Lessons From the Vegetable Garden

Growing vegetables provides a matchless education for the mere price of some seeds and sweat.

After a recent talk I gave to a Sierra Club chapter, someone asked what I consider to be the most promising evidence of humanity’s interest in sustainability. I’d never been asked that particular question before, but my answer sprang to mind immediately.


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“Vegetable gardening,” I said without hesitation.

There’s a burgeoning interest, around the world, in the cultivation of vegetables for food. We see it in our correspondence, in our research, in the traffic to our website and in the growing volumes of advertising MOTHER EARTH NEWS runs for seed companies and outdoor equipment manufacturers. The spectrum of vegetable gardeners is expanding, from the container gardener nursing three tomato plants on the deck of a townhome to the enthusiast guiding a big rototiller up and down the rows of a half-acre plantation.

Some people make fun of us. They claim we spend more on seeds and tools than we save on groceries. They don’t understand that our time in the garden — up to our elbows in soil, weeds and bugs — can be as valuable as the same time spent with the most expensive therapist on Park Avenue or in Santa Monica’s best spa. It is about the food, but it’s not just about the food. The benefits are felt far beyond the taste buds.

Nature provides us with an incomparable education, and the tuition is free. We get regular reminders of nature’s simple laws and its profound wisdom.

We learn that every living thing has its own idea of paradise. The aphid may find it on the underside of a leaf; the toad in the litter beneath the blackberries; the dung beetle, well, in the dung. Maggots like a dead animal’s carcass. Orioles weave their homes from grass and hang them in trees. Our knowledge of nature’s offerings can extend from the grub worm’s tiny tunnel to the wide open skies where the turkey vultures soar.

We learn that life’s vital balance comes from sacrifice. We may lose some fruit to pests, but if we poison all of the pests, then the beneficial insects never arrive and we’re left with a perpetual bumper crop of the critters that compete for our food. If we poison the mice eating our corn, we may sicken the kestrels that keep them in check.