One in seven Americans faces food insecurity (2014 Hunger in America Study). I’m sure a lot of Homestead.org readers are baffled by this and even more baffled by the fact that only 23% of these food-insecure individuals grow gardens. With the good earth right beneath our feet, how can this be? Until the 1940s, many Americans grew much of their own food. What happened? As homesteaders, we love our gardens, but would they feed our families if we suddenly didn’t have the money to go to a grocery store? Or if one weren’t available? Is growing a garden that can truly feed a family a lost art? If so, how can the average person or family recover the knowledge and skills to become less vulnerable?
In the past two or three generations, our culture has changed from agrarian to urban. My mother, Jessie, grew up on a small Southern farm during the 1930s and 40s. The family raised cotton as their cash crop. In addition, they raised a large garden, hogs, chickens, and a milk cow with a calf to feed a family of eleven. Staples included black-eyed peas and pinto beans, white and sweet potatoes, corn, and greens. Although they grew and ate many other things in their season, these staples—along with the morning’s bacon and eggs—are what Jessie’s family could depend on to always be available, because these foods came from their own land and labor. Even during the Great Depression, when their feet were bare, their bellies were full.
During the WWII years when certain foods and goods were rationed, even city dwellers raised Victory gardens to feed themselves and their families. This was before the time of most safety nets like health insurance, unemployment insurance, and social security. Families were pretty much on their own when times were hard. However, the population was still mostly rural, and they still had the skills. Anyone with a bit of land knew how to raise a garden and knew what to plant to best feed themselves over the course of a year.
Jessie grew up and married a farmer-turned-factory worker who, to her delight, moved her to the suburbs and away from what she considered the drudgery of life on a farm. Like many others of her generation, she raised her children in the relative prosperity of the 1950s. Although some years the family might grow a small garden, their staples came from the new supermarkets that were popping up all over the country. She considered the shiny packaged meats, the clean white eggs, and the canned vegetables that she brought home from the grocery store of better quality and taste. She considered this food more convenient, more sanitary, and healthier to eat than anything homegrown. It became a sign of status and prosperity to stock the pantry shelves from the supermarket. Jessie was proud of how far her family had come.
Growing food takes time and work. Having the choice to let go of this work left opportunity for other careers and endeavors. At last, people could choose whether they wanted to spend their lives farming or to spend their time pursuing some other trade, craft, or profession.
By the time my generation came of age, few of us ever expected to farm or to have to grow any of our own food, so most never learned how. But a growing number of the people who grew up eating Wonderbread slathered with oleo now prefer wholegrain or sourdough breads topped with real butter. We prefer a ripe vegetable from a little backyard garden, raw honey straight from the beehive, and a hen’s deeply yellow-orange egg. Over the years, the vegetables sold in grocery stores (which are grown for shelf-life and for being transported long distances) have lost much of their flavor and nutrition. Ingredient labels have grown longer and more complicated than the labels on the foods Jessie first bought. Most foods now are subject to a barrage of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides not used in my grandparents’ gardens. If we can’t raise tasty, pesticide-free veggies ourselves, some of us who can afford it will pay extra for others to grow them.
But some of us are happy to skip the vegetables all together and live on a diet of convenient, ever-ready fast and processed foods. This is fine as long as it remains a choice. The problem is that now most of my generation and almost all of my children’s and grandchildren’s generations no longer have a choice about whether to buy or to grow their food. They wouldn’t know how to grow it if they had to. And more and more of them don’t even know how to cook it themselves. We have become vulnerable to hard economic times and to food shortages and disruptions.
From my honey stand at the local farmers market, I watch young mothers and fathers bypass tables filled with vegetables for the food trucks. As I watch and engage them in conversation, I learn that many of them do not recognize some of the vegetables in the nearby booths, much less know how to cook them.
The knowledge and skills for growing and preparing food are vanishing. It is one thing to be able to choose not to grow food because it is available and you have the means to buy it. It is another to not have the knowledge required should you need it. This leaves us vulnerable not only to hard economic times but also to having to swallow whatever the food industry decides to do to our food.
In this country, the middle class is shrinking and the prosperity of the 1950s is gone for many of us. The rural areas are losing population and the cities are growing. Their explosive growth makes it more expensive to live there but still necessary places for finding work. Grocery stores concentrate in more prosperous neighborhoods, leaving food deserts in the low-income areas.
If people can’t afford food, their choices have become either to eat inferior food, to go without, or to accept government assistance if it’s available. Why does moving to the city have to mean not having a garden? Because traditionally we’ve paved over our cities and have not left space for community gardens. Homeowners associates have made insane rules about what can be grown in front yards: usually only herbicide- and pesticide-laden grass that few ever set foot on, except to maintain it.
Perhaps this hurricane season has taught us the folly of covering so much of a city’s earth in concrete thus making it more vulnerable to flooding. Perhaps less flooding would occur if lush community-garden spaces could drink in the heavy rains from tropical storms and nourish city dwellers with food.
We need to rethink how we garden. As the old skills and arts have been lost, we’ve become prey to consumerism in gardening. We’re sold all kinds of gadgets and chemicals that we don’t need. Good gardening takes more work than dollars. Garden pests are better controlled by practices like companion planting and by putting in a little patch of marigolds or zinnias that will attract beneficial insects to take care of the pesky ones. Watching how nature balances itself in the garden is rewarding. Adding chemicals prolongs achieving this balance and makes it necessary to use more and more chemicals at greater expense.
Like many of you, I am a modern homesteader. I want vegetables that taste good, as they used to, and as they do when they come from my garden. To this end, I have spent a lot of time re-inventing the wheel in my garden. I didn’t know how to garden let alone what to garden. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!
One of the hardest lessons to learn was to just stop doing things and to watch and to listen to what the earth was trying to tell me. I also needed to seek out and listen to older people before they were all gone. What grows well in my climate zone? What did people grow here in past generations, when most of them grew their own daily food? How did people of my grandparents’ generation grow food?
Learning these things has helped my small homestead in Middle Tennessee evolve so that it can now feed me and quite a few others. I learned to grow my staples. People throughout the Americas have always grown corn, squash, beans, and potatoes. Garden staples in any area of the country will include varieties of these plants. Early settlers brought other vegetables with them from the Old World and some of these also took hold and flourished. What did these include in your area?
Slaves from Africa brought black-eyed peas with them that proved easy to grow in the South. The peas are prolific, love our soil, and will keep producing until frost if the mature pods are kept picked. The pea-filled pods can be dried fully in the sun and then shelled and stored for year-round use. They are filling and packed with protein. A row or two will produce a lot of peas. (See the recipe below. It is customary to cook black-eyed peas with bacon or ham-hocks, but this recipe is flavorful without the pork.)
Observing how mustard greens still grow wild here in late fall and early spring around old abandoned homeplaces taught me how cool-weather greens add nutrition at these times of year. Eating them in their season adds vitamins and minerals that our bodies need in cold weather. Older people in Middle Tennessee still love to pick turnip greens in the fall and spring.
Sweet potatoes will keep for up to a year at room temperature. They can be eaten after the white potatoes are gone, which won’t keep as long. Seminole pumpkins also keep well at room temperature and are a native and a more wilt- and pest-resistant variety for Southeastern gardens. They can be used as a roasted vegetable, for soup, for pies, or for dessert breads.
Learning what vegetables grow reliably and can serve as your staples is important. A garden full of only tomatoes and lettuce is nice, but it won’t fill your belly over the winter.
Although it doesn’t take as much cash outlay as many believe, gardening does takes more work that most would like to believe. First-year gardens take a lot of work. Gardens require patience, time, and a learning curve. It takes a little bit of time almost everyday to check in, see how things are going, pull a weed, squash a bug. No amount of money can be thrown at gardening that will change that. How many times have you started a garden in the spring, thinking all you have to do is to get it planted this weekend and then forget about it until time to harvest? How well did that work for you?
The first year does require investment in a hoe, a shovel, and seed. Beyond that, you’ll spend only your time and labor to de-sod and double-dig the soil to make raised beds (no expensive framing necessary). If you keep the soil in these raised beds mulched with a cover crop or with leaves or grass clippings that you’ve scavenged; if you configure the beds so that you don’t compact them by walking on them; and if you keep them weeded, you’ll never have to do this heavy digging again. Each spring or fall, you can pull away the mulch, and the soil will be ready to plant. As the mulch decomposes into the garden and you continually replace it, your garden’s fertility will improve year after year, requiring no chemical fertilizers. As the health of your soil improves, the health of your plants will improve. As the health of your plants improve, the fewer insect pests and the more beneficial insects will be attracted to your garden.
Start small. The prettiest, most prolific (per square foot) garden that I ever had was a 12×12-foot space in a community garden. Despite a family, a job, and attending school, I could keep up with this space. Being in a community garden, the beds had been established for several years. I kept it well weeded, and I even hand-pollinated the squash blossoms one-by-one with a paintbrush when no bees appeared to do the work. If you never have to or want to expand your garden into something that can truly feed your family over the course of a year, such a small garden can be very enjoyable and can teach you what you need to know.
Learn how to save seeds from year to year. This will cut the cost of buying seed and also produce landrace crops—crops better suited to the conditions of your soil and climate. Learn the difference between hybrid seed and heirloom seed. Hybrid seed will not reproduce true to type and the seed cannot be saved from year to year. Heirloom seed will reproduce itself and can be saved. Look up the requirements for saving each type of seed. You’ll save money and produce better crops in the long run.
I hope that most of us in this country continue to have more food that we can eat, that we can easily feed ourselves from a store or a restaurant when we’re hungry, and that we can be free to use our time and energy to pursue our passions whatever they be. But knowing how to grow a garden can make us a little more secure and will help us feel more self-reliant and less vulnerable in uncertain times.
Recipe for Black-Eyed Peas
- 2 c. dried black-eyed peas
- 1 medium onion
- 2 or 3 cloves garlic
- Bay leaf
- 3/4 t. cumin
- Salt and pepper to taste
Cover peas with water and soak for 2 hours at room temperature.
Drain peas, add fresh water to barely cover the peas. Add bay leaf. Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer.
Chop onion and garlic, and saute over medium heat in olive oil til onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add onions, garlic, 3/4 tsp cumin, salt and pepper to taste to peas and simmer til peas are tender, about 1 hour.
(This recipe also can be used for other types of dried beans, such as pinto beans.)