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5 reasons why more of us should take up spade, rake and hoe, make compost and raise good soil and garden beds with a vengeance.

By Ellen LaConte Posted Apr 5, 2011

Raised Garden Beds and PlantersSpring has sprung — at least south of the northern tier of states where snow still has a ban on it — and the grass has ‘riz. And so has the price of most foods, which is particularly devastating just now when so many Americans are unemployed, underemployed, retired or retiring, on declining or fixed incomes and are having to choose between paying their mortgages, credit card bills, car payments, and medical and utility bills and eating enough and healthily. Many are eating more fast food, prepared foods, junk food — all of which are also becoming more expensive — or less food.

In some American towns, and not just impoverished backwaters, as many as 30 percent of residents can’t afford to feed themselves and their families sufficiently, let alone nutritiously. Here in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina where I live it’s 25 percent. Across the country one out of six of the elderly suffers from malnutrition and hunger. And the number of children served one or two of their heartiest, healthiest meals by their schools grows annually as the number of them living at poverty levels tops 20 percent. Thirty-seven million Americans rely on food banks that now routinely sport half-empty shelves and report near-empty bank accounts. And this is a prosperous nation!

In some cases this round of price hikes on everything from cereal and steak to fresh veggies and bread — and even the flour that can usually be bought cheaply to make it — will be temporary. But over the long term the systems that have provided most Americans with a diversity, quantity and quality of foods envied by the rest of the world are not going to be as reliable as they were.

What’s for Supper Down the Road?

As they move through the next few decades Americans can expect:

  • The price of conventionally produced food to rise and not come down again;
  • Prices to rollercoaster so that budgeting is unpredictable;
  • Some foods to become very expensive compared to what we’re used to;
  • And other foods, beginning with some of the multiple versions of the same thing made by the same company to garner a bigger market share and more shelf space, to gradually become unavailable.

Gardening with raised garden bedsTremors in food supply chains and pricing will make gardening look like a lot more than a hobby, a seasonal workout, a practical way to fill your pantry with your summer favorites, or a physically, spiritually and mentally healing activity, or all four. Gardening and small-scale and collective farming, especially of staple crops and the ones that could stave off malnutrition, could become as important as bringing home the bacon, both the piggy and the dollar kind. Why?

Why Is Gardening So Important Now?

There are at least five reasons why more of us should take up spade, rake and hoe, make compost and raise good soil and garden beds with a vengeance, starting this spring and with an eye toward forever.

1) Peak oil

Most petroleum experts agree that we shot past peak oil in the U.S. around 1971. That’s the point at which more than half the readily affordable retrievable oil in reserves has been used up, what remains is more expensive to retrieve, and the dregs are irretrievable. We’ve shot or are about to shoot past peak worldwide, estimates of when ranging from 2007 to 2013, with many oil company execs agreeing to at least the latter. There are no new cheap-easy oil fields coming on line. Any new fields you hear about or new methods like tar sands drilling are expensive, water guzzling, dangerous, environmentally disastrous and unlikely to produce more than a few years’ worth of oil, and that a decade or more down the line. That means abundant, cheap oil is about to be history. What difference does that make?

For one thing, there is no replacement for oil that can do all that oil has done as cheaply and universally as oil has done it. I offer an exercise in Life Rules , “The ABC’s of Peak Oil”, which helps readers imaginatively subtract from their lives everything that depends in one way or another on cheap easy oil. It doesn’t leave much.

The global economy that presently supplies us with our food, runs on cheap oil and lots of it. It runs slower and less predictably on expensive oil that’s hard to get because it’s located in hard-to-reach or high-risk conflict-ridden zones. Cheap, abundant food on the shelves of grocery and big box stores and food banks, on our tables and in our bellies depends on cheap abundant oil for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and to power farm machinery and transport food from fields to processors and packagers and then to purveyors and consumers, around the world. Past peak, that system’s going to have the half-life of the strontium 90 that’s escaping the Fukushimi Dai-ichi reactor: 29 years, or thereabouts. One good global crisis, and not that long.

2) Peak soil & space

A couple of links between peak oil and peak soil: First, it matters that one of the proposed alternatives to oil is biofuels. Acreage around the world is being converted from production of corn, wheat and soy for human and animal consumption — i.e. food — to production of ethanol and biofuels to put in trucks and cars and … which makes remaining corn, et al., more expensive. Some energy economy geniuses are proposing that Afghans, for example, convert the fields of opium poppies that are their primary agricultural export, not to growing grains or legumes or other staple foods, but to biofuel, which would, not coincidentally, make the gasoline that goes in American military equipment much cheaper and provide Afghans with a profitable market item rather than food.

According to a 2009 National Geographic staff report, “The corn used to make a 25-gallon tank of ethanol would feed one person for a year.” Tell that to Archer-Daniels-Midland, Al Gore’s deep-pockets friend and mega-ethanol and corn products producer. Second, the huge oil-gluttonous machinery that has made factory farming possible has compacted soils, literally crushing the life out of them.

Arable land in the developing or so-called Third World has been at a premium since time immemorial, thanks to geographic location and/or persistent plundering by empires old and new. Revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East are occurring not just to obtain more democratic governments but also to obtain more food and more affordable food. Revolutionaries are barking up a tree that’s seen better days.

In the United States and elsewhere in the developed, read “First” world, arable land has reached peak production. All those petroleum-based products that fueled the Green Revolution of the last century, also produce so many crops, constantly, with support from toxic chemicals and without concern for the microbes that make soil a live, self-regenerating system, that most American farmland — if its farmers didn’t go organic a while back — is comprised of dead soils. Peak oil makes a repeat of the petroleum-driven 20th century ‘Green Revolution’ impossible, which is good for soil and other living things, not so much for food prices and supplies.

After peak, in soil like in oil, comes descent. Adding insult to injury, every year farmers lose thousands of acres of arable land to urban and suburban sprawl and more tons of topsoil than they produce of grain and other field crops to attrition. Half the Earth’s original trove of topsoil, like that which once permitted the American Midwest to feed the world, has been lost to wind and erosion. Millions of years in the making, it has been depleted and degraded by industrialized agriculture in only a couple of centuries. China’s soils ride easterly winds across the Pacific to settle out on cars and rooftops in California while the American Bread Basket’s soils are building deltas and dead zones at the mouth of the Mississippi. Like oil, that soil isn’t coming back. We can only build it, help it to build itself and wait.

3) Monoculture

We can cut to the chase on this one. The food we eat is produced on industrial-strength, fossil-fuel-driven super farms. Those farms practice monoculture: the planting one crop, often of one genetic strain of that crop, at a time and sometimes year after year over vast landscapes of plowed field. When thousands of acres of farmland are sown with the same genetic strain of grain, an uncongenial bout of weather, disease or pest to which that strain is susceptible can wipe out the whole crop.

At present the Ug99 fungus, called stem rust, which emerged a decade ago in Africa, could wipe out more than 80 percent of the world’s wheat crops as it spreads, according to a 2009 article in the L. A. Times. Recent studies follow its appearance in other countries downwind of eastern Africa where it originated, including Yemen and Iran (where revolutionaries are already protesting rising prices and shortages), which opens the possibility of its emergence further downwind in Central and Eastern Asia. The race is on to breed resistant plants before it reaches Canada or the U.S. But it can take a decade or more to create a universally adaptable new genetic line that is resistant to a new disease like stem rust that can travel much faster than that. The current spike in the price of wheat is due in part to Ug99 which might properly be renamed “Ugh.”

4) Climate instability

Bad weather has lately devastated crops in the upper Midwest, Florida, Mexico, Russia, China, Australia, parts of Africa and elsewhere. Many climate scientists believe we’ve passed the equivalent of peak friendly and familiar weather, too. And while increasing heat will bedevil harvests, intense cold, downpours and flooding, drought and destructive storm systems will make farming an increasingly hellish occupation if profit is what’s being farmed for.

The transitional climate will be unpredictable from season to season and will produce more extremes of weather and weather-related disasters, which means farmers will not be able to assume much about growing seasons, rainfall patterns and getting crops through to harvest. If the past is precedent, the transition from the climate we’ve been used to for 10,000 years to whatever stable climate emerges out of climate chaos next, could take decades, centuries or even millennia. Especially if we keep messing with it. When a whole nation’s or region’s staple crops, especially grains, are lost or on-again-off-again, everything down the line from the crops themselves become more expensive, from meat, poultry and dairy to every kind of processed food.

5) The roller-coaster economy.

This isn’t the place for me to offer my explanation for the probability of global economic collapse. No pundits, talking-heads or economic analysts (well, very few) deny there are rough economic times ahead. Even many of the cautious among them acknowledge that we may be looking at five or six years of high unemployment and many of the lost jobs won’t be coming back. The less cautious, like me, predict the collapse of the whole fossil-fueled, funny-money, inequitable, overly complicated global economic system in the lifetimes of anyone under 50. Well, at the rate we’re going in all the wrong directions politically and economically, I hazard the guess, anyone under 80.

Clearly, depending on the present system to provide us with most or all of our food reliably or long-term, is unwise in the extreme. Which is how we get back to why we need to garden as if our lives depended on it. Bringing food production processes and systems closer to home is going to prove vital to our survival. We need to take producing our own and each other’s food as seriously as we’ve taken producing a money income because increasing numbers of us won’t have enough money to buy food in the conventional ways and there will be less of it to buy. So what’s our recourse?

Gardening Like Everybody’s Business

Under the influence and auspices of the prevailing economy, most Americans have forgotten how to provide for themselves. We’ve become accustomed to earning money with which we buy provisions. That process is about to have the legs kicked out from under it. Instead of earning money (or its funny-money kin like credit cards) to buy the things we need, we’ll need to start providing more of those things for ourselves and each other locally and (bio)regionally. Gardening — and small-scale farming — while they will need to be undertaken in a businesslike fashion will be less about doing business than about everyone’s having something to eat and more people being busy providing it. And while not everyone will be able to garden or farm, we are all able to get up close and personal with those who do.

———————————————
Ellen LaConte, an independent scholar, organic gardener and freelance writer living in the Yadkin River watershed of the Piedmont bioregion of North Carolina, is a contributing editor to Green Horizon Magazine and the Ecozoic. Her most recent book is Life Rules (Green Horizon/iUniverse, 2010). LaConte publishes a quarterly online newsletter, Starting Point.

To learn how to grow your own garden, see our Backyard Vegetable Gardening Guide.

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  • Cajun Chef Ryan

    I agree with all points in this post, we have doubled the size of our garden each of the past three years, and will be 4x the space this year, mostly vegetables, some fruit, and flowers. Getting closer to year-round self sufficiency is our ultimate goal.

  • Greg Seaman

    And as a chef, you also have the freshest, best tasting vegetables!

  • Meg

    I'm gardening this morning with renewed inspiration, thank you!

  • Teresa

    One additional reason to garden is that working with the soil and with growing plants keeps us connected with the earth and the cycles of life, death and renewal. The actions of a gardener keep a person grounded in a complex world, and help steer us towards life decisions that are in keeping with the limits of nature. Gardening gives one a sense of perspective we sorely need in our society.
    Thank you for this inspiring post!

    • momoftwo

      As a gardener I see myself in kinship with the crops – growing, giving birth, maturing…. I take lessons from the garden, and guidance!

  • Andy Smith

    I'm a Vegan that's why I have my own garden :)

  • http://doomerincanada.blogspot.com Canadian Doomer

    Great article on the reasons WHY we need to be growing our own food. We live in the middle of a large city and are working hard at getting a Community Garden for our neighbourhood. Everyone agrees that food needs to be grown locally, but it’s hard to find people who will allow it to grown on *their* property.

    Since I call myself a Doomer, I clearly agree with you about the collapse of the North American economy! :)

  • Sheila

    I agree with your post, gardening will have to become the new in thing to do. You really can't beat the taste of fresh!!

  • Guest

    Some great points in this article! In the news today, much of the midwest farmland is under water due to flooding conditions. Small gardens can take steps to protect crops from weather events, but the farms which supply the supermarkets are more at the mercy of the changing weather. Greenhouse gardening is on the increase, but they can be vulnerable to high winds. I like the idea of providing our own food security at least to some degree.

  • C Brown Photographer

    Great article. I've never had much of a green thumb, but I might have to give growing my own food another shot.

  • TGriz

    Excellent article, and I agree with your choice of the "BIG THREE" — Peak oil, climate change and economic collapse. These looming eventualities are ominous! A great famine is coming. Famines have occurred throughout the ages, but never on the order of billions of people. The so-called, "Green Revolution," powered by hydrocarbons, is unsustainable long term, and as such, will not be sustained (duh). The GR took human populations from roughly 3 to the present 7B people. This will reverse when the next and greatest famine kicks in. Plant your gardens, store away, buy a gun and bullets, secure a source of water (hand pump well?), and so on. It won't be pretty, but forewarned is forearmed.

  • Uncle B

    Note also, massive oil consumption coming on-line from China, to accelerate the scarcity of oil, drive oil prices ever-upward. China recognizes the energy problem, and strives for Thorium fueled, plutonium free, benign waste product reactors for electrical generation. Google Tsinghua University, pebble bed, gas reactors, and see for yourself. Google China, CANDU, thorium reactors too! See more! China also is developing CANDU reactors from Canada, run on Thorium, to avoid the humanocidal plutonium, the un-disposable waste products from faulty, American designed, plutonium breeding, high and dangerous waste product producing Uranium fueled GE MK5 types of reactors as found at Fuckoshima.
    Ontario, Canada, the McGuinty government, is obsessed with nuclear death, and builds even more Fukushima styled reactors as we speak, all the while, Canadian made thorium fueled, plutonium free, benign waste product reactors are being built in China! World gone mad? Bribes? Favors? Sick politics? Big money influence? Why?
    To save my very soul, in these times of astoundingly high prices, inflation, depreciation of the dollar, (gasoline this moment, here in my home-town, $1.32 a liter!) I have gardened, brewed, pressure canned, dried, sauerkraut-ed, home-brewed, made wine, even shopped hard and preserved the rare anomaly from the Super Markets. (meat, fish, can be pressure canned safely!)
    Gardening is a skill. It takes years of study, good weather, good water, much planning, just to make it work! Folks, get started now, expect meaningful gardens after 5 to 10 years of long term reading, study, note making, understanding, composting, and hard work! It does not happen over-night. Beer-brewing, the same, takes practice to get it to reliably reproduce good home-brew, 4 or 5 batches with study, notes, maybe, best, right from grain, but is most work-intensive, requires much practice, study, thought, preparation. Sauerkrauting is easy! Not too much salt! you’ll ruin it! Weigh things, dammit! and cabbages grow like weeds, drying food for winter use is an art, requires a great deal of understanding, lots of ascorbic acid, and patience! Even “scalloped potatoes” can be done, using ascorbic acid, they store well for years. Pickling is fairly straight-forward, takes some work, yields high rewards, Dill are the easiest, sweet and sour take a little more work, some planning, Pickled peppers my favorite, good cheap way to store a bumper crop of peppers. Buy new bottles, keep them for years, new lid inserts only expenditure – this is a good deal! My bottles, some of them, over 25 years old, still serving. Beer bottles the same – get a set, clean them out every time, they last a long, long time! Screw type caps, not so good!
    Compost! Look up humanure! Leave it to municipal governments to adopt, and they must, soon, for our top-soil’s sake, to save our lakes from blue-green algae. Vote this way!
    As the Coca-Cola Corpocracy fails before our very eyes, as the Asian empire rises like fast yeast in the East, as the oil dries up, the truth about Uranium fueled nuclear power is revealed, just as the planned obsolescence design into American cars eventually caught up, left Detroit City a Third World ruins, we face a changing world! be ready! Even some folks now perfecting off-grid lives! They hide among us here on the web, seeking out information, gleaning technologies that might serve.
    The outstanding factor, that scares me the most, America, is at the moment, the largest debtor nation in the history of the world! Never before seen!, And, mostly owed to Japan, China! On top of that, Obama and Stevie Geithner went begging at China’s door last year, for even more, and were turned down! Will this crash the American dollar? Will this mean astounding austerity in the U.S.? Will a republican back-lash to Obama bring in hard times, tight money, draconian governmental measures?
    All tragic, all possible! Beware of astounding deflation of the dollar, unfair inflation in the stores! garden your ass off, and learn all the survival trades you can! Do not think you can go to the wilds of Canada and survive there with a gun and a fishing rod! That is a Hollywood propagandists colored view of the reality of the Canadian North-lands! Think the truth! Think – 40 degrees, frozen lakes, all winter, 6 or more months of it, and sparse if any wildlife left! Check out everything you thought you could believe, on the web, on factual sites before you trust anything you “Think” you know! most your information is skillfully constructed false-hoods, sold to you by the greatest propaganda machine ever known! Beware.

    • Greg Seaman

      Thanks Uncle B for sharing your thoughts and the benefit of your experience.
      I recently read a little book, The Tenderfoot Trail, about people moving to the Canadian wilderness during the Depression. The gov't gave free land (pre-emptions) to folks who would fence, build a home and work the land. When folks moved up from Vancouver and other cities, they found out the hard way that there was no game to shoot during the long winters. The living was tough.
      There are regions in the US and Canada where the growing season is long enough to garden for the table and have foood to store through winter. In our case, as you are correct in suggesting, it took years before we enjoyed real success in gardening. But today there is more access to information, and websites like this one offer people the knowledge and benefit of our experience. I think new gardeners can get good results sooner than in the past.

  • http://www.info-on-high-blood-pressure.com/controllinghighbloodpressure.html cole891

    Awesome man. Loving it.

  • amzie

    gardening helps us to accept and understand the life cycle……what is the force driving the growth ?
    flowering……then destroying ???

  • Anonymous

    “there is no replacement for oil that can do all that oil has done as cheaply and universally as oil has done it.”

    Hemp.

    Oil is only ‘cheap’ because it’s subsidized by the tax payers.  Move some of those subsidies over to alternatives and sustainables and we might just be able to turn this mess around.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    I understand your frustration Jen.
    The changing climate is making us all learn ways to adapt, and I am afraid this is the future. We had an unusually wet spring which reduced the fruit set on our trees. However the wet weather was great for the potato crop. I recommend growing potatoes in raised beds since the drainage is better than ground level beds. This can also help with the other crops you mention. I suggest you assess the drainage in your garden as this is easy to remedy with ditches and raised beds. In the future I think we will be seeing more people sing greenhouses to provide a more stable growing environment for vegetable crops.

  • Stefab

    Did you ever consider creating a forest garden? They are less labour-intensive and more stable to outside shocks stemming from the weather.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFbcn06h8w4&feature=related

  • Amanda and Josh Benson

    If you have the space this is great. Community gardens work, but are rather expensive for the people who would benefit the most from them. They are usually filled with folks with income to spare who our doing this as a feel good hobby. What we need are more garden yards instead of grass and more community gardens so the cost can go down.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Agreed!

    • http://www.facebook.com/heatherngillis Heather James

      Check on the community garden issue where you live. For example, in the city of St Louis, any vacant lot that the city owns (this is entire blocks in the worst areas) can be rented from the city for garden space for $5 every 5 years (this may have gone up in the decade since I used the program, but I expect it’s still a nominal amount of money, even for a poor person. There is also free help available for tools, seeds, and supplies. Vegetable seeds can also be paid for with food stamps.

      • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

        Great tips! Thanks Heather

  • http://www.facebook.com/maryhitzeman50 Mary Hitzeman

    My friend and I were just talking about this last night. When we were raising our children, you could go to the store each week and know what you would spend for food. At that time my budget was $15.00 for food and it would buy the thing needed. Now you don’t know what you will have to spend from week to week. Hard to have any type of a budget. Not just on food, but on gas, heating, etc.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      I don’t know how the average family can afford the cost of food without the supplemental help of a garden.

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