It Doesn't Take Much Land to Grow A Lot of Food   (August 2, 2014)

Perhaps time learning in a garden should be considered as important as time spent sitting in a classroom.

The important national discussions about food security and hunger in America rarely seem to mention a critical fact: it doesn't take much land to grow a lot of food. Discussions of food deserts--neighborhoods or communities with limited access to supermarkets and farmer's markets--rarely if ever ask: how much open land is in these communities that could be converted to gardens in the growing season?

We hear much about hunger, poor diets and teaching math and science, but not enough about gardens in schools and how gardens are ideal workshops for learning about the biology of nutrition, health, plants, insects and ecological systems. Even math is a natural subject in a garden: measuring the space allotted to each crop and measuring the output.

The scientific method is also a natural subject in a garden: take the same soil and seedlings, and plant them in a variety of controlled conditions: which ones do better? What does this suggest in terms of improving the garden?

Perhaps time learning in a garden should be considered as important as time spent sitting in a classroom--or perhaps it should be understood as more important than time spent in a classroom because it engages children directly in practical applications of foundational science.

Numerous studies have found that gardening and animal husbandry have a profoundly positive effect on our psychological health and well-being.

Long-time readers may tire of my enthusiasm for gardening and fitness, but these both yield near-miraculous positive yields with relatively modest investments of time.

Perhaps we as a nation need to focus less on manicured lawns and access to corporate supermarkets and focus more on encouraging people of all ages to make the land around them productive. What non-gardeners might not appreciate is how much food can be produced in a small area: a rooftop garden, tomato plants in large pots, hydroponic arrangements that don't even need soil, wall gardens that let climbing plants grow up walls--the possibilities are endless.

I am a lazy gardener. Perhaps "lazy" isn't quite the right word; given my insanely over-scheduled life of 12+ hour days, I don't really have the time or inclination to create a picture-perfect neat garden.

What I focus on is the health of the soil and the vegetables, and providing year-round pollination opportunities (i.e. flowers) for pollinators like bees. I don't disrupt the soil and feed it a lot of compost. Birds and other predators help control insect pests and I use non-poisonous methods to control occasional infestations.

In other words, our garden is as messy as the rest of my life:

This single 3.5-meter (10 foot) row of scarlet-runner climbing green beans supplies multiple households with as many green beans as they can eat for four months. The handful of plants on this trellis could easily be grown on a rooftop, against a school wall or in a front yard against a fence or garage wall.

There are two kinds of tomatoes, a thriving lovage (an ancient leafy vegetable from the Mediterranean), zucchini and crook-necked squash, Russian kale (several left to go to seed), small red potatoes, parsley, thyme, peas, bell peppers, cucumbers and a few sunflowers for fun. Alyssum and California poppies provide random ground cover. (Our peach tree is in the background.)

This 12-foot by 12-foot (4 meter by 4 meter) patch of earth produces an extraordinary quantity of food despite the laziness of the gardeners. We basically stop buying groceries when the garden starts producing, and giving away the surplus becomes a near-daily task.

Here's one way to prepare zucchini and yellow squash: stir-fry them with red onion (also from our garden):

Here's another stir-fry, with zucchini, julienned scarlet-runner beans and carrots:

A spaghetti dinner with scarlet-runner beans and fried mushrooms and onions:

Wild salmon (a rare treat) with brown rice and scarlet-runner beans stir-fried with carrots (organic from Costco, not from our garden):

A classic Chinese dish, Kung Pao chicken with (yes, once again) scarlet-runner beans stir-fried with cabbage and carrots:

These basic garden vegetables are remarkably flexible in terms of making tasty combinations with other vegetables. Throw in a little meat or meat substitute and they easily become the main dish--for example:

What's Cooking at our House: Sichuan Green Beans:

A garden naturally leads to a healthy focus on preparing the yield and learning more about different ways to prepare the bounty.

It's worth noting that trendy high-end restaurants make a point of using fresh locally grown produce. Gardeners get that every day. In this sense, gardeners get to eat like kings on a decidedly non-royal budget.

Drought note: our garden is on a very water-frugal dripline.

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