Last Wednesday while I was considering writing this blog I turned to a column by Jon Carroll, in the Chronicle. He began "Food is important. We cook it, we eat it, we talk about it. It sustains us. It is also politically important." He went on to cite the work of Alice Waters and the Michael Pollan and to opine that perhaps we are sometimes guilty of being faddish and snobbish here in "this center of good food and good food opinions". But what really bothered him, in this deepening recession, was the realization of just how expensive it is to eat good food.
He promised "more on Thursday", and I thought "Jon you're going to tout urban gardens!" But no. He was not about to tear out his flowers or frighten his cats by introducing chickens. Instead he's frequenting inexpensive, local ethnic restaurants.
When we eat out we usually choose inexpensive ethnic restaurants. But mostly we eat at home. Alice Waters maintains that 85% of good cooking is good ingredients. We have two excellent sources of good ingredients. The Farmers' Markets and our own urban garden.
All these paintings were created in our garden. You may enlarge the images by clicking on them.
Only the corner of our garden which has a stream, pond and rock garden is landscaped. The rest is a motley collection of vegetable beds. Lettuce, basil, carrots, sugar snap peas and other vegetables rotate through these beds. The asparagus, raspberries, artichokes, rhubarb and lemons are perennial. Everything flourishes on layers of household compost mixed with my 'house blend' of cocoa hulls, coffee grounds and ash.
As well as providing maybe thirty percent of our vegetables the garden has become my outdoor studio. I've started a series of time lapse paintings of the growing plants. "The Three Sisters" which is posted at the top of this blog is an example. The "Three Sisters" are the "Las Tres Hermanas" of pre-Columbian agriculture. Corn, beans and squash which were grown together, and together were the foundation of the diet .
The pond is the primary source of excitement in the garden.
It attracts an astonishing variety of creatures. There are the regulars: morning doves, mocking birds and jays (who eat my snails), and a variety of migrating birds. One day a red-shouldered hawk flew over my shoulder as I was bent over the pond. He settled on the rock garden twelve feet away and gazed at me.
A Grey Heron passes by occasionally. After one visit two of my three frogs were missing. Only this one remained.
The other day my son Mario and I were observing a humming bird skittering over the pond's surface catching insects. Our local hunter, the black cat Pilar, was also interested and set himself in ambush. The humming bird passed within inches of the frog. To our astonishment the frog sprang at the hummingbird jaws agape. He barely missed him. Pilar dashed towards the source of commotion drawing the attention of a jay. This jay makes it his business to constantly harass Pilar, and proceeded to drive him out of our yard.
Mario and I were left to speculate whether the frog mistook the humming bird for a large insect. How would he have ingested this whirring ball of beak, feathers and claws? Or was he simply chasing the bird away from 'his' turf?
Our garden produces 30% of our produce most of the year. It's the best tasting food on our table. I've always thought that the taste of unadulterated food is a good indication of it's nutritional value. At the farmer's market we buy organic food if it's reasonably priced. We also purchase from farmers who claim not to use chemicals if the flavor of their food supports their claims. Many small farmers who have no use for pesticides and chemical fertilizers prefer to avoid the cost and hassle of certification. The beauty of obtaining our food from these two sources is that the, nearly, expense free garden vegetables more than offset the cost of organic purchases.
Study after study indicates that organically grown food is 20% or 30 % more nutritious than industrial food as well as being free of poisonous residues. Which justifies paying more for it. This is admittedly a hard sell among impoverished minorities. Many label my point of view 'elitist.'
Not the young, urban pioneers around my studio in West Oakland who are establishing market gardens in abandoned lots and unused yards and selling the vegetables cheaply around the neighborhood.
Urban gardens are not only a good, healthy response to the current recession but anyone who works regularly in the soil will tell you it's a 'grounding' experience.