rest of America, became wholly dependent on large-scale farms. It’s not that I’m ungrateful — a good portion of my food is still brought to me by hard-working farmers. But with a few exceptions, an entire generation now (maybe two) has no idea how to grow their own food if the necessity for it returned.

Don’t get me wrong. I hope we never return to the days where we only eat what we can grow ourselves. But wouldn’t it be a good thing, if it ever came down to it, that we knew how? And wouldn’t you agree that our children’s physical and mental health would benefit if they spent more time with their toes in the dirt instead of their fingers on a screen?

My dream is that home gardening gets declassified as a “hobby” and returns to the mainstream where it belongs.

I am hopeful as I see the resurgence and emergence of home gardens, urban gardens, community gardens, and rooftop gardens. I receive emails every day, everyone from young moms to newly retired couples embarking on their first gardens, excited to bring gardening into their lives. I believe this groundswell of Americans seeking to grow some of their own food will continue to increase, and it brings me great joy to watch it from afar and up close.

Earlier this year, I visited a local junior high school where I met a group of boys excited to grow a garden for the first time. Seeing the excitement in the eyes of these adolescents pulsed hope through my veins. Their goals were simple: learn how to grow food, and grow enough to enjoy and share.

My goals as a wife and mom may be a bit different from the goals of students growing in their school’s garden plot; or a young mom growing peas, cherry tomatoes, and carrots for her toddler; or a retired couple spending extra time connecting with nature outside the back door. But the common threads in all of us run parallel. Little by little, each person can grow something, and the more people we bring alongside us, the closer we can come to bringing small-scale gardening back to the masses and into everyone’s homes where it belongs. l