Some hard truths about growing food and medicine.
By Sue Kusch
In early spring, mud has replaced the mostly melted snows, the rain and sunshine exchange places every couple hours, and the moles’ work of winter tunnel building is evident everywhere…signs that Spring is gracefully awakening after a year of rest.
I’m not much of a poet or creative writer but the seasonal changes bring out the philosopher in me. For a gardener, Spring carries the hope and excitement of change and renewal much like a new year inspires personal development goals.
Standing in my large four-legged-proofed vegetable garden in the early morning light, I survey the space that was abandoned after the first heavy snowfall. After several years of dealing with gophers in my raised beds, mole tunnels everywhere else, rabbit holes in my deer fencing and half-finished projects in every direction, I feel a sense of relief that the gophers, deer, and rabbits have been redirected through the magic of barriers. My garden is now a fortress for flora: 8 ft tall deer fencing, the bottom two feet wrapped in rabbit-proof wire fencing, and concrete mesh in the bottom of my raised beds. The half-finished projects are part of the way I garden and this year is no different: two hugelkultur beds to extend and improve, paths to cover with the free tree trimmings dumped in my pasture last fall, non-stop compost making, continued planting for pollinators, and creative ideas for an edible/medicinal hedgerow that will also serve as a windbreak and this year — more flowers!
I feel my brain kick into check-list mode: check the fall-planted garlic, peek in at the perennial rhubarb and asparagus covered in straw mulch, clean and organize the greenhouse for seed starting and retrieve the wheelbarrows and hoses from the barn.
And check the weather. Daily. Spring is a tempestuous season offering sun, rain, hail, snow, late frosts, and wind — sometimes all in one day!
At this point, a non-gardener might close the gate, head back into the house and wonder about the sanity of those who grow plants. Excitement and optimism fuel my energy and grabbing a garden fork, I lightly turn over the straw on my garlic beds and ponder the question of why I garden. What is the impetus for motivating me into spending 5–20 hours each week planning, shoveling, bending, seeding, weeding, watering and transporting wheelbarrows full of horse shit, compost, and soil all over my property?
Motivation defined: Internal and external factors that stimulate desire and energy in people to be continually interested and committed to a job, role or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal.
Sure enough, my motivation for growing includes a mix of internal and external factors.
Nutritious, Clean and A Variety of Foods
I grow a cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, flowers, native plants, and medicinal herbs. Food cannot get any fresher and more nutritious than when it is pulled from the garden, walked up to the kitchen and cooked for dinner. Much of store-bought produce is almost a week into decaying by the time it is placed for display in grocery stores, and some plants like spinach have already lost 50% of its nutrients through the natural process of dying.
In addition to freshness and nutrition, my gardens are 100% organic so I can avoid exposure to toxic pesticides and herbicides. And I love the option to explore unusual fruits and vegetable cultivars that are not available in grocery stores: purple vegetables, seaberries, Dragon Tongue greens, and basils of many flavors. There is never enough growing space for all that I want to grow…which my middle-aged body says is probably a good thing.
All Things Herbs
Because they are incredibly easy to grow, perennial culinary herbs were some of my first growing successes almost forty years ago. I love the fresh leaves of basil, sage, thyme, oregano, savory, parsley, and cilantro. I dry large amounts of herbs for winter’s use in teas and cooking — if harvested, dried and stored correctly, the quality and retention of flavor cannot be beaten.
Over the last two decades, I have studied herbal medicine and now grow far more healing herbs to make nourishing infusions, medicinal teas, healing salves, facial creams, lotions, and body butters. My home apothecary is full of herbal remedies, and I love that feeling of abundance and usefulness. (Just this morning, a friend contacted me about herbs and remedies I might have for shingles — community herbalism at its best!) By growing my own herbs and making my own personal products, I avoid toxic residues and synthetic petrochemicals found in most commercial body care products.
I also use fresh and dried herbs to make gallons of an effective andnon-toxic cleaning solution. I play around with natural plant dyes to dye wool and silk. Flowers, herbs and even collard greens create a beautiful bouquet that I spend way too much time arranging in a vase which then sits on my dining room table. (Psst…please don’t tell the vegetables but herbs have my heart, and I enjoy growing them tremendously!)
These days I spend a lot of time sitting at my computer researching and writing for work and creative projects. In case you haven’t heard, sitting is the new smoking: our bodies are designed to move regularly. Gardening offers me a natural way for my body to move. It’s not aerobic; it’s more like a clunky yoga flow. I am conscious of my body as it bends or stretches and often while there working on a bed of plants, I casually move into a yoga pose, stretching and activating muscles. (Visualize butt in the air, doing downward dog and for balance practice, Warrior 3 while planting seeds.) I revel in both the energy of movement and later, that bone-tired exhaustion felt at the end of a long day spent moving in the garden.
According to the US Center for Disease Control, there is plenty of research that supports the benefits of moving frequently and regularly:
- Lowers blood pressure & improves cardiorespiratory functioning
- Reduces stress levels
- Improves mental functioning
- Better regulation of blood sugar
- Increases muscular strength and endurance
- Increases flexibility and improved joint health
- Improves immune system function
- Better control of body fat
- Increases awareness of body
Add some aerobic activity three or four times a week, some strength conditioning, a few focused weekly yoga sessions and you will be in good shape.
Intimacy With Nature
The early morning hours of spring and summer are special. I am fortunate to live on five acres, surrounded by towering Doug-firs and Ponderosa pines. After winter’s silence, the birds are chattering, flirting non-stop in search of spring romance. Stellar jays are the noisiest, robins’ songs come in second, and the occasional woodpecker pecking on nearby trees is nature’s Morse Code. A raven pair fly over and occasionally treat me to some romantic dancing in the sky. And I swear they just cawed good morning to me! The squirrels and chipmunks squeal warnings as I walk through their territory. Bending over to check on some seedlings, I hear the unmistakable whistle-call of a red-tail hawk. As the growing season moves along, I’ll encounter earthworms, spiders, lesser-eared lizards, an eclectic group of pollinators and engage in my annual disagreement with aphids. Watching the pollinators work the garden has opened a door of curious questions about the fascinating behaviors of insects and bugs.
Growing plants is a remarkable opportunity to fully appreciate nature and its complexities. Witnessing a plant’s life cycle is a humbling and sacred experience: seeds germinate, stems push up through the soil, leaves unfurl, flower buds open into flowers, flowers become fruits and fruits dry out to release seeds for the next generation.
The science of biology has acknowledged that our brains are wired for connection with nature, and studies have shown that time spent in nature benefits our brains and our stress levels. In an ego-centric culture like ours, I feel my focus shift to the garden ecosystem that is alive with the activity of others.
Love of Learning
Speaking of brains, learning and problem-solving are activities that keep our neural networks humming. Too many people tend to drop active and intentional learning after they leave formal schooling. Growing plants is filled with lessons to be learned, research to be done and problems to be solved.
I am hooked on the act of learning. I welcome lessons in all of their intentional and unintentional packages. Four decades ago, the world of plants opened my mind to a state of constant curiosity. With over 400,000 identified plant species, their individual and purposeful niches in our ecosystems, their unique relationships with pollinators, their generous offerings to humans and now their attempts to adapt to climate changes, I will never run out of things to learn.
During the past few years, I have studied the design system thinking of permaculture, incorporating some of its basic concepts and ideas into my garden as well as other aspects of my life. Permaculture design has introduced a new way of thinking about not only the garden and nature but also about the cultural constructs of economies and communities. My learning has evolved as I consider the basic principles inherent to permaculture. The hundreds of chicory plants growing in my unused pasture offer food for thought about their purpose and contributions instead of a complaint about weeds. Instead of arguing with aphids each year, what are some companion plants I could use to confuse or deter them? Growing food and medicine sets up a different kind of personal economy and one that offers autonomy and wellness benefits.
Tending plants is a practice, a science and an art. It’s chock full of learning opportunities. And of course, the study of herbalism offers humans a lens on the individual magical healing gifts of plants. The hours of my days are spent learning about the natural and cultivated worlds of plants, animals, and people. I can’t imagine how anyone can be bored when there is so much to know about these worlds.
Creativity in our culture is not valued as much as our work ethic or our skills. As children, we explore our creative natures but slowly that is replaced with the busyness of achievement tasks and the business of skill-learning. Many of us enter adulthood with the notion that only creative people get to do creative things and that’s only because they are good at it. Somewhere many of us learned that we were no longer creative.
My vegetable and herb gardens are truly a palette that I design and create with plants of differing sizes, colors, and shapes. Sometimes I employ logic and design aesthetics; other times the plant goes where it does because it’s the only spot open. My garden looks different every year as I explore new projects and plants. Like all creative processes, there are learning opportunities (AKA as mistakes) and there are amazing successes. Then, one day in late summer, I look around and see another masterpiece I have created.
Each hour I spend in the garden is income for me: I don’t sell what I grow but I don’t buy much during the growing season. When I do buy fresh produce in the months I don’t grow, I easily spend $150-$200 per month on fruits and vegetables. Of course, my garden fortress has an abundance of infrastructure and occasional inputs like commercial compost so I’ll stop here with my garden economics because I don’t want to know what my actual hourly wage is for my garden efforts. Ignorance can be bliss sometimes.
Besides, how do I measure the value of food security, useful knowledge and skills, daily time in nature, healthy food and herbal remedies, physical movement and intellectual activity? The garden economy is filled with benefits that simply can’t be measured by the Gross Domestic Product or an hourly wage.
As much I enjoy my time gardening, I experience conflicts throughout the growing season. I live in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States — a region filled with amazing geography, incredible vistas, waterfalls, rivers, rainforests, high desert, mountains, coastal beaches, and diverse ecosystems — and I feel the call to hike, fish, and camp during the seasons of warmth and blooming native plants. It’s difficult to escape for a few days, much less a week when the garden needs harvesting and the food and herbs need processing.
I have many interests and hobbies; this is a bigger problem then you may realize. Unfinished craft projects, stacks of books to be read, writing projects to be completed, and lists of goals, and tasks that often get shoved to the side during the growing season. For many years, I would become frustrated with myself for not getting more done during the summer…acting as if I was wasting time in the garden! It took a while for me to come to terms with this addiction to productivity, this need to always be producing something.
One year I worked as a gardener for a winery and learned a bit about the wine crush. Like vegetables, the grapes ripen over a short period and must be quickly crushed, properly processed, tested and monitored. Vegetable and herb gardening is similar; while some of what I grow is harvested and eaten regularly throughout the season, a big chunk of what I grow ripens in August and September and needs to be processed for winter storage.
I garden solo and at some point each season, usually around late August, I feel overwhelmed by all of the bounty heaped on my kitchen counters and floors. In the last few years that emotional response shows up in conjunction with several days in a row of 100° temps. Excessive heat means extra watering, early harvest and additional protection above and beyond the daily garden chores and my professional responsibilities.
Adding to the abundance overwhelm are my beloved herbs: harvesting, hanging, processing, packaging, labeling and storing take up additional summer and fall hours.
Resentment brews on the back burner. Wildflowers are blooming on my favorite trail. Someone posted a beautiful trout they caught at a nearby river. A friend just posted pics of her hikes in the Olympic National Park. I can get a tad whiny as I mumble to myself about what I am missing or that I would rather be lounging on the deck, chilled beverage and a good book in hand. Part of the solution turned out to be uncomplicated: simply pack my daypack and head to the forest or the river and just hike or fish for the morning or even the day. The vegetables and herbs will still be there when I return…perhaps a bit riper.
Oh, The Heartbreak…
You can’t avoid it: nature has a way of reminding you who’s in charge and it’s not you. Weirdly, the stages of grief can be applied to the occasional heartbreak moments in a garden. Am I being a drama queen? I don’t think so. Here are some of my more recent moments of gardening’s tragic dramas:
When I spend three months germinating seed, tending seedlings, transplanting, watering, weeding and then walk out to my garden on a beautiful July morning and see two holes where plants existed the night before, I get a bit crazy. Gophers! In denial and hopeful they have moved on, I return the next morning and see two more holes. Now angry, I realize there’s not much I could do at this point. They had a daily buffet of my vegetables for the rest of the season. It was heartbreaking and infuriating.
Those cute little cottontail rabbits? Not so cute as they demolish the lettuce beds, chew holes in my plastic mesh deer fencing and invite their friends to join them each morning.
I never understood why Elmer Fudd was so angry at rabbits but I do now.
While only 3% of insects are troublesome, that 3% can do some serious damage when they discover a vegetable garden. Aphids are my nemeses and seem to show up when I take a few days off for a weekend trip.
Several years ago, after applying copious amounts of my neighbor’s beautifully composted horse manure, several of my crops began to look sick. I spent many hours trying to figure out what was happening, coming up empty. Eventually, another gardener who had used the same horse manure reported a similar experience in her orchard, where she had applied the manure around her trees. She had her soil tested and the results showed a high level of a herbicide residue. The hay my neighbor purchased to feed her horses, had been contaminated by what the hay grower believed must have been drift from another grower’s spraying. This herbicide is not affected by the horse’s digestive system and takes years to break down so it continues to do its job by killing plants when applied as compost in gardens. My neighbor felt terrible but we were all victims of what is becoming a more frequent issue for gardeners.
When you have invested time, energy, money and patience in a part of your life, it becomes a relationship and the emotions are similar to those experienced with any relationship. Each summer I build a relationship with my plants and my soil and like all relationships, there are moments of pain and heartbreak.
Still, I can’t imagine my life without my garden…except maybe in late August. I could imagine it then.