Should We Garden at Home?

Tyler Snelling is a doctoral candidate in Communication Studies in the Rhetoric, Culture, Engagement track. By combining food studies with digital humanities and health rhetoric, his research traces how food related activities organize people’s relationships, daily habits, and labor. Tyler’s responsibilities as the “Food Sustainability Coordinator” for the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library this summer include gardening, event planning, and developing digital content. Tyler wants to thank Laura Perry for excellent suggestions to develop this blog.

Tomato plants starting to grow. June 8, 2021. Photo by author.

For many, the answer to this blog’s title—should we garden at home?—will seem somewhat intuitive. People champion personal gardens as a cathartic craft, a source for cheap food, and an environmentally responsible plan to reduce carbon footprints. The United States has a long mythology to lean on as support for these claims. During the 1900s, personal gardens were often promoted as a solution to the problems of supplying soldiers during World War I and World War II or feeding the country during the Great Depression.(1) These moments of patriotism or survival echo throughout popular imagery of gardens. For instance, an advertisement for Miracle-Gro invoked this history and encouraged people to “plant your #VictoryGarden today” as a response to isolation while quarantining during the summer of 2020. We regularly hear about the power of growing one’s vegetables on social media, through local news stories, and in scholarship. Personal gardens like these do matter but they should not be the only way we think about local gardens. We need to ask a few additional questions:

I: Because gardening requires resources like land, seeds, and water plus knowledge to tend the plants and ward of predators, who has the expertise and availability to keep gardens alive?

II: In a moment when more and more people live in apartment buildings or homes without yards, where will we garden?

III: When gardens actually work and start to grow, how will we deal with city ordinances that aim to prohibit gardens through application of zoning requirements, laws against unkempt vegetation, and homeowner’s associations?(2)

These additional three questions forefront why the humanities—as a set of tools for understanding society—matter when we consider gardening at home. The humanities help us contemplate who personal gardens miss as an audience and why members of the community may react against gardening at home. I pose these questions not because I think they should stop us from gardening, but because they hint at the complexity of something as simple as seeds, soil, sunlight, and water. We need to consider the access and feasibility of gardening at home and these questions might help us better address whether we should locally garden. (Tldr- the answer is yes, but it’s complicated.)

Society’s current ideas about gardening took trying-and-failing for thousands of years to develop knowledge, equipment, and relationships between earth, plants, bugs, and animals. From wheats to green vegetables and fruits, gardening often requires a lot of unexpected skills. Growing food can involve reacting to the constraints of different places, such as the amount of water, sunlight, and quality of soil, and choosing good seeds to plant. The work of nonprofits like the Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/SEARCH teaches us about the taste of produce and cultural knowledge preserved when gardeners cultivate heirloom varieties. Yet, these plants face threats from being lost due to improper management. Seeds require care because they can go extinct. In addition to the science and access involved in growing plants, social injustices like poverty, racism, and industrial pollution further complicate who, where, and when people can grow foods for themselves. All of these issues together suggest why gardening requires a significant investment of time, commitment, and resources. Even though there are many good reasons to personally garden, obstacles to develop them are substantial. Communal gardens can reduce the burden of gardening at home while expanding access to the values of having fingers in soil, fresh produce, and shared spaces. 

Tomato Plant with irrigation tubes and trellis wires. June 22, 2021. Photo by author.

Thankfully, many organizations and people have started to lay the foundation for local gardens that utilize and support the available resources of a community. Just in the Iowa city area, multiple places offering community supported agriculture (CSAs) plans provide people opportunities to purchase and eat local foods.(3) I am particularly excited by efforts like these because they reward the expertise of people who do the labor on farms and provide consistent food for tasty meals. The area also has multiple options for farmer’s markets which provide similar opportunities to support local gardens (check the notes for all the local Farmer’s markets I could find).(4) While I only list resources for the area I live in, I would encourage you to check out CSAs and farmers markets near you because you might find some you didn’t know about beforehand.

Yet, these local opportunities to buy food don’t necessarily deal with some of the previously mentioned issues with access. The nonprofit Feeding America estimates that nearly 298,000 people in the state of Iowa deal with daily hunger and that nearly 1 in 8 children do not have enough food. Because of problems like this among the many others mentioned already, we need collective, local solutions that provide free food.

The Garden is ACTIVE with life from these tomato plants. June 29, 2021. Photo by author.

My internship this summer offers one example of how we can develop more just and effective forms of local gardening. Projects to provide free food benefit from having partners work together. By collaborating with the nonprofit Feed Iowa First, Metro High School’s STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math) Academy, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the National Czech and Heritage Museum and Library expanded a previous gardening project to a new part of the site during the spring. Feed Iowa First partners with several sites to grow food and distribute it across the Cedar Rapids community. For instance, they produced about 20,000 pounds of produce through partnerships at 30 growing sites just in 2019. The food is then distributed through vans and pick-up sites across different neighborhoods in Cedar Rapids. The Museum’s garden will now hopefully (because gardening is tricky!) provide tomatoes, cucumbers, chives, dill, pumpkins, squash, and banana peppers to people in the Cedar Rapids area. I am thankful to have seen the garden go from a few tiny flowers to solid plants with flowers over just a couple of weeks. The garden helps me remember why we need to think critically about where food comes from and who grew it. Projects like these model how we can locally garden in ways that manage some of the constraints with personal gardens while also meeting the needs of people to eat. 

The Notes

(1) The Smithsonian Gardens has a neat online exhibit on this topic by Joe Cialdella called “Grown from the Past: A Short History of Community Gardening in the United States,” for their collection called Community of Gardens.

(2) Stories about cities or neighborhoods cracking down on personal gardens happen far more than one would expect. The 2012 New York Times article “The Battlefront in the Front Yard” talks about instances like this in Orlando, FL., Tulsa, OK., and Ferguson, M.O. In 2021, Daryl James and Melanie Benit wrote “Op-ed: Vegetable gardener takes fight to the Illinois Capitol” for the Chicago Tribune about Nicole Virgil’s years-long battle to keep her personal greenhouses. Also, see Baylen Linnekin’s book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable (Washington: Island Press, 2016).

(3) Field to Family, a nonprofit trying to promote local food systems, compiled this list of available CSAs. It’s best to get in during the spring, but some have fall shares or other ways to directly purchase. 

(4) The Corridor area has many options for farmer’s markets.

Field to Family offers an online farmer’s market, where you can order each week between noon on Tuesday and noon on Wednesday. Pick up is on Saturday either through free delivery with CHOMP or at the Johnson County Health and Human Services (HHS) Parking Ramp or at North Liberty’s Recreation Center parking lot.

Coralville Farmer’s Market is on Monday evenings from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. at Iowa River Landing (Westbound lane of E 9th St. between Quarry Rd. and E. 2nd Ave).

University Heights Farmers Market occurs on Tuesdays from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. at 1360 Melrose Avenue.

The Iowa City Farmers Market is 5-7 p.m. on Wednesdays and 7:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. on Saturdays during May to October at 405 E. Washington St. Iowa City, IA 52240.

Cedar Rapids has a downtown market, but it’s only select Saturdays – check their website for more information.

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