Taking Control in the Garden

Apparently we’ve been thinking about control a lot the last few weeks over here. Erica’s post about my employer’s likely buyout talked about what can prepare for and her reflection on gardening and kids discussed those things we just don’t have control over.

Last Wednesday, after a day that felt completely out of control, something reminded me how gardening can help put you back in control. Erica had been running without sleep all day, wrangling kids and the homestead. I’d been working from 7 am to 10 pm with an hour commute on each end.
Late at night, when the day was done and I finally had a chance to sit down with a book for a few minutes the wind really came up, blustery and gusting. We’d moved a bunch of seedlings out over the weekend. Some were transplanted and some were still being hardening off in flats. I knew that if I just sat there, I’d awaken to find two or three beds of freshly transplanted seedlings wrecked, their vascular systems desiccated by accelerated evaporation and torn apart by aerodynamic loads.

But I didn’t want to get out of bed – who would, after a long, tiring day? It came down to a choice: comfortable now? Or well fed in two months?

Us humans (and us go-getting Americans in particular) hate situations that we do not fully understand and feel we cannot control or influence. That is why flying, nuclear power, and clowns frighten so many people. It is why many people would rather sit in traffic, raging away behind the wheel but enjoying the illusion that their actions impact how long it takes to get home, than take public transit and accept a more relaxing trip that is entirely out of their hands.
Yet we often quite willingly cede our ability to influence events that directly impact our lives.
Take food production.
Without a garden, if unseasonable weather, a terrible blight, or rising fuel costs impact my food sources, the only option I have is paying higher prices. The global food grid means that I’d be unlikely to find myself without access to oranges or kale or strawberries or whatever, I’d just have to accept higher prices and inferior quality and production standards that I may not approve of.

The scenario is easy to imagine: see TV news broadcast of a freak cold snap striking down avocado production, whine about how avocados are going to cost more…a month later go to the store and whine that avocados do cost more.

But out in the garden, I have another option. Suppose unseasonable lows threaten my tomato seedlings – what can I do? I could mirror the response of my non-gardening alter ego: watch weather forecast, feel sinking pit of fear that tomato crop will be ruined, go out the following morning to find dead seedlings, whine about the weather. Or I could get my lazy ass out into the garden, tighten up the cloches and toss a 60 Watt incandescent under the plastic if the lows are really going to get all that bitter.
There is an old adage: “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.” If you haven’t done what you can to influence the results of your garden, don’t bitch about the harvest. Because when you make the decision to grow your own food, you aren’t just stepping away from industrialized food production and into a world of fresh-from-the-garden delights. You are also stepping into a world of weekends spent fixing irrigation issues, comparison shopping mercury-free grow lights, driveways occupied by piles of mulch, and yes, late-night windbreak construction.
But that effort, immediate and visceral, is a powerful reward. Last year, we set ourselves the goal that all of the veggies at Thanksgiving dinner would come from our garden. We succeeded, but thanks to a record setting cold snap, it took some real effort. Erica and I were out there, bringing every trick we could think of to bear, keeping our plants warm when we could, harvesting early when we needed to.
The result wasn’t just cold hands – it was a wonderful harvest that we knew we had earned in the truest way. This wasn’t a harvest that I’d earned working in a cubicle 28 miles away, earning my abstract and direct deposited salary, then paid for via debit card with never a meaningful connection between labor and result.
So what did I do last Wednesday night? I tightened up the cloches, moved the flats of seedlings under shelter, and improvised a windbreak out of a recycling container, a used baby gate, and two sections of corrugated roofing. We woke up with healthy seedlings and knowing that we’d chosen the path of control (or at least influence) and that our hard work would pay off.

If I’d stayed in bed, in the morning I could I have raised my fist at the skies, cursed Northwest weather, El Nino, La Lina, global climate change, Cliff Mass, uncaring gods, random chance, or some combination thereof. But I wouldn’t have had any spring greens. I would have ceded my ability to influence events, earned with so much hard work as I built the beds, hauled the soil, sowed the crop.
It is hard work, running this garden. Sometimes the needs of planting and harvesting and maintaining seem barely to be worth it. But the payoffs are enormous – not just in the tangible and tasty results, but in the sure knowledge that I was there, doing what I could, taking control of part of my life.


  1. says

    Great post. It's so true. As of late, we have a hen, we don't know which, eating eggs. :( It was late last night when I asked my husband if he had collected eggs. He said no – as he was getting ready for bed. – I thought about just waiting until the morning to go out there. But then I argued with myself at how mad I'd be if when I went out I found yet another half eaten egg. So I pulled my shoes back on, grabbed a jacket and flashlight and got the eggs.
    I would have no room to complain if I don't do my due-diligence to prevent the things I don't like. And, not surprisingly, when we do what needs to be done, we often find we have a lot less to complain about anyway. ;)

  2. says

    Thank you for a wonderful post. When I got home from work yesterday I just wanted to get dinner started and sit down with a glass of wine. I knew we had a cold rain coming our way and asked my husband to check the weather for me and tell me when it was coming in. With this rain was strong winds and low temps. I had just planted the tomatoes two weeks ago and the cucumbers last weekend. I didn't want to take the change that the wind would do damage to my young plants so out to the garden I went and starting building a mini greenhouse over my beds. As of this morning everything looks great and now I hear we could have frost Friday morning. I'm glad I took the time and had my dinner with a smile on my face.

  3. says

    Wonderful and poignant post! It's the work that we put in at the worst of times in the season that make the harvests so very rewarding. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. says

    Your post reminds me of these two passages of wisdom:

    Go to the ant, you sluggard;
    consider its ways and be wise!
    It has no commander,
    no overseer or ruler,
    yet it stores its provisions in summer
    and gathers its food at harvest.

    How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
    When will you get up from your sleep?
    A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest—
    and poverty will come on you like a thief
    and scarcity like an armed man. – Proverbs 6:6-11


    They sow the wind
    and reap the whirlwind. – Hosea 8:7

    The first pertains to your point about comfortable now and hungry later while second pertains to our drifting along, blithely unaware of those forces that shape our future and ignoring what we can do to prepare.

  5. says

    Great post – it sometimes feels as though there's so much going on that we can't control that it gets overwhelming, I think, but the reminder that there are some things that we can make choices about is so refreshing (even if that refreshment comes at the expense of a book in bed, I suppose).


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