It Takes a Community; A Reflection on Gardening

It looks like spring is finally here, so I hope you will indulge me in a bit of a personal reflection as we ready the earth for another season of growth and rebirth.

Phil and I have a small garden, some potted herbs, a few berry bushes, a young cherry tree and some rhubarb. We also have a toddler and an infant. This time of year, we have our own version of March madness: planning for how much (or how little) we will garden this season. At the first smell of a spring rain, Phil is ready to start enough seeds for a garden four times the size of ours. I, on the other hand, am the practical, restrained gardener, and try to rein things in so that we can handle our harvest. Our imaginations dwell on different seasons, and so we try to find a balance between the promise of spring and the reality of fall.

I enjoy gardens—and now, with two small children, I especially appreciate the fruits and vegetables that we grow in our own yard. I like knowing where our food comes from, what is going into that food, and what is going into those little bodies. I like knowing that we can feed our children, that they will grow up knowing where their food comes from, and what it takes to produce it.

And it does take a lot to produce that food. I realize that this is not a kosher thing to say, but gardening is not a hobby for me. It is work—good work, but definitely not play. Perhaps, at another stage in my life, it will feel differently. I was pregnant for two of the last three garden seasons, and I cannot claim to be a glistening earth mother. The last place I wanted to be was battling mosquitoes and weeds in the tomatoes in the middle of July with a bowling ball strapped to my middle and an internal radiator stuck on high. Those women, past and present, who have to labor in the fields for their livelihoods and families while pregnant have my eternal respect, sympathy, and admiration.

Daily life with a toddler and infant is pretty full, and this year I’m worried about getting the work done for a garden, and whether it is worth our precious time. My parents had a large garden when I was a young child, so when they visited a few weeks ago, I asked them how (and when) they managed to get everything done.

They gardened about 1/3 of an acre, on a plot that was a couple of miles from our home. The garden was in a corner of a larger farm, right across the street from my elderly great aunt and uncle, Lil and Winnie. Winnie had rented the plot from the farmer for years, and Mom and Dad started gardening with him in the first years of their marriage, what would be the final years of his life. The farmer was kind enough to plow their section of the field when he did the rest of his field, and Winnie provided the technical assistance that they needed to keep our family in vegetables year round. My dad would get home from work in the evenings, and then they would go to the garden and work until dark. Often, my grandparents would help, and after we were born, they would watch us while Mom and Dad were in the field. (They also worked a second/third job at the ball field, but that is a story for another time.) Come harvest time, my mom would process vegetables during the day, and can after dark. Even as little children, we helped snap beans, shuck corn, and shell butter beans and black-eyed peas.

I say all of this not because I think that it was a particularly novel experience—I suspect that many people had a similar experience growing up, especially those who lived in rural areas. But as my parents were reminiscing about those days, and sharing details that would have escaped my childhood lens, I realized just how much of a community it took to feed my family. My parents were able to garden a plot that is larger than the land I now live on because of a farmer’s land and tractor, Winnie’s expertise and wisdom, my grandparents’ time and labor, and their own job security (the fact that my dad had regular daytime hours, and my mother was able to stay home with us). Gardening was both a privilege and a necessity.

I think of all of this when we talk about reskilling our population so that they can raise, preserve, and cook fresh fruits and vegetables. That is important, but it is only a small piece of the puzzle. We need to also focus on the support systems and safety nets that cradle individuals and families—multi-generational knowledge, jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing and childcare. Feeding our families is hard work, and it takes time. To do it well, it takes a community, in every sense of the word.

Nikki D’Adamo-Damery is the Deputy Director of the Appalachian Foodshed Project. She lives (and gardens) in Christiansburg, Virginia.