You can grow your own food. And we can help!

How to grow time

Dec 08, 2010

Do ever feel like you're racing against the clock to avoid having something "blow up" in your life if you don't attend to it immediately? Welcome to the club. A kitchen garden can either be part of the problem or the solution depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, a garden can offer tranquility and even save you time by reducing the number of trips you need to make to the grocery store. But for many newbies, a garden can easily spin out of control and turn into one more thing that needs to be defused.

I've been pondering the time implications of kitchen gardening recently and I blame it all on a bottle of explosively hot pepper sauce. The hot sauce in question is a bottle which took me nearly 8 months to produce, from earth to enchilada, and that's not the worst of it. What's more telling is that I finished making the sauce nearly 22 months ago and have only managed to write about how I made it now. My lame excuse? I didn't have the time, of course.

In my hot sauce's defense, it was delicious and met my most family's spiciness needs for a year and, in my own defense, the resulting online tutorial turned out pretty hot too, I think. So I'm not saying that either activity was a waste of time, but simply that both required time and energy that could have been used in other ways.

Spending time thinking about gardening's time implications may sound like the ultimate time suck, but it's a question that every kitchen gardener must address at some point in his or her life. I give quite a few talks and interviews each year and one of the questions I get the most often goes something like this: "In our busy, go-go world, how do you find time to garden?" I sometimes reply with a question of my own: "How do you find time to breathe, eat, and take care of those you love?" Mine isn't facetious; I ask it to get people thinking about what they make time for and what they don't.

Whenever we define something as critical to our physical or mental well-being or that of our family, whether it really is or not, we find time for it. If more people aren't growing some of their own food, it's not because they don't have the time, but rather because they haven't defined gardening as a priority activity.

I don't judge those who haven't made time for gardening. We're all busy in our own ways and a world of people who all had the exact same interests and priorities would be boring not to mention completely dysfunctional. That said, I think it's important to push back against those who say they don't keep a garden because it takes too much time.

It does take time, but it's time well invested when one considers what a garden is capable of yielding in terms of healthy food, recreation, financial savings, and environmental benefits. And, frankly, most people have some time to spare. According to a Time magazine article from 2006, the average American "finds" nearly 3 hours a day for watching TV with men watching roughly 20% more than women.

So how do we grow more time for gardening and cooking in our own lives? It may sound simplistic to answer "turn off the TV," but limiting the screen-time (TVs, computers, smartphones, etc.) in our lives is a good place to start. When my family and I went TV-free in 2005, we found that we suddenly had a lot more time for not only gardening and cooking, but also for other nourishing activities like reading and family board game nights. Some TV programs have since crept back into our life via our computers, but the experience of being TV-less for a few years has made us more selective about what we watch and when.

Turning off the TV is also not just about saving time, but also limiting our exposure to all the shiny new stuff that advertisers claim we need in order to feel happy. When we turn off the TV, even if it's just for one or two nights per week, we step off the rat race treadmill which Annie Leonard so cleverly describes in her "Story of Stuff" video.

Ultimately, kitchen gardening is not simply just an another activity, but a lifestyle. If you're going to try to keep up with the Joneses in terms of buying all the stuff, taking all the trips, having your kids signed up for all the activities they need in order to keep up with the Junior Joneses and working the long hours you'll need to work to pay for it, you're probably going to have a hard time fitting a successful and peaceful garden into the mix.

But for those desiring greater harmony with themselves, nature and the seasons, a kitchen garden offers a pathway to a simpler and more wholesome lifestyle. What you spend in time and sweat, you'll be generously repaid in health, well-being, and, if you're like me, all the hot sauce you can comfortably eat in a year.


The post above was featured in the December 2010 KGI Newsletter Creative Commons Licenseand is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Feel free to reproduce it on your own website or blog citing me as author with a link back to KGI's site.  The photo is also in the Creative Commons. Please credit synx508 for that.


I agree, priorities are a big part of it. I think if people knew how nutritionally poor much of our purchased food is and the implications of that (disease, obesity, lack of energy, and so on), their priorities would change, especially if they knew that they can grow vastly superior fruits and vegetables in their own yard with a little bit of knowledge about soil management. It's also that growing food sounds hard to people who haven't tried it before, and frankly, there definitely are some things you need to learn to do it well. I like to get people sprouting inside first just to get them hooked on the magic. I too got of the TV in 2007 and it was one of the best things I've ever done. I've also been training myself to get up earlier in order to have more time during the day. Not crazy early, but I've been doing 6:30 a.m. and I sometimes have 6 hours of work done before lunch (the trick is to force yourself to get up right when the alarm goes off, thereby entirely skipping the possibility of any conversation taking place in your head about the merits of staying in bed longer).
I'm grateful to Roger for raising the question of time and gardening. With all due respect however I don't think that TV or reorganizing priorities are a full answer especially for KGI readers. If you look at studies that measure how Americans spend their time the two top answers are working and commuting. Americans work longer hours per day and more days per year than most other nations around the world. I'm not sure what the current data are post-2008 but before then the average American commuted an hour each day. In this economy I doubt that those of us who are working will be cutting our hours or moving to be closer to our jobs. The second point I'd like to make is that seriously growing food does take time and lots of it. This is one place where I think those of us who consider ourselves part of the sustainable foods movement need to do some thinking. I understand that many of us are tempted to tell newcomers that it isn't all that much work to encourage them. And when we are faced with one of those people who do watch l TV or spend weekends at the mall it really is hard to resist starting sentences with, "If only you would . . . ". However, when we underestimate the amount of time and expertise that it takes to grow food we unintentionally undermine the value of worth of gardening and farming. No wonder folks who don't think about these things resent the cost of locally grown food. They are used to cheap industrialized food which is grown by replacing human labor with oil. So many of us have grown up without any idea about the labor requirements of farming that we just assume that it takes little or no time--a message we then unwittingly endorse when we tell people that growing their own food doesn't take "much" time. If then we must accept that working people are crazy busy (especially those with children and elderly parents) and, if we admit that growing food in measurable quantities is high skill, labor intensive work: how do we help people imagine they can do it? I do not have a complete answer to that question but here are some things that we have tried. a. Never garden alone. In the old days whole families farmed, today it is gardening families of choice. Our garden requires the work of 2+ families. The key to making a group garden work in my view is setting up regular work hours. The three main members of our gardening family meet every Saturday morning during the growing season and generally one work night as well. In early spring we may spend a few weekends primarily on planting. Word has gotten out among our friends and so other gardening-interested non-landowners tend to drop by on Saturday mornings to lend and hand and help out. b. Accept the seasons as a gift. Eliot Coleman does great work but the school year means I'm driving my son to ballet lessons and my daughter to singing. Once September hits we clean up, put the plants in the compost and shut down for the winter. Indoors I grow sprouts and eat out of the cans and jars in the basement. Our group continues to meet for planning purposes but the time commitment is scaled way back. c. A few hours of planning in the winter saves time and money in the high season. We spent two hours reviewing our garden plan and seed stocks last weekend (late November). Our notes were not as complete as we would have liked but combined with our collective memories and the leftover seed packets, we were able to make reasonable judgments about what we would and wouldn't plant. I overbought seed last year and saved some so I won't have to buy as much. We also made strategic decisions about what our communal group will and won't eat. Yes to okra, not to eggplant in our case. d. Grow what your family will eat all year long. What this means is we plant with preservation in mind. We won't be gardening at all from October until April (see b above) which means that if we want to eat garden-raised food we have to put up food during the summer. That in turn takes planning. We are trying our best to avoid using electricity so we dry or can vegetables and fruits that lend themselves to that rather than freezing. Some foods that are great fresh, say lettuce, can't be kept over the winter so we grow less of them. Kale, chard, and pac choi can be dried and frozen in small quantities. In my next house I want a root cellar, a cool basement with a drain for sauerkraut and pickles in crocks and space to hang dried meats. e. Be aware that some animals don't share well with humans. Deer and groundhogs will destroy a garden in short order. We finally broke down and built strong high fences. That keeps the deer out but does nothing for the groundhogs which we trap. Not fun but we don't own a dog which is what all our farmer friends use to keep groundhogs out of the fields. f. Learn to cook well. I could say many things about this but what I really mean is learn to cook things the people you eat with like keeping in mind that each year the garden will fail to deliver something and overproduce something else. Year before last we lost all our tomatoes to blight but got stellar winter squash. I made lots of green tomato mincemeat before the crop went bad and then got really creative with squash soup and baked goods. g. Teach your family to eat what is on hand. Non-gardeners ask themselves, "What do I want for dinner tonight?" That answer can be wildly divergent each night. If I'm going to garden, I need my eaters to be on board with meals I can cook on the weekend from what is in season. That means that my kids get fresh cucumbers in the summer and fall and pickles in the winter and spring. We eat lots of easy-to-prepare foods like rice and beans. I cook and bake almost everything my family eats from scratch, as much as possible from the garden or local farmers. The only way that works is if cooking can be simplified during busy weeks. These are only a few of the things that I do to clear space and make my own kitchen garden work. Would love to hear what everyone else does. Ruth
Ruth, Clearly you have already given this a lot of thought and I appreciate the suggestions that you have listed. We are also a working family, with a young child so we face some of the same challenges you have described above. For us, the garden, and spending time outside on general, is a source of enjoyment so I guess that our frame of mind "creates" time in some ways. I can think of quite a few nights last summer where my husband and I would take a few beers and go out to the garden to plant or weed or harvest and it never really felt like work. Also, I agree with your notes about community. We have several friends with backyard gardens and we often get together at someone's house to to a little communal work in the garden itself, or cooking, canning, etc... I could not agree with you more about learning to cook. I think that this is the most valuable skill that I have acquired as an adult. Not to disagree with limiting TV, but I owe a lot of my cooking skills and ideas to Saturday morning PBS cooking shows. I look forward to hearing lots of other suggestions. -Johanna
I do not know how you have time for anything, because you are running this wonderful web site. I can not tell you how much it has helped me, most every day. A co-worker ask me about gardening the other day. I gave him the correct answer. As I walked away, I noted that some one on KGI had told me this a few days ago. There is alway time for Ice Cream & Gardens!

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