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Growing Connections to our Food

How gardening brings us closer to our food, homes, and communities

One Saturday night in early spring, after a glass of cheap wine, I had a revelation. I was standing in my kitchen doing dishes, and in the window was a rotting basil plant that I had bought at a local grocery store. It was dead.

Photo of gardenPhoto by Todd Petit It was one of the joys of my morning to go outside, coffee in hand, and see the morning sun for the first time as I cared for these plants.

In the flurry of work, graduate school assignments, lesson planning and housework of the week before, I had neglected it. I hadn’t taken it out of its plastic packaging; I hadn’t transplanted it into a pot, in which it might have had a chance of thriving in my kitchen window. As I stood there doing dishes, I thought about my carelessness. I also thought about the herbs I had grown in my garden the past summer, and how I had taken the time to carefully harvest and store them. Those herbs had all been put to good use. 

As an educator, I have more free time in the summer, time I like to spend gardening. Last summer, I had planted seedlings in the raised bed my husband and I had built with bricks in our front yard, and they had bloomed quickly and profusely in the moist, summer air of the Pacific Northwest. I had nurtured them with compost and watered them, lovingly, every day. It was one of the joys of my morning to go outside, coffee in hand, and see the morning sun for the first time as I cared for these plants.

We ate them with our meals — I had only to go out the front door and pick whatever I needed to spice up our dinner. Oregano and basil contributed to delicious homemade pasta sauces, and parsley spiced up salsas, slaws, and salads. I also grew lavender, tarragon, thyme, and mint. We ate these herbs along with the tomatillos, tomatoes, strawberries, and peppers growing alongside them in our modest garden. And when the growing season was over, at the first frost, I clipped the herbs, brought them inside, tied them, and hung them up to dry. 

For Christmas gifts, I mixed the herbs with essential oils and Epsom salt to make bath soak for my friends and family. When I was sick with the flu, I boiled the mint and lavender with rose petals, and breathed in the steam to unclog my sinuses and heal my sore throat. In the middle of January, I was still drinking lavender tea. 

Doing dishes that Saturday evening, I looked at the sorry basil plant. I had bought it at Safeway because it was on sale, and had promptly forgotten it. What a waste, I thought, and wondered whether it was a coincidence that I had cared for, rather than wasted, the food that I had tended myself, the food that I coaxed from the soil with my hands. 

My intuition told me it was not a coincidence. I was invested in those plants, and the whole time that I was helping them grow, I had time to imagine what I might use them for. They were part of my day, and part of my home. 

And somehow that made them more real. The sensory experience of these homegrown plants — the sight of them in my garden day after day, the fresh taste of recently harvested herbs, the fragrance of them drying inside my kitchen — did not compare to the ones I had bought at the supermarket. Something about the plants in their natural state — without the packaging, without the hype — made me feel more connected to my food, and, I believe, less likely to waste it. The average American wastes over 200 pounds of food each year, mostly due to spoiling, over-purchasing, and carelessness. We don’t want to take the time to use every tiny piece of that onion, or perhaps we buy more than we need and then forget about the leftovers. 

When it came to the food from my garden, however, I was invested enough to take the time to properly harvest and store the food so it didn’t go to waste. And as far as over-purchasing — or, in this case, over-growing — when I had excess, I gave it away to my friends and neighbors, sometimes as a gift, other times trading for things like homegrown apples or home-harvested honey. Many of my fellow gardener friends donate their surplus to local food banks. 

Growing my own food also connected me to my community. Working in my front yard garden, my neighbors often wandered over, curious, and felt free to strike up a conversation about what I was growing or whatever else was on their minds.

There is something about the bright lights of the grocery store that alienates us from the full experience of knowing our food. We can gain this knowledge back with a garden. At first, this comes with our investment and engagement with the plants, but with time, it can become much more than that — awareness of local weather, the health of the soil, the use of water, all of which help cultivate our ethics of care for the local landscape.         

Like learning anything else, learning to garden is a process. Ten years ago, my first garden was a few circles of soil surrounded by rocks that my neighbor and I built atop a few square-feet of concrete outside our three story apartment building. We were both pleasantly surprised when we eked out lettuce and a few flowers. From those humble beginnings, my garden evolved to raised beds on my front lawn at the edge of the city, to the one-acre homestead in the country where I now live with my husband. 

Every year I try something new, and I am already thinking about what seeds I will start under lights in the coming weeks. I’m learning about the intricacies of those that require more finesse and timing: broccoli, cauliflower, and beets, while my husband plans and designs a small green house. I also want to learn how to do home canning. Through intentional thought towards my food, I continue to deepen my relationship with it. 

Gardeners all practice their art for different reasons: some for health and nutritional benefits, some for spiritual or religious reasons, and others for ethical reasons. Becoming more connected to our food — and as a result, to our homes and communities — is one of the best things we can do for our health, our spirit, and the environment. 

Abigail Sarno
Abigail Sarno, an east coast native, completed an M.A. from Portland State University, where she studied eco-criticism and ecopsychology. She and her husband live outside of Seattle with their two cats.

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