All Or Nothing Is All Wrong

I admit it. I tend to have a “go big or go home” thought process. So perhaps I’ve given the wrong impression when it comes to backyard veggie gardening.

Here’s a paraphrase of a conversation I had recently:

Well, I’d like to have a garden but I live in the city. I have one-tenth of an acre and a pretty intense job so I won’t be able to grow all of my food. Since I’d have to buy food anyway, it just seems kind of stupid to do all that work and still have to go to the grocery store every week.

Ignoring for now how much potential growing space there is on a one-tenth acre lot, this conversation betrays an all-or-nothing attitude about gardening and urban homesteading that concerns me.

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Just imagine applying this all-or-nothing mentality to other things in your life:

Well, I can’t run a marathon, so I’ll drive my car 15 feet across the street to get the mail.

Well, I will never understand string theory, so I’m not going to learn how to add or subtract.

Well, I can’t make a savory goat cheese and fresh herb souffle from scratch, so I eat McDonalds for every meal.

Well, I’ll never be a millionaire, so I don’t bother saving anything for retirement and, in fact, I just say ‘screw it’ and buy $700 shoes on credit.

The total insanity of this is self-evident, right?

You don’t have to live an off-grid and totally self-sufficient farmer-life to reap the benefits of gardening. Doing a little, even a teeny tiny little bit, is fine! Let’s say all you grow is a single tomato plant.

Five Reason Why Growing One Tomato Plant Is Better Than Nothing

The Sun Golds you grow in a big pot on your patio will taste better than any tomatoes you can buy, ever the so-called “heirlooms” sold for $7.99 a pound at the Yuppie Hippie Market.

Food Miles
I don’t need to preach to you guys. Everyone reading this knows that it takes a lot more than seeds, soil and water to get a tomato to a Seattle supermarket. It takes oil, and lots of it: oil to make the fertilizer, oil to run the tractor, oil to fuel the truck that drives the tomato from Florida or California or Mexico. Being responsible for the use of a bit less oil: universally a good idea. One homegrown tomato plant might not save the world, but it’s not going to hurt, either.

Just try it. Put food on the table that you have grown, nurtured, tended, harvested and cooked and tell me if your heart doesn’t sing a bit at your accomplishment. I believe there is a deep, species-protecting instinct that makes personal food production very satisfying for most people. For dedicated gardeners like me, sometimes those little veggie plants are the only thing keeping me out of therapy.

A Little Can Give A Lot
One cherry tomato plant may leave you a bit shocked. You can get an awful lot of little tomatoes off one plant, even in tomato-unfriendly areas like Seattle. Eat your fill in salads and pastas and as fresh bruschetta topping and then dry a bunch or cook up a little Sun Gold Tomato Sauce for use in the winter.

Learning New Skills Is Good!
Look, you don’t have to grow your own food, but you should have a general idea of how food is grown. And a single tomato plant is a good, practical way to learn.

In fact, I’m going to go a bit further and make what, in our society of successful specialization, might be a radical suggestion: you should be capable of growing some of your own food.

Yes, you should be capable of using a computer, texting your kids (way to go, dad!), navigating freeways, figuring out the swipey credit card reader at the checkout counter and all that other important modern stuff. But you should also be capable of growing, foraging, fishing or hunting for food, and then applying heat in appropriate ways to create a meal from that food.

Now, I’m not suggesting everyone should be able to fully provide for 100% of their own sustenance, or that people who aren’t into gardening should suck it up and do it anyway. Nah, I actually think a system that frees and rewards people to focus on their own individual passion is a good thing.

But feeding oneself is perhaps the most basic of the, “I’m A Grown-up And I Can Take Care of Myself” skills, and you should be able to do it. Perhaps one tomato plant will show you how it’s done.

The All or Nothing Trap

As a confirmed perfectionist, I understand this all-or-nothing trap. I do.

But all of us are trying to balance multiple demands on our time, money and ethical compass. Finding one’s individual balance point is far harder than single-issue fanaticism. This is not an all-or-nothing world. Trying to make it so is, it seems to me, a kind of cop-out.

Saying, “I can’t do it all so I won’t do anything” is an ugly combination of apathy and narcissism. The world will not be saved because you do everything all by yourself, but it will be diminished if you do nothing at all.

It’s ok to just do a little. In fact, often that’s all we can do. But isn’t that better than the alternative?


  1. M Jarvis says

    I had some new friends that moved to the area and they seemed to do a lot made-at-home stuff and they inspired me to do the same. My motto became if I can do it myself, I should.

    I knew them from the homebrew club, so I already knew how to make beer/wine/cider/mead. I’ve made cheese (very successfully I might add)… I toyed w/ roasting my own coffee beans but frankly wasn’t impressed with what all the fuss was about – I guess my tastebuds are in the gutter when it comes to coffee.

    It dawned on me that during a typical brew session, if I wanted to I could make 10 gallons of beer, smoke meats to eat all week, roast coffee, start some cheese, weed/water the garden – and there were other things on the list that don’t come to mind at the moment…

    Just think it through, put in a bit of effort, and you can be very pleasantly surprised by the results!

    M Jarvis
    Eugene, Oregon

  2. says

    Amen. It is very easy to be paralyzed by the ideals. As a “recovering” perfectionist, I see myself come up against this mentality with every new skill I want to learn.

    I have found that people who feel this way about growing food tend to find perennial edibles an appealing middle ground option. I love encouraging them in that, especially since there are so many that handle shade, too.

  3. says

    I grow a few herbs on the windowsill, but I truly can’t grow veggies in the garden. Our well water is toxic due to an our property’s previous life as a part-time gas station. Until I start renting somewhere else, I just get to look at your garden pictures and drool.

    • Karen Scribner says

      I hope you are not bathing in that water. Go ahead and grow something …… many plants will not take up the toxics. Plant some parsley and cilantro while you look for another place to live.

  4. says

    Yes! This is spot on. Thank you for the honestly and for coming out and holding people accountable for just a little self-reliance! Love it!

    To trudy holtz: you could always get an elevated garden bed.

  5. says

    Thanks. This was really relevant to my thoughts today, regarding non-gardening matters.

    For several years I have grown some of the easy kid friendly foods, like raspberries, blueberries and peas, that get grazed after school and rarely reach the kitchen. I’m not so great with everything else. Beans and courgettes get devoured by pigeons, mice and slugs, strawberries and apples get pinched by the squirrels, the tomatoes don’t get watered regularly enough and the plums were full of maggots. I still end up with a small crop, because the plants fight for survival. This year I have decided that I need to do better and also learn to grow all our favourite veg, so broccoli (calabrese), sweet corn and cucumbers are going to be my biggest challenge. I am determined to grow a winter crop for the first time too. So keep up with your wonderful advice because I am going to need it :)

  6. says

    It’s good to remember that perfectionism can be just crippling. I know I am not a particularly good or prolific gardener, but I do it anyway, because I like plants and I especially like the amazing taste of homegrown food! It doesn’t matter that I only have one bed in my rental backyard–for one thing, that’s a lot of space for two people’s worth of veg, and for another, I can absolutely supplement with all kinds of pots. And then I have a delicious harvest and a sense of accomplishment anyway. Yay!

    Also, I can absolutely vouch for the productivity of cherry tomatoes! My sungold plant was literally 12X12X8 feet last year, and that was with me pinching off suckers all the time. Granted, we live in California, but DANG.

    • Ms. Must-stash says

      Repeat after me: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” ;-)

      Loved this post! As a fellow perfectionist I need to remind myself of this ALL THE TIME just to stay sane.

  7. says

    I love this post, Erica! Thank you!
    I actually very much agree with the statement that people should know how to hunt, fish, and grow some of their own food. I feel like this skill set is largely diminished in American society as either folksy or hippieish and/or completely redneck. And it’s totally not! I’m glad that attitudes are starting to change – because growing our own stuff, learning how to distill, make cheese, butcher livestock and make a fire are all things that grow our brains as well as our self-concept. And we don’t have to do it all – but learn one and it’ll go so far!
    We are so capable – us and our big wonderful brains.
    And sungolds are truly the best thing ever, warmed by the sun and popped directly into your mouth. HEAVEN!

  8. says

    A friend of mine donated a 10′ by 3′ plot in her backyard for me to garden. Although it is tiny and I am far from self sufficient, I am amazed at how much it can produce. Tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, brussel sprouts, carrots, beets, strawberries, snow peas. The taste, the flavor, knowing that no pesticides were used: the reasons for expending the love and energy on that tiny plot are endless.

  9. says

    There are some days that paying that extra dime seem’s worth it. But then i remember that one pot, bed, hose, shed, goat, flock, at a time gets me one step closer to where i want to be in 5 years. In ten years, the rest of my life. Thanks dad for giving me a tomato to plant on my porch even tho i said no way. I now have a 1/3 acre homestead in the making and 15 tomatos in the ground. YUM. along with the rest of the veggies sprouting up.

  10. Pat says

    I belong to a CSA but still plant a small garden which is all I have room and time for. There’s nothing like fresh herbs, peppers and tomatoes. As I have succeeded in one area, I have been encouraged to continue to try new things. I also think that even a small amount of gardening elevates a person’s awareness of what they are eating, where it comes from and what is in it.

  11. Kymberly says

    I am so a perfectionist. If I can’t do a thing in its entirety, the way I perceive it should be done I wont even attempt it. I have been psyching myself out all winter about my garden this year. I have done one in the past but it was a community garden miles from my home. It did okay but didn’t yield nearly what I had hoped. Thanks for reminding me that something is better than nothing. I hate to fail, but not trying at all is worse than failure isn’t it?

  12. c. says

    We have slightly less than 1/10th of an acre in a very urban area. We have 8 raised beds, fruit trees, berry bushes and a small medicinal herb area. I grow enough tomatoes for spagetti and chili year round. Fall is a busy canning season. I grow carrots and dry them for soups all winter long. There is the miscellaneous chard, kale, lettuce, orach for summer salads, smoothies, etc. Rhubarb for rhubarb bars every month of the winter. Enough grapes for grape syrup for pancakes. Miscellaneous beans, turnips, cabbage for those one off meals here and there that are favorites but not favorites every day of the week. Enough garlic to last us the year. Zuchinni and winter squash too. Yes, there is no grass or lawn. Yes, it’s a bit crowded. Yes, I am constantly adding compost. But also, yes, it is a lot of food.

      • c. says

        During rhubarb “glut” season I cook it down into “goo” with my preferred amount of sugar. Not jam or anything. Think pie filling. I pressure can it. Then go online and search for granola jam bars or baked fruit bars. Replace filling with a jar of your rhubarb goo. I also use it for berry cobbler or crumble or coffee cake in the middle of the winter. It’s a nice season swing so to speak.

  13. Jane says

    Found your blog while looking for chicken nesting ideas. ( About to get my first birds, and I am SO excited!) I love your writing style, sense of humor, and realistic down to earth views! After reading about (and admiring) small space gardeners, I almost feel guilty to tell that I live on a cattle ranch in east Texas (where I grew up) and space isn’t an issue. ( Downside: I drive 18 miles to teach school in the nearest town – gotta pay for those baby chicks!) This year I took full responsibility for my late grandfather’s garden from my mom and uncle. In the past, as the ‘helper,’ I always said they planted too much (enough to feed a small army) and swore if it was up to me, I would tone it down. . . Famous last words. I planted twenty eight 40 ft rows – about 3/4 of the garden space – and I’m researching fruit trees to plant in the other 1/4! I’m loving it! I’m thrilled with the movement to be more self sufficient as far as food goes – even if it’s just one tomato plant! Sorry – I tend to ramble, but thanks for the blog and encouraging other gardeners!

  14. Austin says

    This is so true! We started with just two tomatoe plants, two kids and intense jobs… Now that we’ve changed jobs and have more time, we’re slowly expanding the garden. Will we ever grow all our own food? I doubt it. But what we do grow is so much fun! And the kids LOVE it.
    Green beans are another tasty veg that produce a lot and don’t require much care or ground space (just strings/a fence to climb).

  15. says

    Heya folks! I’ve got a garden going on 1/10th of an acre, which I am working during my off-farm time, like most working city gardeners would be. Of course, I’ve got access to a tractor for the bigger work, which makes a big difference. I blogged about the workloads and the questions around equipment investments when gardening (or farming) at various scales – 1/100th acre, 1/10th acre, 10 acres – at my blog today:

  16. says

    Coming a bit late to the conversation here, but I just wanted to say, what a great post! And it’s not only with vegie gardening that it’s true, it’s true in virtually every area of life I think.

    Can’t give up your car? fine, just try taking the bus or walking somewhere where it makes sense.

    Don’t want to give up your fabulous expensive moisturiser? Great, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use DIY spray n’ wipe, saving money, the environment and keeping *some* toxins out of your house.

    Sometimes this frugal/sustainable/healthy/ethical/simple living stuff seems anything but simple, and in fact just plain overwhelming. There’s so much you could be doing, or not doing, to make the world a better place. But in the meantime, why not pick one thing, and have a go?

    I think the blogs of great gardeners or non-consumers or crafters or others who do things we admire can be inspiring, but also sometimes make it feel like we average joes can never catch up. It’s great to be reminded once in a while that it’s not a competition, or that we can win it, anyway, just by growing one tomato plant. By making one change. And then see where it takes us.

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