Title courtesy of Koka Kola, by The Clash
It’s gardening catalog season again. They arrive in the mail, shiny and bright, filled with colorful photographs of gleaming fruits and vegetables. They promise award-winning harvests, plants that grow themselves, and lip-smacking heirloom produce. They use words like “beautiful,” “bountiful,” and “easy,” as if plants will blossom just being in the vicinity of their products. While it’s simple to give in to their vision, often it’s much better not to.
Even if you start it for environmental reasons, gardening for food can be just as consumerist as any other hobby. Needless to say, companies haven’t ignored the homesteading trend. Garden supply stores have been around for decades, but the market has expanded drastically in recent years. When Williams and Sonoma has an entire “Agrarian” section that even includes chicken coops and beekeepers’ suits – two of the more hardcore contingents of home agriculture – you know that it’s not just for cheap hippies anymore. Their chicken coop alone, with its fashionably faded red paint, starts at a mere $600.
While these visions of idyllic homesteading are tempting – I know I look at them longingly and try to convince Chris that raising chickens would be awesome – it’s just another version of advertising’s same old story. “If you just buy our stuff, you and your house will be beautiful and your life will be awesome,” it whispers.
However, unlike clothes, beauty products or electronics, many of the items offered in gardening catalogs are easy to make, often from recycled materials. (And to do so without a special, overpriced DIY kit.) One of the better catalogs, Gardeners’ Supply Company, has a whole collection of tools that promise to make life easier, from ready-made raised beds to high tunnel hoops. However, most of these things can be easily constructed with a little knowledge and a few items from the hardware or a local recycled goods store. Instead of plastic garden markers that always get lost, we’ve refashioned old metal clothes hangers into them with tape. We’ve already built a worm box for $30 and an about a hour and a half of work that’s just as functional as their $110 Worm Factory. Similarly, we just bought $40 worth of lighting supplies this weekend and will be using some leftover lumber to construct a seed starting array. In contrast, their cheapest “SunLite” garden for sprouting seeds is $199 (also available as a “simple monthly payment” of $24.88). In addition to saving a ton of money, we get the satisfaction of using something we’ve constructed with our own hands. I recognize this approach isn’t practical for everyone, but it’s worth trying a few times.
The other temptation gardening catalogs offer is buying a bunch of stuff that you won’t even use. I have this particular problem with seed catalogs. Looking at all of the different varieties, I imagine a garden with a huge diversity of plants, far larger and neater than our relatively small plot. As a result, between seed exchanges, free seeds from Rooting DC, purchasing on a whim from the gardening store, and ordering from catalogs, I always end up with far more seeds than I could ever put in the ground in a single year. While none are particularly expensive and many are free, it’s still a waste.
To me, the best way to fight this urge is to allow my garden’s needs to drive my purchases, not the other way around. I try not to buy something until a specific need comes up, and I know exactly what I will use it for. While I didn’t “need” a worm box, I didn’t purchase it until I knew how to take care of worms and how to use their compost. Similarly, I’m building the seed starting setup because raising my seeds indoors without them has failed miserably the last two years. While I’m never this organized, I know I could cut down on my seed hoarding issue by actually planning out what I’m growing and then choose seeds based around that map, rather than on my over-active imagination.
If urban and home agriculture really is about turning our industrial food system on its head, we have to be willing to do things differently and not have them just delivered to us. Before purchasing, I need to ask myself these three questions: 1) Do I really need this and if so, what will I use it for? 2) Can I borrow it from someone else? 3) Can I make it myself in a more sustainable fashion? If I can truthfully answer those three questions, then I can go ahead and buy it. If not, then I need to consider why I really want it – for my actual, real-life garden or some fantasy perpetuated by shiny images. Growing food is a messy, real business; there’s no room in my garden for glossy advertisements.