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Why I Wrote My Book

GrowGoodLifeTW Thanks so much for the many kind comments on Elizabeth’s post about my book earlier this week. Thanks also for the forgiving comments about the skinny jeans.  My husband and I both turned 50 in the last year and a half.  In reaction, he spent a month cross-country skiing in the Arctic and was nearly eaten by a ravenous mother polar bear.  I did something just as daring: I started wearing tighter pants.

I just wanted to say a few words about why I wrote this book now, after almost 20 years in the vegetable garden.

Over those 20 years, I have gotten so much out of my garden and found it all so enjoyable and interesting and doable, even for a typically frantic working mother of three, that I’ve long harbored a secret opinion about non-gardeners: They’re crazy.

But in the last few years, it’s occurred to me that I might be right: It really is crazy not to grow a little food in the yard.

Everybody here knows the reasons it makes sense to grow a little food at this particular moment:

  1. Soaring food prices amidst a long and wearying economic downturn;
  2. Soaring rates of diet-related diseases that argue for greater consumption of vegetables and more work with shovel;
  3. An industrial food system that is an environmental disaster on every level;
  4. Supermarket food that tastes like total crap.

Still, most people don’t garden.  This is a land-rich suburban nation, and many of us have the space to grow a little food.  Yet, I’m always puzzled when I drive around at how many sunny yards I see and how few vegetables I see in them.

I think the obstacles here are cultural.  People don’t understand how easy vegetable gardening is and that it can actually take less time every week than a trip to the supermarket.  That arugula in the backyard is THE convenience food to end all convenience foods. That growing food is not something that requires loads of specialized knowledge, specialized tools, and wearying attention.

It takes just sun, seeds, and enough water.  And a nice mulch.  That’s it.

People don’t understand how easy it is to grow food for 3 reasons.

First, because their parents and grandparents didn’t garden.  After World War II, all such humble labors became uncool.

Second, because gardening merchants are much more interested in selling them potions and tools than telling them the truth.  No potions necessary.  No, the emperor is not wearing clothes.

Third, because garden writers produce intimidating 500-page how-tos for them with long lists of diseases and remedies, and recommendations for laborious techniques like double digging, and charts of the cultural requirements for a hundred plants in terms of water or pH or soil amendments.

Again, the emperor is not wearing clothes.  This may look like science, but it’s not. So here is some real science: Give your soil organic matter, avoid the chemicals, and the soil microbes will take care of almost everything else.

I wrote my book in an attempt to tell the real truth about growing vegetables to would-be vegetable gardeners:

  1. easy
  2. rewarding
  3. offers a fabulous return on investment
  4. great exercise
  5. will yield such great ingredients that you will inevitably become a wonderful cook.

It will also give you the ineffably beautiful experience of fetching a salad or tomatoes from the garden right before dinner, when the sun is setting, the air is cooling, and the birds are singing about the wonders of the day gone by.

That’s as much transcendence as I require in this life.  I’d hate for you to miss such a beautiful experience out of the mistaken idea that anything about this endeavor is hard.

Posted by on February 18, 2011 at 5:16 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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35 responses to “Why I Wrote My Book”

  1. Marte says:

    I am looking forward to reading your book. And it may not be hard, but there is the little matter of deer and rabbits and other critters that ALSO want some of that yummie home-grown produce.

  2. Layanee says:

    Hey, if you can wear skinny jeans at 50, and you obviously can, go for it! I love jeans paired with red lipstick. As for the book, I am enjoying the read. Inroads are being made into the kill it, stomp it, don’t get dirty mentality and gardening books can all help. Different books speak to different people. Some people need pictures and some are inspired by words. I am enjoying your wordplay.

  3. John says:

    If the best thing in the world is participating in an activity that ties you to the natural world AND feeds you in the process, then the second best thing is seeing the change in people that never thought they would be a gardener, the people that teased you for spending all your spare time in the dirt, the people that didn’t get it but now they do. They finally succeeded at growing something (most likely a tomato) that tasted better than they ever thought it would. This happens every summer and always makes me smile.

  4. Jeff Ball says:

    Sorry Michelle but you are wrong. To have a food patch in the back yard requires that you actually build a garden bed from scratch. That is not easy and is the main reason folks do not grow vegetables. After 20 years, it is easy for you. Remember, those 40 million suburban and exurban families are living on very very bad terrible soil. No one starts on good soil in this country. Trying to grow veggies in lousy soil not knowing anything about gardening and caring for plants is almost always in for a failure in the first or second year. I have been pushing organic vegetable gardening for 30 years. It is my modest opinion that the “surge in growing vegetables” alledged in this country is a false myth. I have not seen any increase in central Michigan and in fact as the old folks pass on, the number of vegetable gardens in our area is going down. Starting a vegetable garden is hard and we don’t help by saying it is easy.

  5. Kathryn says:

    And another reason . . . vegetable gardens are beautiful. My little backyard has become an urban oasis. Lettuces with daffodils, chives with roses, broccoli with daisies, tomatoes with Black-Eyed Susans, pole beans with four o’clocks, basil with zinnias. Morning coffee under the awning or a cocktail after work, the garden is lovely and peaceful even as the wail of sirens fades through the city.

  6. Joe Lamp'l says:

    I too am loving this book. It’s no nonsense and it reads beautifully. Love Michele’s writing style. Grow the Good Life will be my traveling companion tomorrow on my long cross-country flight to Seattle for the NW Flower Show. Actually looking forward to this flight.

  7. Michele Owens says:

    Jeff, I too am suspicious about claims that tens of millions of Americans are growing food.

    But I disagree with you about the difficulties of garden-making. Another mother and I made a beautiful vegetable garden at my child’s elementary school last year on the worst soil ever seen. 80 years of compaction by running kids. Total sand, nary an earthworm to be seen.

    We took the sod off–admittedly, a job. We didn’t dig–we just covered the exposed dirt with a dumptruck-load of composted yard waste from the city. We mulched the paths with wood chips from a local tree cutter.

    We set up an iron fence we bought at Lowe’s.

    That’s it. A few hours over the weekend. End result: Incredible food for months. For years.

  8. Ali M says:

    Oh my, I am one of those with the horrible growing conditions. I live on a marshy island and we have heavy salty soils, a high water table leads to adventitious tree roots invading any amended beds, wildly swinging rainfall and temperature challenges to name a few. Food crops have been difficult for me.

    But, in my 50 some years of gardening I have learned that not everyone has such negative conditions and I teach gardening classes so I love reading about successful gardening techniques. The best part is that I always find a smidgen of good information that I can use in my own garden. I’m looking forward to enjoying this book. I just wish I looked as good in jeans….

  9. Tara Dillard says:

    Ellen Ogden’s book, The Complete Kitchen Garden, just arrived.

    Hope you know her. Ya’ll are a TEAM !!!

    Perhaps a symposium…….all kitchen garden speakers.

    Take it out of the garden realm. Put your horse/dog show into the foodie & other new realms.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

    No, Ellen didn’t ask me to write this.

  10. carla says:

    I haven’t started to read the book yet, but it’s been delivered to my Kindle (thanks for offering it in that format!). I’ve had a vegetable garden for years so I hesitated on this since it would be like preaching to the choir, but I enjoy reading your blog entries so much that I couldn’t resist! Great idea to share the joys of vegetable gardening!

  11. naomi says:

    I blame T. Veblen for the lack of gardens.

  12. lifeshighway says:

    I don’t know if you would consider me crazy,I would say more heart broken. I live in the suburbs where the ground was literally scraped to build. We have no top soil. I have lived on this property of 5 years and have spent five hears amending, adding, mulching and begging a garden to grow. For the past two years I have given up on amending and have tried container gardening. The deer walk right up onto the deck. So if I am crazy, so be it. I give up.

  13. Michele Owens says:

    Sorry, lifeshighway. I do talk about the importance of fencing in my book, if you live anywhere there are thieves. The alternative is total frustration.

    For your situation, I’d highly recommend a big dog with nice teeth.

  14. I’m working on my book report now Michele. Thanks so much for the advance copy. It came in handy when my stupid satellite internet was down. Loved it and will read it again.

    I have to disagree with Jeff Ball too. Yes building a garden soil is an initial bit of work depending on how you go about it, but it isn’t so difficult or some obscure technical insurmountable obstacle. I think you talk about improving the soil in the book in a way that shows just how easy it is to use what is most readily available to each individual.

    “Other gardeners rave about wood chips.” Why? Because they literally built a soil on top of a surface layer of volcanic rock for me when I lived on Maui. In NC at least there is a foot of dirt to work with above the hardpan created by carving a road through the mountains. My roadside vegetable garden used to be a pullout along side of the scenic byway and it produces plenty food.

  15. John says:

    I believe Wil Allen plants some of his ultra-urban gardens on top of asphalt. I quit complaining about my bad soil after hearing him talk.

    Every garden doesn’t have to look like the picture perfect country charm grandpa’s garden. Whatever works for your situation is what you need to do.

  16. Kat says:

    Building raised beds is indeed the only option for lot of us. It’s good hard work for a day or two. Every year thereafter, Maintenance requires another spurt of hard work for a day or two. It isn’t always easy, but I’d rather being doing that work than sitting for more hours behind a desk in order to buy my food. Why does America flinch from “work” or “hard?” Neither of these are inherently bad!

  17. Li'l Ned says:

    That does it. I am not waiting for my library ‘hold’ copy of your book to read it. I am marching down to my independent bookstore and buying, or ordering it, today. I wish I had written this post for MY blog. (Maybe I’ll steal part of it, as a book recommendation.)

    Last year I was interviewed by the local tv station for my ‘backyard farm’ and I was both flattered and shocked by some of the comments and reactions by the sweet young thing who wielded the camera/microphone. She was, of course, entranced by my chickens. More amazingly, she was entranced by ……. my asparagus plants. Huh? Asparagus? These ferny things with berries are asparagus? She was mostly just amazed that I could just waltz out and grab some parsley, lettuce, onions and the odd egg for an easy fresh meal.

    I’m with you. People who don’t garden — particularly those who are all up in arms about GMO crops and pesticides and the need for ‘sustainable’ ‘local’ ‘organic’ foods — have to be crazy, or completely bamboozled by the seeming difficulty of it, not to garden. A container on the back deck will grow SOMETHING. It all seems perfectly natural to me to have a few fruit trees and some strawberry bushes and lots of volunteer greens. My mother & grandparents DID garden, but I’m old enough to be a child of Depression/WW2 folks. Now I realize how lucky I was. And I try to encourage those who didn’t have these genes & role models, to give it a try.

    I shall hand them your book and pat them on the back in encouragement.

    BTW I turned 61 last year and I have, alas, only started wearing looser jeans. LOL. However, I think I’ll get my pearls out for starters. No lipstick for this girl, but I can see losing some weight in order to look as fetching as you do. Thanks, Michele, and I look forward to reading your book.

  18. Beth says:

    Your book should be in my mail today and am looking forward to devouring every word of it. Gardening is not for everybody, but dang it, once you eat your own fresh blank (you fill it in), I betcha got a gardener for life.

  19. anne says:

    well said, Michele! And for those who have lousy soils, just start simply with things in pots. Then allow your gardening efforts to grow naturally with your interests and tastes…I’m betting the soil amendments come easily, eventually.

  20. JEBwrites says:

    As for poor soil being an impediment, that’s why God (or was it Home Depot?) invented big pots. I just picked up three 24-inch plastic containers for $8 each. Those will handle just about anything–tomatoes, zukes, spinach, eggplant, lemons, herbs–whatever you want. And the jeans and red lipstick looked fabulous. I might be able to get into the jeans, but I don’t think I could bend over–which would make it tough to garden.

  21. Denise says:

    I have to say that as someone who has to get by with a boatload of pots in my miniscule (north facing no less)rowhouse concrete city “yard” I get more than a little perturbed when I see broad swaths of suburbia with nothing “worthwhile” growing there…the joke amongst me and my friends is that these people don’t deserve their fortune and therefore should have to give ME their house.

  22. Pam J. says:

    Book sounds great! But I’m sorry, I have to vent a bit.

    Jeff Ball really annoys me. He annoyed me back in December when he wrote about peat moss on this blog. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt so I did a lot of reading on the subject of peat moss, eventually coming to the conclusion, as did so many of the commenters, that Jeff was on the wrong side of the argument. And like others, I saw his post for what it was — the opinion of someone, ahem, “supportive of” the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association. Then I forgot about it and I forgot the name Jeff Ball. So today when I saw Mr. Ball’s comment above I didn’t recognize the name but I found myself getting peeved at the tone of his comments, especially the first sentence (“Sorry Michelle but you are wrong”). Who IS this guy who says so rudely “you are wrong” about a subject as broad as growing a vegetable garden? So I clicked on the name and “ah ha!” said I. “It’s that peat moss guy.”

    And by the way, what the hell is a “false myth”? Sounds like a double negative to me. But now I’m just being petty.

  23. I am a very keen vegetable gardener myself and have been for some years now. I just wanted to say that I purchased your book some time back and I have read it many times to get some help. Thank you.

  24. Jeff Ball says:

    I probably am over-biased toward the Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss Association and I’m sure not up to date on all the science of global warming, so maybe I protested too much. Yes, I think false myth is probably a double negative; let’s leave it at myth that there are lots more vegetable gardens popping up. I don’t think so.
    Having written 8 books on organic gardening, done 12 one our videos on organic gardening, 8 years as the garden guy on NBC TodayShow and a website with 3000 pages of how-to care for a landscape organically, I tend to open my mouth too often to change feet, at least that’s what my life partner and fellow garden writer Nancy Szerlag tells me. I’ll try to stifle.

  25. Ezzirah says:

    I eagerly look forward to reading your book as well. I think you are right, so much about gardening is not complicated at all. I have more people that are amazed I grow stuff, and really, it is not as hard as people think. It is nice to hear some one say that!

  26. Jeff, please don’t stifle. We love debate here. Unlike some of my partners, I think yardening is a brilliant concept. The nicest yards in Saratoga Springs are yardened. And though I am definitely a gardener, I think it would be a good thing for this world if there were more vegetable yardeners–people who did it casually and made it easy for themselves.

    Naomi, you’re right–conspicuous consumption and vegetable gardening don’t really mesh.

  27. Lisahorine says:

    Well, if I can do it anyone can. They call me, BLACK THUMB, or should I say, used to call me that. I was bound and determined to make it work when I watched food inc. and came to the realization that our food has hardly any nutritional value and that most of the veggies and processed foods are pesticide ridden and/or genetically modified. I kinda got the wild hair a little late in the season. I put my seeds in the ground in November, have made it through several freezes and have an abundance of food. My greens and lettuces are overflowing. I have cabbage that is about ready along with the best broccoli ever. I was never real big on raw cauliflower, but mine seems to taste spectacular. I dont want to cook it. Nevermind my snap peas, beets and I will soon have carrots. I kinda winged it just to get started and may not have done as well as I could have if I had planned better, but for a girl that kills everything that I grow, I am pretty proud. Never the less, my tasty organic veggies are better than anything that you get in the store. Most people dont know that alot of veggies can be grown in containers, so not having alot of space isnt a very good excuse either. I am proof it can be done.

  28. Michelle D says:

    I started reading Michele’s book last night. I’m finding it to be both entertaining and insightful reading.
    I’m one of those peculiar persons that just loves the activity of digging in the soil .When those efforts are rewarded with flower ,form and edible fruits from my ‘enjoyable’ labor I am all the more inspired to continue digging onward.
    I think that the ‘enjoyment factor’ is a reason why people don’t grow vegetables other than culture and adverse soil. They simply don’t find it interesting or enjoyable.
    If I didn’t have to wear clothing I would never step foot in a clothing store. I just don’t find clothes shopping enjoyable. I think the same can be said about many people who don’t like to get dirty and or plant plants. They just don’t care for doing it and would rather do something else with their time.
    To each their own, but personally I think they are missing out on something quite wonderful.

  29. Central Florida says:

    I love plants and gardening but it really is a labor of love and there is work involved to it. The pictures of beautiful gardens that people like to show off just didn’t happen by themselves.

    Some are fortunate and blessed with great soil mine is sandy so I have to amend it digging into the earth and mixing in compost. Getting rid of the weeds. Using the shovel can be back breaking- then you have to have a way to water or all your hard efforts could be for nothing and your heart is broken when you start to see your dream drying up.

    I am not trying to be all doom and gloom but I do agree with Jeff Ball that gardening especially veggies is not as easy as some people try to make it seem. It requires patience, nurturing and your time.

    For me its all well worth it when the digging is done and the plants are in and growing then I get to step back and enjoy the fruits and vegetables of my labor.

  30. shannon rivers says:

    moss, schmoss, can’t we all get along? after all, we are gardeners! we are the happy, healthy fortunate few, who also apparently look pretty good if Michelle is any example. i tend my chickens and fenced raised beds here in Asheville wearing jumpers made from vintage tablecloths and old jeans, big pockets are key, and old old dansko clogs, the better to leave them outside. with or without pearls, it’s utilitarian yet just funky enough for the saturday tailgate market.i would not be the happy and hope-filled girl i am at 57 if not for my garden.

  31. Laura Munoz says:

    I support Michelle’s book whole-heartedly and I am a veggie-lover, but I don’t always think gardening is easy. Everyone’s gardening circumstances are different.

    Example: Summer before last, Austin experienced the drought from hell with about 60 days of above-100 degree temps and no rain for months. To make matters worse, the City restricted yard water use to one day a week. This made veggie gardening on caliche (think porous cement without soil) impossible.

    Maybe I could have purchased pots but that can get expensive, and I didn’t know in advance that we were going to have a drought or I might not have put my plants in raised beds.

    Never-the-less, congratulations on the book because it’s a terrific accomplishment, and it sounds like a great read. I’ll see about getting a copy.

  32. The book has such an Amazing ideas and the thoughts it sounds great.Garden with fresh and healthy Vegetables will always give you the batter health.The book has so many Information related with it Its very interesting.

  33. Susan O'Donnell says:

    I have been a gardener since I was a small child, lucky enough to have parents and grandparents that did so as well. Maybe not always easy, but definitely rewarding. My husband even gave me a dump truck load of horse manure for our 13th Anniversary. Talk about love and devotion.
    I read the intro of your book at Borders on Sat., but as you know Michelle, our local is going out of business and the line was too long. I will be purchasing it, as I like to read about other people’s endeavors in the garden.
    Just an FYI-Michelle can wear the skinny jeans and read lipstick and look fabulous. Saw her at a party a few nights ago. I wanted to ask to see your chickens, as I think that is my next adventure, but it was noisy and you were otherwise engaged. Maybe someday!

  34. pratima says:

    i have never grown any vegetables and dont know anything about it. but i want to try a cpl of things. Could i grow tomatoes, green chilis (hot) and some greens (spinach or some sort of lettuce) in containers?

    any guidance and help is appreciated.

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