As I was growing up in the suburban town of Richmond Hill, Canada in the 1970s, the municipal government in charge of the place did something brilliant. Or so it seemed. They bought a 100 acre farm just outside town, they divided about 10 acres into vegetable gardening plots, then offered these at very reasonable rental rates to townspeople. Town employees cultivated the soil using municipal equipment and even provided unlimited water for irrigation. All folks had to do was drive a few pleasant miles down a country road, then plant seeds and transplants in their own section of rich, clean, soft, fertile soil. The town even provided composted manure for free. Even as a teenager this seemed like a great idea to me. The sad part was what happened over the next few years.
Despite the town doing all the hard work of preparing soil, the garden plot concept failed for lack of interest. 30,000 people lived in the town at the time, yet there weren’t 25 who thought it worth raising their own vegetables. The town discontinued the program because too few people wanted to grow food. Why? Too few people had developed that true love of gardening that’s stronger than the heat, weeds, bugs and sweat that make up a lot of the gardening experience. The town-owned farm is now a leisure park. There are benches, cool drinks for sale, shade but not a hand-grown tomato in sight. The exact spot where the garden plots used to be is a paved parking lot. Unfortunately, this lack of interest in good, honest, manual working isn’t limited to the suburbia of 40 years ago, nor is it limited to vegetable gardening.
When my daughter, Katherine, and her husband, Paul, and their three boys lived in downtown Windsor, Canada, they were in an apartment 19 floors up, in a neighbourhood with lots of other high-rise buildings. Katherine’s background growing up in the country with gardens outside her door has made her interested in growing vegetables now that she has her own household, so she found a community garden plot in a church yard a few minutes walk from their high-rise.
“That’s great, Katherine”, I said when she told me about it on a video call. “How big is this community garden?”
“About an acre”, she said. “There are tools here and people to teach you how to grow food.”
“How many people garden there”, I wondered.
“About six. Each of us has our own plot. The rest is grass.”
Later on, Katherine turned her phone around and showed me hundreds of vegetable transplants that had been donated to the community garden, 90% of which were dead and dying because no one wanted them. “I planted all the free transplants I could”, Katherine told me, “but there are so many.
“Why is it that I pass people begging for food on the street as I walk to the garden, yet only six of us come out here to actually grow food?” Is it too much to expect people to work for their food when they’re given a very simplified chance to have a vegetable garden?”, Katherine wondered out loud to me.
Even where I live, deep in rural Canada, fewer than 1 household in 25 bothers with any sort of a vegetable garden. Actually, it may be closer to 1 in 100. There’s good soil all around us, yet most people eat California tomatoes from the Valumart year-round. Why is this? I’m convinced it’s because fewer and fewer people are discovering a hidden and valuable truth about life, the truth that the right kind of physical work in the open air becomes the best kind of leisure. Notice I said “becomes”. It doesn’t start that way. The fact is, except in a few rare cases, the enjoyment of physical work is an acquired taste. You have to buckle down at first, then it becomes something that’s not only enjoyable, but revitalizing.
The first step towards discovering the joy of gardening labour (or any other kind of honest, outdoor manual work) is to understand that there are two kinds of tiredness in life. There’s tiredness that comes from dealing with too many sit-down tasks in a mentally draining indoor work environment. I call this “office tired” , it’s debilitating and there’s no shortage of it these days for most people.
On the other hand, there’s the tiredness that comes from productive physical labour in the sunshine and fresh air. This is “real tiredness” and it’s the kind of thing you get from serious gardening (and other outdoor work). Real tiredness keeps you fit, it helps you sleep at night, it boosts your appetite and it gives you a healthy glow. Trouble is, real tiredness is hardly ever experienced these days. Why is that?
When you come home at the end of the day with a bad case of “office tired”, the temptation is to “relax” in front of the internet, TV news, social media or some other passive screen experience. This is a big mistake, and more and more people are making it. Most of our young people, in particular, are completely addicted to the draw of the screen. I wonder if Steve Jobs really understood the full effect of the smartphone revolution he launched when he set out to “change the world”. That’s a strange term, is it not? The implication is that “change” is good, but not always so. Joseph Stalin “changed the world”, but not in any way to be proud of. I wonder if Steve Jobs ever guessed how powerfully his “smart phone” concept would pull people away from reality and into the passive and reclusive world of screen addiction and plenty of “office tired”. Probably not.
More than ever, what we need is a taste for wholesome, vigorous, physical work that gets you dirty and tired. When you come to feel the glowing sense that the best part of your day is what you accomplish with your hands outdoors as the sun goes down, you’ve arrived.
A while back, a friend asked how to turn part of her lawn into a vegetable garden and raspberry patch. I was delighted to hear from someone bucking the trend towards the passive, screen life and moving towards the joy of gaining food from a dirty, sweaty, hard and rejuvenating relationship with soil. Click here to listen to my suggestions to her for turning a lawn into a garden.