My friend Tim’s backyard is attached to his parent’s home in Leaside. Tim’s family has always grown some vegetables in their garden, but it was not until this summer that Tim was allowed to use the entire backyard to grow his own. The weather is overcast and very cold, but the sky is bright. There are noises coming from next door, where a new house is under construction. The sounds of a generator and people working can be heard, as well as cars from the street. The garden consists of nine beds, spread out horizontally across the yard and divided by wooden planks. There are three compost bins at the far end where the family composts all of their organic food scraps and some newspaper. There is also a small wooden green house, and lots of gardening tools such as rakes, pots and shovels. Tim grows a wide variety of vegetables, including Swiss chard, potatoes, green onions, eggplant, lettuce, garlic, peppers, beets, basil, squash, carrots, tomatoes, beans and currants. He also buys and sells worms that are used to speed up compost. Although Tim’s parents and brothers use the garden, Tim is the only person here today. He is adjusting the compost, and checking on his worms and lettuce.
Tim moves around the garden, describing to me how his garden has evolved. He used to grow vegetables for pleasure, but over the years he began to tailor what he grew to his family’s diet. Most of the produce he used to buy at the grocery store is now in his own backyard. Once he convinced his parents its cost-effectiveness was worthwhile, Tim was allowed to expand his garden, and his whole family is now involved in the project. Through trial and error, his gardening practices have changed too. He now grows the plants that need the most tending at the front, and the hardier plants at the back. This may have to change, as the house being built next door will extend across half the length of the backyard, shutting out a lot of western light. This loss of light was evident already, and construction is still underway. This summer Tim may have to rearrange the garden’s layout to make the most of what light is left. Tim explains that one of the biggest challenges of urban farming is that structures are built, moved, and renovated more frequently than in rural areas, and plants often suffer as gardeners struggle to adjust. Tim’s garden is constantly changing, and because it stays in use throughout most of the year, there is always something to do and he is happy to put visitors to work. Tim emphasizes the importance of learning new techniques, and better ways to live sustainably and be self-sufficient.
Although I visit Tim’s garden often in the summer months, I never realized the extent of the work he puts into it. I am usually content to enjoy the (literal) fruits of his labour - Tim often brings over freshly picked tomatoes and currants. I have always derived a great deal of comfort knowing that my food was grown and picked by a friend or family member, but I did not realize why until I began asking Tim about his garden. I think this feeling of security stems from the fact that if I ever wanted to know, the entire chain of production could be explained to me by someone I trust. Because I do not produce any of my own food, I never really bothered to ask Tim how he grew things; I’m not in the habit of questioning the sources of my food. When I started to ask him how different things in the garden worked, he told me that he had learned different methods over the years, and picked up tips from other gardeners. My newfound understanding of the processes behind the food Tim puts on my plate made me appreciate what I had always taken for granted.
Tim places a great deal of emphasis on being self-sufficient, an issue that is discussed in Michael Shuman’s “Import Replacement.” Shuman points out that “community self-reliance” has been the standard throughout human history, but is now practically unimaginable for many people. He admits that becoming self-reliant does often mean decreasing the variety of foods available to a community. However, taking control of food production is economically empowering, and does not require cutting off all connections with outside trade. Shuman is careful to explain the financial risks and benefits of producing your own food, just as Tim had to do with his parents. Although there are start-up and maintenance costs that Tim pays out of pocket, the garden eventually pays for itself.
Talking to Tim reminded me of our class discussion about the chain of production behind McDonald’s restaurants. In the video about how McDonalds produces its chicken nuggets, propaganda and clever editing were used to obscure the timeline of a McDonald chicken’s life. The video completely concealed the networks of food processing. This made our class realize how complex these processes are, and how little we know about our food. At the end of the video, our class was still unclear about how a chicken McNugget actually got made, and we were left with a lot of questions. McDonald’s stressed how sanitary and safe their facilities are, and emphasized the “science” behind their food. This focus is reminiscent of Alex Inkeles’ characteristic of a modern person as having a strong faith in science as a basis for understanding. The irony of this is that despite all of McDonald’s standardization and safety measures, I would rather rely on Tim’s tomatoes - the product of trial and error - than a chicken McNugget any day.
Tim’s backyard is an excellent example of a human/nature connection. His garden project has brought him closer in contact with nature than anyone I know. Like Michael Shuman explained, this type of relationship defined human activity for thousands of years, but in the space of several decades, the link between humans and nature, and between the domestic sphere and food production, has been severed. Many people I know are surprised to learn how much of his family’s food Tim grows, and like I was, how much effort goes into cultivating it. Most people prefer to pay extra at the grocery store in exchange for more variety, but at the cost of sacrificing their relationship with their food. Strange as it sounds, creating a “relationship” with your food – knowing where it comes from, how it was grown, how it ends up on your plate – is an excellent way to reconnect with nature.