By Ben Hulac—
It was early June, and my editor had given me a tomato plant. And he’d even offered me pepper plants, as well. On top of it all, I’d been sent home with a massive box full of chunky peanut butter samples. I thought to myself: “Perhaps this is how they pay their interns at Rodale. They reward work with random product samples left around the office. What an odd system.” I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my tomato plant, let alone where I could get a pot, soil, fertilizer, and a tomato cage, but I knew I’d make it work. My goal—naïve greenhorn gardener that I was—was to be picking red, juicy tomatoes before school started in August.
As I left work that day, I thought about how, a few months before, I had applied for one of the internship positions at Organic Gardening out of curiosity. I had also submitted my résumé for other spots at Rodale with Bicycling and Runner’s World, but at the end of my first day with OG, I was pleased to be spending the summer working with a publication dedicated to something I know very little about—gardening. I knew I’d made the right choice. And, as a bonus, no one would have to be horrified by my pasty legs in biking or running shorts.
Now, my gardening knowledge to date had come from planting a few tomato plants with my uncle as a child, mowing around the house, and munching on stolen blueberries at summer camp. So, with what limited knowledge I possessed, I’d planted my tomato plant in a thin, light green plastic pot and filled it up with some potting soil from a local store. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to buy fertilizer or a tomato cage. As I stared down at my little creation, melting in the summer Pennsylvania heat and its split-pea-soup-like humidity, I wasn’t worried about those silly details. After all, how big can tomato plants get?
Big. That was the answer I soon discovered after just a few weeks of growth. As the July temperatures continued to climb, my plant began to resemble a marathon runner on the home stretch of his race: wilted, dehydrated, overcome, and just about ready to collapse. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I had faithfully watered my plant, pruned away any dead leaves and stems, broken up the roots before planting, and researched tomato plant care online. I’d even gotten a cage and fertilizer. To put it mildly, I was getting a little frustrated with my plant. I’d put in lots of time and effort, but my work hadn’t borne fruit.
As I write this—almost 2 months after planting—my internship is coming to a close. I have fewer than 10 days remaining, and I have yet to eat anything off of that feisty plant of mine. Yet while the growing process for my tomato plant has been less than spectacular, I’ve nonetheless enjoyed the process. In fact, there’s an interesting parallel between growing my tomatoes and interning with a gardening magazine. Coming into both situations, I knew very little. During my first day on the job, I was intimidated by all of the terminology in the gardening realm. Going to buy supplies at the gardening store was a boondoggle. During the first weeks of work at Rodale, I forgot minor but important details while editing and publishing articles. Even now, after researching watering tips and various growing methods, I doubt I’ll be able to eat more than a handful of tomatoes. Even months into the job, there are still countless topics within the digital publishing world I have yet to grasp.
Gardening, I’ve found, seems to be a sort of twisted hobby. It’s something I think many outsiders view as perplexing. Why grow your own food when you can easily buy high-quality produce at the store? Why go through all of the effort to plant, grow, and harvest your own crops when there are so many additional tasks that come along? Why waste your time in the sweltering summer heat? Well, after interning at Organic Gardening, I can answer all of those questions.
Gardening can be tiring and time-consuming, but the benefits surpass any cost. Gardening at home lowers your carbon footprint in many ways; your food isn’t shipped across the country, or perhaps even the globe, with the help of polluting fossil fuels. Tending your own garden is good for the community. Not only is it a sustainable activity, but the food from local gardens generally tastes better and is better for you than store-bought food. Gardening is also a good skill to have and a great gift to pass down to your children. Also, if done properly, growing your own fruits and vegetables can lower your grocery bill significantly. Gardening, particularly when done locally and organically, is an investment in one’s health.
This summer has helped me appreciate the beauty of nature and the never-say-die attitude of farmers and gardeners. This summer, with the help of this internship, has cultivated a grand warmth toward gardening within me. All in all, I’ve lost money, water, fuel, sweat, sleep, time, and energy over my stubborn fruitless friend. But without a doubt, I will do it again next summer. Wherever I am in the world, I’ll grow something. I guess that’s the joy of gardening.
Ben Hulac is a political science and journalism double major at Lehigh University. His time at Organic Gardening has helped cultivate a growing interest in environmental and agricultural issues, as well as a desire to pursue degrees in law and environmental studies.
Homesweet Homegrown Tour continues…
We trekked down to City Farm, a new urban nursery in the St. John’s part of town. Owner Nikki Hahn opened City Farm last February and is already off to an amazing start—this little shop is packed with everything urban homesteaders need to get their garden on, including a full line of canning supplies, organic mulches, soils and amendments, composters, bins of cover crops available by the pound, ducks, chicks, coops, bees, beneficial bugs, and a beautiful selection of books to get you started on basically any food/farm project you can think of. Oh, and the seeds!
As a self-described “plant nerd,” Hahn has a fantastic variety of rare medicinal seeds, annuals and perennials, eclectic heirlooms, fruit trees, flowering plants, and more—all with a focus on hyperlocal, sustainable, and organic growing. City Farm even has a whole wall dedicated just to local seeds, featuring seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery and Wild Garden Seeds, two Oregon-based companies.
When Hahn bought the house right next to City Farm last April, the first thing she did was rip up every last bit of lawn and start growing food.
“It was all sod as far as the eye could see,” says Hahn.
Well, not anymore. In its place, she planted a massive front-yard garden featuring potatoes, tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, eggplant, kale, herbs, edible flowers, and raspberry bushes. Melons now grow in the big, cooked-down pile of sod, and tomatoes climb bamboo trellises along the sidewalk out front.
It’s this vision that Nikki used to helped transform this little industrial corner of Portland into a thriving urban nursery store. Today in true Portland style, the store even has its own food truck parked out front—The Garden Well—which serves up local brew from St. John’s Coffee Roaster and Free Salad Fridays, featuring greens and edible flowers grown in the City Farm garden.
“The building itself used to be a muffler shop, and before that it was a Harley shop, so it’s been a lot of fun to take a space that was so machine-based and so mechanical and turn it into something green and repurpose it,” says Hahn.
This is definitely a running theme in the city, and it’s so refreshing to see people turning vacant spaces into something beautiful (and tasty). As we walked around Portland, I was amazed at all of the ways Portlanders were fitting in food—nasturtiums along the side of storefronts, trellised cucumbers along the front sidewalk, and raised beds built up around curbs.
Thanks to a new program we saw in Portland called Farm My Yard, there will be even more gardens popping up in Portland (and hopefully across the country). This genius program pairs urban farmers with vacant lawns and unused spaces throughout the city. It’s pretty simple, actually: If you have a patch of lawn that you’d like to offer up, you just put a Farm My Yard sign out, and an interested gardener can claim your space. Both parties sign an agreement, and the homeowner gets a share of all food grown—it’s a total win-win. Spread the word, and you can help bring a little bit of Portland’s front-yard garden charm to your neck of the woods.
Next Stop: Portland, Part II: Heirloom cocktails and restaurant farming at Besaw’s.
All Photos by Paul David, except the Farm My Yard, courtesy of FarmMyYard.org