Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise
“Michelle Owens does not ‘presume to dictate something so personal’ as the ‘rules for making a garden.’ Rather, her stated intention in this delightful book is ‘to suggest ways to think about garden-making.’ Her synthesis of the essence of the strategy for a successful vegetable garden—context, diversification, timing, and Zen—is readily applicable to many endeavors.”
What Americans seven decades ago grew in their backyard gardens, they now spend 20% of their food dollars to purchase at markets. But as popular as home vegetable gardens once were, today perhaps 1% of households Grow the Good Life, the title of Michele Owens’s informative, engaging, motivating book about Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise.
Combining personal perspectives and distillations of research from a variety of disciplines pertaining to gardening, Ms. Owens makes the case that “it is not hard to garden.” The author asserts that gardening is really straightforward, requiring neither fancy tools, elaborate procedures, nor major expenditures. Allowing that “refining your methods” and “learning the subtleties of particular crops” are a lifetime endeavor, she emphasizes that the process is not hard to begin.
Producing neither food nor flowers, the typical American yard manifests neither beauty, thought nor utility. Several forces explain this state of affairs. The spread, proliferation, and promotion of labor saving devices favored the mass of people buying food at stores over growing it themselves.
Gardens had no real role in the thinking of mass production, underpinning what evolved into the dominant form of American societal patterns. The placelessness of suburbia too often reflects “something approaching paranoia about the natural world, as well as the desire for impeccability raised to lethal standards.”
With every passing day, more and more people are ever further removed from society’s agrarian roots, with their only exposure to growing food being what they may encounter in the media about industrialized agriculture. Lacking direct exposure to the modeling of their parents’ and grandparents’ involvement in growing vegetables, few are exposed to a family gardening tradition.
A misplaced disdain for dirt and the excessive embrace of the cleanliness aesthetic, prioritizing preserving the pristine, causes some parents to preclude their kids’ exposure to hands-on gardening. To this point, Ms. Owens observes, “the problem is not that we’re too clean, but that we’re not spending enough time in the dirt.” But then those who are inclined to spend time in the dirt encounter gardening merchants, seeking to secure the margin-maximizing, high-end market position, selling sophisticated implements and resources rather than selling gardening per se.
Ms. Owens is front and center in advocating the gardening renaissance. Reasons driving the resurgence of home gardening include:
• The return-to-earth movement, even at a time of growing urbanization, which trend force may make the home garden even more appealing
• Desire for a hands on involvement in the tangible, in an era in which the intangible, ephemeral, and out-of-sight account for a growing share of social and commercial interactions
• Healthcare concerns, especially the distrust of institutional and corporate interests, making the home garden the food equivalent of home schooling
• Escalating food prices
• Personal involvement in the organic food movement and environmental sustainability initiative
• Societal emphasis on experiences and authenticity, rather than buying mass-produced products
• Desire for self-sufficiency
• Appeal of home-based activities, as an antidote to and literal grounding of the capacity to travel anywhere, both virtually and by commercial transit
The economic appeal of home gardening is underscored by the author’s assertion that $100 of seeds plus some work—work that is highly rewarding—can yield a bountiful harvest, equivalent to $2,500 annually at the grocery checkout counter.
Those who chose to embrace home gardening may discover such manifold rewards as:
1. Multisensory benefits: beauty of the plants, delightful fragrances, emotional connection to earth, and savory flavors
2. Rewards of exercise: better and more enjoyable than the gym
3. Superior health through the quality of the food itself and the exercise expended to grow it
4. Higher quality, tastier, and more nourishing food
5. Satisfaction of management of your land and stewardship of your private domain
6. Connection to the earlier economic model of society—before the information age, modern capitalism, industrial revolution, and small crafts economies led so many to disconnect from the land
7. Major savings in the household food budget
8. Personal statement of environmental responsibility, for the industrial food system accounts for one-fifth of fossil fuel consumption
9. Expanding horizons, as gardening is fundamentally a form of active meditation
10. Teaching process for children: engaging them in a tactile experience: providing the opportunity to realize the tangible output of their work in planting, nurturing, and harvesting; enabling them to become more panoramic eaters, Ms. Owens avers, also encourages a sense of adventure
11. Connection to the earth and appreciation of the seasons
12. Enhanced property value, for a productive vegetable garden both lowers the cost of living in a particular property and also enhance its appeal, inasmuch as the essential trilogy of property value consists of brand, beauty, and utility.
13. Accessing the flow experience, as advanced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, for the author concludes her book with the observation, “My garden makes me happy because it’s beautiful, and it says that life is beautiful.”
Ms. Owens’s book is not so much a how-to manual—though she does dispense plenty of advice based on wisdom learned—as it is a personal journal, a philosophic exploration, a meditation on gardening as a journey of ongoing discovery and learning, expectation and disappointment, risk and reward.
Michelle Owens does not “presume to dictate something so personal” as the “rules for making a garden.” Rather, her stated intention in this delightful book is “to suggest ways to think about garden-making.” Her synthesis of the essence of the strategy for a successful vegetable garden—context, diversification, timing, and Zen—is readily applicable to many endeavors.