Not as many people are planting vegetable gardens these days… but the few who do are really passionate about it. And it’s not just because they swear their own vegetables taste better than anything you can get at a store. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams explores the obsessions of vegetable gardeners:
Not as many people are planting vegetable gardens these days… but the few who do
are really passionate about it, and it’s not just because they swear their own
vegetables taste better than anything you can get at a store. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams explores the obsessions of vegetable
In Connie Bank’s former life, she recruited attorneys and engineers. She’d be
on the phone until ten every night. She’d spend entire weekends with clients.
She calls herself a true Type A – working at full speed, making a lot of money,
until she just had enough of it all.
Now vegetable gardening is her whole life.
“You’re controlling a tiny little nourishing world of your own, where the rest
of our world is sort of crazy, politics are crazy, the world is going nuts… it’s
America, it’s fast fast fast fast fast. This vegetable gardening thing is a way to take a
deep breath, slow yourself down, and just watch the garden grow.”
But Bank admits she’s still intense. She throws herself into gardening. She
says if the little plastic labels say to plant things twelve inches apart, she gets
impatient and packs them in six inches apart.
People like Connie Bank are sort of rare. A survey by the National Gardening
Association found that not a lot of people are into vegetable gardening these
days. Compared to five years ago, seven million fewer households are growing
vegetables. You have to weed and water every day and fend off the squirrels.
Most Americans would rather plant flowers or just not bother with any of it.
So these days, instead of recruiting professionals, Connie Bank’s trying to
recruit as many new gardeners as she can. She teaches classes to people on
their lunch breaks. Today, she’s going after daycare kids.
(Sound of watering)
BANK: “Who here likes vegetables? What kind do you like?”
KIDS: “Watermelon! Oranges! Strawberries!”
BANK: “Okay, that’s good you guys, except those are fruits.”
KIDS: “Corn on the cob is good!”
A lot of serious vegetable gardeners got their first taste of it as kids.
(Sound of trowel digging)
Earl Shaffer farmed as a kid in Indiana, and when he left at 17 he swore he’d
never grow anything again. But Earl says twenty years later, his wife Marie
tempted him back into the garden. Today, they’re tending to their lettuce,
tomatoes and zucchini. He says their house is too big for just the two of them
now, but he can’t move and leave his garden behind.
“As you get older, I think some of the things that were a part of your youth
kind of return in importance in some way. I was very fond of my grandparents,
especially my grandmother, and gardening was part of her life, I think that also made it
important to me to return to it.”
Shaffer says farming did give him a feel for growing things, but like everyone
else, he still has to read the plant labels. He says we’re losing the
knowledge of how to live off the land.
For gardeners, growing even just a couple tomato plants can feel like
reconnecting to our farming roots. Ashley Miller curated an exhibit on
vegetable garden history at Cornell University. She says the motives for these
gardens have changed a lot over the last three centuries. Sometimes people have
gardened to make money, sometimes they’ve grown food to support a war effort,
and sometimes people have just done it as a challenging hobby, but there’s one
“Growing vegetables is as close as we can get to a seasonal ritual.
There is something primal about putting a seed in the soil and tending it, and
harvesting it and eating it.”
A lot of gardeners agree that growing vegetables is a sensual experience. They
talk about the way the scent of tomato plants fills the whole yard, or the
blue-green color of baby broccoli. Gardener Lee Criss says she can’t wait to
get into her yard in the spring and get her bare hands in the dirt.
“I don’t garden with gloves because I need to feel what the soil feels like, the
texture. You use senses in gardening that you don’t in most everything else
that you do. You feel things, you smell. It’s a different way of sensing the
world around you, I think.”
It’s hard to walk away from these people’s backyards and shake off their
enthusiasm. Every single gardener I talked to told me to call them when I
started my own garden. And if they think you’re considering gardening at all,
watch out: they’ll fill your head with visions of their juiciest cherry
tomatoes, they’ll try to fill your car with seedlings, anything to get you
For the GLRC, I’m Rebecca Williams.