Thursday, April 9, 2009

Zucchini on the White House Lawn

With the economy in distress, many of us are cutting back. A "hot date" for my husband and me these days is take out and a DVD. As families find themselves postponing some of the outings that they enjoyed in past summers, fun and adventure may be as close as their own backyards. Just stake off a spot, rent a tiller and create a garden.
On March 20, Michelle Obama and DC school children helped break ground for a kitchen garden on the grounds of the White House. Home “Victory Gardens” were very popular in our country in World Wars I and II. In 1943, Americans planted over 20 million gardens as part of the defense effort to take pressure off the labor force needed to grow the public food supply. The gardens were not intended as a chore, but as ways for families and communities to support the war effort. An estimated third of all vegetables consumed in the U.S. came from such family or community gardens.
Today home gardens are as timely as ever. Our food travels 1500 miles on average from grower to our table. Families who grow part of the own daily food needs are making a real contribution to saving precious fuel and energy resources.
The current White House “Victory Garden” was the dream of California Chef Alice Waters as part of a movement to encourage fresh, organic food for America’s table. The White House greenhouses are growing seedlings around 50 varieties of vegetables for the 1100-square-foot plot. Websites like Kitchen Gardeners International can help track how our national garden is going and growing. Insider sources say the President is going to do his share of weed pulling.
For new home gardeners, many books and magazines are available to help. My favorites include the classic "10.000 Garden Questions Answered" [Rodale Press] which helps figure out every possible thing that can go right or wrong with veggies as well as flowering plants. The local MSU Cooperative Extension also puts out helpful pamphlets and materials aimed at local soil and climate conditions. A popular PBS program called “The Victory Garden” [WGBH-Boston] has run for three decades and also offers online tips for the home gardener.
Among the easiest to grow: Radishes, Peppers, Chard or Spinach, Cherry Tomatoes, Zucchini and other squashes, Pumpkins, Leeks and Spring Onions, Bush Beans, Beetroot, [Beets], Parsley, Peas and Carrots. Promote a sense of ownership in the project by letting family members experiment with the plants that appeal most to them. Set aside a regular time to get together and weed. A watering schedule can instill a sense of responsibility in even the youngest gardener.
What better time for families to teach their children that a safe and tasty food supply doesn’t just “happen”. An added bonus: your time in a garden together can create a lifetime of memories.

Gardening Workouts

Last summer my husband, a professional photographer, was
game when I asked him to come up with some portraits of our
community garden crew at work along Little Traverse Bay one
Saturday. As he looked through the viewfinder,the results were
not what he expected. There we were two dozen of us, in poses
that defied gravity, all backsides and very few faces in sight.
Occupational hazard, I told him.
Well, it's that time of year again, almost. Spring is coming.
If I google "garden" and "exercise", what I find are a lot of
sites on gardening AS exercise, but also a lot that talk about
exercise FOR gardening. And yes, there is a difference.
I personally discovered the difference the hard way last season.
It began when my too enthusiastic Spring raking led to a case of
tennis elbow that still flares up occasionally. Then my first
Saturday back on the community garden crew, I was so excited to
be renewing old friendships with both plants and people that
I weeded for an hour-and-a-half straight.
Big mistake. I tried to stand up and promptly fell to my knees
with a terrible bout of sciatica.
While my fellow gardeners commiserated, I crawled over to a bench
and lay there. Finally, after a few excruciating leg lifts, I
managed to limp home. A solid week of stretching and heating
pads later, I was able to rejoin the crew. Only this time I
got smart and dead-headed, avoiding major bending and kneeling
until I got in better
According to, experts say that gardening can
involve as much stretching, bending, muscle and aerobic exertion
as activities like walking and cycling. Regular 35-40 minutes of
gardening per day can help joints and muscles remain flexible,
as well as stave off diabetes and high blood pressure.
A lot of magazines these days are featuring cover stories on the
countdown to summer beach time and are offering blitz plans to
get fit before climbing into our swim wear. I humbly offer a
few suggestions for getting ready for out time in the garden
instead. lays out a 6-week regimen, starting
each session with a 5 minute stroll through your garden to
warm up. Fun, right there.
Week 1 of the tune-up emphasizes core rotation and arm lifts
to loosen up and strengthen muscles needed to sustain all that
twisting, lifting and bending. Then come the back and shoulder
stretches. Week 3 introduces “wall” push ups that deal with
shoulders and chest. Next comes a week that emphasizes leg
and hamstring stretches. Weeks 5 and 6 are more of the same
only tougher.
My favorites are “flower pot” lifts, much more fun and to the
point than hefting barbells. All of these stretches should be
done slowly and deliberately, the website says, with a 30-second
hold point. And of course, no one should try these exercises
without consulting a doctor.
My lower back is aching just thinking about moving after a
relatively sedentary winter. But as the plants begin to pop
out of the ground, the urge to get out there and dig is irresis-
tible. And a repeat of last summer’s fiasco is definitely not
on my spring planting calendar!

Monty Python and the Winter Garden

One of my all-time favorite Monty Python skits is the infamous “Parrot Sketch”. The bird ain’t dead, just asleep. Resting. We laugh in part because it captures hilariously the lengths to which we will go—delusional at times—to avoid the obvious. Things die. We age and face the same reality.
Part of the appeal of gardening is that it quietly debunks our tendencies to evade the basic rhythms of life. Beautiful as they were, the annuals will not be back next summer. If the winter gets too nasty, we begin to worry about the perennials. Sobering stuff. Still, as gardeners we pick ourselves up, plant and cultivate. We still hope.
Our world is experiencing a powerful wake-up call, learning a lot about limits these days. These are hard truths that make us question our capacity to delude ourselves about boundaries and what really matters in life. I find myself watching the DOW like most semi-retirees, well aware how much life can and will change in the months and years ahead. And when it all becomes too discouraging, I pick up the first of the garden catalogs and begin to dream.
We are no longer a pastoral society where survival is measured by the actions of a handful of people in tiny frontier villages or the capacity of a plot of ground in our or the neighbor’s back yard to sustain us. Our world has changed. But some things are constant, all the same.
A seed goes into the ground, and if tended faithfully, grows. A flower buds, blossoms gloriously and fades but even in its passing, enriches the soil around it. No excesses here, I find myself thinking, unless it is the unexpected largesse of zucchinis that can be left on a neighbor's porch. Plant foods can work miracles, but finite ones.
In these ambivalent times, one of the greatest gifts we can give to coming generations is the legacy of gardening. Gardening is the ultimate reality check. It is hard to fake a balance sheet in a flower bed. We reap what we sow. The values I like to think I learned gardening alongside my own grandmother have never seemed more relevant. Patience. Commitment. Good stewardship. Respect for the earth. Appreciation of the simple beauty of a rose drenched in morning dew.
There is talk that President Obama’s chef, Sam Bass, is dreaming about a vegetable garden on the lawn of the White House. Planting things on the lawn of our nation’s Mall is not the worst of ideas by any stretch of the imagination, either. But I would insist that our elected officials each take turns nurturing and caring for it.

Bach 'n Flower Beds

One of my favorite classical pieces is a modest little work by J. S. Bach called, “Awake, O Wintery Earth”. There is something poetic about images of the winter garden, peacefully asleep under the thick blanket of snow. But for perennial plants to survive, our preparation as gardeners needs to be very deliberate and practical.
Perennials need our help to acclimatize or “harden” themselves to face the lack of sunlight and brutally cold temperatures. Many “hibernate” by stocking up their underground tubers or tap roots during the Summer and Fall to provide nutrients in the barren time to come and plants that are nutritionally “balanced” have the best change of surviving. Wise gardeners stop using fertilizer six weeks before the normal first frost date—potentially difficult if slow-release nutrients are used. Fluctuating levels of nitrogen late in the season stimulate new growth that can make plants vulnerable to severe winter conditions.
Too much or too little watering late in the growing season can also hurt the hardiness of perennials. To make sure the September rains do not produce an untimely spurt of growth just before the first frost, adequate summer watering is needed to ensure that fertilizers are absorbed into the plant structure well before frost. On the other hand, Fall drought conditions can reduce root storage, meaning plants won’t have enough energy for bud break and shoot expansion in the spring.
As temperatures drop and days grow shorter, growth slows and dormancy begins. While winter thaws can be great for people’s morale, such unseasonable warm spells can be hard on plants. Sustained warm weather can undermine plants’ hardiness and put them at risk. Intense sunlight on frost-covered ‘evergreen’ foliage also can cause freeze or “burn” damage, although once normal spring growth begins, foliage will often return to a normal color. The drying effect of wind can result in plant damage, though it is not always fatal.
Images of and preparation for the winter garden offer a wonderful life lessons for our own personal journeys. Like our gardens, how richly and fully we live in the growing season is its own reward. But it is also the best hedge against the tougher times that are bound to come. Shallow roots and carelessness about cultivating the depth and resources that make for strength and resilience can wreak havoc in the times of testing that assail us all.
Life, like gardening, is an acquired skill—the art of keeping hope alive under even the bleakest of conditions. My New Year’s wish to all of us is both a promise and a challenge. Happy Gardening!!!