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Home Vegetable Gardening: an Apologia

Apologia: A statement that justifies or defends something, such as a past action or policy; a formal written defense of something one believes in strongly.

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woodcut of old garden
   Cela est bien dit, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.

This site is about home vegetable and fruit growing.

As with all endeavors, it is wise to begin by asking ourselves why we want to do this. Since store-bought foods are vastly more convenient and little if any more expensive than home-grown, anything we grow must have a marked superiority to store-available foods to justify the costs, in time and effort and even actual cash expense, of growing it.

(We say that store-bought foods are little if any more expensive because, as the apt saying has it, “Time is money"; if one were to devote the time that growing reasonable amounts of food at home requires and instead spend that time on the most money-making activity of which one is capable, one would—at least in most cases—earn more than the money home-growing saves; and that does not even touch on the non-zero out-of-pocket costs of home food-growing.)

To us, the potential advantages of home-grown food—“potential" because they do not apply equally in all cases—are these:

Each of those catchwords comprises multiple considerations, and we will consider them individually.

“Freshness” as such is important for only a few grown edibles, those that preserving deteriorates in some way—one can, for example, scarcely freeze lettuce. But much of what any serious home gardener grows will need to be preserved anyway, and the commercial producers generally freeze or can foods that are quite fresh at the time. So for literal “freshness” to matter, we must be speaking of foods that not only do not preserve, or preserve well, but also are not easily gotten fresh at the store. There are a few such (especially herbs), but not that many.

But “freshness” in a larger context—meaning that the home grower chooses when to pick the crop—can be quite important. Far too much (arguably almost all) store-sold food has been grown well past the optimum point for eating quality, to maximize the grower’s seasonal profit. The differences can be drastic: store-bought broccoli, for one, is typically so large as to be woody enough to saw into boards. The home grower has the important power to pick crops when they are at their best eating quality, whether for immediate consumption or for storage. That is a major advantage.

“Healthfulness” also comprises two distinct factors: what is in the food, and what isn’t in the food. As to the first: anyone who has ever lived in or near an agribusiness establishment knows how much poison—in the literal sense—is dumped on the stuff they grow. The industry argues that their data show no harmful effects; but that’s just it—those are their data, aren’t they? There are plenty of studies—mostly done outside the U.S.—that suggest what common sense also suggests, that you can’t put much poison on food before that poison will get into the bellies of those foolish enough to eat that food.

As to the second: agribusiness sells food. Those who buy its products either pay for it by the pound or expect it to be a certain size. Agribusiness—being just that, a business—thus focuses on producing the largest things it can produce at the lowest production costs possible. The easiest ways to make large foodstuffs cheaply are to: one, breed for plants that suck up and hold lots of water (those yummy-licious extra-large “hybrids” the growers, and even the seedsmen, so proudly tout, which have the size and weight—and taste—of what they are: vegetable sponges); and two, feed the plant lots of the isolated few cheap nutrients that suffice to bulk it up.

The spuriously large hybrids have correspondingly weakened flavor. Far more serious, all the agribusiness-grown crops tend to be short on the secondary but still literally vital nutrients that plants fertilized with organic material (and grown in rotation on different soils) carry. The food chain has evolved over the whole history of life on Earth; to think that in a few years we can learn to tinker with it to great success is hubris, and folly, of the highest order. That is not a Luddite dismissal of genetic research or breeding endeavors; it is, rather, an indictment of those who rush to make profit off processes whose long-term effects they do not well understand—and, in most cases, don’t much care about, because they are season ticket holders to Short Attention-Span Theater.

small woodcut of seed scatterer

For all of that, though, it is when we consider “variety” that we come to what—to us, anyway—is the crucial matter. There are a few base activities that we, like all living things, must do merely to continue living. Evolution has thus conditioned us so that those activities will be—or at least can be—highly pleasureable. High on that short list is eating. The proverbial “pleasures of the table” can be some of the greatest sheer enjoyment the human organism is capable of. But, for various reasons that could make a PhD thesis, in the United States eating is become a matter of mere gross intake: “better” means “more” and little else. Virtually the only taste element that most Americans look for in food is sweetness, and the national epidemic (a word used exactly and literally here) of obesity is the consequence. Manufacturers put sugar, in quantity, into almost everything, including (by breeding) the crops agribusiness grows. It’s simpler and cheaper than providing taste.

Those who value the taste and other eating qualities of the food they consume—an act one performs several times daily—will be correspondingly interested in obtaining the best eating-quality foodstuffs available. Agribusiness, on the other hand, has different criteria: crops that grow uniformly, so that the harvest is easily done by machine; crops that all come in at about the same time, to facilitate that one machine-done harvest; crops that are large and heavy, to make more cash per square foot of growing land; crops that travel well (meaning that they can be banged around without showing damage); crops that need little attention when growing; and other like criteria. Not only are none of those criteria related to eating quality, most or all are antithetical to it: “bruise resistant”, for example, typically means as rock-hard as possible.

The home grower wants, above all, the varieties—the “cultivars”—of each foodstuff that have the finest eating quality of their sorts. For some foods, from corn and tomatoes to apples and basil, there are huge numbers of varieties, each with ardent partisans; for others, even so common as broccoli, there is as yet little reliable information on the eating qualities of the various varieties available. But the bottom line is choice: home growers can try variety after variety of everything they want to eat till they find the ones that best please their judgement. And that is, we think, the chiefest reason to grow your own, and the chief reason that this site exists. There are countless sites that discuss vegetable growing in a general sense, but few or none focussed on the optimum varieties of each crop. (Except the ag university sites, for which “best" are usually those most closely fitting the agri-growers’ criteria, since growers largely fund the studies done.)

color image of fresh garden produce

Two other points deserving note here:

First: like a large fraction of the world’s population, we are vegetarians. That is a word used by disconcertingly many people who are no such thing—some eat fish (“vegetables that swim in the sea”, as one once put it), some eat chicken, some occasionally any meat at all. Others who use it have very specific criteria, and eschew anything at all animal-derived, and some even limit what vegetables they will eat.

The two basic considerations that lead to vegetarianism are health and ethics. Health needs no brief from us: the advantages of a no-meat diet are too obvious, well-known, and overwhelmingly documented to rehearse at length here. The longest-lived and healthiest humans are not all vegetarians, but those who do eat meat characteristically eat only minimal occasional amounts.

The ethical aspect is an individual matter. We simply agree with Bernard Shaw, who remarked that he saw no reason to make his stomach a cemetary. Our guideline is “eat nothing that had a mother”. The health benefits are simply a beneficence.

The other point is “organic” growing. Like “vegetarian”, “organic” is a word that seems capable of a remarkably broad spectrum of meanings. Our basic philosophy is don’t put anything on your food plants, or their soil, that you don’t want to be eating. We don’t make it a practice to eat bug spray, so we don’t put bug sprays on our plants. (OK, we don’t eat soap either, but we do use soap sprays—but you get the idea.) We are not puritanical about “organic”, but no poisons, and no chemical fertlizers. Didn’t we just go through why people should be growing their own food? What’s the point of becoming a backyard micro-agribusiness?

We include under this head what should perhaps be a topic of its own: hybrid versus “open pollinated” cultivars. OP cultivars are what most people think of as “real” plants: one plants them, they grow, they form seeds, one collects the seeds and re-plants them, and so it has gone throughout history—and, for that matter, an awfully long period before “history”. Hybrids, in the modern technical sense, are cross-bred plants that will not breed true: the mules of the plant world. You cannot plant their seed and expect to get more of the same plant. Many advantages, most spurious, are claimed for them by the developers and seedsmen, but the one advantage they indubitably have—for the seedsman—is that growers forever have to be buying new seed every season from the seedsman.

You yourself may not be big into seed-saving; we aren’t, though we’d like to be, but let’s first get comfortable growing usable plants at all. (Indeed, for some kinds of plants it is impractical or inpossible for the home gardener to save seed: the brassicas are too prone to disease, likewise potatoes.) But in the larger sense, it is crucial to our long-term future, where “our” means the human race, to maintain a lively set of diverse gene pools of our edibles. Vast numbers of cultivars, and even some species, of food plants are now lost beyond recovery because they were superseded by the “productive hybrids” of agribusiness. It is very literally frightening to see how utterly dependent humankind has become on a mere handful of seed lines, most or all hybrids; should some new blight (think of Ireland and potatoes) strike just a few of those, an awful lot of people would learn—many for the first time—what hunger is.

Because we believe that OP cultivars are not only societally important, but also generally yield the most satisfying foodstuffs, they are almost all we use, or discuss here, with a few reluctant exceptions (notably corn, a matter discussed at that glorious vegetable’s individual site page). Don’t say we didn’t tell you.

You can now look and pick your next target, but the Vegetables type-listing page seems the natural choice.

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